Monday, December 28, 2015

Cold feet, warm heart

Luke 2: 1 – 16
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
Christmas Eve 2015


            If Good King Wenceslas looked out right now, he wouldn’t find not only any snow, but neither would he find the Christmas carol bearing his name in any hymn book, at least none that I know of. And yet in the lyrics we find a story of a king who looks out his window and sees a needy peasant searching for kindling in the moonlit snow and hard frost. It’s the day after Christmas, on the feast of St. Stephen. Rather than send his servant alone into the cruel weather to help the poor man, together the king and the servant bring meat, wine, and firewood through the deep snow.

            The story is based on the life of Wenceslas I, Duke of Bohemia.  In one biography of Wenceslas, it was said that every night, in bare feet, he and his chamberlain visited churches and gave alms to widows, orphans, those in prison, and any who had need.  He was known as the ‘father of the wretched’.  It was only after his death, and these stories became known, that the title of ‘king’ was conferred upon Wenceslas.  These stories strongly influenced the High Middle Ages’ concept of the ‘righteous king’:  a king whose actions and behavior imitated that of Christ.

            What is interesting is that the king has no clue who this peasant is, but his servant does, even providing directions on how to find where he lives.  The servant may have wished he didn’t open his mouth, because now both of them would be venturing out into the snow, walking somewhere between 2 ½ and 4 ½ miles to reach the peasant’s home.

            As the night grew darker and the wind increased, the cold seeped into the servant’s heart; he could go on no longer.  But the king urged him onward, instructing him to walk in his footsteps, to take away some of the chill.  The servant found that where the king walked, instead of snow there was warm sod.


            I know this year many of us would trade our warm, soggy sod for some cold, frozen snow in a heartbeat.  For some of us it just doesn’t feel like Christmas unless we’re shivering in the cold.  And even though this is due to climate change and that weather pattern called El Niño, I’m thankful for this Christmas warmth.  I’m remembering a young burly man named Mike, who last year lost nearly all his fingertips in one snowstorm and then a few weeks later froze to death in another.  I’m thinking of those who sleep in tents or their cars or in the library or wherever they can find some sheltered space.  I’m thinking of the men and women I see panhandling on Rt. 896 or at the Suburban Plaza or on Limestone Rd.

Sometimes, in our comfort and in our fear, it’s difficult to remember that Christmas isn’t about we who are rich getting what we want but about the poor getting what they need.  Mary said the poor would be filled with good things and we would be sent away empty-handed. The homeless shepherds in the fields by night needed to hear from God’s angel army that a savior is born.  And though they would have to wait another thirty years for God’s Word to grow up, they knew their hope would live because God’s way of justice and peace was on the way to them. 

Christmas is about the poor getting what they need.  Not only warm socks and coats but a living wage, a safe place to live, and for some, mental healthcare.  Not only a welcoming border into another country but a home and a job.  Not only a hot breakfast and a free lunch but an education that can go to college. 

My friend Molly says that Christmas isn’t about God becoming more human because of Jesus, but about us becoming more human because of Jesus.  Jesus is the righteous king we follow, whether it’s into the cold, frozen night or through the warm, soggy sod, to get to those who need us.  Christmas is about the poor getting what they need and what they need most of all is us.

Sometimes I wonder how it would be
If the tables were turned and instead it was me
A different religion or color of skin
A refugee hoping to be welcomed in ...
You’re welcome here. You’re welcome here.
You’re safe here with us. You have nothing to fear.
It’s a dangerous world, but be of good cheer.
There’s a place here for you, and you’re welcome here.

[i] Not Welcome Here. Music and lyrics written by Brian McLaren, 2015.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Putting Jesus where he belongs

Luke 3: 7-18
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 13, 2015


            This past Thursday, after our worship committee meeting, someone noticed that in one of the many Nativity scenes around the church, the wise men were headed the wrong way. Their faces were pointed away from Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, as if they were just passing through. They’d already done their shopping, dropped off their gifts, eastward leading, now proceeding home before Herod or God or those pesky angels noticed.

            It was then remarked that if this Nativity scene was in their home, their adult child would insure that the wise men would still be at a distance, sitting on an end table or far off window sill, not yet at the manger; that every day, small steps would be taken, the wise men inching their way to the baby Jesus, not arriving and completing the scene until January 6.

            How many of us do the same in our own homes, with our own crèches and nativities?  Even though we know this is a story, in fact two separate stories, and not history, it is the tradition we love.  It’s the long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, no room in the inn, the birth in a shelter for animals.  It’s the shepherds in the field with their flock by night, startled by God’s army of angels and the ages-old message of liberation and redemption.  It’s magi from the east who follow a star in search of a king.  


          It’s this story that saves us from the hectic busy-ness at this most wonderful time of the year, from losing our cool and our sanity in a season about hope, joy, and peace.

            So why John the Baptist in Advent, with his hoarse, angry voice, loud and obnoxious, calling us snakes, warning us of God’s judgment?  To our ears he sounds more like a bully, proclaiming God as tyrant ruler over people’s lives.  And yet the crowds don’t run away when they hear John’s tirade.  They’re not seriously considering Canada.  For them there is no better place than the land that God promised their ancestor Abraham, even though it’s occupied by yet another empire that could squash them like a bug. 

            The people have come to John because they hear afresh these words of courage and strength from Isaiah, as though it was yesterday they were prisoners in a foreign land.  “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  They’re hungry for good news, for the world to change.  But they don’t know what to do.  God’s people are not in exile, but they’re not free either.  How are they supposed to have the changed life God desires when the life change they really want is to rid their land of the real bullies and tyrants, the Romans?  

A death that leads to life...:           

           But John isn’t wearing a hat that says “Make God’s people great again”. He’s not fear-mongering for God. He wants people to get right with God. The last thing the crowds want is for God to be angry with them.       

            More often than not, that’s the last thing we care about in our journey with God: whether or not God is angry or disappointed or just plain fed up with all of humanity’s crap and flak.  We don’t want to hear about God’s wrath; we want to hear about God’s unconditional love and forgiveness.  And yet we don’t allow either one—God’s wrath or God’s love—to transform and change our lives.   What is Advent for, if not for this?

            The most significant change we could make is to have Jesus move in with our fear and anxiety, a lowly place if ever there was one.  A few months ago we were all ready to turn our backs on he who shall not be named, relegating him to the entertainment section of our lives.  Now we have comparisons to Hitler and the foment that led to fascism.  Yes, there are some very real things to be afraid of, but as Christians, fear is not our motivation, our first response.  It is not the source of our lives.

            Maybe we’ve got baby Jesus already resting comfortably in the manger or he’s still packed in bubble wrap, waiting for Christmas Eve.  In the story there was no room for his birth in the inn, but in truth, we’ve left him hardly any room in this world.  And so we’ve got John barking at us, waking us up to what’s coming next: a Jesus who comes not with water but with fire to burn away the chaff that covers our lives and insulates our fear.  A Jesus who will upend our lives, reverse our course, and point us directly to Jerusalem.  With Jesus already growing within her, Mary sings of the One who scatters the thoughts of the proud, brings down the powerful from their thrones, fills the poor with good things, and sends the rich away empty.  Did we ever think to see ourselves in these words?

            And so what are we to do?  John advises the crowd not to use their power for harm but for justice.  Power is more than one coat, more than enough food.  Power is using one’s authority to act solely in one’s own best interests rather than in covenant with the interests of all at heart.  In Jesus of Nazareth, God shared power, becoming weak in the eyes of world, but it was through that weakness that Love was unconditional, forgiveness was radical, justice was restorative, and compassion was unbound.

            This is what a radicalized Christian looks like: one who does not take power into their own hands, but rather shares it abundantly with others.  A radicalized Christian gives over their fears that they may be transformed into hope, into peace, even into joy.  A radicalized Christian, when faced with that which is fearful, resists by giving and giving again.

            Today is the Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath, but in truth what it’s really about is fear prevention.  This holiday season, whenever we feel that lump in the back of our throats, when our anxiety threatens to trump our capacity for hope, when we’re confronted once again with the terrible awful of this world, let’s give our time and listen to someone who experiences life vastly different than we do.   

Give away some food.  
Give away a warm coat.   
Share our power.   
Disarm ourselves.   
Lower our weapon-like words that can injure and turn them into seeds of mercy and justice.  
Go into the wilderness, places devoid of joy and love and hope, and tell God’s truth of new things.  
Reach out to someone, love someone who doesn’t deserve it, and find Jesus in our outstretched hands.  


Friday, December 11, 2015

Getting outta God's way

Luke 3: 1-6
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 6, 2015

            Thanks to David on our honeymoon, I am an avid listener of public radio. I listen in the car and in the kitchen; in the bedroom while I’m dressing, in the bathroom while I’m showering. I’d listen in a box with a fox, in a house with a mouse.

            I don’t like anything getting in the way of my public radio.  But here in the city of Newark there are dead zones, deserts where the airwaves can’t travel.  At the bottom of Paper Mill Road near the reservoir—this is where radio signals go to die.  When I drive to church, I avoid this route for that very reason.  When I drive home, I know not to turn on the radio until I’ve come out of that small valley.  Oh, that every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall hear NPR without interruption!

            But that’s not exactly what John the Baptist was talking about.  Although God gets plenty of static and interference from us, God wants nothing to get in the divine way in reaching any and all of us.  This is satellite radio we’re talking about.  God is getting rid of the dial-up AOL modem and going with fiber optic broadband.  We’re talking live streaming in multiple venues, in every language possible, close-captioned, video-descriptive, an internet highway for our God.

I hear the prophet callin’,

“Prepare the way of the Lord.”

I hear the prophet callin’,

“Prepare the way of the Lord.”

Come and make straight the way in the desert,

a highway  for our God,

Come and make straight the way in the desert.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord.[i]

            Make no mistake though.  This wasn’t a sweet song that John sang to the crowds.  The voice that calls us to repentance more often than not has an edge to it—sometimes it’s harsh, other times a whisper, that still small voice, but it nags at us until it has our attention.  And it’s pesky words like repentance, sins, and salvation that certainly put us on notice.

            Once again we need to reclaim Christian language rather than be repelled by those who have co-opted it.  To repent is to turn around, to turn away from sin, from the way that leads to death and turn toward God.  Another word for repentance is the Greek word metanoia.  Metanoia is the journey of changing one’s mind, heart, self or way of life.  Metanoia is the essence of the Christian life.  Metanoia is the way of a transformed life.

Our sins are those obstacles that we put between ourselves and others, between ourselves and God, between others and God with our actions, behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes.  The biggest obstacle is the human ego and its free will.  Who’s right and who’s wrong, who or what we’re supposed to do, value, be afraid of, who belongs and who doesn’t, and the words, tools, and weapons we use to enforce these.

In order to overcome the human ego and free will, God does not use coercion or force or power.  Instead, God becomes weak and human and shares that power.  God hides the divine presence in the world so that we would come and find the Holy One in the midst of creation, amongst and within human beings.  This is the way in which God saves us.

            Salvation is a word many people don’t like.  Most of us would say we lead a decent life.  What do we need to be saved from?  Simply put, salvation is right relationships:  with God, with our neighbor, with the earth, with oneself.  We all know how it feels to be out of sync with someone, how it feels when there’s hurt or resentment between us; that somehow a barrier or a wall has been built between us and another human being.  We know how it feels when those ties that bind are strained or torn asunder.  We know how it feels to be cut off from God, from what is sacred, from a feeling of wonder and total acceptance.  We numb ourselves from the feeling that we are estranged from ourselves and that which makes us come alive.

True peace never seems to last as long as pain and struggle.  We long for ease, acceptance, and comfort, or at least civility or a lack of conflict.  But we know that most of the time, relationships are work, the heavy lifting of human life, and for the most part we need help getting them righted again.  We need to repent, that is, think differently, and be saved, that is, put right our relationships.  More often than not, we can’t do it alone.  And that’s why a savior was born.  Someone who could save us from ourselves.

            Trouble is, we get in God’s way.  We think we know best or we hate being wrong or powerless to do anything.  We take matters into our hands, sometimes violently so.  We are our own worst obstacle between ourselves and the salvation, the right relationships, the peace that God intends for all of us.

            So how do we make peace?  It really does begin with us.  It begins with admitting that we’re not in charge, that there is a power greater than ourselves at work in this world, however we conceive of it.  Peace begins with us just as we’re about ready to give up on someone or ourselves or God.  We’ve been leveled, we don’t have anything left for the valleys and hills, we’re stuck in a crooked place; nothing is smooth.  We say the words that act like a speed bump, that get us to slow down and get out of the way:  thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.


[i] “I Hear the Prophet Callin’”, words and music by Pepper Choplin (based on Isaiah 35: 1-2, 4-6; 40: 3), © 2008 Lorenz Publishing Company.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Second helpings

Luke 21: 25 – 36
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 29, 2015 – First Sunday in Advent 

(An Evening at the Table)

Early one Sunday morning a pastor was getting ready for worship. As she was readying her Bible and her sermon on the pulpit, her young daughter asked her about what different events or objects meant in the course of worship.  She asked, “Mommy, what does it mean when a baby has water poured on its head?”  Her mother replied, “It means we welcome that new life into the body of Christ, promising to be its family, and to teach that little one the faith of the church.”  The young girl asked another question, “Mommy, what does it mean when we eat bread and drink juice in church?”  Her mother answered, “The bread is Jesus’ body and the juice is his blood. This is how we remember Jesus and God’s love for us.” “Oh. Then what does it mean when the head usher points at his watch when you’re preaching?”  Slowly shaking her head back and forth and smiling, the pastor said, “Not a thing, honey, not a thing!”

What if the child asked a question about the confession “Christ will come again”?  Could the minister give the same response as to its meaning: not a thing?  Those of us who are what used to be called mainline Protestants—not many of us stop to think about what it would mean to have Jesus the Christ in our midst once again.  In this post-modern age, a dead person, resurrected, ascended into heaven and then coming back to earth again holds little meaning and even much less promise.  So much time and so much violence and bloodshed have washed under the bridge.  Signs in the sun, moon, and stars sound like astrology.  Climate change has brought with it the roar of the seas and the waves.  And yet we see no Son of Man arriving in cloud with power and great glory.  Christ’s return into human history seems more like a fairytale.

And still it is during this holy meal when many Christians give voice to hope and faith again and again when we say “Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.”  We give voice to our desire for justice.  We give voice to our longing for wholeness and healing.  We give voice to our deep need to know that the future is in God’s hands, somebody’s hands as well as our own.  Because underneath all our hope and desire and longing is also our despair and disbelief and fear.  And there are some days and a few nights when we can be tempted to give in and give up.  “I know Christ died.  I’m not sure if Christ is risen.  What does that mean anyway?  Christ coming again?  How long do we have to wait?”

Advent is not only when we prepare for Christ’s birth but also to prepare for Christ’s coming again.  We’re not just waiting for that tiny baby but for the grown man to show up, eager for him to restore justice and establish peace.  Aren’t there days we could all use some healing, some real truth-talking to power, someone to go with us and lead us on that hard road to Jerusalem that lays ahead for all of us?  But like the One who sent him, Jesus seems to be hiding, waiting for us to seek him out and find him.

You know that saying, “We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for?”  What if this second coming of Christ not a supernatural event but the body of Christ, the Church, becoming aware of who we are?  What if we took seriously the radical notion of the priesthood of all believers?  What if we lived as Jesus lived, that is, lived fully?  What if we loved as Jesus loved, that is, loved wastefully?  What if we were as Jesus was, that is, had the courage to be ourselves?[i]

One of my friends said recently that she doesn’t go to church because she is church.  Even though she heard the Church say that people like her would burn in hell, that they had no place there, that God didn’t love them, she saw church in her grandfather, who gave freely to anyone who had need.  Through that love, she decided to be the church she needed, and each day, as best as she can, she shares with others the church within her. 

What if in our lives, we were the church that people need?  What if the second coming of Christ is us making Jesus visible through our actions, our compassion, the truth that needs speaking coming from our lips?  Advent means birth, arrival, dawn, or emergence.  What if Advent is God waiting for us to realize who we really are?  Not saviors of the world, but church—the hands, lips, mind and heart of Christ—in the world.

God is not only generous but extravagant.  Jesus walked among us, showed us God’s unconditional love, restorative justice, and radical forgiveness.  He lived and died, and rose again, giving birth to the Church.  We are Church, the Body of Christ, the second helping of that love, justice, and forgiveness. 

Lord Jesus Christ,

Take our hands

and work with them.

Take our lips

and speak through them.

Take our minds

and think with them.

Take our hearts

and set them on fire

with love for you and all your people,

for your name’s sake,

                            (from The Book of Common Order, Church of Scotland)

[i] John Shelby Spong, A New Christianity for a New World, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 145.