Sunday, December 28, 2014

Restarting the Echoes of Christmas

(A Communion meditation based on Luke 2:22-40 for the 1st Sunday after Christmas Day 2014)

It was forty days after the birth of Jesus and the praise of the angels and of the shepherds was still echoing. In our text we hear it echoing in the words of two elderly people who had faithfully throughout their long lives waited and watched expectantly for God to act in the coming of the Messiah.

A few questions:

Are we looking for God to reveal the Messiah in whatever ways God chooses to reveal him?

Are we dedicating our lives to living in the light of his past, present, and future comings?

Are we proclaiming with our lives the presence of Christ in the world and in our lives?

Are the echoes of the Christmas event still echoing in our lives?

Mary and Joseph, in obedience to the teaching of their tradition, brought Jesus when he was forty days old to the Temple to be dedicated to the Lord. There they encountered Simeon and Anna, both of whom were well up in years. Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and praised God for allowing him to see the Messiah. He then declared the role that Jesus would play in bringing about God’s purposes in the world, purposes that would affect all people. Then Simeon said to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

“Good tidings of great joy”—that was what the angels had proclaimed forty days earlier.

“Falling and rising; opposition; a piercing sword”—that was what old Simeon now proclaimed.

The good news embodied in the baby Jesus was going to be worked out through love, you see, and love is willing to pay any price, no matter how difficult, challenging, or hurtful, to accomplish love’s work in love’s way. Love’s way is costly and sacrificial. Love is also contagious in both its positive and negative effects; when love leads someone we love to get hurt it hurts us—such was the price that Mary would pay. The angel Gabriel had told Mary that she was going to give birth to the Savior; Simeon was given necessary insight into what kind of Savior the baby was going to grow to be and he shared that insight with Mary.

Is it still difficult for us to accept that God’s way for the baby born in Bethlehem was the way of the Cross? It is one thing to praise God for the birth of the baby—it may be almost easy because it’s so much fun—but is it difficult for us to praise God for the path down which Jesus’ faithfulness to his Father took him? Mary seems to have taken the word of the Lord through Simeon as she took all of the words that she had heard and all of the experiences that she had experienced—she took them to heart, accepted them, pondered them, and lived with them. What do we do with them?

Simeon’s words and the reality that they reflected have echoed now for two thousand years. The nature of echoes, though, is that they fade away a little more each time they are repeated.

Perhaps it is time for us to proclaim the good news of the birth of Jesus with our words and with our lives in ways that are obvious so that the word can begin to echo anew.

How do we need to live? How do we need to give? How do we need to sacrifice? How do we need to take the hurt of others into our lives? How do we need to move from adoring the baby in the manger to following the man on the cross who told us to take up our cross and follow him?

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of the One in whom “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Can we also celebrate the fact that the ministry of Christ continues through us, his Church? Will we embrace the truth that we are the body of Christ in the world and that we will be—we must be—broken for his sake and for the world’s sake?

Old Simeon held the Christ child in his arms. Today we hold in our hands the bread and the cup that represent the body and blood of Christ. As we go out, let us recommit ourselves to being the body of Christ in the world.

Sometimes it seems that the echoes of Christmas—and of Good Friday and Easter—have just about faded out.

Let’s live lives of love, of service, of forgiveness, of grace, of mercy, and of sacrifice that will get the echoes going again—and again—and again …

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Be Born In Us Today

(A sermon based on Luke 1:26-38 for the Fourth Sunday of Advent 2014)

Mary seems to have resolved in a few minutes a matter that some of us have been trying to resolve for a lifetime: can I receive Christ into my life?

I’m going to say that what happened in Mary can in a sense happen in us. But first, let’s note that there are at least two crucial differences between Mary and us (beyond the really crucial difference that she was the mother of the Christ child and we are not).

The first difference has to do with the state of our spirit.

We may have been trying to get Christ to come into our life; we may even have been doing so to a point that we have become anxious about it. Mary, on the other hand, made no effort and expended no energy; she was just going about the activities of her life when suddenly she learned that Christ had come to her. The coming of Christ into Mary’s life was, in other words, a gift of God’s grace and not a reward for some kind of super piety on her part. Oh, I have no doubt that Mary was a faithful worshiper of God and that she was among those who looked for the coming of the kingdom of God, but I also have no doubt that she was flummoxed by the news that she was to bear the Christ child.

So far as I can tell, if Mary had one quality that led God to choose her to be the one to bear the child it was her humility. A humble person may hope for much but she expects little.

Perhaps, then, one key to having Christ be born in us today is for us to relax and not worry about it so much. Maybe it’s those who don’t think they deserve to have him come to them who have the best chance of having him show up. Maybe it’s those who think they do deserve it who have the lesser chance.

The second difference between Mary and us has to do with the state of our mind.

We have a troubling tendency to think that we have the ways of God figured out; we have certain categories in which we think about how Christ can and even must come to us. We think we have to pray a certain prayer or follow a certain formula or experience a certain feeling when in fact Christ can come to us in any way that God pleases to send him to us. Mary, on the other hand, had no reason to think that Christ would ever come to her--the Messiah was to be a king and she was a peasant; the Messiah was to be powerful and she was weak; the Messiah was to be obvious and she was obscure. And yet when Christ came to her he came in ways that defied all of her understanding and overturned all of her preconceived notions.

It can be the same way with us—God is God, after all, and how God does what God does is up to God. It is the most extreme kind of hubris to think that we have God’s ways figured out.

Mary’s journey toward resolution began when she heard these words from the angel Gabriel: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Interestingly, Mary did not seem perplexed to hear from an angel—let’s face it, we’d never get past that! She was perplexed rather at what the angel said to her. Why would she be favored? Why would the Lord be with her? After all, who was she? She was just a young girl in an obscure town in an obscure country; her engagement no doubt brought her some hopes for the future but they were likely not extraordinary hopes because there was nothing extraordinary about her, her situation, or her prospects.

Her pondering seems to have led her in the direction of fear since the angel told her not to be afraid. Are we afraid to hear from the Lord, too? When we hear from the Lord, whatever the circumstances, it is an act of great grace on God’s part. Mary heard from the Lord through an angel, which means that she heard from a messenger of God. We might hear from one of God’s messengers, too—from a friend, from a preacher, from a teacher, from a loved one, from a stranger, from an opportunity, from a crisis, from a book—or directly from God’s Spirit to our spirit.

Mary, the angel said, was not to be afraid because God’s grace was upon her. Because God’s grace was upon her she would bear the child who would be the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, and the Savior of the world. (It is worth observing that Gabriel’s assurances sound a lot like reasons to be afraid!) Mary asked, very reasonably, how this could be since she was a virgin.

That’s always a good question to ask: “How can this be?” How can it be that Christ can come to us? How can it be that Christ can be born in us today? How can it be that Christ can come to me? “How can it be since I am …?” and we can all fill in the blank for ourselves, although I suspect that usually our words will carry a more negative connotation than “virgin.” For many of us, the question will be “How can it be that Christ will come to me given that, when it comes to the things of the world, I am anything but a virgin?”

The word that came to Mary is the word that comes to us: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Christ wants to be born in all of us—even in you and me.

And so we come to Mary’s wonderful response: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Yes, there are a lot of ways in which we are different than Mary and there are a lot of ways in which our situation is different than hers. But the fact is that Christ can be born in us today just as surely as he was born through Mary into our world. He comes to us not because of our worthiness but because of God’s grace.

There is no one to whom Christ cannot be born today—even you, even me.

All we have to do is to be available. All we have to say is “Yes.” Not “Yes” to what we have done. Not “Yes” to what we deserve. Not “Yes” to what we can earn. Just “Yes” to what God has done in Christ; just “Yes” to the grace and love of God …

Monday, December 15, 2014

Where is the Rebel Church?

(A sermon based on Luke 1:46b-55 for the 3rd Sunday of Advent 2014)

Something’s not right.

The rich keep getting richer while the poor keep getting poorer. Every three years the Federal Reserve conducts a Survey of Consumer Finances; the most recent survey in 2013 revealed that the average pre-tax income for those Americans in the top 10% in terms of wealth rose by 10% from 2010-2013 while the average pre-tax income for Americans in the bottom 40% declined. The study reveals that in America no one is getting richer except for the rich.

In the United States in 2013, 45.3 million people (14.5 percent) were in poverty while 14.7 million (19.9 percent) children under the age of 18 were in poverty. 49.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including 33.3 million adults and 15.8 million children; households with children reported food insecurity at a significantly higher rate than those without children, 20 percent compared to 12 percent.

Here in 2014, 225 years after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, 140 years after the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and 50 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, we still, as recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and other places have shown, struggle with issues of power and justice and race.

I know that some of you are thinking that that’s just the way it is and some things will never change. But as the prophet Bruce Hornsby sang, “Ah, don’t you believe it!”

Besides, while I am concerned about the situations that I have described, what’s really on my heart today is the way that we who profess to follow Christ and to be citizens of the kingdom of God think about—or don’t think about, and respond to—or don’t respond to, those situations, especially when we consider what Jesus’ coming into this world was all about. And what Jesus’ coming into the world was all about is what today’s scripture is all about.

Let’s set the narrative context. A priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, who were both childless and along in years, were expecting a child; that child would turn out to be John the Baptizer. Elizabeth’s kinswoman Mary—young, poor, unmarried, and probably very, very frightened—had been told by the angel Gabriel that she was going to have a baby whom she would name Jesus and who would be the Messiah. Mary had left her hometown of Nazareth and gone to visit Elizabeth. When Mary said “Hello” to Elizabeth, the baby in Elizabeth’s belly leaped for joy. There’s a Hebrew Bible story about Isaac’s wife Rebekah experiencing a lot of excess movement during her pregnancy and the Lord told her that it was because the twins inside her—who were upon making their debut named Jacob and Esau—were two nations struggling together. They were really going to shake things up during their lives and even beyond their time on Earth [See Fred B. Craddock, “Luke,” Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 1990), p. 29 for the comparison, although he makes different points with it]. Well, John and his cousin Jesus were together going to shake things up, too—in fact, they were going to turn things upside down.

Upon hearing Elizabeth’s report of John’s prenatal jumping jacks and receiving further words of blessing from her, Mary burst into song (or at least poetry): “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” She praised God for reaching down to her in her humility and blessing her in such a tremendous way.

As her praise continued, however, she stopped just praising and went to meddling: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Those are the realities that God was bringing about through her, Mary proclaimed.

It’s interesting how Mary phrases her words; she speaks as if those things—the bringing down of the powerful, the lifting up of the lowly, the filling of the hungry, and the emptying of the rich—have already happened. It’s also interesting how we hear her words; we hear her saying that those are things that are going to happen one of these days when Jesus returns and the kingdom comes in its fullness. It’s also interesting what we would expect her to mean if she is going to insist on saying such things; we would expect her to mean that they would happen in the near future because of the baby she was about to have.

The truth is that all three perspectives are accurate in their own way; such a reversal is what God has always been up to, it is what God was up to in the Christ Child who would grow up to be the Jesus who died on the cross and rose from the tomb, and it is what God will be up to when Jesus comes back.

But since that’s what God is up to, isn’t it what we should be up to, also?

Shouldn’t we be more interested in giving than we are in receiving?

Shouldn’t we be more concerned about meeting the basic needs of the poor than we are about preserving the advantages of the rich?

Shouldn’t we seek service rather than power and shouldn’t we stand in solidarity with the humble rather than with the powerful?

Weren’t those God’s agenda items in sending his Son Jesus into the world as Mary laid them out in her subversive song? Won’t those be God’s agenda items when Jesus returns? Then doesn’t it stand to reason that they are God’s agenda items now? And if we are God’s people, if we are the Body of Christ in the world today, doesn’t it stand to reason that those should be our agenda items, too? The day is coming when all that Mary laid out as the agenda that God would carry out through her baby will indeed and in fact come to pass. Should we not be living that agenda out right here and right now?

As Clyde Fant said,

The way of Jesus does turn the world upside down. But that’s only because it was standing on its head in the first place. God has not arbitrarily ruled one way of life to be right and another wrong. God has revealed through the gospel the way things are. Under the reign of God, power and tyranny, greed and cruelty are deposed, and the weak, the old, the ill, the poor, the child, the woman, and the foreigner are no longer beneath dignity but favored in the eyes of God [Clyde Fant, The Misunderstood Jesus: 10 Lost Keys to Life (Macon: Peake Road, 1996), p. 11].

Jesus was a rebel; he set out to overturn the structures and to reverse the priorities of the people among whom he lived, talked, and served. Jesus was such a rebel that his mother could speak before he even came out of her womb of how he would turn things upside down.

My title is the same as the title of a song by the prophet Jackson Browne. In that song he says,

We guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why they are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus.

Unfortunately, the church may be one of the places where it is most dangerous to talk the way that Mary talked—and to talk and live in the way that Jesus talked and lived.

May it not be so here!

Maybe it’s time we took our chances on the side of Mary and on the side of her son—God’s Son—the Rebel Jesus.

Maybe it’s time we started living in and working for the kind of world that God is in the process of bringing about in Jesus …

Sunday, December 7, 2014

People Get Ready

(A sermon based on 2 Peter 3:8-15a for the 2nd Sunday of Advent 2014)

Given the myriad problems faced by those of us living here on Earth, it is only natural that we who are looking for the return of Jesus Christ wonder why God is taking so long to send him back. After all, it’s been 2000 years now since he was here the first time. Would it make you feel any better to know that people were already wondering about that just a few decades after the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus? Well, they were. Why? I can think of at least three reasons.

First, the memory of the Church was that Jesus had seemed to imply that he would come back soon, maybe even within a generation. Second, people are by nature impatient. Third, people have a misconception of what time is and especially of how God relates to time.

The truth about time, according to the science of physics, is that it’s relative. Einstein theorized and all physicists now agree that time is relative to how fast or slow you are going and to what kind of gravity you are experiencing. Have you seen the movie “Interstellar” yet? A basic plot point of that very interesting film is based on the fact that under the right conditions one person would experience the passage of time much differently than another person. So time is relative even for us.

But since none of us will have the opportunity to travel at speeds or to experience the kind of gravity that would show us how relative time is for us, it’s how time is relative for God that matters to us here today.

It’s not that time passes slower or faster for God; it’s rather that time doesn’t affect God one way or another. It’s not that God has all the time in the world; it is rather that all the time in the world doesn’t matter to God. Sure, in God’s grace God chose in Jesus of Nazareth to become time-bound as we are but ordinarily—and this would still go for the Father and the Spirit when the Son was down here among us—God lives outside of time; that’s what it means to be “eternal.” That’s what the Bible means when it affirms that “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Peter 3:8, quoting Psalm 90:4). That’s not math; that’s theology.

When we join our concern about things that happen in the world to our inaccurate notions about the relationship of God to time we end up being impatient. Thank God that God is patient. As today’s Epistle text affirms, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). John Polkinghorne, who is both a theoretical physicist and an Anglican priest, said

When we think of the history of creation—the 14 billion year history of the universe and the three to four billion year evolving history of life on earth—we see that God is patient and subtle, , by no means a God in a hurry. When we think about God’s nature as love, we can see that this is how we would expect the divine purpose to be fulfilled, by the gentle unfolding of process rather than by the overwhelming operation of instantaneous power [John Polkinghorne, Living with Hope: A Scientist Looks at Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), p. 36].

What seems to us like a long wait, then—and this should not be surprising to us—is a sign of God’s love and grace in giving people plenty of time to open their lives up to the good news of Jesus Christ.

God’s patience also provides us with ample opportunity to be who we are and to do what we are supposed to do.

Let’s note a couple of things about how the patience of God impacts the way we live here in the meantime.

First, we live in hope that mirrors God’s hope. God’s patient waiting is an indicator of God’s hope for the people of the world. So long as we are still here there is still hope for us. So long as the world exists there is still hope for the world.

Second, we live in patience that mirrors God’s patience. As God’s people living in the world we want to think about, to deal with, and to act upon circumstances as much like God does as we possibly can. We are moving toward the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth but we who trust in and follow Jesus are already living in the kingdom of God. So we are to be “leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:11b-12a).

As L. Ann Jervis said, “Life during the time of waiting for the end is to be lived in light of the good future. Since what is coming is a creation cleansed of sin—‘new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwell’ (3:13)--now is a time for believers to live what will be” [L. Ann Jervis, “Commentary on 2 Peter 3:8-15a,”,, retrieved December 2, 2014].

Now is the time for us to live what will one day be. What an opportunity we have!

Yes, God is giving people a chance to get ready for the return of Christ by opening their lives up to his love and grace.

And God is giving his people a chance to get even more ready and to show others how to get ready.

How do we do that?

We do that by living out the truth of what St. Teresa of Avila said a long, long time ago:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

We who follow Christ get ready for Christ to return by being who are …