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Advent 4A-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I hatched a plan to surprise my parents with a fresh cut Christmas tree. I think I imagined it to be a proud moment. I was all grown up. I was five years old. Had I been successful, I probably wouldn’t remember it so well.  Shame leaves an indelible imprint on the mind.

The details are sketchy. I have to fill the story in from family photos and things I’m told. My dad was getting a post-doctoral degree that year.  We were house-sitting for some professor and living in a grand old farmhouse in upstate New York. I remember rolling farmland, two barns, a nearby forest, and best of all, a playhouse the size of a small shed. I can just remember a plot of evergreens, three or four rows deep, planted in tight neat rows—the scene of the crime.

I picked a nice one. It was close to the house. I suppose it couldn’t have been much taller than I was.  I set to work.  I remember being surprised. It was hard work cutting down that tree. I stopped several times to rest. The next thing I remember is how my parent’s reacted. It was memorable but not for what I’d expected. They were not happy. They were horrified.  Rather than display it, they hid it. Rather than pride, I felt ashamed. My dad threw it out in the middle of the pond. It sat out there on the ice until Spring. I remember looking out at it from the living room window—right next to where we put up the other Christmas tree we had that year—the one we kept.

Like my five-year-old self, Joseph had other plans. Joseph expected to make his parents proud and prove he was all grown up. He was warmly regarded in the community. He was a righteous man. He learned a good trade. He was engaged to be married. Instead, he had a big mess on his hands.

Even today, it’s easy to imagine the stain of scandal buzzing around the small, mountain town of Nazareth. Joseph was in a bind. The woman to whom he was betrothed was pregnant. The townspeople were within their rights to throw rocks at her until she was dead. Mercifully Joseph quietly decided to divorce her.  Even so, the news would bring down heavy shame upon both their families.

Matthew doesn’t go into much detail about Joseph’s anguish.  However, in the Gospel of James, an extracanonical text from the 2nd century C.E, “we get a fuller, harsher picture of the carpenter’s pain.  When Joseph sees Mary’s swollen belly, he throws himself on the ground, strikes his own face, and cries bitterly.  He wonders long and hard how to respond, and asks Mary why she has betrayed both him and God so cruelly.”   (Debie Thomas)

In a jam like this we might raise our fist and shout, “Why me, Lord?”  What have I done to deserve this?  Joseph was right in the middle of a miracle yet it’s easy to understand why he would complain about it.  Harder to understand how Joseph was able to look past the pain of humiliation, shame, and broken dreams to take the angel Gabriel’s message to heart, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. The child she has conceived is from God. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus.” (Matthew 1:20 &21)

“Away in a Manger?” “Silent Night?” “Joy to the World?” The hymns we sing about the conception and birth of Jesus evoke such warm feelings and teary-eyed tenderness we forget what stress the Holy Family must have been under.

The psalms are full of the lament of the faithful searching for answers from God.  “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?” Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1).  “How long will your anger fume when your people pray?” (Psalm 80:4).  Its well known that Mother Teresa once had a profoundly vivid experience of the presence of Jesus as a young woman.  That vision was the beginning of her legendary ministry among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India.  Years later, near the end of her life, she was asked about it in an interview.  The reporter assumed she must have had many such experiences all through her amazing life.  Her answer was a surprise.  No, she said, it had happened only just that once –and never again.  Yet she had lived her entire life in faithfulness to that dream and that is why we honor her.

Joseph’s willingness to forsake conventional righteousness, ennobled him. That he changes direction overnight in a dark conversation makes him an Advent icon.  As Carl Jung might have said, Joseph was awakened by his dream. No careful tending of the embers of his prior ambitions could revive them.  As ephemeral as this new dream was, both Mary and Joseph proved willing to turn their lives inside out so that the urgent prayers of Israel could be answered by the birth of a baby whose name would be, “save”  (Suzanne, Suzanne Guthrie, At The Edge of the Enclosure, 2013).

Names were very important in that ancient world.  First, the angel says, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people.” The Hebrew name Jesus is the verb save. Jesus will save from sin and guilt.  Advent is being ready for the saving one who will come when we cannot save ourselves. (Walter Brueggeman)

But notice, the angel actually gave Joseph two names for the baby.  His second name is Emmanuel or, God is with us. It is the faith of the church that in Jesus God is decisively present in the world.  Scripture tells us that wherever Jesus comes, he shows up where people are in need.  Jesus saved lepers, the deaf, the blind, the lame, the hungry, the unclean, even the dead. His very presence makes new life possible, and the church consists in all the people who have been awakened to the reality of God who comes to be with us in this season of need and of joy –all through this miraculous baby, and this preposterous dream. (Walter Brueggeman)

Joseph had a dream and suddenly he was willing to look like a fool to his family and friends. Can we do that?  Shame leaves an indelible imprint on the mind. Avoiding it can be a powerful motivator. It easily becomes a barrier to grace taking shape in us. Joseph was willing to act upon the script of miracle and blessing rather than the script of shame and scarcity, and social convention.  Like Joseph, we are called to stand apart in order to stand for the whole—to give ourselves to God’s dreams for fallen people and this broken world regardless of what others may say—for God to call you blessed.

 

Easter Darkness

Advent 3A-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

December 15, 2019

John the Baptist paces back and forth in his narrow cell.  Imprisoned by King Herod, he questions how he lived his life.  Last Sunday John stood beside the Jordan preaching in the wilderness. He seemed so sure of himself. But now that he faces a stupid death, he’s not so sure.  He has doubts.

Jesus did great deeds of power in cities throughout Galilee, but John still wonders if and when God’s kingdom will come.  Meanwhile Jesus’ list of enemies continued to grow. “Look, [they said, this Jesus is] a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19).  Now John the Baptist whose very conception occasioned an angelic visit, who leapt in his mother’s womb at the first glimpse of a pregnant Mary sent word to ask Jesus, “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3)   I’ve staked my entire life on you.  Has it all been for nothing?”

This is not the sort of faith story we like to tell—but I many of us, including me, has lived some version of it at one time or another. We like conversion stories that go straight “from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, from despair to joy.”  Yet, John’s story doesn’t follow this happy trajectory. It’s an anti-conversion story. “John’s journey is a backwards one. From certitude to doubt.  From boldness to hesitation.  From knowing to unknowing.  From heavenly light to jail cell darkness.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, “Has It All Been For Nothing?”, 12-8-19)

We might call it spiritual failure, or maybe faithlessness?  Backsliding?  We might get mad. Jesus doesn’t.  Jesus responds to his cousin’s pained question with composure, gentleness, and understanding. Life can be unfair. What was happening to John wasn’t fair.

The season of Advent teaches us it’s okay to doubt, question, even shake your fist at God –just as many of the psalms do. “On the evidence of our senses, despair is perfectly rational.  Entropy is built into nature.  Decay is knit into our flesh. By all appearances, the universe is cold, empty and indifferent…This leaves every human being with a choice between despair and longing.  Both are reasonable responses to a great mystery.” (Michael Gerson, Washington Post) Jesus has compassion for John. Despair is an understandable response to life’s worst cruelties.

Christians worship the Crucified One, so why do we have a hard time hanging in there with extreme doubt, despair, and suffering?  Somehow, we feel a need to blunt the edges.  To soften the blows.  To make God okay.  But this story is not “okay,” and many of our own stories aren’t okay either.  The prison bars that hold us don’t always give way.  Our doubts don’t always resolve themselves.  Justice doesn’t always arrive in time.  Questions don’t always receive the answers we hunger for. (Thomas)

To add icing on the cake, soon, Jesus’ mother and brothers will show up too, presumably wanting to question their problematic child and brother. Perhaps, they want to take him home and hide him away. How does Jesus answer? What did he say?

Jesus took John back to the bible.  He invited him to consider a different vision from within its pages about who the Messiah is.  In Christ, we see that God is a friend of the lost.  In Christ, we hear that God stands in the midst of our suffering.  God opposes injustice and evil.  God befriends us in the midst of whatever lostness we find ourselves. We are not alone with our pain. In Christ, God entered our world of darkness and death, and decisively filled it with light and life.

We heard in Mary’s song (the Magnificat), God has lifted up the lowly and brings low the mighty.  According to Matthew, the world turned with John the Baptist.  A new age of Christ had dawned.  Jesus is Emmanuel –God’s Wisdom come in the flesh.  There will be new duties and new commandments. The period of the Law and the Prophets was over.  The time of fulfillment is at hand.

Yet, for John, the dawning of this new age in Christ does not mean that he will be freed from prison.  Although John was there to herald Jesus’ beginning, he will not live to see Jesus’ end.  The victory won in Christ may be decisive, but often our deliverance is limited. How did John respond to Jesus’s answer?  Did it satisfy him?  Did it quell his doubts?  Did it renew his joy? We don’t know.

The pious stories of our youth feel more reliable, filled with ready-made answers. Yet these are not jagged enough for the world we actually live in.  “They’re too lukewarm, too clean, too polite.  They move to closure and triumph so quickly that they turn pain into an abstraction. They dull my capacity to practice genuine compassion, empathy, and longsuffering.  Where is the Christian story that can handle horror?  Where is the Christian story that will equip us to sit gently and patiently in the darkness with those who mourn, fear, rage, or doubt?” (Thomas) Well, they’re right here in our bible, in these readings of Advent.

St. Paul contrasts our present sufferings with future glory. In the epistle for this week James urges patience in suffering at least five times. The book of Hebrews honors all the saints who died “without having received what was promised.” The baby born in the barn will die a criminal death.  John’s death will be both tragic and capricious—a travesty of injustice.

Our readings this week all point to something John missed that is essential to the character of God.  “All five passages emphasize the people toward whom God is biased. These Scriptures describe at least eighteen — eighteen! — sorts of people in pain who might be forgotten by the world but who are nevertheless remembered by God: the blind, the lame, the diseased, the deaf, the dead, the poor, the dumb, the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the bowed down, foreigners, orphans, widows, the humble, and then, my three favorites, those with feeble hands, weak knees, and fearful hearts.” (Daniel Clendenin)

The message of both John and Jesus is a call to live according to the way of God and not the way of the world.  The way of God, it turns out, is to enter into, draw close, and patiently endure all the suffering and violence this world can dish out in order to show God’s peace, love and mercy. That’s how God is turning this old world inside out and upside down.

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom,” promises Isaiah.  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” sings Mary, the expectant mother of Jesus.  This holy season of Advent invites us to honor doubt, despair, and silence as reasonable reactions to a broken world.  To create sacred space for grief, mourn freely, and rage against injustice.  To let joy be joy, sorrow be sorrow, horror be horror.  To feel deeply, because that’s exactly what God does.   (Thomas)

Advent 2A-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1).  With beautiful words the prophet Isaiah describes his vision of a future king, like David, who rules with “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (v 2). We lay on hands and say these words to affirm our baptism to become members of this church. In some small way that makes each of you an answer to Isaiah’s prayer. We are tasked with fulfilling Isaiah’s vision of nonviolence and social harmony, building communities where the wolf, the lamb, the leopard and the kid live together in peace.

Soon after Isaiah wrote these famous poetic words, the only thing that would remain real was the stump. The story begun in Eden continuing through Abraham, Sarah, Moses, King David and the Prophets came to an end. The temple soon fell into ruins. The people killed or carted off in chains, neither their time nor their bodies would be their own.  All was cut down, destroyed.

I am aware that I am grieving the decay of our civic life, the erosion of great institutions of government, education, and the church. I am anxious about the inability for all of us to agree even on basic facts. Yet nothing I am worried about today compares with the utter devastation people of faith have coped with in the past. It’s not that our worries and concerns aren’t legitimate and relevant.  But fortunately, we possess the wisdom of our ancestors to guide us through times of doubt or unknowing when it comes to faith.

It happens more than we care to admit. The sense of being stranded in the midst of life can be enough to drain a person’s self-worth. Where did the joy go? Where did the feeling of self-confidence disappear to in the midst of this emptiness? Just yesterday life was clear and vibrant. Today it is endlessly bleak. The darkness is unyielding. Nothing helps; nothing takes it away. There is no light here, we think. But we think wrong.

The Old Ones whisper, there is a light in us that only darkness itself can illuminate. “It is the glowing calm that comes over us when we finally surrender to the ultimate truth of creation: that there is a God and we are not it. That is the light that shines in darkness.” (Sister Joan Chittister) 

Only the experience of our own darkness gives us the light we need to be of help to others whose journey into unknowing is just beginning. Without that, we are only words. We are false witnesses to the truth of what it means to be pressed to the ground and rise again.

The light we gain in darkness is faith. Faith is our light.  United Church of Christ pastor Mark Longhurst describes how both light and dark are essential for transformation. The light and the darkness are bound up with one another. Periods of seemingly fruitless darkness may in fact highlight all the ways we rob ourselves of wisdom by clinging to the light. Who grows by only looking on the bright side of things? It is only when we lose our certainties that we become able to see past false images of God to discover the grace operating beneath all our self-serving fantasies and fears. (Mark Longhurst, “Beyond Light Supremacy: Let There Be Light *and* Darkness,” Patheos, 10-11-19).

The terrible, disorienting experience of Exile opened the hearts of God’s people wide enough some of them became able to recognize the Messiah even when hanging on a cross. It made some of them ready to live into the radical reality of God’s ubiquitous grace.  One of them was John the Baptist. Like Isaiah, he also speaks to us today about a tree stump This time, it is God doing the chopping to make way for the kingdom. “Even now the axe is lying against the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10). What kind of kingdom you ask?  The peaceable kingdom, like the one Isaiah described.

“John planted himself in the middle of nowhere.  He set up shop in the wilderness, and anyone who wanted to hear what he had to say had to go to a lot of trouble to get there…” and not just trouble, but plenty of danger too.  (Barbara Brown Taylor) To hear him preach about repentance and baptism, a pilgrim from Jerusalem had to take that treacherous Jericho road, made famous in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  They had to trek through blazing desert, carrying all their own food and water, traversing hills and lonely canyons infested with bandits to Jericho and then beyond—to the wilderness beside the Jordan far away from everything.

Ask yourself.  Who would make such a journey?  Who would risk it?  Who would be so desperate?  Many who went out to see John had nothing left to lose. Their lives counted for very little.  They had lost hope in building a life for themselves. They went to the desert in search of a little peace. They returned to become midwives of a new creation of impossible possibilities.

Often God’s little ones are the first to hear the angels or to follow the leading star. The people who flocked to hear John the Baptist were people on the margins, outcasts, thieves, and sinners—and right behind them came a second group of people—those sent out to keep tabs on the people who lived on the margins, to be sure things didn’t get out of hand.

That sets the scene of our gospel today.  John announces the Lord’s coming.  He calls the religious leaders a brood of vipers. He speaks of fiery judgment, and of wrath to come.  Clearly, John the Baptist didn’t get the memo about wishing everyone a very merry Christmas.

John’s Baptism of fire is bad news to those in authority and anyone peddling Christmas like a commodity, but good news to the poor, the grieving, the victims of violence, those who suffer injustice, and anyone longing for the kingdom of God.

Isaiah’s dream and John’s baptism are impossibly good news for everyone.  Isaiah and John boldly declare God’s peaceable kingdom is closer than we realize. The old ways are passing away. Even now, God is bringing something new out of the old, making what was impossible possible.  A shoot is growing from the dead stump of Jesse.  Death gives way to life. John and Isaiah expose the upside-down dreams our so-called common sense is built on and awaken us being part of God’s dream for this world following the light God has placed deep within us, the light only darkness can reveal, the light we call faith.

Advent 1A-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The prophet Isaiah calls us, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that God may teach us God’s ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” (Isaiah 2:3) Scripture tells of many mountains upon which people of faith draw nearer to God. Today marks a new year in our worship calendar told mostly by Matthew. Seeking God on the mountaintop is a recurring theme of Matthew’s gospel.

In my youth, there was one mountain that loomed over everything in Northern Colorado. At 14, 259 feet, Long’s Peak can be seen anywhere from Denver to Ft. Collins. Climbing that mountain always started around three in the morning.  We’d get in the car pre-loaded with food and gear the night before and drive three hours to reach the trail head by 6:00 AM. After signing in with the ranger, we’d start winding through silent forests of Pingree pine, Blue Spruce, and Aspen.  By about 9:30, we’d break from the trees, passing gnarled wind-twisted pines and stunted undergrowth, emerging onto the open tundra. “God’s country,” it’s called. It’s too high in elevation and too harsh for trees to grow, nevertheless life flourishes there.  With its delicate small flowers and silky grasses, it’s a world of miniatures in a land of giant geological structures that stretches for miles and hundreds of miles.

On top of Long’s Peak, six hours and 5,000 feet above your car, nearly a mile above the trailhead, ordinary lives are transformed.  Life is a party. Several people have been married on top of Long’s Peak.  In the mid-70’s, half of a 12-piece brass band assembled on the summit to play the Star-Spangled Banner, and Nearer My God to Thee.  Strangers celebrate together like old friends.

The day I was there, someone did a headstand to pose for a picture.  Another shot golf balls over the diamond face.  That day, we were entertained by a glider, piloted by someone who overcome a different set of obstacles, riding the winds that spiral above the mountains to carry his plane silently just over our heads.

Mountain tops are wonderful, enchanted places, where nothing seems out of place except the ordinary.  They are foreboding, majestic, even sacred places which lift our minds and spirits to God.  Mountain tops can be a place to feel the presence of God, a place of revelation, understanding, and light.  They would seem to be the perfect place for Advent.  A perfect place to stand watch for the coming of God.  Indeed, Jesus seem to love to pray and teach on mountaintops as a way to prepare himself and the disciples for what they would confront in the world.

As Jesus sat and spoke to the disciples in our gospel today, he is somewhere on the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron valley from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  The time and manner of his coronation as Lord and King remain unimaginable and largely unanticipated by his little band of followers.  The disciples still don’t know what’s about to hit them although Jesus already told them on three separate occasions.

Maybe we hoped we could avoid this.  We would rather not confront our pain, our shadowy selves, let alone all the suffering that exists in the world. We comfort ourselves with popular books based on bad theology about a rapture that is supposed to helicopter us out of this war zone—right?  A closer look at our gospel (Matthew 24) reveals the righteous remain to fight the good fight while the unrighteous were taken up in the flood.

The message of Advent is, “Wake up!”  The message of Matthew today is, “Keep watch!”  The call of the season is to recognize that we’re not paying attention to what really matters.  It is to confess that we are alive and yet dangerously asleep to what is real. God so loved the world that God sent the Son and now sends us to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace in the midst of a confusing and hopeless planet. Remember, Jesus walks with you.

In a sermon entitled, “The Face in the Sky,” Frederick Buechner describes God’s descent into the world in Christ as a kind of scandal — one that requires us to ponder the shocking unpredictability of God: “Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in the stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.”

Strong winds and blowing snow forced all the roads to Longs Peak trail to close today. But it is never impossible to take another day hike with Jesus. We walk beside Jesus into valleys of the shadow of death like frail, confused, and mortal angels shining the borrowed light of heaven upon our path.  We do not know the way to go.  Yet we remain confident knowing the end of our journey will always return to our beginning in God.

Advent wants to shake us out of our complacency, out of our cynicism, out of prejudice, ideologies and learned expectations –all the things that keep us from seeing things new and fresh as they really are. As St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “…you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…” (Romans 13:11, 12a).

Remember the mountaintop.  Remember that you are mine.  Remember the fellowship you experienced with strangers, for you are all my children. Remember the feast of joy prepared for you at the heavenly banquet. Always remember that you belong to the kingdom of God as you follow my way of the cross. As a child, we journeyed to the mountaintop from far below on the plains.  Our spiritual journey runs in the opposite direction.  It begins in our home on God’s holy mountain and continues into the world God so passionately loves.