Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Sermon for November 29, 2015 / Advent 1

The Days are Coming

Christian Century magazine published a commentary on the secularization of Christmas in 1986. The author asked, “What if most of what people knew of Christmas was what they heard in Christmas songs and in fables told to children? Worst of all, what if all they knew about the Christmas celebration was how we actually live it?” What might the Christmas story sound like if it were told incorporating all the various myths, misunderstandings and attitudes that in fact saturate our celebration?
“Once upon a time, a decree went out from Caesar in August that everyone should be taxed so that the deficit would not get too big. Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem. Mary rode on a donkey named Rudolph, who was embarrassed to be seen carrying an unwed mother. He blushed so at the thought that his nose glowed red. Upon arriving at Bethlehem, they could not find a place to stay (It was, after all, the Christmas season, and the press of tourists was crushing). As they knocked at the door of the last inn in town, the innkeeper pushed back the shutter and threw up the sash. His figure appeared so nimble and quick. They knew in a moment his name must be Nick. Meanwhile in a field nearby, seven dwarfs who were shepherds were startled to hear a group of angels singing Handel's Messiah. At the end of the concert, they were told to stand up and to go to Bethlehem. So off they marched to the beat of their friend, the little drummer boy. When they arrived at the stable, they met Joseph, Mary, the child and a man made famous in song, Round John Virgin.”

Christian Century suggested that we mistake the true meaning of Christmas with the "Celebration of Santa Christ," the "Sweet Baby Syndrome," and the "Mercantile Messiah Motif."

Santa Christ is the jolly god who lives far, far away. He only gets mentioned once a year. Santa Christ a convenient excuse for celebration.

The Sweet Baby Syndrome celebrates the lovable infant in his crib, smiling and cooing. He doesn't make any demands on anyone. He just lies there and looks sweet. He spends most of the year in the closet with all the other Nativity scene supplies. But, once a year, we get him out, dust him off and say, “What a sweet baby.” Of course, we always put him back in the closet when the New Year begins.

The Mercantile Messiah proclaims that Christmas is all about buying stuff. “Christmas is all about giving, so let us sell you something that you can give to somebody else,” say the advertisements.

The problem with Santa Christ, Sweet Baby and the Mercantile Messiah is that they come and go but they never change anyone. They don’t reveal anything about God. They don’t make demands. They never ask followers to inventory their lives and get rid of everything that masks true nature of God.

I invite you to listen to another Scripture reading – This from the mouth of Jesus as told by Luke. His followers ask him about future time of destruction. They want to know what to look for when the end is near. Jesus says:

“And there will be strange signs in the sun, moon, and stars. And here on earth the nations will be in turmoil, perplexed by the roaring seas and strange tides. People will be terrified at what they see coming upon the earth, for the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory. So when all these things begin to happen, stand and look up, for your salvation is near!” Then he gave them this illustration: “Notice the fig tree, or any other tree. When the leaves come out, you know without being told that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all these things taking place, you can know that the Kingdom of God is near. I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass from the scene until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will never disappear. Watch out! … Keep alert at all times. And pray that you might be strong enough to escape these coming horrors and stand before the Son of Man.”
Luke 21:25ff, New Living Translation

What do these promises about the future mean when we are caught up in trying to do all we can do right here and now in the present? What do they mean when we are struggling to live one day at a time – when we are trying to be all things to all people? What do they mean when we watch the news or read the paper and discover that senseless horrors continue in our world, in our nation – even in our own backyards; that crime, and starvation, and terrorism, and war, and earthquakes, and floods abound and seem to be increasing?

How dare we rejoice? How do we stand, watch and pray, when the world around us calls out for so much more?

I know myself well enough to be aware when I am focusing so much on what’s wrong in this world, I lose my sense of context. Sometimes I feel almost paralyzed by all the anger and fear. How about you? Are there one or two things that you tend to focus on that cause you to lose your context? What types of situations flood you with worry and cause your stomach to twist in knots, and your mind to lose perspective on the big picture?

If I’m being honest with myself, sometimes my global, apocalyptic worries are distractions that keep me from digging too deeply into my own personal areas of growth that need attention. It’s difficult to live every day believing that there may be no tomorrow.

“Be on guard,” says Jesus,  so you don’t get weighed down with constructing anxieties and the amusements we use to relieve them. Be on guard against that paralyzing self-absorption that holds us in place and keeps us from mending up the shredded fabric of our communities. Jesus says, “Take care! Stay alert! Stand up and raise your heads because the Kingdom is coming.”

Jesus’ offers an antidote to our worldly cynicism. He offers a new perspective on our anxieties. His words are meant to raise the heads and lift the hopes of those who don’t get justice.

I want us to realize that this passage was not written for most of us. These scary texts – we call them apocalyptic texts – were written for those who had no hope. They were written for people who had been put down by the Roman Empire – people from whom all had been taken. People who lived in poverty. People who lived under oppressive military occupation. These words were written for those whose poverty-stricken lives were seen as nothing more than a tax revenue stream for greedy political elites.

These words were not written with a person like me in mind. I’m a person of privilege. I have the luxury to hope when times are hard, and rely on self-sufficiency when times are good. I can choose when to use my privilege to leverage social change and when to invoke my privilege for my own comfort.  In our country, people who are victimized, or persecuted; those who are treated as less because they are not white, or Christian, or heterosexual, or male, or able-bodied, or able-minded, or living below the poverty level; they don’t get a choice about how they will be treated today. I think of African American friends who tell me about the fear they have just walking out the door each day, wondering what types of aggressions or threats they may encounter and what the appearance the face of racism will take – and that’s here in Montgomery County.

If we believe Jesus is coming, then we affirm that Jesus is coming to be with those who need hope that their lives can be better.

I think Jesus comes to march with Black Lives Matter protesters in Chicago and Baltimore.

I think Jesus comes to walk along side Syrian Muslim refugees.

Jesus comes to stand with victims of gun violence and the families who cannot get the most basic safety regulations put in place.

Jesus feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and goes behind bars with prisoners who serve decades of jail sentences for petty crimes.

In fact, Jesus is not just coming. Jesus is already here. Jesus us here in you and me, in the hands, feet, and hearts of anyone who reaches out to offer even the faintest glimmer of hope with works of compassionate justice that can make our communities healthier.

Can justice really come to the earth? Can husbands quit beating up their wives, and can wives quit blaming themselves? Can Arabs and Israelis look into each other’s eyes and see a brother or a sister? Can some who struggle with addictions, or with diseases that trap us, can we be liberated by God, and start to walk tall in the Kingdom of God? Can Jesus Christ appear among us in some way that our minds can never imagine in a scenario that would simply erase our smug confidence about where the lines of reality are drawn?

The answer is yes, because Christ is coming to us, and Christ is working through us. We pray for those who cannot pray anymore. We hope for those without much hope left. And one more thing, one more tough thing. We work in the same direction as we hope, drawn forward by the magnet force of the Kingdom of God.

A story is told -- Two hundred twenty years ago the Connecticut House of Representatives was in session on a bright day in May, and the delegates were able to do their work by natural light. But then something happened that nobody expected. Right in the middle of debate, the day turned to night. Clouds obliterated the sun, and everything turned to darkness. Some legislators thought it was the Second Coming. So a clamor arose. People wanted to adjourn. People wanted to pray. People wanted to prepare for the coming of the Lord. But the speaker of the House had a different idea. He was a Christian believer, and he rose to the occasion with good logic and faith. “We are all upset by the darkness,” he said, “and some of us are afraid. But, the Day of the Lord is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. And if the Lord is returning, I, for one, choose to be found doing my duty. I therefore ask that candles be brought.” And those who expected Jesus went back to their desks and resumed their debate.

That’s how I want to be found – doing my duty as one who professes to follow Christ.

The world is filled with so many problems, both global and personal. There will always be something that challenges our faith. But in all the waiting, I don’t want us to miss a chance to know the true nature of God. I don’t want us to miss seeing what God is doing. I don’t want us to miss out on participating in what God is doing. I don’t want us to be so distracted with the pain around us – and inside of us – that we fail to recognize the presence of Christ. And I don’t want us to be so distracted by the allure of the mercantile Messiah or lulled by the Sweet Baby in the Manger that we forget a Savior who fully immerses God’s self in all of the world’s pains through the coming of the Christ.

Today, we have an opportunity to think about how each of us is can shine the light of and can put our core faith values into practice. We have a chance to listen for God, in our times of grief and our moments of gratitude, to seek God’s highest aims for the world, to think about our connections and interconnections. And think about making some commitments.

  •  Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to destroy the life or spirit of     others.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to take what is not given.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to engage in abusive     relationships
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to speak falsely or deceptively.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to harm self or others through     poisonous thoughts or deeds
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to dwell on past errors.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to speak of self separate from     others.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to possess any form of life selfishly.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to harbor ill-will toward any human being.

When we can work on these things, we will begin to understand the true nature of God, always coming to us, always at work in us, around us, and through us this season.

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