Monday, January 23, 2012

Beautiful People in a Pickle

Sermon preached on January 22, 2012

Texts: Genesis 1:26-27, 31; Romans 3:9-18, 23

What went wrong? They were 15-1, having lost only one game all season. They have one of the best quarterbacks in the league, a man who has a good chance of being the league MVP. Their offense has been picking apart defenses all season long. But in their first playoff game this year, the Green Bay Packers looked out of sorts, played flat, and lost badly. What went wrong? Rabid Viking fans, who believe loyalty to the Vikings means disliking anything Green Bay should not gloat. At least the Packers made the playoffs.
It was the grandest ship of its time, the largest passenger steamship in the world – 882 feet long, designed to carry over 3,500 passengers and crew. J.P. Morgan was among the financiers of the project. Its construction began in 1909. It was designed by experienced engineers using the most advanced technologies and included extensive safety features. It was also designed for luxury. The Titanic was justly celebrated when it left Ireland on its maiden voyage April 10, 1912, but days later, April 15, it sunk, and over 1,500 people lost their lives. What went wrong? Our fascination with this doomed ship has been long-standing.
The reach of human into space has been among our most amazing accomplishments. In 1969 (July 20), we landed on the moon (Apollo 11). When our moon visits ended, we continued to explore space through space shuttles. What amazing technology. The Challenger was NASA’s second space shuttle, beginning flights in April 1983. By January 28, 1986 it had successfully completed nine flights into space. The Challenger had taken the first woman into space, and the first African-American. NASA had promoted the idea of taking a qualified civilian into space, and on its tenth flight, teacher Christa McAuliffe was part of the crew. January 28, 1986, the flight of Challenger lasted 73 seconds before it exploded before our incredulous eyes. What went wrong?
In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…. God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”…. So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God they were created, male and female…. God saw everything that God had made, and indeed it was very good.
What went wrong? Human beings, male and female, created in the in the image of God, in the words of the Psalmist made “a little lower than God” (8:5), human beings seem to have messed up some. We, who have been created in the image of God, have in turn created gulags to punish those with whom we disagree, re-education camps to stifle opposition, concentration camps to exterminate whole groups of people. We split the atom and then used the discovery to create weapons of mass destruction, or used the discovery to generate power, but not always safely – as at Chernobyl. We have enslaved each other. We have dehumanized each other. We see the image of God in those like us, but fail to see it in others who are different. We perpetuate not only large injustices, but engage in small cruelties. What went wrong?
Sometimes we are simply an enigma to ourselves. We are perplexed and baffled by our own actions. We are unsolvable puzzles, inscrutable mysteries, impenetrable riddles. And sometimes we feel trapped by life, caught in painful patterns, or feeling small and insignificant. What went wrong?
Sometimes what goes wrong is almost laughable. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is shared by different Christian traditions – Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox . On December 28, the annual cleaning of the church, one of Christianity's holiest, deteriorated into a brawl between rival clergy, as dozens of monks feuding over sacred space, battled each other with brooms until police intervened. The fight erupted between Greek and Armenian clergy, with both sides accusing each other of encroaching on parts of the church to which they lay claim.
Created as beautiful people, we often find ourselves in a pickle. Today I am beginning a sermon series on central themes in the Christian faith – questions people of God who follow Jesus ask, and am focusing on the Christian view of the human situation. I think “beautiful people in a pickle” is a good way to summarize the Christian view of the human situation. There is something essentially good and beautiful about us. We are created in the image of God. God calls us good. At the same time, there is this sense that we are hurting, ailing, in a predicament, in a pickle. From a Christian point of view something has gone wrong. Scientist and theologian John Polkinghorne puts it succinctly: “Human history and individual introspection both show that there is something awry with humanity” (Belief, 211). By the way, most religious traditions share this sense that something goes wrong in human life, but that’s another topic for another day.
There is a word in the Bible, a short word, but a heavy one, that tries to get at this reality in human existence. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Yes, that word – “sin.” It is not my favorite word, and in many ways we can get by without using it. Yet we need to understand this part of the Christian view of the human situation if we are to understand so much else about Christian faith – about God, Jesus, church and faith. Barbara Brown Taylor, in her thought-provoking book Speaking of Sin writes of the word “sin” and related biblical terms – “the realities they point to are still very much with us, and we need to know their names” (7).
The problem with the word “sin” is that it has been drained of its richer meaning. The full biblical meaning of sin is simply that we humans often find ourselves in a pickle. Something has gone wrong that gets in the way of our relationship with God, with others and with our own potential as creatures created a little lower than God. Sin has come to mean only that we have done wrong, that we have violated God’s commandments, that we deserve some kind of punishment, and that we need forgiveness. That’s too simplistic. It does not capture our human experience of what can go wrong in our lives and in our world that gets in the way of our relationship with God, others and our own potential.
To be sure, sometimes we do wrong and need forgiveness. That is part of our experience, and my guess is, part of everyone’s experience at some time or another. Here are some other problematic experiences. We feel trapped in a life that is painful, or in life patterns that are harmful to self and others (addictions are a good example). We may have done some things that contribute to this pattern, but we also feel trapped beyond our own ability to act. We are bound and need freedom.
We don’t see very well. We cannot seem to see the world beyond our own limited experience of it and so are blinded to some of the world’s pain and some of its beauty. We can contribute to our own short-sightedness, but sometimes we may not even see our lack of sight. We are blind and need to see.
We lack connection to others, to God, and maybe even to important parts of our own lives. Alienation is the word that gets used here – emotional isolation, withdrawal, hostility. Relationships are broken, sometimes by things we have done, and sometimes because of wider social and cultural trends – racism is a form of alienation. Relationships are broken and require reconciliation.
We are wounded. Life has hurt us, left scars. Sometimes our wounds are self-inflicted. We are wounded and in need of healing.
Life, even our own lives have left us feeling perplexed, baffled, lost. We are complex creatures. One of the most insightful books I have ever read about being human is Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. Becker notes that as human beings we have incredible capacities to think and create and imagine, and yet one of the things we know about ourselves is that we will die (48). We are perplexed by this, and don’t manage this knowledge well. Or we may not feel at home in our own skins or our own circumstances. Sometimes we have done things that have gotten us even more lost. We are lost and need to find a way home.
I have spoken of these realities in mostly individual terms, but there are social dimensions to many of them. Doing wrong often affects the wider world, especially when the wrong-doer is powerful. Forces that trap us may be socially created. Our blindnesses may have cultural roots, as can those things which alienate us from others. Some of the wounds we suffer are socially created. I have read some articles in recent months on the emotional effects of unemployment, particularly on men.
So if this is the human predicament, beautiful people in a pickle, we need something – meaningful forgiveness, a power that can frees us from that which traps us, a patient presence that can open our eyes and the eyes of our hearts, a love that reconciles, a touch that heals, perspective for our perplexity, a light that shines so that we can find our way home, the warmth of a home. We need someone who sees our genuine beauty and helps us see the beauty in ourselves and in the world.
Christians have a name for what we need as beautiful people in a pickle. We trust there is a Presence who offers meaningful forgiveness, a freeing power, a healing touch, a light that shines, a centering perspective, the warmth of home – One who sees our beauty and desires that we see it too, One who wants to work with us to make the world more beautiful.
Christians call this Presence God and we say, that above all else, God is love, and that love embraces each of us. Stay tuned. Amen.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Samuel, Martin, You

Sermon preached January 15, 2012

Texts: I Samuel 3:1-20

One of the fascinating characters in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath is Jim Casy, a sort of washed-up itinerant preacher. Just Jim Casy now. Ain't got the call no more…. I ain't preachin' no more much. The sperit ain't in the people much no more; and worse'n that, the sperit ain't in me no more. 'Course now an' again the sperit gets movin' an' I rip out a meetin', or when folks sets out food, I give 'em a grace, but my heart ain't in it. I on'y do it 'cause they expect it. (4. 15-16)
The call – short hand for the call of God to ordained ministry or to preaching. Next month I will again attend the Minnesota Conference Board of Ordained Ministry retreat where we will be interviewing women and men who believe God is calling them into ordained ministry. We will ask about their call stories. This will be my 16th and final retreat as a member of the Board of Ordained Ministry, and in that time I have heard a lot of call stories, each fascinating and moving in their unique way. And if a person cannot articulate their sense of call, it is not likely that they will be ordained.
Yet it is unfortunate that we have taken that term – “the call” and reserved it only for persons looking to be ordained for ministry. Yes, there is such a call in people’s lives, a call that they run from sometimes, but if we take the Bible seriously we also need to understand that we are all called as God’s people. You may not be called to ordained ministry, but God calls each and every one of us to live life in such a way that we reflect God’s love for us and for the world.
We are all called by God – called as we are and where we are. That is an audacious statement. Right here, right now, as you are, God is calling you to be God’s person in the world. The thought may take us up short – ME? Called by God? As I am? Yes. God does not seem in the business of waiting until our lives are just so to call us to live God’s love. The Bible is full of surprising call stories. We read one today. Samuel is just a boy, working with Eli, the priest at Shiloh. Yet God calls him. David was the smallest of Jesse’s sons, yet God called him, and God continued to call him even after his reprehensible behavior toward Uriah. Moses could not speak well when God called him to be God’s spokesperson to Pharoah, King of Egypt. Abraham and Sarah were old when God told them they were going to be the beginning of a great multitude, starting with a child Sarah herself would conceive. Sarah’s response was to laugh.
We are all called by God, called as we are, where we are, to live life in such a way that we reflect God’s love for us and for the world. Part of the function of worship in our lives is to hone our listening skills, to sensitize us to the call of God, to the whispers of the Spirit. Prayer, too, hones our spiritual listening skills. We are called, as Samuel was. As Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birthday is today (January 15, 1929) was, and I want to use their stories to say more about the nature of our calling as God’s people.
We are each called to discover, develop and use our gifts. Samuel was still a boy when called by God to leadership. Samuel had gifts for discernment, for speaking and for truthfulness, and he developed those gifts so he could be a leader more trustworthy than Eli. Martin Luther King, Jr. had gifts for leadership. He was bright, with a Ph.D. from United Methodist-related Boston University. He could speak wonderfully. He could organize well.
Part of the call of Martin Luther King was his call to leadership in the civil rights movement. At age 26, he was the new minister in town when asked to lead a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. He was considered the compromise candidate to lead the boycott. As soon as he was given such leadership the threats began. People were out to get him. King was arrested for going 30 in a 25 mph zone and spent a night in jail. Returning home he received a phone call threatening him. “If you are not out of town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out, and blow up your house.” After the phone call, King sat alone at his kitchen table, his wife and young daughter asleep. He prayed: Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. King then says he heard a voice, the voice of Jesus. Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world. (Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor, 20). We are called to discover, develop and use our gifts.
We are called to care. Samuel was called to care for the Israelites, who were not being well served by Eli, and particularly by Eli’s sons. Martin Luther King was called to care about the plight of African-Americans, and in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” King eloquently expressed the plight of his people. Responding to moderate white clergy who were asking King to slow down, he observed: When you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television and see tears well up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?” (A Testament of Hope, 292-293) The 1963 letter extends on from there. Called to care.
We are called to see the world as it is and care. We are called to dream of something different. Martin Luther King is justly famous for articulating a dream - a dream of justice, equality, caring and freedom. And when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and city, we will be able to speed up that day when all God’s children – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants – will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last.” (Testament, 220)
We are called to dream. Without dreams and imagination, our lives are less energetic, less vibrant, less colorful. But dreams are not sufficient. Dreams are intended to provide energy for action. We are called to work for a better world. Samuel had to work to move the Israelites beyond Eli. In the same speech in which Dr. King articulated his dream, he went on to say: With this faith we will be able to hue out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. (Testament, 219). We are called to act.
We called to tend to our relationship with God. “As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him.” In a 1967 sermon entitled “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” Martin Luther King, Jr. preached this: We were made for God, and we will be restless until we find rest in [God]. And I say to you this morning that this is the personal faith that has kept me going. (A Knock at Midnight, 135)
We are all called by God to live life in such a way that we reflect God’s love for us and for the world. We are all called to discover, develop and use our gifts. We are all called to see the world and care for its hurts. We are all called to dream of a better world, to dream God’s dream for the world. We are all called to work for that newer world, to let our dreams fuel our actions. We are all called to attend to our relationship with God.
And we are called individually and uniquely. We are not Samuel, trying to live his calling. We are not Martin Luther King, Jr. trying to live his call. You are you and I am me, and still God calls us to be the best we can be in living in a way that reflects God’s love for us and for the world.
Two quick stories. In his sermon on the three dimensions of a complete life, Martin Luther King preached about the unique call of each person. A Ford car trying to be a Cadillac is absurd, but if a Ford will accept itself as a Ford it can do many things a Cadillac could never do: It can get in parking spaces that a Cadillac can never get in (Knock At Midnight, 124-125).
The Monday night men’s group is reading through a book called Traits of a Healthy Spirituality. There is a story in there that goes like this. An old rabbi prayed to God, “O Lord, make me holy! Make me like Moses!” God replies, “What need have I of another Moses? I already have one. But what I really could use is you.” (13)
God called Samuel. God called Martin. God calls you, because what God could really use is you! Amen.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Who Are You

Sermon preached January 8, 2012

Texts: Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11

This time of year is a time when pop culture awards begin to make the news – Grammy nominations, Golden Globe nominations, Oscar nominations. So I thought I would begin this morning with a little pop culture – music and movies. Last week’s song did not play as well as I thought it should so I wanted to try the music system again.

The Who, “Who Are You?” (play part of the song)

Here is another version of the same question. Shrek the ogre and Donkey are having a conversation. Donkey wonders why Shrek had not gone “all ogre” with a group of people.

There’s a lot more to ogres than people think.
Example? O.K. Ogres are like onions.
They stink?
They make you cry?
Oh, you leave them out in the sun they get all brown and start sprouting little white hairs?
No! No! Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. Do you get it? We both have layers.
Oh! You both have layers. You know not everybody likes onions.

Shrek and Donkey on layers

Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. People have layers. You and I have layers.
Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian and founder of the journal Sojourners, a journal dedicated to asking how Christian faith shapes our engagement with the issues of our day and time, wrote the following in an on-line column in November. One of the greatest failures of Christians in this country is when they don’t think and act like Christians first. Instead, they think first as Americans, consumers, partisans, and sometimes even as Red Sox fans…. Now Christians can and do identify as Americans, consumers, partisans, and even Red Sox fans (the latter being my particular temptation!). But, it should never be our primary identity. (“Evangelical Consistency and the 2012 Elections” 11-30-11).
Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. People have layers. Christians have layers. You and I have layers. I am a husband, father, grandfather, son, grandson, brother, minister, baseball fan (Minnesota Twins are my particular temptation), avid reader, music aficionado, American, Minnesota, Duluthian, Christian. I have layers. Peel away the layers, though, and who am I at the core? Who are you at the core? Who are we at the center? Where do we go to find out?
For Christians, being a person of God who follows Jesus is our core, and one place we go to find our center is the baptismal font.
I have had the opportunity this week to talk about baptism with two adults, one of whom I baptized. It was a wonderful serendipity knowing that the text for this week was the text about the baptism of Jesus. During the baptism of the young man I baptized, these words came out of me. “Baptism takes such a little time, but it’s impact is intended to last a life time.” And its true. Baptism does not take long, but the commitments made are lived out over a lifetime. The God whose grace and love are as penetrating and plentiful as water works with us and in us and on us our whole lives. At baptism we say “no” to the spiritual forces of wickedness – those tendencies and trends which take on a life of their own and degrade, dehumanize, destroy. It is a pledge for life. At baptism we say “yes” to using the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice and oppression. It is a pledge for life. At baptism we profess our faith in Jesus as the Christ, as the embodiment of the wisdom and love and power of God, and say “yes” to following his way in the community of faith we call the church, a community open to all people. It is a pledge for life. These pledges are pledges for life – intended to last a lifetime and to give us life at its best.
And at baptism we believe God meets us. God tears through whatever distances there may be between God and us, and meets us. God’s gracious love penetrates all our layers to say “yes” to us at our core. God’s Spirit speaks words to us: “you are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” In a slightly different rendering, adapted from Eugene Peterson: “You are my child, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” God says “yes” to us, pledging to be with us as we resist evil, work for justice, do good, create beauty, speak truth, follow Jesus.
Just after Christmas our family gathered for an evening in the Twin Cities. In our hotel room we watched the evening news and there was this fascinating ad for a car dealership – Cornerstone Auto Resource. “Cornerstone Auto Resource is a Christ centered, pre-owned auto dealer in Plymouth Minnesota.” It reminded me of the ads I have seen for the jeweler in Superior who believes Jesus is coming back soon, but in the meantime, if you want jewelry, see him. A few years ago I remember seeing a billboard for a “Christian” plumbing service. These kinds of ads unnerve me a bit, the create discomfort. There is something about using Jesus to sell a secular product or service that makes me uneasy. When I call a plumber, I really don’t care if the person prays for me. I would appreciate it if he or she would fix my pipes, and perhaps wear pants that stayed up when the person bent over. When I look for a car I want a place that will treat me fairly and be there if something goes wrong. If the end of the world as we know it is just around the corner, I am not sure that jewelry is my next purchase.
Yet there is a certain truth here. Being Christian at our core should have an impact on every area of our lives. The waters of baptism should permeate every layer of who we are – mates, friends, parents, grandparents, workers, owners, citizens, neighbors. Using that identity to sell may not be the best move, but if I own a business, I should let my faith affect how I run that business, how I treat my employees. Our primary identity is meant to be as people of God who follow Jesus, as those who have met God in the waters of baptism, and have let those waters penetrate and permeate our lives.
Who are you? We are layered people to be sure. We are also those who have experienced the Spirit of God claiming us. We are God’s watermarked people, marked by God’s love. Let that love permeate and penetrate. Let that love flow freely to others. Amen.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Begin the Begin

Sermon preached January 1, 2012
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

Welcome to 2012. Welcome to a new year. As with every new year, this one will contain both the new and familiar. For the first time in my life, I am beginning the new year as a grandparent. I have already written Isabelle’s birthday on my calendar for December 2012. We will have a new presidential election that unfortunately will be filled with some all-too-familiar negativity. We hope our economy shows some new signs of life in this new year. North Korea has a new leader who sounds like he will be continuing old policies – meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
And in this new year we will no longer have the band REM with us. Last September REM decided to call it quits after 31 years together. In November they released a compilation of their 31 years of music, “Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage.” One of the songs on the CD is a good new year song – “Begin the Begin” - - - play 1:40 of the song.
The lyrics are interesting. Silence means security, silence means approval/On Zenith, on the TV, tiger run around the tree/Follow the leader, run and turn into butter/ Let’s begin again like Martin Luther Zen/The mythology begins the begin. Huh?? Is this the part that’s garbage?
The mythology begins the begin. Part truth. Important stories shape our lives. What family stories have you told over the holidays which are part of the mythology of your family that helps you understand what it means to be who you are? This Christmas my uncle and aunt brought some pictures that were my grandmothers and my brother and I remembered some Christmases past. Our daughter Beth snoops under the tree before Christmas – she has done that for years and the more we tell the story, the more it becomes a part of who she is. Important stories shape our lives. They can provide a center, and a beginning. The mythology begins the begin.
We have such a story today, a story we have heard over and over again. This is part of Matthew’s Christmas story, the days following the birth of Jesus – days that are perhaps months. Often this story is conflated with the story from Luke, especially in Christmas pageants – where shepherds and wise men gather together. There are no shepherds here – they are in Luke, just as there are no wise men in Luke, only shepherds. We have this well-known, oft-told story: a young child, a king – Herod, wise men – magi, sometimes also identified as kings, and they come from a distance – from the East.
This is a story of new beginnings. There is a star, a star that rose with the birth of Jesus. There is light, as at the very beginning of creation. There is new creation here. There is a child, always a new beginning with children. There are strangers, wise men bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh – strange gifts for a child. This is a story filled with wonder and light, with royal beauty bright.
At the heart of this story is a God who is about new beginnings. The God of the child Jesus is a God of new beginnings, of new creation. “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” The light of God is always rising anew. With God there is always a new day. Let’s begin again – begin the begin.
While this story is full of light it is not a story simply of sweetness and light. It is not a Pollyannaish tale. Isaiah’s words ring true to this story. “For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.” In Matthew, Herod rules violently, with an iron fist. When he discovers that the wise men from the East have gone home by another way, he reacts violently, ordering the killing of children who he fears may rival him. It is as dark a tale as “The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo.”
We don’t fully appreciate this story from Matthew until we take the darkness seriously. We don’t have to look far. Just this week a three-year old in Minneapolis was killed when a stray bullet came through the wall of his home. There was a story from St. Louis about a new kind of random violence that has become more common – gangs of youth playing something called “Knockout King” where a random person is chosen and the goal is to knock him out. This week, the Mall of America witnessed random violence on a lesser scale as fights broke out among youth and it turned into a more random melee.
There is a certain darkness in the world when after a year marked by severe weather events, including our current snow drought, large numbers of people, including influential voices in our public discourse, simply deny the possibility that human beings are having an effect on the global climate. It is one thing to debate how human activity is having an impact on climate, and to debate the various methods we might use to lessen the negative impact, it is another thing to deny there is a problem. There is a kind of darkness in that denial.
But the darkness is not all out there. There is inner darkness to account for. How many people struggle with patterns of behavior, deeply ingrained, that are not helpful, even deeply hurtful or harmful? Sometimes we call these bad habits, sometimes addictions. Even when we are not deeply addicted, we may see in our own lives unhelpful or hurtful behaviors or attitudes that we struggle to change. When change seems incredibly difficult, we may experience the darkness of despair, or despair may accompany our memories of past wrongs that we seem unable to forgive.
There is the darkness within of crushing disappointment leaving one painfully sad, and making action difficult.
Sometimes we may just feel kind of lost inside. We lose our way. Our sense of self is in disarray, or our sense of self-worth tattered.
For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples. Not a very cheery new year’s day message. But it is only part of the story.
“There, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.” “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” The God of the child Jesus is a God of new beginnings. With God new beginnings are always possible – begin the begin.
With God there is the new beginning of forgiveness. One of my favorite definitions of forgiveness is this – “forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past” (Jack Kornfield, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace, 25). There may be things in our past of which we are not proud, memories that pain us for our own actions. The past cannot be better, but the future need not be bound by the past. New beginnings with the God of Jesus. Forgiveness. Begin the begin.
With God there is always hope for change. When the wise men came looking for a king, they went to the logical place, the palace. The king was not there, or not the king whose star they had followed. The reigning king is frightened. Who would think that the king is not in the place of power and prestige, but in a small town in a back water outpost of the Empire, the Roman Empire promising peace and lifting up the emperor as a son of god. How things change. New beginnings with the God of Jesus. Begin the begin.
With God the unimaginable gets imagined. New possibilities open up. The writer Susan Griffin tells this story. Along with many others who crowd the bed of a large truck, the surrealist poet Robert Desnos is being taken away from the barracks of the concentration camp where he has been held prisoner. Leaving the barracks, the mood is somber; everyone knows the truck is headed for the gas chambers. And when the truck arrives no one can speak at all; even the guards fall silent. But this silence is soon interrupted by an energetic man, who jumps into the line and grabs one of the condemned. Desnos reads the man’s palm. Oh, he says, I see you have a very long lifeline. And you are going to have three children. He is exuberant. And his excitement is contagious. First one man, then another, offers his hand, and the prediction is for longevity, more children, abundant joy. As Desnos reads more palms, not only does the mood of the prisoners change, but that of the guards too. How can one explain it? Perhaps the element of surprise has planted a shadow of doubt in their minds. If they told themselves these deaths were inevitable, this no longer seems inarguable. They are in any case so disoriented by this sudden change of mood among those they are about to kill that they are unable to go through with the executions. So all the men, along with Desnos, are packed back onto the truck and taken back to the barracks. (from The Impossible Will Take a Little While)
A man reading palms in an execution line, unimaginable until it happened, then the unimaginable halting of violence happened as well. A star, strange travelers from far away, a mother and child – unimaginable. So what vista of imagination is God trying to open in your life, in my life, in our life together as this church?
Because God is a God of new beginnings we can “open our hearts and homes to visitors filled with unfamiliar wisdom bearing profound and unusual gifts.” Because God is a God of new beginnings, we can pray for God to “visit our rest with disturbing dreams, and our journeys with strange companions.” With God, the new year can be a time of new beginning, always a time of new beginning. Let’s begin again, like Martin Luther Zen. Begin the begin. Amen.