Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Advent, "In the Fullness of Time"

Sermon 12/20/09, Luke 1:39-55

In the Fullness of Time

When my older brother was a freshman in college, I had a really hard time adjusting to all the changes happening in his life. I was a 7th grader at the time, and my brother was a philosophy major, who was suddenly enlightened, and would come home and try to engage me in debate about the meaning of life – or the lack thereof, depending on my perspective or his! He was just too much to take – Jim, and the sudden epiphanies of understanding that he wanted to share with us. Six years later, when I started college myself, I somehow didn’t see the same behavior in myself, when I actually took to photocopying pages of my freshman Christian Ethics textbook and sending them home to my mother and pastor. It was just that I was reading about things I was pretty sure no one else had really thought about before, and my mind was expanding with the fascination of this new knowledge. I still remember vividly one of the first things I learned about – the theological concepts of time – chronos and kairos – and sending home highlighted pages of my text book to explain this all to my pastor, who very graciously did not laugh at me.

All these years later, I still love these concepts though. Chronos is the Greek word for our regular, ordinary, everyday time. Our human time. The seconds, the minutes, the hours, the days moving just as they do. But kairos – kairos is time in a different way. Kairos is God’s time – specifically, “God’s right time for action.” Usually the word “chronos” is used in Greek texts to talk about time. But in the gospels, this “kairos” – God’s right time for action – is used more often than chronos – regular time. And that makes sense, because the scriptures are full of stories about God’s right time for things to happen.

This Advent, we’re talking about time. We’ve talked about the time of God’s kingdom drawing near. We’ve talked about what to do in the time in between. We’ve talked about John’s urgency for our repentance, his message of “time’s up.” And certainly, as Christmas draws ever closer, but we hover here at the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we’re thinking about time. Christmas is just 5 days away. It seems like we were just lighting the first Advent Candle. Really, it seems like we were just starting back-to-school! But already, Christmas is upon us. And so, we are very aware of time, and how it passes, quickly and slowly all at once, at this time of the year. But this week in particular, we are talking about the fullness of time.

When we’re talking about God’s right time, the fullness of time in which God moves and acts in our lives, I think about all the images in scripture that describe us as vessels – alabaster jars, clay pots, these vessels that are waiting to be filled up by God. And there are images too that talk about being filled to the brim – I think that is God’s aim for us – to fill our lives to the very brim. But sometimes God is filling us with a gushing hose, and sometimes God is filling us drip by drop. What is God’s right time for action?

Think of how many things have to happen in just the right time. I love to bake, and I just recently baked probably a couple thousand cookies, between cookies for my family, cookies to mail to friends, and cookies for our cookie walk yesterday. I’m in a new apartment this year, with a new oven to get used to, and I certainly had some adjustment difficulties in my baking. I couldn’t figure out just the right amount of time to bake batches of cookies. You know that most recipes call for things to be baked for a range of time – something like 6-8 minutes for a tray of cookies. But sometimes the difference between the 6 and the 8 means the difference between doughy undercooked cookies and burnt-to-a-crisp cookies. They have to be baked for just the right, perfect amount of time to turn out the way you want them. Think of fruit that has to be ripe to eat and enjoy to the fullest. Fruit eaten a few days too early just doesn’t have the right flavor or consistency. Fruit past its prime can quickly turn squishy and bad. You have just a small window that is the right time for truly fresh fruit.

I’ve been thinking about time and how the ‘right time’ plays into events in the course of our history too. Next month we’ll celebrate Martin Luther King Day, and I’ve been thinking about time and the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King was especially frustrated with his white clergy colleagues, because they kept telling him he shouldn’t push so hard, so fast for change. They wanted to wait, to go more slowly, to take things baby step by baby step. But King knew that the time was right just then – the time was now – the time was full and ready and just right for major change to transform the United States. It was certainly God’s right time for action – just the right time for God to act.

Today, our gospel lesson brings us an encounter between two women who might have questioned God’s sense of timing in their lives. We have Elizabeth, who the Bible describes as “getting on in years,” and barren, conditions that make her husband even doubt the angel Gabriel when he tells him Elizabeth will bear a son, and she is here several months pregnant with a child we know will be John the Baptist. And we have Mary – probably a 13 or 14 year old, who is engaged, but not yet married, also suddenly found to be with child – the child Jesus. These two women could have, might have, wondered about God’s timing in their lives. Why couldn’t Elizabeth have become pregnant 20 years earlier? Would it have made a difference if John were 20 years instead of a few months older than Jesus? Why couldn’t Mary have become pregnant after marrying Joseph? For a young unwed woman in Mary’s day to be found pregnant could carry the penalty of death by stoning. Why put Mary at such a risk?

Beyond Mary and Elizabeth themselves, the whole people Israel might have wondered at God’s timing. They’d been waiting for the messiah for literally hundreds of years. The prophet Isaiah wrote some 500 years before Jesus’ birth. Micah, whose words we heard in our Call to Worship this morning, is an even older voice – more than 700 years ago he wrote the words describing one who would be “the one of peace.” The people had been through war and destruction of their temple. They’d been through exile from their home. They’d been through foreign occupation of their holy lands – more than once. They were longing, waiting, and hoping for a messiah. Not everyone, to be sure. But there was a deep sense of need, of waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled. Why was it so long for them to wait? And why then did God come in Jesus when he did? Why not come in 2009 when you could easily spread the gospel message with a text message and an email, rather than with the burden of oral tradition, travel by foot, and following a star in the sky to figure out where this new child might be?

It is sometimes very hard for us to understand God’s sense of timing – God’s right time to act – when we wish God would move faster, or God would move slower, or that God would stop time or skip over certain times in our lives altogether. But as people of faith, our hope and trust is in knowing the story of a God who always fulfills the promises made to us, even when we aren’t so good with keeping up our end of the covenant. I love the verses from our gospel lesson today – Elizabeth and Mary find God acting in their lives at what could be called inconvenient times. But they respond with joy. In fact, Mary bursts into song, singing words that we today call the Magnificat, words that we sang in our hymn just before the sermon – “My soul magnifies the Lord.” God moves at just the right time, and Mary rejoices.

And I find myself dwelling on one verse in our passage: "And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." These are words that Elizabeth speaks to Mary. She tells her that Mary is blessed because she has faith that what God has promised will come to pass. Of course, Mary has faith that as the angel told her, she will bear a child. But it's not just any child, so it's also not just any promise. Mary has to believe – more than just her own story – she also has to believe that in her, in her life, God's promise of a messiah will be fulfilled as well, God's promise to a whole people, God's promise of centuries upon centuries, God's promise that was written about by countless prophets. All this will be fulfilled in this right time, in this child that Mary is carrying, as incredible as it sounds. Most incredible of all, Elizabeth rightly recognizes, is that Mary believes what the angel told her - Mary believes that God is using her to fulfill these wonderful promises.

Mary believed that a promise made long ago would be fulfilled in her, as much as the prophets of long ago had to believe that the promise of a messiah would be fulfilled even though they would never see it in their lifetime. This kind of faith to me is remarkable. The truth is, though many of us believe in God's promises, we have a hard time waiting a week, a month, or heaven forbid, a year, for God's plans for us to be fulfilled, for the promises to come to fruition. How could we wait our whole lives and see no response, but still have faith and trust that God's plans would hold their course through our children or grandchildren's lives, or their grandchildren's lives? If God promised that great things would be done through us, through me, through you, but that we would never see any evidence of this promise coming true, could we maintain our faith?

We are a people so bound by time – we live by clocks and schedules and timers and alarms. We’re not so good at waiting. It all sounds like an impossible task, and yet, in a way, this is what the entire account of our scriptures is all about - the promises of God and how, over generations, through time, in God’s time, they came to be fulfilled. The stories of the ones who faithfully did their part to make God's plan take place, even though they would never see the results. This is the story of faith, the story of God's children. Our story. We read about the promise made to Noah, sealed with the sign of the rainbow. We hear about the promise to Abraham to make his descendents fill the lands. We listen to the story of Moses, who was told of a promised land where he could lead the Israelites. They didn't always find their promises from God completed in ways they could see - Moses himself died before the Israelites entered the promised land. But they remained faithful, and so did God, completing in God's right time all things promised.

And so it is with Advent. Advent is a promise, a promise made for centuries upon centuries. For hundreds of years, people mulled over the words of the prophets, words about a child being born that would be the one of peace, words about a young women that would bear the promised one. They heard these words and believed. But finally, finally, after so much waiting, after the longest advent, the longest coming, after the ultimate buildup of anticipation, finally the child was born. God became human and dwelt among us. We stand on those promises. We stand hovering at the top of the roller coaster. Before we take the plunge and feel the joy of the celebration of Christmas, let us take a deep breath. In a few days, God's promise will be fulfilled in our very midst. Our forefathers and foremothers waited for generations, and we are lucky enough to see the promise fulfilled year after year. Take a breath. Get ready. Believe in the fulfillment of what God has planned for you, for us, for this very time, and stand firmly on the promises of God. Amen.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sermon for Third Sunday of Advent, "Time's Up"

Sermon 12/13/09, Luke 3:7-18

Time’s Up

Perhaps by now you are wondering if Advent will ever bring a text that sounds like we’re preparing for the baby Jesus. After all, we started out with Jesus talking about the signs of the times, and images of disaster. Last week things sounded a little more advent-y, but really we were talking about a grown-up John the Baptist. And now, this week, we get more John, only this time he’s yelling about broods of vipers, fleeing from the coming wrath, and how Jesus is going to be throwing things into an unquenchable fire. Can John really be preparing people for Jesus, born a sweet babe, prince of peace, tender and mild?

Our text picks up where it left of last week, and if our question last week was, “What are we waiting for?” today there is no missing the urgency in John’s tone. Crowds are coming out to him to be baptized. But he’s not exactly warm and welcoming when he sees them: “You brood of vipers!” he hells. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” He goes on to say that the crowds should next expect to rely on their Judaism, their families, their history, their cultural identity, to give them a free pass from responsibility. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” In other words, yes, God has had a special relationship with the people Israel. But that doesn’t give you the freedom to do anything you want. You still have to hold up your part of the relationship. John continues forebodingly: “Eve now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

John obviously catches the attention of his audience – they begin asking him what they should do. He replies to them, to tax collectors, to soldiers – whoever has two cloaks must share, whoever has food must share, whoever has power , whoever has money must be fair and just. The people are filled with expectation at John’s words, and they wonder whether John himself might not be the messiah they are waiting for. But he insists he is not: “I am not worthy to untie his sandals,” John says. But, he leaves them, and us, with a compelling images of the messiah. “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” A winnowing folk was a farming tool used to toss wheat into the air, so that the wind would catch the good grain and separate it from the useless chaff. Our passage concludes, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

Is what John is saying “Good News?” There’s such an underlying tone of threat, between the vipers, the ax, and the winnowing fork – it hardly makes us as eager for the messiah to come as John certainly was. But John is sharing with the crowds, with us, his vision of what the messiah will be. As I mentioned before, John will eventually have to send word to Jesus to find out if he really is the messiah, because Jesus certainly acted differently the John was expecting. John does see judgment, just as surely as Jesus comes with salvation. So John has a picture of the messiah that is his own – but the good news still comes because of the core of what John is preaching, as we read last week: Repentance for the forgiveness of sins. What John is preaching, at heart, is that all this preparation is for one who is coming who has the power to free us from the consequences of our sins, one who has the power to cancel out the results of our messes. And that, certainly, is good news.

What John does is tell us how we’re to prepare for this good news, and this messiah, no matter how this messiah exactly ends up coming. First, he says, it’s your responsibility and no one else’s – your behavior, and your relationship with God. Many of John’s hearers were lifelong Jews, raised in families that were “children of Abraham” for generation upon generation. They had rituals and laws and customs and practices that were all tied up in practicing their Judaism. But John is saying that none of that matters – not in terms of preparing for the messiah, not in terms of repentance and forgiveness, not in terms of being open to embracing the good news. What matters is whether or not each individual person is preparing for the messiah’s coming.

So it is for us. Preparing for God moving in your life is your responsibility and no one else’s. This year, we have a group of young confirmands going through a preparation process for becoming members of this congregation. But it’s also more than that – it’s a time – probably one of many steps in a process really – of taking a faith that has been a family faith – the faith of their parents or grandparents or other adults in their life – and determining whether or not it is a faith that is their very own. Because ultimately only they are responsible for what they believe, and how they life, and what they do with God’s call on their lives. We can help and assist and encourage. But the choice is theirs.

It’s not much different with us – attending church, serving on committees, claiming the title, “Christian” – these things can be expressions of our discipleship. But they don’t make us into discipleship, create our discipleship, or relieve us from the responsibility of discipleship. We can only be disciples by following Jesus, by following God’s path. There’s no substitutes, and the only one who can make you a disciple is you. And, by the same token, the only one you can make a disciple is you – no one can follow God for you, and you can’t follow God for anyone else. We encourage, we support, we work together. But you must decide, and act, or not, for you.

John also tells us that preparing for the messiah, preparing for this good news, is actually easy to understand, clear, and easy to do. That claim might surprise us. Discipleship is easy? But listen again to his responses to the crowds who wonder exactly what they’re supposed to be doing to prepare. John says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the tax collector he says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the soldier he says, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” What John is describing isn’t hard to do. There’s nothing complicated about what he’s saying, nothing difficult to understand, is there?

Somehow, though, we manage to make it complicated. If John says that whoever has two coats must share one with the person who has none, we can’t seem to take it at face value. We wonder if it is fair that we have to give up one of our hard-earned coats. We wonder what the person without a coat did to end up that way. They must have been pretty foolish, or lazy, or ignorant to end up without a coat. And if we can be convinced to part with our second coat, we’d rather not have to give it to the person face-to-face. We’d like to set up a program for coat-giving, making sure that the person receiving the coat is properly credentialed, and making sure that we can get some sort of credit for giving the coat – a thank-you note, a tax write-off, a welcome-gift, something. Suddenly, giving away a coat to someone without one has become very time-consuming and complicated, and really, who has time for all that? Of course, I’m being a bit facetious – but my point is this: John is pretty clear about what we need to do to prepare our hearts for the messiah. And in fact, he’s not telling us anything we don’t already know, really. But if being a disciple feels complicated and hard, it’s because we’re making it so, because we’re not actually ready to commit, all out, to following God. “What then should we do?” we ask with the crowds. John has the answers for us – we just have to decide if we are ready to listen.

Finally, John tells us that whether or not we’ve actually prepared, repented, and changed our lives to follow God is something that is measurable. He says that essentially, what he’s looking for, what he thinks that the messiah is looking for, is that we are bearing fruit – a tangible result of our health, our growth, our nourishment, our discipleship. What do we have to show for ourselves? Are we full-grown wheat that is ready to be gathered in by the messiah? Do we have good fruit? What is the fruit of your life?

I’m terrible with proverbs. I never remember them correctly. I once asked my mother, all serious, why people said, “close, but no potato.” It made no sense to me. Of course, she explained that the saying is actually, “close, but no cigar,” and its origins. So I try to double-check on proverbs before I use them. You know the saying, “the proof is in the pudding?” Well, that’s actually a shortened version of the full proverb, which makes more sense. It’s actually "the proof of the pudding is in the eating." In other words, "the true value or quality of something can only be judged when it's put to use." (1) Have we prepared? Have we repented? Are we ready for the messiah to come? We can only know by putting our discipleship into action, by putting our repentance into action, by actually carrying out the words of promise that are easier to speak. John wants to see our fruit, and thinks that Jesus will want to see it too. Because if you witness people enjoying the delicious pudding, you’ll have no doubt that the pudding was very good. If you look at the fruit, you can tell something about the quality of the source of the fruit. And if you see discipleship in faithful action, you can get a look right into the good heart of the disciple. John calls us, as Jesus indeed will, to bear good fruit.

John was getting awfully anxious for the messiah to come. Time’s up – that’s the urgency, the energy of his message. Act now. Repent now. Bear fruit now. I think I’m just about ready too – ready to stop counting down, and start welcoming the messiah. Time’s up. Are you ready?


1) Ask Yahoo!,

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent, "The Time In-Between"

Sermon 12/6/09, Luke 3:1-6

The Time In-Between

As a child, I considered there to be two important seasons in my year. The season of Christmas, of course. And the season for summer camp. I grew up attending Camp Aldersgate every year – the counterpart to Casowasco, located in the foothills of the Adirondacks. I watched my big brother head to camp every summer with acute jealousy, until I was finally old enough to attend myself. I *loved* it, every part of it. I could attend camp for just one short week during each summer, until I was older and finally could afford to pay for a second week on my own, and eventually even work on staff. But as a child, all my longing for camping season was rewarded with one too-short week of camp. So I had to turn my energy, my love of camp, into something that would last me a little longer. Waiting for my week at camp was a period that lasted from sometime in late January all the way until the week itself in July or August. I didn’t wait idly. First, I waited for the camp brochure to arrive – usually in by the middle of February. I would scour the brochure for a few weeks, debating back and forth over which camp to attend. There were certainly fewer choices then than now, but I still occupied a lot of time choosing between swim camp and creative arts, an on-site camp or an adventure camp in the wilderness. Then, I would start making lists. I would make lists of what I needed to pack, focusing on what outfits to wear, complete with ideas on how to coordinate clothing, what shoes to go with said outfit, and of course, how to accessorize. By May, I was seriously already starting to pack. I would have a small bag or two in tucked away in my closet with items for camp already folded and sorted and ready to go. I would eventually do my shopping for camp, a sure sign that my waiting was almost over. And then, after the hour-long car ride that seemed like an eternity, I would finally be at camp again, for 6 short days, where lifelong friendships could be made in time that always seemed to short.

We’re talking about time, this Advent, and this week we’re thinking about “the time in-between.” If Christmas is what we’re waiting for, with the coming of the Christ-Child, what do we do with the time in-between now and then? We certainly must wait – we can’t make the time go any faster or slower than it will. But you can certainly spend the time in-between now and then in ways that will prepare you better (or not) for Jesus’ coming, that will enrich (or not) your experience of God at work in your lives this Christmas. So, how are we waiting? How are we preparing in this time in-between? How are you getting ready for Christmas?

When we talk about preparation in the church, preparation for Advent, preparation for the birth of the Christ-child, it turns out that this process of preparing isn't so different from the way we would prepare for the birth of a baby anyway. Think about all the things that you do to get ready for a child. Of course, we might immediately think of the baby showers, the diapers and the cribs and strollers and bibs that need to be purchased. But of course, we know that preparing for a baby involves much more than that. Those are just the surface matters, the material ways that we have to get ready for a baby to live in our midst.

At a deeper level, we have to prepare in other ways for a baby to come. Getting ready for a baby might require a change in lifestyle. If a parent smokes or drinks, these are habits that will probably change for the health of the child. A mother is more careful of what and how she eats, because what she does will affect the baby. The family must make sure that the home is ready for a baby, that the house and rooms are safe for someone who cannot judge for themselves, that there is a space, a room, for the newborn. The mother goes to the doctor to check and see how the baby is growing, if the baby is healthy. The family might outline an emergency plan, so that everything is ready when the moment comes. Parental leave must be arranged from work, child care plans are negotiated, health insurance is calculated. A family expecting a child has to determine how the finances will change once a new person is added to the household. Finally, more attention is given to another human life than is given to one's own life. All of these concerns have to be measured, planned, calculated, determined, well in advance of the actual birth of the child. They don't work out as well when planned last-minute. In between confirming a pregnancy and delivering a health baby, nine months of waiting take place. But it’s busy waiting, because the arriving newborn will depend completely and entirely on others for his or her very life.

In the same way, we can prepare for the Christ-child on many levels during this season of Advent. There are the surface things - and they are important, just as the basics of buying baby clothes are important. Our shopping, our parties, our caroling - these things truly are important for Christmas. We feel the community, the fellowship that comes from being together. We certainly don't shop only because we are consumers, but because we truly do love to give to others. These parts of preparing for Christmas aren't to be neglected. But like with a newborn, preparing for Christmas hopefully involves deeper levels, deeper life-changes if we are truly to be prepared, if we are truly to use the in-between time wisely.

John the Baptist, cousin to Jesus, wanted people to ready themselves for the coming of the Messiah. John wasn’t even sure himself who exactly the Messiah would be until he laid eyes on him, until he confirmed for himself that Jesus was the one. Later in the gospel, he even sends his disciples to Jesus while he is already in prison to make sure that Jesus is the one. But John believed the Messiah was coming, and believed that he needed to prepare for the arrival, and believed that others would need to prepare as well. John believed that preparation meant repentance – he called on people to repent and be forgiven for their sinfulness. He didn’t think people should just sit around waiting for the Messiah to show up – he believed that while they were waiting, people had some serious work to do. I’ve explained before that repentance means a changing of the direction of the mind – a turning around of your life so that you are leaving the path you are on and taking a new course, a new direction, that goes in the direction that God is going with you.

Repentance means we need to identify how we’re off course – identify our sinfulness – ask God for forgiveness from our sins – and get on the right path, no longer engaging in those actions or inactions that have led us on a different course than God. Sin has a pretty simple and clear but compelling definition –sin is being disobedient to God. When we disobey God, we’re sinning. That’s pretty simple, and perhaps we’re thinking that we know at least that much already. But I’m not sure we’re letting the magnitude of such a definition sink in.

If sinning is simply disobeying God, then that means that I sin every time I don’t do something God wants me to do. That makes sinfulness a lot more complicated then just breaking a standard list of thou-shall-nots. It means that if God is challenging us, calling us to go where we’re not ready to go, and we say no, or not right now, or I’ve got a different plan, we’re being sinful. And it means that sin for you and sin for me might not always look exactly the same. It means that the very same actions or inactions may not always have the same consequences for us. What is most sinful for me to do might be something very different than what is most sinful for you to do. That goes a little bit against our impulses as Americans who pride ourselves on our love of equality. It sounds awfully unfair to us at first, to think that God has different expectations for each one of us. But actually, I think it is a gift to us. God, who in love for us created each one of us as unique and precious individuals, this God takes the care to have specific hopes and dreams for each one of us. God knows us enough to want something special and specific for and from each one of us. So, what God wants from you and from me will never be exactly the same, just as what God gives to you and to me will never be exactly the same. What is the same is that God gives the same unconditional love to all of us, and hopes for the same complete commitment from all of us.

So John was calling for repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and Luke tells us that John called for repentance as a sign of preparation, as a way of getting ready for something that was about to happen – the coming of the Lord, the time when all people would see and experience God’s salvation. Advent is a time of preparation, and so it is a time for repentance. It is the perfect time for us to examine our lives, see where we have been sinful, disobedient, and commit to turning in God’s direction.

Christmas is just 19 days away now. What are you doing to prepare in-between now and then? Have any of you seen the movie Stranger Than Fiction? This movie is all about what you do in-between. The basic premise: Will Farrell plays a straight-laced IRS agent who finds that his life is being narrated by some voice, and the voice says his death is just around the corner. He tries to find the author and persuade her not to write his death. But when she doesn’t take him seriously, he starts to begin to live differently - in a way that the voice doesn't predict – while he is waiting for his predicted death to happen to him. The narration of his life makes him realize how mundane and unsatisfying his life has been so far, and he tries to outsmart the narration by living how he’s never lived before, living to the full. Once Farrell’s character changes what he’s doing in the time in-between, while waiting for his tragic end, he actually changes the direction his life is headed. The film has a basic message of 'carpe diem - seize the day.' Stop putting things off and start living the life you’ve been meaning to live now. It isn't necessarily a profound message or a new one, but I guess like all such life lessons, we need to keep hearing it until we're living it.

An article in Relevant magazine, a favorite of mine, a magazine for twenty/thirty-something Christians that I really enjoy – posed a similar challenge in an article that asked, "what are you waiting for until you really start you life?" What excuse do you keep putting out to yourself or to others that goes like this: "I'll get around to [the thing I'm really called to be doing/meant to be doing/passionate about/convicted about doing] as soon as [this other life thing happens/falls into place/gets settled.]" I'm very guilty of this. I'm very guilty of saying to myself that I'll start doing things the way I think I really should be after I go back to school someday, or once I have more money, or when things in my life feel more settled, or even just after the new year. The point is - what are you waiting for? This is it already - this is your life. It has already started, is already well underway, and if you keep waiting for the perfect time to act, your life will be well over before you get anywhere. If you are waiting for something to happen, consider that the time in-between now and then is just as important, can be just as life-changing, as whatever it is you are waiting for.

Advent is a time of preparation. The time to prepare is now because the coming of the Christ-Child is so very close – the kingdom of God is already near, already here! What other time are you planning to use to prepare? What are you waiting for to repent? How long will you travel down a road you know is not the road God’s calling you to before you will turn around? Or how long will you simply live at a stand-still, doing the same things in the same way, waiting for some day that’s never coming to get started doing what you’re really meant to be doing? Whatever you’re waiting for, in this in-between time, the message from John, the message of Advent is that the time is here already. Prepare now for God’s coming, because this is it.

In the first year of the Presidency of Barack Obama, when Paterson was governor of New York, and Schumer and Gillibrand were Senators, and when Danny Liedka was mayor of East Syracuse, during the time when Beth was pastor, the word of God came to the people of the First United Church. And they went out into all the regions, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Prepare the way of the Lord.


Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Introverts Can Make the Best Leaders

Somewhere in my blog subscriptions I was led to this article by Jennifer B. Kahnweiler, "Why Introverts Can Make the Best Leaders." I can't for the life of me remember or find who wrote about it, so my apologies - please let me know if it was you!

As a pastor, I'm always fascinated by information about introverted leadership. Sometimes I envy my extroverted clergy colleagues and the ease they seem to have in settings which cause me such internal agony! But this article made me feel pretty good about ways in which I can and do use my introversion to my advantage in ministry.

(I'm posting this using Google Sidewiki for the first time - I'm hoping using it might help me actually blog again occasionally. We'll see!)

in reference to: (view on Google Sidewiki)

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Sermon for First Sunday of Advent, "The Time is Near"

Sermon 11/29/09, Luke 21:25-36

The Time is Near

Lucky Charms used to be my very favorite cereal. All those yummy marshmallows! Tragically, I can’t eat Lucky Charms anymore, because marshmallows are made with gelatin, which I don’t eat. I’m still hopeful that eventually they’ll change their recipe. But until then, I can just reminisce. When I was little, I used to pick out and eat all the marshmallows first, and be left with all the regular old cereal. I just couldn’t help myself. But as I got older and matured as a cereal connoisseur, I reversed my order. I’d eat all the plain cereal first, and leave all the marshmallows for last, finishing with the very best part. And in fact, I even came to really enjoy all that plain cereal in its own right.

Sometimes, when I think about the season of Advent, the season of preparing and waiting for Christmas, I feel a bit the same way I used to feel about Lucky Charms. There have been times, especially when I was younger, where I just couldn’t make Christmas come quickly enough. The weeks of Advent seemed like an eternity. My childhood pastor stubbornly had us singing Advent hymns and I wanted to be singing Christmas Carols. The days until Christmas Vacation from school seemed endless. I wanted to hurry to the good part. Advent, all the waiting, was certainly not the good part. But as I’ve gotten older, as happens to most of us, I have a sense of time already going faster and faster on us, not going too slowly. Already, Christmas is just 26 days away, and Advent has only just begun! It goes too quickly, not too slowly. I want to savor this time. I want to enjoy the waiting and longing for Christmas. But I don’t want it to be Christmas until it is Christmas.

Are you in a hurry for Christmas to come? Or are you trying to slow things down, and savor the time? Hurrying, waiting. Rushing, slowing down. Anticipating, longing. This season, our theme for Advent is, “It’s About Time.” We’ll be thinking about exactly these issues – thinking about time and what this time of Advent means for us as people of faith for the next four weeks. And today, in particular, we’re thinking about the nearness of the appointed time. The time is near.

Today is the first Sunday of a new liturgical year in the church calendar. Our Christian year begins with Advent, and so we turn from the gospel of Mark to Luke’s gospel with our lesson today, a text that should catch our attention for sure. We find Jesus in the middle of a conversation about “the signs of the times” – he’s talking about signs in the sun, moon, and stars – distress on the earth, roaring seas, waves, shaken heavens, and then, the Son of Man coming with power and glory. When these things happen, Jesus says, “raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” He talks about knowing that summer is about to arrive when the fig trees sprout leaves. So to, he says, you will know that “the kingdom of God is near.” Finally, Jesus concludes, we should be on guard, so we’re not taken by surprise, not caught unexpectedly. “Be alert,” he says, “praying that you may have the strength to escape all these thing that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Why are we in such a hurry for Christmas to come? Or perhaps, the real question we have to ask ourselves is: Do we actually want this long-expected Jesus to come or not? Jesus talks about these signs happening to let us know that the kingdom of God is near. But it sounds a bit terrifying, doesn’t it? Maybe we want baby Jesus to come again – to hurry to the birth of the precious Christ Child. The cute baby in the nativity. Jesus who can’t exactly talk and preach to us yet. But are we really in a hurry for this coming of Christ that Luke describes? We like to think about the baby Jesus coming, meek and mild. That’s the Jesus we’re ready to hurry here. But what about this Jesus of Luke, who can’t seem to arrive without turning the world upside-down and creating chaos? Do we want and long for this Jesus to arrive? Is this the Christmas that is drawing near? And if so, why are we in such a hurry for Christmas to come?

To answer that question, we have to consider what exactly we believe is drawing near. And I think it comes down to a decision between judgment, and redemption. Do you believe that what is drawing near is judgment, or redemption? American culture today certainly has a clear answer. We believe – and also fear very much – that judgment is coming. Just look at yet another apocalyptic movie phenomenon right now – people have become obsessed with this idea that the Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world in 2012 – the title of the latest end-of-world flick. Thinking about the end of the world fills us with dread and fear – think of the atmosphere in 1999 when we stood on the verge of the year 2000, and many were stockpiling provisions for an anticipated apocalypse. We can’t read about these signs that Jesus is talking about without being filled with dread, fear, and anxiety. And so though Jesus spoke these words more than 2000 years ago, people have looked around them for all this time at the crazy things happening in the world and have said: surely these are the signs of the times. And they’ve been afraid. And the fear comes certainly in part from an end of what we know, but also of the link we place between the end of the things we know and the beginning of judgment for the things we’ve messed up so badly.

As people of faith, though, I wonder what has happened to us to think of Jesus’ drawing near to us as an occasion for fear and panic. The idea of the kingdom of God drawing close fills us with terror. But Jesus doesn’t speak about judgment in today’s passage. In fact, he even says that he wants us to be on guard so that we’re not weighed down with the worries of this life. Instead, he talks about redemption. To be redeemed is to be rescued, delivered, saved and set free. Jesus says, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” The coming of the kingdom of God doesn’t mean punishment and judgment that is meant to harm us. God drawing close to us is to save us, to rescue us, to redeem us from the mess we’ve made. What is near is our salvation, not our condemnation.

This season, the Christmas carols you’ll hear mostly focus on the tiny baby Jesus, asleep in the manger bed. But our Advent hymns – they embrace this Jesus who comes preaching redemption – our redemption, the redemption of all the earth. “Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.” The time is near – not for our end, not for destruction, not for judgment. The time is near because God is near to us – always. The time is near because the kingdom of God is in our midst – always. A Savior comes to us – a baby, yes, new life. But also the Prince of Peace. A precious child, and a strong champion of the down-trodden and oppressed. A helpless newborn, and God-with-us. The time is near. Amen.