Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Christmas is a Revolutionary Act of God



How many people here have experienced the sensation of déjà vu?  It seems to be a rather universal experience in which one feels as though one has already experienced the present, as if in a dream.  It’s a strange familiarity with a present scene, lasting no more than a minute or two.  Not like time traveling, but a faint memory triggered by some present scenario.  It could be a place, a person, a conversation…Its weird.  Science does not fully understand it.  It has something to do with the brain and memory, feelings associated with similarity.  But what if déjà vu signifies something more,  a reminder or a warning? 

Today’s story, Matthew’s Christmas story, is a bit like déjà vu.  The reader is meant to hear and see in this scene some familiar themes, characters, and events.  Paying attention to those connections is necessary in hearing the meaning of Christmas according to Matthew.  So, do you want to hear the meaning of Christmas one week early? 

Let’s start with the obvious one.  Matthew gives it to us.  “The Virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” A citation of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 7.  We heard it earlier.  Isaiah, however, was suggesting something more than a “miraculous conception”.  He was talking about the birth of the next King.  He was telling the current King, Ahaz that His replacement was about to be born.  He would be overthrown and his power was coming to an end.  Isaiah may have had an actual person in mind, someone born in the royal family itself perhaps.  So the first familiar scene is the connection to King Ahaz and Isaiah:  A change in the Monarchy, a new King is on the way.  This is bad news for the sitting ruler.  It suggests the toppling of an ineffective government, one that has been full of corruption, idolatry, and bad decisions. He paid the Assyrian empire to conquer smaller neighbors that threatened Israel. Seeing Israel as weak under Ahaz opened the door for Assyria to conquer Israel and divide the kingdom. But God is going to establish another ruler, a new King.  He will rule with equity and justice.  Bad rulers will have their power taken from them.  A good king is born.   

We have to back up, though.  Because the first memory we must confront is of Joseph and his dream.  We must remember the story from Genesis.  Jacob also called Israel had 12 sons.  His favorite was Joseph.  Israel gave him a coat.  Joseph had dreams in which he saw his own superiority over his brothers.  Angry and jealous, they beat him and sold him as a slave to traders, who took Joseph to Egypt.  In prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Joseph interprets the dreams of two inmates, both workers for Pharaoh.  When the dreams came true, the released prisoner returned to work for Pharaoh.  When Pharaoh had 7 nights of bad dreams, his cupbearer remembered Joseph.  Joseph was brought to Pharaoh and he interpreted the dreams to be a warning of a coming famine.  Pharaoh appointed Joseph secretaries of Agriculture and treasury, making him second in command of all Egypt.  Joseph was a wise steward and saved Egypt from famine.  IN fact, when the famine spread north to Israel/Judah, Joseph’s brothers came begging Egypt for food.  Joseph, generous, forgiving, and obedient to God never waivers in his faithfulness.  In the end, Joseph saves his family and reconciles with his brothers and father.  They all move to Egypt and prosper there.  The end. 

Except its not the end:  On account of the dreams, Joseph is sent to Egypt, imprisoned, rescued, and empowered.  As a result the Israelites emigrate to Egypt, where in subsequent generations, they are feared—because people fear growing populations of immigrants.  As a result the government establishes a work camp program, stripping them of human dignity and rights and limiting births.  Infant Hebrew (Israeli) boys up to age two must be killed.   

An infant boy, Moses is rescued by four brave Hebrew women and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter.  Raised as royalty, he identifies with the slaves, kills an Egyptian slavedriver, and flees.  He settles in the land of Midian to a life of shepherding in a good family.  But, God confronts Moses in a burning bush, reminds him that his people suffer in slavery, and commands him to obey. Moses is empowered by God to return to Egypt and confront Pharaoh.  He does.  God helps, A lot.  Frogs, locusts, flies, thunderstorms with hail, diseased cattle, it was a bad time in Egypt.  When the firstborn sons of Egypt are found dead one morning, including Pharaoh’s own son, he relents and lets God’s people go.   They go.  Following Moses.  The army gives chase.  God parts the red sea and they walk through the waters to safety, as the army of Pharaoh drowns.  Moses sister Miriam, or Mary, sings a triumphant song of freedom on the banks of the sea.  Moses leads Israel out of slavery in Egypt as the great liberator, on a spiritual journey that will last a generation.  Joseph’s dreams and his brother’s jealousy lead them to slavery in Egypt.  400 years later, God intervenes and rescues them by rescuing Moses and preparing him to lead the people in the wilderness. 

There is a pattern in the Hebrew scripture:  Corporate sin and unfaithfulness, consequence and suffering, grace and liberation, and finally a call to new obedience.  This pattern rings true within the personal family story and within the larger political story of Israel and its neighbors, throughout the Old Testament this pattern is repeated.  And so, we return to Matthew:

We see that this birth is not a miracle, but a sign that God is about to repeat the second half of the cycle.  For the people were suffering under oppressive rule from a mighty foreign power (Rome, which reminds us of Egypt) and under a bad Jewish rule by Herod the great (which reminds us of guys like Ahaz).  The people were suffering.  God hears and responds to suffering. Always with mercy.  Often with a great liberating act of restoration.  As God saved Israel from itself, with Joseph and Moses, God will come again.  A child, a son will be given.  He will save his people from their sins.  He will be called Emmanuel, God with us.  Christmas is the story of God’s liberating grace act, enfleshed in the birth of a King, chosen before birth to liberate, lead, and call the people to a new obedience. 

And so, we are invited to see the birth of Jesus as the beginning of the end of tyranny, suffering, violence, hatred, political corruption, ineffective rule, and slavery to systems of injustice and mass production that costs people their dignity and humanity.  So long as "work" is the solution to poverty, we will not see peace.  Work is not the solution.  Grace enacted through love is the solution to every form of suffering.  Billionaires and generals are not the solution.  A poor, middle eastern peasant child is God's intervention into human suffering.  This may be hard to see and believe, given the state of the world today.  This is the scandal of Christmas. A baby, born 2,000 years ago, is our saving grace.  Not Trump. Not the Pentegon. Jesus.   

So, remember that God interrupts the pattern of sin and punishment/consequence with grace and a call to obedience.  See that Christmas is that interruption.  Notice that we are called to follow this King Jesus as God’s appointed savior.  Realize that we are called to a new obedience to Him and in Him we will live in peace.  So are you feeling like things in the world are off the rails? Violence, political scheming, and economic inequality are rampant.  Billionaires and generals are abusing power. But, their time is limited.  Trust that God acts against threats, powers of injustice, and evil.  God will not let the children suffer forever.  God comes for us.  God has done it before.  God will do it again.  Like déjà vu, or a repeating dream.  What we destroy, God rebuilds. The ones we enslave, God sets free.  The ones in power are cast down from their thrones and the rich are sent away empty.  This is the subversive story of Christmas.  It is the revolutionary act of God.  An end to tyranny and oppression.  The beginning of the way of salvation. Do not be afraid.  God is with us.  Amen.     

Thursday, December 08, 2016

prophets and dreams


Based on Isaiah 11 and Matthew 3. 
For those who have decked the halls with boughs of holly and Christmas treed and twinkle lighted and wreathed and santa’ed their homes---you brood of vipers!!! Who told you to flee from the wrath to come?  A voice cries out “Prepare the way of the Lord!” and you hang LED lights on your garage?  You still prepare the wrong things for the one who is coming.  He does not come in a sleigh with toys.  Gift wrap, ornaments,  Bing Crosby, and egg nog do not have anything to do with the coming of the King.  But mark our words, he is coming and you cannot prepare for him or prevent him from showing up when you’re not looking.  When you’re dead asleep or out to lunch or in your car on the way to the dentist.  You have become so disenchanted by the long delay in his return that you fail to pay attention.  You’ve long lost hope or expectation.  You have accommodated your hearts to violence and war and mayhem and chaos and inequality and prejudice.  You are not aware.  He has already come.  He has landed. He has arrived.  He has invaded our space.  He has broken and entered in.  He is near.  Maybe here.   So I have come to announce him to you!  I have come to awaken you to his presence, to prepare you for his powerful entry.  There is inner work, soul work, spirit work, heart and mind work that has to be done.  Changed hearts will announce his reign.  For he will not tolerate apathy or lukewarm faith or cold hearts. So I must come to you as the prophet this week.  And perhaps for several more if you can bear it.   

The prophet spoke his or her “thus saith the Lord” with a rare confidence, not in himself or his audience or his voice, but in the message and from whom it came.   The prophet was, first, a hearer of God, a listener to God, a receiver of God, before he or she was a speaker for God.  And so the prophet speaks from a place of humility and awe.  The prophet sees the world as it is and the world as it could and shall be under God’s promised reign of peace.  The prophet tells the truth about our blindness and deafness to the treachery and villainy and destructive violence we perpetrate, condone, or ignore.  The prophet calls injustice what it is, thus offending all who walk in its ways.  The prophet anticipates, hopes, and points the way forward.  The prophet stands with the people in the wilderness, in the water, in the space between what is and what will be.  The prophet calls a people to turn away from their ways and follow another way.  To turn their backs on the way of destruction and embrace the way of creation.  To be part of the healing, part of the welcome, part of the uplifting of the poor and the meek, the despised and the displaced.  The prophet invites us, beckons us out of our comfortable, safe, sheltered, domestic lives of banks and grocery stores and Turkey Hills and minivans and rec centers and fast food chains and malls and vacations.   The prophet calls us, commands us, invites and challenges us into a new reality, a new vision, a new dream of another world. A world completely like and unlike the one we are in now.  The false prophet condemns others and sets himself above them.  The false prophet claims to know answers to unsolvable mysteries.  The false prophet speaks with too much clarity and impossible foreknowledge---often in a way that benefits himself.  The false prophet tells people, especially people with power and privilege what they want to hear.  Where the true prophet gives warning, the false prophet condemns.  The false prophet sells false hopes and secret wishes to vulnerable suckers dying for someone to promise them a better day will come to them.   The false prophets were the kings of fake news. But the true prophets spoke an honesty too horrible and too good to be true.  Yes, both the horrible and the good.  That is why they were despised.  They told the painful and wonderful truth about us.   

John had a dream. He dreamed that Isaiah’s prophecy was about to be fulfilled.  The peaceable kingdom, where predator and prey live in harmony with one another; where warriors lay down their weapons and take up hoes and spades; where a vulnerable child is immune to poisonous snakes and no harm or danger befalls God’s beautiful creation.  He dreamed this dream in the wilderness of the Jordan valley, a harsh desert land.  He knew predator and prey, both animals and humans.  For he knew the politics of Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great---unrighteous puppets of the gentile Roman overlords.  He knew the wealthy and powerful and how they abused their privilege to oppress and ruin the lives of Abrahams’ children.  He waited with Isaiah and all the prophets of old for a new David, a new King, a new anointed ruler to bring justice and peace to the people.  With eager anticipation, he announced what he saw and hoped it would end and begin. 

So do we.  We must inaugurate a new season of hope, in which we truly wait and anticipate and imagine another world---a better place, a heavenly dwelling in our midst.  We must imagine a time when all animals will be domestic.  Lions as housecats.  Wolves as puppy dogs.  We must imagine a day when a generation will only know war through ancient history books and museums full of guns and swords and cannons and grenades.  We must imagine a time when people will live free from violence, free from hunger, free from disease, free from thirst, free from drug addiction and sexual predators and armed robbers and political schemers, and relentless dictators.  We must imagine harmony.  Companionship.  Generosity.  Gentle stewardship of the earth and all its creatures.  We must imagine a farm, a garden, a fruitful land, a blessed harvest, in which men and women, Jew and Muslim, Christian and agnostic, African American worker and white CEO serve one another, working side by side.  And a child will lead them.  We need to be brave enough now to live into our hopes for a new world. So I took 6 children with me to a lunch with Muslim Americans.  The prophets are preparing the way of the LORD---a way of justice and peace for all the children of every race, tribe, culture, language, and faith.  May it be so, soon.  Come thou long expected Jesus, born to set your people free from our sins and fears-- release us, let us find our rest in thee. Amen.

Holy Encounters

Jacob's wrestling match; Joseph's dreams; Moses and the burning Bush; Elijah on the mountain; Early stories of biblical heroes include these holy encounters with the divine other, with the LORD.  They are usually transformative, life-altering experiences.  Jacob gets injured, get a new name, gets humble, and gets reunited with his brother.  Joseph becomes a victim of attempted fratricide, gets incarcerated, and gets promoted from model prisoner to economic advisor of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh.  Moses is chosen to lead God's people Israel out of Egyptian slavery, to freedom, through the wilderness, and to the promised land.  Elijah initiates the age of the prophets, God's messengers  to the powerful and proud, who call the nation to sorrow for sin/injustice, and remind the nation of God's covenant promise to be with them.
The premise of the New Testament gospels is that God encounters humans in the person of Jesus, the traveling Rabbi from Nazareth, Israel.  An encounter with Jesus is an encounter with God, because Jesus teaches with authority.  Jesus heals, shows mercy, declares the unclean clean, brings dignity and hope to the poor.  Jesus confronts satan, evil, and even death itself.  In his own body, Jesus experiences human suffering, sorrow, and grief.  He experiences pain and death itself.  But death encounters a more powerful force at work in Jesus, the power of God---the source and sustainer of life.
After Jesus, his followers collectively embody his presence through their words and actions.  They seek to imitate his ways, speak his words, continue his works.  As they do, those who encounter the church are transformed.  Baptism is part of this transformation, as people are physically united with Jesus in the water.  The old self is drowned, the new self emerges.  A new person is born. 
Christians encounter God at the table, where Jesus promised to become bread and wine.  So that we might take his life into our bodies, absorbing his powers to heal and forgive.  Like medicine, we are transformed, made well,  by the encounter with Jesus there.
Jesus also taught that God is present to us in the last, the least, the lost, the left out, and the losers.  Lepers, prisoners, the mentally ill, the blind and deaf, the poor, the meek, the peacemaker, the merciful---these embody the Spirit of Jesus, and therefore reveal God's nature to us.  A Samaritan who shows mercy to a wounded Jew becomes a person of peace who embodies Jesus.  Today, this might be represented by an Israeli soldier who puts down his weapon to assist a Palestinian Arab soldier who lie wounded on the streets of Jerusalem. Or a white police officer who attends a Black Lives Matter rally to walk in solidarity with the black community he serves and protects. 
Holy encounters occur daily.  Last week, I was invited to a luncheon for Muslims and Lutheran Christians.  We discovered a common hope for peace and a common desire to learn from each other.  We respect each others' faith practices and hope to find ways we can serve our neighbors.  I met several Muslim Men who want us to see them as friends, brothers, and people of compassion and peace. 
How do we know when we have experienced a holy encounter, a moment with God?  If we know the biblical stories, especially the story of Jesus, we can compare them.  I believe the bible is not a collection of stories about things that happened.  It is not merely historical.  Some of it is ahistorical, perhaps even mythological.  But the bible is also Word of God, alive, current, happening now.  The bible tells stories about our own life experiences.  We may not all have a burning bush, but we may be wrestling with our past selves.  We may be afraid and in need of assurance.  We may encounter the stranger, the other, even the perceived enemy, and find ourselves looking at the face of God.  This is biblical.  And it is an alternative to a prejudicial, exclusionary, protectionist worldview espoused by too many people.  It seems that the bible offers the world an alternative way of seeing ourselves and others.  It proposes brotherhood, harmony, neighbor, kinship, compassion, and welcome. 
This week, notice people and have a holy encounter.  See God approach you in the disguise of someone in need, someone generous, someone remarkably different from you.  See God in the face of the stranger, the newborn, or someone suffering. 
Realize that you may be a way in which someone else has a holy encounter too.  You may embody the goodness of God.  And if you do, the world gets brighter, safer, and more alive.    

coming soon




"Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Gospel of Matthew, 24:42-44.
Advent has arrived.  Advent means arrival or coming.  So when we talk of Advent we are talking about an arrival.  This is a strange idea for most. The arrival of what or whom?  Advent is, for us, a season of the church’s year in preparation for Christmas.  For most people it does not exist on their calendars.  It has been replaced by decorating and shopping, Christmas music and food.  Chocolate.  That’s my holiday season.  Its characterized by the amount of chocolate I consume.  How awful is that?    The circle comes back around each year and we follow a pattern of tradition.  How many of you were innovative with thanksgiving this year?  Did something totally different than ever before, broke with tradition?  Like a program that keeps running, we simply do what we’ve done.  Lulled into the coma that is the holiday season.  We expect the same things.  That same person that was hard to shop for last year, still a pain in the rear.  Those lights you failed to put away properly last year, you’ll get them out again and fuss with them for four hours to hang them on the house.  There is monotony in these things.  And yet ,we are driven to do them.  Black Friday shopping.  We avoided it.  But millions of others are lured into that trainwreck of consumer frenzy.  Confess, some of you did it.   

For we too have largely joined the fray.  What is the difference between the secular observance of the holidays and the Christian observance?  After Thanksgiving, Christmas is pounding at our doors. Prepare for the birth of Jesus. This is what faithful Christians are doing, right?  We may even feel like our neighbors who are not practicing Christians have gotten on board the train, right?  They have that blow up lighted nativity in the yard already.  Complete with baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes.  It often feels like your trying to catch the Christmas train.  Get on board or you’ll miss it.  Get ready, hang on, its coming.  Only 28 days.   

We rush ahead in preparation for the wrong thing.  How does one prepare for an event that already happened?  This is why the first Sunday in Advent looks ahead, addresses future reality, offers up a vision for what has not yet come.  We are still waiting for something or someone.  And this is of dire importance.  For if all that God can do has already been done, then we are where we will be.  This is it, all we can expect, all we can hope for, the current state of things is just as they must and shall be.  And for some of us who know Christ and his mission, this is unacceptable nonsense.  Surely God is not finished yet with creation, with me, with you, with the great work of setting things right, with the restoration of justice and the doling out of divine mercy.  Surely, murder, mayhem, war and poverty, disease and hunger---surely this is not the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven.  
Think of a thing that you would like to set right but can’t.  Something that saddens you, frightens you, angers you.  For me, this is global hunger.  People, children, should not be hungry.  No one should suffer and die from hunger.  But they do.   It may be sex trafficking or refugees or homelessness or addiction or bank fraud.  What is the thing that haunts you, keeps you up at night?  If you had the magic wand, what would you fix, heal, change?  You and I have heard all of the promises of politicians for our entire lives.  No one, no elected leader has ended hunger, poverty, war, disease.  In fact, most have exacerbated these things.  Perpetual war.  That’s what we are in.  We are weary of their unkept promises.  No wonder there is such distaste for government.  And maybe even for church.  Does God keep promises?  Are there promises God has not kept?  For those of us who wait for the kingdom of God, there are.  Isaiah foretells them.  Matthew and Paul persuade the Christian community to keep awake, to be vigilant, to watch for God to act, to fulfill promise, to bring about that that for which we must hope.  They promise a day of crisis, like a thief in the night, a sudden disruption.  And yet, here we are.  Still waiting.  Might as well participate in the culture’s perpetual motion machine, do what they all do.  Decorate, Shop, eat.  Comfort, comfort my people.  Decorate, shop, eat.  Perhaps, we have lost our distinctive witness, our holy character, our faith in the Lord’s promises.  Perhaps this is why fewer people participate with us in Advent.  We do what they do and have to get up on Sunday mornings?  We have been lulled to sleep by cheap goods, shiny things, and rich foods.  We have been put in the coma of low expectations and acceptance of this world and all its sufferings.  We have been knocked unconscious by accepting reality as it is.  Idealism, hope---lost.  We fail to see that in every crisis, every disruption, every subtle change, Christ comes for us to awaken us to His saving work.   

Advent calls to us with this mystery.  His coming again.  Jesus’ work is incomplete, unfinished.  He has destroyed the power of sin, but has not erased its consequences---injustice, suffering, death.  We live in between what was and what will be.  We are those called to embody God’s promised future by faith.  We are those called to reveal a hope that is so unreal, so charming, so imaginative that we might be called dreamers, prophets, saints of God.  We are light in darkness. We are peace in the midst of violence.  We are sanctuary in times of chaos and despair.  We are love and joy.  Advent means arrival.  What if, instead of us waiting for Jesus to come back, advent is about the world waiting for the church to show up and be the church?  What if the second coming is about the body of Christ arriving on the scene here and now?  What if we wait for Christ to live through us for the sake of the world?  We are called to daring, bold service. Our worship is peace-making, light-shining, sanctuary for the anxious mind, food and drink for the hungry soul.  So dear friends, Advent means arrival.  So, show up.  Be present in worship and in service.  Be present to those who are struggling this season. Be present through inexplicable generosity.   Be present and alert to the inbreaking of God’s kingdom around us and through us.  Be present with hope on your lips to tell others of God’s promised reign.  Be present as Christ is present.  They are waiting for Christ to arrive in us.   Amen. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

advent 1. #GivingTuesday

"He began to tell the people this parable: ‘A man planted a vineyard, and leased it to tenants, and went to another country for a long time. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants in order that they might give him his share of the produce of the vineyard; but the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Next he sent another slave; that one also they beat and insulted and sent away empty-handed. And he sent yet a third; this one also they wounded and threw out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, “What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.” But when the tenants saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, “This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.” So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.’ When they heard this, they said, ‘Heaven forbid!’ But he looked at them and said, ‘What then does this text mean:
“The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone”?*
Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’ When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people."

Today is GivingTuesday.  It is meant to inspire generosity in the aftermath of Black Friday and Cyber Monday--consumer shopping days to fulfill the Christmas wish lists.  My wife and I have done very little shopping since Thanksgiving and even less spending.  I think it's good to remind people to give.  Studies have shown that giving makes people happier than receiving.  Generosity is a way that we deny the self and think of others.  It comes out of and builds compassion and empathy.  Inviting children to give is great formation and teaches the power of greed and the need to let go in order to live a fuller and richer life.  Too often giving is an annual event or an end-of-the-year holiday expression, rather than a way of life, a habit or a routine.  The bible suggests that God is constantly giving and apart from daily divine generosity we cannot live.    
This parable of Jesus reminds us that God entrusts God's things to people.  God is like an absentee vineyard owner, who entrusts the vineyard to people.  When harvest time comes, the owner expects fruit.  But the tenants are greedy and willing to resort to violence in order to retain what does not belong to them.  Possessed by our possessions, we are unable to give freely and liberally to others.  We are afraid.  We believe in the myth of scarcity, despite our wastefulness and misuse of the abundance around us.
I struggle with time management.  I waste time sometimes.  I do not budget time wisely, spending too much on somethings and not enough on others.  I think time is a gift from God that I take for granted.  How much time do I really have?  The time I do have, I should use well.       

Some Christians believe that government is a function of God's provision, a way in which God orders human community.  Responsible government, according to the bible, looks after the innocent, the weak, the vulnerable, the poor, and the displaced.  Irresponsible government is greedy and self-serving. We have seen and heard governing authorities abuse their leadership and abuse the people they are supposed to protect and govern.  Like Jesus, we are called to speak against abusive powers and "bad tenants" who have been given authority, only to abuse it for selfish gain.  Jesus suggests that their power will be taken away from them.  Moral advocacy that holds leaders accountable to those they are required to serve is a work of public witness or faith in action.

We know that there is a cost to public witness, to accountable stewardship and faithful living.  Jesus paid it on the cross.  We will bear crosses, too.  But, the promise is true.  Those who pour themselves out, who give themselves away, put others before themselves, who love their neighbors and their enemies, will be rewarded.  The reward may be the act itself, since generosity brings joy to the heart.  The reward is also eternal life, a home with God, and everlasting peace.  So, on GivingTuesday, be generous with what God has given you; yourself, your time, your possessions.  Signs of God's gracious love.  God the giver gave all that you have to you, so that you might join God in that work. Don't squander it, hoard it, or keep a little for yourself.  Don't believe in scarcity.  Believe in abundance.  Believe in the reward of a generous life.  And look to Jesus as the best example of how to give.  Wholly.  Selflessly.  Lovingly.     


  



Wednesday, November 23, 2016

What is Advent?

"Though Advent (literally arrival) has been observed for centuries as a time to contemplate Christ's birth, most people today acknowledge it only with a blank look. For the vast majority of us, December flies by in a flurry of activities, and what is called the holiday season turns out to be the most stressful time of the year." 

If this is your experience, then we need to talk.  We create stress.  We let the holidays overwhelm us and we forget why we're celebrating in the first place.  Look, I get that you may not be that religious or pious.  These festivals and seasons are not that important anyway.  We don't have time for these things, that are clearly for religious insiders, right? . You've gotten on fine without knowing about Advent or Lent or the Christian year.  Did you know the Christian year is marked differently than the secular calendar? Did you know millions of people observe the Christian year as the rhythm that keeps them connected to the life of Jesus and the ongoing creative work of God?  A lot of evangelical Christians have rejected the traditional Christian calendar.  They do not observe the seasons.  Roman Catholics and some Protestants, however, continue to keep an annual cycle of holy days by which they mark the passing of the weeks.  Both Jews and Muslims also keep a religious calendar of seasonal observances and holy days.  You've simply never participated as religiously or faithfully before. 
But, here's the thing.  In your rejection of some Christian traditions or your ignorance of them (and I mean that in a gentle way, like you just don't know what you're missing), you are not getting the whole meal.  Its like skipping the hors d'oeuvres and the salad and going right for the meat and the dessert. Many Americans will celebrate Christmas without knowing why.  What it means, whose birth we celebrate, why we celebrate Jesus' birth, or how to celebrate it apart from the consumer model.  There is another way! 

Advent starts on Sunday, November 27th this year.  Advent is the church's way of marking time, of slowing things down, of preparing for the things that matter.  Advent has been observed for centuries and consists in the four Sundays that precede December 25th.  It is basically the month before Christmas.  It has been mostly supplanted by a consumer calendar marking the number of shopping days until the 25th. 
Christmas, as you know, is one of the two major festivals of the Christian year.  It is a twelve day celebration of the Birth of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.  The stories of his birth appear in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. 
Easter is, of course, the other major festival.  One could say that it was the resurrection of Jesus that made his birth so important.  No Easter, no Christmas.  But I think we can make a case for the significance of Christmas, primarily by living Advent. 
Advent is all about anticipation and hope, watchful waiting, and expectation.  It is about the longing of the human heart, the human community, for justice--the setting right and straight the things that are wrong and broken in this world.  Biblically, Advent is Messianic promise and fulfillment.  Jews longed for a just ruler, an divinely anointed King who would set them free from oppression.  The Messiah began to be seen as a divine man who would transform the earth, humanity, and all the creatures.  From winter to eternal spring.  From despair and desperation to hope and comfort.  From exile to homecoming.  From war to peace.  From death to life.  The expectation was that a Messiah would save the people from sin and death.    The Jews, long awaiting a savior, kept watch by prayer and Torah observance.  They practiced the law of God found in the books of Moses and the prophets.  They hoped, in times of slavery and exile, for a ruler who would vanquish enemies and restore their dignity as the chosen people of God.  A Messiah, which means anointed one or King.  Christ is the Greek form of Messiah. It is a title not a surname.  Jesus Christ means Jesus Messiah, or King Jesus.

Advent gives us a month to contemplate the meaning of Jesus.  Here are some ways we can observe Advent:

1.  Get a calendar.  Advent calendars are full of daily reminders and simple practices that make us mindful of the presence of God. 
2.  Get an Advent wreath or a set of four candles to light at evening meals.  One candle is lit on each Sunday in Advent. The Jews get 8 candles on the Menorrah for Hannukah.  Christians get four candles for Advent. 
3.Get a devotion book.  Daily readings that teach us, that enrich the spiritual part of life, and give us pause to reflect can really enhance the meaning of the holiday season.  Maybe God has something to say to you to help you grow in your relationships, or in how you use your time.   Start the day in 5 minutes of intentional silence before a single candle as a point of focus.  See what that days to your state of mind, level of stress, and will to live.   
4.  Find a local charity to support or volunteer with a local community outreach.  Nothing refocuses us in the life of Jesus like tending to the needs of others.   
5.  Go to worship in a liturgical church that observes ancient Christian tradition.  It may be that engaging in ritual activity (prayer, song, listening, eating and drinking, light candles) that has been shaped by centuries of spiritual practitioners, who were devoted to a spiritual path as followers of Jesus Christ, can nurture your inner soul in ways that shopping at Target can't.
6.  Invite someone to eat dinner with your family that has not been in your home before.  Hospitality is a hallmark characteristic of Christian observance and something we suck at in the United States.  We tend to live in isolation rather than in community.  Nothing makes community faster than food. 
7.  Go to a free community concert.  Churches and community centers often host musicians during the month of December.  Many churches will host community singing of Handel's "Messiah".  Enjoying beautiful music and the arts reminds us of the best of what humanity can offer.
8.  Decorate in stages.  Rather than put up the entire Christmas display on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, delay gratification Clark.  Build a festive atmosphere in your home, adding a little more each week.  Delay decorating a Christmas tree for as long as you can.  After all, Christmas itself is the 12 days from December 25 to January 6.  Too often, we've put away Christmas too early because we started observing and celebrating too soon. Do Advent first!  Wait for Christmas!  The meaning is in the waiting!

Let's start here and see what happens.  Try on one or two new habits.  What is it like to intentionally and mindfully focus on the coming of Christ? 


          
 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

the one about leadership



Repeat after me, please:  There is a ruler. There is a leader. There is an authority.  There is a guide.  There is a shepherd.  There is a mighty protector.  There is a powerful Presider.  There is a King.  There is a Savior of the World.  And I know….it is not me. 

Two weeks ago, the Friday after the election, I wanted to clear my head, think prayerfully about Sunday morning, and get away from the constant drum beat of American politics.  I also needed to meet with a colleague to talk about a group exercise I would be leading, and led yesterday, with a group of church leaders on behalf of our synod staff.  Jennifer and some colleagues were meeting at Camp Kirchenwald for a morning prayer walk.  I asked if we could meet there and if I could join the walk.  That morning as I was preparing to go, Jen called and said that her 10 year old daughters were off school and wanted to know if my kids were, too.  They wanted to come to camp, but wanted something to do there.  I told her my kids were not off, but my puppy was available and would love to come and play with them at camp.  So I brought Katie along.  The plan was that I would lead the small group around camp on a silent prayer walk, because I knew the camp trails.  The girls would walk Katie on her leash to another part of camp to play.  We all started off in the same direction.  Suddenly, the girls unleashed Katie and disappeared.  Katie followed us, well, ran ahead of us and around as we walked.  I did not have her leash.  I figured she would stay with us.  Then we turned left to head toward the lake.  Katie didn’t.  I walked on about 50 yards and noticed her absence.  I told the group to continue down the trail, while I backtracked to retrieve my retriever.  I found her with a feather in her mouth just off the trail behind a large fallen tree.  I called to her sternly to come.  I approached her and she took off.  She ran back down the trail we came up.  I called her again, "Katie, come".  She took off.  I followed chase.  I was getting angry.  I had left the group and was running after her.  I called her again, "Katie, come".  She ran faster.  I ran after her.  Down the hill, across the log bridge, up the hill.  When I emerged, breathing hard, she was no where to be seen.  A little panic set in.  O God, I lost my puppy.  My wife and kids are gonna kill me.  I ran around calling after her.  Nothing.  I was thinking about how we disturbed the prayer walk.  I was thinking about the girls' promise to walk her and watch her.  What were the others thinking?  Were they annoyed that I brought her?  Were they concerned about us?  I projected my feelings on them.  I ran back to the lodge where we started.  There she was.  Huddled behind a chair.  When I yell, I scare her.  She usually runs into her crate at home.  This time, she ran back to the lodge.  I scooped her up, angry and relieved.  I wanted to kill her and hug her.  It was a cool fall morning, so I put her in my car with the windows down.  As I headed back down to find the others, I ran into the girls with the leash.  I told them they could get her out of the car and walk her on the leash.  They didn't.  As I headed the opposite way down the lake I felt anger, frustration, and anxiety.  What happened to the group?  Had they found their way without me?  When I came to the lake there they were. Sitting quietly, enjoying the warm sun reflected on the water, in the brightly colored leaves.  They were safe, at peace, resting.  I was a mess.  I sat by a tree and tried to let the earth and the sun take the toxic anger and anxiety out of my body.  Slowly, I began to recover and enter a place of quiet peace.  We got up and walked back to the lodge.  On the way, God spoke to me.  By the time we got back to the lodge I was practically in tears.  And I needed to share what God said.  The group convener asked us to share how we felt during the walk,  the intention was to spiritually center us in the beauty of creation.  I spoke. My experience on the walk resembled my current leadership.  I reflected:  Am I leading a community of people on a spiritual journey together or am I chasing after stray animals?  This is how pastoral leadership feels much of the time.  And it is lonely to be in front or to be the one who chases the strays.  Why does no one else feel compelled to help?  The girls left her off the leash.  They were complicit.  The group felt no need to stop what they were doing to help me retrieve the dog.  I was alone.  I felt the tension in myself, the occasional feeling of overwhelming responsibility, the insanity of going after those running in the wrong direction,  the constant nagging sense of failure.  I felt strongly that both those willingly going on the journey and the stray animal needed me. And for some reason, I loved that stray animal and would never think to abandon her, lest she get lost.  I thought of the parable of the lost sheep and the shepherd who abandons the 99 to find her and bring her home.  But I also thought of Jesus leading disciples.  He could somehow balance between investment of time with his disciples and going after the lost, the hurting, the broken, and the rejected.  I had not achieved this balance in my life.  And I was hurting because of it.  I thought that my faith community was struggling because of my leadership, too. 
And now this election said to me, we are in a national leadership crisis.  Half of the country is eager to follow.  Half of the country disavows the elected President. If it had gone the other way, the roles would be reversed and “Not my President” would still be chanted.  Congress, courts, state houses, Presidents.  Dems, republicans. We have a moral crisis in leadership and an erosion in trust, authority, and security. It did not begin in 2016 and it will not end on inauguration day.   There is a lot of fear and anger right now directed toward public leaders.         

But God also said to me, notice how the group ended up exactly where you wanted to lead them despite your absence.  Notice how content and placid they were by the lake?  Notice the stray dog ended up safe even before you could catch her and bring her to safety?  That was me.  My grace. My love.  My leadership.  My power.  My authority.  So you can rest.  Be at peace.  Trust me. Remember that you are a follower, too.  And you need to receive from me the Holy Spirit, again and again.  Or you will be led astray.  And lead others, too.  The blind often lead the blind.  But I have given you the eyes to see me.  The eyes of faith.  Do not take your eyes off of me.  I will lead you, give you rest, shelter you, heal you, forgive you when you fail, and welcome you to myself. You are mine. 

Here’s what I see on this reign of Christ Sunday.  When Israel’s rulers were corrupt and they faced a national leadership crisis, when their religious leaders were corrupted by power over people for selfish gain, God promised a shepherd that God himself would appoint and send.  This shepherd came in the form of a son.  He led people on a spiritual journey in the wilderness, offering grace and mercy and healing for all.  He went after the strays and the lost and the losers and invited them in to his life.  He was crowned as King and crucified on the same day.  Because authentic leadership rooted in love is dangerous and risky and unseen.  No President or congressional leader or pastor does what He did.  No one does.  On the cross, he is finally revealed as the one true shepherd King and savior of the world.  And the one who sees him for who he is, was hanging next to him.  A criminal.  Condemned by the world.  Sentenced to the ultimate punishment.  Death.  One we all face eventually, by the way.  And in that moment, King Jesus makes a promise to him, to me, to you, to all of us.  Today you will be with me in paradise.  The king has come.  His just and peaceful rule has already begun.  His resurrection confirms it and enthrones him forever.  Jesus is my Lord, my King, my master, my shepherd, my savior. And he is yours.  Forever and ever.  Amen.