Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Day 2011

As many times as I’ve heard story of Jesus’s birth from Luke’s gospel, as many times as I’ve read it myself, as many times as I’ve preached on it… I have never really noticed the prevalence of the manger in the Luke’s story. Luke mentions the manger three times. And we talk about it readily, see it everywhere, but I’ve never really thought about the Eucharistic significance. The shepherds greet God incarnate, not just in a barn, or a cave or a courtyard, not on a pile of blankets in the corner of the room. God incarnate is lying inside the feeding place. The shepherds greet God who is with us at table. Over and over again he feeds us: in his life and his ministry, in his teaching and witness, in his death and resurrection, and in the mystery and wonder of his birth.
It is meet and right, therefore, that we gather together today, on this day of his birth, and allow him to feed us again.
May you be given a taste of the hope, the wonder, the mystery of this baby who is God with us, and who will feed you whenever you ask.

Christmas Eve 2011

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” Israel is truly a dark place as the prophet Isaiah proclaims this bit of good news. The land is immersed in deep and overwhelming fear as Israel and Judah are both facing their immanent destructions. In just a few years, Judah (the southern kingdom) will become a resident captive and the northern kingdom of Israel will be no more. At this point in history, political machinations are afoot, and the people of the northern kingdom of Israel have declared war on Jerusalem while the Assyrians are practically at the doors of the kingdom. Into this crisis, God sends Isaiah to speak good news to King Ahaz and his people. I am giving you a sign to show that I am with you, God tells God’s people, in the midst of their darkness. No matter what happens God will be with you.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” Israel has found itself again under the darkness of Roman occupation. The efficient and ruthless Romans are ruling the country with an iron fist, and the people of Israel just try to keep their heads down and go about their daily lives. Some of the more shiftless members of the population of Bethlehem, the shepherds, are working, tending their sheep one ordinary night when a brilliant light splits the darkness and lights up the night. Angels appear to them and tell them the good news: God is with you. No matter what happens, God will be with you.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” I know that I do not have to speak to you of the darkness of the world. You know of it as well as I. We see it writ large in war, torture, hunger, disease, terrorist bombings, and the wrongful use of power. We see it writ small in family quarrels, disease and death, old age and infirmity, rebellious children, fear, guilt, loneliness, and bereavement. No, we are not strangers to the land of deep darkness.
Modern day mystic and priest Anthony DeMello writes: “Look steadily at the darkness. It won’t be long before you see the light. Gaze at things. It won’t be long before you see the Word.”i We too dwell with the darkness. Tonight we come here to remember that Jesus Christ is God who is with us; we come here because we desperately hope that the light of Christ will drive away the shadows and the darkness of our lives, of our world. All throughout our story, the story of the love affair between God and God’s people, we, God’s people have pulled away, and God says to us, I am with you. Tonight we celebrate and remember the reality that God is in fact with us, no matter what darkness we may face in our lives. No matter what happens, God will be with you.
The artist and poet Jan Richardson has written a blessing for Winter Solstice that speaks to those of us who walk in darkness and long for the light of Christ in our lives and in our world.

Blessing for the Longest Night
All throughout these months
as the shadows
have lengthened,
this blessing has been
gathering itself,
making ready,
preparing for
this night.
It has practiced
walking in the dark,
traveling with
its eyes closed,
feeling its way
by memory
by touch
by the pull of the moon
even as it wanes.
So believe me
when I tell you
this blessing will
reach you
even if you
have not light enough
to read it;
it will find you
even though you cannot
see it coming.
You will know
the moment of its
by your release
of the breath
you have held
so long;
a loosening
of the clenching
in your hands,
of the clutch
around your heart;
a thinning
of the darkness
that had drawn itself
around you.
This blessing
does not mean
to take the night away
but it knows
its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots
along the path,
knows what it means
to travel
in the company
of a friend.
So when
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Get up.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.
This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you go,
you will be walking
toward the dawn.ii

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy for all people. God is with you, this night and always. No matter what happens, God will be with you.

i. Anthony de Mello, Selected Writings, ed. William Dych, SJ. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999, p 49.
ii. © Jan L. Richardson.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Blue Christmas meditation

Here is the link for the meditation I read at our Blue Christmas service. It was written by my friend and seminary classmate the Rev. Dr. Jackie Cameron.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

4th Sunday of Advent Year B

4th Sunday of Advent
December 18, 2011
The other night, as I was putting my 3 year old son to bed, Jack and I were talking about angels. Early on in the conversation, Jack says to me, “Me no like angels. Me scared of angels.” You’re scared of angels? I asked. And just as the words, “But why?” where coming out of my mouth, I realized something. The kid was on to something. Angels are scary! In just about all the stories in scripture about angels, what is the one of the first thing the angel says? “Do not be afraid!”
The word angel (angelos) means messenger. Angels always show up with an invitation from God; a warning that God is about to shake things up, and God invites that particular person to be a part of God’s new beginning.
In her book The Glorious Impossible, Madeleine L’Engle retells the story of the life of Jesus through her own words and the illustrations of the medieval artist Giotto. On the page about the Annunciation, she writes,
An angel came to Mary. A fourteen year old girl was visited by an angel, an archangel. In Scripture, whenever an angel appears to anyone, the angel’s first words usually are, “FEAR NOT!”—which gives us an idea of what angels must have looked like.
So the Archangel Gabriel, who visited Mary, greeted her with great courtesy, and then said, “FEAR NOT!”
And then he told her that she was going to have a baby, a remarkable baby who would be called eh son of the Highest.
Mary was already engaged to Joseph. The wedding would be soon. This was strange and startling news indeed. Mary, fourteen years old, looked the angel in the face, asking, with incredible courage, “But how can this be?”
And the angels told her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you. and the Holy Thing which shall be born of you shall be called the son of God.”
What an amazing, what an impossible message the angel brought to a young girl! But Mary looked at the angle and said, “Be it unto me according to your word.”
And so the life of Jesus began as it would end, with the impossible. When he was a grown man he would say to his disciples, “For human beings it is impossible. For God nothing is impossible.”
Possible things are easy to believe. The Glorious Impossibles are what bring joy to our hearts, hope to our lives, songs to our lips… i
When angels show up, it is always with an invitation to participate in the Glorious Impossible. God could easily do it without us, but God doesn’t. Augustine once said, “Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not.”
Today we celebrate that God is inviting us all to participate in the Glorious Impossible: The miracle of God with us. Do not be afraid.

i. L’Engle, Madeleine. The Glorious Impossible. Simon and Schuster: New York, 1990, 1.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Advent 3B sermon

Advent 3B
December 11, 2011
In his book about Paul, the British theologian and bishop NT Wright reminisces about his ordination over 30 years ago. In the many cards and notes of encouragement that he received, Wright remembers one card in particular. On the front was the Greek phrase: “The One who calls you is faithful.”i It is the heart of the good news; the crux of our hope. No matter what happens to you, no matter what choices you make:
The One who calls you is faithful.
Our readings for today bear witness to the dream of God. In the gospel of John, we see John the Baptist, whose call is to be a witness, to testify to the light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome. John the Baptist bears witness that the dream of God is coming into fulfillment and will be made incarnate in the person of Jesus.
The One who calls you is faithful.
In the reading from Isaiah, we fast forward from our reading last week which spoke words of promise and comfort to a people who had been in exile for decades. This week, we see the fulfillment of the promise: the restoration of God’s people back in Israel. The people who have been in exile have returned home and they are beginning to rebuild their lives and their land. Psalm 126 says that it is a like a dream-come-true. These people have dreamed for so long of returning home, and finally God has accomplished their home-coming. In the reading for Isaiah, we see the dream of God, the restoration of Zion, the Lord’s city, and what that will look like: the broken-hearted will be bound up, the captives and the prisoners will know release, the city will know the Jubilee year as well as seeing the Lord’s vengeance. The mourners will be comforted. And they will all be called oaks of righteousness.
For the one who calls you is faithful.
Isaiah is not just speaking about the work of individuals. He is talking about systemic change and transformation-- what happens when all people participate in the dream of God! What happens when all people of faith offer their lives, through hundreds of small acts of faithfulness, to the fulfillment of God’s dream, to the restoration of God’s city.
In one of the earliest Christian writings that we have, Paul is writing to the Thessalonians and offering them comfort and reassurance, explaining to them how to live in the meantime, as they wait for Jesus’s return. Again, in Paul’s writing we see a small slice of the dream of God for Christian community. How both individuals and the church are called to be: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”
Are we giving ourselves over to the dream of God or are we waiting on God to fulfill our own individual dreams? Are we willing to accept the transformation that comes with God’s dream or are we expecting God to yield to us, to fix everything the way we want it and us remain unchanged? How are you being called to let go of your own dream, so that you can give yourself over to the dream of God, the dream of the one who is calling us and who is truly faithful? What might that look like?
In her memoir called Mighty Be Our Powers (2011), the Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee (Pronounced: Leemah Bowee) describes how one night she became a participant in God’s dream while sleeping on her office floor: "I didn't know where I was. Everything was dark. I couldn't see a face, but I heard a voice, and it was talking to me — commanding me: 'Gather the women to pray for peace!' At 5 A.M. she woke up shaking, feeling like she had heard the voice of God.
Peace was a distant dream for Liberians after fourteen years of savage civil war (1989–2003). By some estimates, ten percent of the population had been slaughtered. Twenty-five percent had fled the country. Starvation, systematic rape, torture, mutilation and Charles Taylor's cocaine-crazed child soldiers had traumatized the nation. Schools and hospitals closed. Rats and dogs ate the unburied dead who littered the streets. There was no water, electricity or phone service.
Later that morning Gbowee related her dream to the women at her Lutheran church. Sister Esther Musah, an evangelist, led them in prayer: "Dear God, thank you for sending us this vision. Give us your blessing, Lord, and offer us Your protection and guidance in helping us to understand what it means." What it meant was the start of the Liberian women's peace movement that ended the civil war.
About twenty Lutheran women began to gather every Tuesday at noon to pray. Sometimes they fasted. They invited other Christian churches. At one meeting, a woman named Asatu spoke up: "I'm the only Muslim here, and we want to join this peace movement." "Praise the Lord!" shouted the Christian women. And so Muslim and Christian women formed an alliance. They shared their horror stories. Training sessions and workshops followed. They passed out brochures and marched to city hall. Three days a week for six months they visited the mosques, the markets, and the churches of Monrovia: "Liberian women, awake for peace!"
In the end, the women forced Charles Taylor to peace talks in Ghana, and then in Ghana they barricaded the do-nothing men in their plenary hall until they signed peace accords. After the 2003 accords, they were instrumental in disarming the country, registering voters, and electing Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the first woman head of state in Africa.
When people ask “who were these women?” Gbowee says, "I will say they are ordinary mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters." They sowed bitter tears. They went out weeping. And through hundreds of small acts of faithfulness, they courageously participated in God’s dream of peace, joy, and laughter for their beloved country.ii
The one who calls you is faithful.
How are you being called, how are we being called to bear witness with our very lives to the one who is calling us and who is truly faithful? You do not have to be a Nobel-prize winning peace activist to participate in the dream of God. But you do have to relinquish a part of yourself, your desire for control, your plan or dream for the way that things are going to turn out. And to participate in the dream of God. It starts right here, right now, in hundreds of small acts of faithfulness.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes “…In the early Church people were attracted to it not so much by the preaching, but by the fact that they saw Christians as a community, living a new life as if what God had done was important, and had made a difference. They saw a community of those who, whether poor or rich, male or female, free or slave, young or old—all quite unbelievable loved and cared for each other. It was the lifestyle of the Christians that was witnessing.”iii
The one who calls you is faithful! What small acts of faithfulness might you offer to participate in the dream of God in your life, in this time, and in this place?

i. Wright, NT. Paul For Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians. London: SPCK, 2002, p 133.
ii. This story is originally found on the website of Daniel Clendin:
iii. Tutu, Desmond. Crying in the Wilderness. Ed. John Webster. London: Mowbray, 1990, pp 6-7

Sunday, December 4, 2011

2nd Sunday of Advent Year B

2nd Sunday of Advent
December 3, 2011

The Old Testament reading and the gospel reading for today, the 2nd Sunday of Advent, were both written for people who were dwelling in the wilderness of disappointment and frustrated expectations. In Isaiah, the prophet is writing to a people who have witnessed the destruction of their homes, their faith, their government, their very lives. And they have been living in this wilderness of disappointment, in captivity for decades.
Mark’s gospel is also written to a people who are dwelling in the wilderness of disappointment. Over and over again, the writer of Mark’s gospel is emphasizing that following the way of Jesus is difficult; that more often than not, we just don’t get it; that discipleship includes embracing suffering and death as our Lord embraced them. The writer of Mark is writing to try to deal with the apparent failure of Jesus’s message.
Into this wilderness come the springs of hope in the words of 2nd Isaiah and strangely enough, in the call of repentance of the rough figure John the Baptist. Both are reminding us that God longs to be reconciled with us. Both invite us to examine our inner landscapes, to see how God might be calling us to allow God to re-shape and rearrange our lives and our souls that we might be made less empty and more sated, less wounded and more whole, less self-centered and more godly.
In Mark’s gospel, the writer refers frequently to “the way.” Here it is written of the voice of one crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord …” The heart of Mark’s gospel is all about following Jesus on ‘the way’; it’s all about discipleship. And all throughout the gospel, Mark is showing us what it means to follow Jesus, to follow the Way—that it is truly a difficult path. Mark is trying to suggest that Jesus properly understands and accepts death and that he suffers and dies willingly, and so for Mark, that is what it means to follow Christ. That is the Way.
In our gospel for today, I am struck how John the Baptist suddenly appears in the wilderness. It’s not necessarily his home, where he lives, but it is where he shows up to deliver his message. And his message is to prepare the way and to follow it. He preaches about God’s ultimate purpose, the purpose that is captured so beautifully in the love song that is Isaiah 40. God’s purpose is forgiveness and reconciliation. Repentance or turning and confession are the call of John the Baptist. They are the tools that God uses in the wilderness to reshape our spiritual landscapes. Some of us are so reluctant to do this work, to embrace John’s call to repentance and confession. But this is the way that we must accept the death of ourselves in order to have the peace and the comfort that God so freely offers.
In our Old Testament and Gospel readings for today, we find much emphasis placed upon changing landscapes, the wilderness, and upon preparing the way of the Lord. These familiar words from Isaiah, about how God is going to dramatically shake up, rearrange and reshape the landscape, are words of great comfort and restoration for the original hearers—those who have been suffering in the wilderness of captivity and slavery for decades. It is said that the job of the prophets is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.
I know there are many of you sitting out there this morning who are also suffering in your own wilderness and exile, deeply longing for a great, dramatic shake-up, for a great change in the landscape. There may be others of you who are relatively comfortable, for whom these words of dramatic rearranging of the landscape are quite threatening. Now just wait a minute! I built my house on that hill! I do not want it to be brought down into a valley! Whether we like it or not, life and God periodically rearrange the landscapes of our lives and our spirits.
Whether you are one of those who are already pretty comfortable, or one of those in desperate need of comfort, we are all invited on this Second Sunday of Advent to ponder and to participate in the surveying of our interior landscapes.
Another preacher writes about this endeavor saying: “During Advent, we go with John into the wilderness to prepare the way to welcome Christ into our hearts and lives anew at Christmas. We have the opportunity to explore the inner geography of our lives for areas of dead wood, thorns or tangled knots. Twisted relationships, the dead wood of old hurts or habits, the confusion that sometimes comes when we feel we can’t see the wood for the trees—all these are wilderness areas, and they need to be cleared away before growth and new life is possible. Or perhaps there are desert patches—arid, dry areas where nothing can grow or blossom, parts of us which have almost withered away from not being used or tended or tested—some tenderness, some care, some talent, some forgiveness, some humor—that need the water of life to bring them bursting into flower.” (Kathy Galloway, Getting Personal: Sermons and Meditations SPCK, London, 1995, pp89-90)
What are the wilderness areas in your soul these days? Do you harbor the dead wood of old hurts and habits? Do you cultivate the thorns of disappointment or betrayal? What part of your soul has fallen into the dessert and so longs for water and nurture and nourishment? Do you have valleys of disappointment or half-hearted commitment that God is seeking to fill? How might God be calling you to rearrange the landscape of your heart and your soul to prepare the way for Jesus? What part of your life is God longing to reshape, to give you comfort and nourishment, if you will but allow it? Where are you being called to repent and to receive God’s forgiveness?
I read an Advent devotion this week by Richard Rohr in which he writes, “When people say piously, ‘Thy kingdom come’ out of one side of their mouth, they need to say ‘My kingdom go!’ out of the other side” (Rohr, Richard. Preparing for Christmas…Daily Meditations for Advent. St. Anthony Messenger: Cincinnati, 2008, p13). I invite you to think about that today as your pray the Lord’s prayer and all through the week. And ask yourself, “What wilderness part of me must die to make room for the new creation waiting to be born?”