Sermon: “Following Jesus” (Mark 1:14-20)

I want to begin this morning by sharing a story that Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn tell in their most recent book, A Path Appears, which if you don’t know it, is a book about how to be an engaged global citizen, and make a difference here and abroad.

I recommend it to you very highly.

The story I’d like to share from it today, however, is a story that is, in many respects, not all that remarkable.

Anyway, it’s not remarkable, if by “remarkable,” you think of people trying to cure malaria in all of Africa, or to provide bicycles so every girl in Pakistan can get to school quickly and safely.

But it’s remarkable, nonetheless.

Back in the 1950’s in rural Arkansas, Kristof and WuDunn explain, “Olly Neal was a poor kid with an attitude and no obvious prospects. He was rebellious and resisted help” — so much so that by his senior year, most of his teachers had pretty much written him off.

The only person who still tried to help him, who still believed in his potential, was the school librarian, Mrs. Grady, and for her trouble, he mocked her openly and reduced her to tears in front of other students on a regular basis.

Things were not on a good path.

And then one day….right?

And then one day, Olly was skipping class and ended up in the library, such as it was, for no particular reason, and he saw among the small collection of books there something that piqued his interest.

It was a book “with a risque cover of a scantily dressed woman,” and it was called The Treasure of Pleasant Valley.

(Kind of makes you wonder what the treasure was, right?)

Anyway, Olly was too proud to take the book out officially, which would have felt like…what? Caving in? Buying into the whole idea of school? Doing something right by Mrs. Grady the librarian?

Whatever it was, Olly didn’t take out the book. Instead, he stole it.

To his surprise, he loved it. And when he snuck it back, he was also surprised to see another book right there on the same shelf by the same author that he had not noticed before.

So he stole that one.

Strangely, the same thing happened. Actually, it happened four more times.

In any case, Olly became a reader, then engaged with the news and the issues of the day, and he blossomed. Eventually, he made his way to college and law school, and a prominent career.

And so it was, many years later, at a high school reunion, that he ran into his old librarian, Mrs. Grady, and he told her how much the books in that little school library had meant to him.

She nodded. Then she admitted that she had seen him steal the very first book, and had been about to confront him when she realized that he was embarrassed to be seen as a reader.

And then it came out that, even more importantly, the very next Saturday, she had driven 70 miles to Memphis to see if she could find another book by the same author. There was no budget for that. There was no reimbursement for mileage. There would have been nobody who said the trouble was worth it for a kid like Olly Neal. It was all on her.

She had to go to four different bookstores. And, of course, when he snapped up the second book, she’d gone back to Memphis two more times to track down other titles by that author.

Safe to say, Olly Neal owed Mrs. Grady the librarian even more than he realized.

But she saw something in him that other people could not or could no longer quite see.

And she was right.

II.

This morning, Mark’s Gospel shows us the early ministry of Jesus in the midst of an important new phase.

At the outset, Jesus has been on sort of a “solo mission” — maybe even a kind of “vision quest,” of sorts, leaving the known world and seeking God at the edge of the wilderness.

But now we are hearing of a new phase. In this morning’s Scripture, Jesus is calling the disciples–and specifically, Peter and his brother Andrew, and then James and John, the sons of Zebedee. They were fishermen in the Sea of Galilee.

In fact, when they encounter Jesus, they are actively involved in the work of fishermen–casting their nets, or sitting in their boat with their father and a host of others, mending nets.

There is this quality of “There I was, going about my business, another typical day as a fisherman, when all of a sudden….”

Or as we might put it, “And then one day….” there’s Jesus.

It isn’t clear that they’ve heard him before; it isn’t clear that they’ve met or even that they’ve heard about him….There is no reported “Oh…it’s you….”

It’s just: here he is.

Here he is, and here he is, with his first words, making this outlandish request: “Cast off your nets, and follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

In a way that reminds me of Mrs. Grady and Olly Neal, Jesus seems to see something in these men that they can’t quite see in themselves.

Mark puts great emphasis on how quickly the whole thing happened.

He reports that “immediately, they left their nets and followed him.” And then, just two lines later, when Jesus sees the sons of Zebedee, Mark says, “Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.”

Most of us were raised with the idea “act in haste, repent at leisure.”

It seems entirely likely that the disciples would have been raised with that idea, too.

But thankfully, they don’t follow that advice, and there is no indication that later on, they particularly regretted it, even though, clearly, this moment ended up bringing them so much more than they bargained for.

Maybe it’s a little like Olly Neal didn’t come to regret stealing books from that library, because stealing books turned him into a reader, and that ended up bringing him so much more than he bargained for.

The disciples steal away to Jesus, and eventually, at some point along the way, they end up being turned into disciples.

They are transformed.

Did they see it all then, as they saw Jesus?

I don’t think so.

I don’t think they saw it any more clearly than Olly Neal saw himself becoming a state appellate court judge because he decided to read The Treasure of Pleasant Valley.

The point is not that they saw it. The point is that it was there, waiting to be seen.

III.

And that’s where I’d like to focus our attention for a few moments this morning.

Because we in the Church most typically tell this story as a way of talking about the notion of being called by God.

That makes sense because in Jesus, God is literally calling his disciples to come join him.

We also tell the story as a way of highlighting the importance of obedience — that when God calls, you don’t put Him on hold. Ever.

But reading the story again this week, I was struck by how much it is also a story about expectations.

What is out there in God’s world that is waiting to be seen?

Jesus sees more to these men than their situations might suggest, and he invites them to share not simply his journey, but more importantly, to learn his way of seeing.

He is not limited or blinded by the expectations of identity or social circumstances…and his point is that we must not be, either.

Maybe you saw the thoughtful interview in the New York Times yesterday with Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is currently attending a church conference in New York City on income inequality.

And he observed, “We see within the life and ministry of Jesus a challenge to the rich to love the poor as God loves the poor: in the same way, with the same intention, and with the same generosity.”

One of the great spiritual challenges of inequality, he suggests, is how it lures us into believing that all people are not equal before God, that all people are not cherished and important and fascinating to God.

It is a temptation for all of us, rich and poor alike. Men and women. And for people of all backgrounds and races. Believers and unbelievers.

As the Archbishop puts it, “The human being for whom Christ died is of equal value, whoever they are.”

Part of our challenge as faithful people is learning to see each person as the one for whom Jesus gave his life–as someone who is just that important in the eyes of God.

And that’s why Christians have always understood ourselves to be under a particular obligation to seek out the least and the lost.

That’s why we have always felt a call to go out search of anyone and anything out there in God’s world that is waiting to be seen.

Sadly, two thousand years after Jesus’ arrival, we still don’t have to go too far to find people and places that are waiting to be noticed.

Even you and I may be waiting to be noticed–waiting for our hurts and our challenges to get the attention they need and deserve.

And yet, this morning’s Gospel reminds us not to wait until all our affairs are in order before we set out.

The work of serving others, becoming fishers of men, is not something that depends on our perfection–actually, it’s God’s peculiar strategy for making something of us, after all.

IV.

I’m glad that serving others does not depend on our perfection, and particularly mine.

I’m also glad to report to you that at this very moment, fourteen members of our congregation are on their way to Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi for a week of service at a United Church of Christ ministry that began as a ministry of racial reconciliation back in the 1950s and has come to include service to veterans, economically vulnerable families, and people displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Always its vision has expanded, and more people in need–people with so much to offer–have come into its view.

I can’t promise that we will find a young man like Olly Neal and put a book in his hand.

But I can promise that for a few days, a group of us will make time and space and energy for people who are waiting to be seen.

With God’s help, we will do the work of suspending our own expectations and open ourselves up to seeing the people with something a little closer to the eyes of God.

Kristof and WuDunn’s book is titled, A Path Appears.

With the grace of God, may a path appear for all of us.

Amen.

Newsletter: “Waiting at the Airport”

Dear Friends of Second Church,

I’m eyeing the reports of the approaching snow Nor’easter (is that a S’noreaster?), keeping in mind the departure of our group for Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi, early on Sunday morning.

I’m due to follow a little later on Sunday afternoon, but remembering the way things at airports can get turned around by weather, I had the sudden, horrible thought:

“Yikes! What if I actually get there before the others do?”

That actually happened to a friend of mine, who was meeting his family somewhere warm for a short vacation. Instead of being picked up at the gate, as expected, he turned on his phone to discover that the others were all still sitting at the gate at O’Hare.

With nothing but time on his hands, he went and had a steak at the airport. Then he had a fancy dessert. He got a massage at one of those micro-spas, and was actually considering getting his first pedicure before he came to himself and decided to make himself useful by going and picking up the rental car—a predictably time-consuming fiasco for which he was suddenly strangely grateful.

Funny what can become a cause for gratitude, isn’t it?

But it’s also a reminder of how strange it is to be alone—how solitude (the good version) and loneliness (the bad one) are often far closer to each other than we might imagine—and how even a short respite from the expected routine can leave us surprised to discover how quickly we feel isolated and adrift.

It’s a brief taste of the feelings that many of the most vulnerable in our world know all too well.  To be sick, or in hard circumstances isn’t painful in just one way–say, physically, or even economically. What’s painful is the loss of friends and neighbors, family and coworkers, and the slow dawn of the realization that you have, somehow, become a pariah.  Or simply invisible.

For me, service trips like ours to Biloxi are so powerful, in part, because we offer so much more than just “cheap labor” wherever it is we go. We offer fellowship and community—the sense of God’s presence that comes when someone breaks through the isolation of another and finds a way to make contact. And of course, so often, we find in the giving that something isolated deep within ourselves is also opened and healed—that God has found a way to speak to us in our own brokenness, too.

I am delighted that we are resuming a form of adult ministry that, over the years, so many of our members have found so transformational. I still pray that God will not ask me to be the one who picks up all the rental cars. But who knows? Maybe this is the very kind of transformation I might need.

I hope that you will find a way to remain open to whatever it is that’s most in need of transformation in your own life—and that you’ll seek that transformation in service to others.

See you in church,

Sermon: “Torn Open, By God” (Mark 1:4-11)

(This sermon was preached for Day 1 Radio on January 11, 2015.)

Sometimes, I wish it were harder to join the church.

I mean, honestly, sometimes I think it’s harder to get a membership at Costco than it is to become a Christian.

That’s a bad thing.

It’s bad, specifically, because if the church is easy to join, then any notion of the responsibilities of membership can just fly right out the window.

Sometimes, talking about what it means to be part of the whole Christian enterprise can start to sound like that part in a car commercial where the announcer starts talking legalese at a thousand miles an hour.

Baptismisterrificbutpleaseplanontithingattendingandexperiencingregularfrustrationanddiscomfort. BeadvisedthatChristmasEveandEasterSundaycomeonlyonceayearrespectively. 

Who can blame people for just tuning that part out?

And so, I can’t help but wish that joining up—signing on the dotted line—were understood to be a much bigger commitment.

That has me thinking about baptism.

What if….

What if instead of a little chaste sprinkling of water on the forehead, or even a full immersion on the banks of a local river, or something in between…what if the only way to join the church was by skydiving?

The very idea makes my stomach do backflips.

But think about it.

Free fall, then the rip cord, and then a gentle floating down to the ground.

I mean, what’s not theological about that?

Because what are the reality of sin and redemption, the dangerous thrill of falling, the great vista of salvation, and the recognition that our lives are not really in our own hands, if they aren’t like skydiving?

Stay with me a moment here.

Because imagine what it would mean to go through that experience, with its terrors and rushes and its ultimate relief—and then to show up at church on Sunday, to be greeted by a room full of people who had been through all of that, too?

Think how you would see them all, as you walked in and found your pew: the older couple that sits up front and always shares a hymnal; the super-cheery soprano, and the lady who always takes more than her fair share at a potluck; the guy who circles typos in the bulletin every Sunday; and the guy who only seems as if he comes because his deceased wife liked it, and he may or may not miss Jesus, but he knows he misses her.

Think how you would see them all–the heavy, the creaky, the busy, the young and the old, the happy and the sad; the people you will find in every church on any Sunday—think how you would see them all, if being baptized meant that at some point, however many years before, they had each had that day—that day when they had somehow summoned enough courage to leap out into thin air and into the hands of God….

Think about it, because when Mark’s Gospel describes the Baptism of Jesus, it’s that kind of radical act that he seems to have in mind.

Mark writes that as Jesus “was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and a dove descending.”

His word for ‘torn apart’ is schizo, and it means “to cleave, to cleave asunder, to rend.”

It’s a strangely violent word to describe such a happy occasion.

The way we tend to talk about baptism, it would have made more sense if Mark talked about the dove, gently cooing, or perhaps fluttering over the surface of the waters.

But that is not how he talks about it.

Instead, he talks about the heavens, schizo, torn apart.

It’s the word Matthew, Mark and Luke all use to describe that moment on Good Friday when the curtain of the temple is torn in two.

It’s the word John uses when the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross determine not to tear Jesus’ garment and divide it between them, but to cast lots for it, instead.

It’s a word with resonances in the prophecies of Isaiah, too, particularly when Isaiah says to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” (Isaiah 63:19).

Mark understands very clearly that in Jesus, this is exactly what has happened.

And this is why, in his judgment, the baptism of Jesus is so very clearly a radical act.

In Jesus, God has committed the act of breaking and entering the world, and Mark wants the world to know.

And yet…how much of God’s active interest in us are we really prepared to admit?

Because, good heavens: if we took them seriously, our baptisms might just tear our lives apart, too.

I mean, if our final and deepest allegiance is to Jesus, to the life he has called us to lead, and to the manner in which the Gospels show he has called us to lead it, well, then…that is sure to bring not peace, but a sword to plenty of our living.

It will bring not peace, but a sword, to so much of what the world says our days should be about.

It will bring not peace, but a sword, to so many of our relationships, to our allegiances and affiliations, and so much else.

That’s not what many of us are looking for.

But if God has broken through the barrier, and broken into our lives, then what ensues is not something simpler and easier for us, but rather something infinitely more complex and urgent.

Baptism means that God has broken through, and so we, in turn, are called to tear into the challenges and problems of the world with everything we’ve been given.

It’s a summons to be part of that remarkable, redemptive work. To give our lives to something more challenging than any other kind of work—and in the end, surely more beautiful, true, and enduring than any other kind of work.

Jesus came up out of the waters, and perhaps that is what he saw.

A vision of God, and a vision of what it was to be alive that he could give his life to.

Thanks be to God, that’s also what your baptism and mine were pointing to…and it’s what they are still pointing to.

No matter where you are baptized…whether it’s in front of the same font where your grandmother and mother were baptized, or whether it’s by the banks of a river, or whether it’s standing in the sanctuary of a place where even you can hardly believe you’ve found a home…no matter where it is, the water and the promise and prayer take just a few moments.

But truly saying yes to our baptism is the daily work of the rest of our lives.

It is saying yes to the world, and yes to a life torn open by the love of God.

So…I suppose it’s unlikely that we’ll decide anytime soon to replace baptism by water and the spirit with baptism by gravity and parachute.

But the next time you walk into a church, and encounter God’s people there in all our familiar shapes and sizes, remember that what unites us all is something God’s Word tells us is even more electrifying.

In baptism, the heavens themselves were torn apart.

And when we experience that for ourselves, when we know that for ourselves, and feel it on our hearts at last, it is the thrill of a lifetime.

It is when everything finally begins.

Amen.

Sermon: “The Troubling Star” (January 4, 2015)

(This sermon was preached at Second Congregational Church of Greenwich, and also on Day1 Radio)

We’ve come to love the Christmas star so much.

Even in the weeks before Christmas, you start seeing it everywhere.

It’s on bulletin covers and Christmas cards and the stole hanging around the preacher’s neck.

A Christmas crèche may be part of your home or your church decorations, or it may not be…maybe your kids live halfway across the country, so you’re leaving the stockings off the mantle this year, but by Herod’s beard, you almost certainly have a star.

Quite often, it’s at the very top of the tree—the highest point in the living room.

I remember the year when I was a kid, taking part in my Confirmation class, and I noticed for the first time that the starlight pictured on most of our Christmas cards was in the shape of the cross—a quiet reminder of what is to come—the silent night at what seems to be the end of the story.

That was my first encounter with the possibility that, if you think about it, there can be something ominous about the Christmas star.

So it’s interesting to note that Matthew’s gospel seems to agree.

In a passage that some churches will read today and others will read on January 6th, which is Epiphany proper, Matthew describes the encounter between the wise men and King Herod.

This is what he says:

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’”

Then Matthew continues with these words:

“When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.”

And I can’t help but wonder if King Herod, who, of course, gets so much so very wrong, actually gets at least part of this news strangely right.

Because at least, he understands that this rising star is big news. And he also recognizes that it is not good news for him.

But Matthew is quick to note that this goes beyond what some have seen as Herod’s chronic “me me me”-ism.

And it’s also somehow beyond Herod’s brutal collusion with the forces of empire, with its reflexive use of violence to promote its particular interests.

Because, as Matthew notes, Herod isn’t the only one who looks at that star and sees something ominous hanging there.

All Jerusalem agrees with him.

That star is bad news.

We forget that for most of human history, most people would have agreed.

The ancient historian Josephus noted that a star stood over the city of Jerusalem just before its fall in 70 AD.

And there were many who thought that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD had been caused by a comet.

Likewise, the appearance of a star in the sky over England in 1066, just before the Battle of Hastings, was seen as a dark omen of what was to come.

In 1835, some people apparently even blamed a star for the fall of the Alamo.

So when we hear that Herod was frightened, “and all Jerusalem with him,” it makes sense.

Because, hey, when the heavens themselves begin to defy prediction, then there is no telling what might happen.

Who knows what other constellations might collapse—constellations of power, constellations of privilege, constellations of the possible and the impossible, of what we can imagine and what we’ve come to expect?

If all that collapses, where will that leave us? Who among us can say for sure that it will be better?

If everything changes, how will we know what to do?

That goes for Christians, too.

We Christians have always talked a good game about praying and working for the new.

“For behold, I saw a new heaven and a new earth….”

“Behold, I am doing a new thing…. “

“And he that sat upon the throne said ‘Behold, I make all things new.’” (Revelation 21:5)

“Therefore, if anyone be in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” (2 Co 5:17)

So much of our God-talk points to the renovating power of God in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.

But is that really what we’re seeking?

Sometimes when we speak of the new, I think what you and I mostly mean is something more along the lines, not of “new,” but more like “improved.”

So often, it seems as if we pray only for a vaguely optimized version of the here and now.

The fact is, much of the time, even faithful people can’t imagine a world that is much different from the one we already have.

And that’s the point: of course we can’t. We can’t. But God can. And God is longing to show us that vision, which is a vision for us, and for those we love, and for all people, and all Creation, and all time.

God is longing to make us part of something that goes far beyond our shallow invocations of our hope in the new.

It seems important to name that as we begin another year, and we are thick in the season of New Year’s resolutions.

There is something so lovely, even holy, about naming our hopes for our lives, even when they are small.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen people quit smoking on the strength of a New Year’s resolution; I’ve seen someone go from sitting on their couch to running a half-marathon on the strength of a New Year’s resolution; I’ve seen someone finish a long-abandoned degree on the strength of a New Year’s resolution.

These are all brave and holy acts, in their way.

But fundamentally, what makes them holy is that each one is not an end in itself, but rather, a new beginning.

These steps toward a different future may be small, or incremental, but they are not paltry or shallow, because they are the first steps toward the new—the first steps toward a future that the dreamer can’t quite see, but which the dreamer faithfully pursues, just the same.

Let’s also not forget that they require tremendous trust—trust that the strength to see them through is there to be found, trust that it will get easier, trust that setbacks aren’t the end of all our good intentions if we don’t let them be.

Learning that kind of trust can mean nothing short of learning to see the world in a whole new way—and to see ourselves in a whole new way.

Sometimes, it’s nothing short of learning to live in the light of a new star.

In a very different context, the business writer Rosabeth Moss Kanter has written, “Success and failure are not events. They are trajectories.”

That’s true of resolutions, too.

More deeply, it’s true of God’s engagement with us, and with all Creation.

And that’s what Herod and Jerusalem began to see as they looked out in the night sky and saw a new star blazing just above them.

That star was on a trajectory so broad that it was on none of their maps.

And it showed them, to their horror, that God’s vision for Creation is on a trajectory so broad that what we think we know, what we think we understand about how things work, is just the beginning of what’s out there.

There is so much more in store for us. Thank God there is.

When Herod saw that star, all he could manage to see was bad news.   But the point is that it’s good news.

Truth be told, it’s the greatest news there is.

So, as a new year begins, as we move from a season of taking stock and move into a season of taking action, we are invited to push beyond all the old rules, and all the expectations of what can and can’t, what should and should not be.

We’re invited to acknowledge our fears, and indeed, it’s important that we do—but we’re invited even more urgently to push past them, and to imagine what it might mean to live in the light of that new star.

For the broken-hearted, the broken down, and the plain, old flat broke – for all the ways that brokenness in all its forms can shrink our world until it has no room for anything but pain and worry – the light of that new star reveals a path back to the world.

For the victims of injustice and oppression, the victims of those subtle and the not-so-subtle exclusions that some know all too well and others seem as if they cannot see at all, the light of that new star is a reminder, as the old song says, that change is gonna come.

For those who are afraid to attempt new things – too afraid of who might see, too afraid of who might laugh, too afraid of the smirk, the diminishing comment, or the raised eyebrow, the light of that star reveals a gallery of other faces, eager to cheer, eager to help, and undertake the journey, too.

Whatever our fears may be, Epiphany reminds us that we can live our lives in a new light.

Epiphany reminds us that Jesus, the light of the world, has arrived in all his rule-breaking, table-turning glory, helping us to see all things, and even ourselves, in new ways.

It is the greatest news that ever was, is, or shall be.

“Take heart,” he says, “It is I; have no fear.”

May you and I always seek to live in the light of his promise.

 

Amen.

Sermon: “So That’s That” (Galatians 4:4-9)

Unwrapped Christmas Presents

When I was a kid, Christmas morning always went the same way in my family.

I’d get up around 5:00 a.m.  Maybe 5:30.

Unfortunately, my parents would not.

You see, for all the years when it counted most, we went to “The Nutcracker” at Lincoln Center on Christmas Eve, and so, by the time we got home, it was always well after midnight, which even then was well past their bedtime – and so they were firm in their commitment to a Christmas morning that began no earlier than 6:00 a.m.

Now that I’m a parent, myself, I understand this.

But when I was small, this meant the longest half-hour of the year, while I sat in bed, waiting to hear the sound of my mother brushing her teeth.

That wasn’t easy.

But it was just the beginning.  You see, as I got older, they added certain…conditions…to their 6 a.m. wake-up call.

They were willing to get up at six.  But.

But the coffee had to be ready.

But the tree had to be plugged in.

But the radio had to be on WQXR—“The Radio Stations of the New York Times”—and not on some sort of “Jingle Bell Rock” type station, which is what I liked, and it had to be playing no louder than “4,” which was too soft for me.

But the wood needed to be brought in for the fire in the fireplace.

If you had happened by our home sometime around seven, with everyone in their bathrobes and slippers, opening presents, nursing a mug of cofee with a cheery fire blazing and a little soft music in the background, you would have thought we were something out of the Ozzie and Harriet family Christmas album.

But at ten before six…trust me, I thought it was something out of the opening scenes of “Cinderella.”

There was a year when a faint dusting of snow had fallen overnight, and I remember hoping that nobody would much notice it until we were opening presents, because I was convinced that my father would have me out there, shoveling.

That was a ridiculous thing to think. You could have cleared a path out there with a Dustbuster. More importantly, my father wasn’t like that. But I did think it.

Even so, Cinderella or not, we always had a great Christmas.  Nothing over the top, but I always got what I most wanted and plenty of other things, besides.

But our family was small, just the three of us, and so no matter how slowly we went, or how many times there were refills on coffee, or a break to try on something to see if it fit, it just didn’t take very long to open our presents.

And I remember one Christmas, when I was coming to the end of my pile of gifts, and I actually thought to myself, “I can’t believe it is 365 days until next Christmas.”

I’m sure, somewhere, the ghost of R.H. Macy must have smiled when he heard that.

II.

Christmas never lasts quite long enough, does it?

In my family, the wrapping paper came right off of the present and went straight into the fire, and so it didn’t take long before festivity and mystery and possibility had silently slipped back up the chimney, and three neat little piles of things, one for each of us, had taken their place.

Christmas began at 6:00.  The vacuum cleaner was back in the closet by 10:00.

By New Year’s Day at the latest, our tree was at the curb, and the ornaments were back in the basement for their eleven-month nap.

And so, as early as Christmas day itself, as the dawn’s early light gave way to the fuller light of day, the world as we knew it had already started to return, and if we were a little richer for it, then clearly, we were also a little poorer for it, too.

It was almost like a lunar eclipse—here only for a moment.

So much of the pleasure of Christmas is the pleasure of anticipation.

Giving and receiving are like that.

But you know, as I think about it now, something else occurs to me.

We loved each other too much to ever ask the question aloud, but it wouldn’t have been out of place to wonder if something as brief as Christmas could really make a difference in our lives—or if it could really make a difference in our common life as a family.

There are a lot of ways to answer that question.

It was precious time spent together.  It was a way to show how much we loved one another, and how carefully we studied one another to figure out each person’s “perfect gift.” Its rituals were good for us and made our family stronger.

That’s all true.

But it’s still hard to put your finger on exactly what kind of difference it made.

III.

 In our Scripture this morning, Paul is asking a similar question.

Our reading from his letter to the Galatians is by no means a “classic” Christmas text – there is no mention of the manger, nor of the shepherds, nor of the wise men.

He is speaking theologically—philosophically—rather than telling a story the way the Gospels do.

But he is eager to tell us what Christ’s coming meant—what it means—and so he writes:

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his son, born of a woman, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Galatians 4:4-5).

Then he goes on to say: “Because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a child, and if a child, then also an heir, through God.”

Paul wants us to understand that the coming of Jesus represents a new possibility for us – that we will be no longer slaves of the old world, but adopted children, even heirs of God, which is the remarkable promise of the incarnation, and why we faithful people are supposed to be singing “joy to the world, the Lord is come.”

After all, if you trust that promise, what greater joy could there possibly be?

But then it turns.

After reaffirming the promise, Paul asks two pointed questions of the Galatians.

He writes: “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?” (Gal 4:9-10).

And I want to pause there, because Paul is asking our very same question about Christmas.

Given that Jesus came, he suggests, what difference did it make?

The gift has been sent, and the gift has been opened.  Now what?

Is it just business as usual? Or has something truly changed about us, and the world, and where we go from here?

Will we move forward…go on our way rejoicing, like the shepherds, or home by another way, like the magi….or will we turn back to what he calls “the weak and beggarly elemental spirits”?

The poet W.H. Auden, at the opening of his poem “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” puts it this way:

Well, so that is that.  Now we must dismantle the tree,/Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –/Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic./The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,/And the children got ready for school….  

Once again/As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed/To do more than entertain it as an agreeable/Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,/Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,/The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.

The poem goes on from there.

But its opening lines recall Paul’s questions: Is that all we are to be? Are we no more than promising children who cannot keep God’s word for long?

Paul knew that, despite all appearances to the contrary, something truly was different.

He saw that something had permanently shifted as the world stood in the light of Christmas.

Something had changed.

IV.

 Friends, in the light of Christmas, we see that God has given us his own self.

Will our lives show that we’ve been changed or not?

That is the real question of Christmas morning.

Sometimes, as we stand there among the gifts, and the breakfast plates, and the wrapping paper all in a pile all over the place, it seems ungracious to wonder what’s next.

But it is not.

Making sure our lives speak is the only way to live in the light of grace.

It is the only way to show thanks for the very greatest gift that was, is, or ever shall be.

Sermon: “Transforming Christmas” (Luke 2:1-14; Isaiah 9:2-7)

candles

It’s always so wonderful to see the sanctuary so blessedly alive as it is on Christmas Eve.

Some people are dedicated, eight o’clock service kind of people, and we expected you, and here you are, and we love that.

Others here are the kind who get everyone motivated and come with a whole pew’s worth of companions, sort of like modern-day shepherds, and of course, we love that, too.

And then some of you are people who managed to slip away from wherever you were and come to church.

At this very moment, back at your house, they still may not even know you’re gone.

We promise we won’t tell.

Sneaky devotion is a much bigger part of the Christian tradition than you’d ever believe, from the catacombs of ancient Rome to the house churches of modern China.

We love knowing that we may be just counter-cultural enough that someone still sees us as a secret to be kept, a people too scandalous to know.

But whether you have been long-planning to come or just find yourself here right now because you were driving by, you’ve come because tonight is the night when we tell the story.

We’ve been building up to it for weeks now—all around the world, we’ve been building up to it.

All around us at this time of year are reminders that Christmas touches us in ways that no other season quite does.

It speaks quite deeply to us to see lights in darkness, and greens indoors, and wreaths with red ribbons on doors—it’s as if the world decided to dress up for the occasion, and to make the kind of effort that is harder and harder to make these days.

We may not do it in other times of the year, but we’ll do it for Christmas.

II.

It’s one of the ways that we show that there is life in us yet—and memory, too.

The memory of Christmases past, maybe, when for so many people, the world seemed to come alive and there was so much celebrating to do—so much cooking and singing and zooming around after this or that.

Is that how you remember it?

So many people will look back and recall that there was just so much that went into it…that you could not help but get caught up in the rhythms of it…that you could not help but be delighted to see so many others you might not otherwise expect get caught up in it, too.

After all, if Ebenezer Scrooge could come around and get into Christmas, how could it be any surprise that others did too: the old lady in the apartment down the hall, who seemed to disapprove of children, making gingerbread men for your family, or a city bus driver, improbably wearing a Santa hat, or your grouchy and impatient great-grandfather, smiling as you brought him egg nog?

That might have been a long time ago, in a world we’ve long-since left.

But almost like veterans, squeezing into an old uniform on the morning of Memorial Day, we remember at Christmas—we remember, and we honor, and we try to be true to the memory of that other, bygone world.

And so, here we are, all these years later.

And if now the blazer has gotten a little snug, or if words were exchanged as you realized you were running a little late—if you discovered that, yet again, your brother-in-law has inattentively blocked in your car—or if your children have come home and were actually telling you about their lives, and in this great moment, out of the corner of your eye, you saw that your husband was discreetly checking his Blackberry and missed the whole thing—well, nevertheless: here we are now.

And may we each, in our way, find some way to connect with those Christmases past, and bring some of their warmth, and their surprise, and their belief in the capacity for deep transformation into our hearts and into our lives, not only tonight, but in the days to come.

Or maybe that’s not how you remember it.

Maybe as you look back, Christmas has always been at the center of a harder season—a time when tensions always used to boil over, or a time when all the things that weren’t right managed to engulf the few that were, and so, even now, even removed from all that, the cheer and the sentimental talk about togetherness gets hard to take.

That’s a Christmas prayer for transformation, too. A prayer to let our pain go, to travel lighter, to find the energy to follow a star rather than stay hunkered down in the darkness.

That’s a different kind prayer for deep transformation. But a prayer just the same.

And I think that has its place at Christmas, too.

III.

Because that’s what the Christmas story is, of course.

It’s a story of deep transformation.

It begins with a world where hope has come to be in short supply and says that God is present in it, and that, therefore, hope should be, too.

It begins with a world where so much is wrong that it seems as if nothing could ever be put right, and says that God insists that, indeed, it can be put right, and if we will but follow Him, it will be put right.

It begins with a world that looks to appearances and to worldly power, and sees them full of selfishness and danger, and says that God is the antithesis of all of that—and yet that it is He who saves and nothing else.

That world, of course, doesn’t sound all that different from our own.

Maybe that gives us pause.

The Christmas story is an old, old story now—and yet it seems as if the world has not particularly changed in its wake, or at least, not as much as predicted.

Last week, I read an editorial that said, “Twenty-five years ago, Christmas was not the burden it is now. There was less haggling and weighing, less quid pro quo, less fatigue of body, less wearing of soul; and most of all, there was less loading up with trash.”

And I thought: RIGHT ON.

And then I looked a little more closely, and realized the editorial was written in 1904.

Our problems are not new.

IV.

And yet, the claim of Christmas is that, even if the problems and shortcomings of the world have not particularly changed, neither has the solution.

The love and presence of God are here for us to claim.

The deep transformation that God offers us, and that God offers the world in Jesus are still before us.

In the eyes of Scripture, Christmas was not simply an event that happened; it was a force that was permanently unleashed.

At the other end of the story, this becomes clear.

After Good Friday and Easter, Luke describes the day of Pentecost, saying: “They were all together, when suddenly there came a sound from heaven like the violent blast of wind, which filled the whole house where they were seated. They saw tongues like flames distributing themselves, one resting on the head of each, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit…”(Acts 2:1-4).

The story that Luke begins with the sudden pop of the star, appearing in the fields over Bethlehem, announcing the birth of the savior, he continues with sudden wind of the Spirit filling the lungs of God’s people to proclaim and enact the message.

We all know that, at Christmas, Heaven and nature sing; Scripture wants us to understand that they’ve never stopped singing, that at Christmas, something decisive, something permanent came into the world, and it has never left.

A force was permanently unleashed, and that force has never subsided, and while its work is far from finished, its power is beyond anything that human ingenuity could ever control, much less stop in its tracks.

And thank God for that.

V. 

The question for us tonight is, can you and I feel that force?

Veterans of the story that we are, can you and I kneel before the manger…not because we have all the answers…and certainly not because we’re perfect—but precisely because we don’t have all the answers and are still working on being the people we hope to become?

Doesn’t God’s dream for us, and for the world, come alive somehow at Christmas, in ways that we can still feel, that still pull at us—in ways that still push us?

I think it does.

Somehow, in these days, it seems easier to feel how God keeps calling out to us—because the power of the Christmas story still has some sort of claim, some kind of toe-hold on our inmost selves.

So much in our world speaks to our heads, but in our hearts, few of us who gather on a night like this can fully deny that claim.

Because tonight, somehow, we still feel that force—that force, pulsing through this old story, and that force, deeply alive in our hope for a world renewed, redeemed and at finally peace with itself.

Tonight we embody the community of those who live in the light of that story, as surely as the magi lived their lives in the light of that Bethlehem star.

Deep transformation is still possible. For us, for the world—indeed, for every dark corner of the globe and the even darker corners of the human heart, deep transformation and the healing love of God are still possible.

The star still shines, and the wind still blows.

Isaiah puts it this way:

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever” (Isaiah 9:6-7).

And at Christmas, through the grace of God, somehow we know in our bones that it is so.

May we carry the knowledge with us tonight, and all our days.

Merry Christmas, one and all.

Sermon: “Mary’s News” (Luke 1:26-38)

annunciation

Last week, I tuned into the concluding episode of a five-episode reality t.v. show called, “The Sisterhood.”

I’m sorry to say it, but I don’t think it’s destined to be a big network phenomenon, like, say, “Survivor” or “Honey Boo-Boo.”

You see, “The Sisterhood” chronicles the ups and downs of a group of young women who are thinking of becoming nuns.

Now, I can’t say for sure just how much reality there is to this reality t.v. show.

It seems to me that it must be hard enough to find five young women who are actively considering becoming nuns; however, finding five particularly telegenic young women who are also interested in becoming nuns must be even harder.

Some had clearly been feeling a pull toward religious life for many years, while for others it was a more recent feeling, and so they began this period of close discernment in very different places.

Almost all of them came from large, close, and deeply religious families—the kind of families where dad stood and offered a formal blessing when it was time to drive to the convent, and the parents shared their long-held hope that God would call at least one of their children into formal religious life.

My favorite part of the whole thing was watching each—contestant doesn’t seem like the right word…but…well, contestant—arrive at the convent, and having the sisters come out to greet them.

The sisters were unfailingly kind and welcoming. And they sized up each young woman in about ten seconds. Charitably, of course. But dead-on accurately.

In the end, as the sisters clearly anticipated, some of the young women decided that being a nun was not for them. More than one felt in all sincerity that Jesus was asking her to come and be his bride. And some realized they still needed more time.

But what was fascinating was watching them return home to share the news, whatever it was, with their families.

And I was actually quite surprised that the ones who had the very hardest time were the ones who felt the clearest call.

One mother burst into tears and blurted out, “But now you’ll never live down the street and let me take care of your babies!”

And one father, after responding to the news with a prolonged, and ominous silence, finally said, “It seems to me that this is all pretty sudden, wouldn’t you say?”

These reactions were surprising, and yet: what parent doesn’t understand, at least a little bit?

Because teaching our children to love and follow the Lord is one thing, but seeing them love and follow the Lord right out the door and out of our lives is something else, entirely—and it calls for a very different kind of faith.

II.

The Bible doesn’t tell us how Mary’s parents responded when she told them the news that she was with child, and that the child was not the product of some youthful indiscretion, but rather a unique sign of divine favor.

But it isn’t hard to imagine her father responding a little bit like the father I just mentioned…responding with a prolonged, ominous silence and then saying “It seems to me that this is all pretty sudden….”

Because it is sudden.

It must have been sudden for all of them.

We often forget that—we who live on the other side of the resurrection, when the great role that God asks this young girl to play in His plan seems like the ultimate low-risk/high-reward kind of proposition.

We forget how suddenly Mary is thrown into this whole thing.

Generations of artists have treated her with kid gloves – depicted her as a renaissance lady, with a royal blue cloak and alabaster skin and a great open, oval face, and a serenity about her that is as deep as the ocean.

According to Luke, the angel appears and says to her: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!”

And then Luke says, “But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”

And that sounds so…grounded…doesn’t it?

But if you look a little closer, it’s clear that this moment is way beyond “perplexing” for Mary, who would have been in mid-teens at this time—in our culture, she would be considered still very much a girl.

Luke’s word for “perplexed” is diatarasso, and it means, actually: “agitated greatly” or even “troubled greatly.”

And while we’re looking up words, it’s important to note that when Luke says that Mary “pondered what sort of greeting this might be,” the word for ponder, dialogizomai, means “bringing together different reasons, revolving something around in one’s mind.”

It’s not a word that particularly suggests serenity—it’s more of a word for a mind that’s suddenly thrown into overdrive—a word for those arguments you have with yourself when you’re trying to get to the bottom of something and don’t know quite where or when it is you’ll come down.

And yet, the remarkable thing, of course, is that for all her agitation, for all her mind spinning, for all the suddenness of this breaking news from the messenger of God, this girl Mary doesn’t say no, and she doesn’t say that she needs more time to discern.

She says yes to God.

For all her questions, for all her doubts, for all the sheer surprise of the whole thing, for all her youth, she still says yes.

III.

And yet: don’t you wonder what her parents said when they found out?

I do.

I just can’t help but ask: how was it for them to learn that the God they had taught their daughter to love and follow was telling her to love and follow him right out their front door?

Did they think that God worked that way?

Or were they more like the kind of people who expected religion to be about tartan skirts, and not wearing makeup, and obeying your mother and father? Or about cultivating a kind of unobjectionable goodness, or acquiring a confirmand’s knowledge of the basics so that religion would, well, have its rightful place in her life, and her life would have its rightful place in the eyes of all the neighbors, going forward?

Is that who they were?

If so, then what was it like to see God leading her right out of the respectable world of Nazareth and forward into who knows what?

Luke’s gospel never explains it, but Luke writes this in the very next two verses after this morning’s lesson: “Soon afterwards Mary set out and hurried away to a town in the uplands of Judah. She went to Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth” (Luke 39-40).

And we’re never told if this is was because Elizabeth was also with a child, conceived under miraculous circumstances…or if the reason was simply that Mary’s parents could not handle what God had handed them. Could not handle the sidelong looks. The smirks. The lively conversation among the neighbors that suddenly went silent as they walked by.

So, in the wake of Mary’s news, it seems all but certain that there would have been plenty of agitation in addition to hers, and at least two other people in her house whose thinking was also suddenly thrown into overdrive.

I’ve mentioned before the quotation from the philosopher William James, who once wrote, “…in some individuals religion exists as a dull habit, in others as an acute fever” (from The Varieties of Religious Experience).

What was it like for Mary’s parents to discover that, thanks to the intervention of God’s own angel, their daughter had caught religion like an acute fever?

Don’t you wonder what they thought? I do.

IV.

To me, that’s also why it’s so important that we tell this story now, just before Christmas Eve—just before the great celebration of God’s coming to be among us so that He might reach us, once and for all.

So that our redemption in his undying love would be secured at last.

With everything that has sprung up around Christmas, the way it often speaks most deeply to us is not in its festivity, but in its traditions, in its serenity, and in the eloquence of a silent night.

Silent nights are so powerful, and especially evocative to a people trying to make it through so many screeching days.

We are to be forgiven, I think, if part of what speaks to us so deeply about Christmas is that image of Mary in her royal blue mantle, silently…serenely…taking in the wonder of it all.

But it’s supposed to be something much deeper, and if we would truly journey to the heart of Christmas, we need to go beyond that healing silence, however much we may need, or even crave it.

We need to say yes to God, who comes to us at Christmas, who calls to us to follow him, and to help build his Kingdom—who dreams for us that as we near the end of our lives, we will be able to look back with a clear conscience and a full heart, and the sense that, when it mattered, we did our very best to follow His rules and nobody else’s.

God came down at Christmas so that you and I, and those we love, and those we seek to serve—and in the fullness of time, all people and all Creation—would catch that acute fever that Mary had.

God came down at Christmas so that for all our questions, for all our doubts, for all the sheer surprise of the whole thing, we might say yes to Him.

Take us where it may. Ask of us what He will.

God came down at Christmas so that whether our faith leads us out the door or right back in, off to the convent or onto some entirely different stage, among the respectable or the downright scandalous, all our paths would lead us back to Him.

At Christmas, we celebrate the beginning of that journey.

And we pray for the grace and courage to set out in search.