Sunday, December 26, 2010

Out of Egypt

Comments and constructive criticism always appreciated!

Isaiah 63:7-9
I will recount the gracious deeds of the LORD, the praiseworthy acts of the LORD, because of all that the LORD has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. For he said, "Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely"; and he became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Hebrews 2:10-18
It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, "I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you." And again, "I will put my trust in him." And again, "Here am I and the children whom God has given me."

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Matthew 2:13-23
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean."

This is the Word of the Lord.

I don’t know that it’s quite fair: we’ve just gotten done with Christmas; the presents are opened, the dinner has been eaten, we’ve rested and enjoyed family, watched a television special or two, perhaps, and we’ve reflected on the birth of Jesus, the angels and the shepherds and Mary and Joseph and little baby Jesus in the manger…
and all of a sudden, we’re confronted with a horrible drama, a shocking dose of reality, an event church tradition has called “The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents.”

To be honest, I approached this reading with some fear. I’d rather spend the Sunday after Christmas talking about the first chapter of the Gospel of John, how “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” How “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Who wants to talk about the murder of infants and toddlers, not just the day after Christmas, but ever?

But, you know, one of the most dangerous things we as Christians can do with Scripture is to keep the parts we like and ignore the rest. At best, we become like Will Farrell’s character in “Talladega Nights,” preferring to pray to, and I quote, “tiny infant Jesus...” or “…little baby Jesus, who's sittin' in his crib watchin the Baby Einstein videos, learnin' 'bout shapes and colors…” or “…8 pounds 6 ounces baby Jesus, new born, not even spoken a word yet.” At worst, we become like that church in Kansas that goes all over the United States picketing the funerals of soldiers, convinced that God hates America.

So we have to deal with this reading, just as we have to deal with all the parts of Scripture which make us uncomfortable or which aren’t clear to us. And in dealing with this particular passage, one thing that becomes clear is that, while it would be nice to rest in a Jesus for whom at least his birth could be held in a protective bubble of spiritual perfection, the Scriptural accounts of the birth and life of Jesus never stray far from the grit and pain and uncertainty of the reality of daily life.

Yes, God transcends reality. God transcends time and circumstance. But God also deals in reality. God is with those of us who on Christmas sat in a warm living room, drinking hot apple cider while the kids opened presents, and God is also with those of us who on Christmas were homeless, trying to survive another cold day in the rain and snow. God is with those of us who on Christmas stuffed shredded wrapping paper in plastic bags and wondered why the kids ignored the shiny toys to play in the boxes, and God is with those of us who spent the day disarming another IED on a dirt road outside of Kabul, Afghanistan. God is with those of us who spend this hour on the day after Christmas in our familiar house of worship, and God is with those of us who, because our churches in Iraq have been bombed and our friends and relatives killed, are living in France, trying to make sense of it all.

God deals in reality, and the reality of human existence is that, to one degree or another, at one time or another, our reality includes uncertainty and pain and suffering. Our reality includes horrors like the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents.

Herod, a jealous, power-mad tyrant knows that a prophecy has been fulfilled. Those magi who passed through a while back were supposed to drop back by and tell him where this new King, this pretender to the throne, was living. It would have been a simple process, send a couple of soldiers to the house; kill everyone there, no muss, no fuss. As time passed, though, it became more and more apparent that these Gentile magicians had no intention of living up to their end of the bargain… which meant that, somewhere in or around Bethlehem, there was a child who would someday take his throne from him, and that simply would not do.

Isn’t it an odd twist that the God who came to save us needed to first be saved from Herod?

That part of us which is like Rickey Bobby from “Talladega Nights” might have wanted a “Chuck Norris Jesus” or a “GI Joe Jesus With the Kung-Fu Grip” to step in and take care of Herod, but the sad and stark reality is that this Jesus, this God-with-us, was a baby, a child, and as such he needed protecting.
Like the children of Israel during the long-ago famine, Jesus had to seek refuge in Egypt, out of the jurisdiction and reach of Herod. And like Moses, Jesus had to come out of Egypt when the time was right.

Yet the innocents were still slaughtered, and even today, in parts of the world in the grip of poverty, disease, war or famine, the slaughter continues. I wish I could come up with a nice story or a clever turn of phrase that would make this all sound better, but there isn’t one. God deals in reality. God deals in our reality. Through Jesus, God entered in to our reality. More than that, in Jesus God has chosen a whole new way of living to win us salvation. This new way does not run away from the violence, doesn’t gloss it over, but faces it. Neither does God resort to the old way of doing things, which is to fight force with force. God will not stop the madness by getting caught up in the same madness. We don’t meet Terminator Jesus in the Gospels. No, God gives us a totally new way to live. In Jesus, God stands in the face of violence and continues to love. Love. God has come into the midst of the madness, and through a suffering love has begun to pioneer a new way for us.

If we have this new way, then one has to ask, why is there still violence? It could be that it’s like the joke where an atheist said to a Christian, “If your God is so all-powerful, ask him why he allows killings, starvation and homelessness in the world?” To which the Christian replied: “I would. But I’m afraid he might ask me the same question.”

Reverend Paul J. Nuechterlein’s answer is a little different. He says violence still exists “Because love refuses to violently snuff it out. Love only knows love… When those who stand for the old way of doing things, like Herod… are confronted with this new possibility, they strike out with all that they can muster. But Christ-like love is the power of love that can stand tall in the face of it. And we who are called as disciples are called to follow in this new way of love. Perhaps the best news is that God, in becoming a human being, took on our human nature and has begun to transform it, baptize it, so that we are able to follow in the way of Christ.”

Our second lesson from Hebrews speaks of Jesus' coming into the flesh to save us -- not some angels, but us. Jesus came into the flesh, to share in our life! To be personally and completely identified with the very things which make up our realities.
It says that 'he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might pioneer for us a perfect way of salvation through the sufferings of our human reality.' Not around them, or over them. But through them. Our Hebrews passages concludes, “Because Jesus himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

God knows what our reality is. Not in a way that a distant, uninvolved deity might know – a theoretical, theologically-justifiable and quantifiable, doctrinal kind of knowing. God knows, because God has been here. God has done this. God is with us! And because God has been here, done this, and in the Holy Spirit is still with us, we can face the realities of our day, and, where possible, begin to transform those realities.

I don’t have a whiz-bang sermon conclusion today. I have questions, things to ponder as we begin to move away from Christmas and toward the New Year. As we ponder these questions, perhaps the answers will inform the direction of our discipleship in 2011.

There are areas in our life where we may feel that the armies of Herod have come through, leaving death and destruction. Jesus has been there.
How can that knowledge, and the presence of God-with-us, help us to begin to transform those realities?

When we look to the realities of our day, the suffering around us that doesn’t necessarily touch us, but that we read about in the newspapers or see on TV, how can the knowledge that God is with us, and the power of the Holy Spirit in us, help us to begin to transform those realities?

How is God calling us out of Egypt?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Advent IV: Joseph's Problem...

I think Joseph gets a bum deal during Advent. He made some hard decisions, and did some amazing things.

Isaiah 7:10-16
Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. Then Isaiah said: "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

Romans 1:1-7
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Matthew 1:18-25
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

This is the Word of the Lord.

This was the biggest problem Joseph could remember ever having. More terrifying than when the Romans came though last year and destroyed the town of Sepphoris, just four miles from Nazareth. More worrisome than the time he’d dropped his hammer and ruined the finish on an expensive table he’d almost completed for a rich client.

He’d known for a week or so that Mary was pregnant, and that he was not the father of the child. They’d been betrothed for a year already, and though the wedding date was fast approaching, there was no chance that Mary would be able to hide the fact by then. The ridicule and embarrassment would be unbearable – imagine, Joseph, a respected member of the community, well-known in the synagogue, sinning in such a way! And if he dared let it be known that the child wasn’t his, well, Mary’s very life would be in danger!

His workshop was a mess. He’d overturned his bench in frustration, had thrown his saw against one wall and his hammer against another, and he’d paced the dirt floor until his feet were sore. The Jewish law was clear: he should denounce Mary publicly, and she should be stoned. A cruel solution, but one where he could save face. It would be a just decision, and it would be the right decision under the Law. It was the obvious choice.

But for Joseph, it was an impossible choice. Put aside the fact that he loved Mary; every time he considered the route of cold, cruel justice, the words of God as written by the prophet Hosea echoed in his head: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”

“I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”

What did that mean? What was “merciful” in this situation? That was what had Joseph wearing ruts in the floor with his pacing, running his hands through his already wildly unkempt beard and hair.

Finally, as the workshop grew dark with the setting of the sun, Joseph stopped pacing. It seemed, finally, that the merciful thing to do would be to, very gently, call the wedding off. Perhaps send Mary to her relatives someplace far away. To very quietly move on from the whole situation, preserving his honor and Mary’s reputation as much as possible. To elevate compassion over justice.

Joseph could think about it no more. He was exhausted. Settling in his bed, sleep came quickly, but rest would elude him. God had other plans, you see.

There was a dream, there was an angel. This pregnancy was no accident, no mistake, no youthful indiscretion. This child was from God. The angel gave Joseph the solution to his problem, but it was a solution which led down a frightening, unsure, even scandalous road.

Take Mary, pregnancy and all, into his home as his wife, as planned. Endure the stares, the whispers behind his back, the open disgust and rejection of the most religious in the community, and accept this child to raise as his own.

And the very idea! God coming to earth, not as a vengeful warrior, exacting retribution from the Roman oppressors and establishing a holy Empire upon the earth, but as a baby? How could such a thing be true?

How deep, Joseph, does mercy go? Is mercy just a word, or is mercy an action – and more than that, a series of actions? Tell me about faith, Joseph. Is it enough to expect God to act, or must we reserve the right to dictate the ways in which God may act? Yes, God is with us. For you, Joseph, God will be in diapers. God will need to learn to walk. To use eating utensils. God will need to be potty trained.
Take this step – make Mary your wife, watch this child be born, accept the responsibility that comes with naming the child (because that is the right of the father in the Jewish custom, and it signifies acceptance of the child into the family), live out the mercy you claim to be seeking in making a quiet end of the marital contract… do this, and God’s love, salvation and forgiveness will explode forth from this child, bathing the earth in God’s grace and mercy, establishing a kingdom far greater than anything an avenging army could hope for!

Here’s your choice, Joseph: look back, embracing the Law and its rigid code of right and wrong, ignoring flesh and blood in favor of words on a page, or look forward, to an uncertain future, knowing only one thing: Immanuel! God is with us!

We know how Joseph responded. He chose the difficult path, the way of uncertainty. He decided to trust that the promise of “God With Us” was enough.

And that promise – Immanuel, “God With Us,” is ours as well!

Advent is not simply how we spend our time in church in December. It’s not simply getting ready for Christmas Day. Advent is both a recognition of Jesus having come, and it’s a statement of faith, a step out into the unknown, an acknowledgement that we, too, in our own way, walk the path of divine mystery. We say that Christ will come again, though we haven’t the foggiest notion of when. We say that we shall spend eternity in the City of God, the New Jerusalem, though we’ve never met anyone who has actually been there.

But this we know: God is with us! We cannot say how God will act to save, to heal, to restore, to forgive. We can only say, with assurance, that God will do these things, and will do them in God’s time. Like Joseph, we expect, but we do not control. We trust in the promise of Immanuel: God (is) With us!

Thanks be to God!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Advent III: Who Were You Expecting, John?

I relied heavily on Sarah Dylan Breuer for parts of this sermon. I seriously owe that pastor/teacher dinner, she has saved my bacon repeatedly.

Isaiah 35:1-10
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you."
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

James 5:7-10
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.' Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Prison was a lonely place. Chained in a filthy, vermin-infested cell, unable to walk around, and without human contact except when his disciples brought him food, or when Herod wanted to chat, John had a long time to think. Who knows what he had expected when Jesus came up out of the water of the Jordan, and the dove descended and the Voice spoke?

Maybe John was like so many others, who expected Jesus to use his power to overthrow the Roman oppressors, to utterly destroy all the ungodly hordes surrounding the small nation of faithful men and women, to re-establish in glory the Throne of David.

Maybe what John expected was for Jesus to use his power to clean up the corrupt religious leadership, to bring the Temple elite in line, to re-establish true holiness in the worship of God.

Maybe what John expected was both of these things. What he was seeing was none of them. The Sadducees still ran the Temple like their personal property, the Romans still occupied, the only throne in the entire province was occupied by the despicable, the insufferable Herod Antipas, in whose dungeon John now languished.

And it ate at him. What if he’d been wrong? What if he’d been imagining things? He had to know! So he sent some of his disciples off, to find his cousin and ask him, point-blank: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus answers John, and in answering, he flips the question on its head. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

You see, in those days, there was a very simple system for keeping track of who had pleased God and who had sinned against God. We see a glimpse of it in the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel, where the disciples see a man who was blind from birth and ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Simply put, if you were sick, if you were blind, if you were crippled, if you were deaf, if you were a leper, if you were poor, you had done something – or perhaps your parents had done something – which caused God to punish you in that way.

Jesus said, “No. God does not hate you. God is not mad at you. The Kingdom of God is for you.”

Jesus was the one John was expecting, but he was doing things in ways neither John, nor anyone else, expected.

John expected Jesus to replace the Roman Empire with an empire of God. As it turns out, of course, this is exactly what Jesus came to do… only, instead of swords, there was Good news. Instead of spears, there was healing. Instead of siege towers, there was resurrection. Instead of castles and thrones, there was forgiveness of sins.

The Kingdom of God is not a social hierarchy, not even an inverted social hierarchy. The Kingdom of God is a covenant of equals. The opportunity to heal, to teach, to comfort, to feed, to clothe, to befriend is offered, without prejudice, to all.

Jesus isn’t just speaking to John, of course, nor is he simply addressing the crowds around him that day. Jesus speaks to us. Jeanyne B. Slettom says. “The message of both John and Jesus is a call to live according to the way of God and not the way of empire. The way of God is described over and over again by the prophets: take care of society’s most vulnerable (the widow, the orphan, the immigrant); limit the gap between rich and poor (the Year of Jubilee), do not use power to further the narrow self-interest of yourself and your friends; do not accumulate wealth at the expense of the poor. So when John’s disciples question Jesus, he answers in language they both understand: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed. This is the way of God—definitely not the way of empire. Nor is this news as reported by political shills; it is the good news that can be seen and heard by anyone who is paying attention.

“The question put to Jesus is this: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ By implication, the question is also put to us: is this the one we are to follow—which would require us to change—or can we prolong business as usual for a while longer while we wait for someone else to come? If Jesus reveals God by his unswerving fidelity to God’s way of being in the world, then do we not reveal the same when we act in fidelity to Jesus? The incarnation of God in the world is always already happening, but we can act in ways that bring more light to the strangers in our midst, to our neighbors, our friends and family members, and—as so many devoutly desire at this time of year—to ourselves.”

John was expecting a Jesus who was, more than anything, like The Terminator – out to wreak vengeance on all the perceived enemies of God. Yet Jesus came to teach and to heal, to love and forgive.

And when all that teaching and healing and loving and forgiving resulted in the whip, the cross, and the tomb, Jesus took it all – and even forgave those who were killing him. And the teaching, the healing, the loving, the forgiving didn’t stop when Jesus rose. These things continue today.

The question, then, for us is this: what kind of Jesus are we expecting to return? If we, like John, are expecting The Terminator, I think we’ll be just as disappointed as he was.

But if we’re expecting the Jesus that John’s followers were told about – the one who gave sight to the blind, who brought life to crippled limbs and light to blinded eyes, purity to lepers and life to the dead, and who preached the glorious Good News to the downtrodden and impoverished... if this is the Jesus we long for, the Jesus we confess with our lives and our lips…

Well, that's the only Christ there is. That Jesus – his humble service to the poor, the outcast, and the sinner, his willingness to eat with Pharisees as well as tax collectors and prostitutes, and most of all, his willingness to die on a Roman cross for us and for our salvation – is the judge of the nations, God's final answer to the question of what humanity, at its worst or its best, really deserves, in God's time. The extent to which I can finally embrace that truth, the extent to which I can receive others with the kind of generosity with which Jesus received those who came to him, is the extent to which I can understand just how boundless God's generosity, forgiveness, and love are toward someone like me.

And so I can say with all my heart, Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!