Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Year New You

Sermon preached December 27, 2009

Texts: I Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52
Woody Allen’s 1977 Academy-Award winning film Annie Hall is about a man named Alvy Singer, played by Allen, and his relationship with a woman named Annie Hall, portrayed by Diane Keaton. After a series of ups and downs Annie and Alvy have a difficult conversation about the state of their relationship.

Annie Hall clip

Annie: Let’s face it, I don’t think our relationship is working.
Alvy: I know, a relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know, it has to constantly move forward or it dies. I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.
There is wisdom in that for our faith. Our faith should continue to move forward, to grow. When it doesn’t, it can become stale. It can seem too small for our lives. Our Scriptures encourage growth in faith as they describe Samuel and Jesus. “Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.” “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” Growing older is inevitable. Growing in our faith is intentional.
And the church exists, in important part, to help those who are a part of it grow in faith. Another way to say that is to say that the product of the church is people. The church exists to help people, whether or not they are a part of the church – so we reach out to feed the hungry, to clothe those with inadequate clothing, to house those without housing, to care for the sick and dying, to establish justice, to strive for peace, to share the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ. One “product” of the church is a better life for others. Another product of the church is changed lives among those who call our church “home.” We want to mess with your lives if you become part of the church. We want to see people’s lives shaped, formed, transformed by the love of Jesus. Another “product” of the church is those changed lives. Of course those two goals are interconnected. As people’s lives are changed, formed, shaped by God’s love in Jesus, they will reach out to make a difference in the world. One of the ways our lives are shaped and formed in love happens as we reach out to others.
Our faith needs to move forward, to grow, and as one year turns to the next seems like a good time to consider how we might like to help our faith grow, how we might like to shape our lives in cooperation with God’s Spirit in the coming year, how we might like to be more deeply formed in faith. I want to suggest that there are a number of ways we can more deeply be formed in Christian faith, be more open to God’s Spirit. I want to briefly discuss these broad categories and offer us some time for reflection on how each of us might choose to be formed more deeply in faith in the new year.
I think we can be more deeply formed in faith and grow in faith as we seek to reweave the past into our lives. In his novel Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner writes, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (Act I, scene 3, p. 80) There is deep truth there. We carry the past with us, and while we cannot change the past, we can rework it, see it differently, reframe it – and doing so helps us grow as people of faith. If I use some of my energy to hold on to a past wrong done me, I have less energy for the present and the future. Some past wrongs need to be rectified. Some need to be let go. There is a huge difference within between saying “someone hurt me and I can’t be whole until they get their due” and saying “someone hurt me and it is unfair but I am not going to be trapped by this forever.” Only you know when it is appropriate to take which stance in your life, but as we begin the new year and you seek to be a new you as a person of faith, is there something in the past that needs to be rewoven into the present? Jack Kornfield, therapist and spiritual teacher once wrote, “forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past” (The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace, 25). We may not be able to change the past to make it better but we can reweave it into our present. Is there some place where you need to forgive to free yourself in this new year?
We are formed in faith and grow in faith as we enlarge our territories. There was a very popular Christian book published ten years ago now, The Prayer of Jabez. Maybe some of you remember it. It seemed helpful to some. Jabez was a minor character in I Chronicles chapter 4 who managed a few more lines in a long list of names than others. A pastor named Bruce Wilkinson took the prayer of Jabez (Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my territory, that your hand would be with me, and that you would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain) and made it into a small cottage industry. Part of the prayer was for enlarging one’s territory. Wilkinson has an interesting view of that part of the prayer. If Jabez had worked on Wall Street, he might have prayed, “Lord, increase the value of my investment portfolis.” (31) I am not sure that this is a very good interpretation of the prayer of Jabez, but Wilkinson is on to something with that idea of enlarging our territory. We grow in faith as we learn new things, as we take on new tasks and responsibilities in our lives. As we stretch ourselves we find God in new ways. As we begin the new year and you seek to be a new you as a person of faith, where would you like to learn more or what new task or responsibility might God be inviting you to consider in your life?
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist stream of Christianity, believed that people were formed more deeply in faith and grew in faith by following three general rules. These have been updated by Bishop Rueben Job. The rules are: do no harm, do good, stay in love with God. I would like to use some of Bishop Job’s words to expand on each of ways of being formed more deeply in faith.
To do no harm means that I will be on guard so that all my actions and even my silence will not add injury to another of God’s children or to any part of God’s creation…. I will determine everyday that my life will always be invested in the effort to bring healing instead of hurt; wholeness instead of division; and harmony with the ways of Jesus rather than with the ways of the world. When I commit myself to this way, I must see each person as a child of God – a recipient of love unearned, unlimited, and undeserved – just like myself. (31) As we begin the new year and you seek to be a new you as a person of faith, where would you like to grow in your ability to heal rather than harm, grow in your determination to see others as beloved of God?
Doing good, like doing no harm, is a proactive way of living. I do not need to wait to be asked to do some good deed or provide some needed help. I do not need to wait until circumstances cry out for aid to relieve suffering or correct some horrible injustice. I can decide my way of living will come down on the side of doing good to all in every circumstance and in every way I can. I can decide that I will choose a way of living that nourishes goodness and strengthens community…. (37-38) Taking appropriate care of self and living selflessly are not opposites. Rather they are each essential elements of a healthy and productive life(46). As we begin the new year and you seek to be a new you as a person of faith, where would you like to grow in doing good, in nourishing goodness and strengthening community? Where might you need to take better care of yourself?
Staying in love with God is the foundation to all of life. It is in a vital relationship with God that we are enlivened, sustained, guided, called, sent, formed and transformed…. Only living in the healing, loving, redeeming, forming, and guiding light and presence of God will bring the redemption, healing, transformation and guidance that is so desperately needed. (48-49) We may name our spiritual disciplines differently, but we too must find our way of living and practicing those disciplines that will keep us in love with God – practices that will help keep us positioned in such a way that we may hear and be responsive to God’s slightest whisper of direction and receive God’s promised presence and power every day and in every situation (55). As we begin the new year and you seek to be a new you as a person of faith, where do you need to hone your spiritual disciplines in order to stay in love with God?
I’ve suggested some ways our lives are formed and our faith deepened. It is often helpful to keep before ourselves a picture of the direction of this new you that we want to work with God to create in our lives. One wonderful picture of the kind of people we try to produce as the church is found in Colossians 3. Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another… forgive each other…. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together…. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. I like the way Eugene Peterson renders this passage in The Message. So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive and offense…. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.
That’s the new you for the new year we want to produce here, helping each other along the way. As you reflect on the ways that new you can be formed, what one thing would you like to do in the new year to be more Christ-like, to wear love more consistently? I would invite you to use the blank space on the bulletin to write down one or two, but no more than three things you would like to do this year to grow in faith, to be more deeply formed in faith. You don’t need to share it with anyone else, but keep it in a place where you can look at it from time to time, just to see how you are doing.
A woman asked her spiritual teacher, “Is there anything I can do to make myself enlightened?” “As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.” “Then of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?” “To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.” (deMillo, One Minute Wisdom, 11)
A shark moving forward, a new wardrobe knit out of love, the sun rising in our lives - - - it is a new year, a good time to consider how we can work with God to cultivate a new you. Amen.

I Can't Go On, I'll Go On

Sermon preached on Christmas Eve December 24, 2009
Scripture Readings: Micah 5:1-5a; Isaiah 9:2-9; Luke 2:1-20

It is good to be together on Christmas Eve. I hope you are having a wonderful or have had a wonderful day and I hope it continues throughout the day tomorrow.
Christmas is a special time, and we love to hear stories that makes us smile or laugh or bring tears of joy – stories of sweetness and goodness and light. Often the stories are about children. We love to hear about how they miss certain elements of the story. There was the little girl, who, in explaining the Christmas story to her mother said that the angels came to share the news about the birth of Jesus while shepherds washed their socks at night. A family returning home from a Christmas pageant began to talk about what they had seen. The father thought it might be good to make sure the children got the main message so he asked, “Who was that baby in the manger?” His four year old daughter said, “Wayne!” “Wayne?!?” “Weren’t you listening Dad, it said so in that song – a wayne in a manger. (Dick Van Dyke, Faith Hope and Hilarity, p. 70, 71). That’s why choir directors always tell you to enunciate! Not long ago a pastor friend of mine shared with me about the Christmas pageant at his church where the young boy who played the innkeeper learned his part very well, but when crunch time came he couldn’t bring himself to say “no” to Mary and Joseph as they stood before him. So when they asked if there was any room at the inn, his compassion took over and he said, “Sure, come on in.”
A few times this fall and early winter I have heard stories about gold coins dropped in Salvation Army kettles: November 27 a gold South African krugerrand worth about $1,000 in a kettle in Southeast Pennsylvania, December 4-5 three gold coins worth about $1,000 each dropped into various kettles in the Denver area, December 17 a Canadian gold coin worth hundreds of dollars in a kettle in Ohio.
When I think back on Christmas I remember Christmas Eve at my Grandmother’s house, 212 ½ E. Fifth Street. Our family would gather – aunts and uncles and cousins. Parking was always interesting because she lived in an alley. We ate around this long, heavy, wood dinning room table drinking from green glass ware. There was food and laughter and cards, and after a time we opened presents from our grandparents – presents my grandma often bought at Daugherty Hardware. We stayed late, coming home well after midnight, and by that time all the street lights were flashing. Little Joe on KDAL was playing Christmas music and it seemed like magic. Even the street lights were different.
Stories of sweetness and goodness and light – those are the stories we like to hear at Christmas, and it is how we read the Christmas story itself. Mary and Joseph always seem idyllic and at peace. The innkeeper turns them away, but always with a gentle, sorrowful voice, never a harsh tone. You never get the sense that they panicked a little when they had no place to stay, didn’t complain once about having to sleep with animals, nor did they mutter if they stepped in what the animals might leave behind. In fact, we read a fairly disinfected story – the animals really don’t do that kind of thing here. We imagine that the night is a little cool, but we don’t usually picture those bone-chilling, teeth-chattering winter winds we know about. It is night, but we picture a beautifully clear and starry night – maybe with a few snowflakes gently falling. How it is both clear and snowy, I don’t know.
The Christmas story as a story of sweetness and goodness and light, that’s how we like it. And that’s o.k. Among my favorite Christmas stories are O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” – a sweet story about a young married couple each secretly selling their prized possession to buy a Christmas gift for the other; It’s a Wonderful Life – where Jimmy Stewart/George Bailey avoids jail and Clarence gets his wings; A Charlie Brown Christmas – where Charlie discovers the true meaning of Christmas by rescuing a scraggly tree; and The Homecoming: a Christmas Story – where father gets home through a storm and John Boy gets the paper and pencil he wants to nurture his writing talent. Stories of sweetness and goodness and light.
But if all we hear are these stories, if the Christmas story itself is nothing more than sweetness and light, I am concerned that it might become disconnected from our more complicated lives. The day I began to work on Christmas Eve services, December 9, was a bitterly cold, blustery day. The wind was whipping across the parking lot as I looked out of the window in my office. Can Christmas connect to lives where such bitter winds sometimes blow? I worry that we make Christmas breakable, fragile as a crystal angel hanging from a tree or fragile as a snow flake. We treat fragile ornaments with great care, taking them out only once a year and packing them tightly away when the holiday is over. Fragile snow flakes melt quickly. Will we let the Christmas story disappear as well when the calendar turns into a new year? Is it too sweet and good and light to carry us through darker days and tougher times, for we will have such times?
When you read the story again it is not all sweetness and light. The Christmas story is about angels and shepherds. It is also about an unplanned pregnancy. It is a story about a people under imperial rule. Mary and Joseph are made to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem by order of the Roman Empire and there seems something just a little bit cruel in making a pregnant woman travel a distance for purposes of taxation and a census. It is a story about a young family with no place to stay. It is about a birth outside – amidst the hay and mess and smell of animals. This story connects to the whole of our lives – the sweetness and light, the harder days, the chill winds. The story speaks good news, a word of hope, not just as icing on the cake when all is well. It speaks good news and a word of hope amidst the harsh realities of life. In the words of Isaiah, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” The Christmas story acknowledges the difficulty of the world, and the light of hope that comes into a sometimes harsh world.
Irish author and Noble prize winner Samuel Beckett captures something of this feeling of living in a challenging, difficult world in his plays and novels and perhaps no better than in the ending of his novel The Unnamable the entirety of which seems to be some kind of interior dialogue – a conversation of a person with himself or herself. It ends this way: you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. Something inside of us, a spirit, a life urge, something I believe put there by God, moves us toward life in all its fullness. But there are days when putting one foot in front of another is about all we can muster, days when discouragements pile up, when we know grief and sorrow, when we fail, when we fail ourselves. I know, not the kind of Christmas story you came to hear, but that’s the point. The depth of the Christmas story is that it acknowledges the tough times, the difficult days, the “I can’t go on” feelings, and tries to open us again to life so that we go on – and more than just go on, truly live. Christmas is sweetness and light, but not simply sweetness and light. It is sturdy and not fragile.
Joan Chittister says this beautifully in her book Gospel Days. Christmas reminds us that God gives us one chance after another in life to become new again, to let things grow in us, to birth in ourselves fresh and different ways to God. (December 9) One chance after another, light, hope, fresh starts – that’s what Christmas is about. That’s what Christmas is about when everything is sweetness and light, that’s what Christmas is about when things are difficult – a God of new life who finds ways into our lives and our world.
When our son David was ten, we were living in Dallas, Texas and I was a youth minister at a Ridgewood Park United Methodist Church. On a December Sunday, returning home from the children’s Christmas program, David tripped while entering our apartment. We were coming in through the patio area, through a sliding glass door. David tripped and fell toward the door, and reflexively put his hand out to break his fall. What broke was the glass in the door. He was cut, badly. Julie said we needed to go to the hospital, and of course, I asked if she was sure. Dumb question. We rushed David to the emergency room, where doctors examined his lacerated wrist – tendons appeared to be torn along the top of his wrist. I remember all of this pretty well, but what I had not remembered until last Sunday when David shared this during Soul Kitchen was that as doctors were cleaning his wound and picking out shards of glass I asked him if he wanted to hear a Christmas story. “Yes.” So while the doctors worked on him, I told him the story “The Gift of the Magi” – that story about a young married couple at Christmas. Jim’s most valuable possession was a pocket watch, which he kept in his pocket on a string. Della’s most valuable possession was her beautiful hair. Della sells her hair to buy Jim a lovely watch chain, and Jim pawns his watch to buy Della a beautiful set of combs for her hair. The author, O. Henry, compares the wisdom of their gifts, given in love, to the wisdom of the Magi, the wise men. It is a tender, touching Christmas story full of sweetness and light, but the story fit a more difficult circumstance – just like the Christmas story itself.
Into this world that is beautiful and bleeding, wonderful and wounded, comes a God who gives us one chance after another to become new again, to let things grow in us. That’s the Christmas story in all its toughness and tenderness.
As I wrap up, let me share with you a brief poem written by the late Brazilian Catholic Archbishop Dom Helder Camara.

It’s Midnight Lord
The Spirit is breathing.

All those with eyes to see,
women and men with ears for hearing
detect a coming dawn;
a reason to go on.

They seem small, these signs of dawn
perhaps ridiculous.

All those with eyes to see,
Women and men with ears for hearing
uncover in the night
a certain gleam of light;
they see the reason to go on.

Christmas is about the Spirit breathing. It is about small, perhaps ridiculous signs of dawn in a midnight world. It is about one chance after another, when it may seem like every last chance has come and gone. It is about new beginnings even when endings seem the only thing in sight. It is about new birth, even amidst the deaths in life that we experience. It is about glimmers of light, even if they need to find their way through the smallest cracks under the door. It is about hope and courage to go on, to add your light to the world, the light God gave you to shine. Christmas is a story about joy and light and goodness meant for even the toughest times because it is about the God of life who comes near in every time. Amen.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Wind Cries Mary

Sermon preached December 20, 2009

Text: Luke 1:39-55

Play the first verse and chorus of Jimi Hendrix, “The Wind Cries Mary.”

If Bob Dylan can put out a Christmas album, I figure a little Jimi Hendrix might work, though to be honest, I don’t think the Mary to whom he is referring is the Mary from the gospels. She is our focus today. Today, the wind cries “Mary.”
And one of the ways the wind is going to cry “Mary” is through a brief poem. It is called “Nazareth” and it is by a Spanish poet named Rosario Castallanos.

Descending to the cave where the Archangel
made his announcement, I think
of Mary, chosen vase.

Like any cup, easily broken;
like all vessels, too small
for the destiny she must contain.

“Too small for the destiny she must contain.” Mary, too small for her destiny? Mary is a fascinating combination of humility and determination, quietness and courage. In our texts for today, Mary goes to visit her relative Elizabeth. She goes quickly because she is still trying to take in all that has happened to her – an angel’s visit, an announcement that she will become pregnant. Elizabeth affirms Mary, calls her blessed, and Mary sings out. But earlier in the gospel, Mary is perplexed and pondering. In the story we will read on Thursday, Christmas Eve, Mary again will be pondering. Is she wondering if she is too small for the destiny she must contain?
How about us? Are we too small for the destiny we must contain? What is our destiny? That’s an awesome question and cannot be answered in any great detail, but as Christians I think we have a destiny, a task, if you will, that we can describe generally - - - change ourselves and change the world. How’s that for destiny! Maybe we are a little small for that.
Consider the world in which we live. We believe that our destiny is the call of God to us to make the world more loving, more compassionate, more just, more peaceful, more caring; to fill the hungry with good things; to be humble and gentle, yet strong and determined. We are called to be good caretakers of each other and of the earth itself.
The world is not yet where we would like it to be. Every day we hear stories of the hungry and homeless. We hear about the despair of lost jobs and lost health care. We hear about incredible violence person against person. Hatred springs up in the world based on nothing more than skin color, or heritage, or tribe, or sexual orientation. Women are abused and children left unattended. We have yet to figure out how to balance our economic life with care for the planet on which we live – and we often seem afraid to even think deeply about some of those issues. I confess to you that there are days when I simply turn the news off for awhile, take a news break, because the pain and discouragement begins to weigh too profoundly on my soul.
In such a world it is our destiny as God’s people, to make a difference. To make change. To work with God’s Spirit to transform the world.
Maybe we should focus on changing ourselves. That might be easier. Maybe, sometimes, but we are foolish if we think it easy all the time. Think of the stories recently of people caught up in behaviors that have been terribly hurtful and destructive. I am sorry to say all the examples that came to mind are men! I think of Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina whose wife announced this week that she is divorcing him for his infidelity. I think of David Letterman who ended up confessing on television that he had not been faithful in his marriage. Of course, most recently, Tiger Woods whose reputation has been incredibly tarnished, whose marriage has been bruised, whose family has been hurt, because of his behavior. At some point do you think it may have dawned on them that some kind of change was needed in their lives, that maybe they were giving in to desires that needed to be managed differently? Yet change didn’t happen, with tragic results. The story is as old as Joseph and Potipher’s wife or David and Bathsheeba. Inner change is no picnic.
I consider my own life. Thankfully I have no Tiger Woods stories to tell. But I do know of other inner struggles and issues with which I continue to grapple – how an insecurity long past can still bubble up now and again, how amazing I am sometimes at awfulizing – you know, taking some little thing that is not going well and making it the first step to the end of the free world as we know it. Over the years I’ve gotten a little better at stopping the train of thought. I seem to be able to intervene at step 5 rather than step 10, but I would kind of like to get to that place in my life where I don’t even let the awfulizing train leave the station. I know I am not the only person who deals with long-term issues in their lives – anger, impatience, insecurity, bitterness held on to for too long, resentments that cling to the soul. Inner change can be difficult.
Our destiny, our call, as Christians, is to change our lives, with God’s help, and to make a difference in the world, with God’s help. And feeling too small for this seems an appropriate response when you consider all that change might entail.
Yet, like Mary, we are called. Think again about Mary – young, of modest means or even poor, living under difficult circumstances – under an empire that could make you go from one place to the next to “register” – think of Mary, chosen vase. Like any cup, easily broken; like all vessels, too small for the destiny she must contain. Yet Mary said “yes.”
Like Mary we are called. We are called to open our lives to the touch of God’s Spirit, God’s grace, God’s love. We are invited by that Spirit to become kinder, gentler, more genuine, more courageous, more joyous. We are called to live out these qualities in our daily lives. We are called to be open to work with God’s Spirit in making a difference in the world, to change it – to make the world a kinder place, more gentle, more caring, more compassionate, fairer or more just.
That is our call, that is our destiny, and to it we are invited to say “yes” again and again and again. Yet that call always comes in a context. It comes to us where we live. It comes to us as we are, even as it invites us to change. In the movie Forrest Gump, when Forrest was asking his mama about destiny she told him “you have to do the best with what God gave you.” That’s our call and destiny, too, to do the best with what God gives us. The call to inner change and making a difference in the world always comes in our time, in our place, with our gifts and skills. We are to do what we can to change ourselves and change the world. We are not really too small to respond to that call, not with God’s Spirit stirring inside of us.
Yes, this sermon is an invitation and a challenge, but I want to end with celebration. I want to share stories of how we have lived out a bit of our destiny, our calling as persons and as a congregation. Last week I shared with you about a family in need. Our church council had heard about this family, its struggles with cancer and the financial difficulties that has created, and thought we could help. So we put up some paper Christmas stockings on the welcome center and invited people, if they chose to do so, to take one and buy the gift and bring it back here so we could bring it to the family. And it has been an amazing week. I have seen you bring the gifts in and seen the joy and excitement in your eyes and voices. I have heard you ask, “Is this o.k.?” because you care. I have seen little touches added to what was purchased, a child’s watch that wasn’t on the list, but that the buyer thought looked cute and might be appreciated. Your generosity and kindness have been a joy to behold. By week’s end we had more volunteers than gifts to buy. Later in the week another family told me that they, as a family, hoped to adopt a family for Christmas. We found a family on the verge of eviction because of a lost job. One income was not quite enough for this family right now – but now they are being helped with their rent and with some gifts for Christmas. Wednesday night our confirmation class, joined by a host of others shared a little Christmas joy through song at Chris Jensen. For some of the kids, this is very awkward, but even though they might have been uncomfortable, they shared, and the joy on the faces of those at Chris Jensen was delightful. They reacted like we were the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
In some ways church is always about challenge and celebration. We know how much needs changing in our world. We know the work it takes to change our lives. It is understandable to feel small, overwhelmed – yet the call, the challenge from God never disappears. So it is always good to keep before us moments we can celebrate. We hear the wind cry Mary and we think of her, small, yet willing to say “yes” to God. And I cherish in my heart images from this week where I have seen so many say “yes” to God. My spirit rejoices in God and in you. Amen.

The Wind Cries Mary

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I did not preach on December 13, as it was our Children and Youth Christmas program. For some reflections on that you can read my other blog: With Faith and With Feathers. Thanks.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Once Upon a Time

Sermon preached December 6, 2009

Texts: Luke 3:1-6

“Once upon a time.” When you hear that phrase it usually introduces a fascinating story, one which often takes places in a fantastic location and often has wonderfully odd creatures. This phrase has been used probably since about the 14th century and by the 17th century was a familiar way to introduce the telling of a story. Comparable phrases are found in many languages. While the stories introduced by “once upon a time” are interesting and usually have some lesson for our lives, we know we don’t live in a once upon a time world. We also know we don’t live in a world of “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” though stories that come to us like that are also wonderful, as are stories set at some indefinite time in the future. But that’s not where we live, either.
We do however, sometimes live in this kind of world: “when the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, then peace will guide the planets, and love will steer the stars.” That’s the “Age of Aquarius.” When the stars all align, then I will: take better care of myself, take my faith more seriously, change. If only this, this and this were in place, life would be nearly perfect. I will be happy when I have the job of my dreams, no longer have to worry about money (at least not much), find the just-right person to spend the rest of my life with. We have all lived here for a little while, I would guess, and there is a temptation to have this be the primary orientation of our life.
Luke offers us a different sense of time. Luke does not tell a story that begins: “once upon a time,” or “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” or “someday,” or “when the moon was in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligned with Mars.” He offers a very different beginning. In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
Besides being a little boring and dry, what does this
tell us? It offers us a very different sense of time – concrete, specific. More than that, we need to know that this litany of names does not portend an age of Aquarius. In many ways Luke is telling us this is an anti-Aquarius time, a difficult time, a harsh time. The names given here are not remembered for being particularly kind to the people of John, the Jews. This was a hard time.
Yet, yet, this is God’s time. I think Luke is telling us that “now” is always God’s time. Now is always God’s time. There are no circumstances that cannot lead to a deepening of our faith, a deepening of our humanity, an enriching of our relationship with God. In one of her books, Joan Chittister writes: Christmas is the commitment to life made incarnate. It is the call to see God everywhere and especially in those places we would not expect to find glory and grace…. Christmas is the obligation to see that everything leads us directly to God, to realize that there is no one, nothing on earth that is not the way of God for me. (Gospel Days, 149)
There is no time that is not God’s time – God’s time for enriching our lives and helping us make the world more caring, more just, more peaceful, more beautiful. We don’t need to wait until the stars align to deepen our faith, take our spiritual practices more seriously, be more caring, take better care of ourselves and others, tackle the difficult change we need to make in our lives, become more fully human and more fully alive, deepen our relationship with God. We don’t need to wait until everything is just right because frankly that will never happen. Now is the time, not once upon a time.
Denise Roy, mother, psychotherapist and spiritual director tells a wonderful story about finding grace in an unlikely place (My Monastery is a Minivan, 54-55). She shares that she and her father are political opposites, so they avoid political topics whenever they are together. However, her father began sending out e-mails, sometimes long e-mails to try and convince his children, including Denise, of the error of their ways. “It got so bad that every time I saw his name attached to an e-mail, I’d sigh and delete it before even reading it.”
But one morning she was sitting down to write a reflection on “grace.” It wasn’t going well. She was having trouble getting started. When nothing else seemed to help, she thought it might help to distract herself by checking her e-mail. Wouldn’t you know it, there was another one from her father. She was getting ready to delete the e-mail when something inside her told her to open it up. It was one of those things that was making the rounds by e-mail, but it was just what she needed. Here’s what it said:

The man whispered, “God speak to me,” and a meadowlark sang. But the man did not hear.

So the man yelled, “God speak to me!” And the thunder rolled across the sky. But the man did not listen.

The man looked around and said, “God, let me see you.” And a star shined brightly. But the man did not notice.

And the man shouted, “God, show me a miracle!” And a life was born. But the man did not know.

So the man cried out in despair, “Touch me, God, and let me know you are here!” But the man brushed away the butterfly and walked on.

Don’t miss out on a blessing because it isn’t packaged the way that you expect.

And Denise Roy smiled and reflected: “Grace even arrives by e-mail.” Now is the time, not once upon a time.
Advent tells us that God’s time is always now, no matter how difficult and challenging a time it is. That’s not to say God caused all the difficulty to teach us something. It is to say that there is nothing that happens that God cannot weave into our lives for our own growth. Advent tells us that God’s time is now. Christmas tells us that everything can be part of the path to deeper faith, richer humanity, closer connection to God.
The message of the season is not once upon a time, but now is the time. Amen.