Thursday, December 27, 2012

Lectionary Notes for First Sunday after Christmas Day, Year C

Readings for 1st Sunday after Christmas Day, 12/30/12:
 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26, Psalm 148, Colossians 3:12-17, Luke 2:41-52

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26:

  • V. 26, “Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature…” Compare this to the description of John the Baptist in Luke 1:80 – “The child grew and became strong in spirit…” and of Jesus in Luke 2:52 – “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years and in divine and human favor.” These statements seem to indicate a child marked by God, for some special/divine purpose.
  • V. 18-20 – Samuel’s mother, Hannah, played such an important role in her son’s life. Remember that it was her prayers during a time of barrenness that brought to her the gift of Samuel, and she promised to give Samuel as a servant to God if she was able to bear a son. Her faithfulness continues to God indirectly through service to her son. In other words, how we care for others links to how we care about God, and is ‘credited’ to us as service to God.

Psalm 148:

  • Praise, praise, praise! That’s the theme of this psalm. This psalm has beautiful imagery about creation – it is not just that humans praise God or even praise God for the gift of creation. It is creation itself that praises God for it’s own existence. “Praise [God], sun and moon; praise him all you shining stars!”
  • This image sort of reminds me of “The Lion King” when all the animals come to see the new baby Simba be ‘baptized’ – all creation is joining in. What a picture!
  • Creation is commanded by the psalmist to give praise because of its existence. Do we require more of God to give God praise? Do we only feel like praising when things are going our way or when we've received some desired request? Or do we praise because we are, because we have being?
  • V. 11-12 say that Kings and the regular people, rulers, young men and women, old men and women, all should praise together. Is that a good picture of worship today? How do we worship together from different walks of life? Who is missing from this full picture in our own congregations?

Colossians 3:12-17:

  • This is a popular favorite scripture passage, not only from Colossians, but from the whole Bible. It’s a picture of a community’s way of living in Christ, and it’s an ideal we probably all seek.
  • “God’s chosen ones” – from the Greek “eklektoi”, meaning literally ‘say out’ but translated as ‘chosen out’ or ‘selected.’ (Humorously, the verb form can mean “to pull out one’s gray hairs”!!!)
  • Images of clothing ourselves, with compassion, kindness, humility, etc. Compare this to imagery of clothing ourselves with the armor of Christ that we find in Ephesians 6. Also, this metaphor loses some of it’s punch if we think about today’s clothing styles. But imagine something from biblical times, long and flowing robes, draped over the body in folds, and you get a different idea of how this “clothing ourselves” can function.
  • “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” The word dwell comes from the Greek “enokeito”, which does simply mean “live in” or “dwell” as translated, but it is a word used for people living in a house, not Christ’s word. Paul is suggesting that Christ’s word come to live with you, to be as much a part of your life and your home as your children or spouses or parents are.

Luke 2:41-52:

  • This is the only canonical story we have of Jesus from the birth narratives in Luke and Matthew until Jesus begins his ministry around age 30. Why is it included? What else happened to Jesus in his childhood, his teenage years, his twenties? These are questions people wonder and dream about.
  • I think of the series “Smallville” on the WB – the account of Clark Kent/Superman’s high school years, previously unknown to us. This is what we wish we had of Jesus – a way to learn about all the things that went into shaping who he became as an adult.
  • “Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey.” It’s hard to imagine parents traveling a day without knowing for sure where their 12 year old was. This let’s us know we have a disconnect between today and Jesus’ day in terms of customs about travel, child care, community relationships, etc.
  • Probably this story is included mostly to illustrate Jesus’ already divine nature, the fact that he was already set apart even at a young age.
  • “His mother treasured all these things in her heart.” Imagine being the parent of one like Jesus, and trying to let go of the usual ways that you would act toward a child in order to let something greater take place. Today’s lectionary features the acts of two mothers: Hannah and Mary. We also have to let go of things in our lives in order to let God’s greater purpose be at work in our lives. 

Sermon for Christmas Eve, "What Brings You Here?" Luke 2:1-20

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

What Brings You Here?

            In our church newsletter this December, I shared with folks the results of a study done by one of my colleagues, about why people come to church services on Christmas Eve. The number one reason: Family — People responded, “this is what my family does and I want to be with family. That was 30%. Then came music – “I love the Christmas music and want to sing the familiar and favorite songs.” (22%) Then came Experience – “I love the songs, the candles, the story, the feeling.” (16%) Next was Focus – “Christmas has gotten so crazy; I like the clear focus on the reason for the season.” (12%) Next, Habit: “We do this every year.” (11%) And then, at number 6, faith. “This is the most special and important event in my faith; I wait all year for this.” (5%) Why are you making this Advent Journey? Why will you show up on Christmas Eve? Habit? Family? Music? Faith? To see the child in the manger? Where do you fall in those categories? What brought you here tonight?
What brings You here? That’s the question we’ve been asking. All throughout Advent, all season long, as we’ve been preparing our hearts and lives for Christmas, we’ve been looking at different figures in the stories of Jesus’ birth, and we’ve been asking: What brings them to the manger? Literally, or figuratively, what brings them to this intersection where their life and their journey brought them into an encounter with this Christ-child? We’ve looked at King Herod, at Joseph, at Elizabeth and Mary, at angels and shepherds and Innkeepers, some of whom we hear from throughout this very night. And to each, we ask, “What brings you here?”  
What might surprise you, what surprised me in rereading a story that is so familiar to me, is realizing that almost no one in Christmas story set out looking for a Savior, for a Messiah, for a Christ-child. Mary and Joseph – they were probably faithful Jews, and maybe they had a vague hope of a messiah to come, like many of the people of Israel. But they clearly had no idea that they would become key players in the unfolding of God’s plans. They were just a couple, engaged, planning their future life together. And what brought them to Bethlehem was the government! Most of the people who would have been near Jesus, near the stable, near the inn, in town – they were all there to make sure they paid their taxes! That’s what brought them to Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph had encountered angels – messengers of God’s good news. So their faith brought them spiritually to the hour of Christ’s birth. King Herod gets mixed up in the story, brought by fear, motivated by the need to make sure he kept as much power as he could for as long as he could. The shepherds: the first Christmas started out just as another day keeping sheep for them. We don’t know anything about them. Their names are not recorded for us. We have no idea what happens to them after this night. We don’t know why the angels chose to appear to them, of all the possible witnesses to Christ’s birth. But it seems to me that their very ordinary-ness tells us something about how God works, and who God’s good news is for. If anything, shepherds were people who lived on the fringes, the edges of society. They lived outdoors most of the time, spent most of their time with animals. They weren’t looking for a savior. Their journey to Bethlehem was a last minute trip, a decision made on the spot because they were curious to see this strange thing the angels told them about, and they couldn’t pass up such a fantastic invitation. No, no one set out on this night looking for a Savior. But the Savior they found. And to most – it brought overwhelming joy, or abiding peace, pondered in a mother’s heart.
            That’s what brought them here. But tonight, what I most want to know is not what brought this collection of characters together two-thousand years ago, on the first Christmas. That’s important. That’s compelling, a story I want to hear. But what I’m most interested in tonight is this: What brings YOU here? What brings you, you in the pews, here, to this place, at this time, on this night? Why are you spending time here on this night?
            Maybe we are like the innkeeper. Here because it is our job, because we have to be, just getting it done, not really involved in the action, observing from a distance. Maybe we’re like those who were just in town to pay their taxes – we’re here without a big plan, a big purpose, big expectations. Maybe we are like Mary and Joseph – here because we think God has big plans for us, even if we’re nervous, unsure, overwhelmed with what those plans might be. Maybe we are like Herod, fearful of what God might be up to, what God might want us to change about the way we’re living, what God might do to shake up our priorities. Maybe we’re like the shepherds, and we’ve stumbled onto the manger, brought here out of curiosity, because someone invited us, because it was something different in the midst of our ordinary lives. What brings You here?
            But whatever brought you here tonight, the main thing is that you are here. To some of you, maybe it was an easy decision to come here tonight. Maybe there is nowhere else you’d want to be. But increasingly, there are a million other options for where you could be tonight. And however it happened, whatever other choices you had, whatever your reasons were, somehow, you made it to this place today, to this worship service. We are so glad you are here, soaking it in, even if don’t know quite what to do with it all, with the story of Christmas, with this Christ-child who is Savior, with God-with-us.
            Whatever brought you here tonight, whatever made all of our paths intersect on this evening, the main thing is that you are here. Because child in the manger, whose birthday party you’ve stumbled on, this child was born because of you! Because God is for you, with you, in you, and delighted in you, full of love for you. God has come for you. Your path, whatever road you took to get here, has led you to the manger, and the child Jesus was born because God wanted to be closer to you. This gift is for you. That’s the good news, and we so need some good news!
            Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Lectionary Notes for Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C

Readings for Fourth Sunday of Advent, 12/23/12:
Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:46b-55, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45

Micah 5:2-5a:
  • “But you, O Bethlehem,” – Bethlehem is described as a little town (like the hymn!), making it special that a ruler would come from such a small place.
  • Image of a woman in labor – this is a common Advent image, for obvious reasons of the expectation of the Christ-child, but also for other reasons. Pregnancy is indeed a time of expectation, but there is a sense of inevitability too. It’s not like expecting the unknown, wondering about an unsure future. Unless something goes tragically wrong, the result is a new child. Images of birth pangs are also common in biblical metaphors (like when Jesus speaks of signs of the times) to describe a time of distress/pain/confusion. But again, despite this pain, a new life follows.
  • “And they shall live secure” – What does that mean? Today ‘security’ is a word we think about a great deal. There’s the financial security that we all seek that feels too hard to get in this economy – job security. There’s national security – in the midst of the war on terror, we walk a fine line between security/safety and taking away of human/constitutional rights. What’s the difference between that kind of security and the kind described here?
  • “And he shall be the one of peace.” That’s just such a breath-taking, beautiful image. Our heart’s desire.

Luke 1:46b-55:
  • “magnifies” – from the Greek megalunei, meaning, “to make great, to magnify, to exaggerate.” When we use a magnifying glass, we do it so the image is larger, easier to see, but also so we can see all the fine details of an image.
  • Mary thanks God for God’s ability to switch the usual order of things, to make things opposite of how they usually are: the powerful are brought down, the lowly are lifted. The hungry are filled, the rich go away empty-handed. Ties in with Jesus’ teaching emphasis on the first being last, last being first. A change of the whole existing social order, everything turned upside-down and inside-out.
  • Mary signifies that she believes the child she is carrying to be the fulfillment after a long time of a promise made by God to Abraham and his descendants  Imagine the patience! We seem to want God to fulfill promises a lot more quickly – preferably within our own lifetime! What if we could know that God’s promises would reach to our great-great-great-great grandchildren? Would that satisfy us?

Hebrews 10:5-10:
  • Preceding this passage, the author is talking about how animal sacrifices made in the temple fail to fully atone for sins, since they must be repeated year after year, thus not really freeing people from the guilt they experience. Christ has come to be the one sacrifice we need, the only thing strong enough to really take away our sins, the author argues.
  • Vs. 6 & 7 draw on language similar to Psalm 51, the one that contains the “Create in me a clean heart” verses, a favorite Psalm for those who feel guilt and seek forgiveness and repentance.

Luke 1:39-45:
  • Mary has just been visited by the angle Gabriel and accepted the news that she is carrying “the Son of the Most High.” She goes to be with her cousin, Elizabeth, who is also, even in her old age, carrying a child, John the Baptist.
  • “Blessed are you” – The Greek word for blessed is eulogemene, root words meaning good and word. The same as the root of our word “eulogy”, good-speaking about somebody. To be spoken well-of, to be praised, to be blessed.
  • “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” What makes Elizabeth ask this? Does she feel unworthy of this visit from Mary and the unborn Christ-child?
  • “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” These are key words that speak to us today! God has spoken many things to us, many to me at least. But in doubt I wonder if God’s promises for me are as good as expected. Our blessing comes in our belief, our trust, our faith.

Sermon for Third Sunday of Advent, "Journey - What Brings You Here?: Elizabeth"

Sermon 12/16/12
Luke 1, selected verses

Journey – What Brings You Here?: Elizabeth

            Why? Why? That’s the question that I’ve heard and read and seen since Friday’s unfolding events, the tragic taking of lives in Connecticut this week, lives of children so young it makes our heads spin with confusion at the total senselessness, the total out-of-order-ness of it all. All anyone has to do is picture the child in their life closest to this age – your own child or grandchild, your niece or nephew or neighbor or godchild – experiencing a moment of the fear that these children in Connecticut did – to have your head swimming, your eyes filling, your mind asking: Why? Why has this happened? How can we make sense of something so awful?
I spent a lot of time yesterday reading people’s reactions to the tragedy online – in news articles, facebook posts, blog entries – some of the forums that people are using to try to make sense of something awful. I came across this prayer from Walter Brueggemann, written in a different circumstance, but perfect in the context of yesterday’s mid-Advent horror. It’s called Christmas…the Very Next Day:
Had we the chance, we would have rushed to Bethlehem to see this thing that had come to pass.
Had we been a day later, we would have found the manger empty and the family departed.
We would have learned that they ­fled to Egypt, warned that the baby was endangered, sought by the establishment of the day
that understood how his very life threatened the way things are.
We would have paused at the empty stall and pondered how this baby from the very beginning was under threat.
The powers understood that his grace threatened all our coercions;
they understood that his truth challenged all our lies;
they understood that his power to heal nullified our many pathologies;
they understood that his power to forgive vetoed the power of guilt
and the drama of debt among us.
From day one they pursued him, and schemed and conspired
until finally…on a gray Friday… they got him!
No wonder the family ­fled, in order to give him time for his life.
We could still pause at the empty barn—
and ponder that all our babies are under threat,
all the vulnerable who stand at risk before predators,
our babies who face the slow erosion of consumerism,
our babies who face the reach of sexual exploitation,
our babies who face the call to war, placed as we say, ‘in harm’s way,’
our babies, elsewhere in the world, who know of cold steel against soft arms
and distended bellies from lack of food;
our babies everywhere who are caught in the fearful display of ruthless adult power.
We ponder how peculiar this baby at Bethlehem is, summoned to save the world, and yet we know, how like every child, this one also was at risk.
The manger is empty a day later… the father warned in a dream.
Our world is so at risk, and yet we seek after and wait for this child named ‘Emmanuel.’
Come be with us, you who are called 'God with us.'

Our world is so at risk. And into this context, the Christ-child is born, yet again. Today, it seems fitting that our scripture focus brings us into the lives of two pregnant women, both in precarious, risky situations in different ways. Last week, I shared with you that Matthew’s gospel tells the story of Jesus’ birth from the perspective of Joseph and his dreams. This week, we turn our focus to the gospel of Luke, who tells the story from Mary’s perspective. But today, we particularly focus in on Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, and her role in the story.
            To understand Elizabeth, we have to back up to the beginning of Luke 1. Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, is a priest in the temple. We read that both of them were “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” This statement is important, because right after it, we read that Elizabeth was barren, and that both Elizabeth and Zechariah were “getting on in years.” In other words, both of them probably had reconciled themselves to the fact that there would be no children for them. Today, many people, many families, still have to struggle with infertility issues, not being physically able to have children when they are so wanted. We can sympathize with Elizabeth and Zechariah in this. But I’m not sure we can fully understand how linked having children was in the ancient world to fulfilling your duty, your destiny, your purpose. Children meant security and financial stability, in addition to being able to carry on a family line. But more, children were signs of God’s blessings, God’s promises being carried out, and so the inability to have children was seen as a cause for concern. Was God punishing sinful people, by making them barren? Many would have thought so. Today, still, many of us wonder “why,” when facing these struggles. But the scriptures spell it out for us, in multiple places: A couple’s childlessness was not equivalent to God’s judgment on them. I am not sure I can even convey what radical new thinking this was. So when we read that Elizabeth and Zechariah were righteous, blameless, following the commandments, we aren’t being told how impossibly perfect they were, we’re being told that they didn’t have children because they didn’t have children, not because they’d done something wrong that God was punishing them for. That’s important.
            Zechariah is chosen for duty in temple. The priests draw lots for service, and Zechariah’s turn is up to offer the incense, an honor. Alone in that part of the temple, Zechariah is greeted by a messenger from God. He’s terrified, overwhelmed with fear. But the angel tells him not to be afraid. God has heard his prayers, Elizabeth’s prayers. She will bear a son, John. He’ll be full of the Holy Spirit even before he’s born, and his purpose will be to make the people ready for God. Zechariah asks one question: “How will I know this is so? Because Elizabeth and I are getting rather old.” Gabriel, the messenger, seems astonished at his doubt. Because of it, Gabriel says, he will not be able to speak until John is born. Zechariah exits the sanctuary, and it is clear he has had a vision of some kind. I wonder how he communicates to Elizabeth what is about to happen, what signs and gestures and notes he must resort to. But Elizabeth doesn’t seem surprised. She becomes pregnant, and Elizabeth notes it as a sign of God’s favor.
            It is months after this when we encounter Elizabeth again. Gabriel has visited Mary and announced to her that she would bear a son, Jesus, the Savior. And Gabriel also tells Mary that Elizabeth is now six months pregnant, and that her pregnancy is a sign of this: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Upon hearing this news, we read that Mary goes “with haste” to visit her cousin. We don’t know why she does this, but we can speculate that Mary would enjoy the privacy this would give her, there in the hill country, with her pregnancy that could be the cause of a community scandal, that she could be of aid to her older cousin, who undoubtedly will experience a more physically stressful pregnancy than young Mary, and that Elizabeth could be a comfort and source of knowledge and wisdom for Mary, especially given their parallel journeys.
            We don’t know if Elizabeth knew of Mary’s pregnancy before her arrival or not. But immediately when Mary enters, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps, and Elizabeth herself is “filled with the Holy Spirit,” the first person in the New Testament to earn this description. Elizabeth says to Mary, “‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’” I think her words describe both Mary’s response and her own to what God has shared with them. After this scene, we see Elizabeth give birth to her child, and with a now-vocal Zechariah, name him John. And then, Elizabeth is never mentioned again. We next see John, her son, as an adult, in the wilderness, preaching repentance, just before he baptizes his cousin, Jesus. But this is the only snippet we have of Elizabeth’s life.
            Today, our gospel lesson brings us an encounter between two women who might have asked a lot of questions, might have asked a lot of “Whys” in response to what has happening to them. 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 young teen, 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?
            But Mary and Elizabeth gave birth to children who, in the very act of fulfilling God’s promises spent virtually their whole lives being at risk. John grows to be a man known for being odd, eccentric in his lifestyle, and one who speaks the truths that no one wants to hear. He loses his life when he won’t stop saying things that make other uncomfortable. More than uncomfortable: John’s words make them dangerous, violent. And of course, Jesus – he is pursued throughout his entire ministry. Constantly, religious authorities tried to trap him, corner him, trip him up. Ultimately, they arrested, beat, and executed Jesus. Oh, we know the story of life from death. We are Easter people. But Jesus, infant so tender-and-mild, was at risk, always.
A few weeks ago, I got to give the message at LIFE, during the worship time of our youth program. We’ve been focusing on the themes of our Advent candles, and I was talking about peace. The Bible talks a lot about peace. We call Jesus the Prince of Peace. Indeed, Jesus speaks of the peace he gives to us. But as we were talking about the dividing walls we build up between ourselves and others, both literally and figuratively, we talked about the difference between peace and safety. I think, so often, we mistake the two, think they are the same thing, peace and safety. We build walls of all kinds, thinking we will find peace, but safety is the best we can hope for with our methods. Jesus never promises us safety. He calls us to follow him by taking up crosses – not pretty crosses, decorative, gilded, or glittering – crosses that were symbols of giving up your life. Seeking peace is risky and costly.
             I keep returning to Elizabeth’s words to Mary: "And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." Elizabeth and Mary’s pregnancies were risky, and yet God was working through them, to fulfill God’s promises. John was at risk, and yet he prepared the way, fulfilling God’s promise. Jesus was at risk from day one, and yet he drank the cup that was place before him, humbling himself in death on a cross for us, fulfilling God’s promise. Our world is at risk – and yet God-is-with-us. Our children live in a world where we cannot promise safety. But we can promise Jesus. We can promise God-with-us, even when God must weep with us. We are at risk, and yet it is only in risky, costly discipleship that we walk the path of peace, the path of Jesus. Christians are always called to walk this strange, tenuous line. At risk – yet God is with us. It only takes one candle to cancel the power of darkness – and we are preparing again and always for the birth of the light of the world, God’s promise in the flesh.
            “Our world is so at risk, and yet we seek after and wait for this child named ‘Emmanuel.’
Come be with us, you who are called 'God with us.'” Amen.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Lectionary Notes for Third Sunday of Advent, Year C

Readings for Third Sunday of Advent, 12/16/12
 Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Zephaniah 3:14-20:
  • V. 15 - “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you.” Imagine being given a clean slate, and having all our mistakes wiped out! Think about presidential pardons given, and how controversial they are, either applauded or bemoaned, depending on circumstances. How much do we have to pay for our mistakes? Are their sins that God should not take away judgment for?
  • V. 19 - “I will change their shame into praise.” Shame often seems a feeling/emotion that we have whether or not we also have guilt for a situation. For example, someone who has been abused may feel shame despite not being responsible for being abused.

Isaiah 12:2-6:
  • I can’t read these verses without thinking of anthem my home church sang on this text, “The First Song of Isaiah,” by Jack Noble White. It’s really gorgeous.
  • Here is a passage where the understanding of ‘salvation’ in its most basic sense of safety, safe-keeping from harm, is quite evident. In God, we are safe, safe from ourselves, safe from others, safe from being lost and destroyed.
  • I love the word 'surely' that shows up almost every week in one of the Advent texts. A promise guaranteed. Surely God is our salvation.

Philippians 4:4-7:
  • V. 5 – “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” The Greek might translate also as “reasonableness”, “fairness”, “goodness”. Gentleness is not necessarily a trait we value, is it? Particularly not in both genders. It’s ok for a woman, but we don’t often praise men for gentleness. How can we let our gentleness be known? What does that have to do with our faith? The command from Paul flows into the second phrase, ‘The Lord is near.’ How do they relate?
  • V. 7 – “And the peace of God which passes . . . “ – The ‘passes understanding’ is from the Greek ‘huperech├┤’, which means, “to be above” or “to hold over”, “to prevail.” God’s peace is above everything. That’s comforting.

Luke 3:7-18:  
  • We’d probably write John the Baptist off as a crazy man today, and probably many did then too!
  • V. 8 – “We have Abraham as our ancestor.” – we might smile at this excuse of John’s listeners, but the phrase is actually all too familiar. Calling on our past and our heritage as a justification for our current behavior is a common tactic of church people!
  • When John is asked what to do since the portrait he paints of the alternative is so dismal, he responds, like Jesus normally did, with a prescription of what to donot what to believe. We get very wrapped up in what to believe in the church, and awfully complacent about what we must do and how we must live.
  • Some of these images of the threshing floor, the granary, etc., lose their meaning for us if we don’t understand these processes ourselves. A winnowing fork, for example, was used to toss wheat into the air, where the wind would separate the wheat grain from the light chaff. 

Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent, "Journey - What Brings You Here?: Joseph," Matthew 1:18-25

Sermon 12/9/12
Matthew 1:18-25

Journey – What Brings You Here?: Joseph

            Are you the kind of person who can remember your dreams? Some people seem to be able to recall them easily, and some people never remember their dreams. I usually fall into that latter category, not remembering anything other than blurry images from my dreams. Do you wonder what our dreams mean, if anything? Are they just leftover thoughts from our day, thoughts our full and busy minds could no longer hold? Some dreams seem pretty straightforward in meaning. When I first became a pastor, I prepared my sermons much earlier in the week than I do now. This wasn’t because I was so much more diligent or because I was so much less a procrastinator. No, this was because like clockwork, I would have nightmares about forgetting to write a sermon and being caught unprepared on Sunday morning, unless, in real life, I had already finished my work early in the week. Pretty easy to figure out what those dreams meant! Other times, I just have no clue. I once had a very elaborate, multi-part dream, that involved train tracks, coins falling, and chasing after a seminary friend. I was curious about it, since it was so vivid and I actually remembered it, so for fun I looked up in a “dream interpretation” book what each of the items in my dream might mean. Every single thing in my dream meant: money. Money, money, money. So much for that!
            Still though, dreams can be powerful. Shortly after my grandfather died, back in 1998, my mother had a clear dream, where my grandfather, no longer frail from illness, but healthy and happy, visited her at work, and assured her that he was ok. This dream gave my mom an incredible sense of peace, in the midst of the pain and grief. She felt like God was reminding her that her father was ok – more than ok – and she trusted the message she received and was comforted. What have your dreams been telling you?
            The scriptures are full of stories of God communicating through dreams. In Genesis, we encounter Jacob dreaming a vision of a ladder ascending into heaven, Pharaoh, dreaming of feast and famine in Egypt, Joseph, Jacob’s son, dreaming of his role that will set him apart from his eleven brothers. And the dreams continue through the prophets, and into the New Testament, where we encountered Peter, back in October, who experienced in a trance a vision of God opening the table to Jew and Gentile alike. Dreams can be powerful. And dreams play a significant role in the story of Jesus’ birth, as today, we turn our journey’s focus to Joseph.      
Now, you might think Joseph is a pretty significant figure in the New Testament, in the story of Jesus, and of course, he is: He is the husband of Mary, Jesus’s mother, and he is Jesus’ earthly father, the parent who raises him. But if you think about what we read about Joseph in the scriptures, you might be surprised to realize that other than passing mentions, like, “Hey, isn’t that Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph?”, and the scene where Jesus is twelve and stays behind in the temple while his parents, not even named separately, are searching for him, Joseph is only mentioned, only appears in relation to the birth and surrounding events of Jesus. That’s it. So, it is significant, too, for us to note that every scene in the birth story where Joseph appears, we hear about a dream he’s had that contains a message for him about God’s plan, how God will use Joseph to help usher in the birth of Jesus, the savior.
            We first encounter Joseph in the gospel of Matthew. Luke’s gospel tells the birth story mostly from Mary’s point of view, but Matthew focuses on Joseph. Matthew tells us that Mary has been found to be with child, from the Holy Spirit, and then tells us how Joseph responds. Joseph, we read, is a righteous man. We don’t know what Mary has told Joseph about her pregnancy – whether she told him the child was God’s, and Joseph doubted, or whether Mary even had a chance to explain at all – we don’t know how Joseph learned the news. But Joseph, preparing to divorce Mary, a legal step that would have to be taken even after an engagement, chooses to do so discreetly, wishing to shield Mary from the full punishment she could have received – death by stoning. Just as he is planning the divorce, he has a dream. A messenger from God tells him in a dream that indeed, the child Mary carries is from the Holy Spirit. They’re to name the child Jesus – which means savior – and he will be God-with-us – Immanuel. When Joseph wakes up, we read that “he did as the angel of the Lord commanded, and wed Mary, who eventually gives birth to Jesus. After Jesus is born, we encounter Joseph in Chapter 2, as twice more, a messenger appears in Joseph’s dreams, and directs Joseph where to flee, where to move to so that Jesus is safe from those, like King Herod, who would do him harm.  
            I’m amazed by what we don’t hear in these short passages with Joseph. We don’t hear Joseph ask questions. We don’t hear Joseph say, “Why me?” or, “I don’t think I heard you right,” or “I don’t believe you” or “that’s totally ridiculous, God,” or “that’s just not a practical way to have the savior come. Don’t you have any more sensible ideas?” Joseph dreams, and when he wakes, he acts. Throughout my ministry, a common question I’ve had people ask me is this: “Why doesn’t God speak to us as clearly as God spoke to people in the days of the Bible? Why don’t we hear God or see God in the same ways anymore?”
But let me ask you, if God spoke to you like God spoke to these biblical figures, would you believe it? Even as you are ready to say, “of course I would!,” try to be very honest with yourself. When Aaron and I went through the process to be ordained, we had to take a psychological assessment, with hundreds of questions, and several of them asked the question, “Do you hear voices?” in one way or another. Now, for pastors-to-be, that’s a loaded question! Do you mean the voice of God? But no, we knew that “hearing voices” was something that would be sign of concern, of mental health issues. If we encountered God in the ways folks did in the scriptures, I suspect we, and others, would mostly think we were crazy. I think God speaks to us in ways that we can hear God. And so if it is easier for us to hear God through careful study of the scripture, through prayer, through practices we somehow consider “logical,” God will speak to us that way.
            But what if our relationship with God could be so much richer, what if our discipleship could be so much deeper, what if the dreams we could dream with God could be so much more vivid if we could learn to believe what we proclaim: nothing is impossible with God! I recently took my nephew Sam to see a movie, “Rise of the Guardians.” The story is about Jack Frost, who joins Santa Claus, the Sandman, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny as guardians over the children of the world. Deep stuff, right? The conflict comes when children begin, because of a villain, to stop believing in these guardians, causing them to lose their powers, and eventually to disappear altogether. Jack Frost eventually finds a way to help the children believe again, by helping them to use their imagination, have fun, and experience joy.
            What kind of imagination, what kind of believing did it take, do you think, to believe that the automobile could exist? The airplane? The television? The computer? The smartphone? Just yesterday, I downloaded an app for my phone where you can hum a tune into the phone, and the app will tell you what song it is. I was just marveling, awe-struck, that such a thing is possible, and it isn’t even new technology anymore! Sure, all of these inventions and innovations have hard science behind them, facts and figures. But without imagination, without believing there must be some way to make it work, we would never have all these things in our world. 
            Is God speaking to you? Is God trying to find a way to make God’s dreams into your dreams? Our aim is to be more open, more willing to hear and see God in unusual ways, so that we are ready, like Joseph, to acts, when God puts a dream – sleeping or waking – into our mind. There’s a brainstorming exercise that we’re going to try soon with our Visioning Team at Liverpool First, where you imagine all the ways you might build a better bathtub. There’s no restrictions. Every idea you think of gets written down, and no one is allowed to say, “Well, that wouldn’t work because…” A carpeted bathtub? Sure! A bathtub on wheels? Sure! A bathtub where you soak in peanut butter? Sure! No wrong answers! I’ve used this activity before, and you wouldn’t believe how hard it is for sensible adults to let loose and dream about a better bathtub. It is nearly impossible for people to refrain from trying to limit themselves to practical suggestions. Nearly impossible.
            Could a baby be the savior of the world? Impossible! …Nearly. Could Mary’s pregnancy be from the Holy Spirit? Impossible! At least you’d think. Could Joseph endure the scandal of staying with Mary anyway? He couldn’t stand it, could he? Could he believe in dreams? God’s dreams? Impossible? Essential. Life-changing. Life-saving. World-transforming.
            Let’s dream, friends, and be a bit impractical. Nonsensical. Unbelievable. Occasionally even a little ridiculous. Because God-with-us has a dream to share. Let’s make God’s dreams our reality. Amen.       

Monday, December 03, 2012

Lectionary Notes for Second Sunday of Advent, Year C

Readings for Second Sunday of Advent, 12/9/12:
Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-79, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

Malachi 3:1-4:
  • Malachi is called a ‘minor prophet’ – which just means shorter book, not lesser words.
  • Malachi uses a Q & A styles, supplying our question, his/God’s response.
  • This section is titled “The coming messenger.” We often of course interpret this as meaning Christ. His hearers probably interpreted it in some more immediate and less immediate ways.
  • Refiner’s Fire and Fuller’s Soap – Tools of purification, that God will use with us, as Malachi said he would to those he addressed. A perfecting process. Wesley talked about Christian perfection. In Christ we are made perfect.
Luke 1:68-79:
  • Instead of the usual Psalm, we have this ‘prophecy’ spoken by Zechariah at the event of John’s circumcision, when his mouth is opened, after his silence for doubting God’s promise of a child. In it, he states his son’s purpose: “to be prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” 
  • The scriptures often have people who've had an experience of God responding in song - particularly a prevalent occurrence in our Advents texts. Have you ever burst in song at God's action in your life? Maybe not, but how do you react? How do you give thanks? Show your wonder?

Philippians 1:3-11:
  • Paul writes this around 64 AD, while under house arrest, probably/possibly in Rome, as a thank-you letter for a gift sent from some of the members of the church in Philippi.
  • Paul wants to lose all things in order to gain Christ. “I want to know Christ . . .by becoming like him.”
  • "I thank my God every time I remember you." - What a thoughtful sentiment! My mom has shared that she thinks this of her children. Do you thank God for the people in your life?

Luke 3:1-6:
  • John the Baptist – A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Reference to Isaiah. Repentance – from the Greek metanoia, literally, after-thought/know, of change of mind after reflection/thought. Interestingly, sometimes this word can have the connotation of “knowing something too late, after the fact.” But in terms of God, we’re not too late – that’s the gift of grace, that we can have a “change of mind” without being too late.
  • Sin – from the Greek hamartia, literally, “to miss the mark.” In Greek theatre, this is the word used to describe the fatal character flaw in tragedy, the hubris characteristic that causes the downfall of the tragic hero.
  • Forgiveness – from the Greek apheimi, literally, to be from, more specifically, to let pass, to send forth from oneself, to loose oneself from.
  • “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Salvation – from the Greek soteria, meaning, safety, keeping save, deliverance, safe return.