Monday, December 29, 2014

God is with us, wherever we are (Sunday after Christmas)

God of the Word, you are the tent God, pulling up stake to be wherever we roam. It is time for us to see who dwells in our midst, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen (

One of my favorite movies growing up was the Lion King. I hope you've seen this children's classic. It's a movie that if you have kids, you cannot just watch once. At least ten years after the Lion King came out, Disney made the Lion King 1 1/2, a different kind of sequel. The movie starts with Timon and Pumbaa, the comic sidekicks, in a theater watching the Lion King. Timon starts to fast forward the movie and Pumbaa protests. 
Pumbaa: Uhh, Timon, what are you doing?
Timon: I'm fast forwarding to the part where we come in.
Pumbaa: But you can't go out of order.
Timon: Au contraire, my porcine pal. I've got the remote.
Pumbaa: But everyone's gonna get confused.
Pumbaa: We gotta go back to the beginning of the story.
Timon: [fast forwarding] We're not *in* the beginning of the story.
Pumbaa: [rewinding] Yes we were, the whole time.
Timon: [fast forwarding] Yeah, but they don't know that.
Pumbaa: [rewinding] Then, why don't we tell them our story?​
Timon: Hey! Pumbaa! I have a great idea, why don't we tell them our story?

Which they then proceed to do, they go back, before the beginning of the story and retell it though their perspective. I feel like this is what John is doing, he wants to tell God's story, but he can't just start with Jesus' baptism and the beginning of his ministry, he has to go back, all the way to the beginning. John knows that history is important for relationships. It's important for us to know where we have been, it gives insight to where we are going, gives us a grounding, but it should not stop us from going forward. 

So the beginning of John's gospel recalls the beginning, Genesis, where "In the beginning when God created." It was in the darkness of chaos, as the priestly writers of Genesis say, that God first spoke light into being. In the Hebrew tradition, this is when the Word, which was in God and was God, was spoken and came into action. In ancient times, agreements were not written down, everything was done by word of honor. In Hebrew, daber, which means word or to speak, also means a thing. The connection is deep between what is spoken and done. In Greek as well, logos, the word, has a dynamic quality to it, the spoken word gives character and coherence. Words shape reality. We know the power of words, we feel it when someone shares their love for us or yells out in anger at us. 

 God speaks, gives birth to, the marvelous Light of the universe, and "the Word became flesh and lived among us." God sent his Son to us to be the reality of his love and grace and relationship with us, to help us understand the presence in a human way. John doesn't stop with the beginning and creation, he continues connecting God's story into a integral whole. He talks about Moses and the law and how during that time, God's house was a tent. The Greek literally translated says, "the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us." The people were nomadic, moving through the desert. God dwelt among the people of Israel in a tent, so that whenever they moved, God moved with them.  Through Jesus being among us, God continues to dwell with us no matter where we are.

Even though we build houses and gardens and set up lawn ornaments, we still move around, wandering, in our hearts and minds as we journey through life. God was not just with the people in the desert for 40 years in the tabernacle, God was not just with the Galileans in Jerusalem two thousand years ago or with the reformers four hundred years ago, but God is with us now, moving as we move, knowing us better than we know ourselves. God goes with us, wherever we are. God has a nomadic lifestyle, always has, always will... Being with us, wherever we are.

God is with us and God is love. Those are the main points in John's Gospel and he sets them up nicely in this beginning passage. It is beautiful in style and writing, especially the way we have it. Its rich. Its laden with meaning. Its full of the gospel, of love and hope and joy. We have been saved. We have God. God came here to us. The Jesus who was and is and will be. There is poetry and theology there. We know God's spoken Word of grace, we know Jesus, born on earth and in our hearts. The Word is spoken, and grace is given. We try to celebrate all the instances that we see it, the daily epiphanies, the birth, the death, the teachings... We live a life of celebration (even calling our church service leaders celebrants) there is something special about every day of our lives with  God and we try to capture that knowledge daily, weekly, and yearly in the celebrations of the feasts.

Today, we are still in the midst of celebrating the birth of our savior, and (at the 11 o'clock service) we will celebrate the baptism of another one of God's beloved children. The writers of the prayer over the water in baptism have this grounding urge when telling the story of water in the Christian life, it's not just that Jesus was baptized in water, but water was present at the very beginning. The baptismal prayer gives the whole arc of biblical history in relation to water: "We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life." 

In the beginning, through our journeys, in our baptisms, in our deaths and resurrections, God's Word, God's Love, God's Grace was wrapped around us and will be until the end. God is with us, Emmanuel, wherever we are, wherever we roam.


Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Day

Christmas Day 2014

Eternal God, who sent your Word into this world to share your love and peace, Grant us grateful hearts and passionate souls that we may share your good news and word, through your holy and everlasting name. Amen. 

You know the sensation, the fumbling in the dark, using only your fingers to feel for the familiar forms... the scraping noise... the moment the match lights up with the beginnings of fire... the haste to light the candle well and fully before the match is consumed and as your fingers feel the heat of combustion creeping closer. Bringing forth light in this world. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

The fascination in the scriptures with the dichotomy of light and dark has a profound influence on our theology. Through metaphor, imagery, and explanation, we use light and dark to make sense of the inner spiritual realms as well as the world around us. We still light candles in church, even though they are not our main source of light anymore. There is something powerful about the way light is created, flickers, dances, from a candle that speaks to our history and traditions. Candles focus the light, like spotlights, onto the main focus, be it the altar, the gospel, or the cross. 

The beginning of John's gospel recalls the beginning, Genesis, where "In the beginning when God created." It was in the darkness of chaos, as the priestly writers of Genesis say, that God first brought light. In the Hebrew tradition, this is when the Word, which was in God and was God, was spoken and came into action. In ancient times, agreements were not written down, everything was done by word of honor. In Hebrew, daber, which means word, speak, also means thing. The connection is deep between what is spoken and done. Words shape reality. 

We all know words share our realities in many ways. Just think of the power of I love you, or thank you, or I never want to see you again. Many times we use our word power in ways that contribute to the darkness of the world. In words of anger, pain, hate, indifference. These words create darkness. In our minds, or in the minds of others. And we all have things that frighten us about the darkness. Perhaps the literal darkness, perhaps the metaphorical. Not knowing what is going on or what is happening, what might happen. The darkness of depression or anxiety, worry about family members, about the country, about the environment, about the children, or those who walk the streets, or our world leaders. The evil that happens around us in forms of abuse, neglect, hate, and fear. We face darkness in so many places in our lives. Yet, there are always cracks. Cracks in the dark where light shines through. Sometimes we cannot see the light, we are facing in the wrong direction as it were. We need John to stand and point in the correct direction so that we can see the light, and not just the shadows. Sometimes the light is as small as a tea candle in a window. Sometimes it is as big and bright as the Rockefeller Tree, sometime as simple as a smile, or elaborate as a surprise party. But nothing can stop the true light of the universe from breaking in.

The birth of one so holy in the presence of a world so sinful is hope - hope for true meaning - hope that love, despite our attempts to mold it to our own devices, is stronger than all else. This hope allows us to trust God, trust ourselves, and trust each other. Through the action of sending his son, through this great love, God has proclaimed us His children. As his children, we are cared for, loved, protected, and comforted.

As God's children, we still battle the forces of evil in this world. It is ourselves that we are mostly battling. The greed, selfishness, pride, shame, guilt, that we carry. For most people, a baby strips us of all that. 

At any party the person who has the greatest following is the baby that shows up in its parent's arms, because it couldn't be left behind. Most people want to say hi, to give a pat or hold the hand for a little bit, even hold the baby, willing to hang on to the preciousness that exists at the start of life, willing to walk that person to sleep. Babies demand our attention, a response. I do not know anyone that is indifferent to babies. Love them, hate them, I don't know anyone who is indifferent. They rely solely on us. To think of God, in a position of relying solely on the care of a few human beings. 

What a position of power and knowledge for humanity. That God trusts us enough, despite all the horrors of this world, to come here as a baby. To be born, helpless and needy. Such are we. We remember this birth for so many reasons. We look forward to his wise teachings, his grace, truth, love, compassion, and response to us in our positions of helplessness and neediness. We look forward to his death, which saves us from ourselves and our sin. 

But at this moment, all we have is a baby. Full of possibility, full of vulnerability, full of neediness. Babies are relational beings. God is relational, in being, the father, the son, and the holy spirit, in relationship with each of us.  Even light is relational,  fire cannot exist without a substance reacting with oxygen. Lightbulbs are elements reacting with electricity. Its a relationship of change. Being in love is transformational, being in relationship with God is transformational. Holding a baby for an hour is transformational. (It may only make your arms tired, but if thats all you walk away with, I would be impressed.)

 This is the light of one shining in the darkness. We are not alone in this darkness. We are not alone in our worlds of pain, shame, guilt, and greed. We have been given the light of the world. The greatest gift of Love. 

In Bethlehem in Judea, there is a cathedral marking the remembered birthplace of Jesus. Below and behind the main altar there is a small staircase leading down to a small cave lit only by silver lamps. There is a silver star embedded in the floor surrounded by tapestry and candles, rejoicing in the birth of the King. Only oil lamps and candles are in this space, for thousands of years. Marking the entrance of just one instance of the light of Christ in this world. 

When the darkness of the world and our own minds threaten to overcome us, remember that a little light goes a long way. Leonard Cohen sings, "there is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." Or Professor Dumbledore, "Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one remembers to turn on the light." Remember the baby, who demands all our love, and we are so happy to give, and rejoice. It doesn't matter how dark our world is this year, we know the light and the darkness cannot overcome it. ​And we do not rejoice alone, the "fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains, repeat the sounding joy." Rejoice! God is with us.


Sunday, December 7, 2014

Advent Callings

Lord God, who created the wilderness, help us to listen to your calling, and follow in your paths, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen​

Advent. I've gotten a lot of questions from the students at the school about what Advent is. I've tried to explain to them that advent is a time of preparation, a time of reconciliation, of repentence. They don't always understand these words. They ask me, why do we have to prepare for Jesus? We need time to prepare, just like coming relatives. With one boy, I asked him if he has to do anything before his relatives come over, he told me, clean my room. I asked him if he had any cousins he didn't like, and what happened when they were coming over, he said, yea, I hide my toys. I asked him, what do you do when your best friend is coming over, he grinned widely and with enthusiasm said, I get out my cars. I couldn't help but grin along. So what do you think you would do if God was coming over? He stopped for a second and then said, I guess I would clean my room and get my cars out, do you think he like cars? Oh, Yes, definitely. Especially silver thunderbirds. 

Year after year, Advent reminds us to prepare for the coming of God in the nativity of Jesus. It's a  process year after year, of cleaning out our spiritual homes, admitting our failures of another year, repenting, walking in the wilderness, and rejoicing in the presence of our Savior. Every year, John the Baptist meets us in this place, calling us to go deeper.

When I hear the reading from Isaiah this morning, I try to imagine John's call story. We know the call stories of Moses, with the burning bush; and Samuel, hearing God's voice at night and thinking it was Eli's, and Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Mary, whose call stories were writing down, and remind us that it is not us that make us worthy for ministry, but God. We do not know how John learned what he was to proclaim in the desert. I am always caught by the verses, and maybe it's partly given my situation as a preacher, "a voice says, cry out! And I said, what shall I cry?" I can see John, feeling the pull, as so many of us do to speak out, and asking this question. And John knows, knows because he has met Jesus, that he is to proclaim that God is coming, prepare the way! That's where we meet him today, standing on the banks of the Jordan, proclaiming his message, repentance, baptism, God is near. 

Google maps estimates that it would take 9 hours of walking to get from Jerusalem to the Jordan river at its closest point. It's a serious commitment to go see John for the people of Jerusalem. I can tell you from experience that by car, it takes 45-60 mins depending on Jerusalem and "border" traffic. In that hour of driving, or nine hours of walking, the landscape changes from semi-arid to hilly desert to lush river valley to rocky outcroppings. And then there is The Jordan River.  Baptism, or ritual religious washing, was really not that new to the people of Israel at that time, Jewish men had to purify themselves before going into the temple or synagogue. I have pictures (and pictures) of ancient Jewish mikvot, the baths used for such washing
The new part about John was the proclamation that the Messiah was coming, was almost here. The Jewish people had been waiting for the Messiah for ages, for centuries, nothing new about waiting for the Messiah to come. But John, in his look of strength and wildness, was saying, now, soon, watch! Repent, because the time has come. What? That is new. In a similar way, we have gotten in the habit, grown from centuries of waiting for Jesus to come again. What urgency is there in waiting for a Lord who hasn't come again for two centuries, (do you feel the sense of urgency in the church today?) and yet John stands before us and says, the time is now, soon, get ready! God is calling you!

In great biblical tradition, John has the perfect place in which to cry out, in which to call out to us. The wilderness. We know that Jesus will spend time in the wilderness figuring out his calling. We know the forty years of wandering by the Israelites after leaving Egypt in the desert, and the story of Ezekiel seeking God in the storms of the wilderness and finding God in the silence. (pause)

They are stories of pain, fear, anguish, angst...but they are stories where God is tangibly evident. Fully in focus and present. 
We do not always cope well with these spaces in our own live, with the liminal spaces. We do not always cope well with the wilderness, or even with God in our lives. The Israelites didn't cope well with their time in the desert. Golden calf? Not every church copes well with interim or new priests. Not every school copes well with new leadership. Not every town copes well with transitions between political leaders. Not every community copes well with changes in demographics, or environment or economics. Or the death of a beloved member. On a personal level it can be as simple as going to the doctor, being told something isn't normal. These are the spaces that get to us on the deeper levels. The times where the house doesn't feel right, even though you know your way around in the dark. Those places are wildernesses, even when they happen in our own kitchen. God comes to us in those spaces, John calls to us in those spaces. 

No matter what we do, there's no running away from it, we will find ourselves in the wilderness with John calling us. We cannot go anywhere without the inner wilderness – the vulnerability, the uncertainty, the doubts that we carry around on a daily basis. It may seem like a very silent, empty place within, but that is where the quiet voice can make all the difference. 
God calls to us in the silence of the wilderness because that is where we can hear. We are enough out of our normal routine to be able to see that something is happening. It happens many times, things call to us when we are in our stride, but we ignore them. We are on track, full steam ahead. But when we are searching, looking, not settled, that is when we can hear. When our cups are full, nothing can be added. Only when our cups are empty can they be filled with the overwhelming love of God.

The season of Advent is a wilderness itself. The already but not yet feeling, the world saying Christmas is here, but knowing we need some more time to prepare. 

When you find yourself in the wilderness, listen!
For God is calling you, deeper into relationship.

And answer. 
The ride is not less wild with God, but it has more meaning. It is the greatest ride you will ever be on.