Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Eve 2009

Philippians 2: 5-11
Luke 2: 1-20

It was rather shocking to realize what I was feeling. To admit it to myself was a little difficult, but it was undeniable.

I was sitting with Donna in the lab area of the oncologists’ office, waiting for the phlebotomist to come take a few vials from Donna to test for various things after her first round of home-administered chemo. I looked up at the television, and they had on a popular show in which a extremely politically active evangelical clergyperson and TV show host was expounding on some subject that highlighted his view that the current governmental administration and the majority view of the country was in fact evil, and evidence of the apocalypse was all around us. At least that’s what I could discern from the pictures that were flashing across, the screen, because the sound was muted.

It was shocking what I felt when I saw that face on the screen; anger and rage, and a disquieting wonder that he and I would share the same faith. We both identify ourselves as Christian. We are both white men. We both carry a book called the Bible, we both are parts of groups of people that meet in a common house on Sundays for worship. And yet our worldview could not be more different. The things he was talking about on television, the graphics behind him on the screen, I assumed automatically to be complete falsehoods, or at the very least the clever twisting of slivers truth to his personal ends.

I don’t know why I reacted this way; whether it was the surroundings, the fact that I was sitting there with my wife in such a place and confronting daily the sort of truth that makes political machinations not only irrelevant but offensive, but suffice it to say that that kind of religion is not my speed; there is no comfort in it for me as my family continues with this experience. I would not choose to be associated with this pastor and his worldview. There is nothing about what he says that builds my faith.

But, (and this I think is God talking) I remembered, standing there, that this guy and I are both going to be going to one church or another the next day, today, to celebrate the birth of the one who was sent by God for us. And I have to take a step back. We both identify ourselves as Christian. We may use different language for what we mean, but we both believe that Jesus was sent for us to know God’s love.

And that tells us a lot about God, doesn’t it? There are many groups around the world who have an understanding of the divine presence in the universe. Some others deny that it exists, on various grounds. Humanity as a whole does not hold much in common with each other. But we, the ones who call themselves Christians, talk about an Omnipotent God who sought to show his love for us, his creations, but taking off his omnipotence, and assuming a physical form that we would recognize. Living a life that begins in childbirth, just like us, proceeds through puberty and adulthood, the learning of a trade, and eventually to begin to speak to the people around him about who God really was.

We talk about it as an act of love. We talk about this choice by the Creator of the Universe as one of love, and when we read the words of the adult human he became, the words all reflect a love of the people he met. Love of both individuals and the collective group. And his teachings were nothing more than the love of the universe put to words, and individualized. It’s not enough to know that he came to earth for us. He came to earth so that each of us, individually, can know that we are loved, are known, and are cared for. It’s not enough to understand that he came to earth for us. It’s that he came to earth for you. And You. And Me. So that we can understand that to be human on this earth, to be what he designed, is to care for each other; to show each other this love when some forget, and to spend our lives showing this love to everyone we meet.

He could have come to earth like a big blue Genie and tell us all, fingers shaking in our faces, that this is how we should act. But he didn’t. Even the way he came showed that he needed to be loved and nurtured first. Because he came as a baby. A thing that needs constant care and nurture. That in itself is a message!

And we celebrate all of that on this evening. The Feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Somehow, despite my differences with the person I saw on that television, somehow I think he is probably hearing the same thing. And it’s humbling to remember that we are both responsible to care for and nurture that baby. It’s humbling to know that that guy and I somehow have to cooperate enough to keep the promise that that baby represents alive in this time and place, in this world.

And we get a fresh chance every year.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Christmas Soccer

Zephaniah 3: 14-20

On Christmas Day 1914, so the story goes, during the first winter of World War 1, there was a soccer game between the opposing armies of the German and English Armies. I know about this, oddly enough, through MTV, because of a video of the song “Pipes of Peace,” by Paul McCartney. The true story was that there were various events that happened across the trenches that first year, only some of which were games of soccer. Some armies exchanged barrels of beer, packets of tobacco and chocolate, others sang Christmas carols across the trenches, a few units took the opportunity to retrieve the bodies of comrades who had fallen in No Man’s land, and some others didn’t stop fighting at all.

The German armies erected small Christmas trees, “tannenbaum”, lit with candles on the front edges of their trenches. As the website notes, “On many stretches of the Front the crack of rifles and the dull thud of shells ploughing into the ground continued, but at a far lighter level than normal. In other sectors there was an unnerving silence that was broken by the singing and shouting drifting over, in the main, from the German trenches.”

This was a war that was to drag on for four more years, only to end in November 1918, and this event was three years before the American Army entered the war. By then, any vestige of humanity had disappeared from both sides, and a repetition of such a peaceful event became impossible. Hope had disappeared, as well. But that it happened was evidence of a spirit that could not be quenched, in the end. Hope never died, and the war did eventually end.

The biblical book of Zephaniah is believed to have been written during the reign of King Josiah of Jerusalem, who was known as the last righteous King of Judah, whose only equal or master was David himself. Josiah came to power in a very chaotic time, when people were not listening to the prophets and indeed, scholars believe, Zehaniah himself was looked down upon. To be true, most prophets were, and still are, but Zephaniah was probably ignored more than most. In the beginning of the book, he takes care to give his family tree, and it is in that place, in the name of his father, that a clue as to why he was ignored. His fathers’ name was Cushi. Those who were called “Cushites” were people who were from Ethiopia. Scholars speculate that Zephaniah’s father was of this nation, and in that time, as now, were people of darker skin than the native Judeans.

In a time of chaos and fear, as the time of Josiah’s reign were, that which is unfamilar is to be shunned. Josiah was the last righteous king of Judah, after him cameonly one or two more, degenerate and spineless, before Judah fell to the Babylonians, and was occupied, and so it would be by various armies until this century.

In a time of chaos and fear, ignorance and anger gain a foothold. The unfamilar breeds contempt and hatred. Something new, unfortunately, often brings a rise in humanity’s baser instincts, and God’s hand is often not recognized, because “we’ve never done it that way before”. But in the midst of chaos, death, ignorance, hatred and fear, peace often does still glimmer, if you have eyes to see. So it is with the Christmas day 1914 truce, and so it is with this scripture this morning, the ninth, utterance by a minor, probably minority prophet in a chaotic time.

Zephaniah’s words of prophecy are not “Woe be to those who are evil,” in this case. Instead, he holds out the hope that the Lord’s time is coming, and God will save Judah from its time of trial. He says: the Lord God is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory!” and again: “I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach from it, I will deal with your oppressors at that time.”

It is a common thing in the prophets to understand the coming savior of Israel and Judah as a military leader, one who will unite the nations of Israel and Judah, lead them to prominence, and protect them from all attacks. Only the prophet Isaiah speaks of the coming savior of the nations in any terms other than victor, military leader, or sword bearer, and that is why Christians highlight those passages of that prophet that describe the coming savior as a suffering servant, or one what will save the nations through his own pain and sacrifice.

It is in the midst of ignorance, anger and fear that the true Spirit of the Lord shines through. Some respond to chaos by withdrawing from the world, reaching back to a time that seemed less chaotic and hateful in a time of nostalgia, and erecting walls designed to protect their lives, families and property. (We see it now, as the election of a new type of American president, while definitely not anything close to a Messiah, is nonetheless accompanied by a surge in the website hits and membership increases of white supremacist groups, and the distrust of and loss of civility by those who oppose him.)

But there is another reaction; one of possibility, and the joy of what is to come. The realization by many, as Christians believe, that the world will be saved not through military might, not through the preservation of the “way things have always been”, but through the birth of a child.

The wonder of such an event, the unlikeliness of a child born in a land occupied by a foreign military force, a second class citizen, who nonetheless will save the world. We as Christians believe that the savior of the world being born as a child tells us something of the Character of God. God does not believe in military conquest; God does not believe in weapons of war and hate to achieve his ends. Because God came to us, Emmanuel, in a form that requires protection, the care of parents, and nurturing over time, we can understand that our acts of faith should be of the same nature. In the past, Christians have said “convert or die”, when it is more properly been said, by our Savior himself, as “come and see”.

The armies of Europe did not listen to that slim expression of the spirit of peace in that first Christmas of the War to end all Wars. What followed was three more years of fighting, the construction of punitive peace that bred the distress that brought a second “World War”on, and a Cold War that followed among former allies.

The voice that cries in the wilderness, the voice of that who will “ bring us home”, who will “exult over us with loud singing,” and “renew us in his love”, is a small, still voice. Sometimes that voice is nothing more than a newborn baby’s cry coming from a little cave used as a stable.

For those who have ears to hear.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Yet Another One More Chance

Psalm 25: 1-10

This is the first Sunday of Advent. Came fast, didn’t it? This is one of those years where it comes right after Thanksgiving. The secular world is on top of it, all right, because the Christmas movies started Friday. Has Magic 93 gone to all Christmas music yet?

There are ministers who will tell you that you really shouldn’t sing the Christmas songs in the hymnal until the Sundays after Christmas; that this time of Advent is a time of waiting and preparing. The church historically considered this another opportunity, like Lent, for repentance and the acknowledgement of sin. In other words, no joy till Christmas Eve. As I’ve gotten more experienced as a pastor, I’ve come to believe that it is hard to repent, and even harder to force others to. It’s not my job to require repentance, it’s just my job to provide the space and conditions, and sometimes even teach the way to a closer relationship, a closer walk with God. And it becomes very weird for me that the people who started Christmas, the Feast of the nativity of our Lord, refuse to sing the music of celebration of the birth of Jesus in the time of preparation of that feast.

There are those who would say that their relationship with God is just fine at arms’ length. You don’t ask much of God, so you don’t want God to ask much of you. After working all day, taking care of the home bills or the cooking for a family, or doing the farm chores, is there really time enough for prayer and reading Scripture? I get it—it’s an honest worry, than if you close your eyes to pray, you might just fall asleep. “I do try to be a good person, isn’t that enough?”

Enough? Enough for what? I think that deep down inside, what we want to know is where we’re going when we die. It all comes down to that. I have no idea where that minimum line is. I don’t think it is a certain number of Sundays that you’ve attended church, I don’t think it is how many lines of Bible you’ve read in a week. I don’t even think it is whether you own a Bible. The Bible is just a tool to increase your relationship with God, it isn’t anything mystical, and it isn’t like buying an insurance policy. Trust me folks, living a good life and being a good person doesn’t ward off cancer.

There is no minimum line, so I default on the Methodist attitude of the virtue of effort. What God wants, I think, isn’t three out of four Sundays in church and more than a dollar a Sunday in the plate. That isn’t what God is looking for. God wants you to listen. God wants you to reach for him (or her, whichever gender is better for your discipleship), in a meaningful way.

I think the psalm I read this morning is a good way to think about how to be with God this Advent, and perhaps even daily all year long; teach me your ways, O God, and forget the way I’ve been in the past. Isn’t that the moral of most Christmas stories? Isn’t that the point of A Christmas Carol, what most folks consider to be the best Christmas story ever? (some of you may be thinking, well, no, the best Christmas story is the story of the birth of our Savior; I would respond to you by saying that the birth of Jesus isn’t a story about Christmas. It is Christmas, and all the other stories are trying to explain the meaning of that central, core story.)

As you listen to this Psalm, what the speaker is saying is that he’s hoping for yet another one more chance. That’s our Advent hook. Advent is a time set aside for Christians to think about how they’ve been, who they want to be, and in a context of goodwill in the society they live in, when people are actually thinking about who to donate money to, perhaps for the first time all year, have the opportunity to really make changes that could last all year.

Now is the opportunity to reconnect with old friends who have drifted away; it just looks like a Christmas card.

Now is the chance to make that phone call with the family member who has driven you nuts for years. It is more easily done under the guise of a Christmas greeting.

Now is the time to send money to that charity you’ve wanted to support, but haven’t found the time.

God is constantly striving for us. God’s grace shows us that God will indeed forgive us our trespasses; we know that if we reach out to God, there will be love and grace. This year, can you reach back?

Are you ready for yet another one more chance? Are you ready to give others yet another one more chance? After all, one is being offered to you.