Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Sermon 2010

I think if we counted the number of Christmas services held in this place it would come to a substantial total. But what is at the center of it? With all the gathering and recollecting and celebrating, why do we keep coming back, what does it bring to mind, how does it make our life different? I think there are some important things we can remember at this time of year in to keep ourselves focused on the living hope and heart of Christmas.

First God comes to us as a gift. First in the gift of our being. Then Jesus is a picture of how God fits in and lives out life in the middle of the human journey. Jesus comes to Bethlehem as a child to live out the truth that the presence of God can live from moment to moment, day to day, in our world, our neighborhood, in a life as bound by biology and politics and history and economic necessity as the world we live in. Jesus knew all about being human:

And it is a gift which shares with us. That is where we might find the centre of Christmas right now, in the present moment: where, by the Grace of God, each of us is a kind of Christmas present; where each of us is given and holds a gift, a specific and unique aspects of God’s love. A gift from the beginning of creation, in each of us uniquely, each and everybody, both in the visible church and outside, world-wide, a world full of gifts and gift-givers. I think that’s the gift of Christmas!

For each of us, like Jesus, is a gift from God, and so is everybody else! So what if we open that possibility, and realize that God calls us to look at each other and at ourselves, as a personal gift, an individual package, lovingly wrapped and presented, given with love from God.
What if we look at everyone, everything with the question; "What is God giving here? What is this to Love?"

Now this can change things! It means not overlooking anyone. Instead it involves looking with love at the likes, dislikes, proclivities, abilities and disabilities, history and humor of each one of us; all the facets of who everyone is, of who we are. That might seem difficult, but it could be easy! For if each one of us is a Christmas present from God, then letting God love the world in the middle of your life means being where you are, living where you are, loving what you do, going on as you can just like Jesus!

Because, and this is the second thing, you don’t have to be important to be a gift from God, look at Jesus! Born in a small-town in occupied territory, the word of God’s love enters the human family from the inside; joins us in the fragility, the trying times, the tender mercies, the faithful process of dealing with life on life’s terms.

So that means that we don’t meet God by being more than human, we don’t have to be heroes! God knows what it is to be a baby, a small child, a youngster in a small town, a tradesman, a member of a community. Because love can live anywhere, in small places as well as large, in villages and cities, in past, present and future, through good days and bad times, in the times when life goes well and the days that go down in defeat, love lives on, even when it’s done to death, even when your best hope for life lies hanging on the tree like a broken promise.

And then it can be difficult: it is not an easy road, honoring and caring for the pain of the world, in ourselves and in others, by witnessing the places where God’s love and God’s beloved are crucified, damaged, done to death to this very day. It takes effort and time, and it can hurt terribly - it made Jesus weep – and it takes us inevitably to the middle of the day when hope will die.

We see that in Jesus, the rule of God's love, living through difficult times, through hunger, thirst, tears, with family problems, organizational difficulties, clashing with the prevailing political and religious establishment, and finally becoming one with the homeless and sinners, with those who cry and cry out, becoming one with people who have no voice and no name. And being put to death by the state, Jesus becomes one with those who are to be written off as officially expendable.

And he lives through it That is written into his life as clear as love, from the very beginning. He gives himself up in the name of the love that does not end; he pours himself out like living water, food for the thirsty and hungry, the poor and those with no home, wanderers and beggars of God. He becomes good word and loving action, bread and wine for them. He not only acts out but he serves to flesh out an understanding of how God loves us and feeds us and meets us on the road where we are and he takes us along with him!

Remember that! Learn this Christmas that God’s love and God’s life is deeper than death; and that is the gift we are given.
This is the centre of the Christmas message that takes us right through to Easter, a part of that deep surprise that the saints and the tradition and the scripture and the community of faith gathering over space and time all gather ‘round and point to. Love Lives!

In Jesus, God loves from the inside, from being as we are in every way, except he never closes the door on that awareness of connection, of creativity and love in the centre of everywhere. And in Jesus, God is willing to share that life with us!

And so today we’re asked to open that Christmas gift, to take the chance, to bet our lives, that the centre of the whole creation, our very selves, souls and bodies, connections and communities, is woven together with the deepest kind of caring: the creative love of God in everything here and now. We are called to open to the chance that the outpouring of love we see in the life of Jesus is calling out to everyone. That’s what we’re trying to unwrap here; to get that story, that hope, and that gift, that very inspired breathing into our hearts, our minds, our daily lives.

So this Christmas, as we witness the birth of this deep hope, open your present and follow this child Jesus right through the middle of life! Follow his lead, move with his rhythm, walk his walk.

For the life of Christ shows us how to dance with God, to partner with Gods love in the intricacies and rhythms of our own truths in our history and hope, our own life and times, and in all the different communities where God loves to be found. Like any dance, it can begin with a single step, but keep working on it, playing with it, living it out, and it will change your heart, it will change your mind, it will change your life!

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Advent 4A

The Advent question is this: How does a word of God come among us, how is it conceived, raised up, given life? How does a message, a newborn relationship, a call to serve, to heal, to teach, to love, to live out God’s love first take root in our minds, hearts, priorities and purpose? How does God’s life live in our lives?

The answer to that question is in the history of the church, for we are the record of the life and ministry of Jesus, of God’s word in flesh, over time, seen and lived out in history, geography and community. The recorded lives of the saints, of the apostles, of the martyrs all answer that question in some detail. To start with the scripture, the wrestling with revelation and community that we see in the writing of Paul is a part of our history; and in the life of Peter, as we see the disciple changed from saying too much and doing too little; changed to see the hand, the breath, the life of God grow strong in the life of Peter and makes him strong, turning him to a rock of faith, a witness and a martyr, sending him out to preach good news, to be good news.

So the last two thousand years is enlightened by the bright witnesses of saints and martyrs, agents of mercy and forgiveness, of poetry and politics, of repentance and new life. They comes in different shapes and sizes, male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free, quite a variety. Like that rather sweet (some would say saccharine) hymn, “one was a soldier and one was a priest and one was killed by a fierce wild beast.... [and going on] you can meet them in schools or in lanes or at sea; in church or in trains or in shops or at tea / for the saints of God are just folk like me and I mean to be one too!”

Someone just like you and me was Maximilien Kolbe, a Franciscan priest incarcerated in a prison camp in WW2 Germany, he was a neighbor, a friend, a person of prayer and reconciliation to all around him. One day, standing in a room where a group of men were set aside for assassination, sentenced to death, and hearing one man cry out, “but I have a wife and child,” Kolbe said, “send me” and went to his death as an apostle, a martyr, a saint of God’s creative mercy, sacrificial love and saving spirit. These people continue the saving acts of God to be witnesses, lights of God’s love, agents of God’s love.

A lot of us simply try, day after day, with varying degrees of success, “to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.” We do what we can, and most of us are, if not rank sinners, are somewhat damaged goods, just like most of the apostles. We all start out slowly just like them: less stained glass saints than sick people getting better, made more healthy by living day by day in the light and love of the life of God we see in the life, the ministry, the death and resurrection, the sacrifice and the salvation offered by this Jesus. In this Peter and Paul are a lot like us. And so are Mary and Joseph.

Mary and her husband offer two pictures of how faith can come to us, as well as two ways of responding to God’s action in our lives. So they serve as models of witness, pilgrimage and wonder. For Mary it seems more clearcut, easier, maybe she is younger, more able to say yes, to be formed with God’s image within her, to be a vehicle for Gods action to be born out of her assent.

Sometimes the message comes and is seen clearly, and we say yes! Even if it’s a surprise, if it takes us into new beginning, if it meets us at our most inexperienced, we say yes, willing to be a vessel and vehicle of a new graceful message, and Mary has this experience.

But other times it comes slowly, over time, after deliberation and at some cost, and Joseph is a model for this experience. Some traditions states that Joseph was older and -- let’s face it, when you’re older these experience, of a new life in faith, new duties, new directions, take more time.

It couldn’t be easy for him. “The woman you are planing to marry is pregnant, and it is not your child!” Joseph shows he’s compassionate right at the start, when he decides to end the relationship without publicity. He could move to a more violent response, it would have been in accord with scripture - and there’s one more reason I am no fundamentalist - but he is merciful, determined to put her away: simply to give her up: maybe he gives the whole matter over to God. And then he has a dream.

Maybe you’re not like me, but I’ve had a few dreams in my life that have been very helpful; where a problem has been solved, a new option outlined. I’ve awakened with more than a few sermons where a new ending came into being, and sometimes my mind has been changed by an insight that allowed a new possibility.

So Joseph has a dream where he is told that the woman he planned to marry is pregnant with God’s child, Emmanuel, God with us. It is not as dramatic, as immediate, as the experience that Mary has in Luke’s Gospel, and we don’t get a pretty speech in response. But Joseph wakes up resolved to do as the angel has commanded and he takes Mary as his wife and gives his life to protect, to father this new beginning as best he can, this new birth of God into the world.

And I wonder if he always had doubts? This morning I hope so, for then he is a model for all of us who sometimes doubt. Because he still followed through, made room and gave comfort for that miraculous birth, husbanded the life that allowed God’s word to be made flesh and blood, born of Mary, “according to your word.” Joseph supported this, witnessed this, gave his life, the life he had to live and to offer, so that God’s word of hope and love and reconciliation might live.

Did Joseph live to see Jesus die? Was he there to see the resurrection light and life at the end of it all, that new beginning. We don’t know. He fades out of the Gospels when Jesus is a boy. Maybe like Moses he dies in sight of that promised land, and will be carried along in hope, like us, Maybe, like us, he gives his life to protect and honor and witness to a newborn life that he doesn’t fully understand, maybe all his days he would still look at this growing Jesus and wrestle with the inconceivable fact of him. Even as he came to love to child he raised as his own, even when he had held the child who would, by God’s grace, become a savior, held the one who would carry him to a larger life. We just don’t know.

So then Joseph is a sign of faith for us. And maybe St Joseph prays for us today, joins us in all our doubts and hopes, as we carry this surprising child, and prepare to try to care for this soon to be newborn hope once again; not with all the answers, not with the great assurance that Mary had, but with resolve to preserve and protect, to hold and watch and witness as we can, to offer support and strength, to husband that hope, to raise that new beginning, as another gift of God comes to be born in our lives.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Advent 3A

I think that none of us are surprised when John the Baptist sends his disciples to see Jesus to ask, “are you the one or should we seek another?” Because we ask similar questions: Should we keep looking, is our discipleship, our understanding, our faith, our expectation in the right place, or should we seek another parish family, or another mental, physical or spiritual discipline, a better diet, maybe more interesting friends, a regular meditation practice, a new way of being in the world with God? Should we just keep looking?

And it seems like we should, because if you listen to the prophet Isaiah, bigger things are supposed to be happening!

The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy... A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way;

 And that it doesn’t not look like the life we are living, our lives often aren’t as spectacular, as full of vision, as Isaiah’s vision.

So we are like John the Baptist who, waiting in jail for the death he knows is coming soon, sends to see if Jesus is the true Messiah, if he can put his hope there and finally rest in peace. And John the Baptist has reason to rest; he has come from a pretty noisy past, has lived with high hopes. Remember his works in last week’s gospel: coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals, who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire, gathering his wheat into the granary; and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

And then he sees Jesus. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  I don’t what he thinks, but it makes me wonder, If John is the opening act, what kind of main act will follow, what happens next? Well, if you read Matthew’s account, it seems less spectacular than expected. First Jesus turns down the chances to do three major, even cosmic, miracles when he’s tempted in the desert. Then for the next six chapters of Matthews’ Gospel you start see a different style, to hear a different rhythm and tone than John’s overture might lead you to believe: Jesus teaches, heals, feeds, gathers a community of the poor in spirit, the mournful, meek and merciful; the pure in heart, peacemakers and persecuted. To be accurate, there aren’t a lot of people who look like earth-shakers: to be fair, they look a lot like us.

And Jesus tells these people to live righteously, fulfill the law, be perfect; to pray and fast in secret: but not to worry about what to wear or eat; in fact, not to worry about the future at all. Instead to strive for the kingdom of heaven, and ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”  That’s the kingdom of heaven!

But it’s not there yet. John sees that and so do we. It’s not here yet either. Because we know that some of our blind are not receiving their sight, our lame still limp, our modern day equivalent of lepers have a spotty recovery rate at best;
many of the deaf don’t hear well enough, the poor haven’t heard that much good news recently, and there is increasing number of the dead who seem to be waiting to be raised.

So when Jesus tells John’s disciples, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” We  might not be offended or offensive, but just slightly puzzled, wondering where we go from here.

It’s a big question, and I offer three small and tentative practices that might make it easier to see that we could conceivably be in just the right place.

First, exercise to cultivate optimism. Several months ago I mentioned that I try to say thank you to God twenty times every day. So, following along this path, practice finding places where life goes well, changes for the good. Make a point, a discipline, of looking for them and nothing them, if not just in yourself, than in other people’s lives.

A good friend of mine and I talk on the web occasionally and she despairs of ever finding love. “It will never change” she says, “But you change!” I keep saying. You’re different than you ever used to be: better, older, more alive. You are someone who has never been before. Let the world find you anew, let your world be open to new possibilities, new life. And she can’t see it yet, but I can; so I hold that hope for her.

Hold hope for one another; that’s one way to keep faith with one another, do not grumble but be hopeful and patience and hold each other in honor like miracles that are waiting to happen.
We all know it’s easier to give than to receive; and it’s also easier to hope for others than for yourself. But I will guarantee that you will be surprised with what can happen within your own life. Hope and pray for others and let others hold you in that same way. Because hope and prayer open you to a surprising future.

Then second; know you are in it for the long run. Someone once said that we can only understand life backwards but we have to live it forward. So know that the future will be different from the past, and understand now that you’ll never know quite how it will be then. Be open to seeing life in new ways, hearing good news in a way you did’t expect, allowing room or surprise, for lives that were halt and lame to begin to dance into new ways of being. It takes awhile, often longer that you know, to see life that openly, but out just may happen, for the big truth is that we’re built for eternity.

A wise friend of mine once said, “Don’t leave before the miracle happens!” So, as we used to say in the 60s, “Keep on keeping on!” We may very well die a bit on the way, in fact we likely will: maybe the death of old hopes, often the death of youthful dreams, sometimes the death of those we love, and our own deaths too; but know this: we’ll get through it, by God’s grace and the light of Christ, the miracle will come.

So follow Jesus through the church year and right into the middle of the human condition: into this cauldron called the church; this half-baked but warming up company of people who are trying to live into and out of the love of God. That’s number three. Just love Jesus and his friends the best you can and let him love you while you walk with Him through the middle of life to somewhere beyond death.

Right into the middle of the whole mystery, into that corner where the only thing left is to give over is what you thought you earned or knew or wanted and the only thing to take is the present God offers you as a gift. Take that and get through whatever Good Friday the long week has to offer, trusting that you’ll wake up on the other side of Easter.

But know that here is where it begins, in these timid moments, in witnessing and honoring this small hope that begins right now; in knowing God loves us now and will not leave us alone. That can be just enough for the time being. Frederick Buechner put it this way:

“Our experiences of a real but limited deliverance today orient us to a confident expectation of a full redemption in the future. Christians are people who have been delivered just enough to know that there’s more where that came from, and whose experience of that little deliverance that has already happened inside themselves and whose faith in the deliverance still to happen is what sees them through the night."

And I would add, take us the that new dawn.

So, practice optimism, witness to hope for one another, and know that you are on the long  run on a very Holy Way with Jesus, that can only start right here; but to know that before you are through you will see the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead raised, and the all poor rejoicing to hear this Gospel. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at the Good News of Jesus Christ.