The Hope of Simeon and Anna

The Hope of Simeon and Anna

Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Christmas, December 28, 2014, on Luke 2:22-40home christmas

I love the Christmas season for all kinds of reasons.  I love the special food, the breads the rolls and fruitcakes and cookies that I allow myself to indulge in this time of year.  I love the music that takes me back to childhood memories.

And I love the lights.  I love driving into the neighborhoods and seeing the houses and yards light up.  Honestly, they look gaudy and outrageous – but also, perfect.  When the lights all come down in a few weeks, the streets will return to their former dark and lonely look.   This is the season of lights.  Lights in the darkness.

The Christmas Light Story

That, to me, is what the Christmas story is about: a light shinning in the darkness.  That is what Simeon said when he saw Jesus:

“a light for revelation to the Gentiles”

That is, in fact, what I believe – that Jesus came as a light in the darkness, a light that is so needed, a light that can make so much of a difference, both to every person individually and to all of us, collectively, even to the world.

I believe that when people embrace the way Jesus taught us to know and love God as our Heavenly Father, the lights come on.  When we can see ourselves as children, loved by God who is for us, who is gracious, who wants what is best for us, then we can, as John says, “walk in the light as he is in the light.

To know deep down that our spiritual lives are not about guilt and shame but about redemption and reconciliation is luminous.  It is like the sunrise that drives away the shadows.  We are able, in the light, to live lives of joyful response, gratitude for God’s constant, present grace.

We have a choiceChristmas-Lights-

But the light Jesus can bring is like the Christmas lights in the original package.  They do nothing until someone takes them out of the box, hangs them up and plugs them in.   The light is not like an unavoidable sunrise; it’s more like a lantern that must be lit.  This is because people have a choice.

This is what Simeon is alluding to as he blesses the baby Jesus, then looks at Mary  and says,

“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Falling and rising” is ominous.  Some people will not want to see the light, and will not want to see what the light reveals.  Darkness works for them – at least that is how they see it.

It is a truly odd part of the human condition that people often do not want what is best for them.  We all have this proclivity, to some degree.  As children we did not  want to eat the vegetables, we did not want it to be bed time, we did not want to say “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you” to our siblings.   We often resist the diet or amount of exercise our doctor recommends.

Showing the bugsspot light

Here is the trouble: the light is wonderful, but leaving the darkness can be painful.  Like when you are in a deep sleep and suddenly, someone turns on the light and wakes you up.  It is blinding at first; the last thing you want.

So, the light of Christ shines and reveals what is really there in my inner thoughts, as Simeon says.  Like turning over the rock and seeing the bugs, the light shows  me who I am. My dark side is revealed.  It shows my ego.  My resentments.  My self-justifications.  My judgments and lack of forgiveness.  My self-indulgence, my sense of exceptionalism and superiority.  And when the light comes on, I have to deal with them.

How?  What I have discovered is that it is so easy, and yet it is so hard also.  It is so easy to simply say, “Yes, that is who I am; I admit it.  It is what it is.” And it is so easy to see the alternative way to be that Jesus showed us by his life.  It is so easy to turn to God as a loving Father, to practice the spiritual practices of contemplative prayer, of silence, of reflection.  But it is also hard for us.   It means we are not in control.

Contemplative Practice

This is what we learn in the silent meditation of contemplative prayer.  The inner monologue has to be quiet.  Time spent in contemplative prayer, as Jesus modeled for us, has a way of turning down the inner temperature.  Twenty to Thirty minutes of daily silence allows space for an alternative approach to the ego’s dualistic win-loose dichotomy.  In the  silence, we can start observing our compulsive thought patterns.  We can identify them, and take away the power they have over us to repeat the same patterns.

The beauty is that when we stop squinting at the light and finally see how wonderful it is to not have to be in control of everything, when we do not have to excuse and defend and justify and blame, life is so much better.

Then, we can mindfully take each single moment as it comes and say, “This is my life, this moment; let it be what it is.  I am a child of God, I know God is with me in this moment” ‘All is well.  All manner of things shall be well’ as Julian of Norwich taught.  This is truly living in the light.

The Broad Vision

What God wants, is our flourishing.   God wants us to be both spiritually healthy and to have healthy, luminous relationships and communities.  All of us.  Without exception.  The vision of the Kingdom Jesus announced  is a broad, world-wide vision.

In fact, this is where it gets problematic for people who want a narrower vision.  God is not tribal.  God is the God of all people, the creator of all of us.  So God has no favorites.  Living in God’s light means seeing everyone else in the same light as well.

The beautiful alternative to the darkness of the world as it is that Jesus came to show us is a reconciled world.  A world in which the ancient divisions have been bridged.  Jesus’ light illumines a vision of peace and harmony; a world saved from violence and war.

This is a Climax Story Simeon

That is why this story is what it is: a climax story.  These to people, Simeon and Anna have lived long lives of faithfulness, keeping the Law of Moses conscientiously, practicing the habits of faithful observant Jews, worshipping in the temple, and waiting for the ancient promise to Abraham to come true.

Mary and Joseph too, are faithfully observant to their Jewish tradition, keeping the requirements of the law for poor people.  After the birth of a son, they come  offering a pair of doves, enfolding their son into the covenant community.

And it is in this moment that Simeon and Anna, these two elderly representatives of the best of Israel’s past, proclaim that the time of fulfillment has come. An old age has now reached its final scene and a new age is dawning.  God’s promise to Abraham was that though him all the families of the earth would be blessed.

Simeon said the light Jesus is bringing is:

“a light for revelation to the Gentiles” 

That is, to the nations: to everybody.

Ah, but what if you wanted it to be a light just for us, for our people.  What if you wanted the in-club of God’s embrace to exclude Romans?  What if you did not want the bad guys included in the circle of grace? What if you wanted to keep it for the pure people and keep out tax collectors and sinners?

Well, then you are making a choice for the darkness.  And in that world, the only light you get is from the sparks that fly.  That is the world of conflict.  The world of us vs. them is inevitably a world of violence.  That is the world we have.

I believe there is a direct connection between the heart and the street: the condition of our souls and the politics we put up with, the world we allow.  If the light has not been allowed to shine on our inner lives, then darkness is what we will expect in our relationships, our communities, and our world.

Longing for More Lightchristmas pole-

But when the light of Jesus’ alternative vision for humanity is allowed to shine, wonderful things happen.

This is why I am still hopeful.  I believe in redemption.  I believe that God has put a longing in all of us for a better world, a better way to live, a discontent with the darkness, at least a flicker of love of the light.

So, having the humility that comes from seeing the light shine on our own darkness, we have the capacity to ask the hard questions.   How have I contributed to the darkness in the past?  How can things be different?  How can I embrace the light?

There is such great capacity to experience healing and reconciliation here.  When we can drop the need to defend and justify, we can then move on to the task of finding solutions.

So, we can approach the mirror and forgive the person there, with the lights on that  reveal that the one looking back at us is a loved, forgiven child of God.

We can come to personal and family relationships with forgiveness and a luminous awareness of how we can seek reconciliation.

And we can ask questions about race relations in our country without shutting down the conversation out of knee-jerk defensiveness and scapegoating.  We can name the darkness and long for the light of a new day, asking, “What will it take?” and affirming,  “We are willing to do whatever it takes to be on the side of reconciliation, justice, and hope.

There is great darkness around, but we are Christmas people: the light has come.  We have seen it.  We have felt it.  There is hope for the world.  Christ is born!


God Comes to People, A Christmas Eve Meditation

Screen Shot 2014-12-24 at 11.55.20 AMAs I was thinking about the Christmas story this year it got me thinking about stories in general and how they work.

Every story, from fiction to the histories of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and including the stories on the news today have predictable parts.  Stories have a plot – something happens.  Stories have to have characters: people, animals, sometimes super-human characters.

And stories have narrators.  Someone is telling the story.  Sometimes a character in the story tells their story, and sometimes the narrator is behind the scenes who knows all and sees all, and can tell us, even about the thoughts of each character.

You learn all of this in school; it is common knowledge.  I guess I am a slow learner, but it was not until I was in seminary that I heard the idea that God is a character in the stories in the bible.  It seemed odd to think of God as a character of someone’s story, but when you think about it, you see it has to be that way.  How else would God do or say anything in the story unless God was a character?

What kind of character is God?  Well, in the Bible, it is complicated. Sometimes you hear God say,

Am I a human that I should change?

but of course God is not a human in those stories.

Yet, at other times, God changes what he said he would do when people like Moses ask him to.  It actually says God changed his mind.  The picture of God as a character is complicated and evolves over time.

It matters to us, what kind of character God is, in the story.  What does God care about?  What does God want? What does God think about us mortal humans?  What, if anything, does he want from us?

The stories we tell about God help us understand how we answer those questions.

By the time we come to the New Testament, we have an amazing set of stories.  God who has been a behind the scenes character, comes to his people as a human character.

So, the essence of the Christian story is that God comes to his people.

And that is why this story gives us hope.  Not because God came to people at one time in the distant past, but that this story tells us who God is, what his character is like, and what God wants.

What is God like?  God is a God who characteristically comes to his people – and this is what we trust is happening all the time.

The Christmas story is not just a single story of something that happened once, long ago, it is our story, in all its personal and realistic detail.

It is a story about the notion that God not only came to Mary and Joseph in the form of a baby, but that God comes to us.   We who gather here can bear witness to the truth that God comes to us, to be Emmanuel – God with us.

Just as in the Christmas story, God comes to us as we are – normal people.  People  like us, who have much more in common with working class shepherds and peasant parents than the royalty in the palace of king Herod.

God comes to us in our difficult circumstances.  Like Mary and Joseph, whose lives are thrown into turmoil by the exploitation they were forced to endure at the hands of an empire with an insatiable appetite for squeezing peasants, we too often feel victimized by systems and forces beyond our control.  And even in those times, God comes to us.

God comes to us, just like in the Christmas story, in completely unassuming ways.  God is not adverse to showing up in a stable with farm animals and barnyard smells.  God comes to us, not waiting until we are scrubbed, shaved, quaffed, and surrounded by stained glass.

God comes to us as to Mary and Joseph, in the  messiness and ambiguity of everyday life.  God comes to imperfect people; people with a past.  People with issues.  People in doubt.  People who are on the verge of hopelessness.

And when God comes to us, how does God show up?  Not in a fiery chariot or a blinding blaze of light. Like a baby, God comes to us, not to intimidate or coerce us, but offering the presence of God to us.  God comes to us, as the Christmas hymn says, often “veiled in flesh.”

And just as a solitary child in an unlikely setting, God’s coming to us may be mistaken for something common.  But God does come to us, and we will know it,  if we will only stop, and pay attention, and open ourselves to the possibility that what is happening is indeed God coming to us, in the moment.

God comes to us in every act of human kindness.

God comes to us in human words offering comfort and support.

God comes in acts of compassion and sacrifice.

God comes to us in every expression of God’s essence: in every act of love.

God comes to us, as in the Christmas story, at night, when the world is dark.  When  hope seems absent.   In the dark night of racial turmoil and senseless violence, God comes to us.  In the inky darkness of humanity’s history of evil and oppression, even in times like these, in fact, precisely because of times like these,  God comes to us.

God comes as a light in the darkness.  God comes to us to illumine an alternative way to be human, the way that Jesus showed us.

God comes to us, offering his presence, if we are willing to pause and become aware of God’s light.

This is the Christmas story: that Jesus has come to us as a sign that God has come to his people.  Jesus has come, as the light of the world.

And in that light, God saves us.  “Christ, our saviour is born.

God’s light saves us, if we will let it, from ourselves, and from destroying each other.

God’s light comes to save us from meaninglessness and to save us from hopelessness.

To save us for a life of gratitude and grace, a life of wonder and awe, a life of compassion and mercy, a life of love.  A bright, luminous life as a child of God.

Let this be the light we light tonight, and the light that we take with us, to shine in our hearts this Christmas season.

Hymn:  Silent Night  (during the hymn we will pass the light to each other until all our candles are lit)

The “Yes” that Changes Everything

The “Yes” that Changes Everything

Sermon on Luke 1:26-38 for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Year B, Dec. 21, 2014

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

This is the Sunday closest to Christmas, so it is one of the big church-going Sundays of the year. I was thinking about the Screen Shot 2014-12-20 at 1.52.32 PMpeople I know who have reasons not to be in church very often, and I have had conversations with some of them. One of them said it clearly: “I want to be science-based about what I believe is true.”

Well, if anyone here has had thoughts like that, I want you to know that you are not alone, and your number is growing rapidly. If that feels like you, I wonder what you think about the rest of us? Do you assume that we all just slide right by stories of angels and virgin births easily? Yes, some of us do; many others do not.

In fact I am willing to bet that in this room are two kinds of people. Some have trouble with stories of angels and miracles. Even if they want to, and used to believe them, now it seems difficult or even impossible. The other kind of people simply believe that God can do what God wants to do, and in this case, it involved an angel and Mary, just as the story says.

New Testament scholars who have examined all the literary devices in these stories we read at Christmas know there there is a lot going on here. These stories are structured in detail in ways that anticipate the themes of the gospels, especially the theme of Jesus as the new Moses. Perhaps the authors meant these stories to be read as parables.

If you are among those of us who have doubts about the literal nature of this story we just read, then let me invite you to consider it a parable. But I want also to encourage you to consider it as a parable with a poignant message, and one that we personally need – and one our world needs to hear.

Let us first consider this: that whatever is going on in this story, the message that Gabriel gives to Mary is that her son will be a king on a throne. He will, the angel says,

“reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Luke is the one telling this story, and Luke knows where it is going. He knows it does not end with the literal enthronement of Jesus as King in place of Herod, founding a new Jewish dynasty that never ends.

In fact, by the time Luke wrote this, the Roman army had put down a Jewish revolt, not too many years after Jesus walked the earth. In that revolt, hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed, the temple was destroyed, and there was no “king” reigning “over the house of Jacob” – and this is the world that Luke was living in as he told the story.

So why would Luke include these details? Wouldn’t it be like telling the story of the glorious grand opening of a Jewish glassware shop in Berlin in 1937, a year before Kristallnacht and not long before the Holocaust?

Let us give Luke the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say he knows what he is doing by telling this story. So, what is he doing?

If this story means anything, it means that Luke believes Jesus is a crucial character. By this kind of a start, Luke is preparing us, his readers to read the gospel of Luke, a story about Jesus that has potential life-changing implications if we are open to them.

So let us spend a few minutes with this story and try to be open to its message.

The Three Big IdeasScreen Shot 2014-12-20 at 1.48.22 PM

I see three big ideas that this story tells. First, as we said, that Jesus is super important, and that whatever happens in the rest of the story, Jesus’s life experiences, actions and words are the main event. Birth stories are portents.

Second, that God is involved here. This is a “God-thing.” Jesus is important because, as Marcus Borg says, he is a “Spirit-man” – a person deeply in touch with the presence of God. God is doing something, and Jesus is God’s means. Jesus’ significance is not super-human strength like Samson – whose birth was also announced by an angel – but rather that from the beginning, Jesus is in direct relationship with God.

Third, this is a human-response story. This is why it is so powerful for us. Luke wants us to see Mary as the model. She is a normal person; not a prophetess like Anna, she is not a judge like her ancestor Deborah, she is not anything special. Just a normal young person. So her response is the response of a normal person, and therefore, a model for us.

The AskScreen Shot 2014-12-20 at 2.30.18 PM

So what does she respond to? What is she asked to do? This is not normal at all. She is to become a mother by a super-normal means. Now, think for a moment what this request entails. Let your imagination be your entry point to this story. Women probably get the implications here at a far deeper level than men, but men can at least attempt to appreciate that giving birth for the first time radically and permanently changes a woman.

Even without the God-part of this story, Mary is being asked to a task that is enormous, risky, painful, and life-changing. And if the physical part is not challenging enough, there is also the social-stigma of an unwed pregnancy to consider.

I heard a story on a podcast called “The Moth” told by a young mother who was getting questions from her daughter about where babies come from. So the mom remembered her mother telling her the facts of life long ago. As she heard about pregnancy and childbirth, she said she remembered thinking, “it’s all bad news!”

And that is the point. This human response story is about a normal person in a deeply challenging situation. This is not a pretty picture.

So, Mary is being asked to embrace what is coming as a God-thing that will serve a purpose beyond her imagination, but at quite a price.

Our Situation
If we are supposed to see her response as a model, then let us enter the story right here. What is your life like, right now? What are the challenges in your situation? What are you being asked to deal with?

For some of us, the process of aging brings a host of issues, both medical and emotional. It is not easy, as I have been reminded by many people here.

Some of us are dealing with grief because we have lost people we loved. Some of us have family issues, and the “happy holidays” only seem to accentuate them.

There are as many challenging situations as people – finances, relationships, guilt, depression, addiction, we are vulnerable on innumerable fronts. I have learned of two suicides in this Christmas season. People are dealing with a lot, often privately.

Unlike Mary, we do not get to choose. We do not get an angel coming out of nowhere giving us a yes-or-no vote about it. Life happens, and much of it is not pretty.

Let your imagination take you to that moment: how is Mary feeling? Overwhelmed? Fearful? Apprehensive? Yes, just the way we feel in the face of what life serves up.

Response, part A: IdentityScreen Shot 2014-12-20 at 2.35.46 PM

So if this is a human response story, let us look at Mary’s response. How does it start? With a personal reflection on who she is; her essential identity. She begins,

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord”

I can imagine her thoughts: “Here I am, young, unmarried, poor, from a village in the country side of an occupied nation, under the boot of a massive empire. I cannot see how anything good is going to come from me or from this. But more important than all of those ways of knowing who I am is that I know myself as a child of God; the servant of the Lord,” to use a prophetic image.

Response, part B: Yes
If I know that about myself, that I am in God’s hands, that God can be trusted with all the things going on above my pay-grade, then I know how to respond.

So, she says,

“let it be with me according to your word.”

In other words, “Yes; Let everything the messenger from God said would happen, happen. I will not fight it; I will accept it. I will trust. I will risk believing that God is with me in this. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m paying the universe a compliment it does not deserve. But I will risk a “yes” to what is happening in my life.

Paradox: resist/accept
Most great truths seem to be paradoxes. Life is a struggle. On the one hand, you have to work hard. You will never accomplish anything by sitting around and letting life happen to you. You have to persevere, overcome obstacles and adversity, and push yourself.

And there are things worth fighting for, and fighting against. It is our high calling to fight injustice and discrimination. We believe in fighting poverty and homelessness. We celebrate the fight against corruption. We believe in the fight for a cleaner planet. All of those fights are nobel and good, demanding and yet, worth the struggle.

But the paradox is, that there are also many parts of life that cannot be fought, and must not be fought, but rather accepted with the words of Mary, “let it be.”

Tragically, there are people who keep fighting unwindable battles, making themselves and other people miserable in the process.

The past is one of those unwindable battles. What has happened has happened. No amount of fighting it changes it. If you have experiences in your past that still cause pain, consider prayerfully saying, “Let it be.” I cannot change it.

“Other people” is another thing to stop fighting to change. It is also an unwindable battle. We can pray for people, wish them well, long for their healing or enlightenment, but we cannot change anyone else. We must, “let it be.”

  • There are many aspects of our present condition that are completely outside of our control.
  • Maybe we are responsible for some of them,
  • maybe we were victims or innocent bystanders,
  • maybe we were just the one in a thousand that got dealt the bad hand.

We can spend our lives fighting against the unchangeable facts with “if only, if only, if only” or worse, “isn’t it awful, can you believe it?”Screen Shot 2014-12-20 at 2.40.53 PM

Or we can respond, as Mary did, “OK; let it be. I know who I am, and I know whose hands I am in. I can trust that God is present, even in this circumstance.

This is why we believe in and practice daily silent contemplative prayer meditation. In the silence, we let go of our ego, we silence our self-pity and self-justifications, we stop narrating our lives to ourselves and simply be present to the Presence. The harder it is to say “yes, let it be” as Mary did, the more we need that 20 or 30 minutes of silence every day.

All is well”
One of the last songs of the Christmas Choir concert last Thursday was “All is Well.” The words come from Julian of Norwich, who said,

“…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

She came to that conclusion in what we would call horrible circumstances. It was the time of the plague epidemics, the black death, as they called it, during the 14th century. There were a series of peasant revolts in her time, and she herself nearly died of fever.

And yet, she came to the conclusion that “all shall be well.” She had learned to say what Mary said; what all of us can learn to say:

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

This is the Christmas invitation.

Stop fighting.

It will be alright.

God is here.


To Love What God Loves

Sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 and John 1:6-8, 19-28 for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Year B, Dec. 14, 2014

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11Screen Shot 2014-12-13 at 6.42.15 PM
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
   and the day of vengeance of our God;
   to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion —
   to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
   the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
   the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
   they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
   the devastations of many generations.

For I the Lord love justice,
   I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,Screen Shot 2014-12-13 at 6.44.34 PM
   and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
   and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
   that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
   my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
   he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
   and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
   and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
   to spring up before all the nations.

John 1:6-8, 19-28
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said,
  “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
  ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,'”
    as the prophet Isaiah said.

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

To Love What God LovesScreen Shot 2014-12-13 at 2.18.27 PM

I was eating breakfast, listening to the news on the radio this past week, when I heard a story that got me thinking. It was so engaging that I went to the news website to see the pictures. It was from Monrovia, Liberia. Usually the news from there is about the Ebola crisis, but not this time. In this country that has been devastated by years of civil war, corruption, poverty, and now this horrible disease, many people do not have any way of getting the news. They do not own radios or televisions, they cannot afford to buy papers.  (source: NPR Morning Edition, Dec. 12, 2014)

So a man named Alfred Sirleaf has taken it upon himself to inform his fellow citizens. On Monrovia’s main boulevard he has set up a triptych of blackboards he calls the Daily Talk. He hand writes, in big white, thick chalk letters, the breaking news. People stop and read, sometimes discuss, even argue about what is happening and what it means for them.

Better life without news?

So, it got me thinking: what would it be like to live without the news? To eat breakfast without that radio on; not to know about Ferguson or Stanton Island or Cleveland.

Imagine living without knowing anything about ISIS, or Ebola, or CIA torture;
– not to hear about the climate tragedy facing the world,
– or about how wide the floodgates of money for political campaigns can get when you have to pass an emergency funding bill in the blink of an eye,
– or about what happens to women on our university campuses.

I think I would like the world better if I did not know. They say “ignorance is bliss.” Maybe being in the dark about all the problems has its advantages, at least for the sake of one’s mental health.

Well, it is Advent, so my morning also included reading the Advent lectionary texts. So, as I read from both the prophet Isaiah and from the Gospel of John, I thought about the world those texts were written in, and how much like modern Monrovia it was for so many people back then: they had no access to any kind of news beyond rumor and local gossip.

Some people knew. Like Mr. Sirleaf in Liberia, some had their own sources of information. The prophets of Israel did. I imagine there must have been royal spies by the scads in those days. Probably there were a lot of loose lips among them, leaking information.

So the prophets were able to know about and speak about surrounding nations and empires from Egypt to Mesopotamia. Most of what they reported was bad news. Prophets were not known for being happy people. To a person, they all believed things were bad, and getting worse. They called for change.

By the time we get to John, the Roman Empire has built its famous road system, so news probably traveled fast, but still, it was second hand, person to person. However John got his information it lead him to conclude that things were bad – like a crooked road that needed straightening out.

John felt called to do something about it. He would be the voice Isaiah spoke of, crying out in the wilderness. He knew times were dark, and he knew that he himself was not the light that was needed. But he decided he could bear witness to the light. He could call out for change, and wait for God to take the next step.

What We Do With What We KnowScreen Shot 2014-12-13 at 2.50.11 PM

We have the news; far too much of it. We know what is going on at home and all over the world. We all know it is bad and seems always to get worse. We do not need the prophets of old or even John’s declarations to tell us how bad things are.

What we need is a way to deal with it.

We could just try to avoid the bad news. We could go on a news fast. But there are two problems with the head-in-the-sand approach: one is that we know to much already. We would only take a head full of unsolved problems with us down into the sand, so it would not be a quite place of refuge anyway.

And worse, attempting to be happy through ignorance would leave us useless. We were not made for living self-referential, vacuous lives. We were put here for a purpose much bigger than ourselves. We cannot and should not want to avoid hearing the bad news just because it exhausts us to keep hearing it.

The Choice
So what do we do? There are again, two approaches. We can join those who light a candle, or we can join those who merely curse the darkness.

This is where Isaiah helps so much. The prophet does not stop with the bad news. Isaiah has a vision of a better world. He imagines how it should be. Instead of dwelling exclusively on the negatives, though, the prophet sets his mind to do one thing: to love what God loves.

This is the path open to us: to love what God loves. To look at the world with the flickering candle light of hope that it is not over yet. There is still a future, and we are alive here and now to be participants in that hopeful future.

So what does it mean to love what God loves? Isaiah tells us:

“For I the LORD love justice” (61:8)Screen Shot 2014-12-13 at 2.43.25 PM

You cannot have justice as a lone castaway on a desert island. Justice is only possible in community. It is all about how the community is organized: who has the power, how are assets distributed, whose rights are upheld? How are the weak and vulnerable protected from the bullies and thieves?

If there is anything we have all learned from all the news we have seen and heard over the years, it is that there are plenty of bullies and thieves. Some of them lurk in shadows, but others wear expensive suits or uniforms. Some of them get elected.

And the rule that is almost never broken is that the more power they have, the more they take advantage; the more damage they do.

But the problem is not limited to the powerful; even some of those with almost no power are willing to be bullies if they sense they have the upper hand. Even children bully children, and so do spouses and neighbors and on and on.

This too, is part of the way things are; the bad way that needs to change. Left to our own devices, a lot of us find it hard to love what God loves. This is why, upon serious reflection, we realize that we need first to be the change we seek. John’s call to make the crooked way straight begins as a baptismal call.

The hope for us is that God already knows that about us. And God has already done something about it. God is at work, by God’s Spirit, to keep kindling in our hearts a love for the justice that God loves.

A Spirit-inspired Vision

Isaiah, as a person who had encountered God, was open and sensitive to the work of the Spirit. So hear what the Spirit of the God who loves justice put in his heart to want:

 The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,Screen Shot 2014-12-13 at 2.05.04 PM
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor,

This is what it means to light a candle rather than cursing the darkness. It means to proclaim the Spirit-inspired vision of good news; to say to everyone who is oppressed that that we believe in the God who loves justice. So instead turning off or turning away from the bad news, we look at it full in the face.

It means that because we love what God loves, we are advocates for the oppressed, the least of these, the ones whose voices are not heard, whose cries get drowned out. The people whose color makes them targets, the victims of oppressive systems.

We have a vision of the jubilee year – “the year of the Lord’s favor,” as Isaiah calls it, in which the economics work for the good of all, not just the good of the powerful. We have a vision of a common good in which everyone has a seat at the table – the table where decisions are made and the table where supper is served.

How to Change the World
Screen Shot 2014-12-13 at 2.55.46 PM

Well, I would love to change the world. I would love to wave a magic wand and fix the problems like a fairy god-mother. But I do not have magical powers. I do pray; I pray for peace, for justice, for the bad to be put right. But it seems that God’s ways do not involve a magic wand, either, not even the wand of instant interventions as answers to prayer.

God’s ways seem to be far more personal. God begins with a baby, of no more seeming significance than the tiny wick of a candle in the darkness. A baby, born to oppressed people in times of grave injustice; a tiny hope, indeed. And God pours out God’s spirit on that child, who becomes a living testimony to God’s presence, God’s with-ness. He is called Emmanuel.

This is Jesus, whose birth we are waiting to celebrate. He came to proclaim a Spirit-filled vision of a world of good news, of jubilee. He grows to be a person who loves the God who loves justice, whose hope is kept alive by his practice of frequent prayer and silent retreat, and whose whole life is lived in a real time and place of crooked ways and bullies, and he proclaims a hopeful vision of the common good.

And from this One, God’s process is that a world-wide movement would arise of people who catch the vision, and love what God loves. People, like us, followers of Jesus, whose public lives and private lives, whose economic and political lives, and whose spiritual and religious lives would by lived in the Spirit.

This is the mystery of grace: that God’s way of dealing with the bad news is about us, personally, responding to the Advent call to Come, prepare the way of the Lord. This is why Christmas will be worth celebrating.

Malcolm Guite has written this sonnet which says it so well:

O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

– from Sounding the Seasons: 70 Sonnets for the Christian Year (Canterbury Press, UK, 2013).



Ontological Discrepancy and the  Courage to Wait

Sermon for December 7, 2014, the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year B, on Isaiah 40:1-11

Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people,Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 12.16.27 PM
   says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
   and cry to her
that she has served her term,
   that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
   double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
   and all people shall see it together,
   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!”
   And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
   their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
   when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
   surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
   but the word of our God will stand for ever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
   O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
   O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
   lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
   “Here is your God!”
See, the Lord God comes with might,
   and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
   and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
   he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
   and gently lead the mother sheep.


At my home we still preparing for Christmas.  I wonder how your preparations are going?  We do not even have the tree up yet.

Advent Waiting as Preparation

Centuries before Christmas became a commercial event, Christians came to understand that the advent, or coming of the Christ was so powerful, so significant, that to celebrate adequately, they needed a period of spiritual preparation.   The season of Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, is the time we do that preparation.  Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 11.06.15 AM

The kind of preparation those ancient Christians felt they needed in Advent had nothing to do with stringing lights on the house, decorating a tree, and certainly not shopping.  I am sure that even the simple Christmas feasts of former years required some advance planning, but the four weeks of Advent were specifically about spiritual preparation.

Four weeks of waiting became four weeks of taking time out to re-examine what it means to be a person of faith; to have the courage to hope in times like these.

It seems to me that if they thought they needed to take time for spiritual preparation in those far less-complicated and less-hectic days, how much more do we?

Days of Emotional Whiplash

These are difficult days.  Am I alone in feeling a whiplash of emotions on a daily basis?  Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 11.15.31 AM

Like you, I am trying to process the events of Ferguson and what they mean for our nation.    Just as the protests were calming down, and the glass was swept up off the streets, we hear about the Stanton Island case, and we watch the video in disbelief.

Even famous comedians are throwing up their hands in despair at these events.   One reflected that that comedy is tragedy plus time – but in the mean time, it is simply tragedy; no jokes make it better.

But then, the happy news about the  employment report comes on.  Apparently the economy is improving.  Gas prices are down. Stocks are up.  Even today there is a bit of discrepancy between sadness of the memory of what happened on this day in 1941 at Pearl Harbor and the fact that this is a joyful Sunday morning in Advent.  Is this a time to dance or a time to mourn?

Maybe you, like me, have personal reasons for feeing emotionally whiplashed in these days too.  My father received great news: the biopsy was clear.  But we have just learned that my cousin, who is my age, has terminal cancer.  Each of us has our own story.

People of Exile

Perhaps we can identify with the people Isaiah spoke to – people in exile, people acquainted with tragedy and loss.  They, like we, need reasons to wait with hope.Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 11.20.22 AM

In the medium of ancient Hebrew poetry, Isaiah pictures God turning to his lieutenants, the heavenly council that carries out his plans on earth, and giving them marching orders.  Here is what he wants them to do for the Jewish exiles in Babylon:

Comfort, O comfort my people,  says your God.

Isaiah and the other ancient prophets of Israel had the ability to see God’s hand at work in the large historical events of their times.  They saw, in the fortunes of  empires: Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, and in their own history, a long arc bending towards a purpose; evolving, yes, but not by randomness and chance alone.

But history is long, and the time that it takes the arc that is bending towards justice  to move is also long.  It challenges the capacity of a single generation who only lives long enough to see one span, whose vision only extends to the present horizon.

“People are like grass,” 

the poet-prophet acknowledges.

“The grass withers, the flower fades,” 

It is  too short to last long enough to grasp the big picture, the long view.

So, in spite of the apparent lack of evidence that anything good or hopeful is in progress, as another new year rolls around and the exile in Babylon wears on, and the Jewish cemetery grows larger, an announcement must be made.

A Fresh Word to Exiles

A fresh word has to be spoken out into the present darkness to assert a deeper reality; a cause to find the courage to hope.   Find the town crier and tell him to warm up for a new announcement.  The prophet says to him:

Get you up to a high mountain,
   O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength…
say to the cities of Judah,
   “Here is your God!

Here is your God?  Where?  It is new years day in Babylon, again.  Where is God in exile?

Ferguson is burning.  Where is God?

Isis is undaunted.  Where is God?

The cancer has metastasized; where is God?

Courage to Hope: Willingness to SeeScreen Shot 2014-12-06 at 11.33.06 AM

The courage to wait with hope comes from the willingness to see the coming of God, even in the darkness before dawn.  Even before the return from exile has begun.

It is the courage to trust that there is a great complexity at work in the world, a super-symmetry, instead of succumbing to the simplicity of despair, the less-demanding temptation to cynicism.

The courage to wait for God with hope is the willingness to read the events of the news and the details of our personal lives as moments in a process that is unfolding into a new future.

The coming of God takes many forms. Maybe one will be the release of the Jewish captives by a Persian monarch.

Maybe another is the new day that will come to race relations in America because change is finally being demanded from all sides, white and black.

And maybe the coming of God will be seen in the serenity that comes from accepting, without despair,  the things that cannot change, even things like our mortality.

A Glimmer of Light

Can we have such courage to hope?  We are frail people, like the grass of the field, whose courage often flags in the face of hopelessness all around.  So, I thought perhaps an example of a glimmer of light might be in order as we wait in this Advent season.

We are witnessing the horrors conducted by Isis and other fundamentalist Muslim groups on the news.  Sometimes we hear our news anchor people asking: where is the reaction by moderate Muslims?  Why isn’t anyone speaking up? Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 11.37.19 AM

Well, they are.  By the thousands.  A group of Muslim leaders has published document entitled, “A Common Word Between Us & You.”  In it they assert that at the core of Islam, according to the Quran, is the call to love God and love one’s neighbor.  They go on to acknowledge that this is a fundamental teaching of the Hebrew bible for Judaism and, for Jesus, and therefore, for Christianity.

This document has been signed by over four thousand Muslim leaders since it was written in 2007, including grand Muftis in numerous countries.  The Christian response has been overwhelming and positive – including responses by the pope and by our own Presbyterian leadership.

(By the way, if the news media you watch or hear is still asking, “Where is the moderate Muslim reaction to Islamic fundamentalism?” – then either they are not aware of this massive public response, and therefore not very good at what they do, or, for some reason, they find it in their interest to not tell you about it.)

In any case, we can take this as a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark scene.  The arc bending towards justice is long, the process is slow.

Being and HopeScreen Shot 2014-12-06 at 11.40.53 AM

But we are people hard-wired for hope.  We sense that we are both at home in this life, and somehow in a kind of exile. We sense that there is a “more” to life than meets the eye;  a transcendent level of life not fully accounted for by mundane material existence.

We long for things unseen, like justice.  We believe that our lives have purpose and  meaning.  This is our being, our ontology, despite the discrepancies of evil and suffering in our world, despite accident and apparent randomness, despite our mortal finitude.

We have experiences of wonder and awe.  We marvel at beauty.  We are dumbfounded by witnessing the uncanny human will to survive, even in unbearable conditions.  And we experience the coming of God  in unfolding new ways, every day, if we are open, willing, and receptive; if we take time for silence, for meditation, for contemplation.

This is Advent.  A time of waiting.  A time for preparation.  A time to be silent enough to hear the voice crying out in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way of the Lord”

So, make this a time of preparation.

Practice the habits of a Christian.

Have the courage to wait with hope.

God is coming!  God is here!