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Saturday, December 24, 2011

They Went In Haste

Christmas Eve B 2011

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Despised. Outcast. Employed by others to manage flocks, rather than owning the animals themselves. Fouled by and smelling of animal waste, excluded from polite company and from religious services. Moving from one grazing land to another, sleeping outside among the animals, poor, generally considered to be thieves and liars, barred by reputation from giving testimony in legal proceedings. They were the lowest of the low, avoided by good people. Parents warned their children to stay away, lest they be kidnapped or harmed.

And yet, when the heavens open and angels announce the miracle, it is not to kings and princes, not to the rich at ease in their warm and comfortable homes, not to the priests in the Temple compound, not to the artisans and farmers and fishermen. It is not to the clean, to the righteous, to the mannered, to the people who would be at church that week. When the angels sing, they sing to the shepherds. When the angels choose the bearers of the good news to the world, they choose those whose testimony is banned in court. When the angels sing Gloria in Excelsis, they invite to the chorus ragged wanderers who smell like sheep.

It fits the rest of the story: God’s great reversal of everything that the world finds holy and valuable and important. The King of Creation is born to an unwed peasant girl miles away from her home. The Son of God is laid in an animal’s feeding trough. Ignored by the priests of his own religion, he is worshipped by pagan astrologers who bring, at his birth, spices used for his embalming. The Lord of Life will be hunted by soldiers, sent by a paranoid king to massacre hundreds of infants. The baby and his parents will become illegal aliens in a foreign country before they finally come home after the death of the tyrant. The Messiah will grow up in an obscure village, become a wandering teacher who calls people to lives of compassion and mercy, and be executed by politicians collaborating with religious authorities. And three days after his public execution, he will rise from the dead, proof that everything the world finds of worth – power, wealth, influence, greed, fame, pride, lust – are fool’s gold. And all the things the world despises – mercy, justice, humility, faithfulness, kindness, self-sacrifice – turn out to be eternal treasure.

The angels announce God’s incarnation to shepherds. It is like a great cosmic joke: the very people whom no one would believe are entrusted with the task of announcing the most important message ever delivered. The first visitors invited to worship The Lord of the universe become flesh are despised people on the margins of the society, smelling of sheep offal. But shepherds were not always so despised: again and again, God describes himself to the Hebrews as their shepherd: the Mighty One of Jacob, the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel (Genesis 49:24); the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want (Psalm 23); Give ear, O shepherd of Israel (Psalm 80; He shall feed his flock like a shepherd (Is. 40.11). The great King David, the ancestor and model of the promised Messiah, was a shepherd, and all kings were commanded to shepherd the nation as their flock: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel (2 Sam. 5:2). Israel was a shepherd people, and the allure of the Promised Land to the Hebrews crossing the Sinai desert was the flowing streams and green pastures of Canaan, where they could graze their sheep.

What had once been a divine calling – to care for the defenseless and lead them to safe places to feed and sleep in peace – had become a despised and marginalized life. Disenfranchised, excluded, and condemned, shepherds kept to themselves at a distance from town, synagogue, and home. So, on this amazing night when the heavens open and the armies of heaven sing songs of praise, it is any wonder that the shepherds rush to obey the command of the angels to see this thing that has happened – so say the angels – to them? Hear the words anew: Let us go – NOW – to Bethlehem, and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known – TO US! The least trusted members of the society have been entrusted with the greatest secret in history. The very people farthest from the heart of the nation have been invited into the very center of the new world that God has begin that night.

Some of us are here tonight sitting at the edges of the congregation and of the community. Some of us live outside the safety of enough money, of good health, of happiness, of peace. Some of us know what it means to be despised and rejected, shunned by polite people, without power to change our circumstances. Some of us are mourning empty chairs at the Christmas table, chairs emptied by death or by divorce or by estrangement. Some of us feel as though we are covered with the world’s excrement, or maybe by our own, and we are hurt, angry, ashamed, and helpless. Even the wealthiest, the healthiest, and the happiest here tonight somewhere deep down inside feel like lost shepherds: lonely, rejected, and misunderstood.

This story, tonight, is for you. The angels still sing, and tonight they are singing to you. Listen as you have never listened before; hear these words down in that barren hillside of your heart where you feel hurt and ashamed and all alone: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing YOU good news of great joy for all the people: to YOU is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for YOU: YOU will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

The Lord of heaven and earth has come to be with you for ever and ever, and has sent all the choirs of heaven tonight to sing, just for you. God has become one of us: despised, lost, and rejected, so we will never be outsiders to his love – and to his people – ever again.

Don’t waste another second. Run, as fast as you can. You’ve been invited to the manger, to fall down in wonder at this miracle, for you.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Let It Be

Luke 1:26-38                                                                                                         

26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. 
It was not a religious song at all.  It was about his mother, who died of cancer when he was fourteen.  The band had been rehearsing for a new album, and the tensions that soon led to the breakup of the band were running high.  His mother appeared to him in a dream, comforting him, telling him “It will be all right, just let it be.”  The song turned out to be the last song the band ever recorded together, and it became one of their greatest hits, winning Grammys and an Academy Award.  You might know it: 

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

Let it be, let it be.
Let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

And when the broken hearted people
Living in the world agree,
There will be an answer, let it be.
For though they may be parted there is
Still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer, let it be.

Let it be, let it be.
Let it be, let it be.
There will be an answer, let it be.

Let it be, let it be.
Let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

Let it be, let it be.
Let it be, let it be.
There will be an answer, let it be.

And when the night is cloudy,
There is still a light that shines on me.
Shine until tomorrow, let it be.
I wake up to the sound of music
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

Let it be, let it be.
Let it be, let it be.
There will be no sorrow, let it be.

Let it be, let it be.
Let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be. 
The composer, of course, was Paul McCartney, and the band was the Beatles.  Paul’s mother’s name was Mary.  And even though Paul had no intention of writing a religious song, sometimes artists write “beyond themselves,” creating a meaning they never consciously intended.  That’s the greatness of great art:  it opens us to worlds beyond the limitations of the artist.
I cannot read the story of the Annuciation – the announcement by the angel Gabriel to Mary that she would be the mother of the Messiah – without hearing Let It Be.  It seems to me that Mary is a model for us of what it means to love God, and this song is an anthem for us as we seek to follow Christ.  By the way, that’s two thirds of our new proposed mission statement:  Love God, Follow Christ, Serve Others.
Did, I wonder, God have other young women in mind for the mother of the Messiah?  Did Gabriel come knocking on the door of other Jewish women who were too busy to hear his quiet rapping?  Did some of them let him in, or simply notice when he appeared in a dream or in the daylight, but politely or not tell him to get lost?  Mother of the Messiah?  No thanks, Gabriel, I have other plans.  I don’t want to ruin my figure.  I have a fancy wedding all planned.  My fiancĂ© would never understand.  This would destroy my reputation.  Thanks, but no thanks, Gabriel.  This womb is not available.
What is God trying to conceive in us that we might be too busy, too occupied, too self-important to receive?  I don’t want God to do something new in me – I want God to fix the mess in my life that’s broken.  I want God to confirm my values and my opinions, not make me think new thoughts, feel new feelings, head in new directions.  This is Christmas – I want to hear Silent Night and It’s the Hap-Happiest Time of the Year, even if it’s neither.  My mind is made up – don’t confuse me with something new, Gabriel.
But I have a hunch that what secretly draws us to the Christmas story is our flickering hope that just maybe, this time, something new and miraculous really will happen, the way it did when we were little children and everything was new and miraculous.  Friday Vicki and I met our daughter Sarah, her husband Brantley, and our five week old grandson Leo, for lunch and to exchange presents.  I got to hold Leo for a while after lunch, and watch him as he looked out the window of the restaurant and at me.  Everything for Leo is new and amazing.  Isn’t that what we want at Christmas –in the words of C.S. Lewis’ autobiography, to be Surprised By Joy?  One Christmas years ago, Leo’s mother, Sarah, gave us a long list of Christmas wishes, and Vicki and I got her almost everything on the list.  We watched as she opened present after present, pleased but considerably less than ecstatic.  When she had opened everything and was sitting glumly on the sofa, we asked her how she liked her presents.  “They’re OK,” she answered.  “OK?  Everything was something you asked for!” we pointed out.  “I know,” she said, “it’s just that I knew everything that I was getting.”  Vicki and I vowed to never get Sarah what she wanted again.  She wanted to be surprised.  And, really, aren’t we all hoping for something newer, greater, grander than we imagined or hoped?
So, what makes us reject the miraculous new thing that God wants to do in us, or just makes us deaf and blind to the possibility?  I don’t know about you, but in me it’s just plain fear.  There’s something very comfortable and reassuring about what’s familiar.  What I know is safe, and under control.  Something new might require that I change my mind or my heart or my life, or maybe even my wallet.  What’s the phrase – better the devil you know than the angel you don’t?  Besides, in a world in which everything around me is changing at light speed, can’t God just let me stay where I am?  I like it here – it’s familiar.  I know my way around, even in the dark.  Change someone else, God.
What impresses me most about Mary is her courage.  When Mary says Let it be to the angel, she is not passively submitting herself to something over which she has no control.  Let it be is not surrender – it is affirmation and direction.  My friend and fellow pastor Bill Davis used to say that his model as a pastor was Captain Jean-Luc Piccard of the Starship Enterprise, Next Generation:  he wanted to be able to say to his crew, Make It So, and have the church jump into warp drive.  Let it be is Make it so.  Mary is entering into a partnership with God, as sure a partnership as any mother joins with the father of her child.  Mary is not a passive receptacle for God – she is an active co-Creator in the salvation of the world.  That’s absolutely clear in the next few verses, which we read responsively a few minutes ago: 
My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
 Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

This is no timid village maiden, cowering in fear.  This is a woman who knows from the get-go that God is starting a revolution not only in her, but with her.  Mary’s let it be isn’t a whatever – it’s really a bring it on.
That’s why Mary is the first Christian, and a model for us all.  That’s something we Protestants desperately need to learn from our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters.  Mary doesn’t submit – she engages God body, mind, and heart.  She becomes God’s partner in changing the world.  And even though she knows that the world cannot be saved without sorrow and blood and loss, she lets God use her to do something newer and greater and grander than she or anyone else could ever imagine.  That, by the way, is my answer to the question posed in tonight’s anthem:  Mary, Did You Know?
What are you looking for this Christmas?  Do you really just want the things on your list?  Or do you, once again, want to be a little child hoping to be surprised and amazed by something new in you and for you?  It can happen, you know, if you’ll just let God
Let it be, let it be.
Let it be, let it be.
There will be an answer:
Let it be.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Always Thankful

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24                                                                       

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
Be honest.  How many of you skip to the ending of a book or of a story to find out how it turns out, or whodunit, or if it’s going to be a happy ending before you read the rest of the book?  Sometimes you need to know how things are going to turn out so you can make it through the rest of the story.  When I was a little boy watching TV, I would run and hide behind the big wing chair in the living room when Lassie got trapped in a cave, or when Sky King’s airplane engines caught on fire, or when a rattlesnake was creeping up on the Lone Ranger.  And what added insult to injury was that my parents would laugh at me, hiding behind the chair until the coast was clear.  It took me years to figure out what they knew – that Lassie and Sky King and the Lone Ranger were going to be OK because the show had to be on again next week.  Knowing that somehow the story would turn out OK let my parents do what I couldn’t – relax and enjoy the story.
For the past two weeks we’ve been talking about how New Testament letters like 2 Peter and 1 Thessalonians are addressed to early Christians confused about why Jesus hasn’t returned already, as they thought he had promised.  These baby believers are caught between the “now” and the “not yet” of God’s promises.  How should they live in the present, believing that all this might vanish in the blink of an eye?  Should we get married?  Should we save for retirement?  Should we have children?  Should we look for a new job, or a new house, if the world might end tomorrow?
How did it feel when you were about to experience a major change in your life?  Maybe it was when you were about to graduate, or about to get married.  Maybe when you were getting ready to leave one job for another, or about to retire.  Maybe it was when the kids were getting ready to move out – or maybe when the parents were getting ready to move out!  Or maybe it was when somebody you loved was leaving, or dying.  How did it change your feelings about what was happening at the moment, as you waited for what was to come?
One way to treat everything around you that you’re about to leave is to despise it.  That’s pretty typical for people getting ready to leave home for college:  parents and brothers and sisters and friends and everything you’ve known for seventeen or eighteen years become amazingly stupid, dense, ugly, and worthless.  If you’re a survivor of that from a rising college freshman, take heart – that’s a sign that he or she is really having a hard time leaving everything they love.  I confess that I do something like that when I’m moving from one church to another – I decide that things will be so much better in that new place than they are back here.  Of course, that’s true about moving to Providence – but I have used that emotional cheap trick to get some distance from people I love and am leaving.
Paul urges the Thessalonians to use a different strategy as they wait for the new world to come.  Instead of distancing themselves from what’s all around them, instead of discounting and disparaging their lives, Paul tells them to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Easier said than done, isn’t it?  How do we rejoice when we’re struggling to make ends meet?  How can we give thanks when people we love are suffering and the world seems to be going to hell before our eyes?
The November issue of our Virginia Conference magazine, The Advocate, featured some telling stories about being thankful.  One story was about Mississippi City United Methodist Church in Gulfport, Alabama, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  The sanctuary organ was tossed upside down.  When recovery workers picked their way through the debris, a United Methodist Hymnal was lying open on top of the upside down organ, with the pages opened to Hymn of Promise, the second verse of which sings There’s a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me.
 From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery, 
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.  The article went on to talk about the gratitude of people on the Gulf Coast for the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who came to help.  Another article cited noted preacher Barbara Brown Taylor’s amazement at friends of hers who have responded to losses and painful experiences in their lives with thanksgiving, because, as she writes, Most of them tell me that (gratitude) is one of the few choices left to them:  to decide how they will respond to what has happened to them.  The minute they find something to be grateful for, they cease being victims of their circumstances and become people able to give thanks.  The same article cites TV host Deborah Norville, who in a book on gratitude says that scientific research has discovered that an “attitude of gratitude” actually alters brain chemistry and reduces physical signs of stress.[1]
It seems to me that the clue to Paul’s instructions to rejoice always and to give thanks in all circumstances is found in the admonition found in between them:  pray without ceasing.  Prayer is the peanut butter that holds the bread slices of rejoicing and thankfulness together.  Paul is telling us to turn our lives into a prayer – a continuous conversation with God, who is the giver of all the gifts we experience moment to moment.
Christmas is coming, or so I hear.  Imagine that your life is Christmas Day, and God is sitting by the tree, handing you one present after another.  You open one, and it’s an amazing sunrise.  What do you say and do about that?  God hands you the next present, which is that you’re out of your favorite breakfast food.  Since is God is right there, are you going to cry and pout, or are you going to rejoice and thank God that there’s something else to eat?  Maybe later in the day God hands you a diagnosis from your doctor that isn’t good.  What is God using in that to teach you, or to teach someone else through you?  But then later God connects you with an old friend, or surprises you with a song you’d forgotten, or sends you a message in a TV program that you needed to hear.  Every day is Christmas, and God is handing us gifts, some lovely, some not, but all opportunities to learn and grow and love.  When every day is a non-stop conversation with God, then there are endless opportunities to rejoice and to give thanks, no matter the circumstances.  This, Paul says, is the will of God in Jesus Christ for you.  This is how Jesus lived, and how you and I are called to live as well.
And, we don’t have to hide behind the wing chair in fear or in fury, because we’ve peeked at the last page of the book.  Not only are Lassie and the Lone Ranger and Sky King going to be on next week, but we know that God wins.  Oh, we might not win.  In fact – I hate to break it to you – but we’re not going to make it.  Nobody makes it out of this world alive.  But the last page in the book says that God wins.  It says that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and that God will dwell in the midst of his people, and that mourning and crying and pain will be no more, because all the former things have passed away.
So, I offer you these three simple suggestions, knowing that God has destined us for salvation, as Paul says in verse 9 of this chapter:
1.    Before you get out of bed, repeat this verse:  This is the day the Lord has made:  let us rejoice and be glad in it.  Keep saying it until you mean it, and only then put your feet on the floor.
2.   Find ten small things to be thankful for, as soon as possible:  sleep, coffee, central heat, indoor plumbing, your home, breakfast, family, school, a job, the car, health, the dog or the cat, friends, erasers, socks, deodorant.  Start small, and you will start giving thanks for the most unlikely things.
3.    Play the glad game.  The children’s classic Pollyanna is about a young orphan who goes to live with her unhappy and overcontrolling aunt, but who transforms the entire community by finding something to be glad about in any situation.  Pollyanna invented the glad game when she went to the mission barrel at Christmas hoping to find a doll, but all that was left was a pair of crutches.  Pollyanna decided she was really glad because she didn’t need the crutches.  When sentenced to a meal of bread and milk, she is glad because she loves bread and she loves milk.  Where is the glad in what you’re facing this moment? 
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  We know how the story turns out.  Christmas is coming, no matter how far it may feel at the moment.  God wins, no matter how much it looks like he is losing.  And every moment is a gift from God, because, after all, we are not victims as long as we can choose to give thanks.

[1] The Virginia United Methodist Advocate, November, 2011

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Patience, NOW! (Advent 2B 2011)

2 Peter 3:8-15a    
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.
The 2007 film Lars and the Real Girl, starring Ryan Gosling, is the tale of a socially inept young man who orders a life-sized doll from an internet website, and, when she arrives, introduces her to his family and friends as Bianca, a wheelchair-bound missionary of Brazilian and Danish ancestry.  Concerned about his mental health, Lars’ family convinces him to take Bianca to se the family doctor, who is also a psychologist.  The doctor diagnoses Bianca with low blood pressure and tells Lars to bring her back every week.  She also begins treating Lars for delusional disorder, but tells the family that they need to treat Bianca as real, because, to Lars, she is.  The community, including the church, accepts all this without blinking an eye.
One morning, Lars announces that Bianca is unresponsive, and she is rushed to the hospital by ambulance.  Lars tells everyone that Bianca is dying, and that she wants to come home to die.  Three women from Lars’ church come to his house, bringing casseroles:
Sally: We brought casseroles
Lars : Thank you.  [Lars looks around the sewing circle. The three ladies are knitting and doing needlepoint] Um, is there something I should be doing right now?
Mrs. Gruner: No, dear. You eat.
Sally: We came over to sit.
Hazel: That's what people do when tragedy strikes.
Sally: They come over, and sit.
And so the three women from church sit with Lars, and wait, because that’s what we do, especially in times of tragedy.  We sit, and we wait.
It’s hard to wait.  Ask the children about waiting for Christmas.  But we live in an impatient world, now stocked with gadgets to make sure we don’t have to be patient.  I am old enough to remember the first instant-on televisions.  In the days before transistors, it took several minutes for the tubes in the TV set to warm up enough for you to be able to see a picture on the black and white screen.  In the 1960’s, electronics moved into the transistor age, and when you flicked the on switch, the image appeared almost instantly, aided by the trickle of current the TV was constantly drawing from the electric socket, to the great delight of the electric company.  Now, we don’t have to be patient about anything – even when we’re waiting, there are TV sets blaring, we have iPods to listen to, and, thank God, we are never out of touch with the entire universe thanks to our smart phones, on which we can talk, text, check Facebook and the news, and play games simultaneously.  We have fast food, instant messaging, and twenty-four hour news.  Who needs to wait?
Well, we do.  In the 1960’s Stanford University psychology researcher Michael Mischel devised an experiment in which he placed a single marshmallow in front of hungry 4-year old children, but told them that if they could wait to eat until after the researcher returned from running an errand, they could have two marshmallows.  He noted which children – about one-third of the group -- ate the first marshmallow, and which were capable of delaying gratification for 15 to 20 minutes.  He then tracked these children through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.
Years later when the children graduated from high school, the differences between the two groups were dramatic: the resisters were more positive, self-motivating, persistent in the face of difficulties, and able to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals. They had the habits of successful people which resulted in more successful marriages, higher incomes, greater career satisfaction, better health, and more fulfilling lives than most of the population.
Those having grabbed the marshmallow were more troubled, stubborn and indecisive, mistrustful, less self-confident, and still could not put off gratification. They had trouble subordinating immediate impulses to achieve long-range goals. When it was time to study for the big test, they tended to get distracted into doing activities that brought instant gratification. This impulse followed them throughout their lives and resulted in unsuccessful marriages, low job satisfaction and income, bad health, and frustrating lives.[1]

In other words, learning patience – learning how to wait, how to delay gratification now for something better down the road – is key to a successful life.  Parents, think very carefully before you buy your child that smart phone, or that computer for their room, or that toy, or that whatever so your child won’t have to, God forbid, wait.  If they don’t learn delayed gratification they may end up being members of congress or bankers.
In today’s Epistle, Peter is trying to explain to early Christians who thought Jesus was coming back soon and very soon why they should be patient.  Since we’re waiting not just for Christmas but for the same thing those early Christians were – the establishment of God’s Kingdom of justice, love, and peace, and the eradication of suffering, death, war, and inequality – we need to learn some patience as well.  Peter’s advice to those of us who want to be more godly is that we imitate God, who is the essence of patience.  The Lord is merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, say Psalms 145 and 103.  The Suffering Servant in Isaiah is patient.   God is patient with the sinful Hebrews in the Wilderness, with the idolatrous people of Israel and Judah, Jesus is patient beyond all measure with the clueless disciples.  Think of what God puts up with from you, and especially from me every hour of every day.  God is patient, and if we want to be more godly, then we need to be patient as well.  The reason why the world hasn’t ended yet, Peter says, is because God is patient and is waiting for us to get our acts together so that none of us get damned when the world ends.  Who are we to be less patient with God – or with life -- than God is with us?
David Baily Harned, my first theology teacher in college, says in his wonderful little book Patience:  How We Wait Upon the World, that patience is a crucial but forgotten spiritual virtue because when we wait, we are being open and receptive to what comes to us from the outside, rather than living under the delusion that we are what we do.  When we fill every spare second with reading, with TV or a computer or smart phone screen, with talking, with doing of one form or another, we inflate our self-importance but miss out on what God might want to give us in the spaces.  Perhaps the reason why God comes to Mary to give birth to the Messiah is because Mary was quiet.  She wasn’t checking her email every five minutes, she wasn’t glued to the TV, she didn’t have her ear buds in, she wasn’t running her mouth.  She was waiting.  She was patient.  She was open
This gift of Advent, which we ruin with our frenzied activity, is meant to teach us patience.  If you are impatient – which, if you live in this culture, you almost assuredly are – the path to patience is like the path to any discipline, athletic, mental, emotional, or spiritual.  Start small.  Begin by setting aside five minutes to do nothing.  I mean, nothing.  No phone, no book, no music, no TV, no talking, no driving, nothing.  Just sit.  Just be.  Listen.  And if absolutely nothing happens, that’s just fine.  Just wait.  And the next day, try it a little longer.
Practice patience every time you have to wait.  When you’re waiting for an appointment, don’t check your phone or the TV or a magazine.  Just wait.  At the traffic light, just wait.  At the restaurant, just wait.  In the kitchen, just wait.  Listen.  Look around.  Be.
My friend and fellow United Methodist pastor Dwight Zavitz used to have a plaque on his office wall that expresses the essence of the holy patience Advent has to teach us, as we wait for the Kingdom of God.  It begins, from Psalm 46,
Be still, and know that I am God.
Be still, and know that I am.
Be still, and know.
Be still.


Saturday, November 26, 2011


Advent 1B 2011
1 Corinthians 1:3-9                                                                                                         
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. 
When, someone asked me this week, did Black Friday become such a concept in our culture?  Black Friday:  the day after Thanksgiving, when supposedly Christmas shopping season begins.  Whoever got the idea Christmas shopping began then never met my mother.  But, according to Wikipedia, the term originated in the mid-nineteen sixties in Philadelphia, where it originally was used to describe the heavy and disruptive pedestrian and vehicle traffic which would occur on the day after Thanksgiving. Use of the term . . . began to see broader use outside Philadelphia around 1975.[1]  Despite the humorous shopping scene in the 1996 movie, Jingle All the Way, there have been actual incidents of violence among shoppers fighting each other to get the best bargains.  This year a woman in California used pepper spray to fight off other consumers vying with her to get the newest Xbox 360 game.  In 2006 store videos in a Roanoke, Virginia Best Buy recorded a man assaulting another shopper.  Last year a woman in Madison, Wisconsin was arrested for cutting into line and threatening to shoot anyone who objected.  And in 2008 a crowd of 2,000 shoppers waiting in line for the 5 a.m. opening of Walmart broke down the doors and trampled a store employee to death.  When police and store employees tried to intervene, the shoppers complained they were tired of waiting in the cold and refused to halt.  Black Friday, indeed.[2]
The authors of the Advent Conspiracy study we’re going to be holding on Wednesday mornings and evenings challenge how the world – especially the business world – has stolen the Christmas story from the church and used it for their own purposes.  This is our story, the study says, and we need to look at it again to see what it really says, and reclaim it as our own.  So, this season, listen carefully to the scripture lessons.  They’re not about video games and elves and reindeer and stuffing ourselves full of food.  You’re not going to change Toys R Us and Best Buy, but you can live an alternative.
Nowhere is that alternative more clear than in Paul’s message to the church in Corinth, our first reading for today.  Let’s set the stage:  Corinth was a city in Greece at an important mercantile crossing between the Aegean and Ionian Seas.  People of every nation, religion, color, and tongue lived there.  The young Christian Church there reflected the diversity of the city.   As hard as it is for us to deal with diversity in our own time, it was even more difficult for these early Christians to figure out what it meant to follow a Jewish messiah as Jews, Greeks, Romans, Turks, Africans, and heaven only knows what else.  Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church was written because the church was tearing itself apart because of theological, cultural, and ethical conflict.  That is why, after writing chapter after chapter about the proper use of different spiritual gifts like tongues and prophecy and healing and teaching and interpretation, Paul sums everything up in his famous thirteen chapter by saying that it doesn’t make any difference how gifted you are spiritually if you don’t love people.  Faith, hope, and love endure, these three, but the greatest of them is love.
We have to read this morning’s lesson in the light of what was happening in the Corinthian Church and Paul’s ultimate admonition to them about love.  Paul begins his letter as he begins almost every other letter in the New Testament:  Grace to you and peace.  But, from whom does grace and peace come?    Not from Paul and Sostenes, his scribe:   from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Now, look at how Paul reminds his listeners, again and again, where everything that’s good comes from:  I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Paul’s language is specific and deliberate, as he writes to a church that is tearing itself apart over who is the more spiritual, the more gifted, the more holy in the congregation.  It’s not about you, Paul says at the outset:  anything that you have has been given you by God.  There’s nothing for you to brag about.  There’s nothing for you to Lord over someone else.  This is about God, not about you.
We’re all waiting, Paul says, for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.  In Paul’s day, Christians expected the world to end at any moment with the return of Christ in glory to judge the nations and create a new, eternal world of peace and justice where God alone would rule.  In the meantime, the infant Christian church was trying to figure out how to live, preparing for that day.
The answer, Paul says, is in verses 8 and 9:  (God) will strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We don’t do this on our own – we live by the power of God.  That’s the first mistake that the Corinthian Christians were making -- they thought that their spiritual gifts were self-generated.  Those of us studying the Book of Acts this fall have seen how Jesus very specifically says that the gift of the Holy Spirit is not for the personal pet use of believers, but to empower them to be witnesses to Christ.  God gives spiritual gifts, Paul says in First Corinthians, for building up the Body of Christ, the church.
What, then, does Paul mean when he says that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ?  Is he saying that only if we’re sinless are we safe when the world blows up?  Well, that might be true – if we are sinless then we wouldn’t have anything to worry about.  But how many of us here this morning are betting on being without sin when Jesus comes?
The key to blamelessness is in the next verse:  God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  This verse reveals the chasm between following Jesus and every other major religion on the planet.  God’s faithfulness is expressed by calling us into fellowship with Christ and with Christ’s people.  Adam Hamilton says that the church, for all its flaws, is God’s plan for the salvation of the world.  If you don’t like that, take it up with God, because it’s his plan, which the Bible says right here.  We cannot follow Jesus by ourselves.  We are called into the community of Christ’s Body.  And, if you read the rest of First Corinthians, it now becomes clear what Paul means by blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Our perfection isn’t measured by whether we said a cuss word when we hit our thumb with a hammer, or whether we failed a math test last week, or whether we doubt something in the Bible or that the preacher said last Sunday.  Blameless is a matter of our relationship with other people:  Jesus gave us a new commandment, to love others as he loved us and gave himself for us.  That’s what Paul says with complete clarity in the thirteenth chapter:  we can have the faith to move mountains, but if we do not love each other, we’re useless.
What does this have to do with Black Friday?  The rest of the world measures whether its ready for Christmas by whether they have beaten someone else to the Xbox 360 display.  If we have sacrificed enough time spent in line, or enough money, or enough effort to buy something no one needs, then, we believe, we must be a good parent, spouse, or friend.  We, who call ourselves by the name of Jesus, are often indistinguishable from that hell-bent clan.  If we are exhausted on Christmas Day, perhaps it is because Jesus will not answer our prayers for help in enduring that nonsense.

There is an alternative.  God pours out strength and gifts, Paul says, for us to be blameless in our love for God and for each other, for us to encourage each other in the fellowship of his Son to be something different from what’s going on around us.  We have this marvelous gift of Advent – a time of silence instead of noise, a time of repentance instead of celebration, a time of clearing out instead of accumulating, a time of serving the poor instead of imitating the rich. 

Every year we all look for the perfect Christmas, and we never find it.  I believe the scriptures are calling us to a different perfection, measured not by the perfect toy, the perfect decoration, the perfect meal, or the perfect performance.  God’s standard of perfection is in our love for God and for God’s people, expressed through the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  So, I invite us, together, to a season of prayer, of fasting, of silence, of worship, of study, and of sacrificial giving to the poor. 

God is faithful, 1 Corinthians 9 says.  Will we be? 

[2] ibid.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Keep Awake!

Pentecost 22A 2011
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11                                                                                 
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.
Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. 
It didn’t take long for two crises to emerge in the early Christian Church.  Whenever you get worried about some misunderstanding or difference of opinion or even some scandal in the Christian Church today, take heart:  we’re just like the church of the apostles in the first century.  When you read the New Testament, you discover attempted bribery, sexual immorality, arguments between leaders leading to the breakup of mission teams, organizational chaos, a shortage of funds, and jealousies.  They were muddling through in 50 AD just like we’re muddling through two millennia later.
But there are two deep spiritual/theological crises in the first century.  The first centers around the relationship between Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus.  For whom had Jesus come, and for whom had he died?  He was a Jew, and the whole concept of Messiah was a Jewish idea.  More specifically, to follow Jesus, did you first have to become Jewish?  The Apostle James, Jesus’ brother, clearly thought so.  St. Paul, who was Jewish, thought not.  And you and I are disciples of Jesus because Paul won that argument.
The second deep crisis was how believers were to understand the delay in Jesus’ return to defeat evil and establish the Kingdom of God.  At Pentecost, Peter explained the descent of the Holy Spirit as the beginning of the end of the world.  The church delayed organizing itself and discouraged marriage because they thought the world was going to end at any moment.  There’s a new movie that is coming out about how life on Earth is about to end because of its impending collision with another planet called Melancholia, which is also the name of the movie.  One character in the movie who is chronically depressed finds herself much better equipped to face the end of the world than her happy go lucky, optimistic friend:  the first was right about things getting worse, and the second was wrong about things getting better.  For the early church, what did it mean that Jesus had not returned?  Did they misunderstand?  Was Jesus coming back at all?  Or – as thought the church in Thessalonica – maybe it had happened and they had missed it and were left behind.  Does that sound familiar, with this year’s proclamation by Harold Camping that the world was ending?
Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians was written around AD 51 – eighteen years or so after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the founding of the church.  The people who had actually known Jesus were dying off.  What was the fate of believers who died before Jesus’ return?  Our belief about what happens when we die – that we go to be with God in eternity – was not universally understood or believed in the first century.  So, in chapter 4, Paul assures the Christians in Thessalonica that when Christ returns – Paul still thinks any day now – that there will first be a resurrection of the dead, and then the living will join the resurrected to live with Christ for ever.  That passage was the heart of John Nelson Darby’s -- a 19th century English clergyman – invention of the word rapture, to describe his new interpretation of the end of history.  Some other time I’ll explain why Darby’s dispensationalism and theories about the rapture -- which have become so hugely popular among conservative Christians that they think this is what the faith has always believed – are bunk.  For the moment, what Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4 is to reassure the church that their dead loved ones have not missed eternal life with Christ.
In the meantime, Paul asks, how shall we live as we wait for the end of the world?  Do we just go about business as usual?  Do we drop everything and go sit on a hill, scanning the skies?  Do we, as did Harold Camping’s followers, put our life savings into billboards telling people that the end is near?  What do we do while we wait?
We’re all waiting, you know.  That’s the theme of Samuel Beckett’s famous play, Waiting for Godot, in which Godot never arrives.  And, if the world doesn’t end in our lifetimes either with a bang or with a whimper, our worlds end when we close our eyes in death.  The central question of life is how to live while we’re waiting for the end.
Here’s Paul’s answer: But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.
The great temptation, Paul is telling us, is not to pay attention.  Few of us die in our sleep at 95:  while modern medicine and the food and drug administration and living in a safe country and safe community and airbags and seat belts have extended our lifespan, accident, illness, evil, and genetics still wreak havoc.  But even the best and luckiest of us, dying at 95, realize how much they missed along the way, because they didn’t pay attention.  They slept through it, or they were just numb.
I hate to ruin the reputation of the University of Virginia, but I actually made it through college without getting high or drunk.  That’s not because I was or am some great saint, but because I am the world’s biggest coward.  I’ve still never been drunk or high on illegal drugs.  But the first time I was prescribed a heavy dose of codeine because I was sick, I had a revelation.  Suddenly I completely understood drug addiction:  not only did I feel no pain, I didn’t feel anything.  I simply didn’t care.  The world could have ended in front of me, and it would have made no difference whatsoever.  And, as Psychiatrist John Bulette says, many people are in such emotional and spiritual pain in their lives that when they abuse drugs, most of which, like alcohol and cocaine and heroin, are actually depressants, the freedom from pain they experience feels like a high, even though it’s actually a low.
You don’t have to use drugs to be numbed and to lose attention.  Last week I talked about how multi-tasking keeps us from paying attention and makes us numb.  This morning I want to talk about a different kind of sleepy numbness that prevents us from seeing where God is at work in the world.
It will come for most of us in eleven days.  Sometime in the middle of the afternoon or maybe a little later, we will push back from the Thanksgiving table and groan that we can’t possibly eat another bite.  In many households, the men folk will stagger off to collapse in front of a television, and pretend to watch a football game.  But they won’t.  They’ll go to sleep.  I realized this week that’s the reason why the Detroit Lions always play on Thanksgiving Day – because nobody cares whether they win or not.  Of course this year, they’re doing really well for the first time in thirty years, and this may produce a major crisis in American family life if people miss their naps and actually watch the game.  This may finally be the crisis that forces Jesus to return and end the world.
Paul warns believers to be sober.  What is drunkenness but overindulgence?  We take things that are fine in moderation – not just food and drink, but everything else – and assume if a little bit is good, than a whole lot must be better.  A friend of mine who has studied American Indian religion says that Indians only used tobacco for special ceremonial purposes.  They never used it the way smokers use it now, and look what happened when people overindulged.
More is not more.  More, it turns out, is usually less.  And more – more food, more money, more house, more toys, more clothes, more activity, more entertainment, more sex, more whatever – becomes so overwhelming that we become numb.  We just want to go lie down and take a nap.  And so we miss everything.
The ancients knew better.  They created the season of Advent before Christmas.  They created a season of penance, fasting, self-denial, prayer, and humiliation before the great festival.  That season of denial was to sharpen people’s focus so they could notice what was happening around them.  What do we do?  We fill the four weeks before Christmas with an orgy of activity, of food, of noise, of shopping – and then can’t figure out on Christmas evening why we feel so numb, and why we feel like we missed something important.
We’re all waiting.  So, what do we do while we wait, all our lives long or short?  Paul says:
1.    pay attention.  Don’t get so overwhelmed and overindulged that you sleep through the miracles.  Self-denial sharpens all the senses, especially the spiritual ones.
2.   put on the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of salvation.  In the wonderful baseball film (not Field of Dreams!) Bull Durham, the veteran catcher Crash Davis is challenged to a fight by young pitcher Nuke LaLoosh.  Crash tosses him a baseball and tells Nuke to hit him in the chest from ten feet away.  Nuke refuses, saying it would kill Crash.  Crash tells him he can’t hit the broadside of a barn.  Nuke rears back in anger and throws, missing Crash and breaking a window instead.  Crash knew that Nuke was out of control and would do him no harm, which was the problem with his pitching, too.  When we put on the breastplate of love and faith and the helmet of salvation, we don’t have to put any energy into self-preservation.  Our constant and doomed efforts to save ourselves are precisely what exhaust us.  But when we trust our lives to God, then we’re free to pay attention to the miracles all around us.
We’re all waiting.  That’s what we do.  It’s what we do while we’re waiting that makes all the difference.  So, keep awake.  Don’t overindulge.  And don’t keep trying to save yourself.  There are miracles leaning on every lamppost, if we’ll just look.