Monday, December 19, 2016

Tender Compassion

Luke 1: 68-79
Advent 4

Zachariah was the father of John the Baptist.
He was a priest in the temple
and according to Luke, Gabriel visited him first,
months before he went to visit Mary,
to let him know that his wife Elizabeth would be pregnant
with John the Baptist who would be the messenger
Image result for luke 1:68-79 clip artto prepare the way for the ministry of Jesus the Messiah.

But Zechariah didn’t give a very positive
response to the good news of great joy.
He said that he was really busy at the temple,
and his wife Elizabeth was too old anyway.
Now, we don’t know if too old in his mind was 35 or 75,
it really doesn’t say, and I guess it doesn’t matter.

Regardless, Gabriel got upset at Zechariah’s negativity
and he didn’t want this silly priest
ruining his plans right at the beginning,
so Gabriel basically told Zechariah shut up and just to make it clear,
he made him unable to speak
for the next 9 months until the baby was born.

Now, it’s possible that Gabriel overreacted at that moment.
But later, he wisely decided that he had better make
these amazing announcements to the women first,
because they could deal with surprises better,
and so he went directly to Mary with the next announcement
which went much better.

And when Elizabeth’s baby was born it was obvious that
Zechariah finally believed in the message that Gabriel told him
because he ordered the baby to be called John
just as Gabriel had instructed him in the first meeting.

And that seems to have lifted the temporary muteness from Zechariah,
and he is moved by the Spirit to sing one of those
beautiful songs that Luke’s gospel keeps giving us.

Zechariah’s song is another song of desire,
hoping and trusting in God’s mercy for all.
If you read this song closely, and break it down,
Basically Zechariah, has one hope for the
mighty Savior but it’s pretty big:
deliver the people from the hands of their enemies,
from those that would want to do them harm,
so they could be free to worship God without fear
for the rest of their lives.

As I was thinking about this,
I realized that Zechariah’s hope is true for me.
Contrary to the sense of dread and panic
 that the news media tries to fill us with every day,
I realistically can rely on my safety, and I can’t think
of a personal enemy who would want to do me harm.
and right now, I can come in here on a Sunday morning,
and worship God in the way I want without fear.

So Zechariah’s prophecy has come through for me
And most of you, I would imagine are in the same boat,
you are relatively safe from your enemies,
and if you’re here, you’re free to worship as you want.

But for some reason,
that just doesn’t seem like enough.
Because as followers of Jesus it’s
not enough that we have good things,
our hope is for all people, not just ourselves.

So we might be reasonably free from
those who would do us harm,
but we know there are people who are not,
there are those who live in fear,
There are those who live in countries around the world,
who fear pain and violence and other repercussions every day.

Our hearts break when we see pictures and video
from Aleppo Syria, and the destruction and killing there.
And who are their enemies? Their own government,
or another country or something else? it’s hard to know.
But there seems to be nowhere for them to hide.

And even in our own country,
there are those in our midst who suffer from
spousal abuse and child abuse.

And many people of color in this country are afraid
of getting stopped  by the police because of what
they have seen happen to others before.

So we may be safe and protected,
but that just isn’t enough,
our hope and desire is for others to be safe too.

And we may be able to worship as we wish
but there are Christians in Afghanistan, Iraq,
Pakistan, North Korea, Nigeria
and many other countries who cannot.

And there are those of other faiths who cannot
worship God in their own ways.
In some European countries,
Muslims are targets and headscarves
and other religious practices are banned.

And here in our own country,
Mosques, and Synagogues, and Hindu Temples
are regular targets for vandalism and violence.
And there are many, even here, who feel threatened
for worshiping God in their own ways.

And so we pray and we hope and we wait,
not just for God to act on our behalf, but for everyone.
This is the yearning that Christ has put in our heart,
and in Zechariah’s heart.

It’s like if we have a full meal and someone
next to us at the table has nothing to eat,
Could we just enjoy what we have and forget about it?
or would we feel the need to share it?
Of course, we wouldn’t be happy unless we shared it.
That’s what Jesus asks of us.
Not just hope for our own, but for others too.

Compassion. That is the light that Christ puts in our hearts.
That is the light to those who sit in
darkness and the shadow of death.
And compassion is the way to peace too.

There is a prayer that we say in our justice ministry:
“For those who are hungry give bread,
and those who have bread give a hunger for justice.”

For those who have had a taste of God’s kingdom on earth,
we yearn to share that with others.

And as Zechariah predicted, and we know the promise to be true,
One day, “In the tender compassion of our God,
the dawn from on high the dawn from on high

will break upon us. All of us

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Song of Desire

Luke 1:39-56
Advent 3
December 11, 2016

The gospel of Luke kind of starts out like a
Broadway musical in that two
of the characters in it break out into song.
And they’re two very lovely songs too.
Today we hear the one from Mary
which has come to have been called the Magnificat.

It begins with
“My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices
Canticle of Mary
by Jen Norton 2014
in God my savior.”

In a classical Broadway musical, the first song
is usually sung by the whole cast and it
creates a setting for the musical telling about the
setting and the mood.

And then the second song, 
usually a heartfelt ballad,
is sung by one of the characters and it voices
the desire of the play, either an individual’s desire
or the whole casts’ desire kind of setting up
the journey of the play.

And I really think that’s how Mary’s 
song here works in Luke’s Gospel,
A song of desire. It’s what everyone is hoping for,
and it sets the course for the whole journey of
the story which follows.

He has looked with favor on the 
lowliness of his servant.
Surely from now on, all generations will call me blessed.”

Mary acknowledges that her life will change personally,
But notice, her personal life is not the focus.

Actually personal gain, or salvation, or going to heaven,
or forgiveness of her personal sins is not the focus of her desire -
as the focus of Christianity has become for many people today.

She sings:
“He has shown strength with his arm,
and 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.”

Mary’s desire and the desire of this gospel,
is for God to do justice. To make the world right.

Justice not in the way of putting more criminals in jail,
but justice in the way of rectifying those laws and systems that
keep taking away from the poor and giving it to the rich
that  keep taking away power from the weak and giving
it  to the already strong.

This is what Mary, the one that some have called meek and mild,
is hoping for. I don’t think she’s meek and mild.
I think she’s brave and strong.

Justice is a messy thing. The people with power and riches normally
don’t give up what they have willingly and they have to be persuaded.
Justice takes compromise and coming together with people
we don’t agree with, and it usually deals with politics of some sort.

Politics is messy and often nasty part of human life. It always has been.
And what has happened before and since this year’s election
in this country has  risen to the level of particularly nasty.

And many people would like to suspect that God
would stay as far away from this riff raff as possible.
But God came to us to be a part of everything.
Not to condone and bless everything that happens,
but to be a part of it, to suffer the consequences of it,
to be with us in the nasty mess and to make what’s wrong right again.

This is the desire and the promise of Mary.
We believe in the power of God to overcome situations,
and to undo the political messes that we have gotten ourselves into.
To scatter the proud, lift up the lowly,
feed the hungry and send the rich away empty.

Notice too that Mary’s song, though it is a hope for the
future Messiah, is sung in the past tense.
It’s already happened, but it hasn’t yet happened.
God has acted for us, and we will see God act for us again.

And Mary believes this will be true,
even though there were no signs in her present tense.
The situation of the Jews in Roman society,
of the poor, of anyone on the margins,
must have seemed absolutely hopeless then.
But still Mary believed that God would do great things.

That is a model of our faith.
Even when things seem hopeless.
Believe in the power that God can have,
even in the life and hearts of the oppressors.

I was at a workshop this week and the speaker
told a story about Bishop Desmond Tutu.
Bishop Tutu was an Episcopal bishop
in South Africa during apartheid.

He was very outspoken against apartheid
and received many threats from the government.

In the darkest days of that era on an Easter Sunday morning,
hundreds of worshipers gathered
for service at St. George Cathedral in Capetown,
where Bishop Tutu was presiding.

In the middle of the service a group of the
notorious South African Security Police
came into the service and gathered in the aisles of the church
around the walls some with machine guns
and some with writing pads and tape recorders,
Waiting to record what Bishop Tutu would say.
Tutu had already been arrested a few weeks earlier.

The parishioners were nervous, there was a pall over them.
If Bishop Tutu said something radical,
he might be arrested or even shot on sight.
But if he didn’t say anything then the apartheid regime
would have won by intimidation.

Bishop Tutu came out to the pulpit
and he started bouncing up on his heels and laughing.
And everyone started laughing with him.
Which lifted the crowd.

And then he addressed the police directly.
He said to them in the warmest, but firmest and clearest tone,
“You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods.
And I serve a God who cannot be mocked.
So, since you have already lost,
I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”

And at that, the worried crowd, leapt to their feet
and praised God and started dancing in the cathedral,
and danced into the streets
and danced right up to the armed security forces
that were surrounding the cathedral,
who just backed up and let the people dance.

Bishop Tutu was right. Justice would prevail.
God would help them see the end
of that terrible system of government.
The side to be on was God’s side.

Now in the Broadway musical, the desire of that first song
is always met, but it’s always met in an unexpected way.
Usually not what the character would have preferred.
And it’s the same way for Mary and Jesus.
And it’s the same way for us.
We don’t know how justice will prevail.
What course God will take to right the wrongs.

All we know is that we serve a God who cannot be mocked.
We know how it will end.
Already and not yet.
The proud will be scattered.
The powerful brought down,
The lowly lifted up. The hungry filled, the rich sent away.

Where each of us falls in this picture waits to be seen.

But we trust Mary’s desire.
We trust the promise of Jesus.
Although it may not seem like it today,
we know that God will prevail.
justice will prevail, forgiveness,
and love, and peace will prevail

We are invited to answer Mary’s call
to share that desire and
let our souls, words, thoughts and actions
magnify our Lord.

Monday, December 5, 2016

God is With Us

Matthew 1:18-25
Advent 2
December 4, 2016

I had a friend from church when I was young
who’s sister got pregnant and once she started to show,
her parents took her out of high school
and sent her away for six months to have the baby.
I think they told everyone that she was
in a study abroad semester.

Everyone knew somehow, but no one talked about it,
because it was church, and you’re not supposed to talk
about these kind of things at church.

I probably shouldn’t be talking about this now.
You know, since we’re in church and all.
We just don’t talk about those kind of
messy and scandalous things in church.

Which is ironic, because it’s a pretty important
part of the story of Jesus.

It’s right here, at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel,
the first page of the New Testament.
A scandalous story.

“The birth of Jesus the Messiah
took place in this way…
When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph,
but before they lived together,
she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

She was engaged to one person but
she was pregnant with someone else’s child. Scandal!
Sure we know it was the Holy Spirit,
but who was going to believe that?

It’s kind of amazing that Joseph believed that angel
that came to him in a dream. Or at least he was persuaded
to take Mary as his wife and see where it all went.
Because this was a humiliation for him.

Image result for joseph father of jesusIf Joseph had dismissed Mary quietly, she still would have
been pregnant and unwed and she and her child would
probably have ended up living in a brothel
which would have added a special twist
to the story of Jesus, but I digress.

The people reading and telling these stories for the first
time would have known how scandalous this story was,
But we’ve domesticated them over a couple of thousand
years and we’ve made it cute for the children.
But this was real life, gritty, messy life and these
real things that happened to real people all the time.

Matthew makes it obvious,
right from the beginning of his gospel
that this not some cute white-washed fairy tale.

Matthew starts his gospel, like a lot of Old Testament books start,
with Jesus genealogy: this one was the father of that one
and that one was the father of this one.
Usually we skip over the genealogies, because
they sound boring and long,
But Jesus genealogy is pretty interesting if you take the time
I’ll read you just the first part:

An account of the genealogy* of Jesus the Messiah,*
the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob,
and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar,
and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram,
and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon,
and Nahshon the father of Salmon,
and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab,
and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth,
and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah,
and Solomon the father of Rehoboam,
and Rehoboam the father of Abijah,
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Uriah’s wife

Four women are included in Jesus genealogy.
Typically the genealogy is traced through the men
Now it’s not absolutely unheard of that some women are mentioned
but it is kind of unique that there are four.

Each of these women is a familiar character in the Hebrew
scriptures and just saying their names,
it would conjure up a full story in the head to someone familiar,
And the people in Matthew’s time
would have known them intimately.

Each of these women have very interesting stories.
Stories like the ones that you’re not supposed
to talk about in church. But we’ll do it anyway.

Tamar married one of Judah’s
sons but he died before they had children
She wanted her children to be in Judah’s lineage, so
disguised herself as a prostitute and tricked Judah,
her former father-in-law, and as a result,
she gave birth to his sons Perez and Zerah who are in this genealogy.

Rahab was a real prostitute, and a gentile
she used her wits to help the Israelites when they came to Jherico.
She eventually married an Isrealite named Salmon
and they had a son named Boaz.

Ruth was probably the most noble of the list,
she was a gentile who married into an Israelite family
after her husband died, she stayed
take care of her mother in law Naomi

She saved them both from starvation
by seducing and marrying Boaz,
Rahab’s son and Naomi’s wealthy older cousin.
She had a son named Obed who was the grandfather of David.

Then of course, there was Bathsheba, who,
as Matthew reminds us was Uriah’s wife – not originally the wife of King David,
when David saw her bathing on a roof top and called for her,
and then had her husband killed when they found that she
was pregnant with his child.
She was the mother of Solomon.

Talk about a line of scandals.
This is how the whole New Testament starts
this is the story of Jesus of Nazareth.

People knew the stories of each of these great ancestors,
and Matthew used the unusual additions of these women
to remind people that everything
about their own beloved ancestry was not all pure and
innocent it was not without its own scandals.

Matthew is preparing the reader.
After humbling them and reminding them
of their nation’s own interesting past, they are ready
to hear the next story:
 “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way:”
And the scandal of Mary and Joseph and their own drama ensues

We are waiting for God,
waiting for Jesus to come again.
Most of us look for the holy and pure to find God.
The absolutely peaceful, the places without sin or scandal.
But that’s not how our own lives are.

Our own lives are interesting, scandalous, not without sin
because of that, sometimes we think
that God will have no business working through us.
God would have no business even being around us.

But this story tells us different.
God can not only forgive the scandals of our families and our lives,
God can work through them. God wants to use them.
The things that we have considered unholy
and too shameful for God, they don’t’ even ruffle God’s feathers.
God loves to use them to show that nothing and no one is
too-far-gone for God’s attention.

In Jesus Christ, God entered our world,
with all our problems and fears and worries,
God took it all on: all the stinky alley ways and and the
smelly garbage, and the poopy diapers.
Jesus is here with us in all of it.

Jesus the Christ the savior –
A child born of a scandal out of a line of scandals
Who would live outside of society’s norms.
Who would die in a scandalous way
to show that God is not above any scandal of our life or times.

As the angel told Joseph:
"Mary, the young woman you’re engaged to
will conceive and bear a son
and they will name him Emmanuel,
which means God is with us.”

God is with us. In our life
not in that sentimental, greeting card,
saccharine - sugary sweet visions of sugar plumbs
dancing in their head kind of way but really with us.

God is with us
in every hushed story and whispered secret
in every shame and scandal,
in every story that’s been told behind our backs.
In everything that we’re not supposed to talk about.

As the Angel said to Joseph,
“Do not be afraid.”Whatever happens,
I promise you, God can deal with all this.
God has seen a lot worse.

Does someone you know have a scandal in their life?
Do you have a scandal in your life?
God can handle it.
Maybe even better than that,
God can use it, and you, in God’s plan.

God is with us.
No matter what.