Saturday, December 31, 2016

Reflections On A Life Of Jesus

Something struck me this Christmas season.  I'm not exactly sure why it struck me now.  Maybe because I've been listening to Hamilton and am haunted by the line, "Who lives, who dies, who tells your story." 

Maybe it's because I've been remembering a line from Against The Wind, a song both Bob Seger and Waylon Jennings covered:

"Well those drifters days are past me now
"I've got so much more to think about
"Deadlines and commitments
"What to leave in, what to leave out"

Or perhaps it is because I've been remembering my High School literature teacher, Frank Austell, who introduced us to The Odyssey by talking about the different ways in which translators had translated the opening line describing Ulysses; and how that laid the groundwork for how the rest of the work would be.

What is it that struck me?  It is the truth that every preacher tells his/her own Life of Jesus.  We aren't always conscious that we're doing it.  Perhaps we would deny it and claim that we're sticking to the scriptures like glue.  But each of us, in our choices of scripture, our means of reflecting on that scripture, and the emphasis we put on it in relation to other passages, tells a Life of Jesus that is particular to us...even when it is similar to that told by others.

Having been struck by this truth, I begin thinking about what my own Life of Jesus would look like if I took the material I've written over the last few years of blogging and preaching and placed it in some sort of reasonable order.  Where are the gaps that I would want to fill in?  Am I placing emphasis where it doesn't belong?  What would a clear, intentional examination reveal?  What is the picture of Jesus that I carry in my head?  Am I clear, even with myself, on what it looks like?

So my New Year's resolution is to, in my preaching, my writing, and my blog, to be clearer about that picture.  I want to take the pieces of the mosaic in my mind and lay them out for examination.  And when the picture that emerges does not balance with the teachings of scripture I want to honestly address and correct my portrait.

This will be the underlying goal in much of my writing here as we move into the New Year.  Thought it would only be fair to warn you.  Hope you'll stay along for the ride and join the conversation as you're able.

All that being said, I wish everyone who reads this blog a safe and wonderful New Year.  May God's Shalom come a little closer as we seek to explore and imitate the life of Jesus and it's claim on us in 2017.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Christianity On A Chip System

Many of us in the Recovery Community (AA, NA, SLAA, GA, etc.) belong to groups that use a "chip system."  What that means is that on a particular day: the first day of sobriety, one day, one week, one month, 6 and 9 months, we receive a poker chip that signifies our progress on the journey.  At a year, and every year thereafter, we receive a chip.  On these "birthdays" often there is cake; and there is almost always a celebration of some sort with a speaker chosen by the one celebrating their birthday.

These moments remind us that recovery is both a gift and a battle; that it does not come easy, and that no one gets there alone.  We grieve the loses and damage caused by our addictions and we celebrate the progress made and the miracles that have happened in our lives.  We mourn those who have "gone back out" into addiction-many of whose funerals we have attended.  This is life and death stuff.  We take it deadly serious, but we also see the joy and the humor in the stories of our own, and others, stumbling attempts to work the Steps and make this life of recovery work. They are a looking back at where we've been and an affirmation that the future ahead will fulfill the promise of "keep coming back; it works if you work it."

In Luke 2:22-40 Jesus' parents take him to the Temple "for their purification according to the Law of Moses" because "every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord."  Israel had built a "chip system" into their worship.

This dedication of Jesus happened also with every male child.  It was a reminder of what God had done at the Passover.  It was a reminder of Israel's movement of freedom from Egypt to the Promised Land. They did it even though they were under the oppressive rule of Rome.  They marked the action of God that had brought them out of Egypt and would, they believed, send a Messiah who would bring them to the final freedom of God's Kingdom.  There was no denial of the current situation; but there was a claiming that it was not the final word.

Israel built much of it's worship life around it's memory and it's hope.  It lived, at it's best in the tension of acknowledging what was, and claiming the alternative story of what could, and would one day be.

Now I'm sure that there were those for whom these rituals were just a "going thru the motions."  This was not so for the two that Jesus' parents met that day in the Temple.  They were committed to the truth of the alternative story....the one in which God will have the final word.  Luke tells us this story, in part, because hidden in it is the promised Messiah Himself....there, squirming in the arms of his mother, wailing at being passed back and forth like a loaf of bread.

On this coming Sunday, January 1, 2017, we'll be celebrating Communion.  It is part of our "chip system."  It, along with  Baptism, serves to remind us of the freedom we've been given.  We don't deny that the journey is hard; or that there are griefs and loses along the way; or even that there are those who "go back out" into the world's vision of what matters (though we pray and trust that God's mercy will follow them in redemptive ways).  It reminds us that "on the night He was betrayed..." Jesus gave us this meal to remind us of how we got this freedom in the first place.  The positioning at Passover is no accident.

This Sunday....especially this Sunday....with the world around us writhing in agony, and the future questionable from every perspective except the one that says, "we will not deny the struggle or the pain, but we will claim that the future and the Kingdom are God's"....on this Sunday we need to not "go through the motions." 

This Sunday we need to join hands, proclaim our faith, and say loudly to the world and to each other: "We have an alternative; we know the way to freedom.  Keep coming works."

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Christmas Choice

My friend Maren Tirabassi commented on my last post saying, "You really gonna preach that????"  Now I don't (usually) think that Maren intends her comments as a dare.  But she does often push me past my comfort zone into areas that I would be less likely to enter from the pulpit.  Like many preachers (at least I assume) I am more likely to speak the hard word, the prophetic word, in my poetry that my sermon.

There is good reason for this.  On any given Sunday, in the pews I look out at, will be the broken heart; the failing marriage; the terminal illness; the newly jobless; the one who I know is struggling to find how to find the money for rent, lights, the next meal.  It is not a failure of nerve to seek to offer comfort to the fragile ones.

And yet, there are times when the text screams out, judging, challenging, kicking us in the seat of the pants.  This Christmas Day's scripture that I've chosen to preach on in just such a passage.  You wouldn't necessarily think so on the first read, or the second, or even the third.  But it's comments like Maren's and the quote below from Fredrick Buechner's The Faces of Jesus that challenge me to take another look.  The passage is John 1:1-18.  It is familiar, perhaps too familiar, to many of us.  But first, Buechner's quote:

"As long as he stays the babe in the manger he asks us nothing harder than to love him and accept his love, and the temptation is thus to keep him a babe forever, for our sakes and for his sake too."

The challenge is in verse 9, "The true light, which [enlightens/lights/lightens] everyone, was coming into the world."  The temptation is to use the word "enlighten" and think we're talking about some cerebral, intellectual happening.  But this is the coming of the Light who pushed back the darkness when "the earth was void and without form and darkness was on the face of the deep."  This is the Light that "shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it."  This Light sets us on fire, causes us to burst into flame. It gives us the "power to become the daughters and sons of God." 

Unless, of course, we are counted among those in verse 11, "he came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him."  Then, like I said in the previous post, the only possibility is exile.  Exile into the darkness.  Exile into a life focused not on being light on behalf of the Light, but on acquiring stuff to plug the hole in the middle of our spiritual guts.  A hole only the Light can fill, but the commercials tell us will be closed over by a new car, the right medication, or a pill that will fix our inability  to get it up.

I am deeply drawn to Howard Thurman's poem The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
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 people,
To bring music in the heart.

It seems to me that from the very first lines of his Gospel, John is throwing down the gauntlet; be light or live in the darkness.  Our choice is clear from the beginning.  Will we let ourselves become light from Light or will we be those to whom He comes who will not receive the fire He brings.

Many of us will attend Christmas Eve services in which we exit the church, clutching a lit candle in the darkness of the sanctuary, singing Silent Night as we drift into the cold December evening.  Perhaps we'd be better off if we went out singing this little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.

Maybe we'll do that Christmas morning.

Friday, December 16, 2016

An Advent Fable

In the cool of the evening
God walked in the new Garden.
It was a mess.
God called,
but the humans were not there.
God found them at the mall.
"Why didn't you come when I called?"

Well God, we were feeling empty,
really, really empty.
So we figured we'd hang out,
hide out,
at the mall a while.
Catch a movie, get some presents
for the grandkids
since Your Son's birthday is next week.

"The presents are....nice...I guess,
I see you've packaged them for mailing.
But who told you you were empty?"

Well the guys on TV
channels 16 and 3
(all the others show bad news all day)
so we come, shop and dine
split a bottle of wine
and the emptiness just goes away.

God sighed
as God always does
when the humans rhyme
like a commercial jingle.
"Speaking of your children,
I need to speak to your children,
the blood of their sisters and brothers
cries out from the ground in Aleppo.
The water screams
from the taps in Flint,
and the prayers going up in Standing Rock
have joined the groaning of the earth.
I have heard these cries
and come to see what's going on.
You and I need to set things to right."

The created ones
did not hang their heads in shame
but pushed back their shoulders
and looked straight ahead.
Not our problem,
not our culture,
not our color.
They said,
You're really very demanding, you know.
We don't mean to sound harsh
but we've learned in therapy to set boundaries.
We need to wall ourselves off from all
that interferes with our greatness,
And fill ourselves with good stuff
if we ever want to stop this empty feeling.
we hope to see You Christmas Eve.
The kids will stop thru on their way
to wherever they're going this year.
Even the grandkids will be here.
We'll try to stop by your place
for old times sake and tradition you know
share a carol or two
I've always been fond
of O Come, O Come Emmanuel

And God
speechless in sadness
Terrible in an anger
that the humans had lost their ability to see or hear.

So God left.
Just as sure as Ezekiel
had seen God's throne chariot
leave the Temple.
And it was evening,
and morning
and the beginning of the new Exile.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Dreamer Who Stepped Up

This past Sunday we looked at Matthew's description of Joseph's genealogy.  It was very, very interesting. 

First is the fact that, unlike most genealogies of that day, Matthew included women.  not just any women.  Matthew includes four women of dubious reputation:  Tamar who disguised herself as a harlot by the side of the road to get the justice of an heir that she was being denied; Rahab, an actual prostitute (probably a cultic prostitute) in Jericho who helped the spies that Joshua had sent to case the city; Ruth, who, with advise; from her mother-in-law, seduced Boaz; and Bathsheba, who is only referred to by Matthew as "the wife of Uriah."

Plus, at least two, and probably all four, of these women were Gentiles.  So here we have Matthew describing the genealogy of Jesus as being full of women who are not the ones you'd expect.

And then there is the fact that this is the genealogy of Joseph.  Joseph, who wasn't even Jesus' real daddy.  And that's when it hit me.  It was if Matthew was describing God as saying, "look, I'm sending my Son.  Sending my son.  He's going to need a daddy; and a daddy that comes from a family that will tell Him stories about strong women who took risks.  And a daddy who will step up and do what needs doing.

And that is where we get to this blog.  The "step up and do what needs doing" thing.  For comparison to the stories of Joseph found in Matthew chapters 1 and 2, I give you King Ahaz.  King Ahaz was the grandson of King Uzziah.  Isaiah was prophet in those days.  Now King Ahaz had two kings (for what it's worth, their names were Rezin and Pekah) who went up to attack Jerusalem but they couldn't mount an attack.  So Isaiah comes to Ahaz and says, 'look, God told me to tell you not to worry.  They won't succeed.  But to help you know, ask me for a sign...any sign...and I'll give it to you.'  Ahaz's response is a bunch of pious B.S.  He says, "I won't put the Lord to the test."  But basically his response is a lack of faith.

Here's where it gets fun.  Isaiah give Ahaz some of the same info that the angel gives Joseph:  a young girl (in Joseph's case, Mary) will conceive and God will use the child and he will be named Emmanuel; God with us.  Joseph doesn't say a word.  He just does.  No argument.  No discussion.  He just obeys.  Four...count'em four times....Joseph has a dream in which and Angel of the Lord tells him to do something.  And it's always something that is going to radically alter Joseph's life.  Each time Joseph obeys.  He just obeys.

In Luke, we get the idea that the writer is trying to represent Mary as the perfect disciple.  She's responsive.  She says that whatever God wants to do, she's ready.  Her answer echoes the one that Jesus will give in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

In Matthew there is a lot of stuff going on.  Matthew wants to portray Jesus as the New Moses.  So Matthew tells the story of Herod killing the baby boys.  And he tells about the flight into Egypt.  But he also tells of a Joseph who listens to his dreams (something valued in Hebrew scripture) and who is obedient and responsive to God's leading.

Joseph never says a word is scripture.  But he is presented as a man of compassion.  A man unwilling to hurt Mary by exposing her to public disgrace.  A man who was "righteous," which includes both justice and mercy as well as "doing the right thing."  He is presented as thoughtful; as someone who took time to think before "resolving" to live out his decision.  But when God points him in another direction, he is a man who listens.

I find it amazing that this man, who says not a single word in all of scripture, has such depth, if we know how to look for it.  No wonder he is the one that God said, "my boy needs a daddy, and you're the one I want for the job."  And, it is no wonder that when God asked, Joseph stepped up.