Let There Be Light (Christmas Eve Sermon)

hubble advent 2018

Did you ever wonder what it was like, at the beginning of the universe? When God said, “Let there be light,”  and there was light?”

I’ve tended to stop in awe at the first verb – God said, “Let there be light.
and there was.  That’s astonishing, isn’t it, that God spoke creation into being?   It should give us pause, I think, to consider the importance of the gift of language.  Perhaps that, language, is the real key to our having been made in the image of God.  Not that we can speak worlds into being.  But the gift of language, of vernal communication, is what distinguishes us from all other creatures.  And language does enable us to create our lives through relationship with others.  As a person who has always found language, and communication, fascinating and meaningful, I have always pondered the creation story from that vantage point – that God spoke, and things happened.

But what happened?  That’s our first question tonight.  That’s one of the things I’ve been pondering for the last couple of weeks – what was it like, 14 billion years ago, when God said, “Let there be light?”

Was it all at once, a sudden, huge, bright, blinding sort of light – like lightning, only wider and thicker and more dense and even brighter, creating an entire dome of brightly lit sky?

it like a tentative sunrise over the sea, with streams of rose and tangerine and violet stretching like wavering threads across the horizon as a small golden orb began to poke its way upward until it finally bounced, a liquid bubble, clear of its seeming bounds and into the freedom of space?

What was it like when God created light??

Perhaps we’ve had some clues this month.  Atlantic Magazine and NASA have conspired to post online images from space, and they have presented us with the magnificent imagination and artistry of our God.

Swirling, sparkling gasses and clouds in a multitude of colors, identified as stars and galaxies and nebulae, which are clouds of gas and dust.

Whole words beyond our sight or experience, unless we happen to operate the Hubble telescope.

Are these extraordinary amalgamations of time and space and matter an indication of what it was like, and what it is still like, when God says, “Let there be light?”

Or . . . and . . . is God’s illumination of the universe like something else?  Like something Noah might have seen: glimmering, glistening rays bouncing off quieted seas after a massive deluge, witnessed by only a few straggledy humans and animals, paired up and peering over the side of a small boat?

Is God’s idea of light akin to the clarity of the words of prophets, incisive and focused, cutting to the bare bone of what it means to walk with kindness and justice and humility?

Is God’s light something now celebrated during Hanukkah, a flickering oil lamp, shining for eight days in a hollowed out and crumbling temple, an insistent sign of hope amid the debris of human warfare?

Or . . .  and . . .  is God’s light a human being, God’s very self and a tiny infant all at once, a reigning creator who can command creation into being with a word and a small baby who can cry only for milk and comfort?  Is that what, or who, God’s light is?

This is a remarkable story, this Christmas story of God and us.

We may be so accustomed to hearing it that the miracle of it eludes us.

We may have so sentimentalized it that the harshness of it fades into the shadows.

We may have so commercialized it that’s if difficult to distinguish the baby at the center from the characters who pass across our screens and into our stores.

But, pared down to its essence, it is a remarkable story.

Dreams and disrupted plans and dislocated people.

The might of political power pressing itself into ordinary lives.

Lengthy and uncomfortable travels, destination unclear.

Uncertainty and fear and hard work and . . .

a tiny, helpless infant born to impoverished parents in an out-of-the-way location.

Is this, too, what it looks like when God says, “Let there be light?”

It’s a remarkable story because it is our story.  And it is our story not simply because its basic elements reflect those of our own lives – the ordinariness and the confusion and the labors and the disruptions of our own – but because the light shining from the sky above and the light shining from the humble birthplace of Jesus illumine our lives – with meaning, and purpose, and love.

Did you ever wonder what is was like, what it IS like, when God says, “Let there be light?”  It’s all from the same source.   It all follows the same pattern.

NASA’s image of the Lagoon Nebula in the sky, a colorful conglomeration of young stars and the hydrogen cloud from which they were formed, looks to me just like Michaleangelo’s painting of God reaching out to touch life into Adam.

The Bubble Nebula, a sphere of sparking blue which happens to be a star in the process of formation , looks surprisingly like Planet Earth.

There’s one called a Colossal Shell of Light which a friend of mine thought looked like a manger.

And paintings of the baby in a manger look like  .  .  .  a baby,  actually,  but the sort of baby who causes angels to fill the skies and sing praises to God.  Like, perhaps, all babies do, because God with us, Emmanuel, rejoices in us and with us, and sends messengers and song and light our way, if we will but look.

The light of Jesus illumines our own lives – just look around.  Look back at the past week.  Consider:

Have you not seen the light of Jesus shining – through your family members and friends, staying up late to wrap gifts, rushing home early to bake and clean, trying to clear desks at work so that colleagues could leave for a few days, knowing that the business of the month had been put to bed?

The light of Jesus shines in places many of us would rather not be – look at the faces of fire fighters and police officers and EMT drivers, of doctors and nurses and convenience store cashiers, of all the people who labor that the rest of us might be safe and cared for and filled with good things.

The light from that stable creeps into the darkest of places – a light flickering and fragile, a light as powerful and wild as a galaxy,

it makes its way into prisons and into migrant camps,

it slips onto the streets and under the bridges where the homeless camp,

it lines invisible battle lines inked between warring adversaries,

it glimmers in hospital corridors and hospice bedrooms.

The light of Jesus illumines even those places, perhaps especially those places.

“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.”

It’s all from the same source: The Love that generates and sustains the universe.  Love that shows itself

in the artistry of all things,

in the majesty of the heavens, and

in the intimacy of a stable.

And so, my friends, on this Christmas night, Look! Look up into the heavens, where colors unknown to us swirl about.  Look out into the world, where faces of all kinds and people in all sorts of situations are lit by the love of God.  Look around this sanctuary, in hope and in expectation.  Look into the face of a small and helpless baby, who takes on human life and gives completely to us the grace of his own being.

And know that God has said, “Let there be light!”

Image: https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2018/12/2018-hubble-space-telescope-advent-calendar/577129/

Preaching Politics

Facebook ~ yes; preaching, no.  Friends, yes ~ congregants, no.

That’s been my general approach to political commentary.  On Facebook, I post news articles and, often, my own opinions thereon.  I don’t think that my outlook is lost on my congregation ~ I speak and pray often enough about those who suffer or are disenfranchised ~ but I don’t go all out political.  I’ve been told, and I’m pretty sure that it’s true, that the folks in the pews hold views across the political spectrum, and while I’d like to persuade some of them to move further to the left, that’s not my job in the pulpit.  On FB, I don’t usually feel the same constraints.   I also read posts by friends and family who disagree with me.  I don’t follow their logic! ~ but I read them.  Usually without responding.  Their pages, their posts, their views.  I don’t feel inclined to take up their space with argument.  (They don’t always extend the same courtesy to me.)  Harder, for me anyway, to listen to folks in the church with whom I disagree without reacting.

In the last church I served, after a couple of months, people began to thank me for bringing contemporary concerns into the prayers.  (I did hear of one gentleman who was angry that I had not prayed for a matter he deemed of concern ~ which I would have, actually, had I known about it but, as so often happens, he told other people, and not me.)  But I didn’t push things very far.  When we held a service of music and prayer for the city the day before the Republican Convention opened in Cleveland, we kept it strictly nonpartisan.

Last Sunday, however, I was done with caution and impartiality in the pulpit.  Just done.  Angry at what the American infatuation with guns had wrought.  Disgusted by cowardly politicians raking it in from the NRA.  Devastated on behalf of parents whose lives have been forever altered in a vicious and brutal way.  And inspired by the young people of Parkland FL.

So my sermon on God’s promises of reconciliation through Noah, for the healing and rebuilding of all of creation throughout the Bible, became a sermon on laying down weapons of destruction.  I mentioned AR15s specifically.  I mentioned Emma Gonzalez, specifically.  I said NO to criticizing young people and NO to wringing our hands and saying “there’s nothing we can do,” and YES to the Kingdom of God among us.  And told them about specific ways of taking action.

I wasn’t preaching to the choir, as  would have been in my home church.  A few people thanked me for giving voice to their own thoughts.  Many more were silent, and I’m sure that at least a few of those were critical ~ but not to my face, not yet.

To my astonishment, our secretary asked me to publicize means of communicating with our state and federal representatives.  So we’ll put that information out next week.

There are hundreds, thousands, of pastors more articulate and powerful than I am in preaching what the Spirit tells me is the real good news ~ God’s passionate love for all of creation ~ and political ways of moving on that news.  I write this for all of us somewhere in the middle, trying to figure out how to live with integrity without creating a resistance that prevents people from hearing us.

It’s hard to know when you’re hitting the right balance, and when you’re simply wimping out.

Sermon Series

preaching

Today’s RevGals Friday Five asks about ideas for sermon series.  A couple that I’ve done during the summer:

  • Favorite Hymns
  • Water, Water Everywhere ~ based on the Presbyterian Women’s excellent study on water themes in the Bible

Taking a look at this summer’s texts, I think that if I were preaching regularly I might do one of these series:

  • Psalms: The Prayerbook of the Bible
  • All In: The Book of Romans (I thought I might try to tackle Romans three years ago, but wow ~ what a LOT of study would be required!  That might be something I could do on my own this summer in preparation for future possibilities.)
  • The Jesus of Matthew
  • In the Beginning: A Genesis Series

I guess that’s six, not five.  Maybe an opportunity for one of them will present itself.

Bible Sisters ~ Book Review

bible sisters

It has been my privilege and delight to teach a number of Bible study classes over the years ~ as a member of Methodist and Presbyterian congregations, and as a pastor to Presbyterian and Lutheran congregations.  In addition, as a spiritual director to Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish individuals, I am often called upon to provide scriptural references to someone seeking to explore various dimensions of his or her spiritual life.

No matter the context, it’s often a challenge to conduct a discussion on women’s experiences in the Bible.  There are the Big Ten to Fifteen or so (I made those numbers up): Eve, Sarah, Esther, Ruth and Naomi, Bathsheba, Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha, the Woman at the Well, the Woman “Caught” in Adultery, the Syro-Phoenician Woman ~ many of whom, my experience tells me, are only dimly recognized by even our most faithful church participants.  And then there are the hundreds of women, often unnamed, referenced only in relation to a man or men or community or activity.

Bible Sisters, compiled by The Rev. Dr. Gennifer Benjamin Brooks and just published by Abingdon Press, makes a start on rectifying the lack of knowledge of women in the Bible which pervades many of our congregations.  It’s a devotional book, with 365 entries, numbered rather than dated (so that readers are not bound to a calendar).  Each entry suggests a short Bible passage, usually only a verse; a brief reflection; and a brief prayer.  I was not able to determine any rhyme or reason to the order in which the devotions are arranged, but there are indices in the back, alphabetically by name of character(s) and chronologically by book in the Bible,  which could be used to organize an individual or group prayer or study time.

This book is designed for ease and solace, rather than for deep study or challenge.  The most controversial events in the lives of women or teachings on the roles of women are either glossed over or avoided altogether.  Bathsheba’s rape is acknowledged, but the consequences are referred to as “the shame of her first pregnancy.” Yael (Jael) warrants two days, but the violence of her murderous action is not depicted.  Mary Magdalene’s discovery of the resurrected Jesus is depicted in a context of her sorrow and weeping rather than her joy and proclamation. Pauls’ admonishment to women not to exercise teaching authority over men makes no appearance at all.  And the brevity of the passages cited means that all context is omitted, so that answers to readers’ questions must be sought elsewhere.

Human lives are complex ~ and that includes the lives of Biblical women.  The layered depths of their lives are missing from this text, so that the reader or group seeking nuance or provocation must look elsewhere. However, with the names of so many Biblical women lost to time, and their frequent appearance as little more than faint shadows along the margins of history, it is a boon to prayer and study that obscure and overlooked women find a place in this book.  This devotional is a good beginning.


 

 

 

 

I received two copies of this book for review purposes, and was not compensated for this review.

Easter Sermon

happy easter 2017

As I am between (I hope!) calls, I attended church yesterday with extended family, with whom my husband and I were visiting for his mom’s 85th birthday.  But I miss preaching!  And so . . .  here’s last year’s sermon:

Empty Tomb, Overflowing Love

The stone sealing the tomb – it was heavy.  The tomb contained a body, laid there just day before yesterday.  And now, this morning: the stone rolled away, the tomb empty – what do these things mean?

The gospel of Luke doesn’t offer us many clues.

When we read this story, we are often left with a feeling of dissatisfaction, with a sense that much of the story is missing, with an empty feeling of having been left hanging.  It’s a simple story which makes a big claim – but what is Luke trying to tell us?

There are some women, three of them named –Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Joanna – and at least two of them not named.  They have prepared spices with which to tend to the body of their beloved friend Jesus, the one who was killed by crucifixion two days earlier.

They arrive at the cemetery, they find the cave-like tomb open, and inside, instead of the broken body for which they hope to care, they are confronted by two men, dressed in dazzling clothing, who ask them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but he is risen.”  Then the men remind them of what Jesus had told them in the past about this event – that he would be handed over to sinners and crucified and rise again.

The women do remember, and so they leave to find the other disciples, and to tell them what has happened.  The other disciples don’t believe them; they call the women’s story “an idle tale,” or “nonsense.”  But Peter, apparently wanting to see for himself, dashes to the graveyard to look inside the tomb and then, finding nothing but the grave clothes lying limply where a body should be, goes home.

And that’s it. That’s the story as we have it from Luke.

It’s not much of a plot to go on: We have a few individuals, several of them not even named, in a desolate setting, having some sort of supernatural encounter, hearing the words “He has risen.”

And we have the verbs that the gospel writer used to describe these few people, these few followers of a man who has been killed and whose body has now mysteriously disappeared.  Depending upon your translation, the women and the other disciples are variously described as:

Perplexed. Terrified.  Frightened.  Amazed.  Wondering.

Maybe those are our clues as to what Luke is trying to tell us.  These words, these responses:

He has risen.  Confusion and fear and amazement.  The women, ridiculed.  Peter, so stunned that he . . .  goes back home.  They had been told, by Jesus himself, that this would happen but, come on!  As another preacher has said, and I wish I could take credit for this one, “If the dead don’t stay dead, what CAN you count on?”[1]

You can’t count on the dead to stay dead.  You can’t count on bodies to stay in tombs.  You can’t count on people to remember what they’ve been told, or to understand what they see with their own eyes.

What you CAN count on is that God is not stymied by heavy stones, or dark tombs, or human confusion or fear.  What you CAN count on is that God is not bound by the old, and most definitely not defeated by death.

What you CAN count on is that God is doing a completely new thing.  A completely different thing. Something so new and different that it will take days, years, a lifetime, all of history, to comprehend.

Something so vast, so powerful, so all-encompassing, that we can only begin to grasp it by allowing ourselves, like Jesus’ first disciples, women and men alike, to be perplexed and terrified and frightened

And to wonder: What force has been unleashed in the world, what power is so grand, that it has emptied a tomb?

There is only one such force in the entire universe, and that is the force of love.

What that empty tomb represents, what those limp and useless grave clothes tell us, is this: That things are not as they were.  History has been challenged.  The course of events for all of creation has been altered by a God who will. not. be. satisfied. to let sin and destruction and hopelessness and death have the last word. In the face of so much evidence to the contrary, God’s kingdom of love reigns over all other kingdoms of self-centeredness and acquisitiveness and materialism and manipulation and politics and violence.

The disciples don’t seem to have understood all of this at once.  How could they have?  We don’t understand it ourselves, 2,000 years later.  I sometimes wonder what Jesus’ followers talked about among themselves that morning after they went home.  I imagine that much of the conversation was like that which follows any death.  “What now?”  And that it was heightened by the missing body.  And by the words of those dazzling men, whom we presume to have been angels: “Remember what he told you.”

Perhaps as they sat together, made breakfast, drank their coffee, expressed their fears to one another, perhaps those early followers of Jesus recalled not only his words, but other words they had learned.  Who knows?  Perhaps they even recalled those other words given to us this morning, from the prophet Isaiah:

“I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  . . .  I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.  . . . They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  . . . Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.   . . .   They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”

New heavens and a new earth.  Joy.  Delight.  The building of houses and the planting of vineyards and the lusciousness of fruit.  The peaceful cooperation of those who were once predator and prey.  The absence of hurt and destruction.  A God who answers before we call.  A God who hears before we speak.

No wonder Luke leaves us hanging on Easter morning, pauses us in a moment of stunned silence.  No wonder the women and men who followed Jesus are a bit bewildered and lost, wandering back to their homes in a state of confused apprehension.  No wonder.  No wonder at all.

The wonder is not that they respond as they do.  The wonder is reserved for what has happened.  Death has been conquered.  Love has triumphed.

Jesus has completely, powerfully, overwhelmingly, defeated death by transforming it into life.

Jesus has taken the horror of death — the torment, the bodily disintegration, the despair, the grief – and demolished them all.  He has begun the work of the new creation; in his rising he has flung open the door that leads to the light and life of new heavens and a new earth, to the full presence of God in which we, too, will be transformed by love.

That tomb?  It’s empty.  Those grave clothes?  Useless.  Those befuddled disciples?  Witnesses to something so new that they could not yet grasp it, not on that perplexing, terrifying, amazing morning.

But pouring, rushing, overflowing from that empty tomb and into the universe: a love so complete, so powerful, so creative that it rises victorious over all that threatens to harm or break or destroy  . . .  a love that destroys even death.

Go ahead:  Be stunned.  Be amazed.  But be NOT afraid.  Because love wins.

Happy Easter.

 

[1] Anna Carter Florence quoted by David Lose in Working Preacher

 

 

Nevertheless, She Persisted (Retreat for Survivors of Third Sunday in Lent)

Samaritan Woman Roman Caracombs

The story of the Woman at the Well (name not recorded; how surprising) in the Gospel of John recounts an encounter between Jesus, an itinerant Jewish teacher, and a Samaritan woman, someone with whom, due to her gender, ethnicity, and religious beliefs, he is expected to avoid.  It’s the longest conversation he has with anyone in the Bible, a conversation in which he elicits from her an acknowledgement that she has been married five times and is now with number six, but swiftly moves on to a revelation of who he is, which in turn upends her entire life.

The Samaritan Woman and I have had a long relationship.  A decade or so ago, I spent several days meditating upon and praying with her story, and her movement from an encounter with Jesus at the well and out into the world to tell what she had heard was a pivotal factor in propelling me into seminary.

A few years later, my son gone, I often focused on her exhaustion and disappointment.  She has a history of negative characterizations due to those five husbands, but there is no indication in the story of anything untoward on her part.  (My father was widowed three times and divorced once, and I was once a family lawyer, so I am well acquainted with the disillusionment and heartache that follow the end of dashed hopes, whatever the reason.)

This year, I find that I am really, really liking the Samaritan Woman.  I mean, I always did, but this year, her persistence in leaving behind her water jar, the symbol of a life tangled in the expectations and promises of others and in the sadness and hardship which have come her way, and walking confidently into a new future ~ this year I am seeing not only the gift of water rushing from Jesus’ life into hers, but the gift of determination that she packs up and takes with her.

I don’t know where you are as you read this.  If you are in the early years, it may be all you can do to sit by your well, and that’s okay.  But if you can look ahead, even of only for a minute or two at a time, perhaps you can see a future.  Not the one you wanted or planned for, but the one that came your way due to the past being smashed to bits.

How might you respond, when you can?

 

 

The Long and Winding Road (Sermon)

Oh, what to preach, this first day of a new year?  We could focus on the Isaiah text, or on the Psalm, which implore us to remember to be grateful to God for the abundance of gifts showered upon us each day – certainly glorious texts for a day of transition from old and welcome to new.  We could turn to Celebrate, which offers us a re-run of the angels at the birth of Christ, glorifying God from the sky, and thus helps us to maintain the Christmas spirit of praise for a bit longer.  Or we could turn to the official lectionary text from Matthew, in which the departure of the magi is briefly mentioned (and we’ll hear about those magi next week, just a bit out of order, but today they are already gone), and the tone of the gospel swiftly changes from the gratitude and praise exhibited by the magi to the darkness of Herod’s mad slaughter of innocent children.

There are benefits to the third approach, which we are going to take this morning.

For one, it reminds us that Jesus was born into a world not unlike our own, a world of turmoil and violence – and yet, or and thus, as we shall see, and thus as the angels tell us, “Glory to God!”

For another, the Matthew reading illuminates the plight of millions of refugees the world over, in the persons of the Holy Family and in their narrative.

And third reason to read Matthew is that it tells us that God is behind all, supporting God’s child and God’s people, and that, as Isaiah says, we have a multitude of gracious deeds to God for which to be grateful.

So let’s look at our reading from Matthew. What a story opens before us – a long and winding road of faith indeed.  Jesus has been born, magi have come from afar with their gifts – and once again, an angel appears in a dream to Joseph.  But this time, the angel does not say “Fear not” – the exhortation given to Mary and to Joseph before the birth of Jesus, and to the shepherds gathered around the manger.  This time the angel says, “Get out of here!  Go to Egypt!”  For King Herod, furious at having been tricked by the magi, who did not return to tell him where the newborn king lay, goes on a wild and demented rampage, killing all children two years old and under, any one of whom, he thinks, might threaten his rule. Imagine the horror, the bloodshed, the wailing of mothers – and fathers – for their children.  We hear the loud wailing and lamentation in Ramah, the weeping of the symbolic Rachel – the mother of a long-ago Joseph, the dreamer who saved his people in Egypt, Rachel, the mother of all of Israel, crying for her children.

There is much to fear here.  The presence of God in the form of a human child — anticipated and lauded in the words of Isaiah — this presence has barely been recognized and celebrated when human sinfulness intrudes, in the form of a destructive, murderous, prideful and insecure king.  We might pause to be amazed that God has chosen to enter this world as a helpless and vulnerable child, a child who is kin to all other helpless and vulnerable children. Glory to God, indeed!

And then, then we look away from the angel, away from Herod, and focus on Mary and Joseph and Jesus. Refugees in Egypt.  As is so often the case, the Bible tells a whole world of a story in a few words:  “Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.”

What do you suppose it was like for this little family? Do you think they were welcomed, or ignored, or harassed in Egypt?  Anglican priest and poet Malcom Guite puts it this way:

We think of [Jesus] as safe beneath the steeple,

Or cozy in a crib beside the font,

But he is with a million displaced people

On the long road of weariness and want.[1]

Did people help our little family, or did people fear them? They looked different from Egyptians.  They wore different clothes, cooked different food, spoke a different language.  Was there work for Joseph, or did his new neighbors say, “Egyptian jobs for Egyptians only?”  Was Mary welcomed into a supportive circle of other young mothers, or was she shunned as an outsider when she tried to share new foods with the other women?  Was the toddler Jesus able to play with other children, or was he exiled to the walls of his parents’ home, pointed at or avoided by children who saw him as “other?”

This is a telling story for us today, isn’t it?  We might think that the question of refugees is far from us, something we see on the evening news about Syria.   We might hope that the question of refuges is far from us, because we find that we are unsettled or even fearful when we consider that many refugees are Muslim, and that radical Muslims have brought terror into our lives.

But refugees are not far from us, and Muslims are not synonymous with terrorists. If you have been following the lengthy features in The New York Times about Syrians settling in Toronto, you might realize that “they” are closer than you had thought, but still think that “they” are not people you need to consider daily.  In that case, you might want to know that Trinity Lutheran Church in Cleveland (as distinct from Pastor Angela’s Trinity Lutheran in Lakewood) houses Building Hope in the City, an urban mission organization which, among other things, serves refugees in the City of Cleveland.

I know a little about this now, because my husband, retired corporate internet person, is volunteering there, helping to teach English and helping families with daily needs.  A couple of weeks ago, he took a woman to a medical appointment, husband and daughter in tow – the eight-year-old daughter acting as translator, going in with her mother to her stress test so that she could translate the doctor’s instructions, and then prancing off for her free, American snow-day afternoon. Think about Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Was there someone in Egypt to help her find her way and translate for her if she needed medical care?   Were there relaxing days in the company of friends?

There are other refugee stories I am just learning.  Yesterday I watched a video on the NYT website about a Syrian refuge camp in Jordan.  70,000 people displaced by war.   2500 business start-ups — we are talking about intelligent and creative people, trapped in the desert and living in containers.  The average stay in a refugee camp is 26 years. One 15yo girl being interviewed spoke of her hopes for medical school.  What are her chances?

Now you know my personal reasons

Many in America find these stories frightening, because we are quick to see the Herods of this world, and slow to see the resilience, the courage, and the beauty of the human spirit required to resist them.

But it is a story to which we, as Christians, are compelled to attend, regardless of whether it has personal meaning for us.  The ELCA’s Bishop Elizabeth Eaton tells us that

we Christians and all others of good will cannot let fear rule the day. Fear paralyzes,  divides people, fosters distrust and clouds judgments.  We also stand shoulder to  shoulder with people of faith who are firmly opposed to vengeful reprisals and prejudice. In particular, we are concerned for and committed to standing with our  Muslim neighbors who are facing threats and acts of discrimination and hate by those who conflate Islam with terrorism (www.elca.org).

It is a long and winding road, this journey of faith.  It is a road on which legitimate fears must be addressed – fears of violence, of racism, of hatred.    But it is also a road on which we are told repeatedly that God is at work, laboring for us, albeit often in  quite surprising ways.

For Mary and Joseph and Jesus, it started with a journey to Bethlehem, and then a 200-mile trip to Egypt, and then a road to back Nazareth and, ultimately, to Jerusalem.  For the rest of us, it starts at home, and expands to neighborhood and church and school, and then to a broader world and, one hopes, to connections and relationships with those we may never have imagined becoming part of our lives, any more than we imagined ourselves becoming part of theirs.  And behind it all, as Isaiah says, is a God who saves, redeems, and lifts and carries us.

Think about Mary and Joseph and Jesus.  Can you see them in the world’s refugees of 2017?  Can you see their strength and powerful witness to God’s movement in their lives?  Can you see that Jesus began his earthly life on the margins, in a stable, on the road, in a community of refugees?

Our faith is not glitzy.  Despite our beloved Christmas sparkles and awe-inspiring music and brilliant candles, our faith lies in someone who journeyed, grew up, and then began the redemptive work of God among those who were poor, those who were hungry, those who were beleaguered by the powers and principalities.   A child of God, a SOG, who came into the world as it is, who came to us as we are — perhaps hungry for food, perhaps hungry for security, most assuredly broken in some way.

A new year lies before us, a new portion of the road opens its way to us.  How will we respond to the call issued by our infant king, our refugee child, our prince of peace? Fear NOT.  God is at work.  Jesus is among us.  The Spirit leads us.

Amen.

[1] https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2016/12/28/the-holy-innocents-refugee-2/

Streams in the Desert ~ Sermon for Advent 3

 

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We are waiting.  We are waiting in anticipation and hope for the coming of the infant Christ, “God in the manger” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, and we are waiting in anticipation and hope for the saving grace of Jesus to renew and restore all of creation and all of us.  And today, we have two texts in particular to help us with this waiting.

The first comes to us from the prophet Isaiah, writing about God’s faithfulness to God’s promises in light of the horrors of the Babylonian exile.  In the late 500s BCE, the Jewish people were utterly defeated in war by the Babylonians, their holy city of Jerusalem destroyed and their temple reduced to rubble.  As was typical in that time, the elite of their society —  the political, literate, artistic, and construction elite – were dragged into exile in Babylon, so that they could not rebuild their community and its life.  Exile was their destiny for the next sixty years – three generations of Jews.  Many born in Babylon would never see their homeland.

But Isaiah speaks a message of hope, a message of hope in God’s salvation, a message which we read as hope in the Messiah coming to us at the end of Advent.  And Isaiah’s hope encompasses all that is broken – the earth itself, and the people who live here.  Isaiah proclaims that God promises streams of water and blooming flowers in the desert, and healed human beings – the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, and the lame leaping.

Our gospel text, reiterating some of Isaiah’s words, is from Matthew: a text from the gospel readings for this new lectionary year which tells us that Jesus is the one.  It’s not John the Baptist, it’s not any of the other prophets wandering around Israel – Jesus who is the one who has come to save the world.  Jesus is the one who has come to inaugurate the kingdom of God.

And here’s something you should know about Matthew as this church year begins:  Matthew is very much focused on the kingdom of God, the already-but-not-yet kingdom of God – already among us in the person of Jesus Christ, but not yet fulfilled, as we can easily tell by looking around or watching the news.  Already underway but not yet fully realized.

So, in this world of Advent 2017, in which we long for the fulfillment of the promises we hear in Isaiah and Matthew, where do we look?  I want to tell you about two possibilities in which I engaged last week-end – possibilities open to you as well

Last Friday I “attended” a webinar produced by Interfaith Power and Light.  For those of you who maybe aren’t familiar with the term webinar, it means an online presentation, which you “attend” by  sitting in your office or home or local coffee shop, and watching and listening on your computer.

For those of you who don’t know what Interfaith Power and Light is, it’s a faith-based organization whose mission “is to be faithful stewards of Creation by responding to global warming through the promotion of energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy.”  Some of you may recall that Rev. Drew Genzsler, the Director of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries, preached here at the beginning of this year, and that his wife, Alycia Ashburn, who works for the Ohio chapter of Power and Light and used to work for Lutherans Restoring Creation, spoke as well.  And last summer Bethesda on the Bay joined Power and Light, and immediately proceeded with an energy audit of our building, which we hope will help us make more informed choices and decisions about energy in the future.

Now, you may be thinking, here we go, veering into politics.  Not sure I like this.  And indeed, the webinar I attended was about politics, urging us to make contact with Congress, with the in-coming administration, and with the media on matters of climate change and energy conservation.

But it was also about education – always the first step in decision-making.  I will tell you honestly that I don’t know a lot about climate change.  I do know that the vast majority of scientists believe that it is taking place.    I know that many people question whether it is caused by human beings, but I’m not sure of the significance of that – humans don’t cause cancer, either but we certainly try to address it.  And I know that one of the first things that the Bible tells us is that God has made us stewards of creation —  the caregivers, the lovers, and the defenders of our beautiful planet and universe.

Isaiah’s text today begins with God’s restoration of creation – a critical component of what will happen when Christ comes again.  An essential task for us as we seek to build the already-but-not-yet kingdom of God.  There can be no question but that work done by organizations like Interfaith Power and Light represent streams in the desert – streams of hope and life in the desert of destructive forces damaging our earthly home.

So that was Friday- a creation-focused day.  On Saturday –a  people-focused day — I spent the morning with a Northeast Ohio Synod discussion group on race and culture at New Covenant Lutheran Church in East Cleveland.  Similar gatherings have been occurring about once a month as an outgrowth of initial conversations at the Synod gathering in Akron back in May.  A couple of us attended one of those meetings at the Synod event, and came away renewed in the hope of Bethesda becoming part of a long-term inter-racial and inter-cultural conversation among Lutherans here in northeast Ohio.

The morning’s pattern was simple and easy to follow.  Some instructions, two brief presentations, and an hour discussion around a table, based on a Biblical passage – or not.  One of our presenters was Rev. Charles Eduardos, whom I know from our mutual interest in health care and spirituality, and whom many of you know as the pastor of All Saints in Olmsted Falls.  Pastor Eduardos talked about racial prejudice as he has experienced it, starting with his high school years in which as a bright student he was discouraged from participating in Cleveland’s elite academic programs because he was a young man of color and thus considered not capable of the work – a young man who would eventually go on to study engineering and theology.

Our other presenter is a seminary student in Chicago, Mexican by heritage, who is active in the Decolonize Lutheranism effort.  What does that mean? you might be asking. Well, the Lutheran Church is no longer home solely to people of western European descent.  It no longer encompasses solely the descendants of European colonial powers.  Today Lutherans can be found all over the world, people of all colors and ethnicities.   The goal of Decolonize Lutheranism is to pursue “a strategy toward authentic diversity in the ELCA.”

Does that sound scary to you, or does it sound exhilarating?   If you attend – or perhaps host – one of these events – you will like find the discussion to be both scary and exhilarating.  At my table we talked openly about the election, but mostly we talked about the challenges of talking with people with whom we disagree and who disagree with us — which means that we talked about the challenges of listening and hearing what others have to say.  Our Biblical text was Jonah – fresh out of the whale and headed to the city of Ninevah to warn the people there of God’s coming judgment.  Now, you may recall that God sent Jonah to Ninevah, but Jonah didn’t want to go.  He didn’t appreciate God’s love for a people whom Jonah thought should rot in hell, and he wasn’t about to preach God’s love to them.  So he hopped on a ship to another city, hoping to escape his call.  But a big storm tossed the ship about and tossed Jonah into the belly of a whale – after which dreadful experience he reluctantly agreed to follow God’s instructions and go to Nineveh – a place to which he did not want to go, and where people did not want him to come.  And that story – of speaking and listening despite many challenges – was the jumping off point for our table’s discussion – and we did have a scary and exhilarating morning. 

I would call it a morning on which the desert bloomed in East Cleveland, exactly as Isaiah promised it would. The desert of prejudice and fear and apprehension bloomed into flowers of conversation and hope.

It’s Advent, my friends.  God promises the restoration of the desert – and we see that restoration beginning to take place, in the efforts of people of faith to care for the earth and to care for one another.  The kingdom of God is among us – Jesus IS the one – and joy in the form of a baby on  a manger nudges us to set aside our doubts and fears and open our hearts to a world in need of our faithful presence.  Amen.

Who Is This King of Glory? (Sermon for Christ the King Sunday)

We Americans aren’t on board with the whole king-idea.

If you watch Game of Thrones, you might think of royalty as involving power and wealth, intrigue and property, dynasties and warfare.

If you’re watching the current Netflix show, The Crown, about the British Queen Elizabeth coming to her throne, then you might think of royalty as involving power and wealth, intrigue and power, dynasties and warfare – and Winston Churchill.

If you are a disciple of Jesus Christ, the real King of Glory, then  . . . . how do you think of kingship?  How do you think of royalty?

Today, Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the Church year, it’s incumbent upon us to ponder that question.  Who is the King of Glory?

He was not born in the lying-in room of the local palace. He was born into an impoverished family, his earthly parents not married when he was conceived.

He was not a member of the political elite.  He was born into an oppressed community, a culture far down on the Roman scale of prestige and authority.

He was not secure by birth or status or privilege.  With his parents, he was a refugee in Egypt, fleeing persecution and likely murder before he could even walk or talk.

He did not speak on behalf of the “haves,” the affluent, the powerful.  In his very first sermon, recounted in Luke 4, he proclaimed that “The Spirit of the Lord [was] upon him, [and that he had been anointed] to bring good news to the poor . . . to proclaim release to the captive and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, [and] to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

He did not teach how to win friends and influence people, how to make a million, how to create financial wealth for your descendants.  He taught that those who are blessed, those whose lives are most open to God, are those who are poor, those who are hungry, those who weep.

He did not ridicule or turn aside from those who are ill or injured or disabled, mentally or physically. He did not fear them, or wring his hands helplessly before walking away from them. He walked straight toward them, and  stopped to lift them up and to heal them.

He did not denigrate “the Other.”  He made them heroes of his encounters and his stories: the Syro-Phonecian Woman, and the Good Samaritan.

He did not belittle or ignore women, send them to the kitchen or bar them from roles of authority. He lifted them up, supported them, and commissioned them to preach the good news of his kingdom: the Woman at the Well, and Mary Magdalene.

He did not despair of the rituals and rules and teachings of the community in which he had been formed.  But he did condemn those who were its hypocritical leaders, and said that he had come to fulfill the law,  a fulfillment in which compassion and forgiveness and hope are paramount.

He did not wield weapons or other forms of power to elude the death which came to him, as it does it all human beings.  He accepted humiliation, torture, and the end of life with humility and with a sense of purpose.

He did not follow up on his astonishing resurrection with a claim to secular power, with an amalgamation of political and military forces, with a demand for a crown.  After his resurrection, he went right back to the people he had loved: that anonymous couple on the road to Emmaus, that motley crew of disciples back in their fishing boat.

This is who the King of Glory is: He aligns himself, persistently and consistently, with the poor, the oppressed, the refugee, the imprisoned, the hungry, the grieving, the broken and heartbroken, the disenfranchised, the overlooked.

This is who the King of Glory is: a king of abundant love, of extravagant generosity, a king who molds sinners into saints.

Regardless of who and where you are this morning – whether you are looking forward to a tv commercial-perfect holiday gathering, or to one in which the family has long since crumbled, or to dinner alone; whether you are content with your lot in life or feeling crushed by its demands; whether you are looking forward to good health and energy, or to a renewed round of doctors and hospitals – regardless of who and where you are, Jesus Christ is your king.  Loving you, challenging you, changing you.

And about this king of ours, Martin Luther –, as I learned in confirmation class with the kids last week — Martin Luther said, “Where he is, there I shall be also.”

On this Christ the King Sunday, and in the days and weeks ahead, will you be where your king is?  Will you open yourself to his love, accept his challenges, allow him to change you?

In the name of Christ the King,

Amen.

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