Monday, December 23, 2013

Mary's Song --- Advent 4

Luke 1:46-55   (NRSV)
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

This morning we focus on Mary and the beautiful song that Luke shares with us in his Gospel.

Mary is an interesting character, especially for Protestant Christians. 

We don't want to make Mary into God --- or somebody we are supposed to worship for intercession to God --- like some traditions seem to be doing

But we also don't want to just ignore her.

It is almost as if there are two Mary's

There is the very familiar one that we know from paintings and sculpture ----
          The "Blessed Virgin Mary"
                   The mother of Jesus
                             The one who calls us to quiet reflection

Then there is that other Mary
          What some have called the "Blessed Valorous Mary"
·         The one who wears peasant clothing
·         Who goes toe to toe with Herod the Great
·         Who reprimands her son for dallying at the temple
·         who tells Jesus to make wine at a wedding reception
·         the Mary who follows Jesus all the way to the cross

While the "Blessed Virgin Mary" calls us to quiet reflection during this Christmas season ---- the "Blessed Valorous Mary" leads us toward a Christmas filled with a call for justice and the desire to fight for it.

But those aren't the Mary's we like to fight over.

We prefer to fight over whether or not Mary was a virgin, and if she was a virgin was she perpetually one.

Mary becomes for many of us a delicate piece in the Christmas Crèche ---
One that we bring out after thanksgiving --- without much thought
And then after Christmas we wrap her up and put her gently away again until Advent comes around again.
So let us take a look at the Mary that is found in Luke's "Song of Mary"

"The Magnificat" is called that because of the first word of its Latin translation.

Songs play an important role in the Hebrew Bible --- especially songs on the lips of some of the significant women of the Hebrew Bible.

Often these women break out into songs when they are confronted with the reality of God
          Often when they are facing overwhelming odds

Just think of:

The songs that they sing --- are songs celebrating God's faithfulness --- God keeping God's promises --- in the midst of overwhelming odds.

Mary's song follows the same pattern

Mary celebrates God's grace impacting human history

This song of Mary can be broken into two parts.

The first is verses 46-49
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.

Mary sings and rejoices over what the angel had told her back in Nazareth and what Elizabeth had just confirmed to her.

Her child is of the linage of David, and will be the Messiah and future king.

Like Hannah in the Hebrew Bible she is happy and excited that she will be a mother.

But, she goes on and sings of something maybe even more significant.

She sings that God's Messiah will finally bring justice to the poor.

It is a song proclaiming a new order --- an order centered on this Messiah that she is to bear.

Some would argue that these words that Mary sings are some of the most revolutionary every written.

William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, once warned his missionaries in India that they were NEVER to read the Magnificat in public.

He was afraid that these words would cause an uprising if the peasant class in India heard them.

Can you imagine how Herod the Great would have heard these words?

Herod has been described as:
·         "a madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis",
·         "the evil genius of the Judean nation",
·         "prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition"
·         and "the greatest builder in Jewish history".

Herod, in order to become this great builder had imposed heavy taxes on the people --- taxes that were felt by the many poor more than anyone else.

Listen again to Mary's song, while thinking how Herod might have heard it:

His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

As Mary sings --- "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;"
          Can you imagine who everyone thought she was singing about?
                   Herod of course
                   And maybe Caesar Augustus as well . . .

And, in noting that God "sent the rich away empty," she pointed her finger at Herod the Great with his insatiable appetite.

God "has lifted up the lowly" and "has filled the hungry with good things" meant that Mary and the poor of Israel would experience justice.

These words are fighting words to Herod and the powers that be.
          Subversive words
          Radical words

If you were a poor woman in the first century,
          if you were hungry,
          if you had experienced the injustices of Herod,
and if you stood up in Jerusalem and announced that God would yank down the proud, the rulers, and the rich from their high places, you likely would be tried for subversion.

If you were Herod, you would conclude that Mary was a rebel, a revolutionary, a social protester.
          And you would be right!

Mary --- before anyone else --- sees and announces the radical nature of Jesus' mission

Mary was a subversive and she was dangerous, first, because she knew the identity of her son and, second, because she began to tell his story

Remember, Gabriel told Mary her son would be:
·         "Jesus" --- in Hebrew the name Jesus means God is salvation and "Son of the Most High God"
·         and that he would sit as a Davidic king on the eternal throne.

Mary was the only person in the world who could have told the stories that we now have in Luke's Gospel.
·         She alone heard the potent words of Gabriel;
·         she alone was with Elizabeth;
·         perhaps she is the one who told Luke about Zechariah's song;
·         only she and Joseph knew about the shepherds and the magi.

Like Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin in order to reveal the injustice of slavery,

or Harper Lee, whose To Kill a Mockingbird revealed the insidiousness of racial hypocrisy,

Mary also had a story to tell about her son.

She began to interpret who he was and what he was to do.

Mary's song tells us what God would do through Jesus to subvert the injustices of Herod and the pretentiousness of Augustus.

She sings that somehow, some way, someday, God would establish a kingdom of peace for the whole world.

She sings of a revolution more radical than what the world had ever seen before or seen since.

A revolution, that she --- and Jesus --- are inviting us to join.

A reporter who had covered Mother Teresa's visit to Boy's Town was asked about her reaction.

He said:
They showed her all over the grounds of Boys Town, the dormitories, the classrooms, the gymnasium, the dining hall.  At the end of the tour, she turned to the head priest and said, "You have all this, but do you really love them?"

Jesus loves us!

That is what Christmas is all about --- and Mary sets the stage with her magnificent song.

Her life demonstrated what it means to be a servant of God.

Not some Crèche piece that we pull out once a year, and carefully wrap up and put away until next Advent.

Mary is the siren call to the action that Jesus will demonstrate.
          A radical new world filled with love and justice!

And if you are wondering what role you are to play, or if now is the right time, Catherine of Siena gives us the answer!
 To the true servant of God every place is the right place and every time is the right time.

Jesus loves us ----

          But do we love God's children?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Thin Places --- Advent 3

Micah 5:2-5a   (NRSV)
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
    from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
    when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
    to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
    to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.

The early Celtic people believed that there were certain places where you could go to be closer to God.
          These places have long been called "thin places."
Thin places are geographical locations where a person experiences only a very thin divide between the past, present, and future.

Celtic Christians sought after what they called “thin places,” spots where the “membrane between mere physical reality and the reality of God’s presence thins out to where it can seen, touched, tasted, or sensed in some unmistakable way.” 

The Celts often found these “thin places” at shorelines, fjords, rivers, and wells. 

Later, (after their conversion to Christianity by St Patrick) they experienced them in cathedrals, prayer gardens, sacred groves and plots of ground –
places where “the veil was so sheer, one could almost step through it” into the presence of God.
Someone once said:
“There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God.”

When Christianity spread into the British Isles, the Celtic Christians preserved aspects of this ancient folklore for revering thin places.

They broadened the understanding to encompass not only geographical places, but also moments when the holy became visible to the eyes of the human spirit.

Thin places, then, took on Christian meaning, where a person is somehow able to encounter a more ancient and eternal reality within the present time.

Thomas Merton once wrote that thin places are even more prevalent than the ancient Celts believed, but we just don't see them.
"Life is simple," he wrote. "We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time ... if we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes ... the only thing is that we don't (let ourselves) see it."

It is unfortunate that we often miss those glimpses of the kingdom of God, breaking in on the earth.

But, perhaps you have a particular place that is holy to you:
·         the beach you've walked countless times where water rolls onto the sand in a familiar way,
·         a place of reunion where God seems always close by and all's right with the world,
·         a mountain vista that has taken you close to the stars and seemingly closer to God,
·         a church
·         or family cemetery,
·         or even your own yard and garden.

Do you have a place where you can go and feel especially close to God?

"What is significant about sacred places turns out not to be the places themselves," someone has written.
"Their power lies within their role in marshaling our inner resources and binding us to our beliefs."

While places can bind us to our beliefs,
          so can memory,
          a piece of music,
          a special story,
          a word spoken at just the right time -
my guess is, if we think about it, most of us have experienced a "thin place" in which we can remember God seeming very close and very real.

Perhaps one of the most significant thin places and thin spaces we miss on a regular basis is the celebration of Christmas.

In the midst of all the last-minute preparations for Christmas, we can be caught up in thinking that this is just another Christmas season with the same traditions and myriad obligations (most of them self-imposed) that require all of our attention.

We can miss the fact that Christmas really calls us to consider the thinnest place the world has ever seen
·         not an island, but a manger
·         and not a feeling, but a person in whom heaven and Earth both fully dwell.

In our scripture this morning, the Prophet Micah is calling out to the people of Judah to focus on finding a thin place.

To understand the context of Micah's comments you must understand that the Assyrian army was closing in on Judah.

They would avoid destruction at the hands of the Assyrians ---- but they would not escape the Babylonians.

Yet, even in the midst of all this impending doom, God offers a word of hope through the prophet with a promise to create a new thin place for his people -- a remote, out of the way place.

In Bethlehem, in a place few expected, God was going to bring the life of heaven to Earth in a very personal way.

Bethlehem was, of course, King David's hometown

Despite all that was about to happen to the remnants of David's kingdom in Micah's day, the prophet assures the people that God was not going to abandon the promise that a king was coming from David's hometown to rule Israel, one
          "whose origin is from of old, from ancient days" (Micah 5:2).
This king, in other words, would represent God himself.

Interestingly, most people in Micah's day thought that the ultimate thin place in the world was the temple in Jerusalem, which was the place where it was thought that God dwelled with his people.
They believed that Jerusalem --- and maybe the Temple specifically --- was God's belly button

But the Temple was not to be Israel's salvation

Just 40 years after Jesus --- the Temple was utterly destroyed.

Micah was telling us that security isn't found in the Temple --- It is found in this future king.
          God's true King

Listen how Micah puts it (The Message)
He will stand tall in his shepherd-rule by God’s strength,
    centered in the majesty of God-Revealed.
And the people will have a good and safe home,
    for the whole world will hold him in respect—
    Peacemaker of the world!

Think about this for a moment: 
Instead of a temple, the place where heaven and earth came together --- the place where God would dwell with his people, was going to be the feeding trough in a back alley of the tiniest and most insignificant of places.

But, I will be honest with you: If you visit Bethlehem today, you'll find that it doesn't have the same kind of pastoral, quiet and mystical aura of a thin place.

Today getting into this little town is difficult because of the security wall that surrounds it.

And once you succeed in getting to the Church of the Nativity it is often anything but pastoral.
·         There are monks calling out for people to be quiet
·         Security officers with large weapons across their backs
·         People like me --- looking for the perfect picture
·         There's jostling with a long line of pilgrims waiting to touch the star in the cave below that church that marks the traditional site of Jesus' birth.
Quite simply it's more hectic than holy in there on any given day, which makes it hard to fathom that whole idea of a "Silent Night."

Yet at the same time --- if one allows God to speak --- it can become a very thin spot even to this day
But that is the key --- we have to learn to listen with expectant hearts and ears.
One of my most profound experiences of God was in the cave of the nativity --- as we sang Silent Night and another group sang it in Portuguese

Dorothy Bass is a historian of American religion who tries to bring the life of faith close to home in practical ways.

She notes how often we ask one another "How was your day?"

I imagine all parents of school-aged children have greeted their child with that question - "How was your day?" or one very much like it.

It is a kind of question that usually comes from someone who really cares, but is often met with a vague response like, "Not bad."

"Most days," Dorothy Bass remarks, "we probably forget to notice."

Then, she tells the story of a mother she knows who has quite a different way of asking that question.

As she tucks her children into bed each night, their teeth brushed and their hair still damp from the bathtub, she asks them this question: "Where did you meet God today?"

And they tell her, one by one:
·         a teacher helped me,
·         there was a homeless person in the park,
·         I saw a tree with lots of flowers in it.
Then she tells them where she met God, too.

Before the children drop off to sleep, the stuff of their day has become the substance of prayer.
          They enter a thin place and they realize the presence of God is very near.

What this story reminds us, is that to seek and find thin places --- places where we feel close to God --- requires practice.

It requires a disciplined rhythm to discover that places to encounter the very presence of God are all around us.

They wait to be discovered.

You will find them down the corridors of schools and hospitals, in places at work and the familiarity of home, places where it becomes clear that God is very near.

In these last few weeks before Christmas, it's not the Bethlehem of modern-day Israel that we need to pilgrimage to in order to experience the thin place of Jesus' birth.

We can do that right where we are by simply focusing ourselves on the humble, obscure and yet powerful way in which God chooses to bridge the gap between heaven and Earth.

He doesn't come with chariots rolling or guns blazing, but in the soft skin and helpless posture of a baby, born to a family who number themselves among the poorest of the poor.

Life was thin for Mary and Joseph, but the life Mary brought forth in the manger was full of more than God's people and, indeed, the whole world could have ever imagined.

In Jesus, God broke through the barriers between himself and humanity by becoming one of us.

We don't worship a God who is distant, cloaked in clouds, and oblivious to our world.

Instead, we worship a God who has humble himself

Remember what Paul wrote in Philippians 2, (The Message)
Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.

So, as you prepare for Christmas, perhaps the best preparation is to take some time to go to a quiet place and consider that God is not far away, that the king is quite near and his kingdom is at hand.

Allow yourself to live in the reality of who God is and what God has done in Jesus.

Take a pilgrimage into the heart of the biblical story of Christmas and read it as if you're seeing it for the first time.

Serve someone who needs to experience the reality that God has come to give them real hope.

May your Christmas be thin!

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Do You See The Signs? Advent 2

Luke 3:7-18   (NRSV)
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

I get a lot of email every day.
          My hunch is that it is somewhere around 200 or 300 emails every day
Although it seems that during this holiday season, my daily emails have close to doubled.

Of those --- many end up in my spam folder --- but I still feel the need to at least quickly go through the folder to make sure something important didn't end up in it.

And then all those other emails --- somehow I have to go through them --- because who knows --- one may be telling me that I have a friend in Africa who has recently died and wants to leave me a few million dollars.

How does one know when we have received something that is truly special and just for us in terms of a spiritual message?

How do we sort out our spiritual messages --- how do we separate the spam from the authentic message from God?

In our passage this morning from Luke --- the message from John the Baptist sounds pretty similar to what one hears on the street corners of Chicago or any other large urban center.
          "This is the Word of the Lord ---- Repent and Believe!"

I don't know about you --- but when I see one of those people standing on the street corner shouting out their messages of doom and gloom --- I kind of chuckle and walk on by.

          It seems to me just like spam email

But John seems to be calling us out in this passage.   

Despite the hard message from John people seemed to flock to hear him.

In Matthew's telling of the story it is only the Pharisees and Sadducees that come out to hear John. 
But Luke wants us to understand that it was "crowds" --- common folk who were seeking John's guidance

Listen how The Message translates this:
"crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do"

Even though it was "the popular thing to do", John demanded something of his hearers.
He expected:
                             Good works

Most of us don't like people telling us what to do

We don't want a lot of expectations on us

As your pastor I am allowed to make suggestions
          But to speak like John did . . .
                   Most of us would not be very happy

Have you noticed the attacks that have taken place toward the Pope because of his recent messages about financial inequity.

John's message to us seems to be rather simple ----
          If we want to claim to be godly --- then we should be

And he went so far as to explain exactly what that means in a language that the people of his day could understand.

What should we do? --- the people asked

·         if you have two coats ---- give one away
·         if you are a soldier ---- don't intimidate or coerce
·         if you are a tax collector ---- don't collect more than is your due

John simply seemed to be saying ---
God has told us what to do and be --- DO IT,
          and don't pretend to be something you're not

But John seems to be raising another issue as well
          It is the whole question of faith vs works

John said that we will be evaluated by our fruits and not our roots
don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as ‘father.’ Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there—children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants. What counts is your life.

Now, the interesting thing to me is that nowhere is John asking the people (who had come into the desert to hear him) --- nowhere is he telling them that they needed to join him in the desert eating grasshoppers.

John was asking his hearers to return to their everyday lives --- to where they had been planted ---- and to begin to bear fruit!

The interesting thing is it is not an either or question
          Its not that we can be a person with deep roots and no fruit
          Or be a person with fruit but no roots
(Jesus will pick up this theme with the parable of the sower)

John calls us to develop deep --- lasting --- significant roots in God
          But he also says we must bear fruit

One of the great Scottish preachers of the past was a man named George Morrison.  He was pastor of a great congregation in Glasgow.

He once told the story of a dream that he had
          In the dream he died and went to heaven

He was standing before St Peter, who asked him: "Who are you?"

"I'm Morrison." he said

"Who?" replied St Peter

"George Morrison, the preacher"

"No record of you here, I'm sorry" answered St Peter

"It can't be!" protested Morrison.  "For 25 years I have filled a great sanctuary twice on Sunday morning and every Sunday night, where I am told that I preached with power and beauty and poetry and brought people to conviction and conversion."

"I'm sorry, No record of you." said St Peter.  "What did you say your whole name was again?"

"George Herbert Morrison"

"Oh," said St Peter, "I do have a notation here.  It says: 'One night he sat up all night long with somebody who was dying.'"

I love that story

In other words, we need to put our faith to work in specific and costly ways.

John seemed to be set on destroying peoples sense of false confidence.

To get right with God --- you have to admit that --- you're not right with God.

But the real crux of John's message was not repentance
          It was JESUS

For Luke, the whole point of telling us this story about John (that we have looked at these last two weeks) was to prepare us for what was about to happen.

For Luke --- with John's ministry the curtain was just about to rise to begin the greatest story that the world has ever witnessed
          The ministry
                   The life, death and resurrection of Jesus

And John wants us to make sure we understand that God has no grandchildren.

The Pharisees thought that their salvation was secure because of Abraham
          John reminds them that is not the case.

Abraham's descendants are not God's only children.
          Faith is not inherited

It doesn't matter how devote or faithful your mother or father were

It doesn't matter if you are a righteous Jew

God's children have one distinguishing mark --- and that is --- they bear fruit.

Henry Drummond a scientist/evangelist once said to a group of college students:
“do not touch Christianity unless you are willing to seek the kingdom of God first. I promise you a miserable time if you seek it second”

Today we remember Nelson Mandela --- Madiba (father of his nation)
          Mandela spent 27 years in prison because he stood up to apartheid

One of my favorite quotes from him was made a few years ago at a lecture in Soweto:
"As the years progress one increasingly realises the importance of friendship and human solidarity. And if a 90-year-old may offer some unsolicited advice on this occasion, it would be that you, irrespective of your age, should place human solidarity, the concern for the other, at the centre of the values by which you live." 

Mandela seems to have understood what John was talking about.

That both roots and fruits must be demonstrated in one's life.

Mandela said:

“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”

As we continue our Advent journey
          John begs us to: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight."

We do that not by resting on our laurels
God has told us what to do and be --- we need to DO IT, and not pretend to be something we are not

This is message from John is not spam email

          He is trying to get us ready for the greatest adventure that is just about to begin

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Prepare --- Advent 1

Luke 3:1-6    (NRSV)
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
    and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Today is the first Sunday of Advent.

Many of us have barely recovered from our turkey hangover
          or our Black Friday Shopping Spree ---
                   and many of you are gearing up for Cyber Monday.

And yet, John is crying out to us:
          "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight"

PREPARE --- The problem is --- most of us thought we were preparing by engaging in all the shopping over the weekend.

The story of Christmas is the story of the unspeakable
          in hot pursuit of the unimaginable,
                   and some would argue the unattainable.

It is the impossible --- made possible

For just a moment the familiar miracle of a baby's birth becomes a radically life-altering experience for a nation, a people, and a world.

The simplicity of that very first Christmas has become dangerously complicated in our "modern" world.

And this is much more than simply the overwhelming commercialization of Christmas that has taken place in our lifetimes.  Although that is a huge problem.

We seem to have lost the simplicity of that first Christmas in Bethlehem.
          We look for the complex and conspiracy in everything.
                   And because of that --- we miss the point.

Unfortunately, we have buried that Bethlehem birth with layers and layers of sentimentality that separates us from the incarnation.

The layers have gotten so thick and so deep that they threaten to block the message of unconditional love that the first Christmas proclaimed.

And before we get too angry at Madison Avenue and Wall Street's desire for us to spend --- spend --- spend -------------- we need to look at ourselves and see how we have contributed to the busy-ness of the season.

·         Certainly gift giving and gift buying keeps us busy
But let's not forget all the church related busy-ness
·         Decorating the Church
·         Cantata's
·         Children's Pageants
·         Dinners
·         Office parties
·         Christmas Caroling
All these things --- if we are not careful --- can crowd out the true simplicity of the season --- just as easily as crowded shopping centers and repetitively hearing "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" can

But the worst offender may not be losing site of the manger for the mall.

The worst offender, may be inside us

During the time of St Francis, lepers were required to carry with them little bells which they had to ring to warn passersby - they did this instead of shouting "Unclean!"
          Can we hear the warning bells this Christmas?

Christmas has always had to compete with a multitude of messages since the church began celebrating it.

December 25th is the official birth date of Jesus.

But Jesus' actual birth date is never mentioned in the gospels.

The first reference to the Christmas festival comes in the fourth century, in Rome in 336 and December 25th was set as the date.

In the Eastern Roman Empire the main celebration was January 6th. (When we celebrate the Epiphany)

But I am sure you are aware that the date of December 25th was chosen in an attempt by the early church to co-opt the celebrations of the birth of Mithras.

December 25th was the celebration date of Mithras ever since the religion had been introduced to Rome by the returning soldiers of the Roman Legion.
Mithras was an Indo-Iranian god of light, but in the Roman cult Mithras became the invincible god of celestial light: the sun.
And so it was celebrated around the time that the sun begins it's return right after the winter equinox
The ceremonies were marked by a bull sacrifice, a sacramental communion of bread, water and wine, often conducted in caves or grottoes.

According to Pope Liberius the date of Jesus birth was set "to counteract the Saturnalia and the Mithraic ritual in honour of the birth of the sun."

I think we are still confused over what exactly we are celebrating.

Sure, We need celebrations of the sun.
We need celebrations of the nation.
But we need to not confuse and conflate all these celebrations into one.

Lionel Basney, an English Professor at Calvin College wrote in an editorial entitled "A Way of Doing Things,"
{That he identifies with} "the feelings of people who hate the [Christmas] holiday" - although he denounces the "hypocrisy" of the way we "bemoan the commercialization of Christmas while we accede to the commercialization of the rest of our lives."

Basney defines the problem as "the crime of Christmas. "

The real "crime of Christmas," he writes, is the way we "heap pretensions on its simplicity."

The real problem with the way we celebrate Christmas, Basney writes: is
"not that it distracts us from Christ, but that, Christ being inextricably involved in Christmas, it debases him. The Incarnation put the mystery of God's presence into our hands. We are left, then, with the work of culture. We are charged with making a life in which God can be with us. To defend Christmas, we must not only worship; we must rummage among our customs to find any that can help us. But what will they be?"

Basney suggests we start with some contact with nature -
"with snow, with the mud-brown, with animals. Nature is the one permanent participant in the work of culture with the power and strangeness to challenge our pretensions.... If you wish to imagine the stable outside Bethlehem, then, put away your cardboard creche, and hunt up a real barn and real sheep. ... it will not be made of nylon or cardboard or styrofoam. It will breathe and bleat and make its own statement on things.

"Deny the market your blessing for a day. If you need a wreath, go out and trim the spruce in the yard and make your own.

"Cook your own dinner. Cook the food your great-grandparents ate, if you can. Do away, for a day, with microwave pouches and tin-tray steaks. Slice your own vegetables and carve your own roast.

"Go out and cut your own Christmas tree - in the snow, if possible; or in the bare pasture. Let it gum up the carpet with sap and drip needles onto the presents. . . It will be a little remote, a little strange; it comes from outside. And that way it may impress you with some of the strangeness of the holiday, some of its essential refusal to be domesticated. For Jesus also came from outside; and the sheep, the spruce trees, and the snow, in their languages, call him master too." The Reformed Journal, 40 (December 1990), 2,5.

He seems to be suggesting that we do something that doesn't "make sense."

As novelist Madeleine L'Engle reminds us,

This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild
Had Mary been filled with reason
There'd have been no room for the child.

I can relate to William Butler Yeats when he wrote in his poem: "The Second Coming" this telling phrase
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Often I feel like I am slouching toward Bethlehem during the advent season.

Each year our trek towards Bethlehem begins in a slouch,
          develops into a droop,
and then suddenly -
          just before our spirits tumble from the season's burdens and weights -
we find ourselves rushing excitedly toward Bethlehem, posture erect, spirits high, anticipation mounting.

That happens because we have been surprised by God.
·         Sometimes, like Herod, we are surprised by fear.
·         Sometimes, like the Magi, we are surprised by wisdom from the ordinary.
·         Other times, like Mary, we are surprised by angels unaware.
·         Many times, like the shepherds, we are surprised by joy.
·         But always, like planet earth on that silent night long, but not that long ago, we are surprised by a God who is full of surprises.

Are we prepared?
          Are we ready?

Are we open to receiving God's surprises, which are around the corner of every hour of every day?

Are we open to being surprised by faith in the midst of dialogue with doubt;
·         energy when it seems you have used up the last ounce;
·         peace that passes understanding and misunderstanding;
·         patience that kicks in just when self-control keels over;
·         and hope that stands its ground against the multitude of the world's missiles and miseries?

The love of Christ:
That is the source of all Christmas surprises and true Christmas joy.

It is the simple center of the holy day/holiday which has become increasingly elusive as our festivities have become more frenzied and our lives more frantic.

Martin Luther understood the essence of Christmas in a way that is still compelling.

"He whom the world could not inwrap/Yonder lies in Mary's lap."

Monday, November 25, 2013

Jesus Alone, Is That Enough?

John 6:25-35 (The Message)
When they found him back across the sea, they said, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

Jesus answered,

“Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides. He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last.”

To that they said, “Well, what do we do then to get in on God’s works?”

Jesus said, “Throw your lot in with the One that God has sent. That kind of a commitment gets you in on God’s works.”

They waffled: “Why don’t you give us a clue about who you are, just a hint of what’s going on? When we see what’s up, we’ll commit ourselves. Show us what you can do. Moses fed our ancestors with bread in the desert. It says so in the Scriptures: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Jesus responded, “The real significance of that Scripture is not that Moses gave you bread from heaven but that my Father is right now offering you bread from heaven, the real bread. The Bread of God came down out of heaven and is giving life to the world.”

They jumped at that: “Master, give us this bread, now and forever!”

Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever.

Thursday is Thanksgiving
Without a doubt one of the biggest days sanctioned to overindulge in food on America's calendar.

It seems fitting that in our scripture today Jesus turns a necessary food staple into a metaphor about our spiritual journey.

Do you remember what he said?
          "I am the Bread of Life."

Usually when we talk about Bread in the church it is in relationship to the Eucharist --- Holy Communion.
          The bread represents to us Jesus body broken for us --- His life given for us

Or we talk about bread in relationship to the prayer that Jesus taught us in which we pray to have our "daily bread"
          bread to sustain us each and every day

But on this Sunday before Thanksgiving we have this selection from John's Gospel.

It takes place shortly after the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus walking on the water (on the Sea of Galilee).

That gives some context to how this passage begins when Jesus says:
“You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions {feeding the 5000 or walking on the water} but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free."

It would seem from the passage that the crowds are looking for deliverance from physical difficulties --- things like hunger or disease --- but Jesus wants them to see beyond their physical need to their spiritual needs.

"I am the Bread of Life" Jesus says"
          What does he mean?

Is he saying that bread is the most basic, and perhaps only sustenance that a person needs?

Or does he understand that bread is not the only food that a person requires but is the necessary foundation for a nutritious healthy meal plan.

But you know --- bread has gotten a bad rap recently.

About 3 million American's suffer from Celiac disease (1 in 133 people)
It is estimated that 5-10% of all people suffer with gluten sensitivity or intolerance in some form.

Having a daughter who is gluten intolerant, I have come to understand the danger and the difficulties of living with this.

At the base of the traditional food pyramid is grains --- Bread
          Bread many would argue is the foundation of a healthy diet.

But whether we are looking at the traditional food pyramid, or the new food plate, grains are only one part of a healthy diet. 
Much more is needed in one's diet if you are to be healthy.

Even Jesus seems to suggest this when he famously exclaimed to his tempter:
          "Man shall not live on bread alone."

Jesus says: "I am the bread of life",
          do we need more in our lives besides Jesus?

I believe Jesus is telling us that while faith in him is the vital foundation for the spiritual life, a healthy spiritual journey needs other ingredients as well.

I doubt any of us are going to gather around the thanksgiving table on Thursday and just give thanks for bread and water.
          We need more and Jesus seems to be saying the same thing.

When we start believing that Jesus is all that I need, I think we hurt our spiritual growth.

There was a prayer chorus I learned once:

He’s all I need, he’s all I need,
Jesus is all I need.
He’s all I need, he’s all I need,
All I will ever need.

I think I learned that when I was in Jr High
          That was about the same time I began to notice girls

I realized that no matter how close Jesus and I grew together --- I doubted that he would be able to replace that of a girl

Actually, no matter what our age,
          no matter how deep and vital our relationship with Jesus
                   and no matter how committed we are to following his example
                             and trusting his teaching,
it’s pretty rare finding one of us who really finds that faith in Jesus alone is enough for spiritual health.

And I really believe --- if we pay attention to what Jesus was saying about being the Bread of Life --- I think it is safe to say that he never intended to be all that we ever need!

In the first century, of course, all the actual bread was whole grain.
The refining process that yields white bread had not yet been invented, but neither had the capacity to enrich bread either, so the whole-grain bread of Jesus’ day was even less nutritionally complete than our bread today.

So we can assume Jesus’ bread-of-life statement meant that faith in him is the essential foundation of a spiritual life, but is not everything we need for spiritual health.

I think that is one of the reasons, from the time of the early church on that Christians have found it essential to meet together for worship and fellowship.

The author of the book of Hebrews wrote:  (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another

The simple fact is ---- Jesus is not all that we need!

Jesus is the Bread of Life ---- but not the whole meal!

But on the flip side of all of this there is another issue we need to address:
Our lives can become stunted if we try to live without eating any of the Bread of Life

The last few years we have seen the rise of low and no-carb diets that make it almost possible to live without any actual bread.

BUT ---- as Nancy can attest, avoiding carbs has its own problems!

A number of years ago I decided that I needed to go on a diet --- if you have seen pictures of me following the flood in 2008 you know what I mean

After talking with a bunch of friends I decided to go on the South Beach Diet which required you to avoid all carbs for the first two weeks and then have only some back in the diet.

I loved the diet --- and I lost almost 20 pounds in a couple of months.

Nancy, however had a different experience.

When we went on this diet I was not into exercise --- while Nancy was training for a marathon.
A couple days into the diet, Nancy headed out for her long run.

One thing you have to understand about my wife --- is she almost never complains (unless it is about me . . .)

She is tough and can endure almost anything
To run a sub four hour marathon ---- heck to run any marathon --- you have to be pretty tough and have a strong tolerance for pain and discomfort.

I remember her coming back from her run and I knew something was wrong.

Without the carbohydrates, she found that she ran out of energy quicker and could not sustain the run.
          It was like running in quicksand

Maybe the best comparison would be if your car was not running on all of its cylinders.           Sure, it is running --- but it has no power or energy.

I think that it is possible to be a spiritual person without eating the Bread of Life --- but it comes at a price.
Without the Bread of Life such spirituality tends to be unfocused and unproductive

One thing Jesus did mean when he said he was the Bread of Life is that our most basic and important human longings are met in him.
          Jesus is the foundation for a healthy spiritual diet.

To be a Christian, we need Jesus.

Sounds ridiculous --- I know, but you’d be surprised at how many people would love to be Christians without having to deal with Jesus
Many in today's "conservative church" struggle with the message of Jesus to the poor and disenfranchised.
          and would rather ignore his challenge to us

Another problem is that sometimes we fill up on so much junk food that the Bread of Life stops being the foundation of our spiritual life.

We are not ignoring Jesus --- but we fill up on so many empty things that we leave no room for the truly nutritional things.

While appearing to have eaten too much, we actually are starving for the nutrients we need.

In terms of our spiritual life, we do the same thing when we give lip service to our faith, but don’t bother with filling ourselves with the Bread of Life doing things like
·         praying
·         Bible reading
·         intentionally doing good deeds
·         giving to the church and to those in need
·         participating in the Lord’s Supper
·         and partaking of the other means of sustenance that God provides through Jesus.

It is through practicing our faith in ways like these that God has made it possible for us to be continually nourished by the Bread of Life

Thursday --- most of us will sit down at a feast filled with all sorts of delicious food.

We will pause and give thanks for it

But we are not going to eat Turkey every day for the rest of our lives
          Maybe for the next couple of weeks
          but not the rest of our lives!

Most of us are not going to be eating cranberries again until Christmas --- or maybe not until next thanksgiving.

But we are thankful for these things

But we’re thankful most of all that we have daily bread, both in a real sense, and in a spiritual sense.

We get blessed in so many ways — necessary ways — but the one constant we can count on is Jesus, our daily bread.

Jesus may not be all that we need, but we’d better not try doing without Jesus all the time.

If we do, we will become stunted, if not malnourished in our spiritual journey!