Friday, December 24, 2010

God Is With Us (sermon for Christmas Eve based on Matthew's Gospel)

A whisper: "God is with us."

When I imagine this story I hear the angel whispering. It's the middle of the night, and Joseph is rolling around in bed in a troubled sleep, when somewhere behind him in the dream, something great and terrible whispers: "God is with us."

Before he takes us to Bethlehem, Matthew takes us to a cemetery. It's the family plot and the tombstones go back to the beginning of the human race. There are all the ancestors. Adam, Abraham, the first dreamer Joseph who went to Egypt as a slave, King David and any number of other kings, and then finally down to, well, Joseph.

Except there's a curve ball, a kind of a mess. Today, we wouldn't give Jesus all these ancestors. Jesus couldn't claim to be a descendent from any of them. Because, from our point of view, Joseph wasn't really Jesus' father.

Yes, then as now, this situation was a mess. It was even more of a mess back then. In those days, getting betrothed really was just the first stage of marriage. It was a real contract, legally binding. If the bride got pregnant during the betrothal period, that was adultery. And according to Leviticus the punishment for adultery was death.

Mary was pregnant. And it wasn't because she'd had relations with Joseph. There was only one explanation as far as Joseph could tell. It was a mess. And it had to be cleaned up somehow.

You know, I truly rejoice with those I know who grew up in wholesome, happy families, where everyone kept their promises, where moms were self-sacrificing saints and dads were all-knowing heroes of strength and character. There really are families like that, you know. Families that are more or less sane, that gather for Christmas in peace and happiness, that get through the whole holiday without anyone getting drunk or making a scene or announcing that they were leaving and would never see any of the family again.

But my family wasn't like that, and there are many, many people I know who didn't have families like that, and don't have families like that today. Most of those people, sad to say, aren't in church. They assume church is for those people who have it all together, whose families are strong and sane and stable. And Christmas, strangely enough, is that time of year when it really comes home just what kind of family you really have, for better or for worse. For a lot of us, Christmas as it's celebrated reminds us how messed up our families were or are.

Why do we celebrate Christmas in this way? Matthew tells us that Jesus' life begins with a messy family problem. And even before he does that, Matthew makes sure to point out the gravestones of only three women in Jesus' family cemetery: Tamar, Ruth and the wife of Uriah, or Bathsheba, all three of whom represent messy situations. Tamar was Judah's daughter in law, but also bore him a son. Ruth was a non-Jewish foreigner who seduced Boaz. Bathsheba was of course the wife David stole from Uriah, his neighbor. Messy stuff.

Of course there's nothing wrong with having a sane and healthy and stable family. Nothing wrong with all the children being born in wedlock and mom and dad staying together for sixty years and everyone being responsible and slim and prosperous and popular. There's every reason to be grateful for such good people and to celebrate them.

But for the rest of us, who went through divorces and failures and poverty, who experienced bouncing Christmas checks and broken Christmas promises, it is a wonder and a grace and a joy to welcome the savior into our messy lives in the way that old Joseph welcomed him.

First of all, it's important to note that Joseph, even without the angel's intervention, decides to protect Mary from the harsh law of Israel. Separate from her quietly, let her go off somewhere where no one knows her to have the baby, and her family would then put the kid up in someone's house. In the male-dominated world of Joseph's day, this constituted amazing grace. Joseph, we learn right away, is a good, good man.

But Joseph is also like that old Joseph in the family cemetery, the one who had all the dreams from heaven, for in the darkness of the night the angel visits him and tells him a wonder. The child in Mary's womb is from the Holy Spirit, and he is to be called by two names.

Names were very important to Jews in ancient times. Every name was a sentence that said something about the person. Jesus means "God saves." And Emmanuel, as Matthew tells us, means "God is with us."

"Joseph," the angel whispers, "God is with us." And to all of us who notice at this time of year how imperfect are our lives, how messy are our families, how short we fall of wholesomeness, the angel whispers in this dark night, "God is with us."

Where did we get the idea that Christmas is up to us? Where did we get the idea that holiness, goodness, righteousness or justice is up to us? Where did we get the idea that what we do or fail to do has anything to do with how God feels about us? It's all part of our perverse and sinful pride, isn't it? The angel slips past our defenses, comes to us in the dark, in the dream, and reminds us, "God is with us."

My family and many others are full of messes, but strangely and marvelously and shockingly, they are also full of grace. There are many broken hearts in my history, many messes that have never really been cleaned up, but strangely and marvelously and shockingly, there is also forgiveness and mercy. And these things, these marvelous and lovely things, did not come from earthly sources, anymore than did that baby in Mary's womb.

(Whispered) God is with us.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Least in the Kingdom (sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent Year A 2010)

What do you expect of Jesus?

There are some very successful preachers out there, much more polished and sharp than me, that promote a view of Jesus as a kind of magical helper. And so someone gets sick in the family and the family gets together and prays and they collect all those tracts and pamphlets out there that say if you visualize healing and your faith is strong then Jesus will heal your family member. But the person isn't healed. The family is offended. What kind of Christ is this?

"Are you the one, or are we to expect another?"

Others might think of Jesus as the power that could stop natural disasters or who could miraculously give food to the hungry or who could prevent terrible dictators from rising to power. But we see in the news all the time about disasters that happen and thousands die or lose their homes. We hear about the millions who go to bed hungry every day. We know there are vicious and sadistic despots in power all over the world. Those who expect an all-powerful ruler over history are offended. What kind of Christ is this?

"Are you the one, or are we to expect another?"

Others think of Jesus as the king of niceness, the Lord of good manners, a deity for the cultivated. And when they come across a church where people are shouting or dancing or where everyone isn't wearing nice clothes, they are deeply offended. What kind of Christ is this?

"Are you the one, or are we to expect another?"

There are still others who think that Jesus is the Lord of some other world, and not of this one, and who expect see him only after death. So when they hear about people who follow him in their business practices or in their political activities, they are shocked. What kind of Christ is this?

"Are you the one, or are we to expect another?"

There are a few who think of Jesus as a kind of guru of happiness. They think of Jesus as a way to deny the pain and suffering of life and just float along on a pink cloud of peace and joy. And then, inevitably, some trial comes along, something that just can't possibly be denied, and they are shocked and offended. What kind of Christ is this?

"Are you the one, or are we to expect another?"

In Jesus' time, people had just as many expectations of the Messiah. Some thought he should have taken a vow of poverty, lived in a hovel in the desert and talked about letting go of material things. Others thought he should have been a fiery rebel organizing a bloody revolution to cast the Romans out of Israel once and for all. Others thought he should have been a noble political genius who might even have taken over the Roman Empire. Others thought he should have been a kind of super-Moses, waving a staff that brought floods and famines and plagues on all those who had ever offended or oppressed Israel.

Jesus, in his own teaching, seems most indebted to the prophet Isaiah's vision, and we hear today some of Isaiah's expectations. Isaiah painted a picture of a road leading home, a clear and straight path through hazardous and desolate wilderness, a wilderness now miraculously blooming into a verdant garden and protected from all predators. Isaiah was almost certainly talking about the return of the exiles from Babylon to Israel. This miraculous return home was metaphorically compared to the blind gaining sight, the deaf gaining their hearing and the dead being raised back into life.

Five hundred years later, Jesus takes up Isaiah's words and applies them to himself, and to John. Now Israel was not in exile, but was again at home in the land. Now Israel was occupied by the Romans. Now Israel was led by powerful Jews who collaborated with the oppressor. In Jesus' take on Isaiah, John the Baptist was the one who prepared the way in the wilderness for the people of God to go home.

Home, however, was a different place now. Home now was the realm of God, and the realm of God was no longer a geographical location, a particular hill, a certain country. The realm of God was a way of seeing, a way of hearing, a way of walking, a way of living.

The realm of God was no longer dependent on the actual conditions or locations in which people were living, but rather on the living they did in the places and conditions in which they found themselves.

It was no longer about whether John the Baptist got out of prison. It was now about how John understood his prison, and what his imprisonment would accomplish. It was no longer about whether Jesus would be defeated by the powerful Jews and their Roman friends, but how Jesus would understand what that defeat might accomplish. It was no longer about what would actually happen. It was now about how--first Jesus, and then we--would see, hear, walk and live through it. This is the realm of God.

So what kind of Christ is this? This Christ would give sight to the blind, so that they could see the truth. This Christ would unstop the ears of the deaf, so that they could hear God's word. This Christ would give mobility to the paralyzed, so that they could go where God was leading them. This Christ would give eternal life to the dead, so that they could take part in what God had been doing before they were born and what God would continue to do long after they died.

Christ didn't come to transform conditions; Christ came to transform people.

Jesus points out to the crowds that in John the Baptist they might have expected the kind of prophet that moved in the high circles, who had influence with the big cheeses. Even old Isaiah had been a priest in the temple and would have had the ear of the king. The Jewish king of Jesus' day, Herod, put out a coin with a reed blown by the wind on one side and Herod's face on the other. But John the Baptist was not a temple priest and clearly didn't impress Herod, who had arrested and imprisoned him, and would eventually execute him. Nevertheless, Jesus says, John is greater than any human being born of woman up until that time.

But Jesus doesn't stop there. He goes on to say that "the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he."

The Christmas miracle is the miracle of the Spirit of God taking residence in a living human being in such a way that a human being becomes the living embodiment of God in the real world. We celebrate Christmas not because 2,000 years ago something happened that would never happen again. In Jesus, God came to live among people. In us, God continues to do so.

We are invited through this Christ to become Christmas miracles. We are invited into the realm of God, which is not a place or a set of conditions. It is what we ourselves become when we open ourselves to God's Spirit, when we remove all the obstacles to God's coming into our bodies, when we gladly and joyfully invite God to use us, when we let go of all our desires and dreams so that the greater desire and dream of God might come true in us. When we are able to do this, everything becomes possible.

So when someone is sick, they are blessed if one of us is around, who can without fear or anger attend to them. And when a natural disaster strikes, the victims are blessed if we are around to respond with care and support. And when some awful despot rises, the oppressed are blessed if some of us are there to speak the truth to power, no matter what it costs us. And if someone, anyone, is caught in the dark valley of despair, they are blessed if we, the least in the kingdom of heaven, are there to give them hope.

And blessed are they who take no offense at us.


Monday, December 6, 2010

Good Fruit (sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent Year A 2010)

I did a little reading about the miners that got trapped in Chile. I don't know all the details, but I'm sure someone is going to write the book, because it's really an amazing story.

It appears that they were without light or any sign that anyone knew they were there for some seventeen days. During that time, there was a very good chance that they would have despaired or turned against one another. It's what groups of people do oftentimes in crisis. Panicky people often struggle with one another for power, and while they're doing that, nothing productive is really getting done. It's the way of the world, I guess.

But not for the miners. They apparently made a decision that they would neither succumb to despair nor turn on one another. Instead they made--and lived out--a covenant.

Now, for those of you who haven't been with us for long, I'll say a few words about covenant. The Hebrew word we translate covenant most simply means contract. But the word eventually came to have a deeper connotation. A covenant is a free acceptance of a binding agreement between parties who love one another. A covenant most of us are aware of is a marriage. Certainly we would say that the binding promises people make to each other in marriage is more than a contract.

But the world covenant also bears the dimension of a contract that equalizes an unequal relationship, as with the covenant between God and Israel, and the covenantal social contract God required of Israel, in which the strong are obliged to care for the weak, the rich for the poor, the healthy for the sick, the righteous for the sinful, and so on. This is the peaceable kingdom that Isaiah paints a picture of in our first lesson: a society in which the predator peacefully coexists with its prey.

The miners established a covenant of hope, a promise they made to each other to believe that God had not abandoned them and that they would not give into despair. They got to know one another and probed one another for gifts and graces, just as they took stock of what meager supplies they had. They identified leadership, they appointed a chaplain to keep them in fellowship with God, they discovered who knew something about first aid and made that person the medic, someone who was a creative cook and put him in charge of the rations.

They made a covenant with each other to focus not on what they didn't have, but on what they did. They made a covenant to focus not on what danger they were in, but on what hope they had. They made a covenant to set aside their individual opinions and preferences to become one body, each one giving everything to the common good of all.

They became a church.

When they were finally rescued, the medical personnel on site were amazed at how little they had to do. A month later one of the miners ran a marathon.

What is the the good fruit that is worthy of repentance? The biblical word we translate repentance simply means a change of mind. But in the context of Jewish and Christian spiritual life, repentance has to do with covenant. It is a decision to enter covenant, to freely bind oneself to God and to God's people for the sake of the world God loves.

The Ten Commandments together comprise a covenant. They are not simply a law code. They are the way of life for a people in covenant with God. God says, I shall be your God and you shall be my people. By "you," God means Israel and the church. You shall not have any other gods, you shall remember and keep sabbath, you shall not misuse God's name, you shall honor your parents, you shall not murder, steal, commit adultery, or bear false witness, and you shall not covet your neighbor's possessions or relationships. If you are a Christian, you have accepted these commandments as your way of life.

But as subjects of Christ and children of God, you have also accepted the New Covenant, which Jesus mentioned on the night in which he was betrayed. Jesus described the blood he was to spill the next day as the new blood of the covenant. He was referring to the practice of sacrifice as a way of sealing a covenant between God and God's people. Jesus' blood sealed a new covenant, a way of life now defined by Jesus. This is the reign of God Jesus spent his entire ministry teaching about, and that John was announcing before him. When we repent, we are repenting of our way of life, we are letting go of our learned ways of thinking and seeing and doing, in order to bear the good fruit of covenant faithfulness, of working for the purposes Christ has defined

The Pharisees come to John the Baptist to be baptized. John has some choice words for them.

John proclaims to them that repentance is a real change of heart and mind. He suggests to them that their ethnicity is not an entitlement but a responsibility. To be Jewish no longer means to be privileged. In the coming kingdom, it means to be responsible. It means to be bound to God and to God's people. It means to be committed to the peaceable kingdom of which Isaiah dreamed, where predators give up their predatory ways and become friends to the prey, and where the prey risk relationship with the predator, trusting that on God's holy mountain, none will hurt or destroy.

There are so many things we say we can't do. So many situations and challenges we evaluate as hopeless, both in our personal and in our world wide ministry. And yet it never ceases to amaze me how easily we find solutions and how quickly we can organize and how powerfully we can act, both as individuals and a congregation, when we have simply agreed to do so. And the reign of God, the covenantal life Jesus wants to bring to all of us, is pretty simple. It's the faith that God is still with us and that God can do what we can't. God who makes the sun burn, God who swings the planets in their orbits, God who whispered over the seas and life came into being, God can do what we cannot, God can make of us what we are not, God can accomplish what the most powerful and wise and rich cannot, God can do in us and through us things we could never do without God.

I was a part of a church-based organization in Boston over the years I was serving churches there. One year, six of our churches located in the poorest neighborhood in the city got their youth together, who then covenanted to work for the common good. The youth decided that they wanted to have a safe and wholesome place to go to have fun. They found out about an old skating rink that had been closed for some years. They got to work in the community raising money to get the rink going again. When they had over half of the money they needed, they arranged a public meeting with the city council members responsible for their neighborhood to ask the city to fund the rest of the project. They planned the meeting and set the agenda and ran the meeting entirely on their own. Not one adult did a thing except advise them in the process.

The meeting went smoothly, and the council was prepared to say yes. It was after all a political coup for them. After this part of the meeting, one of the council members got up and approached a microphone and started to say something.

The chairwoman, a seventeen year old girl, had been trained to stick to the agenda agreed upon. She told the council member that he'd already had his chance to speak and to please sit down. And he sat down.

Many of us in the aftermath of the event talked about that moment, when someone who had formerly been powerless and unknown told a powerful and influential politician what to do, and he did it. That young lady would never have risen to such heights without the covenant of the organization behind her. Good fruit indeed.

As we await the coming of Jesus, we are invited to open ourselves to God's Spirit. Essential to that opening is a decision to bind ourselves to God and to God's people, which for us is the church. This decision means nothing if we don't really intend to carry it out. If what we really mean when we repent is that we're a little bit sorry about being bad actors sometimes and would like a free pass so we can keep on doing what we've always done, then old John the Baptist is telling us not to bother repenting at all. He's suggesting we step away from the water if we don't really want to get clean.

But if we are willing to commit ourselves to God and to one another, if we are willing to set aside our private agendas, to let go of our old ideas, and commit ourselves together to the hope of the Messiah, Jesus, we might just find out way out of the darkness and the depths, and up to that magnificent and holy mountain.