First, Compassion

First, Compassion

Sermon on Isaiah 49:14-16a and Luke 6:32-36 for Christmas +1 A, January 1, 2017

Isaiah 49:14-16a

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
    my Lord has forgotten me.”
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
    or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;

Luke 6:32-36

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.  If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.  If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.  But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-7-57-28-pmI want to begin the year at the beginning; with what is most basic, most fundamental, most important.  Of course, for us, that means beginning with Jesus.

So of all the things Jesus said, what is the most basic; the root from which everything grows?  Of course it is the love command.  “Love one another”, Jesus said.  So what does love look like in practice?  Love looks like compassion.  So today I want us to focus on this central, basic call to us as followers of Jesus.  Jesus said:

“Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.”

Continue reading “First, Compassion”

The Christmas Story Then and Now

The Christmas Story Then and Now

Sermon on Luke 2: 1–20 for Christmas Day, 2016

Luke 2: 1–20
  In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  All went to their own towns to be registered.  Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:   to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.   This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”   And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
    “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
        and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

  When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”  So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.   When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;   and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.  But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.   The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

The Christmas story begins with Joseph and Mary on the move.  They have been dislocated from home because, as Luke tells the story, Rome has ordered them to go register in their native towns.  The empire is once again doing what empires do: pushing around the little people without regard for their welfare.  Pushing them around so that they can be fleeced even further to finance the marble palaces, the lavish banquets and silk robes of the aristocracy, and of course pay for the army.  Empires always need armies, and armies don’t come cheaply.

We have been watching the TV series called “The Crown”.  In the last episode, during a time of post-war rationing, Britain’s royal family is eating a lavish dinner.  One of them comments that their opulence and extravagance actually provides income for local vendors and therefore helps the economy, so it is the right way to live during a time of scarcity.  The callous disregard for the hardship all around them is disgusting.   But it is not surprising.

Mary and Joseph are poor people.  Joseph was a carpenter.  Carpenters, they tell us, were what we would call day-laborers.  They were most likely landless peasants.  Luke tells us that when they went to the temple to sacrifice after Jesus’ birth, they brought a pair of doves, not a lamb; the offering of the poor.
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So Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem, the famous ancestral town of the ancient king David.  They look for lodging but there is none available.  They end up sheltering in a place that includes animals – Luke is quite minimalist with his description.  But he specifies the baby’s first bed: a manger.  This manger bed is going to be important in the story.

Without telling us anything more about the birth – was it a long and difficult delivery, being her first child?  Did they have any help from anyone?  – Luke changes the scene to nearby shepherds.

I have lived in Eastern Europe where there are still shepherds who spend all day long with the sheep.  They are at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.  They have no education. They have no marketable skills.  So they are even worse off than Joseph and Mary.  And these shepherds have it worst: they are the night shift.

In this church we often notice, as we read the bible, God’s special concern for the poor.  For Luke, to tell the story of Jesus, you have to start with a setting of poverty and the politics of exploitation.  Whatever God is going to do  in and through Jesus, it begins among the poor.

Angel Scene

So what happens that night?  An angel appears in the sky, terrifying the shepherds. I learned this story back when we were still using the King James version which says, “and they were sore afraid.”    Angels are always pictured in the stories as beings of bright light.  They are God’s messengers.  Part of the message is simply the glorious light itself: this is a God-thing so of course a bright shining being is part of the cast of characters.

The angel announces:

“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:   to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Titles

Now, I know we are used to these titles for Jesus, but because we are not living back in the those days, in the Roman empire, we miss their explosive significance.  Caesar was called the savior of the world.  He had ended the long civil war and debilitating civil unrest of the past two decades and brought peace to the Rome.  Caesar, so they said, was descended from the God of light, Apollo by a miraculous birth, and was unquestionably the ruler, the Lord.

So this angel is on treasonous ground, saying that Jesus should wear Caesar’s titles.  It seems to imply direct competition for his crown.  And to add more fuel to the fire of political provocation, Jesus is also going to wear the title of Messiah – the anointed one.  Anointing is what they did to make you a king in Israel.

And to put an exclamation on it, Jesus is born, the angel points out, in the city of David.  King David, that is.  Not only does Jesus get Caesar’s titles, he is perfectly placed to inherit Israel’s throne.

To make sure that the shepherds get it, that what is happening with Jesus is a God-thing, the single angel is then joined by a multitude of heavenly hosts who sing,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

These marginal people, these shepherds, are going to receive the honor of being the first to witness what God is doing; they are going to see the baby.  When they do, they will see a sign.  The sign is that the baby is lying in a manger.

The Manger as a Signscreen-shot-2016-12-23-at-3-11-41-pm

Mangers are feeding troughs.  It is where the animals go, hungry, and leave satisfied.  It is their source of food and hence, their source of life.

So the baby is not lying in a nice soft bed with his mother beside him – she has no bed.  She is poor and she has been uprooted by empirical decree.  But in that condition and in that location, God is at work in a new way.  From this setting of poverty and oppression will come, not only a new king, proclaiming a new kingdom, but also a new source of life, living bread.

By this story, Luke is setting the stage to expect that Jesus is a sign that God is at work.  God has come to people who have plenty of reasons to feel as though they have been abandoned by God.  There is an alternative kingdom to Caesar’s.  There is an alternative to the politics of callous disregard.  It is called the kingdom of God, which is what Jesus proclaimed.

The Alternative Kingdomscreen-shot-2016-12-23-at-3-13-37-pm

That alternative kingdom is present already, Jesus tells us, for those who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and open hearts.  God comes to suffering people, and meets them, out in the dark sheep pastures, down in the rough mangers, and offers a new kind of food.

It is no wonder, as Luke will tell us in his second volume, the book of Acts, that the first organized action of the early Christian church was a bread ministry to poor widows.  The baby in the manger becomes food for the world, as the Christ spirit is born in his followers.

We live in far different times, but if we have eyes, ears and hearts open, we can see there is still poverty nearby.  There is still hunger.  There are still people who suffer deprivation all around us.   The Christmas message is that God cares about them, just as God cares for us.

The Christmas calling is that those of us who eat the bread of the Lord’s Supper, who partake of the life of the living Christ, the food that comes from the manger, see ourselves as agents of God’s kingdom, on behalf of those who suffer.

The Christmas question is how can the Christ be born in me so that I become part of God’s kingdom, where God’s will is done on earth, as it is in heaven?  How can I celebrate the birth of Jesus by living in the kingdom of God, answering to a higher authority than any earthly power, and aligning myself, as God does, on behalf of the marginalized?

The answer to those questions will truly be Joy to the World; a true sign that the Lord is come. “Let every heart, prepare him room.

Christmas Eve: from naive to critical to a second naiveté

Christmas Eve: from naive to critical to a second naiveté

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We love the Christmas stories, don’t we?  Angels and shepherds, wise men following the star, bringing gifts, and of course the story of the birth of a baby.  Growing up, seeing creche scenes with the wise men beside the shepherds, looking at the baby Jesus in the manger, I thought of it as one Christmas story.

Now I know that it is a combination of two quite different stories, one from Luke and the other from Matthew.  The gospel according to Luke has the shepherds, the angel choirs, and the manger.  The gospel according to Matthew has the wise men, following the star and bearing gifts.  About the only characters they share in common are Mary, Joseph and Jesus.  There have been diverse perspectives from the beginning.

As children we loved these stories, all rolled into one.  They seemed magical.  They also meant that we would, like the baby Jesus, be receiving presents – there are lots of reasons to love Christmas.

So, how do we feel about these stories as adults?  Some of us here probably think that they are pure fantasy, like Harry Potter.  Others think that a story with God in it can have just about anything happen, so, no problem; it’s all good.  Perhaps some of us are in between those extremes.
Continue reading “Christmas Eve: from naive to critical to a second naiveté”

The Spirituality of Joseph

The Spirituality of Joseph

fourth-adventSermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Year A, December 18, 2016,  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 Spirit. 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.

kenya-path
During seminary, before we had children, my wife and I spent the summer in Kenya.  Our assignment was to live with an African pastor and his family.  We went where he went as he preached and prayed and visited in many villages in the rural area near his.  So, we learned what the phrase “A day’s walk” meant.   We learned to judge distances as walking distances.  Thirty minutes walk to the water source.  Ten minutes walk to the nearest magazine, which was their name for the mud-hut store where you could get basic staples like oil, tea and sugar.

Many people on earth judge distances by the time it takes to walk.  Even if you have a donkey or camel, those beasts of burden only move at a walking pace.

Walking to a Lousy Job

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Joseph and Mary lived in the tiny village of Nazareth, about four miles, or an hour and a half’s walk from Sepphoris.  Joseph was a carpenter, or literally, a builder, which in those days normally meant someone who owned no land, a peasant who hired out his labor on a daily basis at construction sites.

Nazareth was too poor and too small to have had much work, but Sepphoris was a booming construction site during Jesus’ lifetime.  It was being re-constructed to make it what the historian Josephus called, “the jewel of Galilee.”  So, it is quite likely that Jesus, the carpenter, walked an hour and a half to, and from Sepphoris, every working day, until he left to begin his public ministry.

Sepphoris was being reconstructed because the Romans had completely destroyed it.  That is what they did to rebel towns – exactly like what the Russians and Syrians have done to Allepo.

The Politics of Oppression

It may be confusing to think of Israel in Jesus’ time because it had a king, and it was under the Roman Empire, and then somehow a Governor, the famous Pontius Pilate.  Without going into detail, the way it works is that when Rome conquered a people, they had options about how local government would work.  They could govern directly, by governors, like Pilate.  Or they could rule by a compliant local king, which is what Herod the Great was.

Herod was brutal. He came to power by  killing many of the competing aristocratic families and giving their land to his supporters.  He eventually became a rich and powerful local king, who was very compliant to Rome.  But when he died, in 4 BC, revolts broke out in every region of his kingdom.  One of the centers of revolt was Sepphoris, which is why Rome destroyed it, killing thousands of its residents, and sending the survivors into slavery.

Did you ever wonder why, after the stories of Jesus’ birth, we never hear from Joseph again?  It may well be that he died the day the Romans showed up in 4 BC.  Jesus might have only been a toddler.   This is speculation, but it does line up with what happened.

Jesus’ Missing Vendetta

Before we continue, let us just take a moment to let this sink in.  If indeed Joseph died at the hands of the Romans as they moved massively through the country side, against the rebel Sepphoris, then Jesus could have had a vendetta against the Romans.  They killed his father.

It would be all the more remarkable, in that case, that Jesus eschewed violence.  He rejected the rebel cause.  He taught that peacemakers were blessed with the kingdom of God.  This lesson would have been hard-won, to a person whose father had been murdered.

Raised on Joseph’s Spirituality

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If Jesus was raised by a single parent, then Mary was the one whose stories and prayers formed Jesus, spiritually.  Whether it as Mary who told Jesus what his father, Joseph had done, or, whether Joseph did survive the massacre of 4 BC, and died later, of other causes, and so was able to pass on his spirituality directly to Jesus, either way, Joseph’s spirituality must have had a huge influence on Jesus as he grew up.

Nearly all we know of Joseph comes from the story we read today.  What do we see?  We see a man living in bad times.  It is the time of the Roman occupation.  He is from a poor village, and most likely has no land.  He is a peasant.  His daily walking commute takes a total of three hours, to and from his work, which is hard, physical, dangerous, and low-paying.

But there is love in his life.  He has made a marriage contract with Mary’s family.   He is trying to be a righteous man with respect to his fiancee, but for all of his self control and self-discipline, he comes to find out that she is pregnant.

You may take this story any way you wish.  I take some of the elements of the story as a parable, or as Jewish Rabbis would say, a midrash – a creative form of story-telling to make a very serious spiritual point.  One of the signs that points to this kind of reading is the way Matthew takes such a long time to list all the generations of Jesus’ ancestors through Joseph, then tells a story that removes Joseph as Jesus’ father.  To me, this most obvious contradiction shows that Matthew intended us to read this story is a parable.

So, as the story goes, an angel tells Joseph that Mary is expecting a baby.

At this point, what does Joseph know about Mary?  In that tiny village, certainly he knows her family quite well.  He surely knows what kind of person Mary is.   He knows the other young men in the village.  In other words, I think he knows enough to find it impossible that she has cheated on him.

But she was pregnant.

I want to jump over the mechanics of reproduction here to focus on just one element of Joseph’s spirituality.  This situation is a personal disaster for him.  Not only is he poor, not only is his life arduous and his country under foreign occupation and brutal leadership, now his whole plan for a nice little righteous Jewish family has just come crashing down.

He has two options.  He can take this bad situation as it is, and accept the unchangeable facts as facts, and try to see how God may be at work in spite of it all, or he can resist, and try to save his own honorable skin, knowing that if she delivers a baby short of nine months after their wedding, he will be shamed along with her.

Mature Spirituality

Here is what I believe.  Mature spirituality constantly weaves an uncertain and complicated path between active opposition to evil, and disciplined acceptance of reality as it is, finding God at work in it, despite the evil it includes.

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Joseph has a pregnant fiancé.  That is a fact that will not change.  He can accept that fact and choose to believe that God can even be at work in this circumstance, or he can divorce her – which is how marriage contracts were broken in those days.

Joseph is mature enough, spiritually, to be able to look at the bad circumstances of his life, and find God at work in them.  He can see in the miracle of new life, evidence that God is still with us, Emmanuel, just as long ago the prophet Isaiah took the impending birth of a baby as a sign of God’s presence with his nation.

When do you fight against what is happening, and when do you accept it and find God at work in it?  This is the complicated call we have to grow into, as we mature spirituality.  To grow to discern the difference.  It is exactly the quest of those who pray the serenity prayer:

“God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”

Resistance and Acceptance

Jesus did not join the rebel cause against the Romans.  But he did resist them non-violently.  He did not try to overthrow Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, but he did mobilize an action at the temple to demonstrate his opposition to the injustice it stood for.

In non-violent opposition to the situation of massive poverty and hunger, he fed the hungry and taught us to share our bread for the world.  In creative opposition to the culture of patriarchy, classism and misogyny, Jesus called people to share meals at table, together, men and women, slaves and free, rich and poor, native-born and foreigner.

Weaving his way, as Joseph had done, between those evils that must be resisted with action, and those unchangeable facts that must be accepted, Jesus found God’s Emmanuel, God is with us  in presence and in power.

A Call to Joseph’s Spirituality

This is our calling: to emulate the spirituality of Joseph.  So, what is going on in your life now?  Probably there are things you do not like at all.  What is mature Christian spirituality calling you to actively resist?  Certainly there are evils we are called to resist.  The evil of violence must be among them, as followers of the prince of peace, who would rather die than kill.

But there are other things in your life that you cannot change, that no resistance will change.  The question for the mature Christian is, where is God in those parts of your life.  How can you, in spite of the evil, and without pretending that the evil is good, or OK, or not really evil, how can you see God’s presence with you there?

This is the spirituality that saves us, as Jesus came to do.  Jesus saves us, both from the narcissism of the “poor me” pit of self-pity, and from the soul-destroying blame-game of judgmentalism.  And this is the spirituality that saves us from apathetic , do nothing by-standing, while evils triumph.

Now, more than ever, we are called to the complex mature spirituality of Joseph, and of Mary’s son, Jesus, whom we know as the Christ.

May God grant all of us the serenity
to accept the things we cannot change;
courage to change the things we can;
and wisdom to know the difference

For, we believe the promise of Emmanuel: God is with us.

 

Songs of the Movement

Songs of the Movement

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year A, on 1 Samuel 2:1-10 and Luke 1:46-55

Luke 1:46-55screen-shot-2016-12-09-at-12-29-07-pm

Mary Said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness
   of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
   for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

People-movements always inspire songs.  As they sing, the songs inspire the people in the movement.  Songs bind the people together in common purpose.  They give passion to screen-shot-2016-12-09-at-11-51-56-amvision.  Recall the civil rights movement and the music that they sang out, in front of dogs, the fire hoses and the angry shouts: songs like “Oh, Freedom,” “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

The early Christian moment inspired songs as well.  People were so captured by Jesus’ vision: of diverse humans together, in a beloved community, without walls of separation or discrimination, celebrating God’s loving mercy, and the Spirit’s empowering presence, that they produced movement songs.  Some of them we have, embedded in New Testament texts.

When Luke sat down to write his version of the Jesus story, five decades or so after Jesus’ lifetime, he must have thought, “How can I tell this story without the power of these early movement songs?”  We know that Luke had a copy of Mark’s gospel, but Mark began with Jesus as an adult, leading a movement without any music in it.  screen-shot-2016-12-09-at-11-49-18-am

So Luke took some of those early Christian songs that celebrated the vision of the movement, and put them into his story.  Which character in the story should get to sing the first song?  He gave the piece to Mary.  Who better to sing a song that laid out the vision from the very beginning than the mother of Jesus herself?

Telling it this way, we might imagine that Mary would have sung this song not just once, but often to the baby Jesus, as he lay in his bed.  The song would sculpt the terrain of his mental world, creating a landscape of categories for his imagination, and fixed points of reference for his dreams.

The Song about God

So what is the song about?  It is about God and God’s people.  It is about what God has done, and therefore, about what God characteristically does, and therefore, about what God will do yet again.

We do not know anything about the Christian community that produced this song, since Luke’s gospel is our only record of it, but one thing is clear: they did not write it from scratch.  Almost every single line is either a direct quotation or an echo of the First Testament, or Hebrew Bible (or, the Old Testament).  How do you know what God characteristically does, and therefore what God will do?  Well, you look back at the stories of what God has done.

Does that strategy work for us?  Can we just pick up the stories from the Hebrew bible and what it describes God as doing back then, and expect the same in the future?  Should we expect another world-wide flood to kill all the bad guys on earth?  Or another battle of Jericho where the enemy’s walls fall down so that we can rush in with swords raised?

Or did that early Christian community have a more sophisticated approach to the Hebrew stories, as they tried to discern what God was, and is, and would be for them?  Indeed, they did, and we can see it in this song that Mary gets to sing.

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How did early Christians get their approach to the Hebrew bible’s stories that gave them that discernment?  They had a template, or a pattern to use, or maybe we could say a lens to look through, to bring into focus what they needed to see about the past; a lens that would give them a vision for the future.

That template, that pattern, that lens, was Jesus himself.  Jesus is the criteria by which we too look at stories about what God has done, to figure out what God characteristically does, so that we can know what God will do.

This is so important for today.  You see, those early Christians who composed this song out of many lines and echoes from the Hebrew bible used one single poem as their basic structure: it was the song of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. I am sure we all heard the similarities between the two as we read both of them this morning.

Songs and Violence

But did you notice a huge difference?  Hannah’s song assumed that God would help his people to victory through violence.

“His adversaries shall be shattered”

In Mary’s song, God is no less effective in his help to his people, but there is no violence.  In another one of the songs Luke includes, the song the angels will soon get to sing for the shepherds, they celebrate Jesus’ birth as the dawn of “peace on earth, goodwill to everyone.

Jesus taught non-violence.  Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek instead of seeking vengeance.  That is why the Christian symbol for love is the cross: Jesus’ love for all people was so comprehensive that he refused to use violence even to save his life.  The cross forever symbolizes for Christians the Jesus’ way.  Instead of fighting for the destruction of our enemies, with Jesus, we pray,

Father, forgive them.  They have no idea what they are doing.

So then, looking at the Hebrew bible through the Jesus-lens, what does the early Christian community see of what God has done and therefore, characteristically does, and therefore, can be relied upon to do?

God Reverses Fortunes

With Hannah’s song as a pattern, they see the theme of God’s great reversals.  God brought down the proud and raised up the the lowly:

Hannah sang:screen-shot-2016-12-09-at-12-02-18-pm

“He raises up the poor from the dust;
    he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
    and inherit a seat of honor.”

Mary sings:

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly”

Hannah and Mary were both singing about what God had done in their most famous story, the exodus from Egypt.  As the story goes, the Hebrew slaves made bricks without straw 24/7 for Pharaoh, to aggrandize his proud empire.  But the God of liberation heard their cries and set them free.

That is what God did.  That is what God characteristically does: reverse fortunes.  Bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. So, now we know what God will do.  God will liberate the slaves.  Not for the sake of an alternative Hebrew empire to replace Pharaoh, but for the “empire of God,” or as Jesus would call it, the kingdom of God, or as we might call it today, the beloved community.

The Jesus Pattern

That is how Jesus lived.  He believed God’s will was liberation from every form of bondage, and he brought God’s liberation to the lowly people who came to him to experience the presence of God’s Spirit and power.  He healed people, liberating them from both their bodily bondage, and from the bondage of social stigma that disease carried in the ancient world.

Jesus liberated people from the bondage of fear of an angry, punishing, vengeful God, by teaching them to call God “Abba”; father, or daddy.  He taught them that they were not shamefully stained and impure before God (as they had been told) but rather, the human condition is more like being lost, like lambs, apart from the fold.  But no fear, God was a finding God, a “good shepherd“, always luring, coaxing, non-coercively persuading his lost sheep back into his beloved community.

The God of the Hebrew stories, seen through the Jesus-lens, had this characteristic:  God had frequently reversed fortunes of the lowly, the meek of the earth, the powerless, and had raised them up for new purposes.  Second-born sons somehow obtain the inheritance.  Barren women give birth.  A shepherd becomes king.  Exiles return home. Reversals seem to be God’s characteristic way of acting.

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So Mary, looking down at her pregnant belly, is the best one to sing a song about the greatest reversal of all: that a baby from an insignificant village on the outskirts of an empire will lead a new movement of people that would transform the world.

Luke’s community was part of that transformed world.  They gathered around a common table: men and women, scandalously together; slaves and free, subversively together; rich and poor, remarkably together, singing together songs of the movement; songs of praise for the God of reversals:

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

That is our song.  We are part of that transformed world.  We see God through the Jesus-lens, and we see the world through the Jesus-lens.  We see the lowly and the poor with compassion.  We see the outcast and the oppressed with mercy and hope.  Mary sang that this movement would continue from generation to generation.  We, who have been transformed by knowing God as Abba, are thrilled to be a part of the movement in our generation.

So, we do not believe that structures or empires, no matter how big and powerful,  from Egypt to Rome and on, will have the last word.  We believe that it will not be the proud, but the meek who will inherit the earth.  We do not believe we will be saved by violence, but by a willingness to work for peace, animated by the prince of peace.

Inspired by this movement song, like Mary, we do not believe that the present state of the world, in which so much bad happens, where so many feel hopeless, is how it has to be.  Reversals are possible.  That’s what God does.

We are in the movement of liberation.  We look forward to, and work hard to see the day come, when the hungry are fed and everyone has clean water to drink; when no young person is bullied or shamed for their sexual orientation or gender identification; where no one fears injustice on the streets or in the courts.  We work for the day when the earth is loved and protected from human harm.  When no one fears an angry God, but everyone knows that they are loved and embraced as daughters and sons, members of the beloved community.

This is the vision that inspires us, and fills us with hope and passion, and so we sing, along with Luke’s community, the song of Mary,

“Our souls magnify the Lord,
    and our spirits rejoice in God our Savior
…who has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
who has filled the hungry with good things
…from generation to generation.”

Living Towards the End

Living Towards the End

Sermon on Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12k for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, Year A, Dec. 4, 2016

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

screen-shot-2016-11-26-at-2-39-11-pm
Second Sunday in Advent

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.”

Living Towards the End

No one can expect to be perfectly healthy – perfect blood pressure and heart rate, perfect screen-shot-2016-12-03-at-6-36-43-ambreathing, perfect muscle tone and flexibility, and to be perfectly free from all illnesses.  But we all have a notion of perfect health as an ideal state.  Perfect health is the goal, so that is what we try to work towards.

Most of us are aware that there is a profound connection between our bodies and our inner lives.  In fact, it really is a mistake to speak of our bodies and our minds, or spirits, or souls (whatever you want to call it) as if they were two things that are connected.  We are really one whole being with different organs and limbs and systems, and among them are our hearts and minds.

So, the ideal state of perfect health must include a perfectly in-tune spirit.  One that is not consumed by anxiety, or fear, or remorse.  One that is not closed off from others, either from sharing joy or from sharing pain and suffering.   We could say that perfectly in-tune spirit would be filled with faith, hope and love.

We do not expect perfect health of our bodies and spirits, that is the ideal that we aim for.  By diet, exercise and rest, and by regular Christian practices, we grow closer to the goal.  Letting them slide takes us further away.

So, we need two things: a goal to work towards, an ideal state, and a robust set of habits, disciplines and practices to help us move towards the ideal.Our two Advent texts today give us both the ideal and the practices.

The Vision of Isaiah

Isaiah gives us the ideal in a beautiful poem.  Written from a time of hopelessness, in which the Kingdom of Israel, pictured as a tree that had been cut down to a mere stump, Isaiah imagines a future with hope.  King David had led the nation to greatness, but that was long ago.  David’s father was Jesse, so Isaiah says,

“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,screen-shot-2016-12-03-at-6-48-37-am
   and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

The hope Isaiah has is for a new leader to emerge.  What kind of leader?

“The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
   the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   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.”

This kind of Spirit-filled, wise, faithful leader will have specific aims for his land, and specific programs to accomplish.  He sees deeply into the needs of the people, past the surface layer of wealth and prestige, deeper than the typical power politics played by local elites to serve their own interests.

“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 has opposition.  He has enemies.  But the weapons he wields against them are the non-violent weapons of words: words of persuasion rather than coercion.  With rhetorical intensity Isaiah says,

“he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”

So what kind of kingdom does this kind of leadership produce?  Here is the ideal, the vision of the end result:

“The wolf shall live with the lamb,screen-shot-2016-12-03-at-6-51-14-am
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them.”

This is our vision: a world with out violence or injustice.  The ideal state is shalom; peace, wholeness.  A world in which the vulnerable, like children, have no fears.  A world in which the poor and the meek find that their lives matter.  A world without violence.  Isaiah says,

“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.”

Knowledge of the Lord

The knowledge of the Lord is what propels this vision of shalom.  Knowing the Lord means knowing God as Creator, who loves the good planet God made and the people, male and female, made in the image of God.  Knowing the Lord means understanding that our original state is blessed and called “very good” by our Maker.

And so our vision of the ideal state to live towards is this vision of universal shalom.

Practices that Move us Towards the Visionscreen-shot-2016-12-03-at-6-55-21-am

We need practices to move us toward this vision.  Today’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew give us the practice to begin with.  It is the much-maligned and misunderstood practice of repentance.

For some, repentance conjures up images of people in emotional turmoil, expressing deep regrets, perhaps feeling shame.  But the word comes from roots that mean to change the mind; to think differently and therefore to live differently.  There is no necessary connection to an emotional state.

Repentance is like a light bulb coming on in a dark room.  It is like waking up from sleep.  It is like an ah-ha discovery or realization that leads to a change.

The way Matthew tells the story, to be prepared to receive what Jesus is offering, first you need what John brings: a specific practice of preparation; repentance.

Repentance is not a negative state.  It comes from the willingness to look honestly at our lives and ask: what needs to change?  If I am going to live authentically towards the vision of shalom, what do I need to think differently about?

The problem we all have is that we live in a world that is not helping us get to that vision of shalom.  We live surrounded by messages that promote the opposite.  We hear voices calling for division rather than reconciliation.  We live in a culture that is intoxicated by violence.  You can hardly find films to watch that do not have violence at the center.

We live in a society that never tells us to let go, but always offers more.  But maybe it is the “more” that is the problem.  Maybe letting go is the step we should consider.

Come Down to the Riverscreen-shot-2016-12-03-at-7-01-08-am

So John calls the people to come out to the wilderness – with all of the meanings and memories that evokes for Israelites – the place they wandered for 40 years looking for the promised land.  John has them come down to the river Jordan, the border that marks the end of wandering and the land of promise.

And John invites them to baptism.  It is a ritual that enacts a cleansing; washing off that which needs to be let go of.  And baptism, going into water and back out again, is like a death and resurrection.  Death to an old way of being.  A new birth into a new way.

It is not the ritual alone, that John called people to, but to the deep change of thinking and therefore living that the ritual symbolizes.  That’s why he has such harsh words for those who he believes are coming without sincerity or authenticity.

But just like the original Hebrews crossed that river and immediately changed their identities from being landless wanderers, to people of the promised land, citizens of a new nation, so John’s call to repentance is a call to a new identity.

Change your thinking; the kingdom of God has come near.  This is how to prepare for the arrival of the Spirit-led, wise and faithful one who is the branch springing up from that ancient stump, the one who will bring God’s saving shalom.

Take Stockscreen-shot-2016-12-03-at-7-02-26-am

So, let this time of waiting for the advent of Christmas be a time of preparation; a time of reflection.   Let us take time daily, in silence, to consider and take stock.  What do I need to let go of to help me move towards the end goal?  What practices do I need to initiate, or to restore? What habits have I acquired along the way that need to change?

As we take stock, we consider our lives in all their facets.  Since we are not separate bodies and souls, but an integrated whole, we consider the changes we need to make both in our bodies and in our inner lives.

We take stock of both our personal worlds and our public lives.  We consider not just how we live as members of a family and social world, but also how our lives participate in the greater community of our nation, and our planet.

How does our vision of shalom for the world find expression in our politics?  How does our vision of shalom for the world affect our treatment of our environment?

Be Free

The practice of repentance accomplishes at least one amazingly powerful feat in our lives: it eliminates the possibility of thinking we do not need to change.  This is tremendously freeing. To repent is to acknowledge that I am not there yet.  There are things I do that are not helpful.  There are things I am not doing that would be helpful.  There are habits of living and habits of thinking I have picked up along the way that need to be broken.

There is a better way.  Repentance means that I embrace that better way.  I will keep focused on that ideal, that vision of the end, and live in such a way that moves towards shalom, in my personal and public life.

So hear the call: the kingdom of God has come near.  Repent; change your thinking and therefore your living, and so, prepare the way of the Lord, body and soul, privately and publicly.  Live towards the vision of the ideal; the shalom that God intends for all the world.