Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Doing The Work Of Christmas

Perhaps the best way to begin this blog post, as well as the New Year, is with the words of the poem The Work of Christmas by Howard Thurman:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

The Gospel According to Mark opens with, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God."

That sounds all nice and flowery.  We're apt to just pass over it on our way to listening to Mark's description of John the Baptist and his fiery preaching.  But if we look closer; if we examine the context into which Mark drops this sentence; we will see it for the bombshell that it is.

The word "gospel" is a 'Mark word.'  Matthew only uses it 4 times; and Luke and John don't use it at all.  "Gospel" is an ancient term associated with the announcement of military victory on the battlefield or the ascension of a new political ruler. "Son of God" was a phrase associated with the Cult of the Emperors in which the Caesars saw themselves as gods or 'sons of god.'  And the Messiah was the one who would, in the minds of the Jewish people, set everything to right: bringing in justice, overthrowing oppression, healing the sick and the wounded.

Luke, on the other hand, will flesh out that definition when Jesus quotes Isaiah in his first sermon back home in Nazareth saying, "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

For Mark (as well as the other Gospel writers-but particularly for Mark) this reign was immediate.  It began in the "right now" which is why paths had to be made straight and the cry needed to go up in the wilderness to prepare the way.

Mark's world was filled with the demonic influences which were both spiritual and political in nature.  The announcement was that Jesus, the Messiah had conquered them all.  

That claim must have sounded unbelievable to many who heard Mark's Gospel read in the house churches of Rome.  It still may be.

I read the writing of folks on both sides of the discussion about police brutality toward black males and of violence toward police officers.  I watch disasters-natural and man made-on the news.  Each year brings a new epidemic. A woman with major mental illness comes into the church office and deep in the 'word salad' of her speech is a story of pain and suffering. Our church's food distribution meets a record number of needs the week between Christmas and New Years.

It would be easy to skip over all of this and look for the Second Coming.  Sing "The King Is Coming....praise God, He's coming for me," and wait.  And if we said anything at all about the world around us, to speak judgement about behaviors that we don't like....engaged in by people we don't know....who we don't expect to make it in to heaven anyway.

But that is not the Gospel.  The Good News is....hard as it may be to spot or to believe some days.....that Jesus is King.....Here.....Now....in This Time And Place.......and that the work of Christmas and the service to the King is our job in the present:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

This is the work of Christmas.  This is the work of the Church.  This is the work of the Kingdom. Let's get on with it.

Shalom

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Eve And Vulnerable Love







I don't often robe for worship.  There are some reasons for that, but they are for another time.  But this Christmas Eve I will be wearing my robe and the stole in the picture above.  The stole was a gift from Commonwealth Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA when I was their Interim Pastor and I like it so much that it almost makes me want to robe every Sunday.

As I was thinking about Christmas Eve I was thinking about how, on this night, we surround ourselves with tangible symbols of the Vulnerable Love that was made manifest in the birth of Jesus.

There is, of course, the Manger and the Baby.  This tiny life that God put on and the way it came into the world; not as a prince or a person of power, but as one who was born in solidarity with everyone in every time and place whose birth was without the normal care given to a newborn and its mother. 

The mythological figure Hercules would spring forth, full grown, from Zeus' brow.  This baby would be a refugee, fleeing in the arms of his parents from the murderous intentions of a paranoid pathological narcissist whose name was Herod.  Every time we see fleeing refugees, we should place Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in the middle of them.  Perhaps we would see it differently.

Then there are the candles.  Here at Heritage there will be hundreds of them.  Light from flame is a fragile thing.  It can be snuffed in an instant, blown out by a breeze.  Yet John says, "in Him was life and that life was the light of the world."

And then I looked at my stole.  There is a rainbow there.  It reminds me of the story of Noah and how God placed God's bow in the clouds.  That sounds so quaint that we forget that the image is of God hanging up God's war gear.  God is declaring that God will never again go to war against humanity.  To give up that option is to become vulnerable.  It is to perpetually opt for some other way of dealing with humankind's failures and disobedience.  Right next to that rainbow is a cross.  That cross is the outcome of giving up warfare with humankind.  It is, and Nadia Bolz-Weber has said, 'God saying I'd rather die than be in the sin accounting business.'  It is God saying, 'I would rather sacrifice Myself that go to war with you.'

When I was 12 or 13, a minister (I believe it was Tom Neely) told our Sunday School class that the first thing the baby Jesus felt was the rough wood of the manger, and the last thing the man Jesus felt was the rough wood of the cross. 

One way to look at the whole of scripture is to see it as Israel and the NT writers who follow trying to come to terms with understanding this Vulnerable Love.  A love that remains vulnerable as it commits to Abraham, journeys on the Exodus, speaks through the prophets, and lays in a manger.

It is also a Vulnerable Love that calls us to join God in vulnerably loving even as Jesus loved.  That is why we'll all light candles off the Christ Candle and go out singing.  We're symbolizing OUR commitment to become light in the darkness.  Vulnerable Love makes us partners in the reconciliation of creation to God's self.  This is why Paul will tell us in 2 Corinthians 5:18 that "we have been given this ministry of reconciliation."

Christmas Eve, when we see it rightly, is the opening chapter of the Vulnerable Love saga of Emmanuel, God with us.  It is the Joy of the universe singing through angels of this awesome gift.  It is the invitation to even the shepherds to come and see the great wonder of this Vulnerable Love putting on the skin of a baby.  And it is the invitation for us to light our lives off of the Light of the World and become, as sons and daughters of God, light in the darkness in His name.

Vulnerable Love has come.  The baby is born.  Emmanuel has arrived.  Thanks be to God.

Shalom and Merry Christmas

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

I Get Tired Of Writing Laments


 Driving in to work yesterday morning I heard the news that the school in Peshawar, Pakistan had been attacked by the Taliban.  They killed more than 130 children.  They burned a teacher in front of the students in a classroom.

Early on I had some thoughts and feelings that I could wrap words around.  I tweeted a few of them; called one family member, texted another.  As the day went on though, I got more and more incapable of words.  Tears, yes....words, no.  Speaking about this is still difficult, but I'm able to write-and need to write so as to begin processing what this is doing in me.

Sometimes it feels as though we're living in the baptism scene from the Godfather; the one where even as his child is being baptized, and Michael Corleone is answering the questions about his beliefs: "do you renounce Satan and all his works?" "I do renounce them"; dons of the  five families are being murdered on his order.

On Sunday I listened as former Vice President Dick Cheney responded to a question about the 25% of those subjected to "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" who were innocent and/or there because of mistaken identity, "I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective,"  he said.  Among the techniques used against at least one prisoner was "forced rectal feeding" with no medical justification.

Sunday was also the 2nd Anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary school.  26 persons were killed.

Next week is Christmas.

Do we give in to despair?  Do we subject ourselves to a painful disequilibrium by trying to make sense of this spinning chaos?  Do we go numb in self defense?  What does my faith say to me about this?  Why isn't God doing something?  And if God IS doing something, why is God so damned slow about it?

Personally, I want God to kick some ass.  I want to scream, "What are you doing?  Don't you see that Evil is winning?  People are murdering in the name of their god and torturing in the name of democracy.  Don't just sit there."  My anger is a temporary protection against the overwhelming sadness of this day. It is a defense that does not work for long.

Two things give me some Hope.  The first is remembering that in the face of fragile, suffering innocence; God chose to become a fragile, suffering innocent.  This is the same God who declares that He will have the last word, that evil will be overcome and all will be made whole.  Creation will be redeemed.  Part of me doesn't like this.  Like I said, I want God to bust some things up.  But there is a strength in this vulnerability and it comforts me.

The second thing has been re-reading a portion of Tom Long's What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith.  Long talks about the parable of the yeast in the dough.  I want to quote him at some length:

"We think of yeast as a good thing, something that makes bread rise, but not so in the ancient world.  In the Bible, yeast is never a good thing; it is a corrupting agent...she [the woman] doesn't just mix the yeast, she 'encripts' it; she smuggles the yeast into the flour, and the yeast pervades and affects everything.  In short, the kingdom is a stealth operation.  A person with no conventional power takes a corrupting agent and smuggles it into the flour, changing everything.  God's power, the parable states, is like this."

The world is what it is.  Luther said, "and lo this world with devil's filled; should threaten to undo us."  But this 'baker woman God' has snuck the yeast of Jesus and the Kingdom into the dough.  You and I, as the Body of Christ, are at least part of the 'yeast' that God has 'snuck' into the world.  We represent an alternative, 'corrupting' vision to a world in which children are murdered, women are beheaded and prisoners are tortured.  Where commercialism is more important that feeding the hungry.

In the middle of this chaos, this Evil, God 'snuck' into the world through the vulnerability of a baby.  God kneads that yeast of the kingdom into the dough of creation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; and God goes on kneading through our lives.

That's where it feels like it breaks down.  We're so caught up with approving next year's budget and worrying about stuff that doesn't matter, instead of being yeast.  We need to get serious about 'corrupting' this world; about being leaven.  We need to turn outward to permeate the world with God's vulnerable love.  We need to be reminded that all those things (budgets, committees, even the neighborhood carol sing) are useless if they are not in the service of the 'yeast' of the Kingdom of God.

It doesn't mean we stop grieving.  Rachel is always weeping for her children.  The fact that I find Hope in these two things above doesn't mean that I don't weep for the dead, or mourn for the oppressed.  It does mean that even through my tears I will proclaim that, "the Light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness can NEVER conquer it."

Shalom




Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Radical Song Of A Oppressed Peasant Girl

"He has brought down the powerful from
    their thrones,
 and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty."

If we heard these words being sung from a stage by Joan Baez, we might take them to be the manifesto of an economic and political revolution.....and in fact they are.

But they're being sung by a little nothin-from-nothin girl from a little backwater town in Palestine to her pregnant cousin.  They are a bright, fierce claim about what God is up to.  Mary's sense of God's revolution has been flavored by what she learned as a little girl.

I asked myself, when I was reading the account in Luke 1:46-55, where this 13 or 14 year old girl found the words that she sang to her cousin.  And then I remembered that at her age I could sing a lot of Baez; a lot of Peter, Paul and Mary; a lot of protest folk music that spoke to many of the same issues.  I knew I wanted the world to change.  I had no idea how hard it would be.

 Mary knew the words to her song from childhood....many of them are from the song of Hannah from 1 Samuel 2.  She would have memorized them and maybe even sung them under her breath as Roman soldiers tramped by the house behind a chariot and driver.  Mary is young, rebellious, idealistic, and naive.... So of course she says yes when the angel Gabriel comes to her. And of course her song to Elizabeth is the song of Hannah.

She has no idea what it will cost her.  But she will. Her first warning will come when they take the baby to the temple.  There Simeon will echo what Mary sung saying, "This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, at to be sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed-and a sword will pierce your own soul too."

Mary has no idea what this will translate to in terms of her son's behavior.  And when she does, she'll come with Jesus' brothers to drag him home, cause they think he's crazy. When she does, she'll be watching her son in agony dying on a cross. It won't be to the resurrection that she really, really gets it....if she ever does.

Who ever understands when they get married, enlist in the military, make a declaration of faith?  Who ever really understands the journey at the beginning of the road.

Still...Mary was right to say yes.  Just as we are.  Yes, even though we do not know where the journey will lead.  Yes, even though Jesus will turn worlds upside down-including our own.  Yes, even if our own souls are pierced.  We may never, in this life, fully grasp what it means to say yes to Jesus.  That's okay.  We've given ourselves to something larger that we can even imagine:  the redemption of all creation.  We've signed on for our part of that journey.  Our own redemption is just the beginning; we will become "laborers together with God."

Advent is the announcement of a raw and powerful coming.  Of the entry of God's own self into the 'setting things right' in our world.  It begins with the words "let it be with me as you've said;" and, one day, it will end with the words of final consummation of this great redemptive enterprise of our God.

Until then, when Jesus calls, let us say with Mary, "let it be with me according to your word."

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Annunciation

I am allergic to bee stings
and hornets terrify me,
Attacking with the least provocation and sending off an odor
that brings the whole nest
swarming in a protecting, stinging gray cloud.
No talk, no reason,
I fear being covered in them
Unable to breath.


Is that what life was like
for the young girl
who kept her head down and her eyes averted
whenever a Roman soldier passed?
" listen to your mother girl, don't draw attention. Go, do what you need to, then come straight home."

Then
this angel
hovering like a hummingbird in a world of hornets.
Blessed? Really? My momma's gonna love this.....let it be.

And then the angel was gone
leaving her to deal
The world still full of hornets
No wonder the song she sings to her cousin
is about reversal
and justice
And a world of hornets robbed of their sting

And when the hornets
stung her son to death as he hung breathless on their nest
Did the song still stir in her heart?
Or did the bile of rage and grief leave her too
choked to breath

What's it like
in a world of hornets
When a hummingbird comes to call

Friday, December 5, 2014

Joseph: Patron Saint of Fidelity

Our Minister of Music and Worship, Ralph Manuel, ended choir practice this week by pointing out the incredible faith of Joseph. Here, he reminded us, is this ordinary working man, a carpenter, not a religious professional like Zachariah, who has the faith to listen to his dream and take Mary as his wife even though she's pregnant by someone other than himself.

In an age of easy divorce and sliding partners, I think Joseph has a lot to teach us as Christians. He is, in my mind, the patron saint of marital fidelity.

Yes, I believe that there are times when divorce is a sad, but appropriate, response to the situation in a marriage. Patterns of repetitive violence (from either spouse), a refusal to get help for a mental illness that triggers behaviors that put family members in danger; these are some of the kinds of things that might make it unavoidable. But we need to ask ourselves as Christians (and particularly as progressive or moderate Baptist Christians) whether we have abdicated our responsibility to both teach fidelity in marriage and to provide quality pastoral care to families in trouble.

In my work as a pastor and a therapist I have seen some incredible examples of fidelity. Spouses who have lived out their love faithfully while there loved one has dealt with debt, mental illness, physical infirmity, incarceration, addiction, dementia. I am moved deeply as I watch these people remain faithful to the promises they made to stick by, and stick with, their spouse, come what may.

These examples of fidelity have come in all flavors, shapes, and sizes. Some have been together a long time. Another incredible couple I think of had only been married two years when disease struck. Some of these couples have been gay, many have been straight. They have been white and black, Asian and Hispanic, and mixed marriages. Their faiths have been Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and unsure. They all have much to teach us if we let them.

Perhaps this Advent season Joseph might be our guide into an exploration of risky, healthy fidelity. Think of the questions his staying raises: he had every justification for leaving, his culture and faith would have supported the divorce the same way our culture does in cases of sexual unfaithfulness. No one would have blamed him.  And yet he stayed.

Maybe in our exploration and discussions we can begin to reclaim fidelity as a virtue and offer support for healthy marriages and healing for wounded ones...regardless of our views about the appropriateness of the union. What if Fidelity became our watchword in the marriage debates? What might Joseph teach us?

Hope to see you Sunday.
Shalom,

Stephen