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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The Christ in Me Greets the Christ in Thee

Sermon from November 23rd, 2014. The Text for this sermon was Matthew 25:31-46.

The Christ in Me Greets the Christ in Thee

There was a wonderful old lady I met who used to greet people in an unusual way. When you saw her on Sunday morning and went over to say hello she would say, “The Christ in me greets the Christ in thee.” It’s an old-fashioned way of saying hello. But it’s a very beautiful way as well, and I wish more of us would take it up. It recognizes that Christ dwells in each one of us, and so when we greet one another we aren’t just greeting another person, but we’re meeting the presence of Jesus Christ within that person. It doesn’t matter how we feel about that particular person on that day because at some level our encounter with them is an encounter with Christ.

The flip side is that it requires us to acknowledge that Christ dwells within us as well. So many of our problems come from not being able to recognize the Christ in ourselves. We abuse ourselves because we don’t think we’re worth treating better. We behave badly because we don’t think we’re capable of being better. We get down on ourselves because we can’t find it in ourselves to forgive our mistakes and failures. “The Christ in me greets the Christ in Thee” reminds us that you may not feel particularly Christ-like on any given day. But nevertheless Christ abides within you too.

I read a post recently by a blogger named Juan Carlos Lopez that brought this idea to the forefront for me.[1] He says he was on his way to grab some lunch one day when he noticed someone looking at him. He averted his eyes, but he could still feel the stare. As he got closer he pretended to be on his phone so that he could pass by without being bothered, but the man spoke up: “Can I have some change?”

He wanted to shrug him off and say that he didn’t have any, but it wasn’t true. He was going to buy lunch. “Maybe on my way back?” he said.

On the way back he wanted to avoid him but it didn’t sit right. So he walked back by with his lunch and handed him the leftover dollar in his pocket and do his duty. “It’s all I have,” he said. “But you have lots of food,” the man said. “Can I have some?”

He kept walking, but he couldn’t get away. After that meeting Juan Carlos started seeing him everywhere. On the off ramp to the highway. Standing on the sidewalk next to a breakfast joint. Everywhere he looked, there he was. Homeless Jesus seemed to be following him around.

“It’s so easy to have a personal relationship with a Christ you never see,” Lopez says. We show up on Sunday, say our prayers, read inspirational books and watch Christian television. And we try to do the right thing so that we can count ourselves as good people. But then Jesus shows up, in the form of a man in dirty clothes holding a sign on the highway, and knocks us off balance. When you start to see the world this way, it gets much harder to have that personal relationship. Because everywhere you go, there Jesus is, asking for things you don’t want to give to people you don’t want to give it to.

There, at the laundromat at 9pm, still in her work uniform, there’s Tired Jesus. Down on the highway, walking with a dirty bag on his shoulder, that’s Can’t Get a Job Jesus. Or maybe it’s Veteran Whose PTSD Means He Can’t Hold a Job Jesus. At the food pantry there’s Working Two Jobs and Still Not Enough Jesus. And in the prison down the highway there’s Doing a Five to Ten for Assault Jesus. At the Immigrant Detention Center in Karnes City there’s a Jesus running away from gang violence who wants a better life.

There they all are. There Jesus is. Trying to reach out to us. The Christ in them longing and needing to meet the Christ in us.

When I was younger I used to love those stories where the king would go out in disguise among his people, to see how they were really treated. And at the end of the story the king would throw off his cloak and reveal himself to them and be either delighted at their kindness or dismayed at their mistreatment of their fellow citizens. But of course those were stories. In the real world, most of the time no one is watching.

But our passage from Matthew tells us that the King is here, not even hidden or in disguise, right there for us to see him if we choose to. The King is everywhere, and he is watching. Not looking to trap us but to offer us salvation. He’s reaching out to save us. To save us from apathy and indifference. To save us from living our lives without paying attention to the people around us. To save us from judging others for their situations. To save us from walking blindly past while others suffer.

The passage teaches us to see Christ in all the people that we meet. Not just those with whom it is easy. But those who ask for more than we want to give, and those who push us away even as they need us to come close. The hungry and the thirsty. The sick and the ones in prison. The naked and alone. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The Christ in me greets the Christ in thee.

If we do this we will no longer see other people through our own eyes but through Christ’s eyes. We will no longer hear with our own ears but with Christ’s ears. We will no longer reach out to each other with our own hands, but with Christ’s hands. We can’t see the Christ in all of these without coming face to face with the Christ who dwells within ourselves. So open your eyes to the reality that your king dwells among you and within you, and let the Christ in others introduce yourself to the Christ in you.

[1] Lopez, Juan Carlos. “Homeless Jesus” Running La Carrera, 1 July 2014. Accessed 23 November 2014. http://runninglacarrera.com/2014/07/01/homeless-jesus/

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