Thursday, December 29, 2016

Perfect Love for an Imperfect Christmas Eve and Christmas

Will You Take Jesus Home?  

Old Testament: Isaiah 9:2-7  
Epistle: Titus 2:11-14 
Gospel: Luke 2:1-14, (15-20) 

Take a deep breath. Try to let a smile fill your face. I know how busy you have been all day, and I know that very few of us are even finished yet. There are still packages to wrap, food to prepare, a checklist running in our heads of things that need to get packed, people to greet; Lord, this Christmas time is busy. 

It has been hard to make time to think about Jesus today. After all, it is just a celebration of his birth, and we do not know the actual date the baby Jesus was born. What should we think anyway? 

We might think symbolically. A baby is a symbol of life. A baby is a reminder of the promise of tomorrow. A baby is an invitation to see the world with fresh eyes. As we raise children, we revisit wonder, and imagination, and the roots of our beliefs. 

The prophet Isaiah, who has walked through so much of this season with us, proclaims that a child is born. This child is the one who will make the world a better place. This is the child that will disturb the status quo and usher in peace, and justice and hope; all of which are in short supply on December 24th, 2016. Let us pause for a moment to consider the possibility of peace, justice and hope breaking into our “real world.” 

The evangelist Titus says God will train us to renounce all selfish ambitions, and become zealous for good deeds. A good part of what we come to church for is to inspire and be inspired to do good deeds. Church people, as imperfect as we all are, are also among the most likely folks to be invested in projects and groups that do good deeds for others. This night, as we take the time to pause in our busy-ness, we allow the thought of Emmanuel, God-with-us, training us to align our hearts with the values long expressed by the prophets of old. 

And our reliable friend Luke provides the telling of the birth narrative. Last week we laughed - that Matthew’s account holds a few important ideas, but it lacked the drama and embellishments required to build a meaningful and emotional Christmas Eve service. So even in the year of Matthew, we pull out the gospel of Luke. 

The story is familiar, but in the quiet of the evening, when the decorative lights twinkle, when the light of the Advent and Christ candles can actually be perceived, maybe we can get in touch with the God who gives us hope for our souls, hope for our community, hope for a world where peace, and justice can live and breathe and inspire good works breaking out all around the world. 

This is where symbolism gives way to reality. Maybe all goodness has not died. Maybe, God will inspire the hearts of humanity to care for one another. This event that we celebrate is not an escape from reality. The entire point is that God does not hide from reality in a perfect heaven, waiting to reward a select few perfect souls. 

There are no perfect souls, but there is perfect love. Perfect love sets aside the need for perfection in order to be present - God with us - in this real and imperfect world. God does not appear with power, majesty and intimidation. Lets be honest folks; power, majesty and intimidation are the artifacts of selfishness and greed. 

This night is set aside in our faith tradition to sit in the quiet and contemplate the very real love God has for creation. God loves all of creation. God understands that this life is imperfect. 

The infant is born to an unwed mother, away from home, in a borrowed stable. We do not know what happens to Joseph, the parent of Jesus, but he is written out of the script early in the life of Jesus. Perfect love does not depend on power, majesty and intimidation. Just saying. 

It helps us to remember these things. It helps us to remember that Jesus did not come to start a new religion, even though the Christian religion is the most visible way of finding the tradition of Jesus in the world. It helps to remember that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s love for all of Creation; not only for the Christians, and not only for people. 

We are people of faith because we have experienced the presence of God in our lives. We believe in God, because we know that goodness still is alive in this world. We look at these ancient scriptures, to learn how and where to look for the presence of God, the God-with-us, that helps us to endure anxiety, tragedy, pain, and disappointment. 

We come together to inspire each other to be faithful, and to pray for each other. I often remark how God seems to respond more quickly and effectively when I pray for the concerns of others - than when I pray for my own concerns. We all know individuals who have a great God-connection. If you get on their prayer list, good things happen. We can all be that for each other. 

In just these simple ways, the quiet remembering of a child born reminds us of; the power of love, and the power of prayer, and the power of community. 

Having a child born 2000 years ago and far away, changes nothing. But when the presence of that Christ, leaves here tonight with you, the whole world begins to change. 

So may God bless you. May you be aware of the presence of God, a presence that gives you a sense of peace in anxious moments. May God grant you the vision to see the blessings you prayed for - evident in the lives of those around you. And may God make you a blessing to others, which is the most effective way I know - to live a life of peace and love. Merry Christmas! May the peace of God, the blessings of God, the very presence of God, the God we best know through Jesus - go home with you tonight, and accompany each step you take from this day forward. Amen.  

A Christmas Confidence 

Epistle: Titus 3:4-7  
Gospel: Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20 

May the deep peace of Christmas, the day we set aside to mark the presence of God here among us, rest on you gently. May you be inspired to be hopeful, and a source of hope to those around you. May you be inspired to seek grace and recognize blessings, as your attitude has a profound effect on your family, your neighbors and your co-workers. 

When we look around the space of our lives, and try to name our blessings, blessings seem to appear. When we live, expecting God to be present, we become aware of the holiness that surrounds us. 

I have been promising that 20-page sermon for this morning, but I know none of you believed I would actually do that. I was going to prove you wrong, but maybe another time. 

Instead, we will sing songs of joy. We will think about not only the birth of the infant Jesus, but think about putting on our Party Clothes to celebrate the Second Coming of the Christ Child, to usher in - the Kingdom of God, the world without end. God with us, means one thing on a Christmas morning, but will have a totally different meaning on that glorious day when Christ comes again. 

In our preparation for Christmas we came face to face with our own failures and sinfulness, and visualized ourselves as the good thief, not asking for what we deserve, but instead asking for love and forgiveness. More than anything else, it is in our humble awareness of our failures - that qualifies us for God’s love and forgiveness. 

As critical thinkers, we know that our lives are an imperfect model of God’s perfect love. We hesitate to offer ourselves as an example, especially in a small town, where everyone thinks they know everyone else’s business. 

But the truth that is exposed today, is that we can cheerfully claim to represent God’s love, because we are not alone. God is with us. The presence of the all-powerful God is expressed in perfect love, that chose to dwell among the imperfect in the world. We step forward, not because our lives can pass inspection, but because the name Jesus means, “God Saves,” and Emmanuel means “God with Us.” 

In our humility, and in our confession of sin, we are rewarded with the peace of Christ; we are gifted with abundant blessings to share; we are compelled by our joyful acceptance of forgiveness, to share with other sinners. There is no need to let sin isolate us from the community and the presence of God. The coming of Christ to Creation, first as the infant Jesus; and then when the time is complete, as the redeeming Savior; makes the whole Creation a sacred place, and blesses everything and everyone that is in it.  

Confident that God is with us, we can preach and teach love and forgiveness, even as we stand with those who need forgiveness. Confident that God is with us, we can recognize and share blessings, even as those who depend on blessings. Confident that God is with us, we continue our praise and singing, even with tired and imperfect voices. Amen. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Not Meeting Expectations

Not Meeting Expectations 

Old Testament: Psalm 146:5-10  
Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11  

So, what are you waiting for? The choir sang last week that they are Waiting for a King. The Jews are waiting for a Messiah. But when Jesus of Nazareth came, he did not meet their expectations. If the truth be told, John the Baptist was skeptical, because Jesus did not meet his expectations either. 

John’s life was notable for his self-discipline and self-denial. He wore rough clothes, he ate an extreme diet, he lived out on the fringes of town. Jesus seems a bit too - shall we say social, - eating with anyone and everyone. He does not seem to be a hermit, gathering a close circle of buddies to travel with. He does not come down hard enough on the sinners. John wonders, is it possible Jesus is NOT the one? 

Matthew’s gospel is very clear, Jesus does not start his public ministry until John is arrested. Herod, the son of Herod the Great, has John arrested because he was making a public spectacle of the Herod’s great sin of stealing his brother’s wife - Herodius. The prophet makes the King nervous by broadcasting his most obvious of sins. Some leaders have very thin skins. 

It has been suggested that perhaps John was expecting Jesus to free the prisoners - maybe he could start with releasing the prophet. I think it is more likely that the baptizer expected the Messiah to be more in his own style of self-denial and overt personal piety. In Matthew’s gospel, John is the first of many Matthew will fault for not ‘converting’ to Jesus. 

So Jesus of Nazareth is not the warrior-King the Jews were waiting for. Jesus is not the ultimate aesthetic that John was expecting. Are you ready to let God be God, and learn from Jesus what that means? 

When I was much younger, I had very clear and strong feelings about what was good public policy and what was not. Having a clear and unclouded vision made my passions easy to express. 

Not too many years later, I was on the operating staff of a nuclear power plant, and there was an emotional push back from the public as early press releases tried to equate the catastrophe of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster with the mishap at Three Mile Island. TMI does not make a blip on the scale of the Chernobyl event. I discovered the world of nuance, and complexity. I learned that knowledge does not change values, but it does change the way evaluations are made and properly expressed. 

We are called to a mature faith. When we let the God of heaven and earth ‘be God’, then we see the limited expectations of the world. We learn to hold mystery, complexity, and even ambivalence, holding apparently opposite values as true at the same time, within our awareness. We learn to live with the creative tension of multiple truths. 

John the Baptist was a great prophet who spoke the truth. We know how his story ended. On Herod’s Birthday there was a great party. Herod’s step-daughter entertained with a dance. The likely inebriated King offered her a great reward. Her mother prompted her to ask for the head of the prophet, John the Baptist. The voice of one crying out in the wilderness was silenced as a gift to a dancing teen. The sublime and the ridiculous, are held together in one reality. 

We are mature enough to know that such injustice is not new, and lives on, even in otherwise civilized places. The arrest and murder of the innocent baptizer, is a model of the confrontation that awaits the savior. 

In our humility, we recognize that salvation comes from the forgiveness of sins, large and small. Jesus promises that the repentant thief will be in paradise with him. So our reward will not likely be measured by the success of this world, even any success we might claim in self-denial and purity.  

I heard the story recently of the boy who desperately wanted a bright and shiny new bicycle. He prayed very earnestly to God to give him what he wanted. In time though, the boy realized that God was not like that; not a Santa Claus, not a genie in a bottle. So, he stole the bike, and then prayed for forgiveness. 

The real God does not turn away from the suffering. The real God, is not aloof and demanding extreme self-denial and overt purity. The real God expects us to ascribe to the values proclaimed by the prophets of old, and demonstrated by Jesus. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, standup for the orphan and the widow, provide healthcare for the aged and infirm. These are the kinds of things that the prophets have always promoted. 

John sends followers to Jesus to ask, “So, are you the one, or not?” And Jesus answers, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 

We have an advantage over John the Baptist and his followers. We know how the story of Jesus plays out over the next years of his public ministry. We understand what the politicians and religious authorities of his day are unable to understand. We have seen how kind words and good works can be misrepresented and used to justify capital punishment and other lawful atrocities.

A mature faith holds all of that, and at the same time, welcomes the appearance of the invisible God in the real world. A baby is coming, the perennial symbol of God committing to creation not only in this life, but providing a gateway to the life without end. We actually welcome the promise of Christ’s return to open that new world, that new life, that new kingdom. 

Are we mature enough to hold both realities in our hearts at one time? We see the kingdom of this world, and its fascination with power over others and self-promotion. And at the same time, we commit to living out the values long ago voiced by the prophets: feeding the hungry, caring for the refugees, protecting the widow and the orphan. 

The kingdom of God breaks through when the door opens a crack, as hearts full of God’s love do their thing. As Christians, we best know our God through Jesus of Nazareth, even when we see his name and heritage misunderstood and misappropriated. Not everything some claim to do in the name of Christ, is rooted in the values declared by the prophets of old. 

We know that God loves all of creation. We have brothers and sisters who best know God through other cultures and religious formulas. When we find them honoring similar ancient values, we know that God is working through them to bring the kingdom of God into this world. 

  The God of Jesus is the key to the knowledge that feeds our growing awareness and wisdom. Through Jesus the Christ the checklist of expectations is reversed; from evaluating the Christ, to the self-examination of ourselves as would-be followers. Do we accompany the lonely? Do we live with peace in the face of creative tension? Can we perceive the logical fallacies that cloud the facts and the truth? Are we able to persist, when all of the world seems infatuated with latest fad? 

As we reflect on the values of a mature faith, and note that in so many ways we ourselves are a work in progress and have not yet arrived, we do not lose hope. Instead, we claim our deficiencies, and pray for forgiveness. And even as we pray, we know to expect love and forgiveness means - we have to return that bicycle. Amen. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Where Hearts Are Remanufactured

Where Hearts Are Remanufactured 

Old Testament: Isaiah 11:1-10  
Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12 

Last week we lit the candle of Hope. The virtue of Hope is confessing to believe in an outcome that cannot be predicted by the current status - or the events of the past. 

This week we light the candle of Faith or Peace. It would not be hard to construct an argument that says there is no evidence that this world is capable of peace. The armed forces of the USA have been engaged in continual conflict for 15 years, with no end in sight. 

Casting a critical eye on a nation in a state of war presents the opportunity to see some harsh realities. War increases taxes. Heads of government love increased cash flow. War permits an exalted view in the authority of the administration. Presidents and the congress love to have greater power. War diminishes the priority of correcting domestic social ills. Paying for ammunition and weapons feed the rich owners of the military-industrial complex. It is easy for the federal government to become addicted to the exercise of war powers. 

The prophet Isiah preaches a peaceable Kingdom, lions with lambs, children with their hands in a pit of snakes, and a part of our brain dismisses this from the practical reality of the world as we know it. Sometimes the poetic utterances of the prophets are too fanciful for the real world. Frankly, too much of this talk, and a lot of men stop attending Sunday Services. 

Part of the message of John the Baptist comes from his counter-cultural dress, diet and attitude. He is his own man and not to be confused with the scribes and the teachers of the law. In fact, John would be the first to tell you that the law has no useful guidance for encountering the living God. 

So Houston, we have a problem. The Advent Season is all about the spirit of the invisible God making a bodily appearance in the real world. The arrival of the one we call the Prince of Peace, is anticipated by those of us who know the world as a place of war. We know that lions gladly and willingly will eat little lambs, whether they are actual lions in the wilderness, or they are multi-national corporations. We have come to believe that conflict is a natural state of existence. 

So let us be as clear as we can. Isaiah was preaching as the nation of Israel was preparing for war; a war that they were going to lose. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah were quite clear that things were not going to go well for the people of Zion. God was not pleased with the state of their relationship with God, and the way they were treating each other and their neighbors. 

John the Baptist was also calling for a radical change in behavior of the people in an occupied nation. The baptizer wanted folks to commit to bearing the fruit of repentance. He also suggested that those who failed to change would be chopped down and thrown into the fire. Oddly, we do not have shiny little axes to hang on our Christmas trees. 

To repent is not to wallow in guilt and self-pity for all of the things we have done wrong. Actually to repent means to change your life. Do things differently. Make a commitment to doing good wherever you go, helping and honoring your neighbors, being a peacemaker. 

The theme that reverberates through this time of waiting is that this is the time to repent. The church is a place for sinners. But the church should not be a warehouse for sorry souls waiting to be delivered by a prince on a white horse. 

The church should be a place where our hearts are remanufactured to be full of God’s love. When we live full of love, we laugh easily, we take the love of God seriously, and our own sense of pride not too seriously at all. We are waiting to have our hearts remade to be a larger size, to hold more of God’s love. Each year, like the Grinch of Dr. Seuss, we are encouraged to grow a little bit more than we were able to grow last year. 

To repent in our political lives, would be to require our government officials to reimagine the world, where we reserve armed conflict for only the worst and most desperate of situations. We need to divorce ourselves from requiring every sense of moral outrage be accompanied by violent intervention. 

This would be a radical change. This would take persistent, articulate, and willful pressure from a mature electorate. This is what it would look like if our spiritual awareness would be evident in the way we engage the world. We would have to bear the fruit of repentance. 

The Jews have trouble accepting Jesus of Nazareth as the Jewish Messiah, because their hearts were set on a warrior-king, in the model of King David, the first generation shoot from the sump of Jesse. They dreamed of a time when they were not in Exile or under occupation. 

John the Baptist declared that the one coming after him would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. These are the images we associate with Pentecost. The presence of God - resting among us as the Holy Spirit - and enflaming our attitudes to carry that presence of God into the world. The embodiment of the invisible God, changes the world, through contact with the remanufactured souls of repentant church members, grown to a new size and enflamed anew.  

The problem is that a lot of our church language is devoted to honoring the coming Jesus on a pedestal. Waiting for Jesus to save us, and save the day. Old Isaiah and John the Baptist have a word for you, the time has come to live in a new way. 

“Even now, the axe 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.” We wait for the appearance the savior, but we need not wait to change ourselves. Our time is now. Amen.