Jesus and the 10 Year Challenge

2r8az1The “10 Year challenge” has been going around the social media circles the past week or two, mostly on the Book of Face.

I think the idea evolved over time, of course, as all things do.  I believe the first challenge was to post the first profile picture from your Facebook account alongside your most recent one.  At least, that’s the challenge that I heard of first.

And then for most of my friends it became this 10 year challenge to post your profile pic from 10 years ago.  And I think it might have started out all as one thing because, well, face it: around 2006 Facebook stopped requiring a college email address to join, allowing anyone with any email address to join.  And it took just a little while for the masses to catch on. So most people’s first profile picture actually turned out to be around the 10-year mark, and most of them were of people’s faces, so…

The result of this social “challenge” was pretty fascinating to me.  I wasn’t so much interested in how people looked over 10 years, but rather I was interested in reading their comments.  I was more interested in how they felt about how they looked.

I was hoping most people would be generous with themselves, and many were.  But many qualified their statements about their looks with a self-depricating, “Could have been worse!” or even, “A lot of living happened in those years…”

The shadow side of such humorous statements is a little bit of shame.  And shame is this terribly permeable thing that infects us without us even knowing it.  It’s like a virus, passed on from person to person, from generation to generation, whereby we subconsciously learn that something is not right.

It’s different from guilt, mind you.  Guilt is this feeling that we did something wrong.

Shame, on the other hand, is the feeling that we, in and of ourselves, as a person, are wrong.

I bring this up because one of the big themes of this week’s Gospel lesson is shame.  It’s not the only thing to mine from the lesson, but it’s a central theme.

Oh, if you haven’t read it, take a gander: John 2:1-11

I’ll wait.

Good?  Ok.

I’m betting most of you know this story, of course.  It’s the wedding story at the start of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of John.  And in this season between Christmas and Lent we have all of these Jesus stories piled up, one on top of another, that give us a glimpse at just who Jesus is.  They’re each mini “epiphanies” or “awe moments.”

And to get the setting for this story you have to know a little bit about ancient weddings and parties of the East.  They, like weddings of the East today, were multi-day affairs.  None of these “fly in on Friday, have a rehearsal, get married on Saturday, have brunch on Sunday, and go” sort of weddings.  The party lasted for days.  And people participated for days.  Not just the bridal party, but everyone, partied for days.

Which meant that the host had to have food and drink for days.  This was the way that you were a good, honorable host: you fed people and made sure they had fun.  It was up to you as the host, not them as the guest, to ensure you brought the fun.

And it was shameful if you didn’t.

Honor and shame cultures are not something that we in the West understand very well, though I think if we got more acquainted with it we’d be better off.  Because we play honor and shame games all the time.

But, back to the text, to bring shame upon a newly married couple by running out of wine early would be to start off their marriage, and indeed their social standing, at a huge deficit. That may not seem like a big deal to you, but trust me when I say that the world revolved around these ideas of honor and shame (and in many places it still does), and it would be devastating for that family.

And so when Jesus turns the water into wine (605 bottles worth of wine, mind you), he’s not simply performing a miracle.  This is not a story whereby Jesus shows up and makes a miracle and everyone believes he’s the Son of God because he can make water into wine.

To say that’s it is to miss the culture of the time.  Plenty of tricksters were going around doing that kind of thing for people as street performance art.  Writers, historians, and theologians like Geza Vermes and Marcus Borg, amongst many others, have pointed this out for years.

The real miracle in the story, my friends, is not that Jesus can make water into wine, but rather that Jesus can take shame and make it as empty as those six stone jars.

That Jesus finds honor where others find emptiness, and can indeed restore honor where shame ruled the day.

And it’s not just any wine that wipes shame away, mind you.  It is great wine.  Not unlike the wine the disciples are accused of being drunk on in the Pentecost story in the book of Acts.  The word used there is gleukos, or “sweet wine.”

Have honor restored by the God who wipes away shame isn’t just like drinking the same old stuff.  It’s like a totally new, totally different, totally amazing thing.

Here’s the thing about the 10 year challenge, Beloved: most of the change that I hope has happened to people is on the inside.  Because I have to be honest, I have to testify, that in 10 years the most change that has happened to me is the change of having my insides, my shame, cleaned up and cleaned out, by God.

I want that change to be seen, too, on my outside.  Because when you’re filled with new wine, you want to share it.  It’s too sweet to keep to yourself.

Because we’re all those clay pots at times in our lives, whether we recognize it or not.  Empty of substance but filled with these shame signals that we get from the world.

And if there’s one thing that Jesus came into the world to do, it’s to show us, prove to us, that God is interested in doing a new thing in and with humanity.

A thing that wipes away that shame.  Sometimes it takes 10 years.  And sometimes it only takes 6 empty jars.

But God can, God does, do the work of turning ungodly shame into something honorable, amazing, and beautiful…like a wedding of Divine love and the human heart that lasts and lasts.

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On Not Being Known

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<Listen along by clicking here>

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

On Not Being Known

Let us pray:

Let your light shine again tonight,

Lord God.

That we might not forget your promises.

Your power.

Amen.

Merry Christmas.

And I mean that.  We think of the word “merry” today as meaning something like, “happy,” but that’s not how that word was originally meant.

The word “Merry” originally meant “strong,” or something like “safe” or “comfortable,” or “comforted.”  In God rest ye merry, gentlemen let nothing you dismay…” the singer was not singing to merry gentlemen.  She was wishing them a safe, comforted Christmas with nothing to fear.

So, Merry Christmas.  Strong Christmas. Comforted Christmas.  I wish you that.

I was told once that grief is the most public journey that you make alone.

I think that’s probably true, though I don’t know firsthand.

I wonder if that’s the hardest thing about grief: before it happens, you don’t know what you don’t know, right?  And then after heartbreak of inhuman proportions strikes, it feels like other people don’t know.

Like they don’t get it.

They try.  With well-meaning words and hugs and invitations to be social.  All important parts of journeying with people going through the stages of grief, of course.

But there’s still a disconnect.  Your pain is not their pain, even if they hurt for you.

I remember walking with a young man as he was dying of AIDS.  I’d go visit him, and he’d squeeze my hand.  I did all the talking.  He was largely unconscious most of the time.

Toward the end the family gathered around and we commended him to God.  His mother cried on my shoulder.  His friend kneeled at the bed.

About an hour later I was walking outside, still pondering the whole process in my heart, and I heard the birds chirping and people walking along the street talking and laughing, and I felt myself getting angry.

Angry at the birds for chirping and singing.  Didn’t they know that a piece of creation just died?

Angry at people, oblivious to what happened, but I was just kind of angry at them for not knowing.  How could they know, of course?  But that kind of rationality didn’t matter.  I wasn’t thinking with my head, I was thinking with my heart, and although I didn’t know Raphael very well, it was broken for him and his family and his friends and his boyfriend…

The part of this passage of John that speaks to me tonight is the part where John says that, “Jesus came to his own, but his own did not know him.”

The “know” there is the Greek katalaben, which is probably better translated like, “grasp” or “seize” than a simple know.

Something more like, “they didn’t get it.”

Which, of course, is why God became enfleshed in the first place, I think: to get it.  To get humanity.  To understand us.

Jesus laughed with the children, and slept on the boat, and was held by his mother, and had brothers, and maybe some sisters, and a father.

And he cried.  He cried because his heart was broken when his brother Lazarus died.

And he cried when his hands were pierced, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  He grasped, seized, truly knew what it was like to be made of the dust of the ground, not just to make from dust.

He knew.  He knew, so that God could know.  So that we could know that in our grief, God grieves…because God’s been there, Beloved.  God’s been there.

And this is why the light can shine in the darkness: because only a God who has been there knows the way through it, carrying the light, the torch of hope, that lights the way, that marks the path straight through the tomb and out the other side.

This is, for me, the most beautiful part of our faith.

Our God is not glib.  Our God knows, seizes, grasps what it means to be human, so that God might be able to walk us through the path and transform our pain into something else, in time.

As we head into Christmas, with all the lights shining through the trees, even if our hearts don’t feel like singing, perhaps we can stare at the lights and just imagine them as the light of a God who knows, marking the way through these woods.

Because at Christmas we’re not only reminded that God shows up at the scene of our grief and heartache, but God knows.  And can lead us through.

Because a light shines in the shadows, and the shadows cannot overcome it.

So, indeed, may we all have a merry Christmas.

 

You’re Never Too Old for a Lullaby

<Listen along by clicking here to hear the lullaby for yourself>

candle_lighting_serviceIn 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, a 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 which shall be for all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, 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 he 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.

You’re Never Too Old for a Lullaby

Join me in prayer

Sing to us again tonight, God.

Sing the song of peace.

The song of fierce love.

The song that casts out fear.

The song that is so loud it drowns words of hate.

The song that is so sweet we can’t help but listen.

Sing the lullaby of grace,

The song of the angels tonight,

The song of the Christ child.

Sing it, so that we might know the tune,

And sing along.

Amen.

I was putting Findley and Alistair to bed a few weeks ago.  Being 3 years old and 5 years old, bedtime can sometimes feel like washing a cat: it’s impossible to come out unscathed.  And there is much howling.

But eventually they settle in after hugs and kisses and high-fives and fist-bumps, all in that order.  And then comes the song request.

And from their birth I’ve had a rotating playlist of songs I’ve sung them, a mix of 60’s folk music, Civil War era bluegrass, and hymns.

On this particular night they’ve requested the hymn Abide With Me,

Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.

The darkness deepens;

Lord with me abide.

When other helpers

Fail and comforts flee

Help of the helpless, Lord

Abide with me.

I’ve sung that hymn at countless funerals, but it also works just as well for rocking a baby to sleep, because it’s meant to give hope and assurance. It’s a lullaby, really.

I get done with the verse and Alistair says, “Dad, who is that song written for?”

“For babies, when they’re very young.  Or for when you’re very, very old,” I say. “It’s a lullaby.”

Finn yawned and then said, “Yeah dad, you’re never too old for a lullaby.”

I’d like to think he knows what he’s talking about.  Because every Christmas we gather in here together, young and old, to hear this same story again and again and again, and it is essentially the story of the making of a lullaby.

Because we must realize by now, Beloved, that the God who can calm the waves, and the God who can raise the dead, could surely have shown up in this world in a variety of ways, holding power in the left hand and might in the right, adorned by the blasting of trumpets announcing a royal arrival.

But God does not do that.

No, God knows that if we’re going to have any sort of change in this world that humanity will buy into, God can’t pull puppet strings.  God can’t control us.  That kind of power and might will last for a while, but will only cause unending rebellion in the end.

We don’t like to be controlled.

No. Instead God’s going to pull the heartstrings.  Instead God’s going to hold the finger of his mother in the left hand, and clutch a bit of straw in his right, and the trumpets will be quiet, and the only music in the stable that night will be the sound that we all know, my friends, the sounds that calms our hearts and calms our fears: the sound of a mother or a father humming their newborn baby to sleep.

This, Beloved, this is how God will get humans on board with the divine agenda of love and peace: through a lullaby.

A lullaby that we come to sing tonight.  A lullaby that we bear witness to tonight as we sing,

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,

The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head…

A lullaby that we bear witness to tonight as we sing…

Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…

Because while we know that not all in the world is calm, and not every corner of the world is bright, we dare not tell that to our baby.  Not because we want to delude them, I think, but as a father it is because I secretly harbor this hope against hope that my boys will be able to do what I have not figured out how to do quite yet: live with calming peace that is never shaken and a bright love that is never dimmed.

Because this world is like a fixer-upper with good bones, and I want my boys to see the possibilities that God has put here instead of all the ways it isn’t perfect.

This world has good bones, boys.  This world has good bones, Beloved.  We can do something amazing with this, by God.

And I have to think, friends, that that hope against hope that I have for my kids is the same hope against hope that God has for each of us.

And so every year.  Every. Single. Year. we come here again to be sung that song in the hopes that, this year, a bit more calm and a bit more brightness will infect our world through God’s work in us.

That the lullaby would become true, and we can live as peacefully as a baby sleeps. Because not only unto you is a child born, but within you tonight peace and love and hope are being carried.  This is the gift that Christ gives us again every year, so let’s open it and use it again.

You know, I don’t know what brought you here tonight.  For some of us, it’s tradition.  For some of us, well, we’re dragged here by our parents or partners.  For some of us it is, curiosity, or habit, or piety, or devotion.

But one thing I do know: tonight you, yes you, are being held in the arms of God, who, like a mama, is rocking us and humming this beautiful lullaby of love and peace and joy so that it might be true in our lives, in Raleigh, in our world.

Because this place has good bones, Beloved.

Listen to the words.  Have your heart moved again, by God.

Because my 5 year old is right: you’re never too old for a lullaby.

Merry Christmas.

The Songs We Sing

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<Listen along to the sermon to hear a bit of the singing that happened. Sermons are best heard! You can do that by clicking here.>

39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” [
46And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

The Songs We Sing

Let us pray:

Fill us with songs of peace, Lord

That we might sing your praise

With our lives

Leaping for joy

At your Christmas again.

Amen.

My college roommates and I play this game when we watch baseball.  Rhonda and I have been known to do it, too.  We start to muse about what our “walk up song” would be.

You know about the “walk up song,” right?  It’s the song that’s played over the loudspeaker as the batter takes the plate.  In most cases individual batters, especially the good ones, can pick their own walk-up songs.

Like Francisco Cervelli, catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, chose “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore…” as his walk-up song.  Nori Aoki, who used to play for the Giants (and, unfortunately, the Brewers) but now plays for a Japanese league, had as his walk-up song, “Go, go-Johnny, go go go, Johnny, go go go, go, Johnny B. Good.”  And my favorite, Cubbie Kyle Hendricks, chose the Aerosmith Classic, “Sweeeeet  Emotion…” as his walk-up song.

The walk-up song sets a tone for what’s about to come.  If it’s well-chosen, thought-out, the walk-up song should give everyone watching the game a little glimpse of who you are, what they should expect from you.  You’re gonna love Cervelli, that’s amore.  Aoki is gonna do something good, watch!  Hendricks will fill you with sweet emotion.

So, Beloved, what would the walk-up song of your life be?

Every Christmas we sing a ton of songs, secular and sacred.  And the Gospel of Luke is especially full of music.  Zechariah gets a song about God keeping God’s promises.  The prophet Simeon, who long sits in the temple waiting to see the Messiah, gets a song about seeing the Lord in his old age.

The angels, of course, get a song tomorrow night, as they sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth!”  Or, if you’re in the Christmas mood, “Glory to the new-born king!”

But Mary, my friends…Mary gets, I think, Jesus’ walk-up song for the world.

This song that we have today when Mary is visiting her cousin Elizabeth, is God’s walk-up song.  It gives us an idea of what Jesus is going to be about.

God will show God’s power not through the might of politics or war, but through being able to lift up the lowly.

God will come on the scene not in the temple or the castle, but in belly of an unknown, unwed peasant girl.

God will walk up to the plate of the earth swinging not a sword, but a terrible mercy and love. Terrible not because it’s bad, but because its so good, so powerful, it causes fear and awe to come upon us because we’ve never been loved to fiercely and aren’t sure what to do with that kind of inconceivable, unconditional love.

My favorite interpretation of Mary’s song is one that follows an Irish tune.  “My heart shall sing of the day you bring, let the fire of your justice burn.  Wipe away all tears for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn…

In Jesus the world will turn on its head as God will love so much God will squeeze resurrection out of that Easter tomb and every tomb.

The justice of God’s fire will burn not people, but everything that separates people from one another: prejudice, hatred, phobia, isms.

And God will do it not by waging cosmic war, but by waging love; unimaginable love, the love of a mother to a child and then some.  It will be so strong that babies not even born will leap for joy, feeling it before they even breathe…

God will show the “strength of his arm” as Mary says not by flexing the Divine muscles as John the Baptizer had hoped and Judas had wanted, but by reaching down to lift up the lowly.

Which doesn’t seem like much, unless you’re the lowly one…and then it’s everything.

As the song says, God will be generous with the food we too easily withhold, filling hungry bellies, thereby compelling us to do the same.

God is not the Divine soldier marching on the field of battle, forcing humanity into submission, but the Divine baker creating a loaf of love whose aroma will entice us to turn and follow because it just. Smells. So. Good.

This is, Beloved, how God will save: by tempting us with unmitigated mercy and a love so unrelenting that it won’t stop reaching out to humanity again, and again, and again.

God will go to great lengths, jump the cosmos even, as Adele so rightly sings, do anything to “make us feel his love.”

Which, my friends, should compel us to act toward our neighbor with unrelenting love and unmitigated mercy.

Which, Beloved, should compel us to repent from the ways we use the poor to our advantage with our economic schemes and ploys, and begin the process of lifting one another up as we have been uplifted, by God.

God in Jesus shows us that God’s power is found in God’s love.  And as the right Reverend William Sloane Coffin of Riverside Church in New York City reminds us, “Love is not powerless, but it seeks to empower, not overpower.”

You know, I am convinced that the songs we sing in this world shape us and form us, and form those around us to know us better.

I’m convinced that the walk-up songs of our lives say something about us. And today, and every Advent, God sings this song through Mary for us again, teaching us the lyrics of a song of power through saving love.

Mary, in response to Gabriel’s visit and what God was doing in her life, sings God’s song of preferential option for the poor and the lowly.

So, Beloved, what’s your walk-up song?

In other words, in response to God’s work in your life, what song are you singing as we end out this year?  What song should you sing?

 

 

 

John the Baptizer Gets That It’s About Jesus, but Doesn’t Get What Jesus is About

160a0-broodofvipersJohn the Baptizer doesn’t get it.  At least, not all of it.

The Gospel text for this week is John’s fiery sermon, the only one we have from him, where he warns everyone that the Divine ax is lying at the foot of their tree, ready to cut them down if they don’t repent from their sinful ways and start again.

You can read the whole thing here, by the way.  It’s from Luke 3:7-18.  Go ahead and read…I’ll wait.

So, a few things about John the Baptizer, his sermons, and these verses:

  1. It doesn’t appear that John is happy that people are seeking repentance.  “Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?” he asks.  It’s almost as if he thinks that the people deserve, and should get, “what’s comin’ to them.” We like the name-calling God that John speaks of, the one who labels us “brood of vipers.” John is about Divine retribution.
  2. His advice for the people wondering how they should behave isn’t new or novel. For the neighbors he tells them to share with one another.  For the money-makers he reminds them not to take more than their fair share.  For the people in power, the soldiers, he reminds them that they can’t use their power wrongly.  None of this is some big secret…it’s like my Mama always told me, “You know how to behave. Do it!”
  3. John’s rhetoric is so honest, so alarmist, people begin wondering if he’s the Messiah.  He’s saying exactly what they expected from God: a message of warning and retribution.

But John knows he’s not the one.  Something in his gut tells him it’s not him.  He knows it’s about Jesus, ultimately…even if he can’t put his finger on just who Jesus is yet.

He will, but not yet.

But here’s the harsh truth about John the Baptizer: while he knows it’s about Jesus, I dare say he doesn’t know what Jesus is about.

Because Jesus, too, came preaching, but he came preaching a Gospel of repentance that was carried through grace and forgiveness, not retribution.  John doesn’t get that.

Because Jesus came calling people names, but called them things like “child of God,” and “friend,” and “blessed”…without them earning it.

And Jesus, too, was asked what was required to be in God’s good graces. You can find it in Luke 18:18 or Matthew 19:16 or Mark 10:17 or John 3:1. Pick an example.  Because although Jesus appears to start out with giving behavioral advice to everyone who asks, he never ends there, but eventually ends with Jesus giving them a task that they can’t accomplish.

Because God is not about better behavior, Beloved.  If it were just about “being better,” then John the Baptizer’s message would be enough.  But Jesus gives impossible tasks to hammer home that salvation isn’t about right behavior, but about God’s sacrificial love. John doesn’t get that.

And Jesus’ rhetoric was so honest, so authentic, but…but it wasn’t what the people wanted.  They kind of wanted a God of retribution, a God who would demand right living, and separate the wheat from the chaff with a Divine winnowing hook, who would take the ax to the tree and cut down everything not up to snuff.

But instead of that we got Jesus, who’s words would be the sword that cut through our systems and schemes with terrible grace, and who, because of that, would end up on a tree.  Because if Jesus wouldn’t cut down everyone we didn’t like, humanity would do it for him and hang him there…

And here’s the sad truth that I’ve encountered in my years as a pastor: many people trust and preach the message of John the Baptizer.  It’s what I hear more than anything.

The God of retribution is, for some reason, more appealing than the God of divine love.  Probably because we really like to be right…and want everyone to know it.

The God of right behavior is, for some reason, more appealing than the God of grace and forgiveness.  Probably because we like to know the rules so that we can do them and achieve the eternal life that God’s willing to give out of sacrificial love.

Jesus is about God’s love and forgiveness for those who are unwell, not those who have made themselves well through strong moral character and hard ethical work…and if we think we’re well because of the strength of our moral character, we’re probably the sickest of all!

John the Baptizer was preaching about Jesus…but he didn’t get what Jesus was about.  And at Christmas we’re invited to rethink what Jesus is about.  That is the true blessing of John the Baptizer: he points to the Messiah, but he isn’t the Messiah, thank God.

Because we don’t need more retribution in this world, we need sacrificial love.

Because we don’t need more name calling in this world, but we need to be called by our names and beloved children of God.

Because we don’t need more calls to “be better,” we need more calls to “forgive as you are forgiven.”

Because we don’t need any more so-called messiahs strong arming the world into submission, but we need the Christ who will submit to the cross to show just how far God will go to prove God is not about retribution, best behavior, or any of that.

John the Baptizer knows it’s about Jesus, but doesn’t quite get what Jesus is about…

And I consistently wonder: do we?

When Your (Advent) Calendar is Broken

Luke 3:1-6

Advent Calendar1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”

When Your (Advent) Calendar is Broken

Let us pray:

There are three parts to this season:

The waiting

And the waiting

And the waiting.

Waiting for the Christ child to come,

To be sure,

Who we know already came.

Waiting for the burning coming

Of the Christ in our hearts,

For the I-am-with-you-always.

Waiting for the great coming

Of the reign of God

When each table is a banquet

And bread lines are no more.

 

There are three

Comings to this season,

And three waitings,

And three yearnings.

And God the answer

To them all.

Amen. -from Susan Palo Cherwien’s “Crossings: Meditations for Worship

I remember one Sunday in church, my father was preaching.

And he was getting all sorts of heated and passionate in the pulpit, you know, totally un-Lutheran in style.  Back then sermons had three parts to them and the path was known and well worn and if you strayed from the path it was odd…

And anyway, he’s just a few minutes in, and already kind of heated, and a guy stood up in the congregation and said, “Now, hold on a minute!”

And it was like all the heads were on a swivel as they turned to see Big Bill stand up in the middle of the congregation as he began to argue back with my father.  And I remember my 9 year old self thinking, “Man, I wish I had some popcorn…finally, something interesting in church!”

And there was a guy sitting near Bill who said softly but-not-too-softly, “Be quiet, Bill.  Pastor Pete’s on a roll!”

And Bill started walking up the middle aisle, with a sheet of paper in his hand that he was reading from, and that’s when we all realized it was staged and part of the sermon and every adult sighed a sigh of relief and every youth and child were crestfallen because it wasn’t as exciting anymore…

But the sentiment that was shared in the moment was all the same, at least amongst the adults, “Who is Bill to disrupt everything?  Who is Bill to break from tradition?”

Which is kind of how I feel about John the Baptizer every year, Beloved.  “Who is this guy to interrupt our Christmas preparations?”

As I said in my Friday Faith Prints, this guy doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the Nativity scene.  Instead of the peaceful angels, gentle shepherds, and even the hopeful parents kneeling over their peaceful Christ-child, today we have a madman yelling from the fringes, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Everything that is a problem God is fixing!  Get on the work crew!”

John the Baptizer’s yelling breaks our silent night.   He interrupts our festivities every year.

And it happens for good reason, friends.

Because we can get on a roll with this Christmas stuff, and soon the holiday becomes less holy.  And I’m not talking about any fake war on Christmas or anything like that.  I’m talking about our human tendency to make things into something they are not.

I think we, especially Christians, have a tendency to make Christmas into this time where we gather up all of our hopes and put them into this perfect little scene, this little Nativity scene, and it becomes this predictable, overly romantic, sentimental little practice that we do every year.

But if John the Baptizer reminds us of anything, Beloved, it’s that Christmas is not sentimental, it is scandalous.  Because the baby in the manger is not interested in playing Christmas, but in making mountains of shame disappear, valleys of despair into reservoirs of grace.  Jesus is interested in calling us to help God make winding breadlines of inequality straight paths to full stomachs, and rough prejudice into smooth love.

And we need John the Baptizer to disrupt our sentimentality to call us back to this, or else we’ll sing, “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light.  The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

We’ll sing that little carol and totally gloss over the fact that both the hopes, the sentiments, and the fears, the rough realities of life, are met in Jesus.

Both of them. Not just the hopes. But also the fears.

Every serene Nativity scene should have John the Baptist on the margins yelling at us, reminding us that it’s not just about the hopes when it comes to God, but also about our fears.

The fears of the poor and marginalized.  The fears of the young parents out there, like Mary and Joseph. The fears of the underemployed and outcast, like the shepherds.  And even the fears of the Magi, who in their wealth had trouble finding Jesus…they looked for him in the halls of power, when he was in the halls of hay.

The fears that you and I have, friends.

Every Advent calendar should be broken in some way, allowing for the radical scandal of Jesus to disrupt our lives just a bit and remind us that God attends both our hopes and our fears.

Actually, it’s kind of funny: our Advent calendar at home is broken.  We have this big one, given to us by a parishioner in Chicago, with hinged doors that open, big enough for little gifts to be put in them.  And the boys have played with it so much that door number 18 is broken off.  And though we could probably fix it, we haven’t.

We won’t.

Because it’s now this visual reminder that just steps away from the serenity of Christmas there is still some brokenness…which is the reason for Jesus in the first place, right?

The eloquent author L.R. Knost has this wonderful quote that spoke to me this week as I was thinking of how John the Baptizer breaks up our Christmas sentimentalism every year.  She writes,

Do not be dismayed

by the brokenness in the world.

All things break.

And all things can be mended.

Not by time, as they say,

But with intention.

So go. Love intentionally,

Extravagantly,

Unconditionally.

The broken world

Waits in darkness

For the light

That is you.

John the Baptizer stands up in the middle of our Advent calendars, breaking their silent night, reminding us that hopes and fears are gathered together in Jesus, and points us back today away from the serenity of the Nativity sets and the wonder of the sparkly lights to the broken world, not to bring us dismay…all things break, Beloved…but to remind us of why God in Jesus shows up in the first place: to heal through intentional, extravagant, unconditional love.

And if we take seriously that God shows up in flesh in the Christ child, we need to take seriously the fact that Jesus, the light of the world, still shows up in that same way.  In me and you.

So let’s all keep our Advent calendars broke enough, Beloved, to keep us woke to the reason that Jesus shows up at all: to tend to our hopes and our fears.  No, not just our Advent calendars, all of our calendars.

And let’s get started with that intentional, extravagant, unconditional love thing.

No need to wait until Christmas. The calendar is broken, anyway. Everyday is Christmas.

Amen.

 

John the Baptizer Ruins My Nativity Set Every Darn Year

saint-john-the-baptist-webJohn the Baptizer ruins our idyllic Christmas every darn year.

With his breath smelling like locusts and honey.

With his scraggly beard and hair-suit.

With his name-calling and bombastic personality.

He’s out of place with Mary serenely kneeling next to a quiet baby Jesus.  He looks downright wild next to gentle Joseph, leaning on his staff.  He doesn’t even match the shepherds, probably his closest vocational cousin, because all of those Nativity set shepherds are young, beardless, and have sheep over their shoulders.

John the Baptizer just doesn’t fit in with this whole scene, and yet here he is this Sunday, proclaiming that the Messiah will make geographical changes that will knock our socks off.

“The Messiah will flatten mountains, fill in valleys, make winding roads straight and rocky roads smooth,” he shouts.

But we can barely hear him over Bing Crosby crooning…which is why he shouts.

Oh, if you wonder what this week’s Gospel reading is, you can find it in Luke 3:1-6.

Go ahead and read it, I’ll wait.

Certainly John the Baptizer feels out of place in our Christmas preparation.  We’d rather have cookie bake-offs and candelight adorn our silent nights in these days.

But that’s not what we get.  We get mountains made low and valleys filled in and a wild man standing outside our manger plays calling us from our sweet delusions and into the real world.

And that’s the Gospel writer’s point, by the way.  Notice how the Gospel writer Luke sets the scene:

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” 

Luke sets us directly in the middle of history, and has John the Baptizer yelling at us to pay attention, because Jesus didn’t arrive in a dream.

Jesus arrived…arrives…in the middle of history.

In the second year of the Presidency of Donald Trump, when Roy Cooper was Governor of North Carolina, and Nancy McFarlane was Mayor of Raleigh. When Justin Trudeau was Prime Minister of Canada, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador had just been elected as President of Mexico, when Tim Smith was Bishop of North Carolina and Elizabeth Eaton the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Word of God appeared.

Again.

To call us to attention.

To remind us that mountains of shame are still being flattened, by God.  And valleys of despair are still being filled in with abundant grace.

To remind us that the winding roads of inequality are being straightened, slowly and surely…and we have work to do with that still…and that the rough realities that so many live in are still being made smooth…and we’ve been enlisted in that landscaping crew, Beloved.

I love Nativity sets. I have half a dozen or so.

But they all need to be disrupted just a little bit so that our romantic Christmas can become a real gift for the world again. And again. And again.

So, Merry Christmas you brood of vipers!  Get back to work.

On Taking Biscuits Out of the Oven Early

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Luke 21:25-36

1499295448311[Jesus said:] 25“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

On Taking Biscuits Out of the Oven Early

Let us pray:

Teach us to stay awake, Lord

With the time that we all have left.

Remind us that you are arriving

Again and again and again

A new moment to be with you

And your disturbing grace.

Teach us to be awake, alert,

Not these disturbed and worried selves we are today.

In the name of the one we wait for,

Amen.

“But how do you know?” he asked me.

“You just do, buddy,” I replied.  “You touch it with your finger and see how it bounces back.  And that’s how you know.”

We were talking about steaks on the grill.  Finn, our resident sous chef in the house…seriously, he calls himself that when we cook together…was fascinated by the grill and wanted to know how I knew when the steaks were done.

In my house growing up we only had thermometers for humans.  For some reason we never stuck one in our meat to see if it was done.  You just kind of knew.  Color, smell, and touch.  You pay attention.  You don’t leave steaks on the grill.  You watch them.

Same with biscuits, an art that Rhonda has mastered and I’m still apprenticing in, by the way.

“How long do we put the biscuits in the oven for?” Finn will ask.  “For a while,” I’ll say.  “But how will we know when they’re done?” he consistently retorts, exasperated.

“We just will,” I say, “because they’ll look done.  They’ll be taller, and you’ll see the layers, and the tops will brown a bit, and they’ll be done.  But you have to watch.”

You have to watch.

Because you don’t want to take biscuits out of the oven early, Beloved.  That’s a breakfast disaster.  And, likewise, if you leave them in there too long they become door stops.

You have to watch. Be alert. Be awake.

Advent always begins with that warning phrase for humanity: you have to watch.

Every year Advent begins with these dark and foreboding lessons that talk about the sky falling and the heavenly bodies of sun, moon, and stars, all used as metaphors for God and Christ in the scriptures, mind you, but these heavenly bodies start doing wild things as if to say that something huge, cosmic even, is about to take place.

Has already begun.

So pay attention.  Watch.

There is a blessing, Beloved, to times of waiting in our lives.  They are frustrating; this is true.

And sometimes the waiting can be unbearable.  Especially if we’re waiting for a baby.  For a diagnosis.  For a job.  For a failed relationship to heal.  For our bodies to heal.

But we must remember that the Psalmist sings that God is both in the highest heavens and in the deepest pits. And therefore everywhere in-between those places, in the journey between, in the waiting to arrive. With all of our Advent talk about shining lights in the darkness of the world, we have to remember that God is in the darkness, too…waiting with us.  God may be silent, but God is still present.

I remember sitting in prayer with a mentor once.  And we were just sitting there in silence, and I kept opening my eye and peeking out at him, afraid I was missing something. Like, I don’t know what I was afraid I’d miss.  Maybe him levitating or something.

He just sat there, serene in his face, meditating.  And I fidgeted, and shifted, and sometimes would sigh or clear my throat or crack my knuckles.

I was sure he’d fallen asleep or something.

And finally he cleared his throat and said, “Tim, what are you waiting for?”

“For this to be over,” I said with a chuckle.

“Then,” he said, “you’re not ready yet.  Then,” he said, “it’s not over.”

You can’t take the biscuits out until they’re ready, Beloved.

This is the spiritual lesson that God teaches us in Advent.

And see, here’s the thing, Jesus in this passage talks about the sun changing and the stars falling and all sorts of crazy, cosmic things happening.  And humans read the Left Behind series which totally ruined a whole bunch of theology out there and we’re still cleaning up the mess from those fictional, FICTIONAL, books.

But people started looking at wars and global events as signs of the end times. They still do. We always have, I guessed, but it got super crazy in my lifetime after those books…

But they’ve missed it, Beloved.  They’ve missed it. Jesus said “Pay attention,” and we missed it.

Because you don’t need to look to the end of time, just to the end of the Gospel of Luke. Or Mark. Or Matthew. Or John. Because at the crucifixion, the writers say that God hanging on the tools of our violence and destruction had cosmic consequences. In the same way that the heavens shown through a star that God had become flesh, at the crucifixion the heavens bore witness to the creator’s pain and death. That it was like the sun darkened, and the heavens shook and trembled, and as Jesus says, “Pay attention because salvation is at hand!”

The cross is the end of time, Beloved.  The end of the time that sin and death had power over us.  The disciples almost slept through it, and ran away from it, but it happened.

And notice this.  Notice that Jesus didn’t rise from the grave on Friday.  Or even on Saturday.

God waited.  Because humanity has to take time to process.  Because seeds don’t grow over night.  Because life doesn’t happen in the blink of an eye.  Because biscuits don’t rise in a second.

And you can’t rush these things, Beloved.  You can’t rush these things…

When it comes to God, when it comes to new life, when it comes to all life, the lesson of Advent is that the waiting is as important as anything else.

Because there are things to be learned in the waiting.  Or, as a spiritual mentor of mine once said, “Let no crisis go to waste!  There is always something to be learned…”

So, some things I’m learning this Advent:

-to wait.  I don’t do it patiently, mind you, but I’m trying to do it.  Wait.  Don’t try to resolve things too quickly in my life, in your life, wait.

-to be awake. To not be distracted by the worries that come with waiting, but to hold my eyes open.

-to remind myself that my story is a story of hope, when it is mixed with God’s sacred story.  God pointed Abraham to the stars, reminding him that his family, which we are a part of in Christ, numbers as many as those stars, and even when it seems those stars begin to fall, I begin to the fall, God’s promise of love never falls.

-to remember that salvation has already happened.  Is always happening.  And so if I’m only waiting for “the sign from God” on something I might miss the importance of waiting at all because redemption is always in process.

-and, Beloved, I’m still learning to not take the biscuits out of the oven early.  A reminder that I’m still imperfect, still in process, and that sometimes we have to practice waiting to eventually get it right.

Which, of course, is why we have Advent every year.  Because we need to be taught how to practice waiting, to watch, every year.

My Own Personal Apocalypse

shooting-star_wallpapers_5008_1600x1200This Sunday many Christians will hear a little verse from the Gospel of Luke that will scare the daylights out of them.

You can read it here…if you dare.

Actually, go ahead and dare.  Otherwise the rest won’t make a whole lot of sense.

So, here’s the thing about this little passage from Luke (and the ones like it in Matthew and Mark): it’s not literal, folks.

Now see, I say something like that (or write something like that), and I get people who retort back with a, “Well, how do you know?”

To which I reply, “The same way I know that Fun House is a play and haiku is a peculiar type of poetry: it’s a kind of literature. I know because not all kinds of writing, or speaking, are the same, and this is a particular kind.  I know because the scriptures are full of all kinds of writing, and this is one of the kinds.”

It’s a particular kind called an apocalypse.  That word, “apocalypse,” doesn’t mean “the end of the world,” by the way.  It literally means, “the unveiling” or “the uncovering.”

And apocalypse uncovers a deep truth by masking the language in catastrophic, cosmic symbols.  It does so to get you to pay attention.  And if you take it literally you are doing the exact opposite of what it’s meant to get you to do.

So don’t do that. Don’t take it literally.

Apocalyptic literature says, “The sky is falling!” because humans, in our stubbornness, won’t look up unless we think we’re doomed.  If you doubt the truth of that statement, think of how many times you see people staring at their phone while driving.  Literally, their doom could be 10 feet in front of them, but they’re still too distracted by the shiny box in their hand…

And that’s kind of what apocalyptic literature is trying to get you to see: you’re asleep at the wheel.

The wheel of life.  The wheel of the present moment. The wheel of need.

You’re asleep. We’re asleep.

“Don’t be caught unaware,” the ancient text says in the ancient text.  And yet that’s exactly how the disciples will be found in the Garden of Gethsemane.  And in the upper room on resurrection day.

And yet we are, constantly, blissfully even, unaware of the moments of salvation, of the moments of death and resurrection, that happen all the time.

The scandal of Christmas is that, well, if God can traverse the cosmos in the womb of a woman in ancient Palestine, then God can show up anywhere.

And Advent, every single year, tries to point the church, point you, back to that crazy cosmic notion.

And so we’ll start out doing that by pointing to the stars, the sun, and the moon, to try to snap humanity out of this lull, this daze, that we continually fall into because we are convinced that the world is not enchanted anymore, that God is asleep at the wheel, and that we’re on our own.

But we’re the ones asleep. The world is buzzing with the Divine.

And you are not alone.

Advent reminds me of this every year; my own personal little apocalypse.

What about you?

Wait…you’re still asleep?  Don’t you know the sky is falling?

Falling through space and time in the pregnant moment, birthing salvation for those dead parts of your soul.

Look up, by God!

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