Thursday, February 20, 2014

Sermon Break

To all who occasionally read this blog, I want you to know that there won't be any sermons for a few weeks. I am on medical leave.  I may be writing once and awhile to reflect on my experience, but no sermons.  Peace to all.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The Meeting

Sermon preached on the Feast of the Presentation, February 2,2014 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Luke 2:22-40

Simeon took him in his arms and praised God…Anna began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

          Our Orthodox brothers and sisters call this story “The Meeting.”  It is the meeting of Mary, Joseph and Jesus with Simeon and Anna in the Temple.  It is the meeting of the new with the old.  It is the meeting when the old recognizes the new in such a way that nothing will ever be the same.

          As a meeting, it feels a bit like any time a newborn is presented for the first time to relatives or friends.  I love to be present when such a meeting happens.  Who doesn’t feel for a moment that the future of the whole world is in your arms?  Power comes out from that child, the power of birth, the power of love, the power of hope.

All those things Simeon must have felt when Mary handed over her child to him.  There clearly was a kind of immensity in that child for him and the glory of God that was no longer a dream, but a present, weighty reality.  Simeon had long waited for the appearance of one who would set things right, and here he was.  How, he did not know. It had not been a baby for which he had been waiting.

But his sense that it was indeed this baby was confirmed in the eyes of this girl, his mother, hardly old enough to be a mother, but with wisdom that went deep into her soul.  This was the one who later generations would dare to call Theotokos, “God bearer.”  And those same people would remember him, Simeon, as having represented all of humanity as Theodokos. “God receiver.”

I love in this story how traditional gender roles are blurred.  Simeon, God-receiver, plays the spiritual mid-wife in the story.  His compatriot, Anna, is the messenger, the prophet, who announces what has happened to anyone who will listen.  The implication is that those will listen who long for something more, who know that Jerusalem, and all it represents, is in need of redemption.

I like this title “The Meeting,” because it is a word that occasionally gets used for church and there is a sense in which this is the first meeting of the church.  Jesus’ life-giving, challenging, transformative presence is acknowledged, praise is given, and testimony, and parents trying to do the right thing by their children and their God.

And one of the things I want to say is that everyone in this story belongs and plays a critical part.  I’m getting more and more tired of the narrative we have spun about the impending death of the church, having a lot to do with the aging of the church and how all we need is some young people come and save the day.  It’s an example of how little bits of reality can develop into a story that begins to define who we are.

The truth is we need everybody and the church’s future does not depend on anyone coming to our rescue.  It depends upon our faithfulness, our ability to continue to be God-receivers and prophetic tellers of the story of good news to the world.  Young people are essential to that story, but so are elders.

The Meeting needs everybody if it is going to be redemptive.

The second thing I have to say about this Meeting is what preceded it that was absolutely essential to its occurrence.  Simeon, it is said, “Was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel.”  Anna had spent an age in the Temple waiting and was ready to speak to all those who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Simeon and Anna were two faithful people who understood the vital importance of longing, longing for consolation, redemption, liberation, shalom, peace.  They knew that things were not right and they knew they needed a Savior.

This was not waiting as a passive acceptance of the status quo until somebody else comes along to fix it.  No, it is active waiting, imaginative waiting that uses every tool it can to build the kingdom for which it waits.

But in that active waiting there is the reality that everything is not all right, that there are plenty of swords to pierce our souls, to cause suffering and threaten despair, but the waiting, the steadfast waiting, always trumps the darkness, because we all, like Simeon, can sing

Lord, you now have set your servant free, to go in peace as you have promised, for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior…

          And perhaps that is where our storytelling might begin.  When have you had a Simeon and Anna moment, a glimpse of your Savior, your liberation, in such a way that you can trust it and keep on longing for more?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Place to Become

Sermon preached on the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, January 26, 2014, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York, the Sunday of the Annual Meeting of the parish:  Isaiah 9:1-4, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23.

          For thirty years or so “mission statements” have been all the rage, not
only in the church and other non-profits, but also in the business community.  They are sometimes helpful and sometimes not, and usually some of both.

          Turns out the inventor of mission statements may have been God, who on several occasions makes clear his purpose for the people he has called together.  We have the seeds of one this morning, when Isaiah talks about the people who walked in darkness seeing a great light.

          As Israel returns from exile in Babylon, Isaiah uses this image to deliver God’s mission (from Isaiah 49:6):

The Lord says, "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."

          When Matthew is writing his Gospel and is telling how Jesus chose to make his home base in Capernauum in Galilee, he recalls this mission and suggests that it is Jesus’ mission:  to be a light not only to his own Jewish people, but to all people.  There were plenty of Jews in Galilee, but there were plenty of all kinds of people in Galilee.

          To fulfill his purpose, after his personal preparation at the Jordan and in the wilderness, Jesus first gathers a group of followers.  It may have been his first act of genius, but it could also be seen as his first big mistake.  Whenever people band together for a cause they will start to organize, and when they start to organize they may indeed accomplish many things, but they will also inevitably start to disagree with one another, some will want to be in charge and others will resent anyone who is in charge and we are off to the races.

A friend of mine said to me the other day about her parish, “I mostly pray that once and awhile the light will shine through the dysfunction and we do some good in spite of ourselves.”  Perhaps that is describing a worst-case scenario, but, if so, it has been around from the beginning.  The Apostle Paul was very familiar with it.

The Christian community in Corinth was a mess.  The two letters to them are almost a manual for how not to do Christian community, although, in Paul answering them, and speaking to some of their dysfunctions, it is also a manual for how to do it right.

This morning we heard Paul responding to a dynamic in their community which was sort of like the “sorting hat” scene from Harry Potter.  I belong to Cephas’ people.  I belong to Apollos’ people. I belong to Paul’s people.

Paul says, “Look.  Cephas, Apollos, Paul, we all did important things in your community, but none of us more important than the other.  You do not belong to any one of us.  You belong to one another. You are all part of the body, the body of Christ.”

I talked about belonging a couple weeks ago when we baptized Avery Kane.  I think it is one of the great gifts of this place that it is a place to belong, to be accepted for who you are at any given time.

But there is more, isn’t there?  “Belonging” implies something outside of ourselves of which we are a part, and the God of the Bible is always forming a people.  Along with “a place to belong,” communities like this one are also “a people to become.”

In our tradition when we talk of this “people to become,” we are not only talking about the people in this parish.  We are talking about sisters and brothers in all places and in all times, the reality we mean when we use the word “catholic” to describe the church.  The bigger it gets the messier it gets and any attempt to over control it is doomed to failure, which I think is one of the points Pope Francis is trying to make.

Paul longed for the disagreements to end in Corinth.  He wanted a church “united in the same mind and the same purpose.”  And I think it is vital that we are always working toward that goal.  Unity is clearly part of the purpose of God in bringing people like us together.  And yet the messiness seems part of the plan also.  Uniformity is not healthy for the body.  It can, in fact, stifle the body’s imagination and creativity.  We need difference of opinion, difference of giftedness, difference of intellect and imaginative capacity, difference in just about anything you can imagine to keep up with what God is doing in the world around us.

The problem is not difference itself.  The problem is when our difference becomes an idol, something which must be defended.  The problem is when I no longer believe you have anything to contribute to my well-being.  We all fall into this trap from time to time when someone else annoys us because of their difference.  I do it also. I speak as a fellow sinner.

My friend Verna Dozier was a complex person, which annoyed me for a long time, but I gradually came to understand that her struggle was my struggle, and, in fact, was universal.  She was a woman of strong opinions, someone who, as they say, did not suffer fools gladly.  Yet she steadfastly held out this truth to all with whom she came into contact.  “If I am a person of faith than the only thing I know for sure is that I could be wrong about anything.”

My sense, my friends, is that the reconfiguration of this worship space is only the beginning of significant change this community must undertake if we are to thrive in a third century of ministry on this site.  More than anything—more than ideas, more than money, more than vision, more than will—more than anything we will need the capacity to honor and celebrate our differences so that out of them can come the energy to move forward.  If we don’t keep developing that capacity, our differences will tie us up in knots and we will go nowhere.

The beating heart of this community must be Jesus’ constant invitation for us to belong and the Holy Spirit’s constant taking that belonging and forging an ever new people with it.

May this describe our life:  A Place to Belong and a People to Become.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Place to Belong (Baptism of Avery Jackson Kane)

Sermon preached at The Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York on the First Sunday after The Epiphany:  Isaiah 49:1-9, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

          I arrived at college in Plattsburgh, New York, an eight hour drive from home, excited and petrified.  I was a small town boy, fairly na├»ve about the world and its ways.  I was assigned to a dorm room with two other roommates, both from Long Island.  I had never even been to New York City, much less the other side of it.

          I had come from a world where I knew I belonged.  I knew how the world worked and my family had been an important part of its working for generations.  Since the first Hopkins arrived in my hometown around 1850, none had ever left, even temporarily.

          I remember watching my parents drive away after having moved me into the dorm, and feeling like I had been cut off from everything familiar.  To a lot of the kids around me, that was clearly being experienced as freedom.  I felt a sense of deep loss, the deep loss of the context in which I knew who I was.

          Perhaps that is why on my second Sunday in Plattsburgh, I walked downtown to Trinity Episcopal Church to go to Service.  I had been to the Episcopal Church in Bath with my great aunt several times.  I think I was reaching out for something familiar.

          My first Sunday there I, in fact, did feel familiarity and it felt good, calming.  I said a couple of hellos but got out of there as quickly as possible.  I went the next Sunday, however, and they were ready for me.  Someone had heard my singing and dutifully notified the choir director who was waiting for me.  And the mother of a family in the parish invited me to dinner.  College students need a home-cooked meal once and awhile. I couldn’t argue with that.

          Thursday of that week I was picked up for choir and Friday for supper.  In both instances it was crystal clear to me that I had a place that was mine by right and did not have to be earned.  This was both delightful and disconcerting.  I knew how I had belonged in my hometown.  I belonged because of I was part of a family that belonged.  This was different. I belonged just because this group of people wanted me to belong.

          I had no words for the experience until, after a few months, in a conversation with Janet, the mother of the family, she said, “If God delights in you than so do we.”  And so I learned from experience a theology that has carried me through to this day.  Some might say that Ii have been preaching Janet Youngmann’s sermon ever since that day.

          I was checking our database to make sure we had all of little Avery’s particulars correct in it, when something caught my eye.  There are two pieces of data you can enter:  “Date joined” and “How joined.”  No doubt I’ve seen those entry points dozens of times in the past few years, but, for one reason or another, they leapt out at me this time, and I thought, “That is the wrong word.”

          “Join” is not a very good word for infant baptism at all, and if you think of the church as something you “join” than I can see that the baptism of children makes no sense at all.  Why do we baptize babies who cannot themselves make a conscious decision to do something like “join”?  Because they belong.  Because we believe that if God delights in them than we do also.  And, we further believe, this belonging can never be taken away from them.

          I will point out what I have pointed out many times before. When you see the words in the Prayer Book that we shall soon say—“Avery, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever”—there is not an asterisk leading to fine print at the bottom of the page that says “unless the following circumstances arise…”  For ever means for ever.  That is the kind of belonging that goes on here.

          The church is not some kind of exclusive club.  It is not a place for “our kind of people” unless you mean “every kind of people.”  This is the glory of the church and its challenge, because it is human nature to divide people up and label them so that they can be understood and treated accordingly.  But the voice from heaven did not say over Jesus at his baptism, “This is the one I understand to be my Son.” It said, “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

          And our challenge is to be “well-pleased” not only with this child from this family with whom this body is easily and beyond-the-telling well-pleased, but also and equally, with anyone present with us who is a stranger to us.  “Well-pleased,” after is “well-pleased,” with no degree to the God whom the apostle Peter came to experience was the God of “no partiality.”

          The church is a place to belong, and the breakdown of that word is important also.  The church is a place to be, and the church is a place to long, and both in freedom.  They are two fundamentals about our life.  Every one of us is and every one of us wants.  But it is often difficult in this world to both be and long in true freedom.  Nearly everyone, from family members, to television advertisers has an idea or two for how we should be and for what we should long.  But they shape us in ways we often do not recognize as authentically us even if they are at times enjoyable.

          If the church is a place truly to belong, than we must be a school for each and every person, within their God-given createdness and freedom, to discover their authentic being and their authentic longing, in the context of a community whose ultimate values are faith, hope, and love.

          So let us not celebrate little Avery’s joining the church.  Let us celebrate his belonging, both to God and to us, and to proclaim God’s delight, and ours, in him.  And let us inaugurate for him a journey of discovering who he is and for what he longs, a journey he will never be on alone.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

An Interview with Matthew: the Dark Side of Christmas

The Epiphany Window in St. Simon's Chapel
Sermon preached on the Second Sunday after Christmas, 2014, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York.  We read all of chapter 2 of Matthew's Gospel.

Interviewer:    We are blessed this morning with a special guest, St. Matthew the Apostle, author of the Gospel according to Matthew.  He’s agreed to answer some questions about the story he tells about the birth of Jesus.

                        Matthew, could you tell us how you came to write your Gospel?

Matthew:       Certainly.  As you know, those of us who followed the way of Jesus in the early days were all Jews.  We had no thoughts that we were establishing a new religion, just following a different path within the religion of our ancestors.

                        Actually all Jews were in the same boat at that time.  Our world had been shattered.  After decades of trying to get along with our first Greek and then Roman overlords, they finally turned against us and destroyed our Temple and the city of Jerusalem.  It was like our heart had been cut out.

                        It was chaos, but there gradually emerged three possibilities for the Jewish people to move forward.  There were some people who really thought the world was coming to an end and that a Messiah would soon come.  I had some sympathy with these folks, but I was sure the Messiah had already come, just not the kind of Messiah they were expecting.

                        Another response was to stick with what we had left.  The Temple was no more and the land God had given us was under our control.  We were increasingly scattered.  All that we had left, at least in this way of thinking, was the Torah, so the teaching and study of Torah was to become our new Temple, and rabbis, teachers, our new priests.

                        But the followers of the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth knew there was yet another way.  Yes, something, had to replace the Temple, but I believed with every fiber of my being that new center was Jesus himself.  So I wrote the story of Jesus to make that claim and to show how Judaism would survive by following him.

Interviewer:    Is that why you frequently mention how Jesus was fulfilling Scripture?

Matthew:       Exactly.  But it was not easy.  Tensions were high.  Hostility developed.  I was convinced it was time for Jews to make a definitive choice.  I will admit I was also angry at the treatment of my community by the rabbis and others of their party and, of course, that anger came out in my story.

Interviewer:    Which brings us to your telling the story of Jesus’ birth.  To be perfectly honest, I find it rather dark and even violent.

Matthew:       It was a dark and violent world.  I felt I had to be honest about that.

Interviewer:    You certainly were.  Your story starts in an exotic way with those strangers from the east, but something is not quite right about that visit, especially since it includes an evil tyrant and then moves on to murdered children, and a Messiah who lives in exile.

Matthew:       As I said, that was our world.

Interviewer:    Let me ask you about some details of the story.  What is that you were trying to say with that visit of…well, who were those people?

Matthew:       They were astrologers, pagans.  They were certainly not kings, by the way.  I think I was able to make a couple important points with them.  First of all, it was backhanded criticism of the Jews who rejected Jesus.  I wanted to show that even pagans were attracted to this man, even if not for all the right reasons.  I also wanted to show that we did not need Jerusalem and the Temple any longer.  Jesus was the new center, the point from which the light now came.  In Jerusalem there was only fear and death.
Interviewer:    I must say that the murder of all those children is deeply disturbing.

Matthew:       Good, I meant it to be.

Interviewer:    But doesn’t it send all the wrong messages about God?  People have never stopped asking how God could have let that happen.  He spared his Son and let all those children die.

Matthew:       God did not kill those children, Herod did.  God gives us the
The Lament of Rachel
freedom to reject him 
and his ways and Herod did that in
 about every way imaginable.  And, 
yes, Jesus was spared, but only 
temporarily.  In the end, the civic and 
religious authorities managed to kill 
all the innocent children of Bethlehem.
It just took them thirty or so years to 
finish the job.

Interviewer:    But was the death of 
innocent children really necessary to make your point?  What was the point of it anyway?

Matthew:       The murder of people—including children—for no other reason than paranoia and the thirst for absolute power is about as evil as humankind gets.  If Jesus is going to save us, he has to save us from that, as well as all our petty little sins.

                        I do sometimes regret telling the story, because few people have seemed to learn anything from it.  It’s been almost 2,000 years since I wrote my Gospel and I am not sure there has ever been a year in all that time when an evil tyrant did not kill innocent children, and sometimes it was not even an evil tyrant.  Sometimes it has been done by people who were sure they were doing the right thing.  I believe you call it “collateral damage.”  The greatest obscenity is that people have frequently done this in Jesus’ name.

Interviewer:    Many people don’t know this story. We try not to read it in church, especially on a Sunday.  Who wants to hear that?

Matthew:       I believe you have another saying:  “How’s that working for you?”

Interviewer:    Point taken.  One last question.  Does your birth story have anything really to do with the rest of your story?  Couldn’t we have lived without it?

Matthew:       Frankly I don’t know if you could have lived without it and I don’t much care.  It has everything to do with the rest of the story.  If you read it carefully it is the rest of the story in miniature.  It foreshadows everything.

Interviewer:    Even the resurrection.

Matthew:       Absolutely.  The child comes out of Egypt.

Interviewer:    But he does not get to go home.  In a sense he and his family go into perpetual exile in Galilee.

Matthew:       But that is where we are asked to live the resurrection life—not in the comfort and safety of home, but in a world where we often feel like strangers, or at least strange.  Jesus was once said that we should call no man on earth father or rabbi.  I wish he had said that we also should call no place home, for we have one home, with him, wherever he and his people are.

                        Like those astrologers, we are always being asked to pay attention to the powers and principalities of this world, and be ready to take a different road.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

An Eternal Christmas Truce

Sermon preached on Christmas Eve, 2013 at The Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York.

          It is an ancient tradition that Christmas Eve is the Feast of Adam and Eve, in other words, of the birth of humanity.  You do not have to be a biblical literalist to understand the truth in the story of our first parents, and its tragic ending, with humanity exiled from paradise.

          The message of the angels to the shepherds: Glory to God and Peace on Earth is the announcement that this exile has been undone.  It has not been undone in that we have been allowed back into paradise.  That is as obvious to us as it was to the holy family stuck in a dirty cowshed.  No, our exile from paradise has been undone because God has come to us, bringing the possibility of shalom, peace, with him.

          Shalom is the Hebrew word for peace, but not simply peace as the absence of conflict, but peace as the presence of justice, of universal well-being.  It is certainly one of the most important words in all of the Bible.  In a way it is the word that the biblical story is all about.  However it happened, shalom is what is being sought by both God and humanity throughout the story.  In particular, if one takes God as the main character of the Bible, the story is about God’s quest for shalom with his people, and their determination to have it on their own terms, even if that means the decentralization of God altogether.

          Finally, the story goes, as Christians tell it, God decides that the only way to bridge the gap between himself and his people is, in fact, to bridge it, to cross over.  And so we have the miracle of this night, the incredible claim that God was born and lived among us.  I have had friends and acquaintances ask me how I can believe this birth story of Jesus.  Perhaps you have had also.  Perhaps you have wondered it yourself.  I have.  It smells heavily of mythology, we have to admit.

          What it boils down to for me is this.  I love the story, and it is a great story.  How it actually happened, what the “facts” of the matter are, I have really come not to care.  The truth that is announced by this story is something I can believe in, that the ancient division between God and humanity ended this night.  God was born as my brother, and invited me not to obey him as his slave, but to share in shalom with him as his friend.  This Jesus born this night will be remembered as saying, “I do not call you servants any longer…but I have called you friends.”[1]

          Many of you probably know the story of the Christmas Truce.  The first Christmas after the start of World War I in 1914, at several points along the front lines with British and French on one side and Germans on the other, men laid down their arms and refused to fight.  They helped one another bury their dead.  They invited each other to their trenches and shared Christmas songs and other traditions.  Christmas trees were set up and even simple gifts were exchanged.

          All of this was unauthorized and many were punished for it after the war began again, and it quite deliberately never happened again.  By the end of war most all of those men who celebrated Christmas together had been killed, and, worse, that moment of shared humanity had been utterly obliviated.  Widespread dehumanization of the enemy, such a staple of war, won the day.

          The Christmas Truce is a great story, but also an obscene one on how it testifies to the reality that we are often unable to grasp shalom when it is right in front of us.

          And the truth is that it is always right in front of us.  Shalom begins when I meet you and acknowledge you as a human being just like me.  It continues when I am able to do that with a complete stranger, perhaps someone with whom it looks as if I have little in common.  And it continues yet more when I am able to do that with someone with whom I am at odds, or whom I even call my enemy.  In all these circumstances the truth has never changed, that I am more like you than not.

          On the other hand, the lack of peace, which leads to the lack of trust, and the lack respect and the ability to treat you as if you are somehow less than human or simply do not matter at all, begins whenever I judge my difference with you to be a matter of good vs. evil, or I make assumptions about you and write your story for you rather than ask you to tell it to me, and when your loss of well-being is a matter of indifference to me.

          The most incredible thing God shows us in this story of the Babe of Bethlehem is that God himself or herself is more like us than not, and vis-a-versa.  If we want peace in our lives on every conceivable level from nations in relationship with one another, to racial or ethnic groups trying to understand each other, to business colleagues debating the direction of a company, to family gathered around a table—if we want peace in all those places we have to begin as God did, by bridging the barrier, by becoming one of them until there is no sense of “them” at all, by believing in one thing in this world if nothing else:  We are all more like each other than different.

           The third verse of Edmund Sears' hymn text, "It came upon a midnight clear," as always been a favorite of mine. 

Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
And warring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing.

          Christmas is the Feast of God’s ceasing to strive with humanity and inviting us to do the same both with him and with one another.  God has offered an eternal Christmas Truce.  And it all begins in the simplest way:  the steadfast belief that you and I are more alike than we are different.  So it is with God and humankind in a Bethlehem cowshed; so it is with the stranger and me, my enemy and me, always and everywhere.

[1] John 15:15.

The Things that Can Happen in a Little Room

Sermon preached on the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2013 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York:  Matthew 1:18-23

In addition to the readings given us today, I am going to rely on a poet to help me speak a word.  The text is a hymn in The Hymnal 1982, #69 if you wish to look at it.  It is a text that attempts to bridge Advent and Christmas, a bridge on which we stand this morning.

What is the crying at Jordan?
Who hears, O God, the prophecy?
Dark is the season, dark our hearts
and shut to mystery.

Of course, the "crying at Jordan" and "the prophecy" refers specifically to John the Baptist.  Beyond that, however, for each one of us, the "crying at Jordan" is any attempt for God to get a word in edgewise in our lives.  "The prophecy" is the surprising yet hopeful new word God has for each one of us.

The poet recognizes that this word God has for us is not an easy word.  It is indeed an astounding word, and a word cloaked in mystery.  That means it is a word that can only be heard, a word that can only be understood, with lives open to being surprised, willing to hear the unexpected.  It is a word that can only be heard when we let go enough of our own control over our own life to let a free God have his way.

But “dark is the season, dark our hearts,” the poet says.  The darkness is so many things:  the madness that swirls around us or within us from which we simply want to be rescued, our own firm control of life and our assuredness that we know the way things are supposed to be, even, sometimes our joy, when it is dependent upon anything but the love of God as its source.

Here today we have before us Joseph, a good, honorable, even righteous man of his day, betrothed to a woman named Mary.  Suddenly comes the darkness—apocalypse now.  She is pregnant.  The law requires he reject her.  The law gives him the right—perhaps even the duty—to have her stoned to death.[1]  Joseph’s whole world is turned upside down in a moment.

The poet goes on,

Who then shall stir in this darkness,
prepare for joy in the winter night?
Mortal in darkness we lie down,
blind-hearted seeing no light.

I suspect it is how Joseph lied down that night, and how millions, even billions, of others, including you and me, have lied down in the darkness, in a winter’s night of the soul, quite incapable of seeing the light.

But then, for Joseph, something different.  A dream.  An angel.  An astounding word.

It is described in this way by the poet:

Lord, give us grace to awake us,
to see the branch that begins to bloom;
in great humility is hid
all heaven in a little room.

An interesting image:  all heaven in a little room.  Joseph was no doubt asleep in a little room.  He was not a rich man.  Also, spiritually, emotionally, it must have felt a “little room” as well.  He felt “boxed in” we might say.  We know the feeling don’t we, when life gets a little crazy, a little out of control, and we begin to feel “boxed in,” cut off from God, from happiness, from love, from one another, even from ourselves, in a little room, now windows, no doors.

But the poet’s surprising word:  “all heaven hid in a little room.”  An angel in a dream in the little room.  A child.  God’s child.  Name him “Jesus,” God saves.  Call him “Emmanuel, God with us.”

Is this possible in the little room?  Is this possible in the darkness of our lives?  Not abandoned by God but visited?  Not God’s death but God’s birth in our lives?

Yes, the poet says,

Now comes the day of salvation,
in joy and terror the Word is born!
God gives himself into our lives;
O let salvation dawn!

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid . . .”   It seems to me that is the new Word spoken to Joseph and through him to all of us in the darkness, in our little rooms.  As the poet says, it is a Word born “in joy and terror.”  The joy is, of course, the good news that we do not need to be afraid.  The terror is, perhaps, that we have been found out, that we are indeed afraid, very afraid, so much of the time, but no one must know.  And like so much else with God, we have got to get through the terror of admitting our fear before we can grasp the good news that we have no need of it.

And on what evidence should we not be afraid?  For Joseph there was no evidence.  There is only a dream.  Dreams are easily dismissed or forgotten.  There is impossible explanation.  Conceived from the Holy Spirit indeed!  And shall he risk all—his name, his reputation and honor, his future—on an impossible dream, on something he can never explain, never prove?  Can submission to mystery cure his fear?

The story says yes, bids us say yes, and in our own darkness, our own mess, our own little rooms, allow heaven to be hid and God to speak a word of mystery and we to take it in and believe its truth and thus find the light to lead us out and on.

Isn’t it ironic that Christmas has become a kind of public spectacle of cleaning things up, pretending all is well for a day, a world at peace when there is no peace, family members wildly and functionally in love, happiness everywhere, the only mess allowed the torn wrapping paper around the tree, and the whole thing started with God being born in a mess?

Perhaps that is why we have such trouble finding God, because we look for him in the tidy places of our lives.  The Christmas story tells us that is not where God is found.  The Word comes in the darkness, in a little room, where, if we listen, we can hear, “Do not be afraid . . .”

Then it is our job, like Joseph’s, to claim the scandal of God’s own messiness, God’s own mysterious way of doing business, coming into the world in an illegitimate pregnancy and a dirty cowshed, and give it our name.  Could it be, “Jesus,” God saves us, “Emmanuel,” God with us?

God does save.  God is with us.  But only if we are able to own the mess of our lives, whether it is our making or somebody else’s, and let the Messiah be born in it.

[1] Deuteronomy 22:23.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

How badly do we want to leave Babylon?

Sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2013, at The Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York:  Isaiah 35:1-10

          We all know the story of The Wizard of Oz, how the “mighty and powerful” wizard is really the man behind the curtain.  If there is such a man in the Bible, it is really not a person, but a place and, more importantly, an experience:  That place is Babylon and the experience is exile.

          The factual story is that between 597 and 582 b.c.e., the Babylonian Empire overtook the Kingdom of Judah, destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, and deported most of the economic, political and religious elite to Babylon.  They lived there until the Persians took over the Babylonian Empire in 538 b.c.e., when the Persian King Cyrus allowed them gradually to return.

          Much of what we know as the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, received its final editing during this period, and the major prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel—all spoke out of the experience of exile.  The experience of captivity in Babylon is the man behind the curtain of the Bible.

          This means that four questions linger in the background of many, if not most, Old Testament texts:
·       How did this happen to us?
·       How do we live in exile?
·       How do we get home?
·       What do we do when we get back there?

I believe the season of Advent is a time of struggling with the two middle questions:  “How do we live in exile?”  and “How do we get home?”  I would summarize these two questions with one:  “How badly do we want to leave Babylon?”  And just so you are clear that this is a very contemporary question—one that is for us to answer—let me ask it this way:  How badly do we want to leave Newtown?  How badly do we want to leave Rochester?

Now let me say that there are, no doubt, ways in which these questions may be personal ones for you.  To what am I captive?  What is keeping you from being the “forgiven, loved and free” child of God that is God’s dream for you?  That is a vitally important question for every one of us.  But the vision of Advent shalom—peace, well-being, communal welfare, justice, the common good—is primarily a societal, communal one.

So I ask:  How badly do we want to leave Newtown?  Yesterday was the first anniversary of that school shooting which took the lives of 26 people and has become the symbol of one of the greatest issues of our day.  We should all be stunned to know that since the Newtown shooting, there have been 28 shootings in schools in this country.

But more than that.  Slate magazine has been diligently patrolling the media since Newtown and reports that as of yesterday, 11,522 deaths by gunshot have been reported in various media in this country.  Using CDC estimates of gunshot deaths, that number may be as high as 33,000, because many gun-related deaths never make the newspaper, although most of those are suicides.  At least 205 children 12 and under have been shot to death since Newtown and at least 541 teenagers.

This is an epidemic.  But there are very few signs that we actually are willing to do anything about it.  How badly do we want to leave Newtown?

And I also ask:  How badly do we want to leave Rochester?  I’m talking about the Rochester that was revealed (yet again) in a new report from the Community Foundation earlier this week.  Among the 75 largest cities in the United States, the Rochester metro area has the fifth highest rate of poverty:  31.1%.  The highest was Detroit at 36.2%.

The City of Rochester contains 19.5% of the population of the Metro Area, but contains 45.2% of the poverty.  That is the highest in the nation for cities that contain less than 20% of a metro area’s population.  If you increase that to cities that contain below 30% of a metro area’s population, we fall only to second highest in the nation, the highest being our neighbor Buffalo.

And it will be no surprise that racism is a strong part of this horror story.  34% of Blacks and 33% of Hispanics live in poverty in Rochester, while only 10% of whites do.  The current federal poverty level, by the way is $23,550 for a family of four.

How badly do we want to leave the Rochester described in those statistics?

I ask these questions about Newtown and Rochester, about the epidemics of gun violence and poverty, because this is the real world into which Jesus is being born in our day.  We cannot ignore this real world in any way—politically, socially, spiritually—and be people who believe in the Incarnation.  If God truly took on human flesh, than human flesh matters, and it matters spiritually.  If God truly came into the world as one of us—and specifically as a person himself affected by poverty—than the world and the state of people affected by poverty matters, and it matters spiritually.  And if God truly came into a world soaked in violence, violence of which he himself was a victim, than the violence in which we are soaked matters, and it matters spiritually.

Isaiah urged those in exile to dream of a highway home—he called it “The Holy Way.”  This way is described first of all as safe:  no lions or “ravenous beasts.”  One may assume, no guns either.  I perfectly understand that some might conjecture that there are no lions on this way because there are guns to shoot them when they pose danger, but we should remember that Isaiah got rid of the weapons of so-called security back in chapter 2.

The way is for everyone, even, thanks be to God, fools.  I think that funny little quirk in the text is massively important for us when we are talking of building a highway out of poverty.  People living in poverty are often thought to be fools—that is how they got there, after all.  And for some that is no doubt true, but, guess what, according to the Bible, even if that is true, it does not matter.

The way is for everyone, except the “unclean.”  Our ears might easily hear the word “sinner” here.  No sinners on the Holy Way.  And then our imagination tends to take us in the direction of anybody we think we are “better than.”  But I do not think that is what is going on here at all.  To be “clean” for an Israelite of Isaiah’s day meant to stand before God with complete confidence in one’s acceptability.  Jesus (and Paul) taught us to do that regardless of our status as sinners, so long as we are willing for Jesus to vouch for us—to let our acceptability depend on his acceptability.

The “unclean” are those who do not want to be part of the way, who, in fact, have no intention of leaving Babylon because they are perfectly happy there because they have confused security with freedom and salvation and they have confused prosperity with acceptability and happiness.  And they refuse to trust that God could or would make such a Holy Way, even for fools.

Isaiah wanted his people to dream this dream, and God wants us to dream it also.  And not only dream, but believe in it, trust in it, and act on it, risk stepping out on the Holy Way, leaving Babylon behind, setting out for Jerusalem, the city of Peace.

The place where sorrow and sighing have no place.  It is despair and hopelessness and injustice and captivity itself which have had to go into exile now.  There is place for them in the home that is God’s dream for us.  Walter Brueggemann says,

Zion is a recovered, restored place of pure, undiminished, unqualified well-being.[1]

          The word that dominates this passage from Isaiah is “joy.”  The wilderness itself rejoices, even crocuses sing for joy (vv. 1-2).  Dysfunctional humanity rejoices (v. 6) and all who travel the Holy Way do so in joy.  But please remember why all this rejoicing:  because shalom, peace and justice, have been established.

          Shalom, peace and justice, are the home of which we dream, for which we long, in which we believe and trust as it is God’s dream and longing as well.  And because of this dreaming and longing, believing and trusting, it is how we choose to live, it is why we must choose to leave Babylon, choose to leave Newtown, choose to leave impoverished Rochester.

          I do not pretend to know how, but I do know that before how comes the choice, and we must make it, and we must be evangelical about others making it, sorrowing and sighing will remain in Babylon, Newtown and Rochester, and the baby will have been born frozen, meaningless, in our nativity scenes.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1—39 (Westminster Bible Companion), (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) p. 280.