Friday, December 28, 2012

Little Brown Jobs

Christmas Eve 2012

Luke 2: 1-20

For Christmas Eve, some preachers, aware that they will get some people in church they don’t normally see (those people who come on Christmas and Easter, which we call C&E’s, or Chreasters), take two tactics; one way to go on Christmas eve is to tell the whole story of Jesus, from birth to death, and what his story means. In other words, catechism with candles.

The other way to go, it seems to me, is to assume that everyone in the church already knows the significance of the event, the date, and at least a tenuous grip on the significance. Otherwise, you would not have come out tonight.

I’m one of the latter, so no crucifixion story.

There’s a story that I learned when I lived in Texas, and I can’t remember where I learned it. I can’t remember from whom I learned it, either. But I like it a lot, so I wanted to share it.

Once there was a man. He was a good man, supported his family, worked hard, was not held up by traditional roles. So we see him silhouetted in the kitchen window of his house one windy, snowy Christmas eve. He was washing the family’s dishes after their traditional Christmas eve meal, and the rest of the family had gone off to church for services. As he washed, he absentmindedly looked out the window, seeing the barn light shine in the yard in front of the barn door.

What caught his eye was a flock of birds, nothing remarkable about them, they were what birdwatchers called LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs). They were pecking the ground under the light, and not finding much, since that was usually where the chickens would peck, too. They were hungry, they looked cold, and were dislodged by any decent gust of wind.

The man felt bad for these little insignificant birds, and dried off his hands. He went into the mudroom to get his coat and hat, a handful of chicken feed from the can by the door, and went out.

It was cold. He shivered, and he had on a coat and hat. The birds must be freezing.

He walked out the barnyard, and scattered the feed. The little birds swarmed the food and scattered it everywhere, some even blew away. Some did get eaten. But not enough to the man;s liking. He also felt the wave of heat that came off the barn, and he knew that all the horses and cows inside were making the barn nice and toasty. It would be great if he could get the LBJ’s inside. He walked back into the house, and grabbed some more feed, and began trying to set a trail for the birds from the yard to the now open barn door, which gave a brighter light.

With that light he could see that every time he tried to set a trail for the birds, they would swarm and scatter the feed, destroying every trace of a path. He tried several times, getting more frustrated every time. Then he tried to scare them into the barn, opening his coat and flapping it at the birds, trying to scare them into the barn. They flew everywhere EXCEPT where he wanted them to go. All he got was more frustrated, and a wet front to boot.

“Why can’t these birds just see what they need to survive? Why can’t they go into the barn like I want? Are there brains really so small? If I could just become a bird, I could convince them, and lead them into the barn…

And then he realized why Jesus was born.

That is what we celebrate on Christmas. We were given a fellow LBJ to follow into the barn.

Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord

December 23, 2012 Fourth Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:57-66

At this point we’ve all probably been to a concert, or a play, or a movie, so we’re all familiar with that feeling of anticipation we feel at that moment when the lights go down, the symphony has stopped tuning, or the warm up music in the area has turned off, but the performance hasn’t started yet.

That is what the fourth Sunday of Advent is. All the preparations have been made, all the players have been put into their places, but the drama has not yet started. But it’s about to.

John has been born. John has been named. He will grow up to play a specific role at a specific time, but that is in the future. It hasn’t happened yet.

When I was eight, or so, my father directed Godspell in the high school where he taught. (He taught at a high school in Napa CA that really is called Vintage High School, even now, and their colors really are burgundy and gold). I remember seeing the young man who played John, who seemed so old to me, even though he was all of seventeen, standing in a spotlight in the dark theatre, near the back doors, and doing a vocal approximation of a shofar. The he begins to sing:

Pre-hee-pare Ye the Way of the Lord, Pre-hee-pare Ye the Way of the Lord.

The fourth Sunday of Advent is just before that starts.

The curtain goes up on Christmas. And the play that teaches the world about the love of God starts then. The play that tells the world that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

Because we didn’t understand. We needed to have the Word embodied for us. Wee needed to have a human being tell us, and not just tell, but show us the love of God, and show us that someone of flesh and blood could pull it off. Emmanuel, God on Earth, yes, but also a human being who could stay connected to God. And whether we feel we can pull that off too, or not, we know now that it is our job to try. That is who Jesus is for us. And that play begins at Christmas.

May you believe what you hear in the play. May you understand that WE are to prepare the way of the Lord as well, even though the actual play happened two thousand years ago, our play is about how Jesus Christ can be born in us, and carried into the world through us.

We are now the seventeen year old boy singing in the theatre. It doesn't matter whether we can carry a tune (well, it does a little, you don’t want to say just anything, present the gospel in a way that damages the message so it’s worth thinking about) but it doesn't change the fact that this is our call. We are the feet, the hands, the mind, the eyes and the heart of God. This is our call.
Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Bravery of a Young Girl

Luke 1: 26-38

Advent 2

Now, we come to Mary. Last week, we talked about Zechariah and Elizabeth, and how the angel came to him, in the innermost chamber of the temple, and how, when he disbelieved what the angel said, he was made mute.

Now, we’re six months in-Elizabeth is six months pregnant, and Zechariah is still unable to speak. And another angel shows up.

Do you see what’s going on here? The first angel appearance was made to someone whose own husband said she was getting on in years. Now, there’s an angel again, but this time appearing to someone not much older than your average eighth grader. The culture is a little different from Mary’s time to us. Marriage at this age is not unusual. And she’s already engaged, and Joseph is a good deal older; maybe 20-25? Marriage, then was also different. Joseph and Mary are engaged, but not in the sense we understand it-they have a legal contract, and Mary is already legally attached to Joseph, but they are still living in separate homes.

The angel comes. The first thing he says is “greetings, favored one!” What’s the second? The same line every angel seems to need to deliver in these stories, the same line an angel would definitely need to deliver if one came today: “Be not afraid.”

Her response, in the Common English Bible translation, is: “She was confused by these words, and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.” Confused indeed, I think that’s being polite. Then the angel says “be not afraid!”

The angel tells her what the plan is, who the baby will be, and Mary’s response is “Um, ok, I know I’m young and all, but how am I going to carry a baby without that first bit? And the angel says to her: Remember your cousin Elizabeth? She’s 6 months pregnant. I’m sure we've got this part covered.” And Mary says “ok, let’s go!

Isn't it great to have this amazing, omnipotent God who can do thinks like give Elizabeth a pregnancy in old age; give Mary a pregnancy while still a virgin; to have all this power, but God asks first? Imagine it was Zeus: “Wham! Oh my goodness! I’m pregnant! Gee, Zeus must have been by…”

But here comes an angel, and he says to Mary “hey, we have an idea for you…” nd she says “let it be according to thy will.”

Let’s remember what Mary is signing up for. She’s 13, and she’s already engaged. And she has just agreed to carry a child. She knows what that will do to her in her society. She and Joseph are not supposed to be having relations yet. And of course Joseph is going to know it wasn't him. We know that story-he plans on divorcing her, until an angel comes to him and says, . . .yep, that’s right! “Be not afraid!”

Mary knows what she’s signing up for, and she still says yes. She knows how her family may react, she knows how her village will react, and she’s pretty sure how Joseph will react. Now, she may not know who it is she’s carrying; she may not fully understand-the Angel was pretty clear, but a few words do not explain a lifetime. She doesn't know what Jesus as the Messiah will be, she doesn't know the great and terrible events to come. However, she does know she’s going to have morning sickness; she’s still going to be breastfeeding. She knows she’s going to be raising a child, and it is not yet clear whether she’ll be doing it alone, as a marginalized single teenager, yet, or not.

And she still says yes. The bravery of a teenage girl is what we honor when we talk about Mary.

What is it that you are being asked to do in God’s name? Perhaps you have something in your heart, which calls you into a new service. Perhaps you look at your preacher, and wonder what it takes to do that? Maybe you want to change jobs, to something. Maybe you would like very much to retire, but the budget doesn't fit, or you don’t know where the money will come from. There are as many scenarios are there are people around you, plus 10-12. But we are called at time to step out in faith; to be like Indiana Jones in the third movie, when he has to get across the chasm. He has to step out into thin air, based not on what he sees but on what he knows. So he closes his eyes, steps out and…there’s the rock bridge.

As followers of Christ, this sort of faith is what we are called to do every day.

Do you have the bravery of a 13 year old girl?

Do you have the confidence in God? I betcha, somewhere, you do. It just can take some time to find, sometimes.

Think about what it is you are being called to do. Think about what it is that you could be if you followed God one step deeper.

And hear the angels’ voice say to you as well, “Be not afraid!”

And you own voice saying back “let it be according to your will.”

Monday, December 03, 2012

Patience, Grasshopper (Padawan)

Luke 1: 5-25
For Cheryl:

Advent 1

Imagine, if you will, a sanctuary like the one you worship in now, or where you may have worshipped at one time, or one you may remember seeing at a friends’ wedding. But instead of maybe their being a rail in front of the place where the preacher normally stands, or at the place where there is a step up, you see a blank wall. Inside that wall, there is still furniture and such related to worship, but you don’t know that. What you know is that there is a priest that goes behind that wall with incense at one point of the worship of God, and comes back out a few minutes later. You’re out front praying, or chanting psalms, or singing something.
Now imagine your minister (or whomever you’ve put into that role) going in, just like every other week, to do the duty of the incense, but he’s delayed in coming back out. It’s confusing, and maybe the psalms or the prayers trail off…until it’s silent.

Then the minister comes out, and its obvious something’s wrong, because now, he is unable to talk. He motions to his throat, to his mouth, his eyes are all wide, and he can’t say anything.

How weirded out would be? How would you feel? Would you be scared as you sat in that pew? Would you be irritated? Would you wonder what went on behind that wall?
When this happened to Zechariah in our story today, it was obvious to the congregation then that something supernatural had happened, but they couldn’t know what, because old Zechariah couldn’t tell them. But while they would have said something supernatural happened, we would want to send our minister to the psychiatrist. If your minister couldn’t speak, what would be the point in his or her staying in the job?

Now Zechariah’s situation is different-he wasn’t required to preach, like we are. He could perform his duties without his voice. His worship was different, in that the Temple was the only place where this worship could be performed. The only place where sacrifices could be made.

So if Zechariah comes out unable to talk, his congregation is pretty savvy, and it’s clear to them that something happened in there. It’s just not obvious to anyone what that is yet.

It’s not anyone’s radar that this is the opening step in the story that will culminate in the Messiah’s birth. That a couple, “getting on in years”, suddenly find themselves pregnant, and that this child will be the sign of who is to come after? That is TRULY not on anyone’s radar. In facts folks won’t figure that out until after Jesus is almost gone, and they start looking back at the prophecies.
There are lots of wierdnesses in the present, lots of things people don’t understand. The unknown is happening. Why are they happening? No one knows. For some people, that’s scary, and they want answers to settle their minds. Sometimes we buy into the interpretations, and the interpretations are usually wrong. Sometimes they are true, but usually not.

We’re in a time of preparation. Advent is time where we are to remember the need to sit and wait and watch. Some of my colleagues flip out a little bit when their churches want to sing Christmas carols in this time, and we know we’ve been hearing Christmas music in retail stores for weeks now.

We’re not good at waiting. We’re not good at ambiguity. We’re not good at trusting that things will happen in their time. We’re not good with delayed gratification. We can now eat Mac and Cheese in 90 seconds. Popcorn in about 2 minutes. We can download a full album of music in about 5 minutes, with a decent internet connection.

When Van Halen’s album 1984 came out, I was in high school. I had been looking forward to it for weeks, and the day it was released, I rode my bike up to the record store (Wonderland, in Newark, DE), in the rain, with a plastic bag inside my backpack, so I could buy that album on it’s release date. It was something I’d looked forward to for months, and would have gone through a wall to get it that day! I was so excited! Today, I might still be excited, I might still wait anxiously, but now I can just buy it through iTunes and never even have to get a drop of rain on me. ( Further illustration: as I was preaching this sermon at Throop UMC, I couldn’t remember the name of the album. While I continued with the sermon, one member pulled out her smart phone and Googled it for me, and was able to tell me the title of the album before the end of the sermon!)

We don’t have times of waiting and sacrifice and effort like that as much anymore. So Advent gets to be harder, and harder for us. It becomes almost a spiritual discipline to task ourselves with waiting, and watching, and praying. To actually have to wait for something; to wait for a roast in a slow cooker? To smoke a good brisket for 24? Fugeddaboutit.

But the story of advent asks us to wait. It tells us that things will become clear in time. Not now. What’s weirder is that we are waiting for something that has already come. We are commemorating events that have already passed. We know all the answers to the questions that the people in the story don’t. We are not really waiting for the baby Jesus to be born.

Advent is a time of waiting. But for us in this time, it is also a time of learning how to wait. And it is good to wait. It’s hard to l know this, hard to prove this, but it is good to wait. It is good to notice that Zechariah can’t talk. But while we will know eventually why he lost his ability to speak, it is good to not know immediately.

It’s good to let things simmer. To let things ferment. It’s good to wait.
May this Advent season teach you a lesson or two about patience.