Thursday, December 25, 2014

Heaven Could Not Hide Its Joy

                                        Heaven threw a shivaree that night;
A loud, boisterous, serenading celebration
to welcome
A child.  A baby.
We all know the story. 
We hear it repeated this night every year.
A story about a young couple, expecting their first born,
doing their civic duty, traveling to register
in the husband’s hometown,
as the census and the law required.
Outside of her swollen belly,
there must have been nothing
about them that stood out;
no conspicuous traits that marked them as favored.
Perhaps if a halo of light had circled about their heads,
there would have been room for them
in the inn after all.
But nothing in their manner shouted,
So in some outlying, unexpected place 
their child gulped his first breath and
cried his first cry.
Maybe none would have known
that he had arrived,
that this pairing was now
a family.
But heaven could not hide its joy.
Gabriel’s earlier visits
must have blazed a celestial trail.
For once the first winged messenger
shared the news with some
shepherds sitting with their flocks,
the night sky filled with
host after heavenly host.
A chorus of voices.
A throng of wings.
Their light and song so bright
even the stars were consumed
by their radiance.
Heaven could not hide its joy
for this baby born in the usual way.
Yet that is what makes this story
so extraordinary
so amazing
so filled with grace,
because on that night
God inhabited the ordinary.
God took on the human,
God took on us,
with all of our frailties and failings
our suffering and our sorrows,
everything that makes us
On that night
God entered in and
mystery and mortality met,
became flesh
and dwelt among us.
On this night, this holy night,
we remember not just a birth
centuries old and long ago.
We remember that our God
is a God of promise.
We remember that the promise made then
continues in this now,
and will remain in faithfulness tomorrow.
Our God,
who called substance and shape out of chaos,
light out of the deepest darkness,
bridged the chasm we caused
between us and Him
with his own flesh and blood.
He came into our lives
to give us love,
He came to remind us that
His promise is sure.
The darkness we stumble in
will not overwhelm us.
It was and is and will be
pierced with His glorious,
Wherever and whenever
 A child is born,
Wherever and whenever
love is welcomed,
hope reborn,
peace pursued,
God’s promise rings out.
God is with us.
God is with us.
Heaven cannot hide its joy.
Alleluia!  Amen.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

She Believed -- Fourth Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:26-38
December 21, 2014

            “Mary, did you know?”  This is both the title and the question of a popular, contemporary Christmas carol.  “Mary, did you know your baby boy would one day walk on water?”  “Mary, did you know your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?”  And so it goes, asking if Mary knew the true nature of the baby, her baby, that she held in her arms. 
            I like this song.  I have a version of it on a Christmas album by Kathy Mattea, and I listen to it regularly throughout this season.  But I also know that there are others, some in my own family, who don’t like it.  Of course Mary knew.  That was the purpose of the annunciation – the story that we read from Luke’s gospel this day.  The angel, Gabriel, shows up on Mary’s doorstep and announces that she will bear the Son of God.  His actual words are, “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.”
            Mary is understandably confused by his words.  She is a young woman.  She does not have an exalted family lineage.  She comes from a nondescript little town.  She is not rich nor is she royalty.  She is just Mary.  But here this angel of God comes to her and calls her favored.  He announces to her that the Lord is with her.  Not only is the Lord with her, but she has found favor with God.  God has sought her out to bear a son who will be named Jesus.  This child will not be just any child, but the Child of the Most High.  He will sit on the throne of David.  “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
            This is incredible news.  It’s strange and confusing news.  Mary is one of the lowly, but she is greeted by an angel who calls her “favored.”  I won’t say that she argues with Gabriel, but she does question the news she is given. 
            “How can this be?”  Her reason for why the angel’s words are impossible is sound.  She is a virgin.  She is betrothed to Joseph, but they aren’t living fully as a married couple yet.  While the word, “virgin,” in Greek can also be translated as “young girl,” it does not detract from the reality that Mary should not have the ability to physically conceive a child at this moment in time.  The angel’s explanation of how this will happen is confusing and vague as well.  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy.”  Okay?
            Perhaps in order to convince her of the reality of what is about to happen, Gabriel tells Mary the news of another unlikely, improbable, and seemingly impossible pregnancy.  Her cousin, Elizabeth, who is an old woman and has been barren for years, is also pregnant with a son.  Then Gabriel echoes the words spoken by other divine messengers to Abraham that his wife Sarah would have a child in her old age.  “For nothing will be impossible with God.” 
            Mary hears this, and without any apparent hesitation, accepts this strange and impossible news.  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
            Mary, did you know?  I’m not sure what she knew at that moment.  The angel didn’t give specifics about what it would mean for this child she would bear to be the Son of the Most High God.  She isn’t told how he will rule or what that reign will look like.  She is only told that she is favored by the Lord, that the Lord is with her, and that she will bring God into the world.
            So I guess she knew, but she also didn’t know.  I think the song’s question emphasizes the struggle that we Protestants have with Mary.  Mary is highly regarded.  She is the mother of Jesus, the human and the divine.  But we don’t venerate her, pray to her, or invoke her name as holy.  Whatever she knew and understood, or didn’t, what do we do with Mary?
            I know that in my own sermons I’ve often portrayed her as a scared, young girl, who’s given some terrifying and overwhelming news.  It has always seemed somewhat scandalous to me that a girl who was younger than my own young daughter would be told by God that she was going to have a baby.  But on the other side of that spectrum, Mary is sentimentalized.  She is portrayed in art and in our nativity sets as serene and peaceful.  Her gaze is beatific and for her child and him alone.  Sometimes her hands are clasped in prayer, adding the finishing touch to this perfect picture of a young woman favored by God. 
            But I wonder if the real Mary isn’t somewhere between those two understandings.  A commentator, whose blog I read this week, wrote that we need to take Mary out of our context and put her firmly back in hers.  In her context, being betrothed was much more than being engaged as we understand it.  For all intents and purposes, Mary and Joseph were married.  They weren’t sharing a household yet.  But they were married.  She may have been young, but life expectancy was approximately 40-years-old.  So no one, including Mary, would have been shocked that she was betrothed as a teenager.  The concept of a teenager would have been foreign as well.  She definitely was not a teenager as we know them.  Perhaps the most surprising fact that I learned was one this scholar learned from a rabbi.  In her context, Mary’s pregnancy would not have been seen as scandalous.  It would have been understood as a good omen for her marriage and her future well-being. 
            Mary, did you know?  She may not have understood the full implications of God’s message to her through Gabriel.  We will hear at least twice more in Luke that she would ponder in her heart the events surrounding the birth of her son, and the events that followed.  She didn’t hesitate to question Gabriel about the news he brought her; again not as argument.  It seems to me what she was really questioning was that all this would happen through her.  Who am I?  I’m just Mary, one of the lowly ones.  Why would the Lord work through me?  Why am I favored?
            But in those brief moments in her encounter with Gabriel, Mary believes.  She may not have fully understood or known what all of it would mean – for her, for her child, for the world.  Yet she believed. 
            It seems to me that her belief is too often seen as passive, as though she were merely a vessel without a mind and heart of her own.  She is understood to be mild-mannered and obedient to what she is told.  But I think the real Mary, the real flesh and blood Mary who did have a heart and mind of her own, wasn’t passively obedient.  She was perplexed.  She questioned.  She pondered and wondered.  But she was faithful.  She believed.  She believed that God favored her.  She believed that the Lord was indeed with her.  She believed that God was working his purposes – whatever those would be – through her.  She was just a lowly, young woman of humble birth, humble circumstances, humble everything.  But she believed. 
            What do we believe?  No, we’re not Mary.  We won’t be told we’re carrying the Son of the Most High.  But does that mean that God isn’t with us?  Isn’t one of the reasons we observe Advent and celebrate Christmas year after year is because we believe that God is still working in the world?  We believe that God’s purposes for us and for all creation are still coming to fruition.  Do we believe that we are also favored?  I don’t mean favored as in given special privilege or made superior to others.  But are we also favored?  Are we also called to believe that we are called, that God is working through us?  It seems to me that we are.  We are here because at some point, at some time, we heard God’s call, we recognized God’s hand print in our lives, and we answered.  We may not always know what that call is or where it will lead us.  Nor do we know what it will ask of us.  Our belief may be shaky, faltering and hesitant at best, but we still believe. 
            Mary may not have known the specifics, but she believed.  She heard the angel’s words and she believed.  She took that proverbial leap of faith, accepted what she could not understand, believed what should have been impossible, and her life and the world and our lives as well were changed forever.  Mary may not have known, but she believed.  She believed.  May we believe as well.  Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Point -- Third Sunday of Advent

John 1:6-8, 19-28
December 14, 2014

            The movie, Witness, tells the story of a young Amish boy who witnesses a brutal murder, and the police detective who risks his own life to protect the boy and his family.  Shortly after the little boy has seen the crime, he is in the police station with the detective.  In an extraordinary scene, Samuel – the Amish boy – is waiting for John Book – the detective – to finish a phone call.  Only vaguely noticed by the other police officers, Samuel wanders freely around the station, then stops at a trophy case and looks at a picture displayed inside.  The expression on Samuel’s face conveys his recognition of the man in the picture, his shock, and his fear.  He looks from the picture to Book, then back to the picture again.  When Book briefly looks up from his phone call and sees Samuel’s face, he hangs up the phone.  Walking over to kneel next to Samuel, Book looks inside the trophy case as well.  Without saying a word, Samuel points at the picture.  Samuel’s recognition and shock is mirrored on Book’s face.  He immediately covers Samuel’s hand with his, pushing his finger back down. 
            Pointing the finger at someone is generally a negative thing.  When a crisis happens, we often hear that the people involved are pointing the finger at others, assigning blame for whatever went wrong.  In the scene from this movie, Samuel is a witness to a horrible crime, so when he points his finger, he is pointing out the man who committed it.  His pointing was a testimony to the identity of the killer.  But even if it is not in relation to a crime, pointing fingers is not seen as a good or polite thing to do. 
How many times was I told as a child that it was rude to point at someone?  To be honest, more times than I can count.  I was taught that pointing at anyone was rude.  You could point at an object.  You could point at an animal.  You could point the way.  But you were never supposed to point at another person, unless it was some sort of an emergency.  Otherwise, pointing was not done. 
            I’ve never questioned the impoliteness of pointing before.  Nor have I given it much thought, but in writing this sermon I wanted to find out more about the reason behind this rule of etiquette.  Why is it rude to point? 
            In an article by Troy Patterson on, I learned that there are a variety of reasons we don’t point at others.  It was once believed that hexes were done through the pointing of a finger.  If you were pointing your finger at another, whether you were hexing or not, it was thought that you could draw negative attention to yourself.  A stranger seeing you point, might cast the evil eye on you. 
As I said earlier, pointing the finger at someone has negative connotations.  It is a way of assigning blame.  We hear about our political leadership being stalled in their work because everyone is pointing the finger at everyone else.  Pointing at someone singles that person out.  Patterson wrote that "pointing is non-verbal stigmatization."  In his article he quoted from the book, Michelangelo’s Finger, by Raymond Tallis.   
“Why is it so rude to point at someone, even if the action is not meant to be cruel or demeaning, is not accompanied by blame, picking us out of a reluctant crowd for some unpleasant, dangerous, or humiliating task? It is because the pointing finger prods at a vulnerability we all share. We are skewered on the attention of another person and any others to whom the pointing is also addressed. ... Pointing, in virtue of co-opting other consciousnesses, intensifies the sense we all have at times of being known and yet not-known—of being mis-known’, of helpless exposure to uncomprehending eyes that imagine they comprehend us."
            So by all accounts it seems that pointing at another human being, unless it is a dire circumstance, is the rude, wrong, and even dehumanizing thing to do.  Yet this is precisely what John the Baptizer does in the gospel of John.  He points.  He points at Jesus. 
            John the Baptizer, as found in John's gospel, is different from the versions of John found in the three synoptic gospels.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke, John the Baptist is seen as having his own ministry, in his own right.  But in John's gospel, he is there for one purpose and one purpose only, to point to Jesus. 
            When the chief priests and Levites from Jerusalem ask John about his identity, he quotes the prophet Isaiah and says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”  In other words, he is not the Messiah, but he is the one who points to the Messiah.  That is what his witness is.  That is really what witness is all about, pointing toward another.  John’s John points.
            The reality that John the Baptizer was the one who points to Jesus has not been lost on artists over the centuries.  Artists such as Da Vinci and Titan painted John as pointing.  In some paintings, John is pointing up toward the sky.  In others he is portrayed as preaching to the crowds and pointing toward a lone figure standing in the distance.  In still others, he is pictured with a lamb, and he points his finger at this symbol of God’s Son.  Whatever the scene the artist chose to paint, John is pointing.  John is the one who points.    
              John’s action of pointing, of witnessing to Jesus by pointing to him, seems in direct opposition of our mannerly wisdom.  While we are taught that it is impolite to point, John’s vital purpose is to point to the Son.  I can’t help but return to Raymond Tallis’ words that “pointing prods at a vulnerability that we all share.”  When someone points to us, it is implied that we are known in some way; that we are perceived in some way that may not be our truth.  Pointing opens up that vulnerability in each of us.  We want to be known for our truth, not for a truth that someone else assumes.  So pointing, even when it is done without malice, exposes us in a way.  So what does this mean for John’s pointing?  Is it all different just because it is Jesus?  Or does John’s pointing reveal Jesus’ vulnerability? 
            Of course it does.  John points to the One who is born into our vulnerability.  Jesus is vulnerable because we are vulnerable.  Jesus, the incarnation of the Word, the flesh and blood of God is vulnerable.  He is born for that reason; to share in our vulnerability.  John points to One who is vulnerable for our sake.  That is what our fifty cent theological words all mean – incarnation, redemption, salvation, justification.  John points to the One who is vulnerable for our sake. 
            I know that my Advent sermons have all come to this basic conclusion, but I think it cannot be overstated.  What we prepare for in this season, what we wait for, what we hope for, is the advent of a God who does not remain aloof and far off, but is willing to be born and live and die in the midst of us.  Our God is One who becomes as frail and fragile and vulnerable as we.  And what is even more astounding and humbling is that all of this done for the sake of love, of relationship, of a refusal on God’s part to let us go.  That is how much we are loved.  Jesus is born into our vulnerability because we are so loved by God.  No words that I can summon can fully describe my sense of awe and wonder at that truth.  John points to the One who is born into our vulnerability because of love. 
            John points and we are called to point also.  We are called to set aside the dictates of etiquette and point to Jesus – through our worship, our actions, and our words.  Look, do you see him?  Jesus is God’s Word made flesh and blood and vulnerability, and he was born to share in everything that makes us human, so that we could finally know and believe and live in God’s love.  That’s the One who is coming to us, that’s the One who was born into our vulnerability so that we could know God’s love.  That’s the point.  Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen.