Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day sermon, Yr A- 2010: The Scandal of Christmas

Lectionary: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

Joy Carroll Wallis, an author and Anglican priest, tells the story of a Christmas song that came out about 10 years ago, written by Cliff Richard, a popular British musician. The song is called, “Saviour’s Day” and it includes these lyrics: “Life can be yours on Saviour’s Day, don’t look back or turn away.”

A teen magazine, reviewing this Christmas song wrote: “This song is OK, but there’s no holly, no mistletoe…no presents around the tree, no Santa, in fact, this song hasn’t got anything to do with Christmas at all!” This is pretty typical of how the world sees, isn’t it? But God sees things differently, and asks the same of us.

The real meaning of Christmas has become a scandal once again in our culture. But it’s the wrong scandal…it’s missing the point. People struggle to find the politically correct way to wish each other well. Whether you say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, somebody’s going to be insulted. Christmas decorations seem to appear in the stores shortly after school starts now and rarely (if ever) make it until the twelfth day of Christmas – The Feast of the Epiphany, on January 6.

Christmas as a scandal is not a new thing. The same was true of the first Christmas and they too were focused on the wrong scandal.

According to the Gospel writer, Joseph, who is descended from the house of David, must travel to Bethlehem to register in accordance with a decree from Caesar Augustus. Mary, who is engaged to Joseph, is pregnant and near delivery, so they travel together.

Ordinarily, travelers like Mary and Joseph would have stayed with family or friends who live in the area. But Mary and Joseph can find no place to stay. The Christmas story, which we know so well, says ‘there was no room for them at the inn.’

We need to remember that in first century Palestine, an inn was not a hotel. It was the guest room in a typical “peasant house in which family and animals slept on different levels in the same enclosed space…” Mary and Joseph had to stay in the part of their friends’ house where the animals were kept, and the baby would have been placed in a feeding trough” to keep him above hoof level, so he wouldn’t get trampled accidentally by an animal.

But noting the real scandal in this story, Joy Carroll Wallis suggests that Joseph and Mary might have been shunned…their family and friends morally outraged, because Joseph showed up on their doorstep with his pregnant girlfriend” and it wasn’t even his baby.

People looking at Joseph and Mary saw sinners whom they felt justified in rejecting and excluding. But God saw partners in redemption.

The Messiah was being born in their home, and they missed it because they were busy moralizing…hence the scandal of Christmas. The judgment of God, who is the only real moral authority – is (are you listening?) salvation for the whole world. And this salvation is in Jesus the Christ.

By taking on flesh Jesus links heaven and earth, eternity and time, from ages past to this present moment reconciling us to himself and ensuring that everyone is included in God’s plan of salvation …the clean and the unclean, the Jew and Gentile, the saint and the sinner.

Now there’s a scandal!

Some would have God limit grace only to those who deserve it. Well the truth is, none of us deserves it, yet all of us receive it, because that is the nature of the extravagant love of God.

Luke affirms this in his telling the Christmas story. The first to hear of this scandalous birth were the shepherds in the fields.

For most of us, the thought of shepherds brings to our minds peaceful, pastoral images… we see Jesus with a lamb wrapped around his shoulders, the Good Shepherd, lovingly caring for his sheep, even leaving the 99 to seek the lost one. But that’s because we have the benefit of 2000 years of the transforming love of God imposed on that image.

In the first century, “Shepherding was a despised occupation…they were scorned as dishonest people who grazed their flocks on other [people’s] lands.” They didn’t bathe much so they didn’t smell good – and worse yet, they were ritually unclean, which means, they wouldn’t have been allowed in church.

And this particular group of shepherds to whom the angels appeared, was the lowest of the low. These were the shepherds working the grave-yard shift. But God, who sees differently than the world does, chose these shepherds to be the first to see the Light, the presence of God, which, Scripture tells us, shone all around them when the angel spoke.

Today, it is us whom God is choosing. We are God’s present partners in the plan of redemption. We are the believers described in the letter to Titus as: people who are zealous for good deeds. Zealous because the light of God’s love fills us to overflowing and we want to share it – we can’t help but share it. Mother Theresa of Calcutta used to say, “If you know how much God is in love with you, you can’t help but live your life radiating that love.”

What we often interpret as our own good works is really God’s love radiating from us into our world. In other words, it isn’t by our efforts that good works happen but by God’s love working in us.

Last Wednesday we served over 600 people at the Shepherd’s Table (our feeding ministry). On our own, we couldn’t do this. A year ago, no one would have believed we’d be doing this. But knowing that God is doing this work in us makes anything possible.

The good news of Christmas is for us, a present reality, not just an event in ancient history that we remember and talk about. Christ is being born in us again right now. We gather together to hear again this scandalously good news, and hopefully, to be amazed and changed by it.

Tonight (today) we are reminded to look with God’s eyes, not with the world’s eyes, and we seek this child Jesus in our midst, remembering that salvation extends to the unworthy and the lowly, as well as to the righteous. And hopefully, like those shepherds in the Gospel story, we will be so moved by the reality of this good news that we’ll want to run and tell everyone we know about the true meaning of Christmas - which (I’m sorry) has nothing to do with mistletoe, or presents, or Santa…

For us, Christmas is about responding with love to the God who loved us first… to the God who loved us enough to become one of us, to share our vulnerabilities, and take all our fears into his tender embrace…. to the God who loved us enough to bring IN all whom the world would prefer to keep OUT.

So, as we celebrate together tonight, let’s sing out our praise: Glory to God in the highest heaven! For to us is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Advent 4A: Listening as an act of love

Lectionary: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

About four years ago a non-profit group called StoryCorps set out to gather and record the stories of regular people whose lives and experiences are representative of our collective American narrative. The purpose of the book was to hear from the un-famous who are otherwise invisible to the celebrity-hungry news media.

While a few of the stories in this book are about people who have done extraordinary things, most of the stories are about ordinary people doing ordinary things: a grandmother telling her grandchildren about falling in love with their grandfather; one friend telling another what their friendship means to them. The book is entitled Listening is an Act of Love, and, as they say on their website: “Everybody’s story matters. Every life counts.”

We’ve been talking a lot about the importance of listening since I arrived here at Redeemer, but especially during this season of Advent. For believers, listening truly is an act of love. Listening demonstrates a love of God, our Holy Parent, who desires to speak a new thing in us, recreating us according to a plan of perfect love; it demonstrates a love of neighbor who need to know they aren’t invisible and that they matter; and it demonstrates a love of self, because we are nourished by the experiences of our neighbors and the relationship with God that listening affords us.

But listening isn’t enough by itself. When listening is an act of love, it always has a response.

In the Gospel of Matthew an angel of God spoke to Joseph in a dream saying, ‘don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife… she has not been unfaithful to you. ‘God is acting in this moment. The son she bears is from the Holy Spirit. When he is born, you must name him Jesus (which means ‘God saves’) for he will save his people from their sins.’

The angel was asking Joseph to receive into his home and his care one whom society insists “good people” should reject. If Joseph had wanted to, he could have had Mary stoned to death for being adulterous. But being a righteous man, he was willing to just dismiss her quietly, to dissolve their marriage contract. That would have spared her life, but it also would have destined her to a lifetime of ostracism. She might have ended up a homeless beggar.

In order to take this young, unmarried woman (which is what ‘virgin’ means), who is pregnant into his care, Joseph would have to put his own reputation aside because in that society, a man with an unfaithful wife would have been scorned by the “good people” of the village. We know, however, from his response, that Joseph’s prayerful listening was an act of love, because when he awoke from his slumber, he did as the angel of God [had] commanded him. He walked forward in faith, letting go his own plan for the future, his reputation, and committing to quietly endure whatever judgments were made against him by his own community.

Joseph could have said to himself, ‘God doesn’t speak to someone like me.’ Or he could have reasoned that God wouldn’t ask us to violate the rules God gave us to govern our behavior. Or he could have written off the whole thing as nothing more than a wishful solution to an embarrassing problem. But he doesn’t.

When he awakens, Joseph does as he was commanded to do – as strange and uncomfortable as that was. Joseph continued living quietly as he had done before, a righteous man, right in his relationships with God, with his neighbors, and within himself. He maintained his obedience to the law (the Torah) while at the same time honoring his promise to take Mary and the baby he named Jesus into his care and protection.

Joseph didn’t know how God would redeem this situation for him, he simply trusted that God would. Joseph’s response to God’s call to him allowed God to become known in the world in a way that had never happened before. His ‘yes’ to God was just as important in bearing the light of Christ to the world as Mary’s ‘yes’ to God was.

Joseph’s willingness to listen and respond to God’s call to him stands in contrast to Ahaz in the story from Isaiah. Ahaz clings so tightly to the law he knows in Deuteronomy (the one that says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” 6:6) that he can’t release his grip on what he thinks and believes and typically does even when God asks it of him. God is ready to act. God is asking Ahaz to open a way for God to be made known in a new way, but Ahaz just can’t do it.

We’re not so different from Ahaz sometimes. We often cling to what we feel comfortable believing and doing.

Yet, God continues to act in ways that call us out of our sense of comfort, beyond our notions of right belief and right action, and into new ways of living in holiness and righteousness. God continues to ask us to walk forward in faith, letting go our plans for the future, letting go our reputations, and committing ourselves to endure even the judgments of our own community, while God acts through us to redeem in ways we never could have imagined.

During Advent, we have been listening. But as we’ve said, when listening is an act of love, there is always a response. As the season of Advent draws to a close, we are called to awaken from our collective slumber and DO as we have been commanded. And this is what we have been commanded: to bring the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ to all nations and peoples, so that everyone we meet has the opportunity to hear the Good News, see the living God in us, and come to believe.

St. Paul tells us that we have been prepared to do this, having received grace and apostleship (an apostle being one who is sent – sent on a mission). The Episcopal Church is, according to our official name, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. We are by definition a gathering (an ecclesia) of apostles – a people who are sent on a mission.

And our mission (should we decide to accept it) is to use everything we’ve been given and risk everything we have, so that God’s love can be made manifest through us in new and unprecedented ways.

As we practice our last week of Advent together, I pray that we will let our listening be an act of love for God, our neighbor and ourselves; that we will listen faithfully and fearlessly and hear the real and actual ways God is calling us, the people of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, Shelby, to act.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Advent 2A sermon: Overwhelmed by hope

Lectionary: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

During my career as an advocate for victims of violence it became clear to me that the bottom line of my job wasn’t providing counseling or legal assistance, or even obtaining housing or employment for the people I served. The bottom line of my job was providing hope – offering a new way for these people to see themselves, the world, and their future.

I can’t tell you how many times I was asked, ‘Why do you care? Why are you helping me?’ My answer to them was: ‘because you’re breathing.’ My unspoken response was: ‘because I see Christ in you’ and I have promised in my Baptism to “respect the dignity of every human being.’

Yet, for so many of these people, the circumstances of their lives had convinced them that they weren’t worthy of kindness. They often had trouble trusting anyone – even someone offering to help.

Many people who left my shelter to get on with their lives continued to hold the belief that they were worthless, essentially alone, and doomed to a future much like their past. Every once in a while, though, one of them would make a choice for healing and restoration of life – and when that happened, it was powerful.

A transformation happened. It was an interior transformation, but it was something I began to recognize in their eyes, in their posture, in their voice. I knew it when I saw it and I would rejoice knowing that this one was going to make it. It was as if they had been infused with power. They knew where they were going, they knew they wanted to get there – and there was no turning back.

One day, a woman who had been on her own for a few years, came back to the shelter to visit us and to thank us. Things were going really well for her and she shared all of the wonderful details with us! At one point she said, “I used to think that I didn’t deserve anything good in my life. I was so hopeless. I can’t believe I ever thought that way!”

For this woman, it was a simple change in thinking that allowed a new reality to emerge in her life. This kind of change in thinking is what John the Baptist is calling for in the Gospel reading from Matthew.

Repent [he says] for the kingdom of heaven has come near. This is the realization of what had been prophesied, he said. And his message must have been pretty effective, because Scripture tells us that people from Jerusalem and all over Judea were going out to him …and they were [being] baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

In order to truly understand this Scriptural text, I think it will help to look at the original Greek of some words that are familiar to us and allow ourselves to receive a greater fullness of their meaning.

Repent: Μετανοεῖτε in the Greek, means to “change your mind for the better,” but it also carries a moral component – recognizing and “abhoring past sins.” This is an ‘I can’t believe I did that…I can’t believe I thought that…’ state of mind. It’s a light-bulb moment, a revelation that leads to a change of life.

Kingdom: βασιλεία in Greek, isn’t a location – it means “the right or authority of the Messiah to rule.”

Heaven: οὐρανῶν, also isn’t a location, it translates as “the universe and all that is seen in it.”

• And finally, the phrase: has come near, ἐγγίζω translates as: “has been joined one to another.”

John is proclaiming that we need to change our minds, change our thinking because the Messiah, who has the right and authority to rule over the universe and all that is seen in it, has come, and in him heaven and earth have been joined one to another.

That is what the Incarnation is all about, and it changes everything.

In verse 6, the people from the city and surrounding areas were going to John to be baptized, which in the Greek means ‘to be made clean by dipping into water.’ Another layer of the meaning of this word is: ‘overwhelmed.’ Listen to how that would sound: ‘the people came to John to be overwhelmed… made clean in the water.’

Verse 6 also says that as they were being baptized, the people were confessing their sins (ἐξομολογέω). This translates as, “…to acknowledge openly and joyfully, to give thanks, to praise.”

No wonder so many people were going out to him! John wasn’t just a religious weirdo dressed in camel’s hair and eating strange food. He was a believer proclaiming a long-awaited truth: that God’s promise of salvation for the world had been fulfilled in the person of the Jesus, the Messiah, who was coming after him to baptize them - to overwhelm them – making them one with the life-giving spirit and presence of God.

Baptism changes everything – how we see ourselves, how we see our world, and how we see our future. And on this Second Sunday of Advent we are called to examine just what that means for us.

In the oracle of the peaceful kingdom found in the reading from Isaiah, the promise of hope is found in the assurance that once God’s chosen one inaugurates the new age of righteousness, peace and harmony will spread until it encompasses all of creation. Advent calls us to discern how this hope will live in and through us in the world today.

Living in a world where we can watch the news 24 hours a day can make this vision of ever-increasing world-wide harmony a little hard to imagine. So - do we believe in the possibility of it? Or do we hold it as a nice concept that makes sense in church, but has little relevance in the real world?

If we believe it, are we willing to work for it?

In the epistle, Paul tells the church in Rome that what was written in Scripture was meant for our encouragement – that we might have hope…that we might live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Jesus Christ. Speaking to a people who were experiencing the growing pangs of increasing diversity as Gentiles of various kinds became included in the church, Paul reminded them: Welcome one another… just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

Advent calls us to discern how welcoming we will be as we experience similar growing pangs; incorporating new people, new ideas, new life into our story at Redeemer, Shelby.

Sadly, for some Christians, Scripture isn’t a source of instruction on hospitality, but rather a weapon of coercion and exclusion. How often have we heard the Word of God preached and the News is anything but Good? Even today’s Gospel… how many will zero in on a partial picture that focuses on the language of condemnation – burning in unquenchable fire – rather than on the judgment of God in the context of the Incarnation?

The reason is: fear works as a motivator. You can fill churches with people who are afraid not to be there. But Christ brought us freedom, not fear, and (as I often say) his church shouldn’t be used as ecclesiastical fire insurance.

The Advent invitation given by John the Baptist calls us to something different. It calls us to repent: to change our thinking and allow a new reality to be formed in us.

As we practice our Advent together, let’s look collectively at how our joy might have become dulled and our passion for the amazing good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ might have lost its gusto.

Come to the waters of baptism and be overwhelmed again by hope!

Friday, December 3, 2010

December Newsletter article: Creating our legacy - The Year of Our Youth

Advent is a time of waiting in quiet confidence for the voice of God to speak a new thing into being. Scripture tells us that just as God once spoke all of creation into being, God is constantly renewing the face of the earth, recreating according to a plan that is perfect, full of mercy and loving kindness, and always beyond our ability to imagine. I believe that. I have seen it. I am seeing it now.

A year and a half ago, I was in a search for a new call, a call that led me to Redeemer. My search came down to two very different churches – Redeemer and a large, urban church in Michigan. I was clear (or at least I thought I was clear) that I felt called to a larger church in an urban setting with active ministries and a support staff of clergy and laity. The other church had all that. Redeemer did not. Yet, it was Redeemer’s call I was prayerfully compelled to accept. Everything I had ever learned and done in my personal and professional lives was being called for here at Redeemer, and the love building in my heart for Redeemer eventually took precedence over all other considerations.

As I have walked with Redeemer from where we were then until now, I have been guided by a vision of Redeemer’s shining future – a future glorifying God and serving God’s people – a future God has already inaugurated. Now I can look back and see that I had understood my call rightly. I just couldn’t have imagined it as being manifest at Redeemer – but God could, and did.

Redeemer has all it needs to become a large church with active ministries - not that there’s anything wrong with being a small church. But years ago, the people of Redeemer heard and answered a call to build facilities meant for something big. Those facilities have already begun receiving the big-ness of the ministries they were designed for: The Shepherd’s Table and Food Pantry are now serving almost 500 weekly. That’s BIG! Way bigger than we ever imagined!

We have all we need. God has blessed the people of Redeemer (of every age and status) with an abundance of gifts meant for service in the name of Christ. Good thing too – because there are people all around us right here, right now, who are searching for a church that is truly welcoming, grounded in faith not fear, and ready to receive the gifts they bring – a church that is focused on serving God, not just itself. These people are beginning to present themselves to us. All we need to do is open our arms of love to them, embrace them, and welcome them home. We also have people among us who have been on the fringes for months or years, waiting to re-start their lives of ministry. Redeemer’s ministry of hospitality is being recreated now to serve all of them – and it’s going to be BIG. Way bigger than we can imagine.

But the biggest thing of all, I think, is this: 2011 is being declared The Year of Our Youth. When we first discerned our ministries together (remember those purple sheets?) our first priority was to establish a feeding ministry. Check. Our second priority had to do with our children. We said we wanted a space in the nave set aside where young children could see the altar, play quietly on a carpet with kid-sized chairs, and have a little freedom to move around as children do without disrupting the worship experience of others. We said we wanted a playground so that our young members’ energy could be expended safely and in the presence of symbols of our faith (remembering that the grounds are an exterior worship space).

The goal of The Year of Our Youth is to build in our children and youth what we spent last year building in our adults: a sense of their identity as Christians who are Episcopalian along with mission-mindedness and real opportunities to serve. This too has already been inaugurated: our Children’s Chapel space is nearly ready and worship there is set to begin again on a once-a-month basis in January. We have dedicated a room in the newly refurbished undercroft for our teen-aged youth that will give them a “space of their own.” This space needs to be filled with the kinds of technology that will help in their formation as Christians: audio, video, karaoke, TV, DVD player, etc.

We have offered the Rotation Model - a format for Christian Formation that is limited only by our imagination and allows for many people to share their gifts three weeks at a time – a very manageable commitment. There are lesson plans ready for any who want them to enable them to answer this call to serve. We are also about to begin incorporating the gifts of our children and youth in the worship services in new ways, making manifest our belief that Baptism is full membership in our church.

The Year of Our Youth promises to be BIG – way bigger than we can imagine now. But then again, who could have imagined that salvation would come to the world by a baby born of a poor, unwed teen in a small town? God could – and did.

As we practice the seasons of Advent and Christmas together, let’s let go of all that hinders us or God’s plan for us. We can do that “in unity, constancy, and peace” as our Eucharistic Prayer says, because we know that God is constantly renewing the face of the earth, recreating us according to a plan that is perfect, full of mercy and loving kindness, and always beyond our ability to imagine.