Leading Dreams

Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23 for the First Sunday after Christmas Year A, December 29, 2013

Matthew 2:13-23

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:Screen Shot 2013-12-27 at 9.29.47 PM
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

Leading Dreams

While we were living in Croatia for those ten  years, we tried to keep in touch with what was happening back home in America.  Some parts of American life we were simply not able to keep track of, like popular culture – films, music, personalities, except for the really big names.  But we heard the news.  We could follow national politics and have a sense of how the economy was doing.  While we were there, we often played host to visiting Americans.  They helped us understand trends back home.

So, one of the things we “knew” was that the economy, especially the stock market and the housing market were doing really well for our friends back home.   You could buy a home, they told us, and turn around a year later and sell it and make a decent little profit, pretty much guaranteed.

So, even though we did not have a fix on our long-range future, it made great sense when we arrived home find a house to buy, which we did in 2005.   When we were called to Gulf Shores, it seemed like a good idea to wait a year to let our son finish high school, then we would sell the house at a profit and move.

But then, 2008 happened, and suddenly no one was buying houses at 2005 prices.  It seemed like the world had started wobbling.  This was not supposed to happen.  Lots of things started happening that were not supposed to happen.

World Wobbling TimesScreen Shot 2013-12-27 at 9.30.56 PM

Maybe you feel like your world is wobbling.  Lots of things happen that “shouldn’t happen.”  At least “shouldn’t” with respect to our own sense of how the world should work and how our lives should go.

Life seems notoriously unscripted.  In fact, although we think it odd that life goes off-plan so much, the odd thing really is that we keep thinking we know how life “should” go.  This is not unique to our times.  It has always been so.

You have heard the cynical expression, “No good deed goes unpunished.”  We say it because of how bitterly ironic it is when good is punished instead of rewarded.  When good people suffer, when bad people are corrupt or brutal, when conditions conspire against good will and hard work, when the sincere and well-meaning cannot catch a break – that is not how it “should” go.

How do we live under such circumstances?  How do we maintain hope?  Or is it just a dream that this all makes sense?

I believe that we have guidance that we need in these texts we have read, for such a time as this, so let us look at them.

Matthew’s Story of Jesus

Matthew wrote his gospel with a clear plan; if we understand it, we can see how his message applies to us.  Matthew wanted his community, a group of Jewish and non-Jewish Christians, to know where they fit in God’s plan.  Most likely, Matthew was Jewish himself.   He knew the story of Jesus, and re-told it in his own unique way in order for his community to understand the significance of Jesus.

After all, in the largest sense, the gospel story is a story of things turning out different than they “should” have; Messiah should be warmly embraced, not hunted down and brutally executed.

Matthew understood Jesus’ story, however, as the climax of the story of Israel, but a climax with a twist.  Matthew understood Jesus as the long-awaited fulfillment of God’s will to bless all the people of the earth, as he had promised to do through the descendants of Abraham and Sarah so long ago.

Years after that promise was made, God’s people, the Israelites ended up living for centuries as slaves of Egypt’s Pharaoh.   He was brutal and oppressive as an empirical power can be.  At one point in the story, Pharaoh even had all the Israelite baby boys killed lest they overpopulate and revolt against him.  Moses, however, survived that purge.

Moses: the ManScreen Shot 2013-12-27 at 9.32.51 PM

According to the Hebrew Bible’s narrative, Moses went on to become the means by which God liberated the people from slavery.  He led them across the Red Sea to Sinai and brought down Torah, God’s “law” for them to follow.  They were to worship one and only one God, and they were to understand themselves as a covenant-community.

Well they were never good at either one: worshipping only one God or treating each other as a covenant-community.  The tribal confederacy became a monarchy, and before too many kings had come and gone, they had practically re-invented their own Pharaoh and mass-servitude.  Life was not going according to the script; this was not how it “should” have gone.

Anyway, according to the story, they eventually fell to conquering nations – Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Greece, and in Jesus’ day, finally Rome.  Actually there was a brief period of independence from the Greeks (Seleucids).  The Hasmonean family led a Jewish rebellion that gave them freedom for about 100 years, but Rome came and put an end to it.

Herod the Great was called “king of the Jews” in Jesus’s day.  He had become king, by Rome’s permission, and by killing the Hasmonean king after a lengthy battle.  He always felt insecure about is grip on power.  Herod was a brutal man.  He killed members of his own family, including son to stay in control.   A Roman said that it would have been better to be Herod’s pig than his son – presumably Herod didn’t eat pork.

Jesus, Herod, Moses and PharaohScreen Shot 2013-12-27 at 9.33.45 PM

How does all this help us understand how Matthew tells the story of Jesus?  Matthew wants to let his community know that Jesus came to be the true King of the Jews (as the sign on the cross that Pilate ordered said).  Jesus was indeed the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and of God’s promises, but with a twist.

The kingdom of God that Jesus came to bring is not a physical kingdom with geographical boundaries.  It is not a national kingdom for one specific ethnic group as most people conceived it.

Matthew wanted his community to understand Jesus as a new Moses.  Like Moses Jesus came to liberate his people from slavery and bondage.  Like Moses, Jesus gave a new set of instructions, a new Torah for us to live by.

So Matthew tells the story of Jesus filled with echoes from the Hebrew Bible. Brutal Herod is painted in the colors of Pharaoh, a slaughterer of children.  Matthew finds in Jesus’ life echoes of the theme of the exodus from Egypt, out of which God called Israel, his son.  And Matthew finds echoes of the sufferings of exile – Rachael, weeping for her killed and captured children.

Jesus: The New Moses

All of this is to make the point that when Jesus was born God was doing something new.  Matthew wants us to see that Jesus can only be understood rightly when he is understood as God’s anointed, God’s messiah.  So it is Jesus’ teachings that should be revered as highly as Moses’ Torah.

Jesus taught us, as Moses had, how to love and worship God, but more truly, as our Heavenly Father.  Like Moses, Jesus taught us to live with each other as a covenant community in which everyone is treated as a neighbor, deserving our care.   Jesus taught us about purity, like Moses, only for Jesus it is purity of heart that matters, so the old walls of separation between touchable and untouchable people are demolished.

Jesus in the Should Not World

Matthew wanted us to see that Jesus himself was born into a world in which things did not go as they “should have” gone.  Good people, like Joseph and Mary were not rewarded for being good, but became political refugees instead.  Bad people like Herod were free to be as brutal as they wished, and many, many good people suffered.

The Jews in Matthew’s community had seen the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, including thousands and thousands of Jewish deaths at the hands of Roman empirical troops.  They had seen Nero’s persecutions of Christians begin.  Their world was not going according to any script they might have recognized, any more than our world does.

But Matthew wanted them, and God wants us to know that God is still mysteriously, silently at work, even in a wobbly world.  Joseph still had dreams that led him, as surely as the Israelites were led, in the original exodus story,  by the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.   God was doing something new and important in the life of Jesus.  God was bringing the kingdom of God among us.

Us in the Wobbly WorldScreen Shot 2013-12-27 at 9.34.29 PM

So here is where we stand today.  I’m still living in Daphne.  This was not my plan.  And there are a lot of other things that are not going according to the script of the world has I would have liked to write it.

I think this is true for all of us.  Whether we are thinking about our own health issues, or about our prospects for the future, we might have wished for better.  Whether we are thinking about our nation, the politics or the economy, the poverty and the demise of the middle class, or about the events of the violent wider world, it can easily look like the world is wobbling far to much for hope.

Matthew wrote this story of Jesus this way for people in his community that are like us in some important ways.  The question we both face in uncertain and wobbling times is how should we then live?

Matthew’s answer is that we do not succumb to despair.  We follow Jesus as ardently as the faithful Jews were expected to follow Moses.  The fact that things are not going to our plan does not mean we should abandon hope or live by our own wits.

Jesus taught us that it is in exactly times like this that we call out to God as Heavenly Father and thank him for daily bread.  It is in times like this that we look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and become mindfully aware of  God’s presence in each moment, moment by moment, in each breath we breath.

Jesus taught us that even in times of uncertainty like this, that we can seek first God’s kingdom-righteousness, that mercy triumphs over judgment, and that Jesus himself is served when we serve “the least of these” members of his family, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, releasing those enslaved by addictions and by despair.

And Matthew wanted us to know that just as God was Emmanuel, with his people on those early days, Jesus promised his risen, enduring presence with us, to the end of the age.

Have hope.  Never stop being open, like Joseph, to dreaming God’s dream.  The king has been born, and now lives.  He is our new Moses.  Let us resolve in these times, to follow him.

 

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A mindful Christmas

So, it turns out that you can tell this Christmas story in different ways, but it’s all the same story.Screen Shot 2013-12-24 at 11.08.26 AM

You can tell it with wise men from the exotic East giving a baby gifts suitable for a king.

You can tell it with shepherds, startled in the night by angels, finding a newborn baby in a stable.

You can tell  it as the divine Word of God, the source of the whole world, entering the world as one of us, putting on flesh in order to live among us.

It is the same story: the Christmas story is the story of God, showing up, becoming present – fully, personally present to our world – to us.

Christmas is about God showing up with every sense engaged.

The Christmas story is about a baby whose skin feels the fabric of the swaddling clothes that bundle him as he lies in the manger.  He smells the hay and the animals close by.  He feels  the cold air as he breathes each breath, moment by moment, in and out.  He feels hunger.  Maybe fear.

But his mother is there, and so he feels tenderness.  His father is there; he feels protected.  Love is there, and he experiences loving and being loved.

He is there for all of it, taking it all in, knowing it from the inside. He is present.

It’s about being there to notice everything. It’s about mindfulness.

This is where the story begins. As the story continues, we see that he never stops being mindfully present. He is present to working class fisherman, and he calls them to a life of being present with him.

He teaches them to be mindfully present, as he is present.  Mindfulness is awareness.

He notices that people who are listening to him teach, are getting hungry.  He asks his disciples to find food for them.  They cannot.  So he feeds them.

He notices there are people who are sick, and he is present for them in healing ways – he looks at them, speaks with them, touches them, humanizes them with his mindful attention to them as real, unique people, and so, heals them.

He is present to children whom others are discounting.Screen Shot 2013-12-24 at 2.20.36 PM

He is present to women who have been taken advantage of.

He is present to people who are being shunned and avoided, to lepers and the lame.

He is present even to Romans, even Roman soldiers, whose job it is to enforce the oppression his own people. He is present even to their servants He is present to tax collectors and to notorious sinners.

Jesus lived a life fully, mindfully present to each one.  He had no dualistic thinking.  He did not think in all-or-nothing categories, black or white, good people-bad people.  He was present to all of them, as they were.

The Christmas story, about God becoming present to this world, calls us to a new way of being.  It calls us to be mindfully present.  To stop to take a deep, slow breath.  To notice the floor beneath our feet, the supporting seats we are sitting on, the temperature of the air as we breath.

We are called to become mindfully present to the people around us – their eyes, their posture, the clues that they are sending about their inner world.

We are called to be mindfully present at the meals we will eat this Christmas; to the color and the texture of each bite; the mingling of flavors and aromas.

And as mindfully present people, we are called, on Christmas, to light a candle to illumine the dark places around us.  To begin to see what we did not see before.  To become mindfully present to the people who are not around us.

We are called on Christmas to shine the light on the people who will not be joining family around tables, the ones who will not have Christmas meals to savor, and the ones who have been  excluded.

We are called to be mindful of those who are not able to be at home, and to those who are homeless.  We are called to be mindful of those among us whose home is a land foreign to us.

We are called to be mindful that there are those among us who are isolated by sickness or by sorrow, and those for whom this may be the last Christmas they will experience in this life.Screen Shot 2013-12-24 at 2.21.06 PM

The Christmas story has one meaning: that God is present to us, his people: completely, fully, immediately present in every way that it is possible to be.

The Christmas story we tell is one that we wish to live.

We will now light our candles.  May our mindfulness begin in this moment.  May we be mindful of the flicker of its flame, mindful of holding it in our hands, mindful of the firmness of the floor as we stand, and of each step as we walk out into the night’s darkness.

And may the light of each candle be for each of us, a sign of our willingness to illumine each place of darkness around us so that we can become newly, mindfully aware.

May we come to know that the Christmas story is about God, inviting us to be present to the people of this world, just as Jesus was present.  And to bear the light of his love into each dark corner, the light of peace, the light of hope, the light of forgiveness, and the light of mercy.

What Jesus Wants for Christmas: a family story

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, A, December 22, 2013 on Matthew 1:18–25

Matthew 1:18–25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Screen Shot 2013-12-20 at 9.24.01 PMSpirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

 What Jesus Wants for Christmas

If we want to have a family Christmas, then we have to drive to Hattiesburg, pick up our son, and bring him to Daphne, only to return him the next day.  Why?  It’s complicated.  He has to be at work on Christmas eve and the day after Christmas, but his own car has so many repair issues that he cannot trust it to make the two hour journey.  His job doesn’t pay well enough for him to get it fixed or to replace it, and there are no public transportation options, so that is where we are.

But family is family, and we want to be together at Christmas, at least while we are able to manage it.  The Christmas story is, after all, a family story.  In fact its about a family at its happiest moments.  No matter what is to come in the future, the story of the engagement, the wedding, and the birth of the first baby are normally happy times.

Luke tells us the story with Mary as the main character.  She is the one who gets to talk to angels and we get to hear her sing her Magnificat song.  Matthew, on the other hand, puts Joseph on stage.   He is the one who hears from the angel and names the baby Jesus.

The New Family in Early, Happy Days

So here we have a story of the happy times in the life of a new family.  Matthew and Luke both show us Mary and Joseph as fiancés, and they tell us about their first baby, but both of them skip right over the wedding.

Usually at our weddings, someone stands and makes a toast to the groom, and tells what a great guy he his – how perfect he is for the new bride.  We do not get to hear that toast, but we do get the conclusion.  Matthew tells us that Joseph is a “righteous man.”  

That information, it turns out, is crucial to the story.  The happy-moments family story about being engaged, getting married and having your first baby are all going to get very complicated.  Mary is pregnant, but Joseph is not the father.  What is he going to do?

Traditional Values

What are his options?  He is a “righteous man” who grew up in a tradition with strong family values, and clear procedures about what happens to Screen Shot 2013-12-20 at 9.37.02 PMpeople who do not observe them.  Mary and Joseph’s tradition comes from their culture, which, like most ancient cultures, are quite concerned about honor and shame.  A pregnant fiancé is a great shame, not just to her and to her father’s family, but to the man as well.

The tradition says (this is from Deuteronomy 22, part of the law of Moses) that such a woman should be subjected to a humiliating public trial, then stoned to death.  But this family story has a “righteous man” in it, who is about to do something different.  He is going to take into account the one whom he has every right to believe has been unfaithful to him.  He takes Mary as a person into account.

Joseph decides he cannot subject Mary to that ordeal.  Matthew tells us,

“Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

It is interesting that Joseph, the man who later adopted Jesus and raised him, had these particular values.  Not only did he have the law of Moses, he also had the compassion to extend mercy for the sake of preventing harm to Mary – way beyond what Moses required.

The family that started with this decision of Joseph is a family that still, to this day, struggles, as he did, with ancient scripture texts, asking if mercy might not lead to new conclusions in our context.

The Twist in the Story

At this point in the story, there is a new twist.  An angel comes to Joseph in a dream and informs him that there are complicated “family of origin” Screen Shot 2013-12-20 at 9.33.13 PMissues afoot.  God’s Spirit, says the angel, is actually the paternal originator of this baby.

Question: is Jesus Jewish after all?  Matthew has been at pains to demonstrate that Joseph is a pure-blooded descendant of Abraham, in fact, of king David, but if Joseph is not the real father, then what ethnic blood does the baby have?

Recall that Matthew was not the first one to tell the story of the life of Jesus.  Mark was.  Mark has no birth story at all.  We first meet Mark’s Jesus as an adult.  Matthew used a lot of Mark’s story for his own version, but apparently he felt that  Mark’s story was missing something.  Matthew wanted to tell the Jesus story as a family story.

Matthew wanted us to see from the start that it was God’s intention to make a new family.  He wanted us to see that this new family was not a natural one, but one created by God’s Spirit.  This new family was going to be made up of people who knew that they could call God their Father.  And if God is their Father, then everyone in the family is kin; sisters and brothers.

Emmanuel, God With Us

So, back to the story: Matthew wants us to see that the story of Jesus’ birth is connected to the story of Israel in a number of ways.  One of them is to

Isaiah
Isaiah

show us how it is connected to Israel’s scripture tradition.

Back in the days of the prophet Isaiah, the nation was under serious military threat.  It looked bleak.  Perhaps they would loose an impending war.  If they lost it would be likely that the king’s family like would be eliminated.  Those were brutal times.

But Isaiah said no,that was not going to happen.  He said God had not abandoned them to that fate.  In fact, he said there is a young woman here who will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and by the time she does, the threat of war will have passed. The baby will be sign.  Let him be named “Emmanuel” which means God has not abandoned us: God is with us.

So Matthew tells us the family story of Jesus as a baby, born of the Spirit, who is similarly a sign that God has not abandoned his people; in fact, this baby is a sign that “God is with us.”  This fills out that old scripture story in an even more wonderful way.  “With” is a powerful word.

Matthew makes this point both at the beginning and end of his version of the story of Jesus.  The last thing Jesus says to his disciples is that as they go into all the world, making other disciples and baptizing them into the new family, is this:

And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  (Matt. 28)

Who is my Family?

Right in the middle of Matthew’s story of Jesus, there is a peculiar scene that some people have found troubling.   It is a time when Jesus is well into his ministry, quite busy teaching, preaching and healing, when his mother and brothers show up outside, asking to speak with him.  He replies to the ones who they sent,

“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”  And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!   For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”  (Matt. 12)

Matthew is telling the story of Jesus as a family story.  It is a story of the new family that God is making.  God, by his Spirit is the true father.  Is it an ethnic family?  A Jewish one?  Well, yes and no.  It is connected to the traditions and the story of Israel, its law of Moses and its prophets like Isaiah, but Jesus’ family has God as its father, not a Jewish man.

A Joseph-style Family

Jesus’ new family is made of people who do for others what Joseph did for Mary, and what he taught Jesus to do: to extend mercy to people who are Screen Shot 2013-12-20 at 9.33.13 PMsuffering, people who are in harm’s way.  This is the family of those who, as Jesus said, “do the will of my father in heaven” by treating each other as “brother and sister and mother.

Matthew wrote his gospel story as a family story to a community of Christians who were ethnically mixed: some Jewish and some not.  Like Joseph, struggled with what it meant to live together and what it meant to receive the Jewish scripture tradition.

They treasured the story of Jesus as a family story with a divine father and knew it was a story of Emmanuel, God with them in a new way.

Our Place in the Family

We are the descendants of that new family.  We have been baptized into this family by God’s Spirit.  We know God as Father.

We have come to know the truth that God is with us.  This is our hope and our confidence.  We know that God is with us in every moment of our lives, the good times and the hard ones.

God is with us when we can gather as whole, intact families and celebrate Christmas together, and when we are separated for any the reasons that families deal with.  God is with us when we sing carols and when our hearts are too heavy to sing at all.

And God is with us always, to the end of the age, as Jesus said.  God is with us challenging us to look at each other as family, and to treat each other as family.

So the only remaining questions are, how extensive is this family, and what does it mean to be in this family?

As far as I can see, the only limits on this family are the ones we put on it.   If Joseph is any model for this family’s perspective, and if Jesus taught us anything, it is that we are not to place any limits at all.  This is the family God made, not us.  Who are we to deny anyone access?

So what does this family do?  We find ways to prevent harm as Joseph did for Mary.  We find ways to bring mercy instead of judgment into the discussion.  We ask ourselves: how can I be a faithful member of God’s family in a world that has so many hurts, so much suffering, and so little mercy?

And then, like Joseph, we act on the dream.  What does Jesus want for Christmas?  He wants a family that risks everything, just as Joseph did, on the bet that God really was doing something new and wonderful on Christmas, and we are a part of it.

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Redemptive Reversals

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent Year A, Dec. 15, 2013 on Isaiah 35:1-10; Luke 1:47-55

Isaiah 35:1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at 12.54.45 PM
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Luke 1:47-55

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
the Mighty One whose name is holy.
God’s mercy is for those who fear God
from generation to generation.

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God has shown great strength;
and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped God’s servant Israel,
in remembrance of God’s mercy,
according to the promise made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and Sarah and to their descendants forever.”

Redemptive Reversals

I was just in a business in which they were playing the kind of Christmas music I hate – all about Santa and snow, and it was done in a bouncy saccharine style that doesn’t do anything at all for me, but I suppose you must take the bad with the good.

I’ll never forget the experience I had in our first year in Romania in a shopping mall.  Romania had been a Communist country for  years.  But suddenly the old system was gone and a new day was dawning.  Over the speakers in the mall were Christmas songs – not about Santa and snow, but about Jesus being born to Mary.  The feeling of hope was everywhere, even though the people were really struggling  economically.

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I cannot imagine Advent and Christmas without music.   Probably that’s Luke’s fault.  Luke gives us four poems that we can think of as songs in celebration of the birth of Jesus.  Today we read Mary’s song, her “Magnificat.”  It has been set to music many times.

The way Luke set is up is this: Mary has just been mystically informed by the angel Gabriel that she will become the mother of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit will be the  child’s true source of life, and he is destined to be the Son of the Most High God, and to sit on a king’s throne, in fact, the throne of his ancestor king David.

So before Mary burst into her song, she gives her approval in words that have forever made us think of her as meek and mild.  She famously replied,

 “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” 

It sounds so submissive – almost passive, that we think of Mary as gentle, soft, quiet, and demure.  All of the pairings I’ve ever seen show her this way, along with having a perfect  complexion, dreamy eyes, and dainty features.

I wish I were an artist; I would love to portray her another way – the way her own song shows her.  This is not the song of a push-over.  This is a song of a person with passion.  I would make her eyes look intense, not dreamy.  I would make her mouth look resolute and determined.

Mary believed in things – even dangerous things.  She had a vision that came from solid sources and she was not shy about asserting the hope they inspired.

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We live in times that need some of that hope, don’t we?  We live lives that need hope too.  Some of us have seen a lot of Christmases come and go and we do not feel hopeful anymore.  There is no need to list all the reasons – besides it’s a waste of time.  What we need is to hear again from feisty Mary, why she felt hopeful, and to let her hope inspire us.

Mary begins,

“My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,”

That is the only place you can begin if you want to end with hope.  Our hope does not come from any other source than God.  It does not come from politics, economics, even world-class medical care, and certainly not from money.

Do you think our circumstances are difficult today?  Look at Mary – living in Nazareth, a tiny, poor village in a Roman-occupied country, under an oppressive,  political regime which calls the Emperor a god.  She has no earthly reason to believe any of this will change for the better.

But she boldly asserts the confidence that there is a God who can be magnified in her joyful song because he is “God, my savior.”

Mary has a specific understanding of the God she sings about.  She is a theologian who has thought through her convictions.   She sings,


“for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant.”

Why is this hopeful good news?  Because Mary believes in the God whose characteristic is to look with favor on the lowly, and to enact redemptive reversals.

Now before we consider the reversals Mary sings about, we need a moment’s reflection about whether or not we are able to sing this song with her.  Are we the lowly who can expect reversals from God that end up helping us?

Actually, we as Americans in the 21st century are on the top of the heap, not at the bottom.  Globally, nobody is threatening us.  Economically, times may be difficult, but that’s only relative to what we expected.  We are still affluent, prosperous, people by any measure.  When was the last time you seriously wondered where your next meal was coming from?  Who in this room has suffered a night recently in cold conditions because you could not afford heat?  Who among us even goes without air conditioning when it’s hot and humid?

And yet many of us feel insecure now.  Even people with pensions and investments can find them dramatically eroded, as the collapse of 2008 reminded us, leaving us with uncertainty and anxiety about the future.  And of course there are many people who have it much worse than we do, including tens of thousands of Americans out of work or severely under employed on on fixed incomes that do not make ends meet.  It is most difficult for non-caucasians, as always.

Mary is going to sing about the rich and the poor – and yet we do not fit the economic categories of her day.   The political elite of Mary’s world were not building schools with their tax dollars, they were building lavish palaces for themselves.  They were world-class extortionists without concern for the harm they caused. Mary as one of their victims.  When she included herself in the “lowly” people she was not exaggerating.

There are “lowly” people in the world in that same sense today; plenty of them.  But we are not among them.  We can be enormously thankful for that, this Advent.  Regardless of how difficult and uncertain our financial condition is, we are aeons away from destitute.  And yet, this song is going to have a special message for us.

Mary, for all her lowliness, refused to live as a hopeless victim.  She asserted her faith in a God who was still looking with favor on people like her.

This is where we begin.  No situation is hopeless for people of faith.  We cannot join the cynics and the hand-wringers in despair.  That is not our song.  Our song is one that magnifies the Lord because God is still active and still faithful.  We will be as feisty as Mary in asserting that there is a reason for hope.

Mary then proceeded to outline the shape of that hope.  It moves in two directions, first downwards then upwards.  God takes down the mighty, the powerful, the proud, and God lifts up the hungry lowly ones.

Mary’s God has an agenda.  He takes sides.  Mary’s God is not neutral when people are suffering.  Mary’s God is an activist.  God’s intention is to reverse current harmful conditions and to redeem those who are suffering under them.

Mary got this vision of an activist God from her tradition.  We read from the ancient prophet Isaiah who detailed a dramatic reversal that God was conducting – a return of exiled people back home.

“For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;”

The God who reversed the exile and brought the people home again across the burning desert is still at work on the side of the lowly.

Why?  It all goes back to God’s promise.  Mary asserts her faith that God who bound himself by covenant to Abraham and Sarah is still faithful.  She sings:

“God has helped God’s servant Israel,
in remembrance of God’s mercy,
according to the promise made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and Sarah and to their descendants forever.”

Mary’s feisty faith in the activist God of that ancient promise has something to teach us today.

First, for Mary, hope included taking the long view.  She understood that God’s work had transpired “from generation to generation.”  Two other people who make appearances in Luke’s Christmas story are quite elderly – Simeon and Anna.  They are able to take hope from the birth of Jesus even though they do not expect to live long enough to see the conclusion.

For those of us who are closer to Simeon and Anna’s age than to Mary’s, let us take hope from the confidence that God’s work is generation to generation.  God has not forgotten the promise made to Abraham and Sarah anymore today than God did in Mary’s day.  Do not join the ranks of the people in despair.  That is not our song!

The second lesson we learn from Mary is that God has an agenda which favors the lowly.  If we are not the proud rich who are going to be pulled down from thrones and we are not the destitute lowly being oppressed by them, then were do we fit in to this song?

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We are called to be advocates for the lowly.  We are called to take up their cause on their behalf just as our activist God does.  We are called to join God who wills that all conditions of harm and suffering are redeemed by being reversed.

I am particularly concerned for one group “the lowly” people in serious need of advocates: people with mental illness or with brain injuries.

On this third Sunday of Advent we find ourselves at the first anniversary of Sandy Hook elementary school shootings, praying for healing for the

families of the victims, both the children and the adults.

Clearly, the shooter, Adam Lanza, had mental health issues.  I have read about it, as you have, and it is not certain that better mental health care could have prevented that tragedy.  But let him stand as an icon for the thousands and thousands of people with mental health issues that are not being cared for.

Some of you know the recent history we have had in our own small congregation.  We have tried and tried to find adequate solutions for people who are suffering, through no cause of their own, from mental health issues.  I have spoken to numerous mental health care professionals as recently as Friday, who care deeply and want to help, but who simply do not have the resources they need.

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We are not feeling rich these days, and yet we have the capacity, in this country, to police the entire globe, on land, on sea, from space, and to every place the internet goes.

Maybe there are some policy reversals that we could imagine that would free up some resources to address real conditions of human suffering.

Perhaps there are some proud budgets that need to be pulled down a bit so that some of the lowly can be lifted up.

We people of faith can be their advocates, joining Mary in feisty assertion that God’s mercy from generation to generation includes our generation.

This is part of our purpose for being here in our generation.  Let us Magnify the Lord with Mary. Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at 1.00.04 PM Let us celebrate God who is our salvation.  Let us do what Mary taught her son Jesus to do: to not look past the lowly, but to look with eyes of hope in the God of mercy who is actively accomplishing redemptive reversals still today.

Dreaming God’s Dream (and getting it partly right)

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year A, December 8, 2013 on Isaiah 11:1–10 and Matthew 3:1–12

Isaiah 11:1–10

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding, Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 8.05.48 PM
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples;
the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Matthew 3:1–12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Dreaming God’s Dream (and getting it partly right)Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 8.06.52 PM

Before I went to seminary, we lived in Cincinnati where we were members of a local church.  I had an experience there, more than once, that I can only describe as liminal.  Liminality means feeling as though you are in two conditions at once.  It’s like standing on the threshold of a doorway; you are both inside and outside at once.

I usually got something out of the sermons and I tried to listen carefully.  But sometimes in the middle of a sermon my mind would wander.  Not just randomly, but rather, introspectively.

I would find myself thinking about my life, what I was doing with it, and where it was going and whether or not I needed to reconsider my path.

I would think about my daily habits and routines and sometimes resolve to change things.  It is not that the subject of the sermon was about the need to make those changes – that’s what made these experiences so oddly liminal – often the subject had nothing to do with the direction my mind had taken.

I was hearing the sermon, but it seemed that I was also receiving a message intended for me, coming from another source.   I don’t know if this ever happens to you, but I hope it does.  I hope that regardless of my words, sometimes you receive a message that has nothing to do with what I’m talking about.

Church as Liminal

This is one of the important reasons for coming to church.  Here, we prepare ourselves, by prayers, music, and scripture, to be in a condition that we are not in during the rest of the week.Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 8.06.34 PM

We prepare to go into a liminal space – neither out of the world nor entirely engaged in the world as we normally are.  The TV is not on.  The radio is not on.  We don’t hear conversations in the background, nor even a Muzak soundtrack.  Sundays are a liminal time. We slow down, get quiet, and become open to hearing God speaking.

Advent itself is a liminal time.  We are anticipating the celebration of Christmas, but we are still in a time of waiting.  Each week we light another candle in the advent wreath, but the Christ candle remains unlit until the right moment.  Maybe God can speak to us in a new way in this liminal time of Advent.

The Church itself is in a liminal moment.  We know that a past world is ending for the church.  We know a future is emerging.  We inhabit both conditions without knowing how the future will look.  Perhaps this is a time God is speaking to the church in a new way?

John and Liminality

Getting people into liminal space is exactly what John the baptist was doing.  Can you imagine what it would have meant to go to see him back then?  It would mean leaving your city or town where you worked and lived, and going out into a kind of no-man’s land.

It would be like going camping – leaving the normal everyday comforts and routines and going some place you generally stayed away from; the wilderness.

But it wasn’t just any wilderness.  If you were part of the crowds that went out to the banks of the Jordan River where John was preaching, it would be like going to Gettysburg, or Pearl Harbor or Ground Zero – it was a place of historic national importance.Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 8.06.24 PM

You and your people would knew the history – there was a time when your people were on the other side of that river, out in the wilderness, before any of you had come into the Promised Land.

That was a liminal time for the whole nation: wilderness was where you were  freed former slaves, but not yet in the land as a settled nation. It was a time of God’s blessing – as the story goes, it was there that you received the manna from heaven, and the water from the rock.

But it was also a time of repeated testing – and failing.

And yet, in that liminal wilderness time, you had  also heard God speaking.  You  received the Ten Commandments and all of the rest of Torah – God’s instructions for their life as a covenant-community.

You heard the vision of the common good.

Why does God seem to speak to us in liminal wilderness times?  Maybe we needed to be out in the wilderness to hear God speaking.

Maybe the din of Egypt’s commercial machine – bricks without straw, 24/7, no Sabbath, no non-productive time, is too much noise.

Maybe God has to call us out in to the wilderness, or at least into the liminality of a Sunday morning in Advent so we can be still enough to hear his voice.

The “R” WordScreen Shot 2013-12-06 at 8.06.13 PM

So, you find yourself down at the Jordan River.  What does John, this rustic, Elijah-looking prophet say?  He says:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

It sounds so harsh, so judgmental.  We do not use the “R” word much any more.  We used to.  The church used to be the world heavy-weight champions in judgmentalism.

We made scarlet letters to help us all know whom to shun, we made unwed mothers feel like criminals, we used to treat divorcees like lepers, and we didn’t even let a conversation about gay people get started.  We used to be experts in making people feel guilt and shame.   The word repent was heard among us.

Partly Right

But just like John, we were experts in getting it only partly right.  Partly right means partly wrong.   John was both right and wrong, we have been both as well.

John told the people to “repent” – literally to change their thinking and their lifestyles – because the kingdom of God, (or “heaven”) had arrived.  That much was correct.  Jesus had come.  God was doing a “new thing.”

In the past, there at the Jordan, they crossed over from wilderness into the Promised Land – that is, from wilderness into their own kingdom.  Now, John was inviting them into those waters again, but this time to prepare for a new kind of Kingdom that was finally at hand.Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 8.06.03 PM

It was time to get into the water and enact a cleansing baptism, to wash off the old way of living, to go down into the water like descending into a grave and to come up as if raised from the dead.  It was a time to stop the pretense that the status quo was good, or acceptable, or working.

The political status quo of Herod and Pilate and Caesar – with all of its injustice, discrimination, oppression,  violence was intolerable.

The religious status quo of abuse and empty formalism was vacuous.

The personal status quo of hopelessness, guilt and shame and was about to be transformed.  That’s what John was right about.

Partly Wrong

What he did not get right was the method.  He was anticipating something that he  described with violent images like axes cutting down trees, and burning fires of judgment.

What he got instead was Jesus, who came saying things like “turn the other cheek, go the second mile, I was hungry and you fed me.”  It confused him.

The church has been, like John, partly right, but partly wrong.  We have been good at saying things need to change, but not always so good at recognizing what it is that needs to change.

Repentance is needed, but from what?

It’s like when you are going through your refrigerator to remove the spoiled food.  You can throw out a lot of containers, but if you don’t get the one in the far back corner behind the mayo where the rotten stink is coming from, it’s not going  to help.

Advent Review of the Ancient VisionScreen Shot 2013-12-06 at 8.05.48 PM

In this liminal Advent season, we need to stop everything, pause, and review the vision.  What are we about?  Why are we doing this?  Where is this going?  What is God’s dream – because that is the only one worth dreaming.

For this, we turn, just as Jesus did, back to the ancient vision of the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah said that when the new shoot appears, that grows up from the fallen family tree of Jesse, the father of the ancient king David, the Spirit of the Lord will empower him to begin a new kingdom.

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him”

The old exhausted status quo conditions will be transformed.  The poor and the meek will no longer be victimized, but rather, in Isaiah’s dream we read,

“with righteousness he shall adjudicate for the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth”

A Halt to Harm

God’s good dream is a a world in which harm has been halted.  The single defining characteristic of nature and of humanity – kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, prey and predator, judgment without mercy, is over.

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them… They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;”

Repentance Needed Here

Repentance is needed.  We have accepted harm as a natural condition.  We have not dreamed this dream.  We accept the harm that free markets do as if we were helpless to redress the disparity in incomes and wages or to respond compassionately to unemployment.

We have accepted the harm that meritocracies produce, as if productiveness defined human value, as if every life were not precious.

We have accepted the harm that money does to our political life, as if we served Mammon’s interests and agenda.

We have accepted the harm to our own spirits and our families that consumer-culture creates, we have even let them call us “consumers” as if consuming was what we were here on earth to do.

In God’s dream that “c” word should be as offensive as the “n” word.  But we have embraced it.

We have accepted harm being done to our planet as if we were not responsible.  As of ends justified means – which is an impossibility.  As if “energy needs” were the only topic to bring to the discussion.  As if we were entitled to destroy what we did not create.

A Better VisionScreen Shot 2013-12-06 at 8.05.41 PM

But we have a vision that is better.  We have a dream of a kingdom in which hurting is no longer tolerated.  When the meek and the poor in spirit are called blessed.

Let us be loyal to this ancient dream.  It is God’s dream for us.  It is Jesus’ dream of the kingdom of God.

In Advent, on a Sunday morning, we step into this liminal space, a space of wilderness, a space of waiting.  We get quiet and reflective.

We ask: How is my life going?

What needs to change?

What do I need to repent of?

What part of God’s good dream do I need to begin to dream, for myself, for my neighbor, for my church, for my family, for my planet, for my world?

A voice cries out to us, in the wilderness.  May we listen.

May we hear.

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