Thursday, December 26, 2013

What Did You Bring?

Sermon preached Christmas Eve, December 24, 2013

Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 11:1-9; Luke 2:1-20

Again, welcome.  It is good to be together again.  It’s been a year since last we gathered here like this.  I don’t mean this as some sort of scolding pastor remark to those I may not have seen since last Christmas.  There is enough of that around in other places.  I genuinely mean that it has been a year since we gathered together as a Christmas community on the Jesus way.  It is good to be together like this.
What did you bring?  It is an interesting question and one that should only be asked in certain contexts.  If you are gathering with friends for a meal or celebration where each person brings something to the feast, it is appropriate to ask, “What did you bring?”  In that case you hope not everyone brought the same thing.  Perhaps you gather with family or friends for a game night, inviting people to bring their favorite game, or a music night, where everyone gets to bring their favorite new music to share.  “What did you bring?” would be a great question in those contexts, too.
Of course, there are awkward times, socially inappropriate times, to ask “What did you bring?”  When you were a child, and you had a birthday party, didn’t you want to ask that of your guests when they arrived?  I remember as a boy wondering how it was people knew about bringing gifts to parties.  It is amazing how much we are just supposed to learn by social convention.  Have you ever been at one of those holiday gatherings where people were supposed to bring a white elephant gift, and most also including something kind of nice, and you didn’t?  Awkward!
So what did you bring?  I am not asking about your offering.  That would be tacky.  What did you bring in your heart tonight?  What did you bring in your soul tonight?
Since last we gathered on Christmas Eve it has been quite a year.  Our daughter Beth graduated from medical school and worked today in the hospital in Rochester, NY where she is a resident.  This past summer I got to drive a U-Haul from St. Paul to Rochester.  Our daughter Sarah is beginning her doctoral studies in physical therapy.  Our son, David is exploring some new avenues in his life.  While traveling this summer Julie, Sarah and I visited the Lucille Ball museum and the Henry Ford museum.  It is probably obvious by now that I am sort of just dumping our family Christmas letter into this sermon.  I’m calling it “efficiency in production.”
But there has been more.  Just after Christmas last year, Julie’s mom, Lois, after struggling with her health all fall, had some kind of significant health episode which led to her being moved into the Solvay Hospice House, where she died on January 5 of this year.  This is our first family Christmas without her.  The world has lost Nelson Mandela, and the Noble-prize winning poet Seamus Heaney.  On an early April morning, our dog Grace died in my arms, and the pain we felt was a reminder of how deeply it is we give our pets a place in our hearts.  Grief has marked our year.
This past year I have had the joy of baptizing a number of babies and children, and for those of you who have been here for some of these, you know what a delight this is for me.  When I was asked to bring to a retreat this fall an object that said something about my joy in ministry one of the things I brought was a picture taken during a baptism, where the child was resting her head on my shoulder.
While baptizing children, I have little else on my mind and heart but the gift of that moment, but sometime during the day, I am also reminded of a child that I will probably never get to hold again.  I have a granddaughter that will turn two next week, Isabelle.  Without getting into a lot of the messy detail, Isabelle’s mom has chosen to raise her without involving us.  We know Isabelle has serious medical issues, but know little else.  After I’ve had the joy and privilege of holding a child being baptized, I often think about the granddaughter I cannot hold.
What did you bring?  I bring all that tonight.  I bring my whole life to this moment, because that’s what Christmas is all about.  Christmas is about bringing everything to the God whose story is all tied up in this birth story.  At the heart of this birth story is this message, stated so eloquently by Frederick Buechner: through the birth of Jesus a life-giving power was released into the world….  The birth of Jesus made possible not just a new way of understanding life but a new way of living it. (The Faces of Jesus, 17).
Something happened at this birth, something special that brings God closer.  Old words are made new.  Words spoken centuries before by the prophet Isaiah came alive.  For a child has been born for us, a son given to us….  He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  There shall be endless peace….  The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them….  They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.
Something happened at this birth, something special that brings God closer.  Shepherds came from out of the fields where their work is hard and cold, sometimes dangerous, sometimes dirty and smelly.  Their lives were touched with good news.  Joseph is there, kind of a quiet presence in Luke’s story.  His life will change, as does any father’s life when a child is born, but there will be something more.
Mary is there, weighted with a child, nurturing life.  The story glosses over the messiness of giving birth, the pain, the blood, the fluids, but Mary is there giving birth like countless others before and after.  Yet there are things here which cause her to ponder in her heart.
There is a beautiful brief poem about Mary that I have come to love:
Nazareth    Rosario Castellanos
Descending to the cave where the Archangel
made his announcement, I think
of Mary, chose vase.

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

            All these are met by God in a special way through the child Jesus.  The shepherds return to work, but they are changed.  The work remains the same, but they are different.  Joseph’s life is changed, as any father’s life is, but this child’s birth has already haunted his dreams and I think that will continue.  God will speak through those dreams.  Mary, giving birth, Mary, pondering so many things in her heart – Mary will be both fragile and strong.  The God who is present at this birth will give her the strength and capacity to see this child through, even to his death.  Shepherds, Joseph, Mary – each brought themselves.  Each was met by God in Jesus.  Each experienced something of God’s life-giving power.  Their world was now different.  The entire world was now different.  God is present in the world in a new way.
            Through the birth of Jesus a life-giving power was released into the world.  If you are willing to risk bringing the whole of yourself to this story, and to the God whose story is all tied-up in this story, there remains life-giving power here.  There is beauty in this story which can change the way we see the world.  Bringing our whole selves, we may never see the world just the same again.  There is wonder in this story to set our minds aflame.  In a world darkened by cynicism and despair, when we bring our whole selves to this story, we can nourish a hope as deep as the shepherds, trusting that God still works to bring good news of great joy.  There is mystery in this story.  Birth is a pretty common thing.  There are over seven billion of us on the planet now.  Why does this birth continue to capture our imaginations, continue to inspire our pondering?  I can’t say, exactly, but when we allow ourselves the opportunity to ponder deeply, as Mary pondered, when we bring our whole selves to this story, we may also find the capacity to bring something of God to birth in the world.  There is joy in this story.  When we bring our whole selves to this story, we can find a joy that is a deep strength for our lives, even when life disappoints and hurts.  There is new life in this story, and bringing our whole selves to it, we too can find new beginnings, new beginnings sown in love.
Through the birth of Jesus a life-giving power was released into the world.  If you are willing to risk bringing the whole of yourself to this story, and to the God whose story is all tied-up in this story, there remains life-giving power here.  There is healing here for our broken lives through beauty, wonder, mystery, joy, love.  There is hope here for our broken world.  In the winter of 1993 in Serbia, during a bleak time in its history, the poet Jane Kenyon wrote a poem entitled “Mosaic of the Nativity.”  It ends with these lines.  and inside her the mind/of Christ, cloaked in blood,/lodges and begins to grow.  History remains soaked in blood, but the mind of Christ is not absent.  It can grow in you and in me and in the world.
What did you bring?  What has your life been like this past year, these past few months?  I know there has been joy and beauty and wonder and mystery, and heartache and pain and disappointment and struggle.  Are you willing to bring your whole self tonight?  Are you willing to risk bringing your whole life to the God who continues to find ways into our world, to love us, to heal us, to change us?
The writer Annie Dillard reflects on visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the place where tradition has it that Jesus was born – “one of the queerest spots on earth” she writes.  Any patch of ground anywhere smacks more of God’s presence on earth, to me, than did this marble grotto.  The ugliness of the blunt and bumpy silver star impressed me.  The bathetic pomp of the heavy, tasseled brocades, the marble, the censers hanging from chains… the ornate lamps – some human’s idea of elegance –bespoke grand comedy, too, that God put up with.  And why should he not?  Things here on earth get a whole lot worse than bad taste.  Yet Dillard is not finished with her reflection.  “Every day,” said Rabbi Nachman… “the glory is ready to emerge from its debasement.”
What did you bring?  Did you think you could only bring your cheeriest self, your most polished self, your best-dressed self today, tonight?  Did you think this story is only sweetness and light so that all you could bring was sweetness and light?  The world is a difficult place – wonderful, beautiful, painful, destructive, and God did not leave us alone, but joined us in Jesus.  Our lives are messy, complicated, filled with delight and beauty and more than pain enough, and God does not leave us alone.

But to know this life-giving power, we have to bring something, the whole of who we are.  What did you bring today, tonight?  Amen.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Making Waves Not Splashes, Walking Lightly II

Sermon preached December 15, 2013

Texts: Matthew 11:2-11; Luke 1:46-55

            During my college years, there was a time when I was very interested in Buddhism.  I know, it is the Christmas season, so starting with Buddhism is a little strange, but hang in there with me.
            The form of Buddhism that was especially interesting to me was Zen Buddhism, and I recall, in particular one phrase from a Zen text (Zenrin) that was part of a book entitled The Gospel According to Zen: Entering the water he makes no splash.  There is something attractive in that image.  For a time there were probably some who thought I might shave my head and spend some time in a Zen monastery.  It never happened, though I guess my head kind of shaved itself.
            Anyway, hold on to that image for a moment – entering the water he makes no splash.
            Our theme for Advent, or for the two Sundays I am preaching in Advent, is walking as a child of the light, living in the light of God’s love as we see it in Jesus.  Words are my sandbox, my paint pallet, and so I love to play with them.  I took the image of walking in the light and shifted it to walking lightly.  Two weeks ago I preached about walking lightly in our personal lives.  Today I want to preach about walking lightly in a more social way.  What might it mean to follow Jesus as social beings, as citizens?
            And when I hear the phrase “walking lightly,” it brings back that image from the Zen text – “entering the water he makes no splash.”  To follow Jesus in our social lives has a lot to do with walking lightly, with entering the water and making no splash.
            First a quick word about the social world in which we live, and for that I turn to the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney.  Not long ago I quoted a well-known line from one of Heaney’s poems.  The line was: “But then, once in a lifetime/the longed-for tidal wave/of justice can rise up,/and hope and history rhyme.”  It is a beautiful line, but that poem begins in a very different place:
Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.

That is part of the reality of the world in which we live.  In North Korea, the nation’s leader had his own uncle executed for sedition.  Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut and almost surreally, as that story was being told, the news stations cut away to report on a school shooting in Colorado.  Human beings suffer – they suffer hunger, injustice, grief.  We torture one another – sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally.  We get hurt.  Our hearts harden.  This is not the whole of our world, but we cannot ignore it either.
            How do we follow Jesus in this world?  Walking lightly.  Entering the water, making no splash.
            One of the commitments we can make in following Jesus, in trying to live out God’s dream for the world – a dream of peace, justice, caring, reconciliation and love, one of the commitments we can make is to do no harm and to try and heal the harm we encounter.
            As we read the passage from Matthew, we cannot help but be struck by all the images of healing.  Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  When the light of the love of Jesus is present, healing happens.  Harm is not done, and it is undone in a manner of speaking.
            A few years ago, retired United Methodist Bishop Rueben Job wrote a slim volume entitled Three Simple Rules: a Wesleyan Way of Living.  John Wesley is one of the primary persons to whom the United Methodist trace our stream in the Christian tradition.  The first simple rule, according to Bishop Job was “do no harm.”
            Entering the water, we make no splash, following Jesus we walk lightly, we seek to do no harm.  This is not a simple matter.  Is it possible to live in this complex and violent world without doing harm?  Are we supposed to turn the other cheek to those who distort the truth by selective use of the facts of any given situation?  Is it wise to do no harm to those who seek to harm us, our future, our reputation?  Are we able to limit our response to a way that is not destructive to those who us false and violent words that seek to harm and destroy us?  Is it possible to speak the truth in love and gentleness when others seem to speak partial truth in anger and hatred? (27)  Bishop Job poses these questions for us to wrestle with.  They do not have easy answers, but we cannot avoid these questions.  Bishop Job: It is a challenging path to walk. Yet, even a casual reading of the gospel suggests that Jesus taught and practices a way of living that did no harm. (27)  Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 
            Walking lightly, following Jesus in the wider world means grappling with how we do no harm, and how we work to heal harm done. It truly is walking lightly, making no splash.
            Human beings suffer – and here is a real kicker, we cannot prevent nor undo all the suffering that human beings undergo, or at least undo it all quickly.  There is the suffering of our bodies, some of which is inherent in the human condition.  There are structural injustices that take a long time to change, and while we work to change them we cannot ignore that suffering continues.
            Go tell John what you hear and see:… the poor have good news brought to them.  Part of the good news that the suffering have shared with them is that they are not alone.  To follow Jesus, to walk lightly, is to stand with those who are hurting and suffering in their pain.  Listen again to the words we read together as Advent candles were lighted: The joy of the Risen Christ is not going to make us insensitive to the suffering of other people.  On the contrary, it can make us even more sensitive, and we will be able both to carry this great joy within us and to enter profoundly into the distress and suffering of our neighbor at the same time.  There is no contradiction: joy is not opposed to compassion…. Joy nourishes compassion. (Brother Roger of Taize)
            Walking lightly in the Spirit of Jesus means being willing and able to do the hard work of being with those who are hurting in their pain and suffering.  Entering the water, we make no splash.
            Thus far I have been able to carry forward with the images of walking lightly, and entering the water without making a splash, as ways to talk about following Jesus in our social lives, as citizens.  But here is where I need to stretch a little more, because following Jesus in the wider world cannot always be so placid.  Human beings suffer.  They torture one another.  They get hurt and they get hard.  We seek to do no harm, or as little harm as possible.  We seek to heal hurts.  We will stand with the hurting and suffering.  We are also called to prevent harm, to work against harm, to right wrongs when we can, to challenge social arrangements which perpetuate injustice and cause suffering.
            Walking lightly we may not need to make a splash, but we sometimes need to make waves.  There are few more wave-making texts in the New Testament than the Song of Mary from Luke 1.  [God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  [God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; [God] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  Yes, that makes some waves all right. 
Among the areas where I think we, as followers of Jesus, need to be making some waves in our day and time are on issues related to the environment and to the economy.  Are our primary means of creating good paying jobs as a global economy ways that are destructive of our environment, ways that produce short-term gain but contribute to long-term planetary degradation?  Can’t we be more creative? 
In the United States, our economic gains seem to be accruing to those who are doing the best.  There is solid documentation of the continuing growth of economic inequality in our country.  In the most recent issue of The Atlantic (December 2013, 26-29) there was a report on business leaders concerned for how global capitalism is functioning.  Fear that the market economy has become dysfunctional… is being publically expressed, with increasing frequency, by some of the people who occupy the commanding heights of the global economy.  The article quoted a former head of Goldman Sachs Asset Management: “Some people say income inequality doesn’t matter.  I disagree.  We are creating a situation in which only the elite of the elite can be successful – and that is not sustainable.”  Add to this an argument put forward recently in The New Yorker (December 2, 2013, Jill Lepore, p. 79): One well-established fact is that polarization in Congress maps onto one measure better than any other: economic inequality.  The smaller the gap between rich and poor, the more moderate our politicians; the greater the gap, the greater disagreement between liberals and conservatives.
[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; [God] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.   Following Jesus, walking lightly may mean making some waves.
I cannot finish this morning’s reflection on following Jesus in the wider world, on walking lightly, without a word about Nelson Mandela.  The world recently lost a remarkable person and leader when Nelson Mandela died December 5.  Among the iconic images in my lifetime is the image of Mandela being released from prison in 1990.  At the time I was working on my doctorate, and I wrote my dissertation on Christian faith and political democracy.  Mandela’s release and subsequent election were powerful symbols of democracy.  What made Mandela so remarkable was his ability to move forward.  Here was a man who had been imprisoned for twenty-seven years. When he became president of South Africa, he did not turn around and seek retribution against those who had imprisoned him.  He walked lightly, walked in the way of forgiveness and reconciliation.  He made waves, but maybe not splashes.  Another iconic image from Mandela’s life was when South Africa won the world cup in rugby, a white man’s sport in South Africa, and Mandela donned the green shirt supporting the team.
In his book reflecting on South Africa and on social dimensions of Christian faith, Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote words that speak of Mandela, but that also speak powerfully to us all about walking lightly in Jesus in the world.
Harmony, friendliness, community are great goods.  Social harmony is for us the… greatest good.  Anything that subverts, that undermines this sought-after good, is to be avoided like the plague.  Anger, resentment, lust for revenge, even success through aggressive competitiveness, are corrosive of this good.…  What dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me.  [Forgiveness] gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them. (No Future Without Forgiveness, 31)

May God grant us grace that we may walk in the power of the Spirit of Jesus, walk as people of the light, walk lightly – minimizing harm and healing, walking with the suffering, making waves of love, justice, peace and reconciliation.  Amen.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Walking Lightly

Sermon preached First Sunday in Advent December 1, 2013

Texts: Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 26:36-44

We have entered new seasons.  In the church we are beginning the season of Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas.  In the wider culture we are in what we generically call the holiday season.  One reflection: Once again we find ourselves enmeshed in the Holiday Season, that very special time of year when we join with our loved ones in sharing centuries-old traditions such as trying to find a parking space at the mall. We traditionally do this in my family by driving around the parking lot until we see a shopper emerge from the mall, then we follow her, in very much the same spirit as the Three Wise Men, who 2,000 years ago followed a star, week after week, until it led them to a parking space. (Dave Barry, humor columnist)
Thursday night following dinner our family sat down together to watch a little television.  We had already seen most of two football games, so we were looking for something else.  I thought I had stumbled across a new episode of “The Twilight Zone” on ME-tv, until I realized that Lady Gaga and the Muppets really did have a “holiday special.”
Friday morning on the Weather Channel, they were interviewing shoppers who were out early on “Black Friday.”  One woman interviewed said, “I live for this day.”
That is a powerful statement, “I live for this day.”  This expectancy shapes her life.  She takes the day off from work each year and probably has certain things she does to prepare herself for black Friday.
Advent is a season of expectancy in the church.  It is intended to be a season of watchfulness and self-reflection.  It is a good season for asking what we live for.  It is a good season to ask about how we want to live our lives.  What we expect shapes how we live.
One way we in the church have talked about what we expect at Advent is to use the image of light.  Jesus coming into the world was described this way in the Gospel of John: What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people….  The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  In Advent we proclaim that light entered the world in a unique way in Jesus, and that this Jesus light will shine even more brightly at some time to come.  “The night is far gone, the day is near,” in the words of Romans.
In expectancy, we are invited to live differently.  “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”  Later we will sing “I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus.”  That’s a wonderful Advent song, and our theme for Advent this year.  What might it mean to walk as a child of the light, to walk lightly?  Today I am going to suggest some aspects of that for our personal lives.  December 15 I am going to suggest some aspects of that for our social lives, for our world.
Walking lightly then.
Walking lightly has to do with watchfulness, attentiveness, mindfulness.  One of the things light helps us do is see better.  I had to hold a can nearer the light the other day to discover that the chicken broth I was going to open was dated 2008.  Thankfully I caught that before it became part of our stuffing.  Walking lightly, following Jesus who we call the light of the world, means to pay attention, to be watchful.  “Keep awake”, the writer of Matthew’s gospel enjoins us.
Walking lightly means we are attentive to the full spectrum of the world.  We take time to appreciate beauty and goodness.  We make time for wonder and awe.  We keep our eyes open, as well, to the tragedy and hurt and pain and suffering in the world.  Beauty and goodness remind us that God’s grace remains powerful in our world, breaking in often.  Seeing the suffering in the world attunes us to the voice of the Spirit which invites us to work with God in response to suffering, to walk lightly with God in healing the world.
In one of his writings, the Greek philosopher Parmenides, has a goddess call out, “It is necessary, however, for you to experience everything” (Heidegger, Four Seminars, 96)  I think this is a call to us as we seek to walk lightly, a call to openness, attentiveness, wakefulness.
Walking lightly has to do with developing character.  Character attends to the whole person.  It asks what sorts of people we are becoming through our actions and relations with others….  Our actions and relations become habits that gradually shape the stable personal core we call “character.” (William Spohn, Go and Do Likewise, 13)  Walking lightly has to do with working with God to shape our lives so that the light of Jesus shines in them and through them more brightly.
There is a wonderful story that comes from Native American traditions.  One evening an elder shared this story with his grandson.  “My son, in each person there are two wolves that struggle with each other.  One wolf is the wolf of anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.  The other wolf is the wolf of joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”  The grandson pondered the story for a while then asked, “Which wolf wins?  The grandfather replied, “The one that you feed.”
Walking lightly means feeding the right wolf through things like worship, prayer, meditation, acts of kindness, generosity and beauty.  “Let us live honorably as in the day.”
Walking lightly has something to do with growing.  Two quick quotes.  Faith is a dynamic process, close to the center of the self, that continually works to enable us to deal with the challenges and changes life presents us (James Fowler, Faithful Change, 67)  It’s our purpose to grow as human beings, to look within ourselves,  to find and build upon that source of peace and understanding and strength that is our individual self (Elizabeth Kubler-Ross quoted in Leo Buscaglia, Living, Loving, and Learning, 217).
If we are paying attention to all that is going on in the world and in our own lives, if we are seeking to shape our character in tune with God’s Spirit, then how can walking lightly be anything other than a constant process of growing?  Walking lightly means growing for the whole of our lives, learning, shaping, being shaped.  Faith isn’t primarily about learning certain creedal statements which we can recite back at a moment’s notice.  Faith is about weaving and reweaving our Christian tradition into the whole of our lives as we meet new challenges in our living.
Walking lightly is about love.  Just before the verses we read in Romans, we find these words: Owe no one anything except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law….  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8, 10).  When we see beauty, goodness, tenderness there is love.  When we see hurt and pain and suffering, there is often an absence of love.  The character we are seeking to form in our souls is a character rooted in love.  Our growth as followers of Jesus is meant to be growth in love.
Walking lightly is about attentiveness.  It is about character.  It is about growth.  It is about love.  If all this sounds kind of complicated, it is.  Too simple an idea of what it means to be a follower of Jesus does not do justice to the world we live in.  It does not do justice to the richness of our experience or the richness of our sacred texts.
One final image.  I like the play on words in this phrase, “walking lightly.”  I also like that is suggests the Christian life is moving and dynamic.  Walking lightly suggests dance, and I am reminded for Eugene Peterson’s rendering of Matthew 11:28f.  There Jesus offers this invitation: Are you tired?  Worn out? Burned out on religion?  Come to me.  Get away with me and you’ll recover your life….  Walk with me.  Work with me – watch how I do it.  Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.

This Advent, let’s walk lightly to those unforced rhythms of grace.  Let’s dance lightly to those unforced rhythms of grace.  Amen.