Ash Wednesday Reflection

ashweds

Marking Ash Wednesday is actually among the stranger things that we Christians do.

We’ve been doing it for a long time now—this practice of putting ashes on our foreheads and coming together to remember our mortality.

But it is strange.

Unlike other holidays…unlike, like, say, Christmas or Easter, Ash Wednesday is hard to sentimentalize.

There are no greeting cards or cheery cartoon specials for Ash Wednesday, heralding its arrival or explaining its meaning.

This is one holiday that the Grinch doesn’t try to steal.

The day before–Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras—well, that we understand.

Revelry comes to us easily enough. Mardi Gras is a party you don’t want to miss.

And if Alvin and the Chipmunks visited Mardi Gras, nobody would bat an eye.

Not so, Ash Wednesday.

It’s not a holiday that everybody knows, whether they’re Christian or not. Even for many of the faithful, it’s not one of the biggies.

Ash Wednesday is squarely about mortality–about the fact that life is short, and often hard, and that in our honest moments, we are able to say so.

Truth be told, it can be hard to know exactly what to do with that. It doesn’t particularly cheer us up to name it.

And so, Ash Wednesday resists being coopted or drained of its awkwardness, and if you ask me, that’s worth a great deal.

“Smile, and the world smiles with you,” goes the old expression. “Cry, and you cry alone.”

We find it so hard to be alone.

Now, the witness of the Church from the very beginning has been that we are not.

We are not alone. That God, in his grace, and in his son, through the Spirit, is with us.

That every hair on our head has been counted, as Jesus promises, and that through it all…whatever we mean by “all”…whatever “all” might entail for us, that God is absolutely, unfailingly, unequivocally and devotedly with us.

That’s how we understand God in the Church. That’s what the Bible says.

But what if that weren’t true? What if we were alone?

That’s the question that Ash Wednesday asks us to consider.

What if the dust were all there was? What if that was all we were, in the end: just dust?

It’s fascinating how so many people seem to want no part of those kinds of questions.

But Ash Wednesday pushes them on us, anyway.

It pushes us to name the difference Jesus makes for us.

It pushes us to say where it is today, lately, that we have seen and known him.

Whether it is in the call of our conscience, the pull of something or someone on our heartstrings, the sense that we sometimes have that we are exactly where we belong in the world—or conversely, that our season in a particular place has ended.

We know his presence in so many different ways.

Now some Christians come from traditions where it is important for people to share their testimony with one another…where there is a tradition of sharing the story of their encounters with the love of God and the person of Jesus—the story of how it is they know he has claimed them as his own.

Actually, that used to be part of the Congregational tradition. Before you were admitted into the membership of a local church, you were asked to stand and offer your testimony.

In practice, though, I’m not sure how often it is that any one would be called to testify, and it seems as if in many places, once probably did the trick.

Ash Wednesday is here to say that once doesn’t do the trick.

It’s here to say that, whether or not we’re called upon to testify, it is important just the same to know where it is that we see Jesus…not once upon a time, but now.

That it’s important for each of us to look for where God’s love is reaching us, and healing us, and challenging us now.

It reminds us that if life is more than ashes in the end, it’s because something is alive that cannot be quenched. Something is moving that cannot be stilled. Someone is loving us into a new being.

If we are not alone, it’s because something—someone—is beside us and within us and around us—at each moment.

Do we still know it? Are we still guided by that?

Lent is a time to ask ourselves where we are with all that, and to ask God for what it means to know.

It is a time to look mortality in the face and see, not dust, but destiny.

Some people are uncomfortable with it.

But for those who are willing to wrestle with the angel, it is part of what makes an active, living faith.

So, yes, it is a strange thing we do tonight. A strange, somber, and symbolic thing.

Let’s not rush the answers.

But those who ask with open hearts, the answer of Easter is not far off.

For those who ask with open hearts, hope sings quietly to us a psalm of life.

Amen.

 

 

 

Sermon: “The Cloud of Unknowing” (Luke 9:28-36)

mountaintop

Last week, we heard the familiar and powerful words of 1 Corinthians 13—the Apostle Paul’s famous writing about love.

And I admit that over the last few days, I’ve had some of the words from that passage continuing to reverberate in my head.

In particular, I’ve found myself hearing the words near the end of the passage, when he writes:

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Co 13: 11-12).

You’ll recall that what he means there is that things that seem so important and impressive now are actually only a small part of a much larger picture.

From where we’re standing now, love may not seem like much, especially when we compare it to other things. Things like knowledge or like particular spiritual gifts known only to a few. But eventually we’ll see that love is far more important, far more enduring, and far more powerful than we could ever realize here. And available to us all.

Our vision of the world is partial—seeing through a mirror dimly—or even akin to a child’s vision—compared to what our vision will be in all its fullness and maturity one day before God. Then we will know for sure that what he says about love is true.

And so what’s been rattling around my head for the last few days is Paul’s image of that mirror—that mirror that we see through “dimly,” as he says.

I’m struck by this morning’s story from Luke’s gospel—the story of the Transfiguration—which is a story that is all about seeing Jesus uncloaked…or better yet, Jesus cloaked in all his glory…dazzling white…the Son of God…it’s a story about seeing him at last for who he really is, face to face.

We religious people are supposed to want that—the people driving by this church at this very moment hope of seeing God assume we’re in here, trying to work on.

Seeing God is supposed to be a big deal, right?

Paul promised it as a kind of coming confirmation of our hopes.

So you would think that these disciples with Jesus, there on the mountain, the crème de la crème, the key three, his hand-picked executive committee…you’d think they would be more on top of that, somehow.

That it would be more of a confirmation of what their faith, or that what each of their hearts had been telling them was true all along. That Jesus was not just some wonder-worker or sage teacher, but the Son of God himself, come at last.

You might expect a quiet fist-bump between them, or something, but not genuine astonishment. Not fear.

Now if you keep reading along in Luke’s gospel, it becomes clear that later on, the disciples eventually do get it—eventually, they do, indeed, have that “lightbulb” moment about Jesus when they can’t believe they hadn’t put it all together before.

But that’s not this moment.

And so part of what this morning’s Scripture is trying to say is that no matter how closely we may think we’re paying attention….no matter how carefully we try to work out how it all works…God always has this capacity to surprise us…to astonish us…to jump out when we least expect it.

In that same spirit, the other thing that I think we need to take away from this morning’s Scripture is that faith is not so much about finding certainty, but rather about learning to embrace mystery. And mystery is hard to embrace.

Remember what we’ve just heard.

When Peter sees Jesus in all his glory, speaking with Moses and Elijah, surprising as it is for him, he recovers quickly and says, “Great! This is amazing! Now we know where God’s great prophets dwell! Let’s build three churches, for starters.”

It’s all very pious of him, really.

But it’s then that the cloud overshadows them. It’s then that they hear the voice from heaven.

It turns out that God doesn’t want that.

What God wants is for them to listen to Jesus, which is actually much harder when you think about it.

Because when it comes to building a church, you know when you’ve finished the job. You know when it’s done. You finish the building, you hire Tony Izzi to handle the plowing, and that’s it. It’s done.

But when it comes to listening to Jesus, there is no such thing as being done.

There’s no point where it stops.

Because love doesn’t stop. Care doesn’t stop. Justice doesn’t stop. Serving the greater good doesn’t stop. Offering our talents to make the world a better place doesn’t stop.

These things take on new meanings. They lead us into new situations or entire new chapters of our lives. They bring us into relationship with new people.

The cloud descends, and what had seemed so crystal clear a moment before now becomes shrouded in mystery all over again. The way to be faithful and to see God in the work becomes something we need to discover in a whole new way.

It may even seem as if we’re back to seeing through a mirror dimly.

When that cloud descends, it can be hard to see. It can be hard to listen for Jesus all over again.

But time and time again, as we look back later, even at the hard times, we realize that it was so important we entered the cloud and were forced to wander for a while.

Because in that wandering, God surprised us in ways that, before too long, we can’t imagine living without.

This isn’t for everyone, I know.

I once went to a day long conference for teachers and one of the other conferees was actually wearing a t-shirt that said, “Oh boy another growth opportunity.”

So…yes, let’s not put a smiley face on how hard won some of our wisdom can turn out to be.

But this morning’s Gospel reminds us that what matters is not how rigidly we hold on to God, however much we might want to, and however deeply we may love God.

What matters is that quietly, mysteriously, God is holding on to us.

Now don’t get me wrong.

When it comes right down to it, I’m not that into uncertainty, myself.

When I was younger, for example, I couldn’t get very far in a new book before I had to read the last two or three pages, just so I could proceed with at least some sense of what was ahead.

I couldn’t stand that feeling of not knowing what was going to happen.

And even today, in those moments when I am challenged to walk once again into a cloud of uncertainty, my instinct is to try to look ahead—to read or study myself back onto terra firma.

What I’ve learned is that this only gets me so far. Because staying on terra firma is like trying to swim with one hand on the side of the pool at all times. It’s safe, but you don’t end up getting anywhere.

Others, of course, respond to uncertainty in their own familiar ways—usually with a tried and true way of reducing it. Even banishing it.

You probably know how it is you tend to do that. If you don’t, believe me, your spouse, your sister, your coworker, your doubles partner, or the morning cashiers at McDonalds would be happy to fill you in on exactly what it is you do. Try asking: there’s a way to start off Lent with a bang.

But the thing is that unless we learn to embrace uncertainty, we will never learn what it is to embrace mystery.

And mystery, like uncertainty, doesn’t lend itself to our preferred techniques or tendencies. But it is so often the making of us.

We talk about walking once again into the cloud. And the cloud into which we’re walking is the cloud of our own unknowing. Our own blind spots. Our own anxieties and insecurities.

So however it is—whatever it is you do to cope with your own insecurities, that’s something to pay attention to during Lent.

Because it isn’t that God is so intent on hiding. It’s that so often, we are. Even if we don’t mean to, we hide from God and from ourselves.

And yet, through it all, quietly, mysteriously, God holds onto us.

To our astonishment, God appears in places and in ways we’d least expect. And so often, it turns out that those are places and the ways that we most need to heal and to grow.

Transfiguration reminds us not only of God’s dazzling uncloaking in Jesus on that mountaintop.

It reminds us of our own clouded understanding, and the challenge of learning to look up, anyway, remembering the power of the sun to burn through the fog.

Transfiguration reminds us that God is out to surprise us constantly, and that as we learn to embrace mystery, it is God who draws us tighter into his embrace.

 

Amen.

From the Newsletter: What are you giving up?

giving up

Dear Friends of Second Church,

Believe it or not, it’s only one week until the beginning of Lent—the weeks leading up to Easter, reserved by the Church as a special season of preparation and self-examination before the great festival of resurrection and new life.

For those who grew up “giving things up” for Lent, the Church preached a deliberate practice of self-denial to these coming weeks, and for some, that can be a bitter memory. Recently, I read an article quoting someone who left church at eighteen and has never looked back, saying, “Lent is everything I hated about church. All the ‘thou shalt not,’ all the cult of suffering, all the guilt.”

So often, when people walk away from their faith, it’s because they have begun to understand the basic attributes of a God they can’t believe in—but for any number of reasons, it doesn’t register with them that other faithful people would not and could not believe in that kind of God, either. There’s nobody around who urges them to figure out what it is they do believe, what it is they feel should be most important, or where it is in life that they see the outline of things of genuinely transcendent value.

Sad to say, there are many faith communities it seems easy enough to walk away from. Or even the morally superior move. But the idea that it might actually be God prompting our conscience in the departure is a new thought for some.

That’s why Lent is a good idea for us.

Not that we should all be packing our spiritual bags and starting to look for new homes….but because it’s important for us to take stock of when and where and how we encounter the Holy in our particular lives. Instead of nodding dutifully and seeking to follow a God we’re “supposed to believe in,” according to…somebody….we should be seeking the God who speaks to us within our own circumstances, who points to what’s important from where we stand, who delights and instructs us in ways that others may scarcely even see.

Lent is a time to look for that God–the God of our unique understanding, the God who is for us in the most personal ways.

In the days after Easter, we begin to tell the story of the disciples after the resurrection, when the “Jesus movement” slowly discovered it was called to become the Church. It’s then that we begin to engage how this God, who appears so dramatically and personally and differently to each person, can be the God who calls us all to common life and common service in his name.

That’s a central part of the story, and we will get to that, believe me. But let it keep for now. In these next few weeks, take time to seek the God you feel called to believe in. Who is that God? How is that God looking to be in relationship with you? What difference should it make, and does it?

This year, let’s use Lent to give up, not chocolate or soda or cigarettes, but what is false about our faith. Let’s trust God to be big enough to hold all our differences, and all the unique ways we encounter Him, in the palm of His hand.

Let’s learn how it is He has chosen to love us. And give up everything else.
See you in church,

Sermon: “What now?” (John 1:1-14)

postcard

Back in my sophomore year of high school, when everyone in my grade suddenly started agonizing over their grades on each and every test and paper, it did not take me long to get caught up in the whole thing.

Like most people, I was more interested in some things than others, and I joyfully put in extra time in some areas without even realizing it, while in other areas it did not work that way.

I would read ahead for English class, even when I nearly missed dinner because of it. But each and every second I spent on Algebra II felt like a piece of my fleeting youth I would never be able to recover.

I could recite the 23rd Psalm in French because learning that was fun; however, when my Biology teacher tested us on a book he had assigned called “To Know A Fly,” I’d read the book so inattentively on the airplane back from Christmas vacation that I not only failed the test, but my teacher felt obligated to observe, “Mr. Grant, not only do you not know the fly, I’m not sure you ever even met the fly.”

(Teachers could say that sort of thing back then.)

Nevertheless, in sophomore year, with everyone around me talking constantly about how the stakes had suddenly gotten higher for us all, it seemed suddenly as if the subjects I loved and worked hard at weren’t good enough, while the ones I didn’t like and avoided were actually going worse than I thought.

And so came the day just before the end of the marking period, when in back to back classes, I got back an English paper I’d been proud to turn in the week before, and then a math test I’d stayed up long past curfew to prepare for.

And it turned out, unfortunately, that I hadn’t done very well on either one. Which is to say, I got a B+ on the English paper, and a C-/D+ on the math test.

I was beside myself. Beside myself.

I was convinced that my future was suddenly in severe jeopardy.

Crying was distinctly frowned upon for boys at my school, unless we’d just lost the Andover game, or something.

But I managed to sob myself to the classroom of my favorite teacher, Ms. Oakes, who sat me down and let me explain and handed me Kleenex, and all those things that teachers like that do.

And finally, after I was calming down, she smiled and said, “Max, let me ask you a question. And be honest. Do you truly think that you’ll still be upset about this a year from now?”

And this is the part of the story where I just want to say that teachers are scandalously underpaid in this great nation. If you’re a teacher, whatever we are paying you, we should double it tomorrow.

Because like so many other sophomores in the world, when Ms. Oakes asked me if I thought that in a year, I would still be upset about my two disappointing grades, I looked her right in the eye, and I said, with a big helping of how-could-you, “Ms. O., this is the worst day of my life. I will never forget this day.”

Well, eventually the crisis passed. My friends and I settled into sophomore year, and most of the time, the future seemed pretty much as far away as ever.

That spring, I decided to apply to a year-long school program in France for my junior year, and I got in, and off I went, and that was great.

And one day, when I was over there, I went to my mailbox , and there was a postcard with a picture of the Academy Building of my school on it.

It was a postcard. From Ms. Oakes.

It said, “Hi Max, Just wondering how you’re doing about that math grade from Algebra II. It’s cold here. See you soon!”

And friends, it’s then that I realized that there is nothing more beautiful in this world than the long game.

Yes, indeed, there are other games. Diversions, amusements, challenges, surely. But there is nothing that compares to the long game.

II.

I think about this during this time of year.

I try to remember about the long game.

January, as you may know, takes its name from the Roman God Janus, who had two faces—one that looked forward and the other backward.

So many of us do just that, ourselves, during these days—we remember the year just past and look to the year ahead. But it’s more of a short-game thing for us…anyway, it is for me.

Last year at this time, I was very certain that I was going to be very serious about losing some weight. I didn’t, though, and so, as I’m looking into 2016, I’m trying to imagine how I will go about it differently this time.

Within this world of what-will-you-remember-one-year-later, I guess that’s one thing that I do remember.

But yesterday, I was trying to remember what my New Year’s resolutions were for 2014, and I don’t remember any of them.

Which is just what my teacher, Ms. O., was saying, right?

Whatever it was that seemed in such great need of changing has either become so chronic that I’ve just decided to live with it, or somehow, it managed to resolve itself all on its own, without my help.

But there are other things I very much do remember.

Because by contrast, what I really do remember are those moments when I got to be with people—when I got to pray with them, or for them, when I was let in on some piece of important news that they were digesting, when I got to be a witness to the unvarnished truth about their life.

I remember moments with my kids and with Liz and with my parents.

I’m not sure we really acknowledge the spiritual significance of that kind of remembering.

But what it tells me is this: It tells me–reminds me–that what’s deeper than any resolution are the moments when we feel as if we truly know and are known by those we love.

If there’s anything this side of a miracle that has the capacity to change us, it’s not our resolutions—it’s that love.

I’m very sure of that.

III.

That, for me, lies very much at the heart of John’s gospel.

Our reading this morning was from the opening words from John—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

If it reminds you of the opening words of Genesis, which also begins with the words “In the beginning,” well, that’s on purpose.

The Book of Genesis imagines how it was that all things were called into being.

First God makes the light, then the heavens, then the seas and the land, and the things that grow, and the stars in the sky, and the moon and the sun, and the fish, and the birds, and the cattle, and then humans, and finally the Sabbath itself.

John’s account is simpler. It’s more of an annotation than a rival account, as such.

Because what John wants to say is that before all that creating, before this world we know so very well came into being, before God had reached over to press play on the great CD player of the world, there was Jesus.

There was Jesus. Watching. Waiting. Counting the minutes until he could join us—so great, so eager, so delighted and concerned for us, so fascinated by who he knows we really are, was he.

John writes: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (v. 3-4).

And he might just as well have that “what has come into being in him was love, and the love was the light of all people.”

Because it’s clear that what John wants us to know about Creation is not simply that it happened, or that there was order or purpose at the start of it all.

John is saying that God is playing the long game with the world—that he’s not content merely to create it, but that he loves it—he loves us—and what God wants is for us to know how deeply we are loved.

That God’s love is the light for all people if we would only know it. If we would only listen to it. If we would only follow it.

If we would only join the wisdom of the long game, and open ourselves up to the transformation that God wants so much for us.

What if this year, we resolved to love one another as Christ loved us?

There’s a resolution for us.

 

IV.

Friends, we spend too much of our time and energy worrying about things that won’t matter to us, even a year from now.

We focus our will on projects and plans and visions of ourselves that we probably won’t even remember.

What we will remember is the love we were able to give and to receive.

What we will remember is the new beginnings we find in each and every day that come with knowing we are loved.

What shapes our future is the love we are able to share today, however tentatively, however uncertainly, however inadequately.

The only thing really worth practicing and getting better at is love.

And John proclaims that for all that changes in our lives over the course of a year, or over many years, what matters most is what was true all the way back at the beginning: that abiding in us and in our world is the deep and wondrous love of God.

So often, it seems as if our lives leave us beside ourselves.

John reminds us that through all that comes, we are under the care of the God who always stands beside us.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (v. 14).

May this year be a year full of grace and truth for all of us.

Amen.

Christmas Sermon 2015: “Deep Darkness, Great Light”

storewindow

Last week, just after dark, I walked up Greenwich Avenue from the train station and got my first glimpse of the store windows this year.

I always enjoy that, especially in the evening.

The twinkle-lit trees are illuminated, and the restaurants are in full swing, and the commuters are trudging uphill with their briefcases and backpacks toward Maher Avenue or Mason Street.

As you know, the stores along the Avenue put some attention into their windows, and if you look closely enough, it’s almost as if a story unfolds—or as if you’re looking in on scenes from a world.

In one window, the mannequin with the cravat and the double-breasted blazer seems frozen in the middle of a joke with the mannequin in the red boiled wool jacket.

Maybe their next stop is the fancy dinner taking place two windows up, at Betteridge, where the table is set with an enormous Victorian silver gravy boat, shaped like Santa’s sleigh.

Or perhaps they are going down the Avenue, to the Classic Car shop to pick up their lovingly restored Triumph motorcar with the enormous red bow on it.

Christmas on the Avenue is elegant in a way that my own Christmas is not.

But it’s still fun to look, even if I can’t really imagine ever actually needing the particular accoutrements they have on offer.

I mean, have you ever noticed that there are always a lot of enormous leather steamer trunks in the windows along the Avenue this time of year?

This is not exactly about needing.

Admittedly, those windows are better at depicting the broadly aspirational than the strictly necessary.

They whisper to us about imaginary worlds that are just the merest swipe of a card away.

And so, indeed, there is something of us in those windows….

There is something we actually do need, in a different sort of way.

Because there’s something in them of our hunger for beauty and sophistication, for friendship or festivity, and maybe for a life without rushing: a life with time for actual conversation rather than texted reminders or “last chance” emails.

I always think we feel the rumble of that hunger more at Christmas.

There’s no denying that Christmas can be a particular focus for that longing.

If fact, if you look at those windows closely, maybe they have less to say about what elegance looks like than about what a life in balance looks like­—a life that’s more connected with people and places and to the joy of living.

At Christmas, the windows seem to speak to that dream of balance.

II.

Of course, the Christmas story as Luke’s gospel tells it is far from a celebration of lives in balance.

If there is one thing that was true for all the characters assembled around the manger, it is that after stopping in Bethlehem, their lives would never be the same.

Whatever balance they had come to know and rely on would turn out to be gone for good.

God’s supreme act of “disruptive innovation” would change everything.

In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah had written, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” (9:2).

I’ve always wondered if they thought of that—I wonder if all those various travelers on the roads to Bethlehem that night were thinking about darkness and light.

Think of all the old paintings of Joseph leading the donkey bearing Mary along the starlit road from Nazareth.

The scene always looks so quiet. They both look so lost in thought.

What were they thinking?

Everything and nothing, I suppose.

But I like to think that as the miles wore on, they were remembering the voice of Isaiah….deep darkness…great light…

Maybe the shepherds were thinking of Isaiah too, as they hunkered down on the edge of town. Shepherds were largely forgotten people, people mostly just hoping to pass through without causing attention.

They knew about deep darkness. They were living it.

So were the magi, wearing the exotic silks of royal courts, coming from Jerusalem on their camels, following the great star they had seen so far away, and so many weeks before.

They knew about darkness. They saw the look on Herod’s face when they told him about the star. They knew it wasn’t just a star, somehow.

Make no mistake: the darkness Isaiah was talking about went a lot deeper than the inky mantle of night.

The King James Version is exceedingly direct on this point, translating Isaiah’s words as: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”

Isaiah was talking about a world that needed saving—a world weighed down by the shadow of death itself.

So what Isaiah seeks to name, and what the Christmas story seeks to name, is first of all, the fact of that darkness—the darkness that is in the world, and the darkness that we find in ourselves….

We know it well.

It’s a darkness we encounter in the news, and in our homes and offices.

It’s the darkness we encounter in the comments section of any Internet story, no matter how seemingly uncontroversial.

It’s the darkness of a world where so many are fighting for their lives in so many different ways.

So much in our world is so ugly. The shadow of death is not far from us. We know it.

But that’s not all that Isaiah has to say.

He talks about darkness, but that’s not where Isaiah leaves things.

When Isaiah talks about light, about the great light, he’s trying to imagine what it will be like when the God who had seemed silent for so long will once again make His presence known.

The Gospel of Luke picks up on that.

For Luke, the promise of the story is that the coming of Jesus, the coming of the light, can rekindle the light within us.

Luke promises that, in Jesus, the light will be bright enough for us to see by, once again.

In fact, he promises that it will be bright enough for others to see, and that in time, they will come to follow it, too.

III.

Rekindling the light is slow work, even for the best of us.

That’s why we need to hold on to this story and to keep telling it. That’s why we need to pass it on to our children.

Christmas reminds us that the world needs our help, and that we need God’s help.

Yes, it is hard to wait—we’ve already been waiting so long.

But remember: the promise of the story is that, in fact, the waiting is over.

The story promises us—reminds us—reassures us that the work of redemption has already begun.

The light is already shining in the darkness, urging us forward.

Tonight we affirm again that in Jesus of Nazareth, the babe in the manger, God sent his only son to be with us and to share our life, so that in time, all people might come to share in God’s life.

It has already begun.

That’s what the story promises.

That said, what it does not promise is balance.

So many people seem to love Christmas because it calls us to be a little kinder, a little more generous, a little more patient.

There’s that song that goes, “We need a little Christmas, just this very minute….”

So many love Christmas because it calls us to put things in perspective. In balance.

But when push comes to shove, a lot of people don’t actually want a lot of Christmas. They only want a little. And they don’t want it in the fullness of God’s time. They want it now. Just this very minute. On their terms. In ways that fit in neatly to the lives they’re busy living.

They don’t want surgery: they just want to get a little work done.

And yet, that’s not what the story promises at all.

The story says that to live in the light of this story is to see our lives not just tweaked, but transformed.

To live in the light of this story is to see God’s claim on the world that He has made, and it is to see the world gradually waking up to that claim.
The story is about following the call to serve the love and purposes of God, wherever they may lead.

There’s nothing little about it, except for the little baby in the manger—that baby who is already growing into the mature person he will become.

Its enormous promise is that in him, even you and I might grow into maturity, too.

But only if we undertake the journey. Only if we are willing to walk the light of that one star.

IV.

 What is it we’re longing for this Christmas, you and I?

Lives somehow different than they are? Relationships, prospects, comforts, diversions somehow different than they are? A world somehow different than it is?

That’s not what’s on offer down Greenwich Avenue.

The real Christmas we seek is not on display in a store window.

Tonight we remember that the window that matters most of all is the window into God’s heart.

That’s what Christmas is. It’s a window into God’s heart.

And it shows us a world where the darkness is banished, and the way forward is clear, and whoever we might be and by whatever road it is we travel, there is a place for each of us around that manger. There is a place for you.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.”

For it is by that light, that finally we come to see.

Merry Christmas. God bless us, every one.

Sermon: “The Surprise of Christmas” (Micah 4:1-5, 5:1-5)

surprise

When the prophet Micah wrote, sometime around 750 BC, King David had been gone for nearly 250 years, and the slow decline of Israel from its glory days was about to start moving faster.

When Micah writes, the Assyrians are putting Jerusalem under prolonged siege.

And so the first reading we heard this morning is a dream of peace—a dream where those who are coming to Jerusalem from all around the world are not nations coming to make war, but rather people of all backgrounds coming to Jerusalem to worship God.

Micah writes during days when the sight of figures coming over the horizon had grown ominous, indeed, but he dreams of a different day, when figures on the horizon will be a welcome sight—weary pilgrims rather than angry warriors—nothing to be afraid of, and even cause for celebration.

The second reading gives us a look at the actual scene.

He records God’s own words, saying, “Now you are walled around with a wall; siege is laid against us; with a rod they shall strike the ruler of Israel upon the cheek” (5:1).

There is a hunkered down quality to it—and he talks about the wall in a funny way, leaving it decidedly unclear if the people of Jerusalem are keeping the enemy walled out, or if it’s more accurate to say that the enemy has them walled in.

But here again, Micah speaks words of comfort. Surprising words, really, because he begins to speak to Bethlehem, saying, “…from you shall come forth…one is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (v. 2).

That is, help will come, the stalemate at the walls of Jerusalem will end, but surprisingly, not because the beleaguered people of the city will somehow think of something they hadn’t thought of before.

And not because they will think up some new military tactic or construct some new potent weapon of mass destruction.

The stalemate will end because God will raise up a leader from somewhere outside the walls, outside the expected channels or the obvious answers, and in that leader, the promise of God’s people that had been slowly slipping away since the days of David, will be reclaimed.

II.

It’s not very Christmasy, is it?

And yet it’s the little passage about Bethlehem that Matthew will quote in his version of first Christmas.

You’ll remember that one.

The magi come to Jerusalem from the east and ask Herod, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”(Matthew 2:2)

And Herod calls in every religious expert he can find in the city and asks them where the tradition says that the Messiah is to be born, and they respond, “In Bethlehem in Judea…for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel” (v. 6).

Of course, the prophet they are mostly quoting there is Micah.

And so there is something in this passage that’s worth pausing over.

The prophet’s words would have been 750 years old by the time Herod heard them—I mean, no wonder he needed his lawyers and his theologians to look them up.

The siege about which Micah wrote was long over by then. The walls of Jerusalem had been reinforced and destroyed and rebuilt and then rebuilt again.

Such antiquity, notwithstanding, Herod, as we know, was not one to take chances with prophecies, and particularly prophecies about future kings of the Jews. As the present King of the Jews, he cared immensely about such things.

That sets a whole series of things in motion for Jesus and his parents.

But I think Micah was actually making a larger point, and Herod in his literalism misses that point. And the story, in its eagerness to show Jesus as the one who had been predicted in ancient prophecy, which is its own kind of literalism, almost misses it, too.

But I think it’s very important.

Because I think what Micah was trying to say is that there is something fundamentally unpredictable about God.

Remember what Micah says. He says that rescue is not going to come from inside the walls of the city, but from outside—from some unknown figure raised up by God outside the predictable channels, and outside the parade of the usual suspects, and from outside the ones we are accustomed to look toward for answers and for help.

It’s ironic, of course, that this will become the basis of a prophecy, because it confounds the notion of predicting in such a fundamental way.

III.

And yet what would it be like–how might our sense of Christmas be different–if what we celebrated on Christmas Day was the God whose love can strike as abruptly and powerfully and randomly as a bolt of summer lightning?

What if Christmas were more explicitly about God’s infinite capacity to surprise us?

That’s not all that far away from Christmas as we tell it.

Because after all, what is Scrooge if he’s not surprised? What is the Grinch if not surprised?

The shepherds were surprised.

Luke tells us that when they arrive at the manger, “…they spread the word concerning what they had been told about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them” (Luke 2:17-18).

Even Mary, who got the word first and has been closest to it in every way all along, is said to have “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (v. 19).

This cloud of witnesses around the manger has astonished her.

These people are all surprised.

Don’t get me wrong: I look to this season to remind and reaffirm a lot for me.

love Christmas and its traditions.

The other morning I came into the sanctuary and lit the Christmas trees myself and made a point of letting it soak in. I try to do that every year. I say “try” because believe it or not, even though I work only about 100 steps away from this spot, it can be hard to get here.

But it’s my experience that if I do, and if I give that kind of moment long enough, I’ll think of it when you need it down the line.

I’ll think of it when I’m waiting for Easter. I’ll think of it on those busy days at the end of another school year. I’ll think of it in July when the air-conditioning in my car isn’t working, and I need to drive somewhere in Friday 95 traffic.

Likewise, I look forward to visiting the inflatables on the Mead House lawn every night with the girls, who have particular cloaks they have appropriated for December. And every fall as the weather turns cooler I think to myself that it won’t be long now, and that lifts me.

Those parts of Christmas lift a lot of us.

IV.

 But a little bit, I worry.

I worry that all our anticipation, all our relying on that kind of lift, can turn Christmas into a festival for a God who comes on cue.

I worry that it makes Christmas about a God who comes at the stroke of midnight on December 25th, and with all the familiar trappings: as steady and reliable and surely worth visiting as Old Faithful.

But as Micah reminds us, the wondrous thing about this God, about our God, is that God doesn’t necessarily come on cue at all.

The thing about His love is that it constantly surprises us. It catches off guard. It breaks into the world. That’s how it grabs us…how it gets our attention.

Have you ever gone downstairs in the middle of the night for a drink of water or something, or maybe to turn down the thermostat, and realized that somehow somebody left your front door wide open?

There’s a reason that the angel always has to say, “Fear not!” when it appears.

Because the love of God surprises us like that. It makes us suddenly aware of our own vulnerability. Sensitive to the vulnerability of every living thing.

It’s a little fearsome, especially at first. But quickly enough, it warms us, too. And it teaches us to look for God in the situations when and where we least expect.

That’s what Micah tells us. That’s what the Christmas story tells us.

It’s not that “God is everywhere” in some general, pleasant sort of way. It’s that God could be anywhere, at work in anyone, in a way that changes everything.

God could even be at work in you or me.

When was the last time God surprised you?

If it was not so long ago, then you know. You remember.

If it’s been awhile, or if it’s never really seemed to work like that for you, then Christmas has one message for you: hang on to your hat.

God says, “Now you are walled around with a wall; siege is laid against us; with a rod they strike the ruler of Israel upon the cheek. But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days….And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth, and he shall be the one of peace” (Micah 5:1-2, 4-5).

May Christmas always remind us of God’s power to surprise.

With all that lifts us in these days, may we remember that it is surprise that truly gives us our wings.

Amen.

From the Newsletter: “The Homecoming of Christmas”

rockefellertree

I have a friend from the old days in Brooklyn who has since left the City as part of a successful academic career. He’s one of the fortunate ones—he’s been invited to teach at wonderful places and has done well at each one. Like many displaced New Yorkers, he grouses about the lack of “decent” bagels anywhere west of the Hudson and doesn’t always know what to make of the instinctive politeness he routinely encounters in other parts of the country, but overall, he has been happy with his life and at home in the tidy, cultural communities where he’s been invited to live.

But every year at Christmas, he turns in his first semester grades, throws a duffel bag of laundry into the backseat of his now-legendary, almost “classic” Mercury Sable, and points the car back home. And happy as he is, successful as he is, he drives home to Brooklyn with the urgency of a diver trying to rise to the surface before his air runs out.

“God, I need New York,” he posted on Facebook a few days ago. “Won’t be long now.”

I’ve never asked him, but I’m guessing this goes deeper than the bit about the decent bagel. For many New Yorkers, it’s about the energy of the place—the feel of the streets, the little, familiar interactions between strangers, the sensory overload—these are all part of the unique rhythms of the City, and if they are part of your own rhythms, then there really is no other place where they seem to come together in just the right way.

Maybe that’s true of home for each of us, no matter where our home happens to be.

But what I’m especially thinking about these days is that urgency—that need for a place.

There is a similar kind of longing at the heart of the Christmas story.

It’s not longing for a place, per se, unless maybe it’s for a place that hasn’t quite existed, yet. Nevertheless, that sense of needing to be elsewhere is alive in the gospels. Both Matthew and Luke set the stage for the arrival of Jesus in a world that needs to be different than it is. And in their own ways, all of the characters, be they shepherds, magi, or member of the holy family, know what it is to have the rhythms of the heart feel out of kilter with the rhythms of the world.

The Christmas story begins with a world that needs to change: a world that both needs God and cannot seem to find God. The coming of Jesus is about God’s wanting to help us find our way at last, and to make a world where the rhythms of the heart feel truly at home.

That’s why we need this story all over again, each and every year. For all the great moments we know throughout the living of our days, there is still that sense that things are not as they were meant to be, and that we are not as we are meant to be. We are still searching for the place where everyone belongs, where all possibilities come together.

That’s why we need Christmas. Christmas names our hope for such a place, and God’s promise that in the fullness of time, He will lead us there.

Christmas is how we begin to imagine what such a place will be like.

So grab your duffel bag and get ready to hit the road. It won’t be long now.
See you in church,