Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sermon for December 19, Advent 4

Doing the Right Thing

The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn't know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.

While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God's angel spoke in the dream: "Joseph, son of David, don't hesitate to get married. Mary's pregnancy is Spirit-conceived. God's Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus—'God saves'—because he will save his people from their sins." This would bring the prophet's embryonic sermon to full term:

Watch for this—a virgin will get pregnant and bear a son;
They will name him Immanuel (Hebrew for "God is with us").

Then Joseph woke up. He did exactly what God's angel commanded in the dream: He married Mary. But he did not consummate the marriage until she had the baby. He named the baby Jesus --Matthew 1:18-25 (The Message)

These reflections were part of a service based on a spiritual practice called Lectio Divina. We listened to Matthew 1:18-25 three different times, and I offered three various perspectives on the passage after periods of rest and silence.

--Part One--
It was a few days before Christmas. That morning, a woman woke up and told her husband, "I just dreamed that you gave me a diamond necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" Her husband replied, "Oh, you'll know the day after tomorrow."

The next morning, she turned to her husband again and said the same thing, "I just dreamed that you gave me a diamond necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" And her husband said, "You'll know tomorrow."

On the third morning, the woman woke up and smiled at her husband, "I just dreamed again that you gave me a diamond necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" And he smiled back, "You'll know tonight."

That evening, the man came home with a small package and presented it to his wife. She was delighted. She opened it gently. And when she did, she found-a book! And the book's title was How to Interpret Your Dreams.

Advent is a season of dreams. What have you been dreaming about lately? Some of us are dreaming about wonderful possibilities. We're dreaming new possibilities, new toys, and new beginnings. I hope all those dreams come true! During my regular sleep time, when I’m not on cough medicine, my I dreams fall into two major categories. The first I call worried dreams. In these dreams, I am stand in a pulpit, for instance, with nothing to say. Or I’m late and the service is running an hour over, and I can’t get the buttons to my robe together. In another dream I’m back in college and I show up to a college class unprepared, or I can’t register for the one class I need to graduate. Another form of this is the chase dream. Someone is out to get me – hunting me down. Sometimes there is aircraft involved, but I think that’s from the new furnace fan that drones all night long under our bedroom. These are nights that I spend wrestling with my spirit.

Sometimes my dreams are refreshing. I dream about reconciliation. I dream that my enemies and I are living at peace. I dream of flying through the air or swimming like a fish. I dream of new opportunities. These are nights where my hope is renewed.

What is the reason for dreams, those strange stories that bounce along our brain waves? We wake suddenly, and reality itself seems like a different world. Today's gospel lesson is about a dream -- the dream of Joseph. Not Mary's dream, but Joseph's dream. Today we get to consider his point of view. Joseph dreams something wonderful. God will enter the world. God will be born to his fiancée, as crazy is that was to understand. Joseph has some serious trusting Joseph has to trust that the voice of God is speaking to him. Joseph has to trust Mary is telling the truth. Joseph has to believe in dreams and then get out of the way.

I want us to consider a gift that we can give others this season. It’s the gift of believing in someone else's dreams. The greatest gift you can give is to have faith in someone else. Believe in the dreams of the person you love. Believe in the dream of your husband. Believe in the dream of your wife. Believe in the dreams of your children. Believe in the dream of your hero, your leader, your friend. Believe in their dreams! Believe in dreams this Christmas, and Jesus will be born again. Believe in dreams this Christmas, and God will appear.

-- Part Two--
A young boy was in big trouble with his Dad. The boy was sent to his room, where he stayed for an hour. When the Dad came in and found the boy packing some of his clothes, his teddy bear and his piggy bank. The boy said indignantly, “I’m running away from home!”
“What if you get hungry?” the father asked.
“Then I’ll come home and eat and then leave again!” said the child.
“And what if you run out of money?”
“I will come home, get some money and then leave again!” replied the child.
“What if your clothes get dirty?”
“Then I’ll come home and let mommy wash them and then leave again,” he said.
The Dad shook his head and exclaimed, “This kid is not running away from home; he’s going to college.”

Christmas can be a time that brings the worst out of us. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the stress of maintaining traditions. Maybe its all the added stress we put on ourselves to shop, and bake, and entertain, and party. Maybe it’s time with family or the in-your-face consumerism that stands in stark contrast with global suffering. Something about Christmas brings the realities of life into new focus. Some of us would like to run away from Christmas. So let me ask a question: What are you looking to get from the Christmas story? Are you looking for a Disney style story that helps you run away from the realities of life or are you looking for an affirmation that life is tough and God is with us? Are you looking for the romantic myth of a virgin birth or the stark reality of a young couple trying to make the best of a confusing situation? Are you looking for the sugar-coated story of angels with golden wings floating in from outer space with divine messages, or the reality of a frightened couple trying to follow their instincts and discern some meaning in their struggle?

Most of us don’t live sugar-coated lives. The sickly sweet fairytale Christmas story that is often presented offers little to the harsh reality of our lives: teenage pregnancies, loveless relationships, global poverty, religious rivalry, family betrayals, personal demons and workplace anguish.

The historical context which paints a more accurate backdrop to the beginnings of Jesus’ life says something profound to the realities of life. From the time Mary became pregnant, to the decisions of a family struggling to make ends meet, to the life of a struggling revolutionary, the Christmas a story is the beginning of a tale about survival against the odds. The real-world Christmas story names the struggles of your life and the horrors of our world. In the raw, the real, the radical, earthy struggles of the family of Jesus, we hear echoes of life as you know it to be. You don’t need to run away. You have all you need right here and now to live fully and survive against any odds, and to be an angel of compassion in the world.

-- Part Three --
Joseph. A decent man. A righteous man. A good man facing an impossible choice. A man wanting to do the right thing. A man caught on the horns of a dilemma—torn between his love for Mary and his lifelong habit of living by the law of God. When he hears that Mary is pregnant, Joseph does the best he can. He resolves to let her go quietly so she doesn’t have to face the law’s punishments for pregnant unmarried women. And then, in the midst of a restless sleep, an angel of God comes to Joseph and asks him to take Mary as his wife and to name her child, claiming that child as his own. We know the story. Joseph says “yes”—yes to God. That’s often where the story ends.

But there’s so much more to Joseph’s yes to God. In naming Jesus, Joseph claims him as his own and raises Jesus as his own son. Joseph will watch over Jesus. He will listening in the night. He will worrying about him. He will do all he can to keep that baby safe. Joseph will love Jesus and teach him his trade. Think of it. Think of the role Joseph played in Jesus’ life. Imagine what Jesus learned from Joseph.

Imagine the two of them at the carpenter’s bench . . . Joseph teaching Jesus how to use tools . . . Joseph telling stories from the Bible, sharing the parables of old . . . singing the psalms . . . singing of a father’s love.Imagine Jesus watching Joseph . . . seeing how Joseph treats the people others ignore . . . noting Joseph’s kindness . . . how Joseph goes out of his way to make others feel welcome . . . seeing the tenderness Joseph shows to Mary.

Imagine Joseph telling Jesus stories about the Romans. We can almost hear him muttering about the way the Romans treated the Israelites — the heavy taxes, the hillsides crowded with crosses, the arrogance of power. Imagine Joseph instilling in Jesus a passion for justice. Imagine him sharing his longing for peace with Jesus. Think of it. Think of the role Joseph played in Jesus’ life. After all they were together almost thirty years.

And think of the role Jesus played in Joseph’s life. Think of how Joseph’s yes to God rearranged his life; think of the richness it brought him; think of how that yes to God stretched Joseph into new possibilities, new relationships, new ways of being in the world. God comes to us as God’s angel came to Joseph, inviting us to take God’s child into our homes and into our hearts. Inviting us to claim that child as our own and to live as Joseph did into the fullness of God’s dream for us. God gives each of us an opportunity to say “yes”—to say yes to God.

Maybe we can live a little more like Joseph did. We do our best to live our faith out, in word and deed—in the little things we do, in the way we lead our daily lives.

Thanks to the following pastors and thinkers who inspire my thoughts and lead me to think about Scripture in different ways:

Sermon for December 12, 2010

Choosing Life

Advent is a time of waiting. Preparing. But what are we waiting for? For what are we preparing? For happier times? A better world? For our longing for peace and justice to be stilled? Advent is a time of waiting and wondering, looking back and looking forward. Advent is a time of hoping and searching. Advent is the time of light shining in the darkness, peace overcoming conflict and war, and warmth entering the cold of the world we live in. Advent is a chance of new beginnings – often small, but almost always significant. Keep this in mind as we hear today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel.

John the Baptist, who was in prison, heard about all the things the Messiah was doing. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” Jesus told them, “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen— the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor. And tell him, ‘God blesses those who do not turn away because of me.’” As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began talking about him to the crowds. “What kind of man did you go into the wilderness to see? Was he a weak reed, swayed by every breath of wind? Or were you expecting to see a man dressed in expensive clothes? No, people with expensive clothes live in palaces. Were you looking for a prophet? Yes, and he is more than a prophet. John is the man to whom the Scriptures refer when they say,
‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
and he will prepare your way before you.’
“I tell you the truth, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist. Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he is! -- Matthew 11: 2-11

Christmas excitement is building up in the Braddock house. Two more weeks to go and it is Christmas again. Two more weeks to get everything done. We make plans with friends and family. We decorate the house. I look for strange gifts for my family and friends. We do all this because we are supposed to remember what this season is about: joy, peace, light and happiness. These are God’s gifts to us. But they don’t come to us easily. We all know that this time of the year is not necessarily a happy one for everyone. This can be one of the loneliest times of the year for some. It can be awful and cruel and painful. Memories of deaths, of hurt, of broken relationships and lonely journeys through times of darkness ask to be taken seriously, as we start this journey through Advent.

We prepare. We wait. We are get ready. And we don’t want to miss it… the joy that is promised and the joy available, when we eventually grasp that Jesus comes in a different way than the one we’d expected.

Our Gospel lesson today leads us right in the middle of all that: waiting, hoping, working for God’s purposes in this world. We hear this story about John the Baptist. It’s a lot different than last weeks story. Last week, John the Baptist burst on the scene with fire and vengeance, full of confidence and certainty. He announced the coming of Jesus with great hope and expectation. But, today, John reminds us about another side of Advent. In today’ story, John is tired. He is discouraged. John the Baptist is like us. He has questions. He even has doubts. He even has doubts about Jesus. He isn’t sure Jesus is the one he prepared the way for. He needs to find out. As he sits in prison, he struggles. He questions. He doubts. He wonders.

He might have been thinking, "Lord, where did I go wrong? I did what I thought you wanted. I said what I thought you wanted me to say. You told me that the Messiah was coming. But where is he? Where’s the fire? Where’s the judgment he’s supposed to bring? And why, if he’s here, would he let me stay in this dungeon? I’ve heard rumours about Jesus. I thought I knew him well. I remember that glorious day in the Jordan when I baptized him. I knew it was all beginning then. God’s whole plan was being put into play. But, where is he now? Why isn’t he doing what I said he would do? Is he really the one or should I look for another?”

Questions. Wondering. Doubts. Is that all okay? Are we afraid to doubt? Who of us have not cried out with John,” Are you the Christ, or shall we look for another?”

…when life gets tough and we see innocent people suffer.

…when the bad so often succeed while the good fail.

…when we face a world locked in the death grip of one meaningless war after another;

…when we witness the destruction of nature as greed and desire for comforts drain the earth of her natural resources;

…when we choke on pollution and stumble over wrecked lives of people struck down by drugs and alcohol?
Is it not tempting to cry out, “If you are the Messiah, why this? Are you the one who can change all this, or shall we, look for another?”

No, John is not so far away from us, is he? Sometimes we wake up and realize that faith does not have all the answers. Faith is a risk. Faith is a life of trust, not of certainty and security. God never promises answers to all our questions. God never promises life without stress. God only promises to give God’s self to us, with all the dangers and risks and blessings that come with it. I can speak from experience and say that when I am in those times of doubt, when I am journeying in those dark nights of the soul, when it seems that God has moved or that the box I was trying to trap God in was disintegrating, those are the times I grew the most.

In so many ways, doubt can be good for us. It can motivate us to study and learn. It can purify false beliefs that have crept into our faith. It can humble our arrogance. It can give us patience and compassion with other doubters. It can remind us of how much truth matters.

John had his doubts. He questions. He wonders. But, he does not stay with those doubts. He seeks answers. He sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the one. Listen again to the answer Jesus gives. He says:

Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen— the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.

Jesus did not come with just the grim news of repentance, fire and judgment. Jesus responds with a love that says you are forgiven, you are to be made whole, you are good just as you are. Jesus says, "Look around, see what happens, and decide for yourselves. What does the evidence show? What do you think? Is Jesus the one?”

Jesus does not fit John’s expectations. In his actions, Jesus shows that he ‘s the Messiah …that the world is changing, that God’s great plan of salvation unfolds. Only John did not really understand. John’s whole life had been focused on his belief that he was the herald, preparing the way for the one who was to come to fulfil the promises and affirm the faith of the people. Now he sits in prison. He must know that his chances of getting out alive are slim.

Behind John’s question was nothing less than the search for the meaning of his whole life. I hope John, just shortly before his beliefs cost him his life, could see and understand that his life was not in vain, that Jesus was the one he’d been preparing the way for. I hope John could see that Jesus fulfills the highest expectations of human values,. I hope John could accept the outstanding, and the wholeness Jesus brought to people, the healing of body and soul, the forgiveness and the new self-respect to the sinner, the dignity and acceptance to the outcast… All that and so much more.

I hope that John could hear the voice of Jesus inviting him and claiming him and all of us as God’s beloved children. I hope that John could hear what Jesus did not express in straight forward words: I am he… I am the one to whom your unrest points. I am he – the one to come. I am the one for whom you and so many have hoped. I am the fulfillment of the promises given to generations of people living in fear and dark, holding fast to the dream of salvation.

I hope we all rise from our questions and doubts and believe this good news. Jesus Christ comes to release people. He releases us from our inner prisons of fear and meaninglessness, and shows us where to go!

May he come to each one of us on our journey through Advent, through this season. May this be the time when we transform the way we live. May this be the time when we transform the world into a place where power is shared, and all have what they need, a world in which people can live in relationship, in celebration, in joy and in peace.

As we see the brokenness of our world, may we also see the unexpected chances of change and healing. May this allow us to continue to work for justice and peace in our world – bearing John’s questions in mind and affirming Jesus’ answers by the way we choose to live: waiting and wondering, hoping and searching, and making a difference.

Sermon for December 9, 2018 | Advet 2

The Journey: Preparing the Way In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and ...