Sunday, December 30, 2007

Faith in Trouble - A Sermon

Happy New Year.  What’s your dream for it?  Peace?  Harmony?  Success?  Deeper Faith?  Trouble?

Trouble brings us back to Joseph as Bilbo Baggins again -- minding his own business and faced with dreams.  More dreams.

In fact, in the space of three paragraphs, he has three dreams, each which is an order to get up and go -- either fleeing from danger or going somewhere dangerous.

Before we go into the dreams, we must understand that nobody else mentions this series of event -- only Matthew.  Nowhere else does Joseph dream like this, nowhere else do they flee to Egypt, and nowhere else is there a murder of the innocents -- although the ancient historian Josephus does write about a mass murder of some Pharisees and members of Herod’s house who might have been plotting against him.

Having said that, these dreams are not particularly welcome events for Joseph in Matthew’s Gospel.  In the first dream, Joseph is warned to flee Bethlehem for Egypt because King Herod wants to kill the child.  He heeds the dream and runs.

Years later, although the bible does not specify, another dream orders him to return to Israel because Herod is dead.  Finally, once they arrive, a third dream warns Joseph to head north to the region of Gallilee in order to avoid the new king, Archelaus.

The question then is, if these scenes only happened in Matthew and were unknown -- and unimportant -- to the other Gospels, why did Matthew put them in?  And what do they have to offer us?

For Matthew, it was very important that Jesus be seen as the answer to ancient prophesies.  He believed only those who had been foretold by the ancients could truly be of God.  So he goes out of his way to find prophesies that can apply to him.

Thus, we have Matthew writing, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”  And, Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”  And,  “There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

In other words, these stories proved Jesus’ validity, they gave him legitimacy.

But there has to be more to it -- at least for us.  And there is.  These are stories of Faith in Trouble.  Faith in Times of Trouble, Faith that leads to Trouble, and Faith that is troubled because things are bad. 

For Joseph and us, these dreams are a sign of faith.  Even when things seem bad, we can trust God to be there with us.  God stands by Joseph in times of social un-ease (his pregnant fiance) and in times of danger (Herod).  Think of an example from your life: maybe times of illness or relational pain.

Yet these dreams show us that our very Faith can lead us into trouble -- like being hunted by the king.  Examples are Countless -- from martyrdom to simply telling truth when it’s inconvenient.

All this trouble can cause us to ask if God really is there after all - or if God really does love us.  It’s natural -- our faith will always lead us to times of doubt and uncertainty because life is not easy -- not even for the Holy Family.  And if it’s not easy for them, why would it be easy for us?

Matthew obviously wanted us to see Jesus as being foretold of old.  But he also wanted us to know -- that is, the next generation of Christians -- that following Christ would never be easy.  It hasn’t been.  

But the promise of God’s presence and love, and the encouragement to persevere, have sustained countless Christians throughout the ages.  They can sustain us in the good times and the bad as well.  

So, begin this new year with dreams -- and with hope.  God is with you all the way.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Manger Experience

Okay, that's overly dramatic. 

The truth is, I'm three hours away from our first Christmas Eve Service and sinking into my chair already exhausted.  And frustrated.  And thinking to myself, "How many hours till it's all over?"

This is probably the experience of everyone who works with Christmas.  On Saturday, less than half the cast of our pageant showed up.  Then, during brass choir rehearsal (told you I play tuba), we noticed that the building would not heat up.  Our Buildings and Grounds guy spent the rest of the day at church with the boiler people.  I went home with a cough and by evening's end had lost my voice.

The next day -- yesterday -- I croaked through the 8 a.m. service but had to use a microphone to say anything.  Even then, folks said I should have given up because nothing was coming out.  At the 10 a.m. service, I had my deacon do all the parts of the service he could -- he even read my sermon.  THAT was a strange experience, listening to my own sermon out of someone else's mouth.

Pageant rehearsal after church went much better, but then, walking home, I saw what looked like smoke pouring out of our sacristy roof.  With a parishioner who was visiting our house (we live next to the church), I checked it out to discover that the boiler was spewing out steam -- it filled the boiler room and the sacristy, making it look like a sauna.

Well, the boiler guys came again -- and wouldn't you know, the boiler is cracked with no hope of repair.  It'll be days before we can find a replacement.

So, this Christmas, we are celebrating the birth of Christ in long underwear and our coats.  Thankfully, it's not that cold out this week -- we hit the mid 40's today.  But we'll be cold enough for some folks, and they'll complain.

Perhaps I'll just remind them that things were none too comfortable in the manger as well.  Animals, straw, who knows what else?  It surely could not have been all that fun.  And in that part of the world, I'm guessing nights got pretty cold, regardless of the time of year.

So, we'll use the lack of heat as an opportunity to enter into the experience of the manger -- uncomfortable and yet expectant.  could be fun.

But I'll still look forward to that warm bed at the end of the night.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

When God Talks -- A Sermon

Ever have the experience of looking up to the sky and thinking, “Can’t you just once let me know you’re there?  Can’t you just once talk to me?”

It’s one of the most basic desires to have God communicate directly with us.

But it’s one you might want to reconsider.

I’m beginning to think if God spoke with me directly as he does with Ahaz and Joseph in today’s lessons, I might just cringe.  


Because just like in today’s lessons, when God talks to somebody in the bible, that means things are generally going to become difficult and uncomfortable.  It’s probably going to lead to an adventure, to be sure, but maybe not what you were looking for.

If you remember J.R.R. Tolkein’s book, “The Hobbit,” you can relate to the lead character, Bilbo Baggins.  He was a hobbit who liked his nice comfortable life until Gandalf the wizard knocked on his door and led him into an adventure to seek lost fortune.  

I don’t necessarily think of Ahaz as a Bilbo character.  After all, he was a king who was involved with enough intrigue already.  Isaiah’s visit to him was to warn Ahaz against joining forces with two kingdoms who were pressuring him to fight against Assyria.  

When Ahaz saw Isaiah, he probably said to himself, “Like I don’t have enough problems already!”  

The strange thing about this passage is that after Isaiah offers a sign to prove God is with him, Ahaz refuses out of supposed piety -- he doesn’t want to put God to the test.  Isaiah sees this, however, as a refusal to trust God -- so he gives his own sign.  And it is not a happy one to Ahaz because it points out his eventual doom.

Just to clarify what Isaiah says, we should note that the word we often hear as “virgin” should probably be translated as “young woman.”  In fact, the verse is more properly translated, “That young woman over there is pregnant and will bear a son, and she will call him Immanuel."  Some commentators argue that Isaiah is referring to either Ahaz’s wife or possibly his own wife.  Either way, the message says that by the time the child reaches an age to tell the difference between right and wrong, the two conspiring kingdoms will be destroyed -- but Ahaz, for his lack of faith, will also suffer.

I see Joseph as more of a Bilbo character,  minding his own business when God starts speaking to him in his dreams.  In todays passage, there’s just the one dream, but it’s a doozie.  Take this pregnant young woman as your wife.  And notice that people (at least her family) already know she’s pregnant, so there’s a good chance people will either think you’ve been duped by her OR you have been having improper relations with her before the right time.

He might have wished not to have had that divine message.  Next week, we’ll see a bunch of other messages Joseph receives -- and each one makes his life a little less comfortable, a little less predictable, a little less safe.  

On the other hand, Mary herself might have preferred not to have her own divine message announcing her pregnancy.  

But there is, on the other end of these divine messages, a child.  In Ahaz’s case, the child Immanual will be born as a sign AGAINST him.  “God is with us” might well mean -- “See, God was with you, but you would not believe, so with him comes judgment.”

When Joseph is told to name the child Emmanual, “God is with us” has an entirely different feel.  God is with us and brings grace.

Is the difference between the two simply that Joseph heeded the voice of God -- entered into the adventure -- while Ahaz shunned it?  I don’t know.  

But one difference is clear:  Since that second child was born, we have been able to hear the voice of God as one of love and grace and mercy rather than one of judgment and fear.

So while I may not be in the mood for an adventure, when God talks, I think I might listen.  Amen.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Axis of Evil Comedy Tour

How about something Un-Christmassy today -- yet somehow germane.  

Yes, I'm talking about the "Axis of Evil Comedy Tour," a comedy trio (sometimes quartet) of Iranian-American Maz Jobrani, Palestinian-American Aaron Kader, and Egyptian-American Ahmed Ahmed.  The sometimes fourth member is also Palestinian-American.

I caught a You-Tube spot of one of their comedy routines and found myself looking for another, and another, and another.  Before I knew it, my morning meditation time had been consumed by stand-up comedy jokes about Iran's president and our president, airport security, and Osama bin Laden as champion hide-and-seek player.

My favorite skit was from Maz Jobrani, who mentioned that he had read about an Al Quaida application.  He wondered what would such an application look like:

Q:  What do you want to do as a member of al Quaida?
A: I want to blow myself up.

Q:  What are goals?
A:  I want to blow myself up.

Q: Do you have any references.
A: They blew themselves up.

Aside from poking fun at pretty much everyone -- themselves, their cultural baggage, the US and its cultural baggage -- they also deliver a real and sobering message.  All people are valuable and basically the same.  Most Muslims are just plain folks with a desire mostly to live a quiet and peaceful life.  They recount stories of spending religious holidays with Jewish and Christian friends -- and all the misadventures that can come from ignorance of each other's customs.  

This troupe -- who takes its name from President Bush's unfortunate State of the Union address in which he named Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the Axis of Evil -- focus on making their very mixed audience laugh together.  They quote a Jewish standup comic who says it's hard to hate someone if you're laughing with them.

The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour does use foul language typical of so many standup routines, so if you see them, be prepared.  On the other hand, I never really found it out of place.  Quite often, the situations they use for their material make me want to expand my vocabulary as well.

If you don't get bugged by colorful language, and if you're open to putting yourself in your neighbor's shoes, go see this group.  Check them out on the web.  You Tube has them, or you can go to their website:

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Little Snow Goes a Long Way

We are experiencing an earlier than usual (lately) snow.  Even thought the temperatures are supposed to reach 50 on Sunday (with rain), we've had more snow already than we had last year all through January.

What adds to the interest this year is that we have relatives visiting this Christmas who have never seen snow before.  They are visiting from Mexico City and drove up here from the city in the middle of the northeaster that closed many churches and cut our attendance by 80%.  How they arrived in one piece, I don't know.

One of the fun things about this visit is that we get to see their expressions with every new thing. Ricardo helped me shovel, and he looked like a boy with a new toy.  The kids had a snowball fight with my kids, and they were beaming even as my son whacked Lourdes in the head.  They all shouted in excitement this morning when it actually snowed -- and they could watch it falling!  They held out their hands and looked at it, stared up at the sky and got it in their eyes, held out their tongues to catch it.  I can guess what will be one of their fondest memories of this visit.

But the incident that stands out was two days ago when they were getting in the car to go touring.  Ricardo got into their rental car, stared at the steering wheel for a few moments, then got back out.  He came to the house and got me.  "I can't see out the window," he said.  He stared at it some more.  I nodded.  It was indeed all white.

"What do I do?" he asked.  Then it hit me.  He'd never seen frost before.  I pointed to a little knob on the dashboard and told him to twist it.  "Defrost" engaged.  Then I went to the garage and got out an extra ice scraper.  More fun!  I think when Ricardo goes home, he's going to try to smuggle a snow shovel and ice scraper in his luggage.

It doesn't really take much to renew your awe for the world.  Sometimes all it takes is a little snow.

A Little Snow Goes a Long Way

We are experiencing an earlier than usual (lately) snow.  Even thought the temperatures are supposed to reach 50 on Sunday (with rain), we've had more snow already than we had last year all through January.

What adds to the interest this year is that we have relatives visiting this Christmas who have never seen snow before.  They are visiting from Mexico City and drove up here from the city in the middle of the northeaster that closed many churches and cut our attendance by 80%.  How they arrived in one piece, I don't know.

One of the fun things about this visit is that we get to see their expressions with every new thing. Ricardo helped me shovel, and he looked like a boy with a new toy.  The kids had a snowball fight with my kids, and they were beaming even as my son whacked Lourdes in the head.  They all shouted in excitement this morning when it actually snowed -- and they could watch it falling!  They held out their hands and looked at it, stared up at the sky and got it in their eyes, held out their tongues to catch it.  I can guess what will be one of their fondest memories of this visit.

But the incident that stands out was two days ago when they were getting in the car to go touring.  Ricardo got into their rental car, stared at the steering wheel for a few moments, then got back out.  He came to the house and got me.  "I can't see out the window," he said.  He stared at it some more.  I nodded.  It was indeed all white.

"What do I do?" he asked.  Then it hit me.  He'd never seen frost before.  I pointed to a little knob on the dashboard and told him to twist it.  "Defrost" engaged.  Then I went to the garage and got out an extra ice scraper.  More fun!  I think when Ricardo goes home, he's going to try to smuggle a snow shovel and ice scraper in his luggage.

It doesn't really take much to renew your awe for the world.  Sometimes all it takes is a little snow.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

My "I Hate Christmas" List

I don't hate Christmas.  Not really.  Much.

After all, it's the birth of Christ we're celebrating.  God incarnate is always good news.

But there are certain things that drive me crazy in this mixed up season of gifts, carols, pageants and malls.

Here is my list of things I hate about Christmas:

  1. BUYING PRESENTS:  I consider myself a fairly giving person, but buying presents is a task I despise.  There's just nothing fun about it.  It's not the crowds that get to me -- I actually enjoy that -- it's trying to figure out what fits a person and being absolutely certain that it'll be the wrong thing.  Then there's the question of who will get a present and who won't (my resources are not unlimited).  In a perfect world, I'd make all the presents to show my deep affection for each recipient -- but I never got past toothpick sculptures in grade school.  Aside from all that, the whole gift-giving thing seems contrived and pointless -- unless you're going to give me gold, frankincense and myrrh.  By the way, I put Christmas Cards in the same category -- mostly because I get mine sent out somewhere around March.
  2. WRAPPING PRESENTS:  Don't get me started.  If you've ever seen Charlie Brown's kite after an encounter with a tree, you can imagine how the presents I wrap look.  Only with a lot more tape.  I'm convinced this is a plot to put the decoratively challenged in their place.  Not that anyone would know because the next thing I'm bad at is actually getting presents in the mail.  I just sent my sister's gift yesterday -- for Christmas 2006.
  3. ENDLESS CHRISTMAS TUNES:  How many times do we have to listen to "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire"?  Or "Santa Clause is Coming To Town"?  Nearly every radio station that's not designed for teenagers plays these "classics" 24/7.  Again, I suspect a plot.  We'll buy anything just to make it stop!  Worse yet, most of these songs just mention Christmas -- they don't ever talk about Jesus.  They're sort of the secular Christmas variety, which is okay if what you're celebrating is the idea that you can celebrate.  Worse still, I find myself humming these things throughout the day!  Right now, Bing Crosby's "Mele Kalikimaka" is running through my head.  Help!
  4. WINTER SONGS IMPERSONATING CHRISTMAS TUNES:  Admit it, you think they're Christmas songs, too.  Think about it:  "Walking in a Winter Wonder Land,"  "Jingle Bells..."  They have nothing -- NOTHING -- to do with Christmas at all -- not even Santa.  It's not their fault, mind you.  They're just tunes celebrating the beautiful winter weather, but they have been found guilty by association with Christmas.  If you don't believe me, just try calling in a request for "Frosty the Snowman," on December 27.
  5. SANTA CLAUS:  I bet you do, too.  Who wants to have some guy who can see you when you're sleeping and knows when you're awake AND who's keeping a list and checking it twice.  Sounds like a nightmare version of God.  No wonder the children always cry when you put them on his lap.  Of course, with the energy crisis, we just might want to get some coal in our stockings...
  6. SCREAMING CHILDREN ON SANTA'S LAP:  I'm guilty.  When my kids were young, I tried to get at least one shot of each on Santa's lap.  My lasting memory is the picture I paid $5.00 for.  It shows my child struggling to escape Santa's clutches.  It's not just my kids, either.  Two days ago I was in the mall and saw a young mother coaxing her screaming toddler onto Santa's lap.  I felt for everyone involved but at the same time had to ask, "Why do we do this to our children and ourselves?"  If it's merely to employ Department Store Santas, I'm sure we can find more meaningful work.  About an hour after seeing that screaming child, I saw Santa enjoying some down time.  He was reading, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."
  7. SNOW AT ALL THE WRONG TIMES:  Yes, I love snow.  But it can be a good thing gone wrong.  Like, when it snows all day SUNDAY.  Don't they know that this messes up church?  That's a bad thing for a pastor!  It's supposed to snow on Friday night.  That keeps kids from going out partying too much and makes for a quiet Saturday.  But not Sunday!  Not only does it mess with attendance, but it interferes with things like Pageant rehearsal.  About the only time worse than Sunday for snow is Monday morning.  There's nothing like hearing that you have yet another full day with the kids.
  8. REHEARSALS:  It's hard enough trying to figure out which kids will be in the pageant.  Somebody will always be miffed that they did not get the lead role even if they don't know how to read.  What's worse is trying to schedule rehearsals.  Kids are just too busy!  Even rehearsals after church cut into their other activities.  It's like herding cats.  So, by the end of it all most of the kids have an idea what they're supposed to do but really can't remember their lines.  Yes, it all works out somehow, but I keep losing hair over it.    Then you get into other scheduling issues, like trying to find servers for the Christmas Eve services.  Try to fit in a rehearsal for the big services, and just wait to hear the howls.
  9. THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS:  Bah humbug!  What spirit of Christmas?  What does that even mean?  I am having a hard time forgiving Dickens for this phenomenon.  I mean really, what is the Christmas Spirit?  Giving presents?  See number 1 of my list.  Is it giving to the less fortunate?  Why?  Why should that be the Christmas Spirit?  I thought that was the Spirit of God.  I thought that was something Christians were meant to do all the time.  I suspect the Spirit of Christmas is merely a way of saying, "If you act nice during this one season, you're allowed to be a mean jerk the rest of the time."
  10. "KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS" CAMPAIGNS:  These annoy me.  Because in the end, those of us who worship God in Christ will always keep Christ in our hearts regardless of what the rest of society does.  And harping on the rest just makes us sound like angry busy-bodies rather than people filled with God's love.  Rather than nagging others that they should say "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays," it would be better if they simply praised God for the blessing of the Incarnation.  
That's my list.  There are a lot of other things I don't like about Christmas, but if I stated them all, you'd just think I was an angry nag.  And really, I love a lot about this time of year.  But don't expect a gift from me.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

What Do You See? -- a sermon

The title is "What do you see?" but it should be, "What do you seek?"  What did you come here to see?  What is it that you are looking for?

That's the question that Jesus put before all his listeners.  John the Baptist had sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask if he was indeed the Messiah.  I mentioned last week that John had not exactly expected a Messiah who would heal the sick and care for the poor.  He had expected a military hero -- Hercules for Israel.  

Instead, he got a man who told us to turn the other cheek, who ate with sinners, who told us not to judge and to look at the log in our own eyes before we talk about the speck in another's.  What kind of Messiah is that?

But it's what Jesus said after those disciples went away that is interesting.  Jesus addresses those who remain and says, "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes?  Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.  What then did you go out to see?"

Three times he asks.  You know three is important in scripture.  Think about Peter, who denies Christ three times.  Or Jesus when he asks Peter later if he loves him -- three times.  Or the number of temptations Jesus faces at the beginning of his ministry.  The number three means, "Pay attention, this is important."

But what could be important about that question?  First a little context.  There are reeds along the Jordan.  They are, in fact, a symbol of the region and are even found on some coins of the time.  People took some pride in them, and one implication is that city folks came out to get away from things and enjoy the reed-lined banks.  So here Jesus asks the crowd if they are simply on an outing to enjoy the countryside.  

When he asks about seeing folks dressed in soft robes, that also has logic -- because there were palaces along the Jordan -- not much by our standards perhaps, but pretty nice for the day.  They were places where the rich could retreat from the messiness of the city.  It was in those palaces that normal folks could get a glimpse of the elite.  (Tell me we don't do that in modern times.  Tours of celebrities homes are still big business in Hollywood).  So, Jesus asks, if they are out here for idle curiosity?

Then he asks the big question: Are you out here to see a prophet? Are you here to find God's path?  Are you out here to grow closer to God?  

The answer, of course, is yes.  But Jesus doesn't stop there.  He says, John is a prophet.  A great prophet.  The best.  So, if all you want to see is a prophet, then you've done it!

Or, he says, do you want more?  Because a prophet can only do so much.  The prophets could only see so far, and not even John could recognize how God was at work in Jesus.  Now, Jesus tells the crowd, there is a new thing, something so fantastic that it leaves the greatest of the prophets behind.

That great thing is the invitation to become part of the Kingdom of God.  The least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John.  Because John is a figure of transition from an old understanding of who God is to the Kingdom Understanding.  John sees the new way, John herald's the new life, but like Moses he does not live to enter it. 

Jesus asks those who once followed John what the are looking for.  He tells them bluntly that, with him, they will no more find a pleasant diversion than they did with John.  But if they stick with him, they will find something beyond even John's imagination. 

So the question is, "What do you come out to see?  What do you seek?"  Only you can answer that one.  

Friday, December 14, 2007

Take Me Hunting

Someone take me hunting, please.  I'm serious.

I am a non-hunter -- never been out with a gun trying to bring down a deer or a duck.  Not once.  My dad used to hunt before all of us kids were born (I was number 5), but he packed the guns away before I could even walk.  

Why this interest in hunting?  Well, first you should understand that I am not a huge lover of guns.  I have not yet found a war in my lifetime that I believe was justifiable, nor do I condone householders keeping loaded handguns in their homes.  The person who uses a gun against another person sacrifices a huge chunk of their soul.

I also don't really relish the idea of killing another animal.  They don't gross me out -- I've been with too many dead people in my life to be bothered by that -- but I don't see these magnificent animals as a sport.  

However, I do see them as food.  We humans are designed as omnivores -- designed to live on a varied diet that can include a wide array of other animals.  Yes, we can live solely off of plants, and I applaud all those who choose to do so.  I don't.  I figure, as long as we're eating meat and fish in moderation, it's how we're made.  Having said that, I'll put in my plug for much more moderate use of meats -- Americans really do overdo it to the detriment of themselves and everyone else.

But I digress.  I have thought about it and decided that, as long as I'm going to eat meat, I should at least know the animal I'm eating.  I should be able to look at my food and say, "This was once a living being," rather than to pick up a slab of cellophane-wrapped food product at the grocery store.

I like the idea of a locally grown, free and wild animal rather than the over-crowded and improperly fed assembly line animals I usually eat.   

For some time, I've believed hunting your own food is a fine thing to do; it's just that I don't know many hunters, nor do I ever seem to find the time or money to go out and do it.  Like gardeners and fishermen, I'm glad the world has them, but I've never really wanted to join their ranks.

Yet, now may be the time.  I would like my kids to understand what it takes to feed them.  Not the money but the life.  I would like them to experience bringing home food that they didn't buy.  

Not that I'm entirely comfortable with the idea.  I used to carry the image of those buffalo hunters who blasted the bison away into near extinction for sport -- and I hated that idea of hunting.  I also believe that if everyone went out and hunted, we'd have a problem.  But with the number who do, and with the agri-business as it is, now might be my time.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Different Hope

Advent is all about waiting -- but it’s how we wait that matters.  For us, we wait in HOPE.  

Only problem is, hope is a slippery word.  What do we hope for and what does it look like?  Do we hope that things will go exactly as WE plan?  Or do we hope that God’s will will be done?  Do we hope that OUR vision of how things should be takes place or do we open ourselves to God’s infinite mystery?

Yesterday, we all heard the news that the diocese of San Joaquin, California voted to leave the Episcopal Church and join forces with the Church in the Southern Cone.  Now, I’ve been hoping -- like Paul in today’s epistle to the Romans, that we might “live in harmony with one another.”

Doesn’t seem like that will happen.  Some places have chosen disharmony and discord.  Perhaps we are better off if they go.  At least once the ties are cut, we can finally leave their divisiveness behind us and focus once again on Christ’s call to us.

It’s hard to say -- and maybe that’s the point.  We sit here waiting for Christ, waiting in hope, and we’re not sure what it is we’re waiting for.

That’s so classic to our faith.  Look at poor Isaiah.  He has this beautiful passage about the lion and the lamb lying down together -- and apparently the lamb has not fainted in fear -- yet all that lovely image is based on utter destruction before.

Notice that little part about a shoot rising out of the stump of Jesse?  Just before this, Isaiah talks about the tree of Jesse -- Israel -- being utterly destroyed for its wickedness.  Then he assumes God will raise a new, more faithful, more just people out of the burnt out stump of Jesse.  He imagines and hopes for an ideal world.

A world where all the wicked get killed, and finally all the poor will get their due.  

Not so different from John the Baptist, really.  He preaches to the crowds about “the wrath to come” and about the chaff which the coming Christ will burn with unquenchable fire.  

Isaiah and John both understand God’s concern for the poor and desire for us to act justly.  They both understand that ancestry -- being children of Abraham or belonging to Jesse -- give us NO privilege in God’s eyes.  It is our own hearts that God looks into.

Yet, for both Isaiah and John, what they hope for, what they envision for the future is never realized.  It turns out, it’s not even what God has in mind.  Holy men, they were, yet they missed the mark.

Because when Jesus comes, he is a sort of Messiah that John cannot even recognize.  He is so confused by Jesus -- after Jesus has been preaching for a while -- that John sends some of his own disciples to Jesus and says, “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for, or should we wait for another?”

While John and Isaiah are looking for destruction of the unjust, Jesus turns out to be the type who goes to dinner with them.  Yes, he sends out warnings to the rich that they are to repent, but he is not the warrior that any of the prophets (including John) expects.  He does not come riding in on his white horse and set everything straight.

He comes in a modest birth and travels mostly on foot, barely covering the distance of Dutchess County.  He heals people and forgives them.  He dies on a cross.

This is not what they hoped for. 

But God hopes for something different.

Reconciliation, love, forgiveness.  

I confess, when I heard the news that San Joaquin had left, part of me said, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”  But part of me grieved. And I asked myself, “What exactly should we be hoping for in a situation like this?”

But John and Paul and Isaiah show us that trying to figure out exactly what to hope for is pretty difficult.  We get it wrong as much as anything.

Better, perhaps, that we should remember that prayer Jesus offered once when he was hoping for a different outcome than he got.  “Not my will but yours.”

So, let’s wait in hope for Christ, not knowing what will come but know that the one we wait for will act in loving grace.  Amen.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Crisis of the Crèche

The crisis has been averted. Whew!

Yes, I'm referring to the annual crisis of the Crèche, you know the Nativity scene that adorns the town hall. In most small towns (and some not so small), good-hearted citizens put up the manger scene for all the town to admire.

This year in our town, an organization wrote a complaint to the town board and based it on the constitutional separation of church and state. The group is a Jewish organization, and to be fair to them, they opposed erecting a large menorah on public ground in the town next door. You should have seen the flurry of bitter responses in the paper. "They're taking away Christmas!" "What is the world coming to?" "We're a Christian country, dammit!"

Today it was revealed that the organization withdrew its complaint because they did not want to sow dissension in the town. Again, I say, "Whew!"

Of course, this crisis comes up every year. Somebody who is not Christian gets upset because they see the annual decoration as official recognition of Christianity as our religion. I secretly suspect that some of the complaints come from people who just like to complain, but others are sincere.

Our clergy bible study discussed this issue, and we all came to the same conclusion: Either open the public grounds for displays of any group that is celebrating some sort of "festival" – and yes, that would include those with abhorrent ideologies like the KKK – or skip the displays altogether. Constitutionally, I don't see any alternative.

But as a pastor, I say to the outrages masses of the town, "Get a life." Those who scream that our religion is under attack because somebody doesn't want a crèche in front of town hall (or doesn't want to say "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance or begin school with an official prayer) must have a pretty weak faith. Who cares if we have a crèche on public grounds? Christianity went its first 1200 years celebrating Christ without a single nativity set. The Feast of the Incarnation is all about Jesus becoming one of us, not about whose plastic manger scene can light up the village.

We don't need the manger to celebrate the one born in it. If we depend on the symbols instead of the faith itself, we are missing the point. If we say our faith is "taken away" because the symbols are, then I believe we are guilty of idolatry.

The Crèche is a fine reminder of God humility in sending his Son to be one of us. It is not the event itself, however.

So, I don't mind seeing the nativity scene at town hall. And I wouldn't mind if it wasn't there. As long as Christ himself is always with us.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Losing the War

Good News!  Iran is still a threat!  Despite the recent National Intelligence Report on Iran which stated Iran had no nuclear program and would be years away from anything even if they started today, President Bush still asserts they are trying to cause World War III.  What the report really confirmed was what many already knew.  President Bush is seeking a confrontation with that country regardless of the evidence.  

That's how he works.  He decides what he wants and then bends the evidence in that direction.  When he first became president, he went straight for a tax cut that would positively affect only the richest.  The economy was strong, he said, therefore the tax cut is merited.  When the economy started heading south, he argued that we needed the same tax cut to spark the economy.  

Same thing happened with Iraq.  Bush had decided long ago that he wanted war with Iraq.  Regardless of the evidence, regardless of the information gathered by allies, he plowed ahead with relentless arguments that we needed to invade.  WMD was the word of the day -- yet there were none, just as the UN had stated in its intelligence reports.  We don't hear about WMD anymore because we have the war he wanted.

And we will stay there until well after President Bush is gone because he wanted it that way.  He tells us we cannot bow to those who want us to "surrender" and who "bow to defeat."  We're going to win, he says.

We have already lost.

We lost this war the minute we invaded a country that had no plans to do us harm.  We lost the moment we threw out our moral compass and decided torture was okay.  We lost when we decided that killing thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians was worth whatever amorphous goal we were seeking in Iraq.  We lost when we decided that sinking a country into more than five years of chaos and misery was all right because we weren't going to be affected. We were going to be patriotic and go shopping.

There is nothing we can do to win this war because the war itself is a tremendous defeat for us.  It's something we did to ourselves -- Saddam Hussein could not have hurt us more, even if he'd had WMD.  

As Christians, we have to approach the world with the understanding that ALL people are our brothers and sisters.  God made them all, and when we look out only for our interests -- or worse yet, only for our economic interests -- we lose.  My belief that this war is a mixture of personal vendetta and economic interest for a lot of corporations owned by family friends only intensifies the depth of this loss.  Fought for the wrong reasons, it has permanently harmed millions of Iraqis who thought we were friends, and it has permanently harmed us.

Even if we can salvage the country of Iraq (as is now our moral obligation, at least to the degree that the Iraqi people ask it of us), even if we can salvage our own reputation and standing in the world (after a new president arrives, because no one will listen to Bush), it is impossible to call what we did a victory.  It's only surviving a disaster of our own making.

Now, President Bush wants to incite another conflict even after his own intelligence says it is not warranted.  Maybe he's like a gambler who keeps losing at the slots but keeps plunking his coins in because he just knows he's going to win big the next time.  He'll keep going at it until he's lost everything he's got.  Only, when you're President of the United States, there's a hell of a lot to lose.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Waiting - A Sermon

  Today we enter the season of Advent which means, as we all know, waiting.

Waiting waiting in line at the mall.  Or perhaps, waiting for those endless Christmas tunes on the radio to finally stop. Or even, for some of the kids, waiting to hear Santa’s reindeer on the roof.

Pretty much captures the spirit, doesn’t it.  

Fortunately for us who celebrate the other Christmas and actually know the word Advent, we are waiting for something else.  Something infinitely less stressful and annoying.  

We are waiting for Christ.  As you probably know, we’re waiting NOT only for the Baby Jesus to be born.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s important that Jesus came and lived AS ONE OF US.  That’s a huge part of our belief as Christians -- God sent his only Son to be one of us -- to know us intimately.  It’s irrelevant whether he was born in a stable on a December night, but it’s very important that he was born.

But we Christians are waiting for more than that.  We’re waiting for Christ to come again.  And it could be a very long wait.

You may have wondered why we bundle these two sorts of waiting into one season -- waiting for Christ’s birth is easy to grasp.  We know when it’s going to happen because it does every year.  You can put out the creche, and pretty much figure that on December 25 there’s going to be a baby in it.

But the problem with that is, we tend to get this baby image stuck in our heads.  If you ever saw that movie, “Taledega Nights,” you know what I mean.  There the famous race car driver Ricky Bobby is, praying at the family table.  And who does he pray to?  “Baby Jesus.”  Dear sweet baby Jesus.  He goes on and on about how sweet and innocent Baby Jesus is that his wife finally yells at him that Jesus grew up.  But Ricky says, “I like the baby.”

  Well, Christ is so much more.  Christ is God incarnate, not sweet and helpless.  Kind and loving, yes, but no longer lying in a manger. 

Advent tells us that Christ’s first wondrous coming to dwell among us is nothing compared to what we can expect.  The scriptures all speak to that time that is out in the future but already on its way.

Isaiah -- who is in the middle of warning the kingdom of its imminent demise -- takes an early break to give the people a vision of what can be.  A vision of that longed for future when none of us will learn war anymore.  Paul, in his letter to the Romans, is vague about what it will be like when Christ comes again, but he says, “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.   The night is far gone, the dawn is near.”  He’s waiting, and he knows that what we’re waiting for will be good.

The vision Jesus himself gives us is a little more sobering.  The coming of the Son of Man will be at a time when nobody expects; and according to Matthew, it’ll be almost like those Left Behind books.  One will be left while another will be taken.   What is in store for either is left to the imagination.

We’ll just have to wait and see.

But we believe that when Jesus returns to earth, whatever it looks like, it will a return filled with love, mercy and compassion.  Jesus tells us we won’t know when that second coming arrives until it’s here.  But he tells us to be ready nonetheless -- to live in a state of readiness.

Which is to say, to live a life of loving, caring for, and reconciliation with all people at all times.  

The coming of Christ, the longed-for Kingdom of God where people finally will beat their swords into plowshares and when we will see Christ face to face -- that coming which we’re waiting for seems impossibly far away.  Then again, when you’re a small child, waiting for Christmas morning is an impossibly long wait, too.  But just wait; this is better.  Amen.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Need a Pageant?

Anybody need a pageant?  We Episcopalians -- along with most other denominations -- love our pageants.  Of course, being Episcopalians, we don't do CHRISTMAS pageants.  We do EPIPHANY pageants.


Because all those pageants have the Wise Men in them, and the Wise Men didn't show up until Epiphany.  Get it?

Well, at our church, I've been the one who writes most of the pageants.  Too cheap to buy a canned one, I suppose.  Besides, I enjoy it.  I've written a new one for this year -- it's world premier will be -- you guessed it -- on Epiphany.

But if you need a pageant for your church, light-hearted and fun for the kids, feel free to take one of my older ones.  It's called "No Sleep At The Inn" and views the comings and goings on that Holy Night from the point of view of the irritable and sleep-deprived innkeeper.

You can view the pageant at my website:  

If you choose to use it, just do me a favor.  Make note that it's from me, and let me know.