Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sermon for December 21, 2008 (Advent 4)

Birthing a Promise
Luke 1:26-38

Advent begins in darkness. Sometimes I think the world wishes it was different. Around this time of year, the world asks us to rush into the light. Just hours after we finish the leftover turkey and trimmings from Thanksgiving, the bells start ringing, the carols start playing, and the lights blink in our neighbor’s windows. The malls have been “Christmased” since October. With a world that resists the darkness, it’s even more important to stick to God’s plan. Advent begins in darkness.

And in that darkness, God asks us to do some things that are not part of our nature. Take it slow and steady. Savor the journey. Be honest and acknowledge that how we feel inwardly does not always match how the world insists we feel outwardly. No amount of tinsel or lights can take away the aching loss of a loved one. No amount of caroling can erase a frightening diagnosis or an impending surgery. No person can make you feel merry and bright when the real worries of the world darken your life. Perhaps it is fitting, even healing that Advent begins in darkness. The only place to go from here is toward the ever-increasing light.

For the last couple of months the days have been getting shorter and the nights have been getting longer. But today is the Winter Solstice. That means after today, the days lengthen and the nights get shorter. Advent gives way to Christmas. Darkness gives way to light.

The ancients had many metaphors to explain these cycles of the universe. The ancient Greeks the pull between darkness and light by telling a story about the seduction of Persephone. She was the daughter of Demeter, the Earth Mother. Hades, ruler of the underworld was a lonely bachelor and he wanted a wife. But what woman would marry a man whose kingdom was populated by the dead? Hades resorted to trickery. As Persephone was gathering flowers in the fields in Sicily, Hades suddenly appeared, thundering across the plain in his four-horse chariot. Hades swooped down upon Persephone and scooped her up with one arm. The earth opened up before Hades' chariot as he drove the jet-black horses down into the chasm. Hades and Persephone disappeared into the depths as the hole closed up behind them.

Mother Earth soon came looking for her daughter, but she could not find a trace of Persephone. Distraught and desperate, Mother Earth searched high and low for her daughter. She traveled to the farthest corners of the earth, searching for nine days and nights without ever stopping to eat, drink, bathe, or rest. She was in a fury. She destroyed crops and livestock as she lamented the loss of her daughter. After a full year of famine had plagued the earth, Zeus realized that if he allowed Demeter to persist, all of humankind would starve.

Meanwhile, Persephone had not eaten a single thing since her arrival in the Underworld —whether from sorrow, loss of appetite, or stubbornness. Hades urged Persephone to appease her hunger by eating a single pomegranate seed. Sadly, this apparent act of kindness was a trick. Anyone who tastes the food of Hades must remain in the Underworld. By the rules of etiquette, she had to stay with Hades as his wife for six months out of every year and then return to her mother for the other six. Some claim that Persephone was not happy to be married to Hades. Others wonder whether she ate the pomegranate seed deliberately as a way of breaking free from Mom and her bad temper.

Mother Earth mourns for her daughter during the six month she is in the Underworld and nothing grows during that. But Mother Earth rejoices when Persephone returns to the land of the living and the earth blooms and brings forth its fruits. Until, of course, Persephone has to return to her husband, Hades.

Darkness gives way to light. Winter to Spring. Death to life. The winter months take us into the warmth of our own caves, into the darkness, where only a candle lights our way; into our dreams where visions are formed. Beginning today, as the light begins its slow return, we enter a new phase. Having taken time to prepare a way for the Lord, we now take time to join with family and friends to honor this important turning point. We gather at Christmas time and set the wheels of joy, love and peace into full motion. We light candles, ring bells, sing, spiral and dance to the awakening of joy and enthusiasm in our hearts. We tap into the potential of our souls and create our dreams with confidence. Beginning today, we celebrate the return of the Light!

Christianity doesn’t typically think of history like this. Christian theologians preferred to think about history as having a beginning in the Garden of Eden and an end at the Second Coming of Christ. All of our metaphors and stories focus on this linear view of time. We even think about Christmas that way. Christ comes within a specific chain of events -- in the fullness of time, a savior is born to rescue humans from their sin.

Let’s think about the story another way this morning. Let’s celebrate the cycles of life. After all, life has no meaning except in a pairing with death. Summer has no meaning except in a pairing with winter. Male has no meaning except in pairing with female. The only way any of these terms has meaning is in union with its opposite. The ancients understood that. That is why their metaphors for the Divine, always include both male and female.

Mainstream Christianity removed the female element from the Divine, giving us only half the picture. We ended up worshiping an exclusively male image of God -- a "God of power and might" glorified in our liturgies and creeds. What kind of world could we live in now if the founders of Christianity had acknowledged that the dynamic between male and female and female perspectives.

The birth of Jesus is not just an interruption in chronology. The baby in a manger begins a a new cycle –a new creation. But it’s not all about angels bending near the earth singing songs of joy and peace. Before Mary births a promise, she will go through her own darkness. Mary had to wonder about how she'd survive until the baby's birth, once the village heard of her pregnancy. As in many cultures today, “honor killings” occurred in Mary's culture. If a woman had been sexually violated by a man -- even if it was against her will -- she could be killed, usually by her own father or brother, so the woman and her illegitimate child could no longer bring shame to the family. Joseph knew he wasn't the father of Mary's baby. If a man and a woman engaged to each other had had a baby and the village knew it, they were considered to be married. It was the “consummation” of the union that married the couple, not a religious ceremony. If Joseph intended to stay with Mary, he would have no reason not to acknowledge the child as his, so it's most historically plausible that our stories about Joseph not being Jesus' father stem from historical fact. And that fact had some nasty implications. If Mary's pregnancy became known and her father or brother didn't kill her, the scripture commanded the death penalty both for her and the man who slept with Joseph's fiancĂ©e and gotten her pregnant, if his identity were known.

So the odds are against Mary's surviving until the child's birth. And then, there are the words the angel Gabriel speaks about this child: “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” If others heard that, odds were against the child surviving. Herod the Great, who ruled as “king” with Rome's support, would not have been supportive of a challenge to his throne and title. And Roman emperors claimed the title “son of god”. Anyone else heralded as a “son of god” was very likely to end up on a cross instead of a throne. The paradox of this is that Jesus of Nazareth gets both, forever linking the two. God's kingdom, the fulfillment of Mary's song that God “has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” bringing down the powerful from their thrones and raising the lowly (Luke 1:52-53) will come not with the might of armies, but with Jesus' consistent and nonviolent ministry of reconciliation.

All to say, advent begins in darkness. And in that darkness, God asks us to do some things that are not part of our nature. As we wait for the light, maybe we can think about what it means for us to give birth to the promise – what it means for us to be mothers of God. After all, what good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? What good is it to me if Mary is full of grace but I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to a Son if I do not also give life to him in my time and my culture?

Today we can all think some more about what it means to be mothers of God. A theologian named Sallie McFague thinks about a God who keeps vigil with us through our times of darkness and does everything to bring us some peace. For her, God is like a mother who gives life to the world, nurtures our precious and vulnerable lives, and desires the growth and flourishing of all.

One very modern rabbi, Margaret Moers Wenig, wrote The Book of Women’s Sermons in which she played with the metaphor of God as mother. She imagined: “God is a woman, and she is growing older. She moves more slowly now, sometimes she has to strain to hear, her smile no longer innocent, yet she remembers everything. God sits down at her kitchen table, opens her Book of Memories, and begins turning the pages. There are pages she would rather skip, things she wishes she could forget: her children spoiling the house she created for us, brothers putting each other in chains. She remembers the dreams she had for us that we never fulfilled, remembers the many times she sat by our bedsides weeping that she could not stop the process that she had set in motion. God sits at her kitchen table: ‘Come home,’ she wants to say to us. ‘Come home.’ But she won’t call. She is afraid we will, again, say ‘No.’”

I hear God inviting us all to live and respond to the promises today. Will we say yes or no? Like Mary, we may freely and willingly respond to the Good News and we bear the promise of light, hope, and peace. Be aware this season. God appears more often as a whisper than a shout, in the shadows rather than the flash of light. God comes to us in the simple things, in simple ways, that so often go unnoticed. God appears on the margins where we would never think to look, in a place meager enough to receive the light of the world. As the light comes, so dawns the hope that the coming of the child will rekindle our fragile spirits.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Sermon for December 21, 2008 -- Advent 3

Finding Joy in the Season
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

In an early October evening in 1843, Charles Dickens stepped from the brick-and-stone porch of his home near Regent’s Park in London. The cool air of dusk was a relief from the day’s unseasonal humidity as the author began his nightly walk. Dickens was deeply troubled. The 31-year-old father of four had thought he was at the peak of his career. The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby had all been successful novels. But now the celebrated writer faced serious financial problems. Sales of his the new novel were not what had been expected. It seemed his talent was being questioned. Dickens supported a large, extended family and his expenses were already nearly more than he could handle. His father and brothers were pleading for loans. His wife, Kate, was expecting their fifth child.

All summer long, Dickens worried about his mounting bills, especially the large mortgage that he owed on his house. He knew that he needed an idea that would earn him a large sum of money, and he needed the idea quickly. But in his depression, Dickens found it difficult to write. On one of his nightly walks, he ventured from his upscale neighborhood and neared the Thames River. Only the dull light from tenement windows illuminated the streets, now litter-strewn and lined with open sewers. The elegant ladies and well-dressed gentlemen of Dickens’s district were replaced by bawdy streetwalkers, pickpockets and beggars. The dismal scene reminded him of the nightmare that often troubled his sleep: A 12-year-old boy sits at a worktable piled high with pots of black boot paste. For 12 hours a day, six days a week, he attaches labels on the endless stream of pots to earn the six shillings that will keep him alive. The boy in the dream looks through the rotting warehouse floor into the cellar, where swarms of rats scurry about. Then he raises his eyes to the dirt-streaked window, dripping with condensation from London’s wintry weather. The light is fading now, along with the boy’s young hopes. His father is in debtors’ prison, and the youngster is receiving only an hour of school lessons during his dinner break at the warehouse. He feels helpless, abandoned. There may never be celebration, joy or hope again...

The nightmare was no scene from the author’s imagination. It was a memory from the impoverished days of his childhood. Fortunately, Dickens’s father had inherited some money, enabling him to pay off his debts and get out of prison -- and his young son escaped a dreary fate. Now the fear of being unable to pay his own debts haunted him. Wearily, he started home from his long walk. As he neared home, he felt the sudden flash of inspiration. What about a Christmas story! He would write one for the very people he passed on the black streets of London. People who lived and struggled with the same fears and longings he had known, people who hungered for a bit of cheer and hope.

But Christmas was less than three months away! How could he manage so great a task in so brief a time? The book would have to be short, certainly not a full novel. It would have to be finished by the end of November to be printed and distributed in time for Christmas sales. He would fill the story with the scenes and characters his readers loved. There would be a small, sickly child; his honest but ineffectual father; and, at the center of the piece, a selfish villain, an old man with a pointed nose and shriveled cheeks.

As the mild days of October gave way to a cool November, the manuscript grew page by page, and the story took life. The basic plot was simple enough for children to understand, but evoked themes that would define the meaning of Christmas for the next 150 years: After retiring alone to his cold, barren apartment on Christmas Eve, Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly London businessman, is visited by the spirit of his dead partner, Jacob Marley. Doomed by his greed and insensitivity to his fellow man when alive, Marley’s ghost wanders the world in chains forged of his own indifference. He warns Scrooge that he must change, or suffer the same fate. The ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come appear and show Scrooge poignant scenes from his life and what will occur if he doesn’t mend his ways. Filled with remorse, Scrooge renounces his former selfishness and becomes a kind, generous, loving person who has learned the true spirit of Christmas.

As he wrote, something surprising happened to Dickens. What had begun as a desperate, calculated plan to rescue himself from debt soon began to change the author. As he wrote about the kind of Christmas he loved, his depression lifted. A Christmas Carol captured his heart and soul. Dickens grew excited and impatient to begin the day’s work. “I was very much affected by the little book and was “reluctant to lay it aside for a moment,” he later wrote a newspaperman. Dickens told a professor in America how, when writing, he “wept, and laughed, and wept again.”

The first edition of 6000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve. Despite the book’s public acclaim, it did not turn into the immediate financial success that Dickens had hoped for, because of the low price he placed on the book. Nevertheless, he made enough money from it to scrape by and A Christmas Carol’s popularity revived his audience for subsequent novels, while giving a fresh, new direction to his life and career.

Although Dickens would write many other well-received and financially profitable books, nothing would equal the soul-satisfying joy he derived from A Christmas Carol. Dickens popularized many aspects of the Christmas we celebrate today, including great family gatherings, seasonal drinks and dishes and gift giving. Even our language has been enriched by the tale. Who has not known a “Scrooge,” or uttered “Bah! Humbug!” when feeling irritated or disbelieving. And the phrase “Merry Christmas!” gained wider usage after the story appeared.

Dicken’s life story and his famous Christmas story have familiar plotlines. We hear it in most Christmas stories, including the original from the Bible. A person, poor in wealth or poor in spirit, desperate and hopeless, encounters the true meaning of Christmas, finds joy and is changed. How about you? Is this your story this Christmas? I mean – it’s Christmas, after all. We are supposed to be happy. This is the season when the themes of joy and happiness are trumpeted at their loudest. It is also a season of commercialism, greed and debt. This year people are losing jobs, losing homes, and unable to feed their families. For many, this is a season of fear, a season of sadness, a season filled with anxiety, a season of loneliness. How dare we trivialize their aches by offering joy as a cheap antidote!

However, maybe there’s something to be heard in those worn out plotlines of joy, peace on earth and good will to all. Instead of becoming indifferent to our pain and the hurting world around us, we take some time to gain perspective. Christmas is a time of joy, not because we receive and give gifts or because we get to eat our favorite foods, but because in it humankind's deepest yearnings are fulfilled. Advent is about the hopes and fears of all the years, the triumphs and tragedies of all the years, the joys and griefs of all the years and in all of our lives... coming into a healing focus in the person of God’s Messiah. The great images of Advent are of darkness giving way to light, grief to faith or even joy, the barrenness of a desert to the beauty of paradise - paradise restored, longing to hope and the arrival of God’s salvation - especially in the advent of the Messiah, Jesus our Lord, then and now.

It’s all here in our Isaiah text. Jerusalem had been leveled to the ground in 587 B.C. by the armies of Babylon. The victors marched the captive Israelites into exile where they lived for the next fifty to seventy years. When Cyrus of Persia came to power, he granted the opportunity for the people of Israel to return home. As the grown grandchildren and great grandchildren of the original exiles arrived at their homeland, the mood turned gloomy. They returned to a forsaken and abandoned city in ruins. With limited financial resources, meager food supplies and harsh weather conditions, the people found the task of rebuilding their homeland next to impossible. God felt distant. God promised a new beginning for the people and they believed it. Their new life fell far short of what the prophets had promised. Israel had no word from God and nowhere to go. Then comes the word of hope that they need.

God speaks a word of faith, reminding them that God has actually come into humanity’s situations of misery and pain and grief.

God speaks a word of justice for the oppressed and for captives -- ‘good news’ that those sold into slavery through war or debt can legally be freed, those with confiscated lands can have them back; a gift of hope that the future is as secure as God’s promises; that a covenant of justice will prevail between God and God’s people

God speaks a word of mercy -- God comes with tenderness to bind up the broken-hearted, comfort those who mourn, giving joy to God’s people like that of a bride on her wedding-day. We still rely on those promises today. Our message insists that Jesus sets us free, and when God sets us free, we can respond with joy. We could use to let some of that joy into our hearts at this time of year.

Try to imagine this picture. It is a photograph taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson, who pioneered modern photography as an art form. He was known for photographs that left mysteries unexplained He shot one of his famous photographs in a poor section of Spain in the 1930s. Peering through a hole in a concrete barrier, we see a run-down alley surrounded by decaying walls, strewn with thick piles of rubble and riddled with bullet holes dotting gray walls. The setting evokes feelings of sadness and despair. But then the contradiction. Within the grim alley children are playing. They wear dirty and tattered clothes, as one might expect, but like playing children everywhere, they laugh with carefree joy. In the foreground, a tiny boy on crutches hobbles away from two other boys, his face lit up with a broad grin. One boy is laughing so hard he has to hold his side. Others lean on the cracked walls, beaming with delight. It is easy to spot the contrast -- and the point. Joy amidst the rubble of life. Laughter among its ruins. We cannot avoid pain, however hard we try. But we can avoid joy. We cannot escape hardship and trouble, but we can miss much of life’s joy and laughter.

If your heart aches this Advent season for any reason -- the loss of love in a marriage, the memory of someone you love who is now with God, concern about a child, concerns about your health, worries about money -- don’t let despair defeat you. Take a moment and really appreciate something this season . . . anything. Let it soak in. Breathe in, breathe out, be thankful. Let yourself laugh a little. I know it’s difficult. It may be hard to see any goodness around you. But there IS goodness all around you, I promise!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sermon for Sunday, December 7 (Advent 2)

Messengers of Hope
Mark 1:1-8

More housecleaning will be done at this time of year than any other. You know it if you have a live Christmas tree, because you’ve already vacuumed the floor about 6 times this morning. We clean because holidays mean company. Company means you have to move the stacks of gifts, fold or hide the piles of clothes, and clean or hide the stack of dishes in the sink before anyone comes over and finds out what your house looks like most of the time. When people come, we like to prepare for them–we clean, we cook and serve food, we decorate, and do what we can to make the visitor feel welcome. In the ancient Middle East, there was a practice much like our own: people would clean and to get ready for the visit of a dignitary. When the dignitary was a king or emperor, the cleaning included improving the roads leading to the city. It was kind of like an ancient New Deal. All kinds of jobs were instantly created, and the citizens of the area would be conscripted into service filling potholes, moving stones out the way, and smoothing out the road. The Prophet Isaiah and John the Baptizer refer to this practice.

Isaiah offers these words of comfort as he thinks about preparing the way for God, who is coming like a king. God the King is going to lead the people of Israel out of their captivity and back home to the Promised Land. Listen to what Isaiah says:
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” (Isaiah 40:3-4)
Mark quotes Isaiah when he talks about John the Baptist. Mark writes:
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” ( Mark 1:2-3).
I’m wondering if there are some road improvements to be done in our hearts this Advent. I wonder if the desert places in our lives need to be made ready for God to come into our lives.

Robert Frost’s poem entitled Desert Places reminds us of where our work needs to begin:
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
I appreciate his words after I took a little walk this morning in the snow. White Plains Road was deserted. The blanket of snow muffled all sounds, except the cry of a seagull looking for food near a dumpster. I know soon enough, the traffic will start and people will make their lives busy -- some to escape the emptiness that they feel inside of them. The desert places exist inside our own lives. They aren’t out there some place. We inhabit our desert places in our hearts. If we quiet ourselves and let ourselves think, we know that the place where the straight highway must be built is in our own hearts, in our own lives. We know that it is in our own desert places that we must do some road work:
· Leveling the potholes of sin with the filling of newness
· Straightening paths that we made crooked by our bad decisions
· Moving the stones and barriers out of the way that we put in our hearts to keep others out.

If we can stop and listen, the voice of John the Baptizer will sound as loud and clear as ever. His is the voice speaking out in the lonely wilderness of our hearts saying, “Repent!”

Let me tell you about what I do when I’m feeling called to get serious about straightening up my spiritual life. I get swept up in the moment. I plan major improvements in my life. I say “I’m going to read a chapter of the Bible every day. I’m going to set time aside to pray. I’m going to study, and journal and I don’t even like to journal. But I’ll do it for you, God.” I really do it, too–for three or four days. Maybe you do the same thing. In a burst of sincere commitment, we may actually read the Bible; we may actually find the time to say a few prayers (and, because we are Congregationalists, if we can’t think of any on our own, we read some that somebody else has written already – it’s OK.). And what happens? Well, if you are like me, nothing happens...nothing at all. We try it for a week and nothing seems to be happening. Where’s God? We’re building this highway ... where’s God? We want some action! We want things to go fast! Where’s God? We want to hear the voice from Heaven; we want the choirs of angels to sing; we want our souls to soar! But it seems to take so long ... things go so slowly!

Having lived in New England most of my life, I can say that the roads are torturous if you are trying to get somewhere quickly. The pavement is in good condition, but it is very hard to find a straight path from point A to point B. The roads meander along rivers, or through crooked valleys and small villages. If you drive around long enough, you begin wishing for a straighter path, or a wider road, from point A to point B so that you don’t have to continually be wandering behind congested traffic on winding roads. But the roads don’t change. It would cost too much to change. It would use to many resources. The highway department would actually slow traffic down. When travel becomes too inconvenient, people get angry! Some people shout! Some people honk their horns! Some people curse! Some people do some mighty interesting things with sign language!

The same is true in our spiritual lives. We recognize the problem, we recognize the need for a straight path to God. We begin the process of spiritual growth. And then we think of the risks and costs. Bible study and prayer take too many precious minutes out of our busy days. There are no immediate results. We are determined but we are not patient. We’re ready to go and we want to see some results, even when what we’re doing is responding to God’s call for change. We decide how we’re going to respond ... set aside this amount of time to read our Bibles, schedule these minutes to say our prayers ... and then say, “I’ve read my Bible readings, I’ve prayed my prayers, I read my meditation from The Upper Room, and I’ve said the Lord’s Prayer. Why isn’t anything happening?”

OK, you worked on Jesus...but did you allow Jesus to work on you? That’s the question. Did you allow Jesus to work on you? Did you let the Word of God move in you unhindered? For the call to repentance is more than just a call for us to recognize the need to say, “I’m sorry,” and set aside a few minutes a day to engage in “spiritual stuff.” The call to repentance is the call to turn our lives around, to change directions. Repentance begins by turning from the crooked way and walking the straight highway that connects us with the risen Christ. The Holy Spirit begins the process by inviting us to join in the unhurried process of building a better and stronger relationship with God, a straight and level highway allowing the two-way traffic of love.
Repentance, the turning around of our life is not a quick fix. The construction team headed by Holy Spirit does not do careless work. It takes determination on our part, to be sure...it takes a plan! And it takes patience. God works in God’s time, not our. We must be patient as God works within us to bring our construction projects to a new level of completion.

Road construction can last a long time...it’s even been known to take all of one’s life. But far better for you and I to be even the slowest of construction than dejected wanderers in the desert. God has already taken the first step to building that two-way highway. When you sense God’s work in you this season, you will become a messenger of hope – one who senses God’s presence and proclaims that God is here, straightening crooked lives and preparing hearts for God’s reign.

I opened with Robert Frost’s poem about Desert Places. Let me close Hank Anderson’s poem entitled The Glory Road.
Remember what Isaiah and John had to say,
About building the Lord a straight highway.
But how’s a poor poet to make every hill low,
And exalt every valley, I’d like to know.
We’ll write poems with the faith of the mustard seed,
To move all the mountains we’re apt to need.
We’ll fill every pot hole with poems and prayer,
And have it smooth as silk when the Lord gets there.
Ours will be a Glory Road never needing repair,
bringing joy to the needy and those in despair.
And while we’re at it, let’s make it plenty wide,
‘Cause there’s lots of us that want to walk by God’s side.

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