Saturday, January 25, 2014

Waiting for the Sun

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke the 2nd Chapter
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It
had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God,
saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

I’m a pastor.  For a little while I thought maybe I wasn’t a pastor and started making haddock sandwiches for a living, but just over a year ago now, it became clear to me again that what I really was... was a pastor.  I’ve KNOWN it now for over a year, but I’m still waiting to BE it again full time.  My wife, Kelly, is a flight attendant.  She left being a flight attendant to follow me out here to Maine and thought maybe being a flight attendant was “just another job” for her.  It isn’t.  She too has KNOWN that for over a year now, but has also been waiting for things to work out so she could BE it again.  Waiting is never any fun.  Waiting for mundane things or important things... either way, waiting is hard.  Waiting for God to clear the path ahead in your life or in your congregation’s life or in the world seems to add another level of “hard” to waiting.  
Today’s Gospel features Simeon and Anna.  The story doesn’t tell us how long Simeon had been waiting or how old he was but it does tell us that the Holy Spirit told Simeon he would not see death until he met the Messiah.  Since that encounter with the Holy Spirit, Simeon had been looking forward to... ‘waiting for’ the “consolation of Israel.”  Anna, we know from the text is 84.  She’s been in the Temple day and night for around the last 60 years praying and fasting... otherwise known as ‘waiting for’, the “Redemption of Jerusalem.”  
Those two things, the “Consolation of Israel” and the “Redemption of Jerusalem” are two terms for basically the same thing.  They meant freedom from the occupation and oppression of the Roman Empire and justice for all the people of Israel.  Justice, here and throughout the Bible, isn’t quite like we think of justice these days; it’s not punishing people for crimes.  Instead, justice in the Bible is transforming the world so it works the way God wants it to work.  Mary sang about it in the Magnificat in the first chapter of Luke... The proud are scattered, the powerful are brought down, the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty.  It’s a social and economic shift in the world so that everyone has enough; enough food, enough shelter, enough worth, enough dignity, enough meaning in their lives.  Simeon and Anna knew their world was out of balance from the way God intended it to be and were waiting for God to set it right.  
It was into their waiting that Jesus came.  So what did Jesus say to them?  He didn’t say anything did he?  He’s just a baby.  What does Jesus do there in the Temple?  Miracles?  Some water into wine, maybe?  Healings maybe?  No, none of that... Jesus is a baby, he is simply “there.”   With Jesus just “there” what difference does that make?  Does the Roman Empire pack up and move out?  No.  Does society change so the poor and hungry and homeless aren’t seen as parasites and are lifted up and given what they need; food, shelter, dignity, worth?  No, that doesn’t happen either.  Even after Jesus grows up, lives his life, dies and is raised from the dead those things don’t happen.  So why was Jesus’ visit as a baby so powerful to Anna and Simeon?  
I think Jesus’ simple presence did something life changing for them it gave them hope.  It showed Anna and Simeon that God had not forgotten them.  It was something... someone who was physical, touchable and seeable that showed them God was still active and working and transforming the world around them even as they stood there waiting day after day, year after year in the Temple.  
Waiting is so very hard but even the smallest sign of hope can be incredibly powerful.  I’ve been asked to be the part time interim at Prince of Peace in Augusta.  It’s not a full time, permanent position, but it’s a sign of hope.  Kelly got a call from Jetblue Airlines inviting her to interview and just that phone call was an amazingly powerful sign of hope.  Waiting is very hard.  Feeling forgotten and feeling like there is no hope makes the waiting so much worse.  
You know, together, you and I are called The Body of Christ.  It isn’t just a name though... it’s our calling.  Together we are called by God to continue to do what Jesus did.  Together we are called to transform the world, to bring about God’s Justice, to bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry and send the rich away empty.  Together we are called to bring about the Consolation of Israel and the Redemption of Jerusalem, to transform the world into the Kingdom of God.  
Does all of that sound slightly overwhelming?  Maybe more than slightly overwhelming?  Overwhelmingly overwhelming?  Before you start to panic, look again at today’s story.  What powerful sermon did Jesus preach in this story?  What amazing supernatural actions did Jesus do in this story?  What clever Scriptural reference did Jesus make in this story?  What change did Jesus accomplish in the Roman Empire?  What economic transformation did Jesus facilitate?  He didn’t say anything or do any of those things.  The only thing Jesus did in today’s story was BE THERE.  But look at what being there meant to Anna... she couldn’t stop talking about it to everyone she saw.  Look at what being there meant to Simeon... it literally made him sing!
You and I are called to bring God’s Kingdom to the Earth and make God’s Justice a reality, but you and I are called to start doing that in exactly the same way Jesus started... by simply BEING THERE for someone who needs to know God has not forgotten them... for someone who needs just a glimmer of hope as they wait.  

Who in the congregation needs to be shown they haven’t been forgotten?  Who in the community needs a visit to be reminded that they are remembered?  Who do you know that might just need a glimmer of hope brought by their home or work or school?  You don’t need to bring them sermons or prayers or words or miracles or Scripture verses and you don't need to fix their problems or change their world... just stop in this week and BE THERE with them for a little while.  Then, as you sit there, look them in the eye.  It wouldn't surprise me if somewhere in there deep inside, you didn't see a part of them begin to sing.  Amen.  

Friday, January 10, 2014

Still Wrong-er-er After All These Years

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew the 3rd Chapter
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.
John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Have you ever been wrong?  As the saying goes, I thought that I was wrong once... but I was mistaken!  Actually, that’s not true.  I am wrong on a VERY regular basis.  All you have to do to confirm that is talk to my wife or my kids and they will tell you how wrong I am and how often I’m wrong.  In fact, the older they get the more wrong-er-er I seem to become!

When I am wrong, I try not to be too hard on myself.  Now, I don’t try to be wrong or even mistaken, for that matter, but it seems to happen anyway!  But on the up side, being wrong does put me in with some very good company.  We’ve read about two of that good company in the lessons today.  Look at Peter.  The whole second lesson is Peter telling everyone that he had been wrong before, but has now gotten things straightened out.  It took a vision, three Gentiles and a conversation with God, but in the end, Peter did finally get things straightened out.  He finally understood that God shows no partiality, God doesn’t have favorites... God loves all... and all means all!  

Then, in today’s gospel lesson, John the Baptist was wrong too.  He believed that he had no business baptizing Jesus.  Maybe he thought Jesus should be the one baptizing him or maybe John thought Jesus didn’t need to be baptized since he didn’t have any sins that needed forgiving.  But, it turns out, John was wrong and really did need to baptize Jesus after all.

So if by being wrong I find myself in the company of people of faith like Peter and John the Baptist then I’m not too worried and you know why?  Because I too have been baptized!  Neither of them had horrible things happen to them for being wrong; no wrath of God, no fire raining down from the sky, no brimstone or locusts, tsunamis or hurricanes or anything.  What this Gospel lesson tells us, is that with Jesus arriving on the scene, punishing people with all those Old Testament style punishments for being wrong is simply not the way God works anymore!  

Since Jesus arrived in the world, God has decided to do things a new way.  God now handles us being wrong, not by raining hell fire or with bad weather, but by loving us anyway, opening up heaven to be with us through every mess, thick and thin, good choices and bad.  When God sent his Son and the Holy Spirit, that was our clue that God was doing things in a whole new way.  

If you’re like me and tend to mess up and be wrong on a pretty regular basis, the fact that God now loves us in spite of our regular wrongness is really, really good news.   On the other hand, there are people who think they don’t ever mess up and some of those folks really don’t like the idea that God has gotten out of the raining down hellfire and smiting business.  They are the kinds of folks who figure God is angry all the time, sending tsunamis and hurricanes and tornados to punish the world for not hating the same people they hate and not yelling loud enough at the same things they like to yell at.   I’m sorry they’re that angry all the time but the truth is, even though they don’t like it, God’s still doing a new thing.    

Even when I think that a person or a group or a thing is really, really, really horrible.... and I have a list, believe me.... even when I think someone is being horrible and would really, really like God to do some serious, old fashioned lightning bolt and hellfire smiting... God just doesn’t do it... because no matter what I want, God doesn’t work that way anymore!  And really that’s for the best, because sooner or later I would mess up who needs smiting just like I mess up everywhere else in my life.  

So, take a look again at the lessons and see how God does work now.  In the second lesson, God talks with Peter in a vision, convincing him to think in a new way.  In the gospel lesson, Jesus talks to John and quietly and gently tells him that this is what they need to do in order to do things God’s way.  When Jesus comes up from the water the heavens open, the Holy Spirit comes down and God says, “This is my son, I really, really love him and I especially like what he’s doing and the way he’s doing it.”  

John was wrong.  Before Jesus talked with him he couldn’t imagine that God was giving up the good old ways of smiting people with hellfire, hurricanes, lightning bolts, and nasty skin diseases.  But, with compassion and understanding, Jesus convinced him that God was doing things in this new way, through his Son, the beloved.  When we are baptized, we too are baptized into God's new way of doing things.  That new way calls us to try to follow in God's footsteps and give up trying to get back at people who have done us wrong and instead live a life of forgiveness, love and compassion.  Even if that means getting things wrong some times and even if that means being taken advantage of from time to time. 

Martin Luther said that this new way calls us to sin boldly!  In other words, we’re supposed to try and do what God calls us to do... try and love others, have compassion for others, try to care for the least and the lost and the last of our world and not be afraid that we might not get it right.  We are supposed to be bold in what we try!  We can afford to be bold now because we can be confident that God would rather us try and end up getting off track than to never try at all in fear that we might mess up along the way.  God loves us when we get it right... and God loves us even when we get it wrong.  Just like Jesus, you and I are God’s beloved children no matter how far we get off track.  And not if, but WHEN we do get off track, God will gently lead us back to the right path just like God did with Peter and John.  

When you and I were baptized we are baptized for a purpose...part of that purpose is to tell the world that God is no longer in the business of sending horrible weather or anything else to punish people... that’s just not how God works anymore!  God is now into loving and caring and gently leading.  The other part of what we were baptized into is to live our lives and try to treat others in the same way that God now treats us... in the ways of love, compassion, generosity and grace rather than the ways of revenge and punishing.  You and I are called both to tell the world that God is doing things in a new way AND live our lives in that new way so that with God, you and I transform the world into the world God wants it to be... a place of love, compassion, grace and peace.  

So, it turns out that I can be wrong.  I try to be right... I really do!  But even when I try to be right, sometimes... more often than I like.... I end up being enormously wrong... and I am absolutely sure (even though I don’t want to be) that I will be wrong again!  Not because I try to be wrong but because I’m human!  BUT... even though I’m a fairly messed up human, I am also a baptized human which means I'm a beloved by God human a child of God... and so are you.

You and I have been set free to take those risks, boldly doing what we believe God is calling us to do, and even if it turns out later we didn’t quite get things 100% right... because God opened up the heavens at our baptisms and sent the Holy Spirit to each of us, we can be assured that God will keep loving each and every one of us anyway... and while I’ve been wrong about a lot of things in my life, I am 100%, absolutely positive that I am not wrong about God’s infinite, unconditional, unlimited love for you and for me and for all of creation.  Amen.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Dreams, Dogs and Darkness

The Holy Gospel According to St. John, the 1st Chapter

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. 

The other night our dog woke me up needing to go outside.  This was Thursday night... the night of the blizzard.  When I opened the door he felt the snow and wind and he decided maybe he didn’t need to go after all.  I made him go out anyway.  He does this whenever it’s snowing or raining.  If I hadn’t made him go out then, he would have let me go back to sleep for about fifteen minutes and then woken me up... again... to go out... again... because in his little doggy brain he would have, at that point, forgotten that it was snowing but remembered that, “Oh yeah, I need to water a tree!  Wake up dad!”    So, out he went.  I sat down at the dining table which is right by that door to wait for him.  He took a long time.  Apparently there was more than tree watering that needed to be done at one in the morning in a blizzard.  He took so long that I opened my computer and saw on Facebook that a college friend was getting snow in D.C., another posted about our old fraternity and Banana’s the Bear, another college friend posted about his trip to Mexico and three others about a college bowl game.  I tell you those riveting details of my exciting late night adventures with my dog and college Facebook friends because once my dog finally decided to come in and I went back to bed I had a dream.  I dreamed I was in college but it wasn’t a good dream.  

John’s Gospel opens in a majestic and transcendent manner that attempts to connect us with God through Jesus the Christ.  Unfortunately for us, John was trying to connect God with Greek speaking people from a very different culture, 2000 years ago, so for folks like us who don’t speak Greek and who live today, it can be hard to really hear what he’s saying.  It needs some translation.  John starts with “In the Beginning,” intentionally connecting his book and Jesus with the creation story.  When the apostle Paul talks about the Son of God, Jesus gets that Divine connection at the resurrection.  In Mark’s Gospel, it happens at Jesus’ Baptism and when Luke and Matthew talk about Jesus being the Son of God it happens at Jesus’ birth.  In John’s Gospel that connection has always been there.  In fact, Jesus isn’t born at all in John’s Gospel... he’s always been there... with God even before creation began.  

When John talks about Jesus always having this Divine connection way back before creation, he talks about Jesus as the “Word.”  In John’s day, “The Word” was a phrase that meant the creative power of God.  Folks understood it as sort of like the energy God uses, or the mechanism God uses to do things... things like create the universe.  The Word then, is the connection between God and the world... John wanted us to think of Jesus as something like God’s hands at work in the world... still completely part God, but the “make things happen in the world” part of God.  

What my late night dog and college friend induced dream helped me remember was how important it is for my life right now that the Word is that ancient, that powerful AND is also still able to make things happen in my world today.  In the dream I was in college and lived in a dorm but in my dream my dorm room held a very real and very tangible and very scary darkness.  A personified darkness had moved into my little dorm room and was taking over my little cinder block walled world.  In my dream I really needed it to go!  The Word, John says, came into the world specifically to shine a light into the darkness and in my dream THAT is exactly what needed to happen.  In the crazy way dreams go, I did my best Roman Catholic exorcist impression and called on Jesus to expel this darkness from my dorm room.  There was dramatic thrashing around and wrestling and it didn’t work at first and then it was working and then it wasn’t working and in the end the light did shine in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it!

I woke up at that point actually remembering the dream, which is not usual for me.  I laid in bed and took some deep breaths.  It was that kind of dream.  Then I marveled at how my brain had used my dog’s small bladder and a few updates from college friends on Facebook to create a scene in my mind.  Then my brain wove that middle of the night sleepy jumble of dog and college in with the dark parts of my life right now and then stirred all of that into the part of my mind mulling over this gospel lesson.   I thought of the real monsters of darkness that are a part of my life right now:  Medical bills that need to be paid, while we continue to buy groceries and heating oil instead; being stuck in a place where we don’t fit in, working jobs that aren’t a good match for us;  being isolated from friends and being far from family and then there is the real physical darkness of these short, gray days of winter.  That’s a bit of my darkness these days.  I know you have yours too.  Your darkness and my darkness are powerful and very real, but here in the beginning of John’s Gospel we are again given real and more powerful hope than any darkness!  Hope that, with the same power that created the universe, God pushes back with light on the darkest places in each of our lives and on the darkest places in all of creation.  
Listen again to our hope... In the beginning the “make things happen in the world” part of God brought to the world the WAY to live an abundant, meaning-filled life.  A life that is filled with being fully alive and abundant with joy.  A light that has changed and is still changing the world.  A light that overpowers even the deepest darknesses of our personal lives and those that plague the world.   

You and I don’t need to track down this light to have it in our lives... it tracks us down!  Jesus, the Christ, came to us then and comes to us now, wherever we are, like a traveler with a tent, camping on our doorstep.  He floods our lives with God’s infinite light and love... with a lovingkindness that, if it was literal light, would blind us with it’s brightness.  It is a light that always persists no matter what we do A light that will prevail.  

If we were on our own, the darkness of this world and our personal darknesses would simply be too much to stand.  The promise, the hope that we hold onto though, is that we are not on our own.  We have the One, wielding the same power that created the universe, the One who is the "make things happen here in our world" part of God, shining light into every single darkness everywhere.

Thirteen chapters later in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that as we begin to trust in the hope of that power and love and light, we too can bring that same power and love and light into the lives of those around us and we too will be a part of transforming the world into what God intends it to be.  May each of us grow in the trust of that power, that love and that light.  May it be our hope in the dark places of our personal lives and in the life of the world.  May we come to a place where we, as part of the Body of Christ, can with God’s universe-creating power, endless lovingkindness and bright, blinding light shine that hope into every darkness until every darkness is gone forever.  Amen.