Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sermon for Tuesday Evening, December 24, 2013, Christmas Eve, Luke 2:1-20 “Retelling the Story”

Why do we retell this story on December 24th each year, when the sky is dark as the deepest sapphire with faceted glints of stars above?

Why do we retell the story of that humble place, a little town heretofore known only for its role in the life of King David?

Why do we retell the story of a difficult journey and a worried father-to-be and a young woman so great with child that the 90 mile journey took what seemed like forever?

Why do we retell the story of delivery in a rude cave, with only livestock as company, and the remarkable things that happened to some dirty, chilled-to-the-bone shepherds on a hillside?

Why do we repeat it, for what may be the third or seventy-third time in our lives?

Why? Because we need to remember it.

We need to hear the implicit promise in it, the hope, the joy, the love…because our God is a God of hope and love.

Think for a minute about what life was like for the followers of the One True God in those days. They were oppressed by the Roman overlords, of course. But they were also oppressed in a different way by their own understanding of God.

All those laws, codified in Torah! All those rules about what was clean and what was unclean, who was righteous and who was not, what was expected in every aspect of their daily life! Their lives were ruled not only by Romans but also by an understanding of relationship with God that was based upon fear of judgment. Every day, every action, every momentary lapse in following the law might cause God to turn his wrath toward you. In this scheme, God was a fierce and frightening judge who was just waiting for you to make the tiniest of slips, and then you would be smited, banished from His presence…until, of course, you made the necessary offerings and repented before the religious leaders who stood in for God’s judgment on earth.

What did God think of all that rule-making and rule-following? Most likely, he shook his head in dismay and thought “they’ve forgotten how much I love them. They’ve confused behaving in a loving manner toward each other and thus honoring me with a code of rules to keep them safe from my anger. They’ve forgotten that a loving parent requires right behavior so that his children can live in love and peace rather than simply fearing that parent’s punishment. They do not know me anymore.”

And so God came up with a plan. It was a plan full of rule-breaking, because God has an ironic sense of humor.

First, take a young woman. She has no status in society. She is not yet married, so she is simply the property of her parents, like a goat or a sheep. She comes from a very modest family, no money to speak of, no power, no privilege. But she will be the linchpin of the plan, because she will become pregnant.

No, not the normal human way, as wonderful as that is. She will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, a miraculous conception.

She is thus unclean in the eyes of her neighbors, pregnant before marriage. A nobody who must have behaved badly.

Second, take a man. He’s a little bit older than the girl. He may have been married before, may have even had a child or two before, but he is now able to marry. He is a follower of the rules. He becomes betrothed to this girl and he is happy about it. She comes from a good religious family and she seems like a good girl, another rule-follower, until he learns that she is pregnant.

Can you imagine his dismay? She hasn’t followed the rules. She has made a fool of him. He should follow the rules and break their engagement…and he plans to do this, until he has a dream which tells him of the miracle of this pregnancy.

There is nothing in his rule-book about this, but it is God’s message to him, so he grits his teeth and obeys.

Third, there is a Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar. He wants to count all his subjects, so he can calculate how much in tax revenue he can expect, so he Everyone must return to the home town of their tribe or clan, so they may be counted. Never mind that it is an imposition on his subjects. The emperor must be obeyed!

The girl, now round as a ripe pear, and her betrothed, make the arduous journey to Bethlehem, where his people come from. The city of David. They are the last of their clan to arrive in the town. They could not go fast, because the bumpy ride on the donkey was hard on her, so by the time they arrive, there are no lodgings available. Someone takes pity on them and lets them use the cave where the livestock is kept.

It is unclean of course, in the literal and ritual sense. Manure is good for spreading in the fields to grow wheat. It is not so good for newborn infants who are fragile as they draw their first breath. God’s irony once again is evident.

Fourth, there is a child. A baby. The girl’s child is born in the malodorous place where the animals live. Babies are born all the time of course, but this is different. This is a child that comes from God. All children come from God, of course, but this child is not only from God, he IS God. God Godself, wrapped in the tiniest of human bodies, a delicately perfect and beautiful newborn child. No palace courtiers in attendance at God’s birth. No royal physicians, no midwives. Just a woman who is herself barely out of childhood, a man who is still trying to figure out what is happening, a cow, a donkey, perhaps a bird or two, maybe a cat…yes, this is not your usual royal birth. Yes, it breaks all the rules of ritual and purity.

But do not doubt it. It is a royal birth, a divinely royal birth. God Godself, wrapped in the soft pink skin of a human baby, that lovely baby smell about him, as he makes little “ooh” shapes with his lips and seeks his mother’s breast for his first taste of human sustenance.

Do the people in the town hear his first cries? Most likely not. They are all exhausted from their own journeys.

But out on a hillside, there are shepherds. Shepherds, who live out in the open with their flocks. Not much welcome in the town, because they smell live the livestock they keep, and because more than a few of them drink a little too much to keep warm on the chilly nights.

Cue the angels, with their message of this extraordinary birth! Do they bring this message to the king or to Augustus Caesar? Surely he must be told of this event! But no, God is more subtle than that, and God has a point to make. So the angels go to those shepherds, those dirty, rough, slightly inebriated fellows who sleep with their flock. It is to them that the royal announcement is made. God’s irony, once again. They do not proclaim to earthly princes, but to the lowliest, the unclean, the story of the birth of God to the girl about whom the neighbors whispered, in the presence of the man who was laughed at and who was so very confused by it all.

This is the story. It is a story that God set into motion when we forgot how much we were God’s beloved. When we thought that we simply wanted to avoid getting God angry with us for not following the rules. God himself broke the rules to give us this baby, this Jesus Christ, to show us that God’s primary desire as God interacts with us is love.

You see Jesus, the baby born this night, and you see love in action. Love in caring, love in healing, love in teaching. Love in forgiving.  Love in accepting that life sometimes brings great tragedy. Love in promising never to leave us. Jesus’ love is God’s love made visible in a thousand ways.

We retell this story every year for a very specific purpose: we need to be reminded that we are loved. We need to be reminded that our God was willing to come and be with us, to be circumcized in the temple, to get scrapes and bruises and be potty trained and get the chicken pox and learn how to be polite to his elders and do what his earthly parents instructed him to do, to grow up and do work that put himself at risk, to give himself utterly to us.

All because of love. All because we had forgotten how much God loves us. All because we had confused following the rules with loving the one who made us.

So remember this: on this night, over two thousand years ago, a baby was born. Not in a palace, in a cave with animals, the blessed gifts of God’s first creation. He was heralded not to kings and emperors, but to lowly folk, the poor ones who needed to feel God’s love most of all. He came not to a princess, but to a poorly educated teenager whose morals were questioned because of this strange and marvelous pregnancy, because those who are shamed and damaged by the world hunger for one who will redeem them and love them in all their brokenness.

This is the story that we retell: God loved us so much he came to be with us, all so we could learn just how deeply and passionately he loved us. He loves us still. Let there be joy in all the world this night. God loves us still.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, December 15, 2013 Advent III Early Service Matthew 11:2-11 “Know What You’re Getting Into”

You’d think that John would recognize his own cousin, the one he baptized in the Jordan, when God said in those deep, booming tones: “This is my son, my beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.” If you needed a message telegraphed that this was the Messiah, what more could you ask for? 

And yet John, locked away in prison because he had chastised Herod for taking his brother’s wife, feels like he has to ask the question. “Are you the one? Are you the Messiah?”

You’d think Jesus would be a bit put off by that, but when he gets that message from John, he simply gives John the information necessary to confirm his status: he quotes an excerpt from the prophecy of Isaiah that we heard a few moments ago: "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

The gospel writer Matthew never gives us John’s reaction to that information. The presumption is that the answer is sufficient, because Matthew then turns away from this cousin-to-cousin dialogue and reports on Jesus’ preaching about John.

Jesus lauds John as a fiery prophet, even more than a prophet, the fore-runner of the Messiah. Remember that John is a political prisoner, so it’s a highly risky thing to do. But the people, who have already embraced John as a prophet (remember him baptizing people from all over the area in the Jordan?), are happy to hear Jesus say these strong words in support of John.

They might have worried that Jesus would say bad things about John, because there was already a strong tradition of competing religious reformers in Israel at that time. The Pharisees were religious reformers. So were the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots. And it was common practice for an advocate of one group to say harsh things about another.

But here was Jesus saying that this political prisoner, his cousin John, was an ally. More than that, John was a fore-runner. He was intended to prepare the way for the Messiah. That’s a sterling endorsement.

But then Jesus says something that seems out of place. “The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Is this a mark of disrespect? Is it intended to keep John in his place? Or is it Jesus trying to get the people to focus on the larger picture, trying to reshape their desire for a secular king to one that recognizes that the kingdom of God is heaven-based? That secular kings like Herod and the Caesars are not relevant in this discussion?

Or is it something entirely different? A riddle, a twist of words that is designed to get the listener to think that something upside-down is going on?

Might Jesus be planting the idea that he – Jesus – is the least? He certainly talks about himself as one who serves, all that language about “the last shall be first and the first shall be last” and “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  He acts like it, washing the feet of his disciples. And if he is the least, but he is also the Son of God, wouldn’t he be greater than John the Baptist? Jesus’ reign doesn’t depend on the usual hierarchy of king sitting above his subjects – he is king precisely because he doesn’t do that.

He is king because he puts himself entirely at the service of his subjects. He is king because he puts himself below his subjects. That may not be what his audience wants to hear – they want a secular king who will drive out the hated Romans – but it’s the king that they get, because it’s the king that they really need.

It is the obverse side of the statement from Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense, who said “As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

In the midst of the Iraq war, Rumsfeld thought he was stuck with an outdated military fighting a different kind of war, but he was going to do the best he could as he saw it with the military that he had.

Jesus, on the other hand, was the perfect instrument for the war that was being waged. His goal was to win the souls of humankind and bring them into a good relationship with God. Instead of being the wrong instrument for the task at hand, he was the right instrument for the task that the people didn’t even realize was facing them. 

He was wise about telling the people though. He knew what they were expecting, and he wasn’t it. He could have taken care of those evil Romans with a mere thought or word, but that wasn’t the true task. He was attending to the more important responsibility of bringing them back to God. And he was doing it not by leading an army, but by healing and teaching and bringing good news to the poor.

This gospel passage in the midst of preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth seems not to fit: it’s much more about the work than about the sweet and sentimental story of the baby in the manger. But we read it because it is good to know what we are getting into by committing ourselves to this king who is not king, this leader who serves us, this fighter who turns the other cheek.

The baby who will be king won’t be born in a palace. He will not command an army of soldiers. He will be surrounded by troublemakers and troubled souls, by tax collectors and the impoverished, by women of ill repute and men who have abandoned their families to follow him. He will find himself on the outs with the powers that be. He will die.

So if you’re going to fall in love with this little baby who is a newborn king, know what kind of a king you’re hooking up with. Know that you will not get glory on earth. You will probably not get peace on earth, despite the Christmas carols. But you do get something. Something important, more important that backing the right candidate for king or living in a fine palace: you will get heaven. For eternity, not just during the reign of a secular king.

That’s the king you will follow, if you choose. Not an ordinary king. But an extraordinary reward for following him. Watch for the baby, and watch what happens.


Sunday, December 08, 2013

Sermon for Advent II Sunday December 8, 2013 Matthew 3:1-12 “Get Ready”

If last Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, was all about staying awake and being aware of the infinite possibilities that God has in mind for us, as demonstrated by the birth of his Son as a human being as a gift of love, then this Sunday, the second Sunday of Advent, is all about getting ourselves ready for those possibilities.

And who brings this message? It’s Jesus’ cousin John, who is a rather odd individual. Matthew tells us that he’s been living rough in the wilderness, dressed in skins held together by a leather thong – no, not THAT kind of thong – and eating insects and wild honey. He’s preaching a harsh message: “Clean up your act. Tell God you’re sorry. You all are a mess. God is coming, and you must prepare yourself.”

Preaching that is generally not something we hear much of these days.

We tend to be more gentle, more polite, more sweet, to use a Southern word with more levels of meaning than the Qumran scrolls. We want, on some level, to make our parishioners feel good, feel loved, so that we will feel loved right back.

John the Baptist preaches like he has a hangover and a bad case of hemorrhoids. Most of us priests do not preach like that. We preach sweet. We preach love. We preach comfort.

But does that do the job that preachers are called to do?

There’s a great book by Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas and Methodist Bishop Will Willimon, “Resident Aliens.” In it are these words: “One of us is tempted to think there is not much wrong with the church that could not be cured by God calling about a hundred really insensitive, uncaring and offensive people into ministry.” They don’t identify which of them is thinking that, although I have a pretty good idea on that, but that’s not really important.

Why would two men of God say something like that?

Aren’t we supposed to love each other and nurture each other?

True, but it raises the question: what do we want from the church? Do we want a cuddle or do we want the truth? Do we want a comfortable space where we feel like we’re just fine, where we can pat ourselves on the back and think how nice we are because we come to church once a week? Or do we want to go into the wilderness to face the hard truths of who we are, what the church is and is not, what the world needs and what God expects of us? That’s the message that Hauerwas and Willimon suggest might be conveyed by those insensitive, tough preachers. And we need to hear it, but we preachers are not always ready and willing to share it.

To be sure, it’s a hard thing, this preaching work. We hear from our preaching professors about being prophetic (which translates to preaching like John the Baptist with a little more finesse and subtlety) in our sermons, and we are all fired up, and then we go to our parishes and what happens?

We priests hear people’s stories and develop relationships with our parishioners, and we temper our message because we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings or cause them to dislike us. We chicken out. We are not prophetic. We are careful, and being careful is the kiss of death to good preaching.

Does that mean I should suddenly turn to you and start calling you a brood of vipers? Of course not. You’re not vipers, and I’m not an eater of locusts and honey wearing animal skins. At the very least, if you’re a viper, I’m probably one too.

But what it may mean for us, and for me, that we need to turn from the sentimentality that we are awash in right now, the nostalgia for a Christmas season that is probably much nicer in memory than it was in fact, and put ourselves into the wilderness to do the hard work of preparation for Jesus’ birth. Advent is a time to get ready, and just like climbing up on ladders to hang the outdoor lights, just like braving the stores to buy presents, we have to take risks to get ready for the birth of God’s only son.

And that requires some blunt language.

John says “Repent. The kingdom of heaven has come near.”

I will be equally blunt.

If you knew that Jesus was coming for you in three weeks, what would you do to prepare yourself? Would you think about squeezing in a few items on your bucket list or would you think about trying to make peace with people from whom you have been estranged? Would you think about throwing a great big party or would you think about giving away your money and your stuff that you will no longer need? Would you think about pretending that Jesus isn’t coming because it’s too scary, or would you get down on your knees and ask God to help you do the real wilderness work, the real soul repair work, before it was too late?

We don’t get to the stable and the newborn child without going through the desert wilderness. We don’t get to celebrate until we understand the real meaning of the celebration. We don’t get to sing of the angels and the shepherds without praying “come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” We don’t get to open the gift – the ultimate gift, the Son of God – until we prepare for what he will expect from us.

Jesus is coming. Get ready, not only with gift wrap and strings of lights and cookies, but with prayer, with meditation, with reading of God’s story. Take a walk in the wilderness on your way to the stable. You’ll figure out the way as you walk through the darkness, because off in the distance, the light in the stable will beckon you. Here’s a secret: you wouldn’t notice that gentle light without the darkness. So pay attention and get ‘er done. Get ready. You’re almost out of time. Get ready.