The sermon for Sunday February 8th, 2015 comes from a difficult text: Genesis 19:1-11. But even difficult texts have something to say to us about our relationship with God, and we should listen carefully as we read them. This passage in particular deals with some of the things that have come up as hot topics in the last few years, but a close read suggests that they are not the point of the story, and that the point of the story is a much older concept, the concept of being hospitable to the strangers in our midst. Here is Rev. Harrison’s sermon.

Hospitality and Self-Sacrifice

One of the strange things about Biblical people and places that show up in our everyday language is that they don’t always mean what they meant in the Bible. Take Jezebel for example. The modern meaning of Jezebel is a temptress. But Jezebel didn’t tempt anybody. She was a foreign queen and an idol worshipper. She brought in foreign priests of Baal, and arranged for the death of Naboth to take his vineyard. Jezebel’s sins aren’t about sex or temptation, but that’s the meaning of the word Jezebel today.

We have a tendency to make things about sex when they aren’t. When Hollywood remakes classic movies or true stories, they always add a romantic subplot. News organizations have learned that the most salacious stories get the most viewers, so they overreport the sensational and ignore the essential news of our day. Which brings us to today’s Old Testament story. The story of Lot’s visitors in the city of Sodom. In spite of the present meaning of the word “sodomy,” this story isn’t about sex or sexual orientation. The story is about hospitality, a community that rejects it, a righteous man who offers it, and how even the righteous can fail the test of justice.

Hospitality is a big deal in the Bible. Exodus 22:21-24 “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. 22You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. 23If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; 24my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” Leviticus 19:33-34 “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” And there are a number of stories in the Bible about the importance of welcoming and being kind to strangers.

But why are foreigners classified among vulnerable groups like widows and orphans? The key is that ancient Israel was a tribal society. The only people you could depend on were the people in your tribe. There were no police. The only thing that protected you from being a victim was the potential that your kin would seek justice. But if you don’t have any kin, or they are in a far away land? There isn’t anyone to protect you. For that reason, an immigrant was just as vulnerable as a widow or an orphan. There is no one to protect them. And thus God, who hears the cry of the weak and hurting, commands us to care for the aliens in our midst.

This is what the story of Sodom is about. The men of Sodom broke the code of hospitality that made it safe for trade and travel to exist in the ancient world. There were outsiders among them and they attacked them, because there was no one to stop them. They weren’t in it for profit. They attacked because they were foreigners, aliens, people who didn’t belong. Though extreme, it is not an unfamiliar impulse. It is a natural human tendency to make distinctions between who is in and who is out. It helps us develop close friendships and strong communities. But when we demonize people who are outside of our group, whether they are from some other place, or speak differently from us, or look differently, we run the risk of becoming a society that cares more about in and out than right and wrong. It becomes more important to fit in than to do the right thing. This is life or death for teenagers. Kids who don’t fit in get picked on, mistreated, and sometimes brutalized. And I spent a lot of time in youth groups talking to kids about how in school you have to step up and do the right thing even if it means becoming an outsider. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that it the pressure to fit in doesn’t end with school.

When two visitors come to the city of Sodom, expecting to be able to sleep safely in the town square (as was the custom), the men of Sodom have violence on their minds. They don’t like outsiders, they don’t want anything to do with people who don’t belong. And what is the cruelest and most violent thing that you can do to another human being? Rape. For the men of Sodom, it wasn’t about sex. Rape never is. The men who gathered had wives and concubines and sons and daughters. It wasn’t about sexual orientation. There wasn’t anything the men could do with the strangers that they could not do with each other. The sex isn’t the sin in the story of Lot and Sodom. It is the weapon used to carry it out. It was about hurting someone who didn’t belong.

But now Lot steps in. And Lot is a good man in a bad world. Lot is a foreigner himself. He came from Haran with Abraham. But he has built himself a household, and Abraham has become a prosperous and powerful man. In some ways Lot has power and in some ways he does not. We know that Lot is a righteous man because Lot sees that an injustice is about to take place, and he steps in to do something about it. It is said “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is that good men should do nothing.”[1] Lot does something. Lot invites the strangers into his house, thinking that under his roof the men would be safe. But the men of Sodom pound upon his door, demanding that the foreigners be given over to them. Lot is in a tight spot.

There are two ways to interpret what happens next. And I think each of them should inform us on what it means to be righteous. Lot offers his virgin daughters to the men banging on his door. The first way to understand this is the ancient way. In ancient Israel, women were property. And so we should see the offer for what it is. Lot is offering up his most valuable assets in order to protect these two outsiders he does not know. He’s an example of what it means to be righteous. In contrast with the men of Sodom, Lot values hospitality so highly that he’s willing to give up his daughters. It tells us that the righteous care so much about the weak and the vulnerable that they are willing to give up their most treasured possessions in order to protect them from harm.

The second way to understand the story shows Lot in a different light. In modern society, women aren’t property but people. When we look at the story with that in mind, we see that Lot is stuck between a system that is designed to destroy and people he is sworn to protect. And he does nothing to stop the system. He simply points it at someone else. In this case, his own daughters. He wants to do the right thing and protect the visitors from being victimized, but instead he just offers up another victim. Lot isn’t hoping to prevent the violence from occurring; he’s using his privileged position to redirect the violence towards a different target. Sometimes even the righteous fall short of justice. We shouldn’t interpret that to mean that justice is impossible. But we should take care, when we’re trying to protect ourselves or people we care about, that we aren’t doing so by sacrificing someone else.

I want to share a story about someone who chose to offer hospitality in a dangerous situation like Lot did, but who did so without targeting someone else. Her name is Keshia Cole.[2] In 1996, she was an 18-year-old African American girl, still in high school when the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in her hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ann Arbor is a diverse and multicultural place, and the rally attracted a large counterprotest, with people carrying signs on stakes with anti-racist slogans. The two groups were separated by a fence that kept them apart until a woman with a megaphone shouted, “There’s a Klansmen in the crowd.”

Heads turned to see a man in a confederate flag T-shirt, with an SS tattoo on his arm on the wrong side of the fence. He didn’t belong. He was one of their enemies. He tried to walk away, but the crowd turned into a mob. Someone shouted, “Kill the Nazi.” They chased him. He turned to run, but fell. Soon he was on the ground, surrounded by a circle of people kicking and beating him with placards. You might think that a group of people committed to diversity

The situation is not so different from Lot’s. An outsider with no one to protect him, and a mob of people who have chosen cruelty over humanity (hospitality?). Keshia did something that not many of us would do. She dove on the man, covered him with her body and shouted for people to stop. She stayed there, protecting him with her body until the police were able to come. She chose to protect someone who was vulnerable, to offer safety to someone who probably would not have done the same for her.

It was an act not so different from the act that we celebrate each week, as we come to praise the risen Christ, who offered himself up so that we might not die but be saved from sin and death. And in Christ, all the distinctions that we make between insider and outsider, friend and enemy, citizen and alien are dissolved in favor of bonds of unity, kindness and care.

In Sodom we have an illustration of how brutal society can be. There is a tendency in the human heart to divide the world into us and them, and a community can be cruel to the people outside its borders. Lot gives us an example of someone who refuses to follow the group and join in their community. But he does not go far enough. Instead of stopping the brutality, he just points it at someone else.

But Jesus offers us another path. He chooses what is right over what is safe, he takes the risk to love those who aren’t from here, who don’t belong, who are his enemies. He teaches us to care for the other as if they were our own. We know what lies at the end for the people of Sodom. And we know what lies at the end for Jesus, too. But the difference is that in death Jesus was raised to eternal life, and in him we are welcomed into God’s kingdom of righteousness, where no one is in our out, and every single one of us is claimed as God’s own.

[1] It has been said, but it is unclear who was the first to say it. http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/12/04/good-men-do/

[2] Wynne, Catherine “The teenager who saved a man with an SS tattoo” BBC News, 28 October 2013. << http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24653643 >> Accessed 7 February 2015.

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Does Love Conquer All?

Sermon from February 1st, 2015. Text for this sermon was 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.

Does Love Conquer All?

Love conquers all. It is one of the least controversial statements of Christian theology. It is so universally agreeable that Walmart sells framed copies of the quote to hang up on your bathroom wall. If you interviewed people on the street about it, Christians, atheists, Muslims, whatever, nearly every single one would tell you that they would agree with the statement that love conquers all. But is it true? If it were true that love conquered all we could get rid of Intercontinental Ballistic missiles and send intercontinental love notes to our enemies. If it were true that love conquered all we could close down food banks and soup kitchens and just let love conquer that hunger. If it were true that love conquered all the police would hardly have anything to do.

In our passage from First Corinthians we find ourselves eavesdropping on a 2,000-year-old conversation that pertains to this topic of love. It is a conversation about food. Perhaps you have come to discover like I have that food and love are often closely related. Specifically, there was a debate raging in the Corinthian church concerning whether or not you should eat meat that had been sacrificed to a pagan idol.

At that time in Greek cities when you brought a sacrifice to the Temple of Artemis or Dionysus or whoever, the priest would take it, slaughter it on the altar, take his cut, and then give the rest back to you. And you’d cook it up and invite all your friends to a feast in one of the Temple’s party rooms (yes, a Greek Temple had rooms for parties, like a roller skating rink). And there you’d serve the meat. If you’re a Christian, but you’ve been invited to the birthday party of your nephew who is not, can you eat the meat that’s been sacrificed to an idol?

Some people argued that they shouldn’t eat meat that had been sacrificed to an idol. Eating meat of some other spiritual significance seemed like they were being unfaithful to God. And maybe some of them were tempted by their old lives, to believe that the meat really was blessed, so to eat the meat was to participate in the blessing. So they avoided meat sacrificed to idols all together. On the other side they argued that since the Greek gods don’t really exist, it didn’t really matter who mumbled what while they were being slaughtered. Their words had no meaning, so why waste good meat? They weren’t going to skip the brisket just because someone else thought it was magical.

Paul’s response is what we have in 1 Corinthians 8. He says to the second group, you’re absolutely right. Meat that has been sacrificed to a pagan god is no different from any other meat, because those rituals have no significance. But don’t eat the meat anyway. Don’t eat the meat because you might become an obstacle to someone else. Just because you have this more enlightened understanding doesn’t mean that you should disregard the feelings of others. Paul is saying that they should choose to be gracious to their neighbors over being right. Your neighbor is more important than your doctrine.

Fred Craddock tells this story about these folks who lived up the street from him.[1] They had three or four daughters when the divorce happened. And one of those daughters, was maybe fourteen years old, and always in trouble. She skipped school, she smoked pot, she was doing all the things that parents hope their children wait to do or never do. Fred says she was, “hanging on the tail end of every motorcycle that went roaring through the neighborhood.” Finally the judge sent her off to a reform school. And probably the fourth or fifth month she was there she gave birth to the little baby that she had been carrying.

Well word got around the neighborhood that a few months later she was coming home. That day she came home, everyone in the neighborhood had found something to do out in their yard. Mowing the grass, watering the daisies, trimming the hedges, and watching the house. Fred too. She didn’t show up and didn’t show up and didn’t show up. Hardly anyone had grass on their lawns left to cut. And then the car came. And out this little girl comes with her baby, and people come rushing out of the house to hug it and to hold it. They’re all laughing and joking, and pretty soon another car pulls up and another pulls up, to the point that a righteous Christian couldn’t drive down the street, blocked for all these people coming in to welcome this baby.

Now Fred was the preacher in this town, watching this thing, and suddenly he got awful nervous. What if someone saw him and asked him to come by? What if someone saw him out there, laughing and joking with that unwed teenage mother and tickling the little baby’s feet? He went inside.

I could tell you a hundred stories of people who will never again warm a pew on Sunday morning because someone chose to be right instead of loving them. I could tell you a hundred more stories of people for whom the same thing is true about their own childhood home.

And I could tell you a few stories about people whose place in the pew will always be warm because someone chose to love them instead of being right. But more important than these, are the stories that were told by Matthew and Mark, Luke and John. When the law of love conflicted with the Sabbath law, Jesus said “Come out of him, demon. I don’t care what day it is.” When Jesus saw a mob of people ready to stone a young woman, Jesus said, “Whoever is without sin, cast the first stone.”

For Jesus and for Paul, if there is ever a situation in which you have to choose between being right or righteous and being loving, the answer is clear. Of course you should love them. If that means inviting in that longhaired boy your teenage daughter has been following around, of course you should love them. If that means cleaning up your alcoholic uncle knowing that he’s going to go right back to it tomorrow, of course you should love them. If your grandchildren show up to Thanksgiving with blue hair and nose rings and tell you that meat is just a gear in the system of capitalist oppression, break out the Tofurkey. Of course you should love them. If someone stops by your office asking for you to donate so that those poor little Muslim children will have schools, and your buddy says, “Feed them today, fight them tomorrow. I’ll give my money somewhere else” Of course you should love them.

The Gospel message is that if you ever have to choose between doing what is righteous and right, and loving someone, the choice is clear. Because it is true that love does conquer all. But only if you let it.

[1] Craddock, Fred, Craddock Stories, ed. Mike Graves and Richard Ward (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 35.

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Doodling in God’s Presence

Sermon from January 18th, 2015. Text for this week’s sermon comes from Exodus 35:30-36:7.

Doodling in God’s Presence

Bezalel was a doodler. He carved doodles on the trees while he was out tending sheep, and he doodled when it was his turn to sweep the floor of the house. He would swirl the dust into spectacular patterns before wiping it all away so that no one could see. To his family, his doodling was pure nuisance. It distracted him from accomplishing practical tasks, work that would help the family and maybe one day make him suitable to start a family of his own. But to Bezalel, doodling was pure joy. He loved to bring out the beauty from a piece of wood, to turn gnarls and knots into a work of art. Bezalel knew his family meant well. Carving decorations onto the table was never going to put food on it. But whenever he tried to focus and be more practical he always found that his hands had already started on something else.

Oholiab was not so different. Much younger, but he’d still disappear into his own head in the same way, painting cloudscapes in his mind, or wondering exactly how to make a paint the color of sunlight in the afternoon. His mother had even gone to Bezalel’s mother to ask what to do, not that it did any good. She’d set him to gathering firewood only to find him an hour later pulping desert plants to find the right color for a rock mural.

Neither Bezalel nor Oholiab noticed that Moses had been paying extra attention to them these past few weeks. Moses was remembering what God had said to him before he had gone down from Mt. Sinai that first time. “I have chosen Bezalel…and I have filled him with my power. I have given him understanding, skill, and ability for every kind of artistic work…I have also selected Oholiab, son of Ahisamach from the tribe of Dan, to work with him.”

Moses wondered what God saw in those two dreamers. Not that there were a lot of choices to make the tabernacle. The Hebrews in the wilderness had no artisans among them. The Egyptians hadn’t exactly been using them for skilled labor. They knew how to make bricks and that was about it. Moses had imagined something better for God’s house. Lebanese woodworkers, Egyptian goldsmiths, Assyrian ironworkers. Moses had grown up in Egyptian palaces, and it was sad to think that nothing here would rival the walls he used to marvel at as a child.

But that was all before the Golden Calf Incident. While Moses was up on Mt. Sinai, the people became afraid that God had abandoned them, or that God was not with them. Without something that would reassure them of God’s presence, they were adrift. So they convinced Aaron to make them a Golden Calf, a god they could see, a god they could be sure wasn’t going anywhere without them. Moses had been furious. Moses had shown them time and time again that God was with them: the escape from Egypt, the pillars of cloud and fire that guided them, and the manna provided every morning all proclaimed God’s presence. But the people were always afraid and unsure. Every time it seemed that they had come to trust God, something would happen and they’d fall off the wagon again. Moses had racked his brain trying to figure out how to show the people that God was with him. And he wondered what these two doodlers could do that he couldn’t.

God had proclaimed that Moses should have a tent built, a tabernacle in which presence of God would dwell. Then the people would always know that God was with them, because the tabernacle would be God’s home on earth. But how could these two space cadets build a tabernacle worthy of the Most High? And how, Moses wondered, could these two dreamers make the people see that God was with them when Moses could not?

When Moses announced that Bezalel and Oholiab would be spearheading the construction of the tabernacle, Bezalel and Oholiab were stunned. They had never thought of their doodles as anything more than a way to pass the time. They had no idea how to build something worthy of God. But they gathered the tools they had and set about to do it as best as they could.

On their first day, a crowd of people gathered to watch Bezalel and Oholiab work. They didn’t have a lot to work with. A few tools, some brushes, an oven and some woven cloth. But that was what they had, and so they began. Bezalel set to shaping wood for the frame of the tent, and Oholiab began making dyes for the vestments of the priests. It wasn’t long before the crowd was marveling at the colors that Oholiab was making.

“I wish I could do something like that,” someone said. “You can,” said Oholiab, and before you know it they had their hands deep in the dye buckets, making every color in a sunrise. Soon Oholiab was showing everyone how to make the dyes and paints he needed, and Bezalel was showing people how to plane and shape the wood for the Ark of the Covenant.

The next day, even more people showed up to help. And this time they brought their tools and their jewelry too. Everyone wanted to be a part of the construction of the tabernacle, and everyone had an offering that they wanted to share. Bezalel and Oholiab taught them how to make a beautiful work of art for the Lord Most High, and the beams and canvas showed their love of God.

Within a few days they had so many precious metals and offerings that Moses had to call the people together to tell them to stop bringing things to add to the Tabernacle, there was already too much for them to handle.

When Moses finished his announcement, he stopped by to see how the construction was coming. He was astonished to see so many hands working on the temple, many of whom had been laying down before a Golden calf not long before. But Bezalel and Oholiab were not just gifted artisans, they were gifted teachers. They showed the people that God’s world was full of beauty, they simply had to let the beauty be shown to the world. And with time, the people came to know that that beauty dwelled in them as well, and it was a sign of God’s presence within them. As they built and shaped a tabernacle for the Lord to dwell, they came to realize that God was dwelling in their hearts as well.

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Dunked

Sermon from January 11th, 2015, Baptism of Our Lord Sunday. Text for the sermon was Mark 1:4-11.

Dunked

Immaculata Church, where eight-to-ten thousand people gather every Good Friday to pray their way up the stairs to the cross. Via

Anyone who goes to seminary is bound to run into a few surprises. One of the surprises that I ran into in my Greek 101 class was the meaning for the word “baptizo.” I had sort of expected that to be translated “to baptize,” but there in my textbook it said “baptizo, to dunk.” With a little thought it makes a lot of sense. The modern word baptize now has 2,000 years of historical and traditional significance ascribed to it. We have made baptism into something specific, sacred, and holy. But for those people who stood shivering on the banks of the Jordan, waiting for a smelly camel-clothed man to help them look for something more in life, such things didn’t exist yet. For them, baptizo was just a word that meant dunk.

I have a lot of fun with this kind of thing. For instance, I baptized two donuts in my coffee this morning. And when the All-Star Break rolls around in the NBA, I will watch the Slam Baptize Competition, to see who can best baptize a basketball through the hoop.

What this should make us realize is that baptism was an ordinary thing that was used for extraordinary purposes. To those first people, dunked in the Jordan River, it was something unholy that was used for something holy. And that I think, is a good metaphor for who we are. We are an ordinary people used for extraordinary purposes. We are unholy but we are being made holy through baptism.

John was down in the Jordan river doing this ordinary thing to ordinary people when he looked up and Jesus was next in line. And after a little bit of hesitation John did this ordinary thing to an extraordinary person, and as he should have expected, something extraordinary happened. The heavens were ripped open, and the spirit of God descended upon Jesus like a dove.

A side note about the heavens being ripped open. There are only two times that Mark uses the word ripped (Gk. schizo) in his Gospel. The other time is when the curtain of the Temple is ripped in two. The curtain of the Temple separated the ordinary world from the Holy of Holies, it protected the sacred from the profane. The symbolism is that Jesus’ death ripped the barrier between heaven and earth. Through him, we are given access to the holiest of holies, God.

Jesus’ baptism demonstrates the same thing. It shows us an opening in the divide between heaven and earth, a crack in the façade. It tells us of an unholy people who are called to holy tasks. And it tells us of our holy God, who chooses to come and be unholy with us, in the form of Jesus Christ. In Baptism we are joined with Christ and made holy through Him. Jesus, the son of God, came down and participated in this ordinary thing. And then he invites us all to participate in this ordinary thing, and through it we become holy. What this tells us is that ordinary people doing ordinary things can become sacred, holy, and blessed.

There’s a church in Cincinnati called Holy Cross Immaculata. It’s an older church, and when it was first being built, the archbishop put a wooden cross up on top of the hill. And people would go up the hill to the cross to pray. Eventually Archbishop Purcell put some stairs up to make it easier for people to walk up to the cross. Over the years it became a tradition, people would pray their way up the stairs on Good Friday. You say a Hail Mary on every step and an Our Father on the landing. Eventually the wooden stairs wore out and they were replaced by concrete steps. But by that time so many people were praying their way up to the Holy Cross that the concrete steps had to be replaced. Twice. Now every Good Friday, beginning at midnight eight to ten thousand people gather at Holy Cross to pray their way up the stairs to the cross at the top of the hill. I don’t think anyone would deny that this is a holy place, for thousands of people to come to pray there every year. But if someone asked you what made this place holy, you’d be hard-pressed to say anything other than thousands of steps. Ordinary people taking ordinary steps, over and over again, until they became holy.

Baptism is an ordinary thing. Ordinary people, ordinary water, not even all that different from what you do in the morning when you take a shower. But in baptism we begin this process of being made holy, a process theologians call sanctification. And this process continues, not in the extraordinary, but in the ordinary way that our lives progress. Ordinary people, doing ordinary things. Staying up late to talk to a friend. Watching the sun go all the way down. Offering forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness. Going to one more doctor’s office. Eating a meal with people you care about.

IMG_0604

Our sanctuary.

The miracle of baptism is not that the waters are holy; it is that the waters are not holy. Yet by the grace of God we are given holiness through them anyway, whether we deserve it or not. We embark on this great journey of becoming holy by doing something ordinary, through which the heavens are ripped open for us.

When I bring the Fun and Worship kids into the sanctuary, either for pageant practice or to show them something about the house of God, I always stop them at the door. And I tell them that this is a holy place. It isn’t a holy place because it has beautiful carpet, though it has. Nor is it a holy place because of the candles or the paraments or the beautiful cross hanging from the ceiling. This is a holy place because ordinary people have made it holy. It is holy because ordinary people have shared their lives here. Laughter has echoed off of the walls and tears have dampened the pews. Prayers have been prayed, spoken and unspoken. Hugs have been shared, both in joy and in sorrow. Here we have held baptisms, weddings, and funerals. And in the accumulation of all of these meaningful moments over our lifetimes, it has become a sanctuary for us. It is a place where we can go to take refuge from our crazy lives and find peace, if only for a moment. It is a place where we can go when our lives are falling apart and find people ready to help us put them back together again. It is a place where we can raise our children knowing that they will receive tender care and firm instruction in what is right. It is ordinary people who have made this place holy. Ordinary people who by the grace of God have done extraordinary things. That is the promise that we experience in baptism. We are dunked, dipped, or sprinkled, ordinary people in ordinary water, but because God chose to send the Spirit into the water and the Spirit into us, we can do extraordinary things.

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Finding the Magi in Us

Happy New Year Everyone!

Finding the Magi In Us

My dad has this odd tendency to drive home a different route from the way he came. When I was a kid, if we went by the post office on the way to school, we’d go by Curt’s house on the way back. On the way to the ice cream place we’d go by the Lutheran church, but on the way back we’d pass by the park instead. Mom always said that he did it so that she wouldn’t know her way around town when they first moved there, but over the years I’ve noticed that Dad’s desire to go a different way isn’t limited to roads. Dad is always looking for a different way to do things. He’s always looking for a better way to do something, a solution no one has thought of yet. He isn’t just looking to try a different road, he’s looking to go a different way.

Our story for today is about some magicians who come to see Jesus. Astrologers, horoscope writers, wise men if that’s what you want to call them, they were pagans whose study of the skies had led them to believe that something important was happening in Palestine. They wanted to be a part of this great thing they saw happening, so they hopped on their camels without much thought as to how they might find it when they got there.

Traditionally they have been known as the Three Kings, but we can be sure that kings they were not. Even the densest of kings would have the sense not to waltz into a king’s throne room and ask him where a new king would be born. Herod’s as politically calculating as they come. If the Messiah is coming, that will mean that he is out of a job. And a palace, and fine robes, and probably his life. He cannot let such a thing come to pass. But he’s sly as a fox, so he smiles sweetly and feigns interest and tells them he’s following right behind, he just needs to get his gifts together. “Let me know when you find him,” he says, “so that I can go worship him.” But Herod is planning no such thing.

Most of us think of us associate the story of the Magi with children. We think of children dressed in their father’s bathrobes with paper crowns and glitter covered boxes, adorable little kings bringing gifts for the babe. But like the story of Noah’s ark, this story is only kid-friendly on the surface. The story of the Magi reminds us that from birth the infant child had enemies. The scene at the manger, where heaven and earth rejoice in the birth of the baby king is only part of the story. Not everyone rejoices at the thought of a new king entering into the world. And as Mary’s song reminded us weeks ago, good news for the poor and humble is bad news for the rich and the powerful. So while the magi rejoice at the idea of the coming king, Herod plots a way to prevent it.

What goes on in this story is also a little bit what goes on in us. There is a part of us that welcomes the newborn king, but there is also a part of us that resists. We can do the math as well as Herod. If Jesus is Lord, then we most definitely are not. To welcome the reign of God means relinquishing our own kingdoms: our desires, our dreams, our fears, even our ideas about how the world is. And it is often far easier to hang on to those kingdoms than it is to let our worlds be rocked by the new lives we are offered in Christ. So we let the Herod in us reign. We ask forgiveness for sins knowing we will commit them again the next day. We go over the good book with a fine-tooth comb for loopholes and work-arounds. We promise obedience we never mean to give.

The Magi, on the other hand, show us a different way. If Herod is the paragon of someone who should be looking for the Messiah but is not, the Magi are the opposite. They aren’t Jews, they are foreigners. They know nothing of the struggle of the Hebrew people or the prophecies of a Messiah. They only knew that their star charts seemed to be pointing to a new king in Judea. If anything, we should learn from them that you don’t have to have the Bible memorized or the confessions mastered to find your way to the manger. Jesus tells us that if no one proclaimed God’s salvation the very stones would cry out God’s name. And so it was for the Magi, the natural world proclaimed that a savior was coming.

The revelation to the Magi reveals to us the scope of God’s work in Jesus Christ. Jesus hasn’t come just for the Judeans but for the whole world. The magi weren’t supposed to be a part of this story but here they are. Half-crazy dreamers who go on a road trip and discover that their dreams have come true. The skies pointed them to Palestine and the scholars pointed them to Bethlehem. They might have been a little naïve to think that Herod would be just as excited as they were about a new king, but isn’t that the truth of the Gospel? It is good news for everyone, even those who see it as bad.

The Magi know something huge is coming and they want to be there when it happens. The stars were a sign to them that this boy was special. And they in turn are a sign to us that this man is more than just a good man. Jesus would be a savior for the whole world. When they arrive they kneel and pay homage. What else could they do? He is a heavenly king and he is in a carpenter’s house, born of a carpenter’s wife. How could you not want to know how that turns out? They aren’t afraid that this might ruin their lives, they are excited that it might ruin their lives. They bring their gifts and offer them up because they want to be a part of this incredible thing that is happening.

We have a lot to learn from the Magi. Whether we believe it or not, the presence of Christ in our world is good news. We should look be looking for Christ, because we will not find Him holed up in our homes. We should be willing to give up the little kingdoms that we have built around ourselves to be a part of this incredible adventure that is life in Christ. Giving our treasures may mean having less to call our own but will also mean storing up treasures in a greater kingdom.

Matthew tells us that the wise men were warned in a dream to go home by another way. It tells us they took another road, so they would not pass by Herod’s palace and reveal the location of the child. But the Way was also one of the earliest phrases that people used to describe Christians. Christians were called followers of the way. I don’t know, but I can’t help thinking that after seeing the heavens bend towards this infant child, that their encounter with the risen Christ led them to go home by another Way as well.

It is my hope, that we too might seek Jesus where we find him, whether in scripture or in the stars. And that we might be brave enough to go looking for him to offer up our gifts, so that we can be a part of this great adventure. And that knowing the Good News and the bad news of the story, we might find ourselves taking that Way too.

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Christmas Eve

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas and holiday season! This was Rev. Harrison’s Christmas Eve message.

Finding What You Are Looking For

I can’t decide if it should be surprising that so few people recognized the coming of the Messiah when it happened, or if it’s remarkable that anyone noticed at all.

The wise men spent their whole lives watching the heavens for a sign and just barely caught it. They had to stop at Herod’s place to get directions and even then showed up late.

Mary and Joseph managed to be there, but not without help. Without angels to explain everything to them Mary would just be a statistic, another teen mom whose poor choices led her down a dangerous path. Joseph would still have his righteousness, though I don’t know what comfort that would be without his bride.

And we’re told the skies over Bethlehem held the most incredible thing of all. The sky was filled with angels, a multitude of the heavenly host, proclaiming “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” But either the shepherds were on a very isolated hilltop, or not very many people were looking into the sky that moment, because the shepherds were the only ones who made it to the inn. Maybe there was traffic.

But so it was that on the day God took on flesh and became human, only a few people knew about it. If it were to happen again, would we know about it?

We can’t blame the Judeans for not knowing the Messiah when he came. The Israelites were looking for a different kind of Messiah. You don’t often find what you aren’t looking for. The Judeans were expecting a Messiah of the line of David, a great warrior-poet-king who would deliver them from evil and straight into prosperity and ask nothing in return.

And maybe that is still who we are looking for. A savior who will destroy our enemies for us and then stand aside while we destroy ourselves.

But that is not the Messiah that God sent. Perhaps God had saved the people from the fire only to watch them jump right back in it one too many times. Perhaps God noticed that we call out for justice and mercy far more readily than we offer them. But God did not send a judge to deliver the people, or a prophet to comfort them. God took on flesh and came down in the form of a little child.

This is how our God chooses to enter our world. In unexpected ways and in unexpected places, God creeps in to our lives and fills them with light and joy. God doesn’t come with crashes of thunder or blinding lights, but in an unexpected gift, or the kindness of a stranger. God’s presence appears to by showing us joy in the midst of our chaotic lives, or the reassurance that things may change, but love will remain. God comes to us in ways that are so meek and subtle that it is no wonder that we so often miss them.

There is a story of an old stone monastery whose walls once held a thriving center of learning and spirituality. It was now a shell of its former self, holding just a few old monks. The monks knew that their order was dying, but there seemed little they could do. No one, young or old, was interested in joining their order. So they had resigned themselves simply to be caretakers, to hold on to what was good while they could, knowing that they probably would not be able to hold on much longer.

            The abbot used to like to take long walks to contemplate what was troubling him, and in these years most of what was troubling him had to do with he monastery’s future. And it just so happened that on one of these walks he ran into the rabbi of the local synagogue. The two had never had much occasion to speak, but they did always exchange pleasantries if they ran into each other somewhere. Only this time, when the rabbi asked him how he was he couldn’t keep up the charade and simply blurted out the truth. “Awful.” And he explained what was going on at the monastery. The rabbi understood. “I know how it is. Each week fewer and fewer people show up to the synagogue.” And the rabbi invited him to his house, where they sat together and studied Torah and prayed and wept for their congregations. And when it was time for the abbot to leave, he asked one last time, “Do you have any advice on what I can do to save my dying order?”

“I have nothing.” the rabbi said. “The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.” And he stepped back into the house.

The abbot puzzled and pondered over the rabbi’s words. And when he got back to the monastery he told the other brothers about this cryptic statement the rabbi had given him. The monks thought hard on what those words could mean. Could one of them actually be the Messiah? Who could it be?

Brother Wilhelm? Brother Wilhelm was most definitely a holy man, everyone knew that he was the most knowledgeable and spiritual man in the order. Or Brother Isaiah? Isaiah could hardly read, and his prayers were often mumbled or forgotten. But he never had an unkind word for anyone, and even when there were many more monks in the abbey, he always knew how to make every single person feel special. Or Brother George? Brother George could be harsh sometime, but no one had a heart for the poor like George, and they were all better for it. Maybe George could be the Messiah.

As they wondered who might be the Messiah, they began to treat each other with extraordinary respect, on the chance that the other might be the Messiah. And they began to treat themselves with great respect as well, because “Who knows?”

And slowly it came to pass that the monastery became one of the most loving places there was. And people who happened to pass were often impressed by the five elderly monks who treated each other as if they were kings. They would find excuses to stop by, or bring friends to show them this place that had this incredible air about it that words couldn’t describe.

So much so that some even made it a habit of coming to the abbey regularly to speak with the old monks. And eventually one of them asked if he could stay. Then another, and another. And within a few years the monastery was teeming with people, and it was known as a place of grace and light for the community around it.[1]

Would we know him if we saw him? I still don’t know. But I do know that if we look for him we will find him.

[1] This story has been told for many years, in many ways, by many people. This particular telling is most indebted to a version found in Scott M. Peck’s, which can be found in several versions here.

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Chairs to Make

Our passage for this Sunday is Matthew 1:18-25, the angel’s annunciation to Joseph. And the sermon makes reference to an old Carol, called the Cherry Tree Carol. Here is a good version of the carol:

Chairs to Make

A pregnant woman is constantly reminded that there is something growing in her. She feels nauseous. It kicks. Her feet swell. Her body is constantly reminding her that there is another body in there. But the same is not true for the father. In fact for the father hardly anything might change at all. He won’t wake up in the morning with an overwhelming need to vomit. He can go to work and focus on his tasks and completely forget about the responsibilities he is about to take on. He might even want to. Especially, if, in the case of Joseph, he isn’t the biological father at all.

The Infancy Gospel of Matthew, written sometime around 600 A.D. has a story about Joseph and Mary that later became an old carol called “The Cherry Tree Carol.” As the story goes, Mary is with child, but Joseph doesn’t know it yet. She and Joseph are walking in a cherry orchard, and she decides to tell him. She hides it in a request, “Joseph gather me some cherries, for I am with child.” Joseph isn’t exactly happy to hear the news. “Let the father of the baby pick cherries for thee,” he snaps back. Then Jesus from the womb commands the tallest tree to bend itself down so that Mary can pluck cherries herself while Joseph stands gaping.

It’s a weird story. But it fleshes out the characters in a real way. After the annunciation, the angel went away, and left Mary to deal with the fallout. The events that happen in our story don’t just happen to perfect saints who have hummingbirds helping them get dressed in the morning. In the midst of this story of magic and miracle and goodwill there were real people, real fights and real hurts, jagged edges and broken things that won’t be fixed.

Of course we don’t know how any of this happened, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that this wasn’t easy for Joseph. I imagine him waking up in the morning angry and frustrated and wishing that he could just forget Mary and everything else that has happened. And for the first few hours of the morning he’s able to do just that. Just because he’s got problems doesn’t mean that there isn’t work to do. He has orders to fill. There are chairs and tables to be made and sold. He still has to put food on the table; he still has to pay the mortgage. So he throws himself into his work, cutting and shaving and fitting until his arms are screaming at him and his back is slick with sweat.

But when the workday is over, he can no longer hold his thoughts at bay. He’s angry at Mary, but he still cares enough not to want to hurt her. Why did everything get so complicated? Joseph is a carpenter. He puts things together. And he cuts and he shaves and he sands until each joint is fit, flush, and even. But nothing is fit, flush, or even about this situation. It’s jagged edges and uneven corners as far as his eye can see. The whole thing is a mess. He can’t marry her now, but maybe if he can keep this quiet she can still have a good life. And so he drifts off to sleep just the way he he woke up, thoughts racing and wishing that he could just forget it all.

And then he has the most incredible dream. You know the dream, of course. An angel, come to announce that the child in Mary’s womb is from the Holy Spirit. He is the Messiah, and he shall be called Emmanuel, God with us. But if you’ve ever tried to explain a dream you know that telling someone what happened barely scratches the surface of what you’ve experienced. And the same is true for Joseph. Can you imagine what it would be like to be shown God’s plan for the world? To see how God has bent the cosmos to one shape, weaving the threads of time together to bring this particular present to fruition, and then to be shown exactly where you fit? Can you imagine what it was like for Joseph, whose life had cracked along jagged edges, to be shown how those jagged edges fit exactly into this great big puzzle, and to see not only his part in this great plan but the whole plan itself? For the first time ever, Joseph can see how his piece fits with all the others. And he sees that he is part of a much greater work than he ever imagined.

And then he wakes up. And like any dream, this dream begins to fade. He tells it to himself again and again so he won’t forget what happened, but of course there is no way to put those feelings into words, and soon all he has left are the words.

And there are chairs to be made. He remembers the dream, but dreams fade. And the angel that was there last night isn’t here in the morning. And it’s not there during Jesus’s teen years, either. But every once in a while, when he’s putting a piece together, sweat and sawdust in his eyes, he will slowly ease a fitting into place. And the pieces will fit just right, the color will match just right, and the fit will be so snug you might not notice that the joint is there at all. And a tear will roll down the side of Joseph’s face, because he will remember the vision and the way he fits into the great mystery of life.

It can be easy for us to forget that we too are a part of this grand vision of salvation. There are chairs for us to make, cattle to feed, errands to run, and fences to mend. The mortgage doesn’t pay itself, and the bills keep coming whether we want them to or not.

But perhaps that’s why God came into the world this way. Not in some great cosmic explosion of transcendence, but in an ordinary way, to ordinary people, who have the same anxieties and fears that we do, and the same chairs to make. So that we might know that God works with jagged-edged people, people whose lives don’t seem to fit right, people who don’t have all the answers.

The stories in the Bible give us glimpses of the great plan God has for us and for our salvation. And as Max Lucado puts it, “Christmas celebrates God’s most uncommon decision: to come commonly.”[1] Something incredible is coming into our world, and it will come in moonlight and miracle but it will also come in arguments and tragedies and chairs to make.

We who wait for an unbirthed hope can forget, with all of the things we are doing, that we do these things because great joy is coming into our lives. But we would do better not to. Because God has come and God is still coming, in people with jagged edges, and arguments and tragedies and chairs to make.

[1] Lucado, Max. Christmas Stories; Heartwarming Tales of Angels, a Manger, and the Birth of Hope. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 7.

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Mary the God-Bearer

Sermon from December 14th, 2014. The Text for this week’s sermon is Luke 1:46-55, Mary’s Magnificat.

Mary the God-Bearer

            There is an ancient title for Mary that perhaps holds more truth than any of her others. In antiquity she was referred to as the Theotokos, which means God-bearer. Because she is the one who bore God into the world. Mary carried him for nine months while people whispered about who his father was behind her back. And Mary pushed him out, in mud and straw and with no one but Joseph and livestock to give her comfort. The child born in mud and earth was none other than the light of the world, Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. When God became human, God chose Mary to be the one to bear Christ into the world. So Christians would later call Mary the God-bearer, for she is the one who bore God into the world on the day we call Christmas.

            But Mary’s bearing is hardly done on Christmas morning. Mary bears it when Jesus is lost for three days, and when they finally find him in the Temple, he tells her, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I would be where I belong?” Mary bears it when she comes to see her son at a house and he leaves her standing outside. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he said. “Here are my mother and my brothers,” talking about the people inside. Mary stood outside and bore it.

            And Mary bears it when her son is taken, first to Caiaphas, and Herod, and then Pilate. She bears it when the crowds shout Barrabas’s name instead of his. And while Jesus bears the heavy cross on his way to Golgotha, Mary bears her heavy heart down the same path. She knows the excruciating pain of a parent burying a child. And on Sunday morning, she goes to the tomb bearing linen and spices, so that like she did when he was born, she can hold his body in her arms and wrap him in cloth, before giving his body back to the earth.

            There’s an old war poet named G.A. Studdert Kennedy. He was a chaplain, an English priest and one of the few people doing theology from the front lines. He even won the Military Cross for valor in rushing into danger to pull wounded men from the front lines. One of his poems is called, “I Know Not Where They Have Laid Him.” It’s written from the perspective of a mother who has received the news that her son has died on some far-away battle line, and she wonders what will happen to his body. She reflects on the pain it took to bring him into the world, and the pain it took to keep him there. A mother’s pain, a pain she says her parson can’t understand. She remembers the pain of labor, giving up her own rest in the middle of the night to care for him when he’s sick, giving the life from her breast to feed him and nourish him. It’s a longer poem so I won’t read the whole thing, but I’d like to read a section of it, because I think it might speak to what Mary was going through those last few days:

            But I’d like to know just where it’s laid,

                        That body my body bore,

            And I’d like to know who’ll mother him

                        Out there on that other shore,

            Who will be bearin’ the mother’s part

                        And be makin’ your body boy?

            Who will be ‘avin the mother’s pain

                        And feelin’ the mother’s joy?

            Gawd, is it you?   Then bow You down

                        And ‘ark to a mother’s prayer.

            Don’t keep it all to yourself Good Lord,

                        But give ‘is old mother a share.

            Gimme a share of the travail pain

                        Of my own son’s second birth,

            Double the pain if you double the joy

                        That a mother feels on earth.

            Gimme the sorrow and not the joy

                        If that ‘as to be Your will;

            Gimme the labour and not the pride,

                        But make me ‘is mother still.

            Maybe the body as ‘e shall wear

                        Is born of my breaking heart,

            Maybe these pains are the new birth pangs

                        What’ll give my laddie ‘is start.

            Then I’d not trouble ‘ow hard they was,

                        I’d gladly go through the mill,

            If that noo body ‘e wore were mine,

                        And I were ‘is mother still.

 

            She hopes that in his birth to new life she can still be his mother, that she can bear him into the next world as she bore him into the first. She knows the pain, but she knows the joy too, and she’d choose it again, if she had the chance. That’s what it is to be the God-bearer. To bear God into the world as Jesus came is to endure great pain but also to know, as the angel said, “tidings of great joy.” Most highly-favored lady indeed. And perhaps Mary realizes that. That’s why her song is filled with joy but also with upheaval. God will scatter the proud with a mighty arm, and send the rich away empty. But all generations will call her blessed.

            The ancient bishop Nestorius didn’t like the term God-bearer for Mary. He felt that it singled her out as someone different from other people. He was concerned that this would lead to too much veneration of Mary. If people put Mary up on a pedestal because she was the one who brought Jesus into the world, they would forget that each of us also bears the image of God just as Mary did.

            Each of us is also a God-bearer. Just like Mary, we have been tasked with bringing Jesus into the world. We too share in the travails and the labor, in the joy and the pain, of bringing God into our world. And there may be times when we too find ourselves weeping at Golgotha. But we will also share Mary’s joy. We will experience joy like the joy of a new mother of holding her child in her arms. We too will know that we are birthing something that will change the world. And we too will witness miracles performed in God’s name.

            This season we acknowledge that something is born in us. Something that transforms our lives and shapes who we are. Something that will bring tears and pain but also promises to bring tidings of great joy. We bear it with us every where we go. That something is love.

            It is the love that a mother has, to endure all to bring a child into the world. It is the love that Mary had, to follow her child all the way from the manger to the cross. It is the love that God has for us, that God sent God’s only begotten Son so that we might have eternal life. That love is born into the world this season. Let it be born again in you. And bear it with you wherever you go.

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A Song of Peace

Today’s sermon tells the story of the song: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which was based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Christmas Bells.” If you’d like to hear the song while you read the sermon, or just listen to the song in general, here is a good version. And if you’re interested in other Christmas Carols that were written around the same time with interesting histories, check out this blog post on Experimental Theology. The text for this week’s sermon, Isaiah 40:1-11, can be found here: Isaiah 40:1-11.

A Song of Peace

            The hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It was put to music a few years later, but it was originally a poem, written on Christmas Day 1863, but the road to its creation was far from easy.

            On July 9th, 1861, just two months after the first shots of the Civil War, Longfellow’s wife Fanny was trying to seal an envelope with wax when her dress suddenly caught fire. Henry tried to stifle the flames with a rug and then with his body but was unsuccessful. He was so badly burned in the process that he was unable to attend her funeral. The loss was devastating to him, and it was especially difficult at Christmas. The next Christmas he wrote in his journal, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” The following year was the same, “A merry Christmas say the children,” he wrote. “But that is no more for me.”[1]

            In 1863, Longfellow received more bad news. His son Charles, who had enlisted in the Union army against his father’s will, had been shot through the back and the bullet nicked his spine, leaving him disabled. 1863 was also a dark year for the nation. Chancellorsville and Gettysburg were some of the worst battles of the war. But on Christmas Day of that year, Longfellow wrote the poem that would later become our hymn.

            I heard the bells on Christmas Day

           Their old, familiar carols play,

            and wild and sweet

            The words repeat

            Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

            Longfellow was no stranger to the pain of loss or the devastation of war. He had lost his wife in a tragic fire, and nearly lost his son. His grief nearly drove him insane, and he never fully recovered.

            And in despair I bowed my head;

            “There is no peace on earth,” I said;

            “For hate is strong,

            And mocks the song

            Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

            But in spite of his own personal heartbreak, and the devastating war between the states, Longfellow penned this poem of Christmas hope.

            Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

            “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

            The Wrong shall fail,

            The Right prevail,

            With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

            In the midst of a war, devastated by grief, Longfellow wrote a hymn of peace, proclaiming that though the cannon might thunder like earthquakes, peace would reign on earth again.

            Isaiah 40 also speaks of hope in a hopeless context. The author of Isaiah 40 writes to the exiles in Babylon, who are mired in shame and doubt. There are basically two ways to doubt God. One is to doubt God’s will, and the other is to doubt God’s power. In the extreme, the first is belief in a cruel and unforgiving God, the second is belief in no God at all. The exiles held on to both. They wondered if God had the power to bring salvation. Babylonian gods seemed to prevail over Yahweh, and they were a long way from Israel, God’s power might not extend that far. They also worried that God might no longer want to save them. If the exile was punishment for their sins, would the punishment ever end?

            The same doubts can plague us too. We wonder if God is listening to our prayers, or if we are just speaking to an empty sky. We worry that even God might not be able to get us out of the trouble that we have found for ourselves. We worry that we might not be good enough for God to want to. Like Longfellow, we bow our heads in despair, knowing that the earth has no peace, and good will is hard to come by.

            But Longfellow and Isaiah’s words proclaim a deeper truth. Hope in the Lord is not misplaced. The Prince of Peace is coming; His reign is imminent. “Do you not know?” Isaiah 40 asks, “Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.”

            “Here is your God,” our passage proclaims. God is the Sovereign Almighty, but God is tender as a shepherd. God is the ruler of this world, but God also cares about us so deeply that God sent God’s son that we might find hope, peace, love, and joy through Him.

            It took another year and a half, but Longfellow’s promise of peace came true. The war ended and peace returned to the once-again United States. Isaiah’s promise also came true for the exiles, when Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and allowed the exiles to return to Judah. And as Christians we believe that these words of Isaiah are not limited to that time and that place but speak to us in our time and place. The words reassure us that peace is coming to our troubled lives and our troubled world as well.

            And this is how we know to believe them. Because the bells still ring in our ears. Because the prophet’s words still ring in our hearts. Because if we can quiet ourselves from our warring and strife, if we can ignore the messages of hate that threaten to drown out the song, if we can silence our doubts and fears, then we too can hear the angels’ song. Of peace on earth, goodwill to all.

[1] Stewart, Tom “From the Editor’s Desk: The Story Behind ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’” What Saith the Scripture, whatsaiththescripture.com. Dec. 20, 2001. Accessed December 6, 2014. http://www.whatsaiththescripture.com/Fellowship/Edit_I.Heard.the.Bells.html

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A Dirge with Rose-Colored Glasses

Sermon for the first Sunday in Advent, November 30th, 2014. Text for this sermon was Isaiah 64:1-9. Also take a look at Habbakuk 3:16-19.

A Dirge With Rose-Colored Glasses

            On certain ranches, if say you’re sipping lemonade and watching the sun go down, you might notice something unusual. Yellow flowers blossoming in the evening air. You would look across the field one moment and see nothing but green. But then a few minutes later, as the sun dips below the horizon, you’d notice the field dotted with little yellow flowers.

            The flowers are called evening primrose. Not related to true primroses, their blooms stay closed during the day. They open when the sun goes down, and then bloom throughout the night. Unlike other flowers, in darkness these flowers find their beauty, and in the darkest parts of the night they fill the world with their brilliance.

            Evening Primrose is a surprisingly hardy plant. It is drought resistant, which means that it blooms even when things get hard. It is a primary colonizer, which means after a disaster it is one of the first plants to return and begin rebuilding an ecosystem. All of these things come together to make the evening primrose a good symbol for the season of Advent. Advent is a time of hope in darkness. The nights grow long and cold, but we are told that our Lord came down on a long, cold night. And so in the darkness we take the time to reflect and prepare ourselves for Christmas, the birth of the light of the world. The world will not always be dark, we proclaim. And soon good things will happen to those who wait.

            Though we begin our preparations for Christmas this Sunday, the first two Sundays in Advent always have us a long time and a long way away from the manger. Our Gospel reading comes from the book of Mark, where Jesus warns the listener to keep awake and be ready for the coming of the Lord. Our Old Testament Passage hails from the book of Isaiah, and it is a lament, a song of sadness and mourning.

            The last 10 chapters of the book of Isaiah are known as Trito-Isaiah. They were written sometime after the Israelites returned from their exile in Babylon. Coming home to Judea was supposed to be this great thing for the exiles. The return from exile would be an end to their shame and misfortune and begin a new era of God’s favor. But things didn’t really go that way. Their problems multiplied. New threats arose. The unity in prosperity and mission gave way to bickering and frustration. They had been chasing a light at the end of a tunnel, but now their future seemed dark indeed.

            The passage from Isaiah expresses some of their frustration at the darkness that seemed to surround them. It is a lament in which the author begs and pleads for God to come down and set things right. Some might say it is depressing to hear the words of Isaiah’s lament right when we’re gearing up to celebrate Christmas. But I love that during a time when so many people are forcing themselves to seem happy, Isaiah’s words are deeply honest. And Isaiah’s honesty is a challenge to us, that as we prepare ourselves for Christmas we might be honest with ourselves about what we want to receive this Christmas and what we need to receive.

            The author of the lament is honest about the state of the world. “Things aren’t right here,” he seems to be saying. Things aren’t going the way they should. And so he begs God to come down. “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” Make yourself known among the nations and among our adversaries. Isaiah isn’t pretending that everything will be okay. He’s being honest about the depth of the world’s need for salvation and redemption.

            The author of the lament is also honest about the state of the people. He takes the time to reflect about what the people have done wrong. He says that our righteousness is like a filthy cloth (literally a menstrual cloth), that our sins are being carried away. The author isn’t afraid to take responsibility before God. The world is not as it should be, and we are part of the reason for that. We are also not as we should be.

            We think of this time of year as a time for children, a time of magic and make-believe for them, to pretend and imagine. But it’s also a time of make-believe for adults too. We pretend that the Christmas specials are real, and that if we paper over our wounds with tinsel and lights they will disappear. We pretend that a new rain gauge or a new TV is will give us fulfillment, and that a white Christmas could wash away our troubles. But then the bill comes in January and we are the same as before, but a little bit poorer.

            But the prophet refuses to pretend, he holds us here, to reflect penitently on who it is we truly are and what it is we truly need. That’s why when everywhere else is screaming Christmas all the time the church clings to Advent. Because we dare not greet the Redeemer until we take some time to admit that we do need redemption. In the words of William Willimon, “Nothing within us can save us. No thing can save us. We’ve tried that before.”[1]

            As C.S. Lewis puts it, “The Christian faith is a thing of unspeakable joy, but it does not begin with joy, but rather in despair. And it is no good trying to reach the joy without first going through the despair.”[2]

            The words of Isaiah demand that we be honest, so that we don’t find ourselves chasing after empty promises or false reassurance. But Isaiah’s lament is also a song of hope. It expresses the hope of redemption and the hope of transformation. Isaiah calls for God to come down, and reminds us that God has come down before, and could not be denied. The prophet proclaims to God that “You are the potter, we are the clay, we are the work of your hand.” He asks that God shape us and mold us into someone better than we are. The canticle of Isaiah is a lament, but it is a lament colored with hope, a dirge in rose-colored glasses.

            That’s what Advent is all about. In the season of advent we sit in darkness and we wait for the coming of the light. But we do not wait in despair. We wait in the knowledge that our redemption is coming and has already come. We prepare ourselves by taking time to reflect and repent and be honest with ourselves so that we can be ready for the Lord’s coming. And we stay ready by hanging on to hope.

            So we hold ourselves as we hear from the prophet Habakkuk, who tells us to continue to rejoice in the Lord, even as we wait in darkness. “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines, still I will rejoice in the Lord.” he says. Though the produce of the olives fails and the fields produce no food, still I will rejoice in the Lord. It is a declaration of hope in the face of the darkness, a proclamation that as dark as it may seem in our world and in our lives, we know that light is coming to us.

            So let us hold ourselves as the evening primrose this advent. Let us bloom in the darkness. Let our darkness be tinged with hope this advent. Let us reckon honestly with ourselves and let us beg for God to come into the world. But let us be reminded that God is coming and has already come, to heal and redeem, to bring hope and light into our world. And they call him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

[1] Willimon, William. “Going Against the Stream” The Christian Century, Dec. 19-26, 1984, p.1192. Accessed online at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1445

[2] Ibid.

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