Thursday, December 18, 2014

3rd Sunday of Advent

Advent 3B December 14, 2014 I heard a story this week about the flourishing of catalogs in our society, and how strange that is given that the Internet has just about killed other forms of printed material—encyclopedias, the Rolodex, the paper map. The news story was asking the question, “So why are catalogs flourishing?” Take a moment and think about your home and your relationship with catalogs. Do you throw them directly into the recycle bin before they even make it into the house? Do you have stacks of them piled somewhere (perhaps with the rest of your mail, like in my house?) Do you dog ear the corner of pages, circle things that you like? My earliest memory of a catalog was being a child and going to see my grandparents, who always had a copy of the Christmas catalog from Penny’s. I was allowed and encouraged by my Ma Ma go through the catalog and circle the things I’d like for Christmas. It was a magical experience, wishing and hoping for all those beautiful toys! The NPR story made me remember all that, and it struck a chord in me as it talked about its hypothesis for why catalogs are still around. They quote Sue Johnson, a U.S. Postal Service mail carrier in Bay City, Mich., who has hauled catalogs and other mail in a satchel for 28 years. "It builds up the muscles in your arms," she says. "A lot." But Johnson also says that she likes to curl up on her couch at home, and look at catalogs. “I'll sit here and read catalogs for hours and just look at stuff," she says. "Stuff I either wish I had, or maybe something will give me an idea to make something." The story also has Felix Carbullido, chief marketing officer at Williams-Sonoma, talking about how catalogs are used in sales in that company. "Our customers come in with the catalog dogeared and refer to the catalog as 'this is the style of my home that I'm looking to achieve,' " he says. That style you've seen portrayed in high-end catalogs is often a tableau: maybe it's a couch, a bookcase, a couple of rugs, plants, sunlight streaming into a casually elegant room. Even if you're not buying, the retailers want you to keep dreaming. And that's one reason the catalogs keep coming.”i In an essay about today’s gospel, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about this type of dreaming that is provoked from us by the catalog companies. She writes, “Depending on local conditions, preachers will want to spend some time thinking about the ways in which faith and hope can cancel each other out this time of year. Faith, by definition, is a radical trust in what God is doing, even when the divine mode of operation is far from clear. Even in the wilderness, even without a proper title for himself of a proper name for the coming One, John the Voice goes on testifying to the light…. Hope, on the other hand, can easily assume the dimensions of individuals and corporate wants. I hope for a white Christmas, a less contentious church, a closer relationship with Jesus, a God who makes sense. While there is nothing wrong with any of these hopes, they still carry considerable cargo, suggesting that I know not only what my community and I need from God, but also how God might best come to us. The only hope on this Messiah table is the bare hope of God’s arrival, sweeping all clutter away.”ii Is it true that faith and hope cancel each other out this time of year? I certainly can resonate with what Taylor writes about “the considerable cargo” of our hopes. But I think hope is absolutely essential to a relationship with God, so how do we get around her dilemma? How do we reconcile this thinking with our reading from Isaiah for today that is filled with Israel’s hope for restoration? How do we reconcile this with Paul’s closing line from our epistle reading today: “The one who calls you is faithful…”? Another book I am reading talks about Taylor’s dilemma between faith and hope with a little more nuance. It is called Living With Hope: A scientist looks at Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany by John Polkinghorne, who is both a physicist and priest in the Church of England. Polkinghorne writes about the difference between true hope and two other attitudes which are commonly confused with hope: optimism and wishful thinking. “[Optimism] springs from a calculation of how things may be expected to turn out, with the belief that in the end it will all prove not to be too bad. It is the feeling possessed by the person who things they know a ‘certainty’ for tomorrow’s horse race. Wishful thinking, by contrast, is not at all concerned with probabilities, for it simply sails off into the blue of ungrounded longings. It is the feeling possessed by someone who daydreams how nice it would be if their modest weekly ‘investment’ in the National Lottery made them an instant multimillionaire. Neither of these attitudes is the same as hope, which neither tries to predict the future from the present nor neglects the constraints that the reality of the present imposes. Christian hope is open to the unexpected character of what lies ahead precisely because it relies on the faithfulness of a God who is always doing new things.”iii “The One who calls you is faithful.” So what are we as individuals and as a church to do with all this? Are we supposed to stop our optimism and wishful thinking and opt only for hope and faith in a God who is faithful? First, I think we must spend time analyzing and characterizing what we often assume is hope in our own lives and in the life of our church. Is it really the true hope that Polkinghorn talks about or is it more or what Taylor refers to as hope, a wish fulfillment or optimism? Those things, in and of themselves, are not bad; they just aren’t hope. Second, we can ask if this hope that we assess is something that we want to just happen or if it is something that we are called to work toward? True hope, I think, is one in which we have a responsibility to act with God in order to participate in God’s bringing the hope to fulfillment. If it is true hope, then how are you, how are we being called to act? I’ll leave you with a little story from our history here, that fits I always think about when I read this passage from Isaiah. It gets to the heart of what is hope and what is wish fulfillment or optimism. After Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Coast and folks were starting to look out and survey the damage, parishioners here discovered our great, beautiful oak trees were pushed over from the fury of the surge and the storm. These proud, strong “oaks of righteousness” were lying on their sides, with their roots exposed. So the parishioners gathered, with some heavy machinery, and pushed the oak trees back upright so that their roots would once again be down in the ground. They acted and they hoped that the glory of these wise old oaks would be restored. And I am told that we didn’t lose a single oak tree. In closing, I share with you a story, written by a woman named Shannon Lynch. It is titled “More Vinegar than Honey.” She writes, “To my social detriment, I can’t talk music or fashion or movie stars. I can talk about ideas, but I can’t quote books unless the book is in front of me. All the aloneness in my life, in my marriage, has made me a retreater. Now that I’m out of my marriage, mostly I think about finding a job. So easily I vacillate between surrendering and freaking out: How am I going to take care of my boys? Where do I find safety and community for us? What has value? What is valueless? Vinegar is cheap and cleans well. Honey is expensive and sweetens. But what of this? All I’m doing is looking for a job, and I haven’t been able to get even a vinegar job. Is it because I’m 51? Is it because I’m not very likable? In God’s Pauper, a fictional account of the life of Saint Francis by Nikos Kazantzakis, Saint Francis dreams he bathes and feeds a foul-smelling man and, suddenly, he knows how to live his life. I dream about a woman I hardly know, a woman with well-shaped legs and the easy smile of abundance, talking about having a tea before her wedding. She turns away from me and, suddenly, tall policemen drive off with my children and my dog while I stand crouched and screaming in the street. It’s not the best way to wake up. And that job I thought I had, I hadn’t. Then I hear 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai on the radio telling me I have to stand up for myself. I have to put down the shoe. Here I am right now, more vinegar than honey. I have an education. I have a talent. But you, dear sister, have the courage of a thousand women. There’s no one in silence or action to tell me what to do anymore. I have to become a lunatic of courage. Oh God, I’ll just cry and everyone will see me cry, see me for the fool I am. Francis says, “We’re going to start with small, easy things; then, little by little we shall try our hand at the big things. And after that, after we finish the big things, we shall undertake the impossible.” This is my first small, easy thing”.iv i. ii.Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 1. Ed. Bartlett and Taylor. Homiletical perspective for Advent 3. Westminster John Knox: Louisville, 2008, p72-73. iii.Polkinhorne, John. Living With Hope: A Scientist looks at Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. WJK: Louisville, 2003, p 4. iv.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Second Sunday of Advent Year B

Advent 2 Year B December 7, 2014 Advent is a time of new beginnings. The liturgical “new year,” it can be a time when we make resolutions about how we live our moral and spiritual lives. Our gospel reading for today emphasizes this with its opening line: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Scholars think that this isn’t necessarily the beginning of Mark’s gospel, but it is, rather, the title. And interestingly enough, Mark begins, not with Jesus or even Mary and Joseph but with Isaiah, with God’s messenger, and with John the Baptist. So what does John the Baptist have to teach us about new beginnings this Advent season? In and through John’s ministry, we see that new beginnings are born out of repentance and humility. We only begin anew when we realize that our old ways are no longer working. We only begin anew when we are open to change and when we open our hearts in willingness to leave behind that which no longer fits us, that which separates us from God’s love. I’ve learned something about this repentance and humility this week. On Monday, my husband invited me to join him in reading Morning Prayer on a daily basis. I will confess that I haven’t read Morning Prayer regularly since seminary, but because he invited me to join him, I did. I appreciated the broader exposure to scripture (especially the Psalms) over the course of the week. But what really struck me was the power in doing daily confession as a part of Morning Prayer. I found that my failures were much more present and real when I was examining my life daily as opposed to only weekly (in making confession only on Sunday). I found it was both more powerful and more freeing, when I asked myself daily “in what ways did I fail God and others yesterday?” But, strangely enough, I also found in making daily confession, that my blessings and my gratitude were much more present as well. When we reflect upon our lives daily, then it becomes a rich time of repentance, and humility and also for new beginnings. And so I invite you to join me in this exercise this Advent season. If you do nothing else, say the confession of sin daily and assure yourself of God’s pardon as it is found in the BCP on pages 79 and 80. But it is also important to remember that this is so much more than some sort of spiritual New Year’s Resolution. Going back to the gospel, when we remember how the gospel of Mark doesn’t really end, it means that we also get to participate in the “beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” How we live our lives matters in the story of God’s redeeming of the world. We then become emboldened to look beyond our own individual lives at other parts of our society, our church, and our world that need repentance and redemption. We are an important part of the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ I read a poem this week that was posted on Parker Palmer’s blog. He was writing about living out fully the questions of our lives and he ended with this poem. I think it is a different kind of confession-a way to examine our lives and the world around us daily to assess where we need to repent and where we have encountered God’s blessing already. Questions Before Dark by Jeanne Lohmann Day ends, and before sleep when the sky dies down, consider your altered state: has this day changed you? Are the corners sharper or rounded off? Did you live with death? Make decisions that quieted? Find one clear word that fit? At the sun's midpoint did you notice a pitch of absence, bewilderment that invites the possible? What did you learn from things you dropped and picked up and dropped again? Did you set a straw parallel to the river, let the flow carry you downstream?i i