Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Light in the Dark - A Sermon

I’m still basking in the glow of Christmas Eve services, aren’t you? Or maybe it’s just the bloat of too much holiday chocolate. No, really, it’s those services – they were awe inspiringly beautiful. One of my favorite moments in both of the services is when the lights are dimmed and Silent Night was played.

I love sitting there in the semi-darkness with the glow of candles illuminating the place. There’s a warmth about it that you can’t find anywhere else. Good thing for all those candles, though – otherwise it could get very dark indeed, especially if we were to have a power outage. That wouldn’t be comfortable at all.

Actually, I like the darkness. I get up very early – around 4 AM – and like to go around the house without the lights on. It makes for a gentle start to the day. I watch the sun come up and never have to worry about alarm clocks. I can do this because I know the house so well that I could just about walk it end to end with my eyes clothes.

Besides that, I have cheats. The house is never in total darkness. The DVD player and the VCR have little blue and red lights. Just about every clock in the house has an LED light. I navigate through the house using the little dots of light as guideposts so I don’t bump into things.

It’s sort of like years ago when I took flying lessons and my instructor decided I was ready for night flying. I was not so sure. I had enough trouble navigating during the daytime. But once he got me up there at night, the twinkling lights above and the lights below made any insecurity worthwhile. What’s more, I could see the roads lit up and the bridge – and even the airport came into beautiful view with the runway all lit up and guiding me home.

Darkness is great when it’s not total, when there are guiding lights. In our modern society, you don’t get much total darkness, so it might be hard to appreciate that fact. But in John’s day when he wrote the Gospel, darkness could be nearly complete, and dangerous. People understood the power of a light in the darkness.

That may be why he sandwiched this little meditation on light in between the more well-known segments about Jesus being the Word. You know, In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Great stuff. And important.

The “Word” passages for John do the same thing that Matthew’s and Luke’s birth stories do. It tells us that Jesus was a real person, God with us. Emmanuel. The significance of this cannot be understated. God is with us, one of us. In becoming truly human, God makes OUR story into HIS story. And in making our story his, God shows with absolute clarity that we matter to him.

But John wants to go beyond that. These first few paragraphs of his Gospel serve as a prologue – a map for where he’s going with the rest of it. And he shows us up front that he wants us to see Jesus as more than merely God-become-man. John wants us to see Jesus as Guide as well. He is the light in the darkness, the one who not only lets us know that God is with us but that he will lead us home, show us the way if only we will follow.

John might see Jesus as those blinking LED lights that guide me through the dark house or as those beautiful runway lights that let the weary pilot know that this way is rest and safety.

Since we’re still in the Christmas season, I’ll tell you that one of my favorite Christmas movies is “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I love the beginning when Joseph tells Clarence the Angel (second class) all about the world, he shows him a picture of the earth. When he gets to Jesus, there is a flash of light. The only problem is, it’s a flash, it fades when Jesus leaves.

I see that and scream in my head, “Noooo!” The light still shines in the dark! The darkness is still there, but it cannot overcome the light. You might despair that the darkness still exists, but take heart – it doesn’t take a huge light to point the way. Jesus is our light, still shining steady and sure. All we need to do is keep our eyes on him, and he will guide us home.

As John knows, the miracle of Christmas is not just a birth, but also a light.

Traditional Christmas - A Sermon

Merry Christmas!

Let’s have the kids up to place Christ Child on the Advent Calendar. We do this every Christmas Eve – it’s our tradition. [Christ Child is placed on Calendar] There are so many good Christmas traditions, aren’t there – greenery, gifts, greeting cards…

Not that every tradition is one you look forward to, right? I mean – Fruit cake?

And of course, there is that other St. James’ Christmas tradition – the annual tuba sermon.

Each year, I bring out the tuba and play a song or two. Maybe it’s just a winter song we associate with Christmas [Jingle Bells] or maybe it’s a song about Christmas that has nothing to do with Jesus [I’m dreaming of a White Christmas] or MAYBE it might even be about the birth of Christ [Away in the Manger].

But it’s tradition! Of course, traditions change over time. Did you know that one early American Christmas tradition used to be to throw people in jail for celebrating Christmas? That’s right – many of the early English settlers hated Christmas.

And the puritans made Christmas illegal because it was based on a pagan holiday called Saturnalia. Saturnalia had its own traditions like gift giving and parties and sending seasons greetings – no wonder the puritans hated it.

They also hated Christmas because the bible doesn’t tell you WHEN Jesus was born, so December 25 can’t really be Jesus’ birthday. Personally, if I were going to pick an arbitrary date for Christmas, I’d pick June – it sure would make it easier for people to get to church without worrying about snow!

So, what do you think? Should we toss everyone here in jail? Should we give up all of these traditions and dump Christmas?

I don’t think so!

You see, it doesn’t matter when we celebrate the birth of Christ as long as we celebrate it. And since we’ve gotten used to December 25, why not keep it?

What’s more, even though the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are the primary points for Christians, it IS good to celebrate Christ’s birth.

Because what we’re really celebrating here isn’t a birthday. It’s not even this cute baby and the Hallmark picture of the stable that we’re celebrating. No, what we’re celebrating is the fact that God is with us. More than that, what we’re REALLY celebrating is that God loves us so much that he chose to let us know he’s with us.

Now I ask you, is there a better way to show people that you’re with them than to physically show up? That’s what we do when we want to show we care, isn’t it? One of the best things we people do – and this is a holiday tradition, too, by the way – is that we visit each other. We show up.

The more we love others, the more we make our presence known. When we celebrate, when we’re sick, when we’re lonely or scared. Being there is the best part of any relationship.

That’s why church is always better when you’re here – the singing is more joyous, the praying is deeper, the preaching is more inspired – and when you’re not here, there’s a hole. Presence matters. Coming together is our best Christian tradition.

The same is true with God. We always knew God was there somehow. Still, people have spent eons fearing God, trembling before him, making sacrifices to appease him – or “them” since so many people worshipped many gods.

It was out of love for us – compassion at seeing our misguided grasp of who God is and how God loves us – that God sent Jesus. Not to just come down and deliver the message that God loves us, but to BE one of us, to live with us, to die as one of us, to rise again in order to lead us home.

I love the trees and the carols and the cards at Christmas, but the very best tradition we Christians share is one that we can do all year long – to come together like this – together with each other and with God who is, as this wonderful feast reminds us, always with us. Amen.

Magnifcat - A Sermon

By now, I’m guessing you are feeling a little stressed. I know I am. Four days, and there’s shopping and dinners and oh yeah, I don’t have the Christmas Eve services done! Is this how it’s supposed to be? Stressful?

Of course it is. It’s our tradition.

But what’s not our tradition is to really look at all these scripture readings for the Advent season and really see what they say. Because if you haven’t been paying attention, you might have missed that they are not very cute and cuddly.

Even today’s Gospel with the Blessed Virgin Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, in that heartwarming encounter where Elizabeth’s baby leaps in her womb for joy at the presence of Jesus – even that has a more radical feel to it when you actually look at what is being said.

To understand Mary’s words – you know, those beautiful words: “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” – we have to reach back into the Old Testament. Back to the words of another woman who also had a miraculous baby boy who would change his world.

That woman was Hannah, and her son would grow to be the prophet Samuel. What SHE said when her son was born was this: “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.” Of course there was more to that in both songs, but often we tend not to see beyond the first lines, so they sound very similar.

And indeed, Luke wrote Mary’s Magnificat (the name we call that song comes from Magnify) to echo Hannah. She exults in the Lord who has done a great thing, after all.

Both songs also talk about the poor being cared for and the rich getting nothing. In short, both songs praise God for this child who will set things right.

But they are different. Hannah’s song is set in a time before Israel even has kings (though probably written much later). It is her son who will anoint the first two kings – Saul and David. She speaks of a king who exults in his power. Of a God who thunders from Heaven. Of adversaries who are shattered and derided.

When Hannah talks of salvation, it is the same sort of salvation so many of the Old Testament prophets speak of: salvation from earthly enemies. It is battle, state against state. When she talks about the poor, she means her people who have been put upon by outside forces – as was common in the day.

In that way, she is very much like Micah in our Old Testament reading today. The enemy is from without. Peace means that the bad guys have been overthrown and that everyone in Israel worships God.

Mary brings something new. She brings mercy. “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”

What’s more, when Mary talks about mercy for the poor, she means the poor among them – the poor who live and eat and beg and die right there at home. This is not about battles, it is about good things for those who have not.

Yet there is nothing sweet about her song. When she talks about the rich being sent away empty, she is not talking about some outside force. It is they who will be scattered in the imaginations of their hearts – those who imagine themselves to be good yet watch the suffering of others with indifference. She calls out the faithful to live faithfully.

In short, Mary foreshadows the ministry of her son, she is expecting one who will guide the people of Israel – and all those who fear the Lord – into lives of generosity and mercy, not just from outside forces but from within. This is something we still struggle with.

Yet even with this foreshadowing of Jesus’ ministry, Mary, like John the Baptist later, can’t possibly grasp the enormity of what her son would do. Who could? Still, this young woman speaks the words of a prophet who knows that what she is preparing to bring to the world is the Kingdom of God itself.

And I was worrying about preparing for a Christmas Eve service. Amen.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Atnonement - A Sermon

Happy Third Sunday of Advent. Note the pink candle today. It’s supposed to lighten the mood of the reflective, even slightly penitential feel of Advent.

We all know what it really means, though. Only eleven shopping days till Christmas.

Which is just another way of saying let’s not fool ourselves. Nobody’s letting up today from the stress. In fact, people are just kicking into high gear. Frantic shopping, decorating and so on. We’re no exception at the church -- why just today we have mini-orchestra rehearsal, handbell choir rehearsal and Epiphany pageant script distribution.

The scriptures aren’t letting up, either. For a supposedly “light” day, they start off with some great lines. Like John the Baptist: “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!” Puts you in the Christmas mood, doesn’t it?

And don’t forget the winnowing fork the Messiah is bringing so that he can cast the chaff into the eternal flames.

Almost makes you think the Old Testament prophet Zephaniah might have a better idea of what God’s coming might be like.
 “The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies.” Sounds pretty good.

Sadly, most of Zephaniah -- all three chapters -- is more like John the Baptist. He starts off telling the people of Jerusalem that they are terrible and will be punished. Then he tells the other nations the same thing. Then he describes their coming punishment complete with blood flowing in the streets. Only after God is appeased will the survivors find rest.

Here’s a feel for Zephaniah’s real message: “Seek the LORD all you humble of the the land, who do his commands, perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the LORD’S wrath.” (chapter 2)

For Zephaniah, there will be salvation -- but only after the people have paid for their sins and paid dearly. This is called atonement.

As I mentioned last week, John has one foot solidly in the Old Testament even as he looks toward a New that he can’t quite grasp. He still sees God as the just but angry God who must be satisfied with the atoning punishment we deserve.

John was faithful, but he was not where we should stop in our faith. Jesus came and showed us a new covenant, a new relationship with God. Yet somehow, many of us can’t seem to get past John.

But as we know, Jesus comes and shows us something new, something totally unexpected. He shows us an image of God who is not all that interested in sacrifice and more interested in loving us. But that leaves us some huge questions: how do we understand what Jesus did back then, how do we understand his impact on us today?

There is a theory on what Jesus did called the Atonement. It’s something John the Baptist and Zephaniah could relate to. It says we are wicked and totally separate from God. We must pay -- atone -- for our sins, but we can’t because we’re so pitiful that no sacrifice, no penance on our part can appease our angry God.

Therefore Jesus, who is perfect and loving, willingly becomes the only sacrifice that is good enough to assuage God’s anger. By doing this, he opens for us the gates to heaven.

I have heard it preached that this image, this angry God image so familiar to the prophets, ought better be called “At - One - Ment,” because it says that although we are separate from God because of our sins, Jesus makes us one again.

I think I’ve got another name for it: At - None - Ment. Because this theory believes that we are so separate from God that nothing will ever truly unite us with God, only appease him.

And it flies in the face of Jesus himself, who called God Father and taught us to do the same. Atonement -- At-none-ment -- is not the Gospel.

This week in the parables class, we were looking at parables about seeking. What we noted is that it is God who seeks us who are lost. Whether it’s a lost sheep, a lost coin or a disobedient lost son, Jesus says that it is God who seeks us even while we are still contentedly lost and looking after our own interests.

God goes after us, completely disregarding our lack of interest in going after him. God rejoices when we open our hearts to him regardless of behavior or even our newfound faith -- the prodigal son never said he was sorry, for example -- he never got a word out before his doting father embraced him and brought him in to a feast. There was no atoning going on, neither was there a winnowing fork nor an ax at the root.

Does this mean we should utterly ignore Zephaniah and John the Baptist? No. Certainly their calls to be honest and just in our daily dealings are worthy. But we do so because we have been welcomed with open arms into God’s family so completely that God’s Spirit dwells within us. We deal honestly, seek the best for others not because we are trying to avoid the coming wrath but because we are members of the Kingdom of God right now.

Christ became one of us to help us comprehend how we are God’s children by invitation. We are loved, we are already at one not because of any sacrifice -- worthy or otherwise -- but simply because God is love.

In a sense, that makes it harder to do good because there are no dire consequences if we don’t. For now, on this “quieter” day of Advent, let it suffice to say the best way to live as John and Zephaniah -- and God -- would have us is to slow down a bit, open our hearts to God’s presence.

The more we do this, more we will know we are at one with God and the rest will follow. And we'll find that our lives will be pleasing to Zephaniah, and John, and God. Amen.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Letter From Jesus

A friend gave me this one.  I like it.

Dear Children,

It has come to my attention that many of you are upset that folks are taking My name out of the season. Maybe you've forgotten that I wasn't actually born during this time of the year and that it was some of your predecessors who decided to celebrate My birthday on what was actually a time of pagan festival. Although I do appreciate being remembered anytime.

How I personally feel about this celebration can probably be most easily understood by those of you who have been blessed with children of your own.. I don't care what you call the day. If you want to celebrate My birth, just GET ALONG AND LOVE ONE ANOTHER.

Now, having said that let Me go on. If it bothers you that the town in which you live doesn't allow a scene depicting My birth, then just get rid of a couple of Santas and snowmen and put in a small Nativity scene on your own front lawn. If all My followers did that there wouldn't be any need for such a scene on the town square because there would be many of them all around town.

Stop worrying about the fact that people are calling the tree a holiday tree, instead of a Christmas tree. It was I who made all trees. You can remember Me anytime you see any tree. Decorate a grape vine if you wish: I actually spoke of that one in a teaching, explaining who I am in relation to you and what each of our tasks were. If you have forgotten that one, look up John 15:1 - 8.

If you want to give Me a present in remembrance of My birth here is my wish list. Choose something from it:

1. Instead of writing protest letters objecting to the way My birthday is being celebrated, write letters of love and hope to soldiers away from home. They are terribly afraid and lonely this time of year. I know, they tell Me all the time.

2. Visit someone in a nursing home. You don't have to know them personally. They just need to know that someone cares about them.

3. Instead of writing President Obama complaining about what other people think the White House is calling their tree this year- why don't you write and tell him that you'll be praying for him and his family. Then follow up. It will be nice hearing from you again.

4. Instead of giving your children a lot of gifts you can't afford and they don't need, spend time with them. Tell them the story of My birth, and why I came to live with you down here. Hold them in your arms and remind them that I love them.

5. Pick someone that has hurt you in the past and forgive him or her .

6. Did you know that someone in your town will attempt to take their own life this season because they feel so alone and hopeless? Since you don't know who that person is, try giving everyone you meet a warm smile; it could make the difference.

7. Instead of nit picking about what the retailer in your town calls the holiday, be patient with the people who work there. Give them a warm smile and a kind word. Even if they aren't allowed to wish you a "Merry Christmas" that doesn't keep you from wishing them one. Then stop shopping there on Sunday. If the store didn't make so much money on that day they'd close and let their employees spend the day at home with their families

8. If you really want to make a difference, support a missionary-- especially one who takes My love and Good News to those who have never heard My name.

9. Here's a good one. There are individuals and whole families in your town who not only will have no "Christmas" tree, but neither will they have any presents to give or receive. If you don't know them, buy some food and a few gifts and give them to the Salvation Army or some other charity which believes in Me and they will make the delivery for you.

10. Finally, if you want to make a statement about your belief in and loyalty to Me, then behave like a Christian. Don't do things in secret that you wouldn't do in My presence. Let people know by your actions (rather than your words) that you are one of mine.

Don't forget; I am Jesus and can take care of Myself. Just love Me and do what I have told you to do. I'll take care of all the rest. Check out the list above and get to work; time is short. I'll help you, but the ball is now in your court. And do have a most blessed Christmas with all those whom you love and remember:

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

God, Life, and Everything - Tolerance

I write a column called "God, Life, and Everything" for the Hudson Valley News. The title reflects the broad scope I want to take. Everything in life falls under the eye of God, and if we watch carefully, we can catch a glimpse of God in it all.

Ah, the holidays, that blessed time when families get together. They’re great -- as long as nobody talks about religion or politics, right?

Right. Or more precisely, hogwash.

What fun is a family that has to tiptoe around all the most interesting topics? That would pretty much limit us to talking about the weather and watching football, and who wants that?

I say, a family worth its salt can handle lively, even heated debate about those core issues. If it’s a healthy family, you can be yourself and know that you are still loved and will always have a place at the table, even if you are totally and insanely wrong.

You could call this “tolerance,” I suppose.

But I won’t. the word “tolerance” has been so misused in recent years as to have virtually no meaning at all. Accusations fly left and right about not being tolerant. Opposing sides claim they are tolerant while the other clearly is not.

I read a letter to the editor of our national church newspaper where the writer argued that the church is not tolerant because it will not refuse to ordain a certain class of people (not who you think). He went on to say that the church is disregarding the wishes of those who do not wish to see these people ordained and is therefore intolerant of them (those who don’t want the ordinations).

Say what? I had to reread the letter a few times to make sure I read right. The church is intolerant because it will not do what a certain group of people wants?

You might disagree with church decisions (there are many I do), but to call that intolerant is just plain silly. Even though I hate resorting to dictionaries for definitions, a look at Webster is called for here: Tolerance is “Recognition of and respect for the opinions, beliefs, or practices of others.”

For what it’s worth, the church recognizes all views and respects them as well as those who hold them, but it does not have to do, and indeed cannot do, what every group wants.

To expand on this definition, I would add that tolerance means to accept others wherever they are on their life journey -- to accept them complete with their thoughts, values, life choices -- all the while welcoming them in the community even if their thoughts, values and life choices are repugnant.

I come from a large family that spans the spectrum both politically and religiously. We have members who call Rush Limbaugh a pinko, and we have those who call President Obama the “Second W.” We have Baptists, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, a Buddhist and some atheists. We have gun toting good old boys and big city aesthetes. Straight, gay, single, married, uncommitted. We have it all in my family.

I won’t say that all our conversations are religious or political, but when we get into one of the taboo topics, it is with the understanding that we are all family. We accept each other for who we are. Period.

This holds true whether it is a nuclear family or a church or a community. Tolerance means you are a welcome part of the community regardless of who you are or what your condition is.

This is tolerance in its strictest sense.

Of course, tolerance also allows those who can’t stand it to leave. If, for example, a family member held a religious view that seemed outrageous, and another relative refused to sit at the table with them, a tolerant family would say, “That’s your choice. We’ll miss you.” It would not try to force them to the table.

What tolerance is NOT is putting up with abuse. It is not tolerance to let someone continue physically, verbally or mentally abusing you. That’s being a door mat. It is not tolerance to let a person continue to someone else, either. That’s complicity. If somebody is abusive, they forfeit the right to exercise those behaviors. If they persist, they forfeit their right to be in that community, at least for the time being.

While I disagree vehemently with some of my relatives on their politics and religion, we continue to love each other. But if one physically abused another, I am fairly certain the rest would be all over them in a New York minute. And we would support the victim.

Likewise, if a relative cheated on another repeatedly, we would most likely let them know what we thought. We would support the victim in pushing for counseling or, if they felt they needed it - leaving.

Of course, we always seek reconciliation first - it is at the core of our faith - but reconciliation is no more complicity or being a door mat than is tolerance.

So in politics or religion, whether it’s the issues of gays or abortion or women priests, we are tolerant of all others, even when they make us uncomfortable or offend us by their beliefs and practices - they have a seat at the table. Become abusive, however, and that’s something nobody should tolerate.

Preparing is Good - A Sermon

Happy St. Nick’s day.  Yes, this is the real day of St. Nicholas.  Feel the anticipation.  In Europe, this used to be the big gift giving day, and there is still a tradition of putting out a shoe by the door so that St. Nick can fill it with goodies.  

Of course, if I were European, the kids would probably wake up to a note saying, “Oops, got really busy and forgot.  Left some money with Dad to buy candy.  Love, St. Nick.”  Needless to say, preparing for things is not my strong suit.

In fact, preparing for almost any big event is an occasion of stress and anxiety, not to mention lists of things to remember.  I just want to get the events over with so real life can take over again.

But what if what you’re preparing for IS real life?  Or NEW life?  What if the type of preparing you need to do is not the frantic dinner making, gift buying, card sending type but the quiet, individual, internal type?

Baruch (I’m sure you’ve heard of him), wrote to the people of Israel while they were in exile in Babylon.  He wasn’t exactly a prophet - he was the prophet Jeremiah’s secretary.  But Jeremiah was among those sent elsewhere during the exile, so Baruch carries his spirit to the people.

And what is that spirit?  Preparation.  He tells them that their time of suffering is almost over and now it is time to prepare to go home.  They are to take off the garment of sorrow and put on the robe of righteousness and diadem of glory.  

They need to prepare because returning home is hard -- not getting the pots and pans ready -- that’s easy.  Getting your soul ready -- not so much.  I have never been in prison or in a war, but I have heard from those who have, and they tell me that coming home is hard.  It’s a different way of life even if it’s one they look forward to.  Some people find it so hard that they sign back up for another hitch -- or commit crimes so they can return to prison.  

Though I did not experience those things, I was an exchange student for a couple of years, and they prepared us for our return home as well.  With good reason.  Many of us found it difficult returning to a culture we had spent an entire year shutting out so we could learn the new culture.  It all seemed strange and somehow wrong.  They call it “Reverse Culture Shock” and without preparing for it, life is very confusing and painful.

In today’s prisons and military (as well as cultural exchanges), they spend more time and resources trying to prepare those returning to civilian society because they know going back is hard.

The people of Israel must prepare to be on their own again, no longer slaves.  And no longer surrounded by the gods of their captors.  They also return to a remnant that did NOT go into exile.  History tells us their return was not easy.  But their preparation -- and the promise that they would not return alone -- saved them, God was with them.

Now, John the Baptist is ALSO speaking to Israel about preparing.  Like Baruch, he brings the spirit of Jeremiah in his lines about filling valleys and making mountains low -- smoothing the way.  It’s not so much a return to the old country he is preparing for, but a coming of a savior who will let Israel return to its old life.

Now, please note that this is not the baby Jesus -- this is the adult Christ John wants them to prepare for.  John is really the last of the old time prophets, and what he THINKS the people are to prepare for is a warrior prince who will save Israel from their Roman oppressors so they can return to the glory days of Baruch’s return.  They can be free again.  He is not exactly right, but the preparation is spot on. 

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul is also asking the people to prepare themselves for Christ.  He gets closer to the point because he wants them to prepare for the coming of Christ, “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless.”

Paul sees Christ coming to bring the people -- all those who believe and trust him -- to their real home -- eternal life in the Kingdom of God.  That is indeed our hope too, though becoming blameless, as we know, is not within our power.  All we can do is trust in God’s love, and seek to live in that same love.

But when you think about it, learning to love others is the best preparation for the Kingdom of God.  Learning to put the welfare of others before your own is good training for the life Christ points us to.  

It is not the external preparation of the holidays, and it’s not really the Old Testament preparation of going back home.  Instead, it is the preparation of going to a home we have never been to yet -- but once we get there, we will never have to leave.

Now that we are in our second week of Advent, we are getting used to the idea of preparing.  But let us remember that our best preparations are here (the heart and mind) -- and let’s refuse to fall into that trap of thinking that Christmas preparations are all about the gifts, decorations parties and cards.  St. Nicholas would approve.  Amen.

The Waiting Room - A Sermon

Giving birth is so different these days than it was when I was born. My father waited for all of us (but one who nearly came out in the parking lot -- he had to scrape a train barrier, then dumped Mom out at the door where they slapped her in a wheelchair and ran her inside. By the time he parked the car, my sister was born.) in the waiting room with all the other fathers. in the waiting room, they paced while the experienced dads told the new dads horror stories of sleepless nights and smelling diaper pales. Only their smiles told a story of joyful - if anxious - expectation.

They cared for each other as the new brotherhood of fatherhood. A temporary gathering in an eternal community.

We don’t do that anymore. I was present - participated in - the births of all my children. But we do sit in waiting rooms. And when we do, it’s often a time of anxiety. You’re at the doctor, dentist, therapist, mechanic. What you’re waiting for in other words is often something inevitable or necessary but perhaps frightening or unpleasant.

Still, you stay because to a degree you trust the physician or mechanic. If we didn’t trust, you’d run away.

Now, what do you do in the waiting room? Put your life on hold? Chew your fingers and worry that the doc might give you a shot or the mechanic might give you a shock (when you get the bill)?

I usually read whatever magazine is in front of me. Or watch the tube. Sometimes do a little work. Or I look at the people. Love to look at people. Get a sense of the wonderful variety, the wondrous make up of God’s creation.

But there are times when you talk - when you share your stories or offer a comforting word, maybe even form a temporary little community of those all waiting for the same thing. After all, we spend so much time cut off from each other, that the waiting room might be a perfect place to reconnect.

Advent is a waiting room, and we are in it. What we’re waiting for is the coming of Christ. We wait for the infant and we wait for the second coming -- whenever that will be and whatever it might look like. But in a sense this season of waiting merely reminds us that our entire life is a sort of waiting room, and we’ve been waiting for that coming for a very long time.

Jeremiah prophesies that the days are surely coming when the Lord will restore the fortunes of the house of David. This was in the 7th Century BC. Jesus in Luke’s Gospel tells the disciples to look for the signs of both upheaval and coming redemption. But he makes clear that the time will come unexpectedly. We don’t know when we’ll be called.

And that’s just it. We don’t know when that “end of times” will be and we don’t really know what to expect. We don’t know what will happen with 2012. More to the point, we don’t know what will happen when we die. And let’s face it, our own “end time” is much more likely to happen before the apocalypse (unless of course it’s 2012, but let’s assume it’s not) -- and it is assured.

So, we wait in trust if anxiety. But as with Dad, we don’t wait idly. We comfort, we share our stories. In a sense we form a temporary community called the church -- and there, we learn to live in God’s eternal value of love.

The waiting room is more than a place to kill time -- it is where life happens while the unknown but anticipated good looms before us. Welcome to our waiting room of Advent. It’s just like it was with Dad back then -- Just don’t hand out cigars, okay?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

God, Life, and Everything - Giving Thanks

I write a column called "God, Life, and Everything" for the Hudson Valley News. The title reflects the broad scope I want to take. Everything in life falls under the eye of God, and if we watch carefully, we can catch a glimpse of God in it all.

I had a note from a Canadian friend recently who said, “You know what I’m thankful for? I’m thankful we already had OUR Thanksgiving in October so we can work off all the food in time for Christmas.” Yes, Canadians stuff themselves silly with turkey, too.

It is sometimes easy for me to forget that Canada even has a Thanksgiving Day, let alone that they do it on the wrong day. Everyone knows the Pilgrims invented Thanksgiving in 1621 and decided it should be the fourth Thursday in November, right? Well, of course not.  

Actually, there’s nothing inherently American about Thanksgiving. Countries around the world have celebrated a day to give thanks to God for the harvest for centuries. After all, the harvest is what it’s all about. In German, they call it Erntedankfest which is roughly translated to “Festival of Thanks for the Harvest.”

The reason all these peoples and places have this feast in the first place is that the harvest meant survival for them (well, for those who lived in colder climates where winter made growing difficult or impossible). It was a way of saying, “Thanks for giving us what we need to make it through the lean times.”

Some might say that we are living in lean times these days. Well, the Pilgrims or other subsistence farmers might disagree. They might point out that strictly speaking, even those of us unfortunate enough to lose our jobs will probably not starve to death. We live in a country where many other things are challenging or just plain wrong, but at that most basic level, it’s not going to be lack of food that will kill us.

It’ll probably be the deer running across the highway. (See last week).
So, the harvest does not really play as big a role in our thanksgiving as it once did. We are mostly urban folks who don’t get where food comes from. We see meat and think it grows wrapped in cellophane and styrofoam. We look at vegetables and forget that they don’t come in frozen plastic bags.  

And while we might lament how far removed we are from the food chain these days, the fact that among our many worries, starving is not one of them should be reason enough to give thanks to God.

Now, I know Thanksgiving is full of traditions. Unlike the Germans who just go to church for Thanksgiving, we Americans tend to gather from all corners and have a big family gathering where we see who can eat the most before popping. Then we watch giant men carrying a little football ram into each other in an effort to make the other ones pop.  

One of Hyde Park’s traditions has always been to have a Thanksgiving Eve ecumenical service, always at a different church in town. Because of a lot of little things blended with difficult scheduling, the local pastors decided we could not have the service this year. Which is too bad because this service is great reminder that Thanksgiving is more than turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie. It is about appreciating how graced we are to be allowed another year on this earth.

But you know what? You don’t have to have a special service to give thanks. You don’t even need to have a special day. God breathes life into each of anew every day, gives us what we need to do what we need that day. In short, every day is good for giving thanks.

So, whether you’re in Canada or Germany or the USA (or anywhere else on earth), Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Famous Last Words - A Sermon

If you could choose your last words in this life what would they be?  I know, it’s not even Lent, and I’m talking about mortality.  But the lessons today are about last words, and you can learn a lot about a person from their last words, so let’s look at a few, and maybe you can think about what you might say in those last moments.

Jeff Foxworthy, of “You might be a redneck” fame, tells us that many a redneck have uttered the same last words:  “Hey ya’ll,watch this!”

During the Civil War, General John Sedgwick’s last words were, “They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist. . . .”

Poet Dylan Thomas boasted just before he died, 

“I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies... I think that’s a record!”

John Adams -- not that he was being foolish -- said as he lay dying, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”  Jefferson had died earlier in the day.

And just for fun, Oscar Wilde’s last words were said to be, “Either that wallpaper goes or I do.”

Given that today is the Last Day of Pentecost AND the Feast of Christ the King, it might do to look at one or two last words of kings.  For instance, here’s the infamous Caligula of Rome after his guards stabbed him:  “Ha! I am still alive!” 

And King Louis XVIII of France: “A King should die standing.”

And our dear Queen Elizabeth I sadly says:  “All my possessions for a moment of time.”

We could go on, but the point of this is that King David and Jesus give last words (or nearly last words) in our lessons today, and being lessons, they have something to teach us.  What does David say?

“One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land. Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure. Will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire?”

Essentially, this is a psalm, which is pretty impressive for someone on his deathbed.  To be fair to David, he is acknowledging God in his words.  But to be honest, like many a human king, he’s even more praising his own greatness.   He, David, is “like the light of the morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.”  Everything his house does forever will prosper while his enemies go down in flames.

Aside from the fact that David didn’t always rule justly, being guilty of adultery and murder, we also know that his everlasting kingdom did not last past the next two generations.

Like so many famous last words, although they contained some truth, they were also wrong in a big way.

But there’s another king whose last words teach us.  Jesus, says, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ 

Now, you might say, “Hey, those aren’t Jesus’ LAST words.  True.  His last words, from the cross were: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.” (LUKE)

But wait!  You could also say that his last words -- after the resurrection were: “Go into all the world baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you all the days until the end of the world.”

THIS is the King we follow, the King we obey.  A king who does not praise his own shaky righteousness but one who knows he is here to proclaim truth, that his Kingdom is not here.  One who forgives, who commands us to bring Good News to the world, and promises to be with us always.  In other words, OUR king is one who gives himself and calls on his people to give of themselves.

In this Stewardship season, a season all about giving of ourselves, it’s good to remember whom we follow, and that we are called to be like Jesus.  This is a time when we celebrate our own giving of self but also our call not only to be GIVING but FORGIVING.  It is when we remember that part of giving is SHARING our stories of faith -- bringing the Good News of Christ to others, witnessing.

The Last Words of Christ -- well, ALL of the different last words of Christ -- give us our direction for life in this world.  One, remember that our kingdom is not here but with Christ, so do not cling to the things of this world.  Two, Forgive those who harm you, for in doing so, you free yourself.  Three, Give of yourself in every way, serving those in need and witnessing with your life the love of God.

Those Last Words of Christ say a lot about him - and us, his people.  Which brings us back to that first question.  Knowing who you are, knowing who your King is, if you could choose them, what would YOUR last words be?  Amen.

God, Life, and Everything - Deer Hit

I write a biweekly column called "God, Life, and Everything" for the Hudson Valley News. The title reflects the broad scope I want to take. Everything in life falls under the eye of God, and if we watch carefully, we can catch a glimpse of God in it all.

November hasn’t been my month for machines.  Early in the month my laptop died, leaving me to use a slow but living back up.  That is annoying and inconvenient.

But Friday before last I hit a deer with my car.  If you’ve ever had the experience, you know it’s a miserable business.  My car (yes, my little black and yellow smart car), suffered some damage which is being taken care of as I write,  The deer, I’m sad to say, did not survive.

On the other hand, I walked away without a scratch, for which I am eternally grateful.  Something else I’m grateful for are the words, “Are you all right?”  Within seconds of hitting the deer and pulling off to the side of the road, some bystanders stopped to ask, “Are you all right?”  They then helped pull the deer off the road so it wouldn’t cause another accident.  

Next, a trooper pulled up behind me, lights flashing.  It’s the first time I was glad to see flashing lights behind me.  And wouldn’t you know it, one of the first things he asked was, “Are you all right?”  He checked out the car to see if it was safe to drive home, but more importantly checked to see if I was okay to do the driving.  

Even the insurance company representative asked those four welcome words before anything else.  “Are you all right?” she asked, “I am so sorry you had to go through that.”  You know what?  I think she meant it sincerely, and not merely her company was going to be paying out some money.

Here’s the thing I did not expect.  It felt good.  Each time someone asked, it felt like they cared what happened to me.  It felt like people do care what happens to each other.  Sometimes that’s not our experience, is it?  Sometimes it feels like a cold and hard world.  Maybe it’s a question we need to ask each other more often.  

I have noticed that sometimes when we run into hard times - sickness, job stress, relationships in trouble - we avoid each other.  It’s almost as if we are afraid someone will ask, “Are you all right?”  I’ve also noticed that we are afraid to ask those four simple words, afraid to open a can of worms, afraid the person we ask might actually say, “No, I’m not all right!”  

Let’s overcome those fears, because from personal experience, those words have healing power all their own.  Even if I lie and say, “Oh yeah, everything’s fine,” when everything isn’t fine -- being asked helps.  Whether we go to the same church, belong to the same religion or don’t believe in God at all, we are all a community, and community means looking out for each other.

So, are you all right?