Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Review: A Resurrection Shaped Life: Dying and Rising on Planet Earth by Jake Owensby

I received a copy of Jake Owensby's new book A Resurrection Shaped Life: Dying and Rising on Planet Earth to read and review. Owensby is the fourth Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Western Louisiana, author of several books, and regular blogger. 

I wasn't sure what to expect going in - I've never read anything else Owensby has written, but the title and theme intrigued me. This is a short read, just over 100 pages. Chapters include themes like "Growing Beyond Our Past," "The Meaning of Suffering," "Mending Loss and Sorrow," and "Just Us." I think resurrection is sometimes a hard 'concept' for both seekers in spirituality and for long-time disciples to grasp. We want to believe in resurrection, but we have a hard time finding evidence of it in our own lives. Even perhaps believing in the resurrection of Jesus is easier than believing in our own resurrected lives, because we can keep Jesus' resurrection at a safe distance on the pages of scripture, but we can't help but notice that our own lives seem remarkable not full of new life. I think Owensby does a really remarkable job of bringing resurrection close to us, and helping us understand what resurrection looks like in the here and now. 

I really enjoyed this book. It was a balm for the soul. Some highlights: 

On repentance - "When we repent, we admit that the sorrows, the losses, the wounds, the betrayals, and the regrets of our past have made us into someone we don't want to be anymore." (7)

On suffering - "One way in which ... new life emerges is in our unguarded engagement with the suffering of others." (21)

On shame - For some people "life is a ceaseless striving to be something they aren't yet. To arrive. The problem is that they never really arrive so long as they believe that being lovable is something to strive for and achieve." (38)

On grace - In some views, "grace enters the universe as a repair kit," but for Owensby (in line with other theologians,) "when God decided to bring the world into being, Jesus was God's very first thought. That's because the creation is about love from its inception." (42) 

On sorrow - "I don't for one minute believe that the resurrection diminishes the importance of our mortal suffering. On the contrary, the resurrection saturates even the most sorrowful moments of our lives with significance. Following Jesus is all about learning to care with abandon." (57) 

On the Parable of the Foolish Virgins - "No one else can ... engage this Kingdom for you. I can't lend you my extra oil. I can't just tell you about it. You have to be there. The genuine encounter is always personal." (61) 

On reconciliation - "Nothing degrades our human dignity like our refusal to recognize it in each other." (74) 

On justice - "Would your life be worth living if you didn't do whatever it takes to pursue the dream of God's justice for all?" (92) 

On heaven and hell/Parable of the Talents - "A carefree life comes much closer to hell than to heaven ... The only path to blamelessness is to be uncaring. To care is to invest in what's going on around you, to take risks, to suffer loss, to be accountable, and to commit." (100-101)

Finally, "Life is not about being endlessly Carefree. It's about being unguardedly, relentlessly caring. At the end of the day, our tears will be wiped away. But the point is that we have shed tears ... Tears of love. We have not protected ourselves from Pain and sorrow and loss." (103)

There are brief sets of study guide questions at the end of each chapter for personal or group use. I definitely recommend giving this book a read!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Sermon for Baptism of the Lord, Year C, "Disney and the Gospels: The Lion King," Luke 3:7-18, 21-22

Sermon 1/13/19
Luke 3:7-18, 21-22

Disney and the Gospels: The Circle of Life

“From the day we arrive on the planet And blinking, step into the sun. There's more to see than can ever be seen, More to do than can ever be done. There's far too much to take in here, More to find than can ever be found. But the sun rolling high Through the sapphire sky Keeps great and small on the endless round. It's the circle of life And it moves us all Through despair and hope, Through faith and love, Till we find our place, On the path unwinding In the circle. The circle of life.”
How many of you have seen the movie or the stage production of The Lion King? The stage version is really stunning, and if you get the chance to see it, you really should go. (It’s coming to Syracuse again this fall, maybe we’ll have to make a group trip.) “The Circle of Life” is the very first song in The Lion King, and these words open the whole story. As we hear them, we find lions Mufasa, who is the king of the animals, and Sarabi his wife presenting their child to all the animals - the baby lion Simba. We’re celebrating the baptism of Jesus today, and there are a lot of baptism-like symbols in this opening scene of The Lion King. Simba is born. He’s marked by the priest-figure of the community, Rafiki. He’s recognized and welcomed by the whole community as part of them. He’s too little to know the significance of this ritual himself, but that’s ok. Everyone is celebrating who he is, who is parents are, and what they think his role will one day be. It’s a beautiful, hopeful beginning, as Simba is initiated into the community and marked as a future leader.
But things don’t stay beautiful for long. When Simba is a child, a series of events, including the actions of an Uncle Scar who wishes he were the king in the place of his brother Mufasa, result in Mufasa’s death and Simba’s exile from the community. Simba believes he is responsible for his father’s death, and he believes that his actions are completely unforgivable. He believes that his mother and the rest of his family, his friends, his community - there is no way they could possibly still love him or want him around if they knew that he was the reason Mufasa had died, even if it was an accident. And so despite the way his community welcomed him into their midst just because he was born, just because he existed, Simba spends most of his formative life away from all these people, trying to forget who he was supposed to be. It isn’t until years later when Simba is an adult that he finally discovers that he’s been wrong about a lot of things, and takes the chance to reconcile with his family and his community. Most of all, he learns to forgive himself, and learns that he has never been without the love of the people who matter most to him, despite the mistakes he’s made. The end of Lion King mirrors the beginning, only now instead of being the newborn, Simba is the father. He’s a parent, he’s the leader of his community, and he’s ready to have his child recognized and welcomed just as he had been so long ago.    
As I said, there are a lot of symbols in that opening scene of The Lion King that remind me of the themes of baptism - initiation into the community, who is gathered to watch, even the making a sign on the forehead, the claiming of an identity of who the baptized one is and will be. Today, it is Jesus’ baptism in particular that we remember, and in studying his baptism, we find the meaning of ours. Although all of the gospels include Jesus’ baptism, telling us it is important, none of them spend an awfully long time on the details. And that’s too bad, because over the millennia since then, people have had a lot of questions about Jesus being baptized. It seems easy to understand why we are baptized. John talks about baptism, repentance, and forgiveness, and we know we need that - we need to turn away from all paths but God’s path, and be forgiven for our sins, our failures to live as God calls us to. But why would Jesus need to participate in the ritual of baptism?
Although Luke doesn’t give us many verses of detail about Jesus’ baptism, he does give us lots of context for it in our reading for today. John, who we know as John the baptizer, has appeared in the wilderness, and he’s been traveling all around the region telling folks they should be baptized as a sign of their repentance so that their sins might be forgiven. To repent means to change direction from whatever way you’re going in your heart and mind and life that’s not God’s direction, and turn around so that you’re back on God’s way. Baptism - which (as my college Greek professor loved reminding me) literally means “to be dipped” in water - was a symbol, a ritual that folks participated in when they wanted to make a fresh start. It was a symbol of newness, new life, a clean slate, a new beginning. Such water rituals were practiced in many cultures, many religious traditions. But beginning with John, the meaning of baptism starts to shift and take on specific meanings.
John tells folks that they have to bear fruit worthy of repentance. In other words, they have to show that they’ve repented with their actions. It isn’t enough to say that you’ve turned your life back to God’s path, if all the while you are still traveling just as fast down your own road as you ever were. You have to have fruit, the results of your claim of repentance. Hearing this, the crowds who have come to hear John preach wonder to him, “What then should we do?” They want to make sure they’re showing their work. I think of all the times you have to show your work in school, especially in subjects like math. It isn’t enough just to get the right answer. Teachers want to see that students actually know how to end up with the right answer, beyond a lucky guess or some convoluted method that ended up with the right result. Having to show my work was always frustrating to me - sometimes I just knew the answer but explaining how I knew was harder.
John, in response, gives them ways to demonstrate their repentance: If you have two coats, share one. If you have more food than you need, give the rest away. If you are a tax-collector, take only what you’re supposed to. If you’re a soldier, don’t threaten folks and falsely accuse them from your position of power. What John suggests isn’t earth shattering, but it does require consistently making sure to put the needs of others first, to put love of neighbor into action, to match the desire for repentance with acts of repentance.
So, the context of Jesus’s baptism is this expectation, anticipation that something is happening. Something is changing. People are longing to turn their lives around. They’re ready to start new, to start fresh, to get a clean slate and a chance to try again to follow God. John has them so filled with hope people even start to think he might be the messiah, but John says he’s just the messenger. He baptizes with water, but someone is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. In John’s vision, the messiah will come with a winnowing-fork, ready to separate wheat and chaff, good fruit, and stuff that doesn’t measure up.
Instead, Jesus seems to slip into the picture without announcement or fanfare, without explanation. People were coming to be baptized, and Jesus came too. And after John dips him into the water, the heavens open up, and the Holy Spirit that John mentions comes not with fire, not now, but as a dove, and with it, God’s voices: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And with that, Luke moves on from the baptism to other things.
So why is Jesus baptized? I wonder if we get the order of things a little bit wrong, if John the baptizer gets the order a little bit wrong. In baptism, we celebrate that we are claimed by God. That’s what God says to Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus is God’s beloved child, and that is confirmed at his baptism, even though it is already true. His baptism is the celebration, the demonstration of what is already so. Because sometimes we need reminding, don’t we? Certainly, this reminder gives Jesus strength for his work, and knowing, deeply knowing we belong to God and God loves us can change our whole lives. So I think either John misunderstands who Jesus is and how God works, or we misunderstand what John is saying if we conclude that we have to repent before God will claim us as belonging to God in baptism. We are already claimed by God. We already belong to God. God already loves us without measure, without condition. We repent, we turn back toward God and toward forgiveness when we’re ready to acknowledge, accept, receive, and be assured of what is already true. So when John tells us to “show our work” and bear fruit, we can’t earn God’s love - we already have that. Instead, our fruit is the result of God’s love, the result of the soil and water and sun that God’s love is in our lives. Because we’re claimed by God, we’re forgiven. Because we are beloved of God.
When we watch a story like The Lion King, we know, children know that Simba doesn’t need to run away after Mufasa dies. We find ourselves wishing that Simba had instead found his mother and told her everything. We find ourselves wishing the truth would be revealed. We know when everything comes to light, Simba will be welcomed home with rejoicing, not punished. Simba is the one punishing himself, but we know that he’s always loved. Of course, it would make a pretty short story if Simba didn’t have to learn those truths for himself. But even as we know these things when we watch the story of The Lion King unfold, I wonder if we know them in our own lives. Sometimes, we’re pretty sure we’ve screwed up in a way that means we are no longer welcome in our community or congregation. Sometimes, we’re sure we’ve messed up in a way that means we no longer belong to God. Sometimes, we believe that we’ve done something that can’t be forgiven. Sometimes, we’re positive that no matter how much fruit we try to produce, it will never be enough to bring about reconciliation.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, that’s why we don’t “rebaptize” in The United Methodist Church: we don’t need to. We baptize once, our way of celebrating that we’re accepting God’s gift of grace, and then we spend the left of our lives renewing the vows of our baptism, remembering and reaffirming that we’ve been claimed as God’s beloved. Because we already belong to God, and God has already made promises to us, and God never wavers - never - in calling us beloved. And so we don’t ever need to redo something that for God has never stopped, never failed, never faltered. And as we learn that - that we are God’s beloved - as we trust that - that God is well-pleased to call us God’s own - that sure foundation is what transforms our lives. Resting in God’s love is what will allow us to bear the fruit of repentance, as we continually turn our lives to God, always finding a welcome there. Friends, you are God’s children. You are beloved. With you, God is well-pleased. Amen.   

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Sermon for Epiphany Sunday, "Disney and the Gospels: Moana," Matthew 2:1-12

Sermon 1/6/2019
Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12

Disney and the Gospels: Moana

What comes to mind when you hear the word “journey”? (Aside, of course, from the the music of the awesome band Journey!) When I think in terms of literal journeys, trips, I think especially of the cross-country road trips I’ve taken. I’ve done three of them now, where I’ve driven out west and back. It was something I always wanted to do. When I was in my first appointment, I finally started making plans. I booked hotels. I reserved a place at the Grand Canyon, long on my list of places to see. I made plans to visit with friends. But just before I was about to start, I had a swollen lymph node that I had gotten checked out. My doctor didn’t think it was a big deal, but sent me for CT scan anyway. While I was on the first day of my road trip, driving somewhere in Ohio, I got the results: I had several enlarged lymph nodes, and the doctor wanted to check them out. I’m sure I could have continued on my trip, and seen my doctor when I got back, but I was now a panicked mess, and after one day of traveling, I canceled all the rest of my reservations, turned around, and went home. The lymph nodes - after a few more tests and more waiting - it was nothing. I was fine. But it was a few more years before I got to take my road trip. Finally, I again made all my plans and reservations, this time heading ultimately to Portland, where my brother Tim was living at the time. And I did it - I drove across the country. I visited my friends out west. I saw the Grand Canyon, still one of my favorite places. And once I made that first trip, and knew I could do it? Go cross-country by myself? I’ve made that journey west a couple of more times, and taken my mother to the Grand Canyon, and am even now thinking about when my next trip might be.
Or there are the metaphorical journeys. The journey of becoming a pastor was a long one. It took a lot of years - nine, in fact - from the time I started the ordination process to the time I became an elder. But that journey was actually pretty smooth. Things went basically as planned. I hit all the mile-markers as I expected, when I expected. God called, I answered, and followed the plan mapped out for me in detail. Other journeys are harder. You may remember me telling you that when I was appointed to Gouverneur, I was - reluctant. I had been serving a church that I loved, and I had been struggling with my sense of call, and had been trying to figure out ways to stay where I was and it just wasn’t working. I wasn’t expecting an appointment in the North Country. I took “the journey” of this appointment because it was what I had committed to as an elder who itinerates, goes from place to place as the Bishop sends us. But I wasn’t happy about it! I journeyed dragging my feet. It wasn’t long, though, before I discovered that God was of course with me on this journey too, and that I had been called to just the place I was supposed to be, to serve with a people I love.
What memorable journeys have you taken, literal or metaphorical, that stand out to you? This past week I posted about the trip I hope to take to Disney with my family next summer, and I found out people get pretty passionate sharing about their journeys to Disney World. Is there some place you traveled to that you really looked forward to, or that took a lot of effort to plan and execute? What about your metaphorical journeys? What goals have you set out and accomplished that took journeying through a lot of years, or a lot of paperwork, or a lot of assignments, or a lot of struggles to get there? What journeys were you eager to take? When did you set out dragging your feet the whole way?  I think of some of the journeys I know you have faced, or are even in the midst of now. We’ve got folks who have been on a journey for better health, or are starting out with the RipIt challenge. We’ve got young people who are journeying through school, through childhood, and young adulthood, and figuring out what journey God wants them to take as they look to college and beyond. We have some families who are journeying through preparing to welcome a new life. Some of our families are taking the journey that involves moving out of home into assisted living or to an apartment or in with family. Sometimes, we have folks who are taking that journey we all will - from life into death and life beyond. What journeys have you taken? Where has God called you?
For the next few weeks, we’ll be using themes from some Disney films to explore the teachings of Jesus, and first up is a fairly new Disney film, Moana. How many of you have seen Moana? I really enjoyed the movie. Like some of the other newer Disney films, it breaks the typical mold of a princess who spends half the movie waiting for a prince to come and save her. Moana is her own person. Moana is a young woman who feels called by the ocean. She’s felt the calling ever since she was a small child. She doesn’t know exactly what the ocean wants her to do, but she knows it has a journey in mind for her. Her parents, however, and her father in particular have other ideas. Her father is the chief of her village, and she will one day take that role. He wants her to be attentive to the tasks that will help her grow into her future as the leader of the community. And he doesn’t want anything to do with the ocean. The whole people used to be voyagers, but they stopped long ago, and discourage anyone from setting sail - especially a person who needs to stick around as a future leader.
The song Taylor sang for us today, “How Far I’ll Go,” is Moana singing of her longing to answer the call of the ocean, and head out on whatever journey it has in store for her. She sings, “I've been staring at the edge of the water 'Long as I can remember, never really knowing why. I wish I could be the perfect daughter But I come back to the water, no matter how hard I try. Every turn I take, every trail I track, Every path I make, every road leads back To the place I know, where I can not go, where I long to be. See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me And no one knows, how far it goes. If the wind in my sail on the sea stays behind me One day I'll know, if I go there's just no telling how far I'll go. I know everybody on this island, seems so happy on this island. Everything is by design. I know everybody on this island has a role on this island So maybe I can roll with mine. I can lead with pride, I can make us strong. I'll be satisfied if I play along But the voice inside sings a different song. What is wrong with me? See the light as it shines on the sea? It's blinding But no one knows, how deep it goes. And it seems like it's calling out to me, so come find me And let me know, what's beyond that line, will I cross that line?”
Eventually, of course, Moana does set sail, answers the call, and takes a journey that ends up saving her people from starvation, bring restoration and new life to her community. Her journey is filled with a lot of struggles, a lot of setbacks, a lot of people who try to keep her from doing what she feels she must. But she persists, and she completes the journey.
“But the voice inside sings a different song ... See the light as it shines on the sea? It's blinding But no one knows, how deep it goes. And it seems like it's calling out to me … What's beyond that line? Will I cross that line?” What is that voice inside you calling you to? Do you see the light? Are you seeking its source, figuring out how deep into your heart it goes? Are you answering the call?
There’s another journey we’re thinking about today, on this Epiphany Sunday. Matthew tells us that Herod was king during the time when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Seemingly out of nowhere, some “wise men”, people who were famous for studying the stars - something between astrologers and astronomers perhaps, they show up “from the East,” a vague description of their origin, and ask Herod, “Where is the child born to be king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” There are many astonishing things about these verses. Why would these wise folks care about the king of the Jews, a tiny little tribe in the scheme of the world? Why would they travel a distance to see him? Why would they want to worship him, since they certainly weren’t Jewish themselves? And did they think the child was Herod’s son? After all, Herod was king of the Jews, so if the child they’re looking for is anyone other than Herod’s son, they can’t believe Herod would be too excited to hear about another king being born. But clearly, whatever they saw in the sky, whatever the Star of Bethlehem meant to them, God was calling to them through it. They  journeyed a long distance, not knowing what they would see or find, only because they wanted to bring gifts, and worship. Have you ever set out on a journey with so many unknowns?
Herod, of course, is not excited to hear this news about some other potential king. So he gathers his other wise folks - chief priests and teachers of the law, and tries to figure out from them where a potential messiah (that is an anointed one, a label for a king) might be born. They figure out that Bethlehem is the place, and Herod then sends the visitors from the east to find the child. He says he wants them to report back, so that he, too, might worship this child. If the wise men were really very wise, that should set off alarm bells in their head. What king wants to bow down to another who might have claim on their throne? The wise men head to Bethlehem, are thrilled to see the child, and offer him their gifts, gifts for a king. And then, satisfied, they leave. Thankfully, they are warned about Herod’s intentions in a dream, and they go back home by a different route. Such a journey, to visit the Christ-child and bring him some gifts. We have no idea what happens to these folks later, how their journey impacts them, what they do next, how their lives are different. But we know this - they were called to a journey. They followed the star, seeking and searching until they got answers. They came face to face with Jesus, and they worshiped him and gave him their very best.
Inspired by Moana’s journey, and the journey of the wise men, I want you to search your hearts and ask God what journey is in store for you in 2019 and beyond? How will you follow God’s light, and where will it lead you? Are you brave enough to set out, guided by the star of Christ, even if you’re not sure what you will find where the light rests? To focus us on our journey this year, we’re receiving Star Gifts today, which will remind us to follow the light as we set out on our journeys.
I’d never heard of the practice of giving a Star Gift or Star Word on Epiphany until a year ago or so. I’m part of a group called “Rev Gals” on facebook that developed out of a group of clergywomen who kept blogs, especially about a decade ago, when everyone was blogging - myself included. In this group, we often share resources for ministry, and I noticed that a lot of people were talking about this Star Gift thing. I read the article that I also shared with you all in the newsletter this month, and on the same day I bookmarked the article, thinking to try sharing Star Gifts this year, Glenda sent me an article about the very same thing. I figured it was a pretty good sign that we should try it!
The original article says, “Every person who comes to church on Epiphany Sunday receives a star gift and is asked to reflect on that word for the coming year. The people are invited to ponder what significance this word might have in their lives, and how God might be speaking to them through that simple message … The wise men who traveled great distances to offer their gifts to the newborn Christ-child were responding to the gift first given to them. They received God’s gift, then offered their gifts to God. As we commemorate the arrival of the wise men and remember their offerings, we delight in this paper reminder that symbolizes God’s generosity in our lives … Epiphany is the celebration of God’s presence breaking through to shine as a light in the darkness. Each year our congregation rejoices in the reminder of our generous, giving God—one star gift at a time.” (https://revgalblogpals.org/star-words/)
We have so many expectations for a new year. We can put so much pressure on ourselves, making resolutions and promises to ourselves about how much “fixing” we’re going to do in our lives. But this year, maybe you can just commit to opening your lives, your hearts to an Epiphany - a revealing of the light, a revealing of Christ at work in our lives. You can’t fail at that, because the light of Christ is unwavering. If you search for it, you’ll find it. And when you see the light, when you hear the call, let’s commit to following the star, wherever it leads. Let’s be brave, and go on whatever journey God call us to take. Sometimes the light will lead us outside of our comfort zones. Sometimes, not everyone around us will support our answering the call. But you can’t get lost if you just stick with the light, which is constant. Will you journey with Jesus this year, and beyond? It might require as much planning and attention and as great a commitment of resources as planning my family’s perfect Disney vacation! But when we follow the star, when we answer the call, we, like the wise men, will find that our lives are overwhelmed with joy. Amen.  

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Sermon for Christmas Eve, "The Verbs of Christmas," Luke 2:1-20

Sermon 12/24/18
Luke 2:1-20

The Verbs of Christmas

As I shared in my Christmas letter this year, I recently finished reading Anna Carter Florence’s book Rehearsing Scripture: Discovering God’s Word in Community. Anna Carter Florence is a professor of preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, and I have had the privilege of hearing her preach and lecture when I’ve attended the Festival of Homiletics, a preaching conference. Two memorable times stick out to me. Once, she designed her preaching and worship around the conference, held in May, as an Easter Morning Service. We started out singing Christ the Lord Is Risen Today, and she preached a resurrection sermon. Like most of the other attendees, I’m usually leading worship on Easter Sunday, not attending worship. It’s been 15 years or so since I just attended worship on Easter Morning. I didn’t realize how much I had needed it. I think I cried through the whole service. And this last year she preached on the book of Job, one of the hardest books of the Bible to figure out, and she blew me away, helping me understand the scripture in a way I never had before. I find her preaching to be a balm for my soul. So, when I heard her mention her new book, Rehearsing Scripture, I knew I had to pick it up.
I was so glad I did! I found her work profoundly moving, and I also found it practical, with many concrete suggestions for how we can read scripture together. She takes themes from theatre and acting, something she has experience with in her background, and she applies them to how we read scripture. One of Carter Florence’s first guidelines is to “read the verbs” in a text.  She invites readers of scripture to focus less on the nouns in the text, and more on the verbs, the action of scripture. Focusing on the nouns keeps us separate from the Bible stories, she says, because the nouns can be so unlike ours - confusing names and places and objects. If we focus on the nouns, which are strange to us, it is hard to notice how much we have in common with our biblical forebears. But, our verbs haven’t changed. We share verbs with people in the Bible.
She writes, “We all have verbs - the same ones, actually. You and I share verbs with Adam and Eve and Abraham and Sarah and Moses and Miriam and Ruth and Naomi. We share verbs with Mary and Joseph and Peter and James and John and Martha and Lydia and Paul. We even share verbs with Jesus. That does appear to be the whole point of the Incarnation, doesn’t it? - that God came to share our verbs. The Word became one of us and lived among us. Apparently, even God thought the best way to reach us was to meet us, verb for verb. Meet us and raise us and change the whole game.” (20)  
God came to share our verbs! I’ve certainly never heard the incarnation, God becoming one of us in the birth of Jesus - described quite like that. Carter Florence gives some guidelines for how we read the verbs of scripture. She says that we should note “who gets what verbs”: For example, in Genesis 3, what verbs does God get and what verbs do people get? What verbs does Adam get and what verbs to Eve and snake get? And, we should note in what order the verbs appear, like how in Genesis 1 God says and then right after there is. It gives us a pretty clear sense of our place in the creation. God first, the creator, then us, the creatures. And, we should ask what verbs surprise us and why. Where is there a verb in the text that catches us off guard, catches our attention? (Chapter 3)
What happens when we apply Carter Florence’s questions to our Christmas story? What happens when we focus on the verbs of the nativity story? What does the angel do? What do Mary and Joseph do? What do the shepherds and Magi do? What are their action words? Once we figure that out, we get to the most important questions of all: What is it that God does at Christmas, and what will we do in response? What will our verbs be, because of how God acts in the world and in our hearts?  
So, I did as Carter Florence suggested, and looked over our text from Luke 2 and focused on the verbs, and who gets what verbs, and what order they show up in. When we do that, here’s what we get. Emperor decreed. World registered. All went. Joseph went. He went. Mary was expecting. Time came. Mary gave birth. Mary wrapped the baby. Mary laid the baby in a manger. Shepherds lived. Shepherds kept watch. Angel stood. Glory shone. Shepherds were terrified. Don’t fear! See! Angel brings good news. Shepherds will find. Baby lays in manger. Angels praise. God favors! Angels left, went to heaven. Shepherds said. Shepherds go. Shepherds went with haste. Shepherds found. Baby lays in manger. Shepherds saw. Shepherds made known. All heard. All were amazed. Mary treasured. Mary pondered. Shepherds returned. Shepherds glorified. Shepherds praised because shepherds heard and shepherds saw what angel told. This text really moves when we focus on those verbs, doesn’t it? Let’s take a deeper look.
I notice Mary and Joseph’s verbs. I admire Joseph’s verbs. Joseph went, went, went (and of course Mary with him!) If you’re in worship on Sunday, you’ll hear the scriptures about what happens while Jesus is still a baby, you’ll find that the little holy family has more much travel ahead of them. Joseph does a lot of going where God tells him to go. And Mary gets an impressive set of verbs - Gave birth. Wraps the baby, lays the baby down. Treasures. Ponders. Her verbs succinctly deliver to us the Savior of the World, and in the midst of so much busyness, she just reflects in her soul on all that has happened. I’m not sure I’d have it as together as Mary does. The angels have dramatic verbs. Glory shines near them. They praise. They issue imperatives - verbs that leave no wiggle room - Don’t fear! See! Find!  
But when I’m looking for a set of verbs that we might share more fully in this Christmas story, the shepherds really shine in this text. Depending on how you count, they get almost half of the verbs in this passage. They live. They keep watch. They are afraid. But they will find the baby, the Savior. They talk. They go. They go with haste. They find. They see. They tell. They hear. They are amazed. They return. They give glory. They praise, because they heard, and they saw.
It is their verbs that I connect most to in this story. They’re living. They’re working. That’s just their day to day. Living and working. Can you relate? They’re just doing their everyday thing. But then God speaks, through the angels. As a rule of thumb, when we’re reading the verbs in scripture, God’s speaking should be followed by our acting. And we certainly see that here. The angels speak on God’s behalf to the shepherds, and it prompts their let’s-make-haste reaction. The shepherds are terrified when the angels first appear. As much as we (say we) long for it, sometimes the ways God shows up in our life are terrifying! We didn’t mean like that, God! Maybe just a warm feeling during the Christmas Eve service, not showing up in all your glory sending us on a quest! Disrupting all that living and working we’re used to doing!
But the shepherds move beyond their fear because of the words of God through the agnels. Once the shepherds act, they find that things are just as God through the angels have told them. How do we react when God speaks to us? What has God shown you? What do you do in response?  The shepherds go, and they go with haste. And they find the good news God has told them they will find: a savior, a great joy, a sign of peace for all people. They see it, and they tell how God sent them. And everyone hears and is amazed.
And then, they return, the shepherds, back to their flocks. They haven’t abandoned their lives. They don’t become celebrities. They’re still shepherds. They return, though, praising and thanking and glorifying God for what they’ve experienced. I wonder: How do you think their lives might have changed? They’re still shepherds, but maybe they think differently about what that means. Maybe they think differently about how God works in the world. Maybe their faith is forever strengthened because God spoke to them, and they went and saw. Maybe they understood for the first time that God wasn’t just for the priests and the scholars and the religious authorities. God was for them! Maybe what they heard and saw and did gave them to courage to hear even more from God, see even more of God at work in the world, and do even more in response to God’s amazing gift in the Christ-child. What will their next verbs be? We don’t know, but I bet they get some new ones, after God changes the world like this.  
How about you? When you return from your visit to the Christ-child this Christmas, what will your verbs be? Hopefully, we can start by sharing some verbs with the shepherds. We praise. We glorify, because Christ is born and God is with us. God speaks and we act. What will we do because of what we have heard and seen? What will your new verbs be? Amen.  

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Sermon, "Advent in Narnia: Aslan Is on the Move," Micah 3:1-7, Luke 1:26-38, 46-55

Sermon 12/23/18
Micah 3:1-7, Luke 1:26-38, 46-55

Advent in Narnia: Aslan Is on the Move

When Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie first meet Mr. Beaver in Narnia, he says to them nearly right away, “They say Aslan is on the move - perhaps has already landed.” Aslan is the great lion, the true King of Narnia, the Christ figure of the series. But up until this point, none of the children have ever heard this name mentioned. Mr. Tumnus hadn’t mentioned Aslan to Lucy, and the White Witch certainly did not mention Aslan to Edmund. So at first, the children only have this name that Mr. Beaver speaks to them, as he indicates he wants to take them to see Aslan soon.
Each child reacts differently to hearing the name of Aslan. The narrator describes it to us: “Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don't understand but in the dream it feels as if it has some enormous meaning - either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside. Edmund felt the sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.” (64-65)
Mr. Beaver can’t tell the children more about Aslan though until they are safely at his home. The children are eager to hear about him. As soon as they start back into the conversation about him, they have that same feeling they did on first hearing his name, “like the first signs of spring, like good news” had come over them. (74) Mr. Beaver can’t believe they don’t know who Aslan is.
“Aslan?” said Mr. Beaver, “Why don’t you know? He’s the King. He’s the Lord of the whole wood, but not often here, you understand … But word has reached us that he has come back. He is in Narnia at this moment. He’ll settle the White Queen all right. It is he, not you, that will save Mr. Tumnus.” When Edmund suggests that the White Witch might turn Aslan into stone, Mr. Beaver laughs. “Turn him into stone? If she can stand on her two feet and look him in the face it’ll be the most she can do and more than I expect of her. No, no: He’ll put all to rights as it says in an old rhyme … ‘Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight. At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more. When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death and when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.’” (74-75)
Finally, Lucy asks a critical question. “Is - is he a man?” Again, Mr. Beaver is amazed by how little the children know. “Aslan a man! Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beast? Aslan is a lion - the Lion, the great Lion.”
Susan feels afraid at the thought of meeting a lion. “Is he - quite safe?” she wonders. Mrs. Beaver responds that feeling nervous is only sensible. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” (75-76)
“Then he isn’t safe?” Lucy asks. “Safe?” says Mr. Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” Despite all that’s been said, Peter says that he still longs to meet Aslan, even if he is afraid. And with that, they begin planning to get the children to meet Aslan.
In this season of Advent, we are longing to meet the Christ-child. We’ve been preparing and planning and awaiting his arrival. What are we picturing, when we imagine Jesus coming into our world yet again this season? The children don’t seem, at first, to have a good sense of who Aslan is. They can’t imagine him, meeting this lion, this king, this one the Beavers won’t even declare to be safe. Even so, they long to meet him. When we turn to the scriptures for descriptions of the Messiah we’re longing to meet, how is he described? How do the images the authors of our texts conjure match with the vision of Jesus we have in our minds?
Our first reading is from the book of Malachi, one of the prophets. Malachi wasn’t necessarily a name, though, an individual. Malachi means “the messenger in Hebrew. So it could be a name, or it could be a title Either way, Malachi delivers a message. Malachi was most likely written sometime after the Israelites had returned from exile, and were again living in the land. The temple had been rebuilt. The covenant restored. People were feeling pretty good. But Malachi has noticed that some of the Israelites - some of the religious leaders in particular - are starting to get lax in their behavior. They’re doing some of the same things that the people were doing that led to the conquering and exile of Israel in the first place.
Malachi writes as a corrective warning: “The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight - indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming? And who can stand when he appears?” The one who is coming, Malachi says, is like a refiner’s fire, like fuller’s soap, both things that are meant to cleanse something of impurities. The one who is coming will swiftly judge those who go against the ways of God, against those who oppress others. “Return to me,” we hear, “and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.”
In our gospel readings from Luke, we find Mary hearing about the coming of the Christ-child, and the role she will play - she will carry him in her own womb. Mary, certainly, gets some ideas about who this Christ-child will be, what he will be like, what he will become. What does she say about him?  In the first part of the text, Gabriel arrives with a message for Mary, and we get a description of Jesus: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Whoa! Despite this enormous announcement - Hey, young, single, peasant woman: You are going to give birth to a King, the Son of God in fact. And he’s going to reign forever! - Mary has just one question - how? Gabriel explains that she’ll conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit, and that nothing is impossible with God. And Mary is apparently satisfied. She says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary does not seem stunned by God’s actions in her. She’s only “perplexed,” which seems a pretty mild description, and even that only when Gabriel first greets her. On the contrary, she seems to find God’s actions just right. When she later spends time with her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with who we call John the Baptist, Mary has a clear vision of who God is and how God is working through this child she carries to shake up the whole world. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings. “God has looked on my lowliness with favor. Surely, people will forever think of me as blessed, because God has done great things for me. God has shown strength, God has scattered the proud, brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things, sent the rich away empty. God has helped Israel. God is mercy, fulfilling the promises made to Abraham and the descendants of Abraham.”
Like the children listening to Mr. and Mrs. Beaver for their descriptions of Aslan, we’ve heard some descriptions of this Christ-child we’ve been longing to see. Are we still eager to meet him? As we come to the end of this season of Advent, I hope we can pause now, one last time, and make sure we understand who exactly this Christ-child is. It is pretty easy to get excited about a baby soon-to-be born. And I love the sweet images of Mary holding a newborn Jesus, of the little family, of God being born as one of us, like us, humble and dependent just as we are. But we can’t forget why Jesus is born, and we can’t forget who he grows up to be, and what we says and does. We can’t even forget why and how he died. And thankfully, we can’t forget that he lives, that we follow a resurrected savior. Even as Mary treasures and ponders at Jesus’ birth, we see already from the words of her song, what we call the Magnificat, that Mary knows, understands, even if in part, who her child is.
Sometimes, when we hear a powerful message that convicts our hearts, where we know if we really let the message seep in we’ll have to make changes, our strategy seems to be finding anyway we can to dull the impact of the message. I think, for example, of how Dr. Martin Luther King’s words have been used in commercials for soft drinks and expensive cars, something hard to imagine him supporting, or even how we tend to only read and listen to some of his speeches, not the ones that were calling out capitalism and militarism. I think we can do this with the message of Jesus, too, with the work and words of God, when we water down the power of God’s message to us because we’re secretly - or not so secretly - worried about how significantly God will call us to transform our lives. And so sometimes we can welcome the baby Jesus, tender and mild, and be trying hard not to think about the stuff he will say, calling us to repentance, calling us to take up crosses, calling us to leave everything to follow him. But Jesus the Christ-Child and Jesus who asks for our everything are one and the same!   
The Pevensie children are longing to meet Aslan. But they’re also hoping that Aslan is safe. Tame. Human, at least! Aslan is none of those things. Aslan is a lion. Aslan is Ruler of all of Narnia. Aslan isn’t safe, but he’s good. And Aslan is on the move, ready to turn things upside down in Narnia. We are longing to meet Jesus again. And we will! Soon! But friends, though Jesus is one of us, he’s also God-made flesh. He is the Ruler of everything that is. He isn’t safe. He doesn’t call us to paths that are always safe and easy. But he is good. And he is on the move, ready to turn the world upside down again. Let this be the Christ we are longing to welcome. Amen.