Friday, December 23, 2016

A Sign is Not the Thing to which it Points

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.

When I leave my house and start driving toward the church, somewhere in the middle of my drive a pass a sign that points toward Augusta.  Now, if I were to pull my car over at that sign, stand in the middle of the road and declare to the world, “I am now in Augusta!” what would you think?  You’d probably think first, “You better get out of the road before you get hit by a car” and then you’d think, “Dude, that’s a SIGN that points TO Augusta.  That’s not Augusta.”  And then you’d think, “How much eggnog has this guy been drinking this morning anyway?”  A sign that points to Augusta, isn’t Augusta.  It’s a sign.  It might be an awesome sign.  It might be an accurate sign and it might even be a beautiful sign.  But it’s still only a sign.  It’s not Augusta.  

Today we read, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  The Word this passage is talking about is Jesus.  John does not mean for us to mistake the Bible for the Word of God.  The Word is Jesus.  The Bible is not worthy of our worship and praise.  It’s Jesus that’s worthy of our worship and praise.  John is not calling us to follow the Bible.  John is calling us to follow Jesus, the walking, breathing, healing, feeding, dying and rising Son of God who has been around from before time began and is the source of all light and life.  

When people talk about following the Bible, or believing in the Bible or treating the Bible as something that should be worshiped and praised, they’re talking about following a sign, believing in a sign, and worshiping a sign… and NOT following, believing or worshiping the ONE to whom that sign points.  

Martin Luther put it this way, “The Scriptures are the manger in which the Word of God is found.”  The Wise Men we will celebrate coming twelve days from today on Epiphany didn’t take Jesus out of the manger, give him to Mary and then proceed to present gold, frankincense and myrrh to the manger!  They came to see and worship and honor and follow the Word made flesh, the ONE lying IN the manger.  Jesus, the Messiah... the Christ.  

You and I are called to nothing less than to follow the ONE found lying in a manger.  That’s why we don’t pull over our lives and just stop at a sign that points to Jesus.  That’s why we don’t stop today’s activities with prayers for the hungry alone.  We don’t stop at the sign.  We keep walking the road Jesus walks… today that means after we pray for the hungry with our eyes closed and hands folded, we then prepare a meal and fill the hungry with good things, both with a meal for the belly but also with the dignity due Children of God.  

The last bit of today’s reading from John says, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  A better translation of that is that, “the Word became flesh and pitched a tent among us.”  The Word of God… Jesus… isn’t a destination.  It’s not a book or a building either.  The Word of God is always on the move, pitching the Divine tent among God’s most vulnerable people who are here today and over on Summer Street tomorrow and at Bread of Life on Monday and in countless places around the world every day.

May we never find ourselves hung up, transfixed by a sign or stuck in one spot.  May we always stay on the move, following the One to which the signs point and live our lives like he lived… On the move, constantly seeking out and finding the ones most in need and pitching our tent with theirs.  In doing that, we will most certainly see God’s glory, full of grace and truth.  Amen.  

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Noise, noise, noise, NOISE!

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 2nd Chapter

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 

So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

In my family I’m known at this time of year as Scroogy McGrinchypants.  You may call me either Pastor Scroogy or Father McGrinchypants!  Another priest recently asked why I didn’t get excited for Christmas?  Ironically, I think it’s one of the things that drove the original Grinch over the edge as well.  It’s the noise… the noise, noise, noise, NOISE!  Now, the original Grinch’s reaction was admittedly, pretty harsh… stealing all their wandanglers and who-whoolers and not leaving even one can of Who Hash, but I think, in his own, twisted, green and grinchy way, the Grinch can teach us something important about Christmas that is often lost.  

Take a look again at the original Christmas story we just read from Luke’s Gospel.  The first part has Joseph and Mary traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  It’s not a parade with giant inflatables, marching bands and singing sensations sponsored by Macy’s.  It’s Joseph, Mary, their unborn child and I’ll even throw in a donkey if you want.  But that's it!  The point is, it’s quiet.  No lights, bands or music and their journey happens at the exact opposite of a manic pace, and yet, God is present.  God is with them in the quiet, as they walk, every step of the way.  

Then the time comes and Mary delivers her baby in a barn.  No bright lights, doctors or nurses.  No Facebook announcements or fireworks.  I’m guessing there was some noise when Mary gave birth and I’m sure Joseph got blamed, because whatever guy is in the room always gets blamed whether they had anything to do with it or not!  But largely it was quiet, small and intimate…and yet, God was with them… right there in the quiet, through every breath and push, every step of the way.  

The Shepherds hear of the birth of Jesus, out in the quiet of the pastures of the countryside.  At first it’s only a single angel giving them the news in the quiet of the night.  It’s dark and quiet and intimate and personal and yet, God was present with them through it all.  They go and visit the Holy Family in the quiet of the noiseless night, free from the sounds of motors and traffic and the rest of the world’s noise and they tell them what they have seen and heard, not with a crazy display of manic excess and wildness, but in wonder and mystery and awe and yet, God is present in that as well.  

Now, I’ll give you that sandwiched in between all that calm, quiet, small and intimate, there was a moment where the multitude of the Heavenly Host sang “Glory to God in the Highest” and that was clearly a “pull out all the stops” moment with lights, music, the Heavenly Host band and all the rest.  But when you look at the whole story.  The Heavenly Host are the exception, not the rule.  They are one course in a many course meal, one chapter in a story that is mostly small, quiet and intimate.   

So much of Christmas in our world has become all Heavenly Host all the time…  everything turned up to eleven, with all the stops pulled out and every light blazing away continually since Halloween!  That becomes the only way God comes to us and turned up to eleven is the only way to be in the Christmas spirit.  It’s true, God is present in the lights and the sounds and in the breaking into the world with the Heavenly Host in tow.  But I think the Grinch unintentionally helped the Who’s recapture a larger truth… that when Christmas is ONLY lights, parades, and life lived at a frenetic pace we miss something important about the way God comes to us.  

God does come with the heavens breaking open and with the singing of a heavenly host… but God also comes quietly in Joseph’s dreams and along a slow and winding road as that little family travels from one little town to the next.  God comes in a field in the quiet countryside and in the birth of a child in a hotel barn and to all of us, even now, in the quiet words “the Body of Christ, given for you” at the Eucharist.  

God does come to us with trumpet sounds and choirs of Heavenly Host, but God also comes to us in a still small voice bringing an inextinguishable light into the quiet, dark places of our regular, everyday lives as well.  It’s a part of how God comes to us that I think is worth remembering.  We do give a nod to that truth now and again and tonight we’ll do that as we extinguish the lights and sing Silent Night by candle light.  But even here we’ll quickly turn the lights back on and belt out Joy to the World!  

The message of Christmas is that God is with us.  God is with us in the times of our lives that are wild, bright, frantic and filled with noise, noise, noise, NOISE!  But the message of Christmas is that God is ALSO with us in the quiet, the dark, the still and the small as well.  God is with us… holding us in an infinite love that will never be broken, in the noise and in the quiet... In every moment of our lives.  So in amongst the noise, noise, noise, NOISE of this Christmas, take a moment today and maybe even take a moment every day of this coming year to simply be still and know that God is with you, loving you beyond measure… always.  Amen.  

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Where Do You Look for Hope?

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

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. 

Interesting story, isn’t it?  Joe found himself in a hopeless situation.  He loved Mary, but she was pregnant and he wasn’t the father.  How could he stay with Mary and be faithful to her when the law told him the faithful thing was to send her away?  How would he handle his community’s scorn?  How would he fix this situation?  He was good at fixing things… being creative… working things out… he had hoped he could find a way to work this out as well.  But no matter what he did… no matter how deeply he reached into himself for the answer…this one he couldn’t fix.  It was a completely hopeless situation and you know what?  As long as his hope rested in HIS own ability to fix this unfixable thing, it WAS hopeless.  

I don’t want to be too hard on Joe though.  It’s a trap many of us fall into.  I have reason to hope that my driveway will get plowed.  But it doesn’t take too long to start thinking that my hope isn’t because God places generous people in my life, but because I have a phone and I can call Elmer.  I have hope, because I can use a phone!  I have reason to hope that my Christmas sermons will get written.  But it doesn’t take too long to start thinking THAT hope isn’t because the Holy Spirit is generous with inspiration but because I’m creative and good at writing.  I hope because I've written sermons before!  Over time, we fool ourselves into believing that the reason we should hope that things will get done, problems will get fixed and solutions will be found, is because WE are good at getting things done, getting things fixed and finding solutions.  

But what happens when things grow beyond the level of snow and sermons?  What happens when the images of the horrors of Allepo fill my screen?  What happens when I look at our deeply divided country… when I hear all the hate and racism… when I see people I love leaving our church… when there is no choice other than to watch the bells come down and the ascension window being wrapped up and driven away?  I’ve foolishly taught myself to place my reason for hope in my own abilities, so I wrack my brain, dig deeper and try to figure these things out and I toss and turn in the middle of the night and I look even deeper for hope in my smarts, creativity and my ability to fix it.  After all, that’s where I’ve found a reason to hope before… inside myself.  So why are these things hopeless?  These are bigger than snow or sermons.  They’re HUGE in fact.  No matter how deep I go into myself, they are beyond my ability to fix… They’re hopeless! And in hopelessness I end up immobilized, paralyzed and completely undone.  

And the truth that Joseph confronted and the truth that the world confronts us with now, is that as long as we keep looking within ourselves for the answer… as long as our source of hope for a resolution rests in our ability to come up with a solution, we will all eventually encounter something too big for the likes of me and you and we'll all end up in hopelessness… immobilized, paralyzed and completely undone.  

That’s where Joseph was when he went to bed that night.  He had tried and failed to find an answer within himself and went to sleep in hopelessness.   But that’s not the end of this story, is it?  An angel of the Lord came to Joseph in a dream.  I imagine the scene like this... Joseph in his dream is looking deeply into a mirror… looking, searching, longing to see a reason to hope, the source of hope, in that reflection.  Now imagine the angel taking Joseph gently by the head and physically turning him... redirecting his gaze from the mirror where he could see no hope and toward the unlimited source of hope.  Imagine the REAL source of hope now coming into focus right in front of his eyes.  Ironically, it had been there the whole time, right there, bulging out from Mary’s maternity clothes… the Christ child… Immanuel… God with us.  

The soon to be born Christ child is the unlimited source of hope that neither Joe, nor you, nor me will EVER find in a mirror.  It had been there… RIGHT THERE, ALL ALONG, through all of Joseph's squirming and scheming, planning and plotting as he spiraled further toward hopelessness… right there all along, bulging out from Mary’s maternity cloths was the One with the power.  Power to handle the little things... the things we convince ourselves we've handled all on our own.  But also with the power to transform even the impossible things like the horrors of Allepo, turning spears to plowshares and unite the impossibly divided getting lions to lay down with lambs.  RIGHT THERE! All this time!  Immanuel.  God with us.  There IS a reason to hope, even in the midst of the most horrible and impossible and the source of the hope was in Mary's womb.  

When Joseph stopped trying to do God’s work, when he stopped looking for his source of hope in a mirror, when he stopped trying to fit the plans of God into a box of his own design… when Joseph stopped trying to BE God, he was suddenly free to hear God calling him to simply be the person God created him to be and play his part in God’s work of making all things new… he was free then, to give his love to Mary, to care for her and to care for the child to whom she would soon give birth.  

Like Joseph, we get trapped, looking into a mirror... searching there for solutions to problems big and small… looking there for a reason to hope.  But as long as we’re looking to ourselves for solutions and looking to our own abilities and resources as our source and reason for hopefulness we’ll always come up empty.  

May the angel of the Lord come to us all this Advent.  May that angel take us gently by the head and redirect our gaze from the mirror, which is so tempting but can never show us the source of the hope we need, and may the angel of the Lord redirect our gaze onto the One who is the unlimited source of all hope and life, the One found in the womb of a woman named Mary, cared for by a man named Joseph, the One who is Immanuel… God with us.  Amen. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

We're All Just Part of the Brood

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 3rd Chapter

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

You brood of vipers!  It feels good to say that, or at least think it really loudly, doesn’t it?  It feels good to size that other joker up and see their snake-like, slithering, poison-filled, sneakiness and at least sneer knowingly.  And these days there’s an extra large brood of snake-like, slithering sneakiness out there to call out for sure, right?!  You brood of vipers!  Yup, it feels good!  And from up here, high above the lawn, it’s easy to see all those snakes in the grass, filled with poison, slithering through life.  And from up here it’s easy to point at them and scream, “You brood of vipers!” so the whole world knows who they are!  

It’s great to do that… to point out the snakes of the world… It’s great to do that… right up to the very moment, out of the corner of your eye, you just happen to catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and maybe for the first time ever, begin to wonder… “Could it be that this whole time, I’ve been the pot calling the kettle black... or the rattlesnake calling the copperhead a viper?” 

There are basically two human reactions to trying to come to terms with the idea that you are in fact, part of that brood of vipers.  The first reaction is how the Sadducees and the Pharisees reacted, which can be summed up with the intricate, deep and theologically complex phrase of, “NUH UH!”  Nuh uh, I am NOT a snake in the grass!  Nuh uh, my family has been church members for generations!  I can’t be part of the brood!  Nuh uh, I follow every bit of doctrine and know Scripture backwards and forwards!  I can’t be part of the brood!  That’s one possible reaction.

The other reaction to seeing your snake-like reflection in the mirror is to do like the people from Jerusalem and Judea all did and promise, promise, PROMISE to stop acting like snakes.  To stop slithering.  To stop flicking out your tongue and to certainly, absolutely, positively stop opening your mouth and letting venom spew out!  

Of those two options, John the Baptist was a much bigger fan of folks promising and trying… really and truly trying… to NOT act like a brood of vipers when they went back to their lives in Jerusalem and Judea.  But as big a fan of repentance as John the Baptist was, he still KNEW, that even doing that… even trying really, really, REALLY hard to not act so snake like, it was nothing more than a temporary fix.  

John knew that you and I are like a mixed orchard of good and bad trees... that we're not like individual trees.  There aren’t some of us who are completely fruitless and others who deliver a bumper crop each and every season.  John knew that you and I are each more like our own little orchards.  Each one of us have trees in our orchard that make only rotten apples but we also all have other trees that rain down good fruit all the time.  John knew that about people and so he asked them to pay attention… to get to know themselves more deeply... to feed the parts that bore good fruits and not stir up the parts of themselves that spewed venom.  But John ALSO knew that doing that… giving more of our time and energy to the good parts of ourselves… even doing that very, very well couldn’t change our nature.  Only the One who was coming with an ax could change the mix of trees in our individual orchards.  

John KNEW, that you and I… we’re all Saints and Sinners… all of us with both types of trees in our orchards… all of us with our saintliness and our sin, impossibly wrapped up around one another like the chaff is impossibly wrapped around the grain.  On our own, John knew that we could try… and we really and truly ought to try… but on our own we would never be able to change the makeup of our human nature… we would never be able to clear the dead wood from the orchards of our lives… we would never be able to separate the wheat of our saintliness from the chaff of our sin.  We could try… and John was adamant that we DO try… but alone we would always be part of that brood of vipers.  

John the Baptist KNEW that eventually, even with the most sincere and heart rending repentance… eventually our snake-like qualities would get out.  John the Baptist KNEW that you and I simply WANTING to not be part of that brood of vipers wasn’t enough to change us at our core.  To be changed at our core required more than just our own will-power.  To be changed in our nature we needed One more powerful than even John the Baptist... and John the Baptist was powerful, being fueled on a diet of bugs and honey after all.  But even THAT wasn't powerful enough.  To change THAT deeply we needed One who’s sandals John was not worthy to even carry.  To be transformed from a brood of vipers into the Children of God we were created to be, we needed the One who would Baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire!  

The Good News that John was proclaiming was THAT One was coming!  The Good News for you and I, is THAT One has COME!  His name is Jesus and with power beyond you and me and with even more power than the bug-fueled John the Baptist, God in Christ has washed the dead wood out of the orchards of our lives in the waters of Baptism.  Through Jesus's death and resurrection, God in Christ has separated the wheat from the chaff of our lives and feeds us now with the bread of life right there at that Table.  And each and every single day, God in Christ continually transforms us from a brood of vipers into Children of God!  Thanks be to God!  

May we, as transformed orchards, winnowed grain, and children of God, take the fruits that we've been given and share them generously with the world.  Amen.