Sunday, December 29, 2013

Jesus Was a Refugee

(A sermon based on Matthew 2:13-23 for the First Sunday after Christmas)

I have never been a refugee and you probably haven’t either. There have been times for many of us when we “had” to leave home but we did so because we chose to get an education or to take a job or because our parents told us it was time. Oh, there is a sense in which many of us feel a restlessness and rootlessness and feel like we are on a constant quest for home. But the facts remain that we have never been driven from our home or from our hometown or from our homeland because of warfare or famine. We have never been driven away because of our ethnicity or our politics or our religion; we have never been forced out or forced underground because we are a threat to those in power.

Millions of people are refugees, though. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there were at the end of 2012 15.4 million refugees—people who have fled their country for another because of war or persecution—in the world. In addition, there were 28.8 million internally displaced persons or people uprooted from their homes but still living in their own country. In 2012, 23,000 people per day left their homes due to violence or persecution. Pakistan hosts the most refugees of any country at 1.6 million. One out of four refugees worldwide is from Afghanistan. 46% of refugees are under eighteen; 48% are women and girls (http://www.unhcr.org.uk/about-us/key-facts-and-figures.html. Accessed 12/26/13).

If I was a refugee, it could prove meaningful to me to discover that the Son of God was at a very early point in his life a refugee, too. And he was a refugee for the same reasons that other people are refugees: he and his family were at risk due to violence that occurred because they were perceived to be a threat to someone’s power.

The danger arose when the Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem on their quest to find the king whose birth they believed the star foretold. As they asked around the capital city about the location of the child, word got back to Herod, who was the Roman Empire-supported ruler of the province of Judea, and, being a person in authority, he didn’t appreciate talk of a new king being born. So, pretending to want to pay his respects to the new king, he asked the Wise Men to let him know when they found him. Find him they did, but when they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod—and you have to figure that, being Wise Men, they were already suspicious of his motives—they took the bypass around Jerusalem and went back home.

And then the horrible stuff happened. Joseph was warned in a dream that Herod was going to try to kill the child Jesus and was instructed to take his family to Egypt to escape the danger. Joseph did. Then, when Herod, who was a notoriously vicious man, realized that the Wise Men had proven wiser than he was, he ordered that all the children in Bethlehem two years old and under be killed. It was to escape that threat that Jesus and his family became refugees in Egypt.

Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from this terribly sad story is that God is with those are displaced.

As I said earlier, a refugee could be encouraged by the fact that Jesus was a refugee, too. Now I want to add to that observation this one: refugees need the people of God to be there with them and for them, too. Let’s not forget that many of our ancestors were political and religious refugees; that’s why they come to this land. Let’s also not forget that their coming here created other refugees. Let’s not forget the refugees and displaced persons of our world; let’s pray for them and help them in any way we can. God is with them and we as the people of God should be with them, too.

Even though I said at the beginning that we had never been refugees, the truth is that if we are followers of Jesus we are in fact refugees. Jesus was a refugee early on because he was Jesus. We assume that he had a fairly settled life during his growing up years but once he struck out to carry out his mission he, by his own testimony, had no place to lay his head. And he would be pursued by the powers until he finally was killed by them.

He was, though, a refugee who had a home—his home was with his Father; his home was in doing his Father’s will.

Jesus said that if we are to follow him we have to take up our cross and follow him; we have to be willing to lose our life if we are going to find it. We are to live in ways of love and grace that run counter to the flow of the world. If we live that way, we will find that we usually don’t feel at home and even that we are being set upon by those for whom such living amounts to a threat to their power. The theologian Tom Petty once said, “You don’t have to live like a refugee.” But if you’re a Christian, you do.

Remember, though, that we are refugees—we are wanderers and we are pilgrims—who have a home that we take with us wherever we go. Our home is with God because God has chosen to make God’s home with us …

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Heaven Knows

(A sermon based on Luke 2:1-20 for Christmas Eve 2013)

Imagine with me that we are standing outside in a wide open space, perhaps a prairie or a desert. As we look off in the distance, we see the horizon, the place where the sky seems to intersect with the earth. That is not in reality what is happening, of course, but the metaphor of the horizon might prove helpful to us tonight, a night when we talk, with great reverence and wonder, about a night when heaven came into contact with earth—the night when Christ was born.

Imagine with me that we are there that night when heaven comes down to earth. If we can assume that God knows more about reality than we do and that those in heaven know more about reality than those on earth do, what do the events and words of that night show us about the way things really are? Perhaps if we pay close attention we will come to know some of what heaven knows. And if we come to know what heaven knows, it just might change the ways we think about and approach life here on earth.

Heaven knows that God’s way in the world is a human way. God has always worked through people to accomplish his will on Earth. When God sent his Son as the Savior of the world, that Savior came as a human being, delivered into this world as all other human beings are. Granted, his origins are extraordinary; he is the eternal Word of God who was somehow “of the Holy Spirit”; but still, he was carried for nine months in his mother Mary’s womb and he entered the world through labor and pain and messiness just like we all did. And he then lived a life of labor and pain and messiness just like we all do. In Christ, God entered our world as one of us. Because Christ is in us, we continue to live his life of service and sacrifice so that others might experience the love and grace of God. Heaven knows that God’s way in the world is a human way.

Heaven knows that God’s way in the world is a humble way. The baby born in Bethlehem was the Messiah; he was the anointed one who came in the line of King David, which means he was the King for whom Israel had looked and longed. What a strange king he was, though. He was born not in the capital city but in a small town; he was born not to royal parents but to a peasant couple; he was born not in a palace but in a stable. And he was laid not in a fancy and comfortable crib but in a feed trough. God’s way is to work in and through the humble in order to lift up the humble and to bring down the proud. Heaven knows that God’s way in the world is a humble way.

Heaven knows that God’s way in the world is a revolutionary way. It is no accident that the Gospel writers are careful to place the coming of Jesus in an historical and political context. It is no accident that Jesus was born into a country that was under the domination of a great empire. It is no accident that Jesus was called the King of the Jews. It is no accident that he came preaching that the Kingdom of God was among us. The juxtaposition was and is clear: God’s kingdom was and is far different than the kingdoms of the world. Jesus came to instigate a revolution, a revolution that favored giving over getting, forgiveness over revenge, grace over legalism, love over hate, and acceptance over rejection. Heaven knows that God’s way in the world is a revolutionary way.

Heaven knows that God’s way in the world is a wondrous way. The shepherds went away praising God. Mary pondered in her heart all that had happened. It’s really all so amazingly unbelievable; it is, frankly, too good not to be true. Perhaps the best we can do is stand in awe of it all, try our best to accept it, and let God help us to live in light of it. Heaven knows that God’s way in the world is a wondrous way.

The horizon is where heaven and earth seem to come together. On that first Christmas night, the boundary between heaven and earth was breached and heaven’s way broke into the world. Think about this, though: there is a horizon every day; there is no day when heaven and earth do not intersect. They intersect whenever we live out Jesus’ way of life in the world; they intersect whenever we live out of our full humanity, when we live out of real humility, when we live in a truly revolutionary way, and when we live in praise and wonder. The story of Jesus’ birth lets us see what heaven knows about how life really is and it lets us see what way will finally, when all is said and done, be seen to be the most true.

So now we know what heaven knows. The question is what will we do with such great knowledge?

It is time to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. What will it mean for him to be born in us today?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Get Ready: Trust!

(A sermon based on Matthew 1:18-25 for the Fourth Sunday of Advent)

It may be that in reading these few short verses that describe events that occurred over just a few short days, we bear witness to Joseph making the kind of progress that it usually takes a lifetime to make—and that some of us, after many years of living, still have not made.

Joseph was engaged to Mary; engagement was in that day a legal and binding arrangement. While the couple would not consummate the marriage until the wedding took place, they were nonetheless considered legally joined during the engagement period. If the arrangement was to be ended, a divorce was required.

So when Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant, he understandably assumed that she had been unfaithful to him. Joseph knew what the right thing to do was; his tradition that was derived from his Bible told him that Mary was to be publicly divorced and his Bible told him that she could under certain circumstances be stoned. Joseph was a righteous, Bible-following, law-keeping man and the righteous thing to do, according to the rules and according to the tradition, was to shame and get rid of Mary. Everybody would have understood and supported that action had he taken it. He would have been honored for it.

Many people know the right thing to do; they know what the Bible says and they know what their tradition—which is supposedly derived from the Bible—says. They know the rules. And they know how to apply them, especially to other people.

Joseph knew the right thing to do. So do many of us.

Joseph, though, was not only righteous; he was also kind. Because he was kind, he wanted to do the right thing in the right way. And so, “being unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,” Joseph “planned to dismiss her quietly.” Joseph seems to have been motivated by love because love does not seek vengeance, love does not seek to tear down, and love does not allow wounded pride to dictate one’s response. Love tries to do no harm in the course of doing right.

We Christians want to do the right thing but we want to do it in the right way. There is a right way to live but there is a “righter” way to live; that “righter” way is the way of love and kindness. We, like Joseph, are to be growing toward an attitude of gracious correction and away from gleeful and prideful vengeance. It is not difficult to imagine Joseph being more sad than mad. He thought he knew what had been done to him and he knew what he had to do about it; but his heart was such that he could treat the one who had wounded him in ways that would do as little damage as possible to her life and not do further damage to his heart.

Joseph knew the right thing to do; he knew what his Bible and his tradition said. But Joseph also knew the righter thing to do; he responded to the hurt he had received with love, kindness, and grace. That’s a step that we need to grow toward taking.

But Joseph took even a further step that we can grow toward taking: he moved into radical trust that led him to radical obedience. When Joseph had determined the right thing to do and the right way to do it, he lay down to sleep and an angel came to him in a dream and told him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Then, in one of those remarkable verses that we tend to read right past, Matthew reports, “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife …”

Joseph moved beyond doing what was right to doing what was right in the right way to doing what was right in the best way because he did what best fit in with what God was doing and because he acted in radical trust in God. He embraced the one that his tradition told him he should despise and reject because God told him that God was doing something special in the one who should have been despised and rejected. And in so doing Joseph embraced the Son of God who would grow up to be the One who was despised and rejected; in so doing he embraced God’s salvation.

It just may be that the best way for us to embrace the Child who grew up to be despised and rejected who was born to Mary who should have been (and perhaps was) despised and rejected and to Joseph who embraced those who were despised and rejected is to embrace the despised and rejected.

In one of our Christmas hymns, we sing the prayer “Be born in us today.” Jesus was born into Joseph’s household because he moved beyond what was right to what was righter and beyond what was righter to what was rightest. He moved beyond applying the rules to applying the rules with love and kindness to acting with a radical trust in God that caused him to embrace the unembraceable and to accept the unacceptable.

So can we …

Monday, December 16, 2013

Get Ready: Accept!

(A sermon based on Matthew 11:2-6 for the 3rd Sunday of Advent)

Every year during Advent, during these weeks leading up to December 25, we hear a good bit of talk about the need to keep Christ in Christmas. For some, that means saying “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays”; for others, it means writing “Merry Christmas” rather than “Merry Xmas”; for still others, it means having Christian displays on government property; for a few radical folks, it means really focusing on Jesus and downplaying the commercial aspects of the season.

As for me, I’m comfortable saying both “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays”; after all, I am a Christian who respects the fact that the holy days of other faiths occur at this time of year. As for me, I am more interested in protecting the rights of individuals and of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other institutions to be able to display the symbols of their particular faith than I am of placing such displays on property that belongs to all of us. As for me, I’ll usually write out “Merry Christmas” but will occasionally in my own notes or in a message to someone who understands with me that the “X” in “Xmas” is the first letter in Greek name for Christ will write “Merry Xmas” (I never say “Merry Xmas” because that just sounds silly). As for me, while I will give and receive presents and while I believe in and anticipate the coming of Santa Claus, I will work at focusing on Jesus by observing Advent and by observing the Twelve Days of Christmas to which my Christian calendar points me; the latter practice gives me eleven days to focus on Christ in Christmas without the blessed distractions of presents and Frosty and Rudolph.

But you know, while some of us may get vexed about such matters, I must tell you that they are not the real problem for us; none of them is the main problem when it comes to keeping Christ in Christmas for today’s church people including those of the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald. No, our main problem is the kind of Jesus on which we focus not just at Christmas but all the time. Our main problem is whether we focus on Jesus as we want him to be or as he really was and is. And we have a second problem that is related to the first: do our lives express our following of Jesus as he really is?

John the Baptist was struggling with himself over Jesus—and we can hardly blame him. After all, John had come preaching that a Messiah was coming who would baptize with fire and with the Spirit; his fiery preaching had accentuated the judgment that the Messiah would bring. John had identified Jesus as that Messiah. But now John’s preaching had landed him where strong preaching will often land a preacher—in trouble; in John’s case, that meant in jail facing the possibility of execution. John had given his life to preaching that the Messiah was coming and now he was very likely literally going to give his life for his faithful preaching.

But Jesus was not cleaning house, at least not in the way that people expected. He was not running the Romans out of Israel. He was not organizing a rescue party to free the political prisoners, including his faithful forerunner John. And so, quite understandably, when John heard in prison what Jesus was up to, he sent some of his followers to see Jesus with this question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus, in other words, was not meeting John’s expectations. He was not meeting those expectations because it was not his business to meet John’s expectations; it was rather his business to meet his Father’s expectations.

There is a valuable lesson to be learned here: God is not obligated to meet our expectations, either. When we think about Jesus’ second coming, as Advent leads us to do, we would be wise to remember that practically nobody—maybe literally nobody—expected a Messiah who would be born to such humble circumstances and under such scandalous circumstances as Jesus was in his first coming, who would challenge his people’s religious establishment even more than their foreign oppressors, and who would be executed in the most shameful and cruel manner possible. And they based their expectations largely on their reading of the Bible. So we should be careful about presuming to know how Jesus will come back; we should keep our eyes open for him no matter how God chooses to reveal him.

We have our expectations about how Jesus will come to us and be with us right here and now, too. Perhaps we expect him to confirm our biases and prejudices—to look down on the same people on whom we look down. Perhaps we expect him to support our goals in life, even if we try to reach those goals through means that hurt people and reflect a heart driven by lust and greed. Perhaps we expect him not to love other people because we really don’t expect him to love us.

But what answer did Jesus send to John? “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” “This is who I am,” Jesus said, “I am the One who was sent from God to bring help to the hurting, healing to the broken, and good news to the outcast and marginalized.”

Then Jesus said, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” In other words, we are blessed if we accept the kind of Messiah that Jesus is rather than trying to fit him into the mold out of which we think he should come.

How do we demonstrate such acceptance? We do so by the kind of heart that we develop and by the kind of life that we live. We do so by accepting Jesus’ love and grace and by then spreading it all around in whatever ways we can.

We are not in the same position as Pope Francis, who was named last week as Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Francis has been a breath of fresh air as he has rejected the pomp of the papacy and called his Church to care about the poor and disenfranchised. In a now iconic photograph, he is pictured kissing a man who was disfigured by disease. There are reports that he sneaks out of the Vatican at night to minister to the homeless.

I am not the Pope and neither are you. We are who we are and we are where we are. But we all, no matter who we are and where we are, demonstrate what kind of Messiah, what kind of Jesus, we believe in by the ways we think, talk, and act. We demonstrate it in the ways that we care or don’t care. We demonstrate it in the ways that we help or don’t help. We demonstrate it in the ways that we love or don’t love.

I heard a commentator refer to the Pope as “shockingly Christian.” So was Jesus. Are we in “shockingly Christian” in the ways that we think, talk, and act? Or are we shockingly—well, unchristian?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Get Ready: Watch!

(A sermon based on Matthew 24:36-44 for the First Sunday in Advent)

We have arrived at the first Sunday of our new year—the first Sunday of Advent! Advent is about the arrival or coming of Jesus and, as such, it has at least three components. First, we anticipate the celebration of the coming of Jesus our world two millennia ago. Second, we anticipate his coming in power in the fullness of time. Third, we anticipate his coming to us right here and now in whatever new and unexpected ways he chooses to come.

Let’s get a few important things said right up front.

First, Advent is not about prediction; it is about preparation. People who predict when Jesus will return are false prophets and people who listen to them are fools. Date-setters are looking for a following and followers of date-setters are looking for a way out of this world; both are, at best, misguided.

Second, Advent is not about paranoia; it is about anticipation. We are not to look for reasons to feel persecuted; we are to look for what God is doing in whatever is going on in the world and in our lives.

Third, Advent is not about passivity; it is about activity. We are not to sit around and wait for something to happen; we are to believe that God is working and we are to be about sharing in what God is doing.

Fourth, Advent is not about hype; it is about hope. It is not about trying to get worked up over what might or might not happen; it is about looking forward to what God intends to make happen.

Fifth, Advent is not about fear; it is about faith. We are to look forward not with anxiety but with trust in God.

You see, we don’t know when, but we do know that. We don’t know when Jesus will come again, but we do know that he will come again. We don’t know how, but we do know that. We don’t know how Jesus will come again, but we do know that he will come again.

Really, though, those statements refer only to the coming of Jesus in power one day. We don’t know neither when he will return nor how, but we do know that. But there is another sense in which we do know when he will return and we do know how he will return. We know it just as surely as we know that he came all those years ago in the event that we celebrate at Christmas.

We know that Jesus comes to us right here and now. We know that he comes to us in the course of our living our everyday, normal lives. Jesus said that when he comes again, people would be living their normal lives and some would be take and some would be left. As we live our lives, some of us are aware of the coming of Jesus to us and some of us are not.

How can we increase our awareness? Well, we can keep our spirits more open. How do we do that? We do that through prayer, through slow and careful Bible reading, through contemplation of the life of Jesus, through reading dependable writers, through worship, and through service.

We can also watch for Christ’s coming in ways that will surprise us. The people in Jesus’ day—especially the “experts”—did not anticipate a Savior who came like he did, who did what he did, who talked like he talked, and who died like he died. We need to watch that our expectations don’t blind us to the ways that Christ comes.

For example, if all we do is watch for how he will come one day in such glory and with such great power that his coming will be obvious to all, then we might miss how he comes to us right here and now in humble circumstances. In fact, if we are not careful, we will not only miss such comings but we will intentionally ignore them.

Perhaps you will join me in praying this prayer that we will practice the presence of Christ in everything:

O God,

We thank you for the way that you surround us all the time; you are

in the air we breathe,
in the grace we encounter,
in the Spirit we sense,
in the love we know, and
in the people we meet.

Help us to grow in our awareness of your presence; cause

our pores,
our eyes,
our ears,
our mind, and our
spirit

to be more and more open to you in all the ways that you make yourself known to us.

Perhaps we most easily forget the way that Christ makes his presence known in other people. It is as Carlo Carretto wrote:

When her husband is near, and does not let her want for anything she expects, hopes for, and enjoys, a wife says she loves her husband, says it easily and normally. But when the husband is far away, when the waiting is prolonged for months and years, when doubt grows that he will ever return again, oh, then the true test of love begins!
What light, what splendors, in the possibilities this wife has to resist, while she fixes her eyes on the anonymous crowd and tries to pick out him, only him!
What power of real, living, strong testimony emanates from the faithful vigilance, the unquenchable hope, which this woman lives behind the bitter doorway of waiting!
Oh, how each one of us would like to be the bridegroom who returns disguised as a poor stranger, whom she does not recognize, but to whom she repeats, again and again, her certainty of his return and the sweetness of his love!
Well, every evening, when the darkness wraps itself round my prayer, he, God, there, disguised as a poor man watching me.
When I endure, in the darkness of faith, the prolonged wait for the God who comes, he has already come to me and is embracing me silently, with the same embrace with which I, in faith, embrace him.
(Carlo Carretto, The God Who Comes)

This section of Matthew is filled with words of Jesus about being ready by watching for him to come again. But it ends with words about who will be blessed when he does come.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:31-40)

By all means, let us watch for him to come again.

But by all means, let us watch for how he comes to us right here and now …