Monday, December 23, 2013

God With Us

Isaiah 7:10-17
Matthew 1:18-25

“Getting to the Front of the Stable”
by Ann Weems
Who put Joseph in the back of the stable?
Who dressed him in brown, put a staff in his hand,
     and told him to stand in the back of the crèche,
     background for the magnificent light of the Madonna?

God-chosen, this man Joseph was faithful
     in spite of the gossip in Nazareth,
     in spite of the danger from Herod.
This man, Joseph, listened to angels
and it was he who named the Child
Is this a man to be stuck for centuries
     in the back of the stable?
Actually, Joseph probably stood in the doorway
     guarding the mother and child
     or greeting shepherds and kings.
When he wasn’t in the doorway,
     he was probably urging Mary to get some rest,
     gently covering her with his cloak,
     assuring her that he would watch the Child.
Actually, he probably picked the Child up in his arms
     and walked him in the night,
     patting him lovingly
     until he closed his eyes.[1]

Gertrude Mueller Nelson teaches children and adults how to live with God through Jesus’ story—and how God lives with us—as a Christian educator and in her book To Dance with God.  It is a very practical book that helps parents teach their children about God’s presence in and through the realities of daily living and the unexpected surprises, happy and sad, that are part of living.  So if the events in your life feel uncertain, confusing, sad, or frightening; if there is trouble at school, or at home, or at work, Joseph’s story is a window into the way God is with us.

Joseph is our icon when things do not go as planned—when people or circumstances disappoint us.  If Joseph’s marriage had gone the way he expected, there would have been no experience with the holy—no Emmanuel, no God With Us.  Imagine the thoughts that must have gone through Joseph’s head when he found out that his intended was already pregnant with a child that was not his.  He was a righteous man, but he found a way beyond his anger and the law, which would have been having her stoned, to a more compassionate solution, sending her away, quietly—hoping that somehow secrets and rumors might eventually fade away.  Just as he had his plan in place, he had this dream in which an angel asked him to take a leap of faith and believe the unbelievable.  The angel asked him to welcome the unexpected into his life because it would not only save Mary, it would save him.    

Joseph’s response stands in stark contrast to Herod’s.  Herod would try to destroy anyone who threatened his power and authority.  Joseph decided to lay his honor and power aside in order to receive God’s presence.

God comes in unexpected ways that not only disrupt our lives, but call into question our sense of propriety and order.  For most of us, such disruption can be quite unsettling.  Our culture, including our faith, tells us what is proper and how things should be ordered.  In fact, our ordering can become an impediment.  We’ve all encountered human rules that are too rigid, for instance when we’ve tried to return an item with a receipt only to be told we can only receive store credit.  You know that the store is afraid of losing any bit of revenue.  Or maybe you’ve fought insurance exclusions and policies.  Rigid rules and policies are often a result of fear that something will be lost; some sense of order will be lost.   


But God often surprises us by demanding mercy and investment over what appears to be righteousness.  Mary and Joseph’s story is suddenly very fresh in our culture.  Those of us who have heard that our children are expecting before they are married have to learn a new kind of righteousness that is compassionate and merciful as we invest in the gift of a new life.  There is a new normal and righteousness is no longer about keeping rules, but tending relationships.  Those of us who have heard a child reveal that he or she is gay or lesbian, or discovered that for ourselves, have learned a new kind of righteousness that honors love and commitment over tradition.  Our hearts often need to be broken open before we can receive the gift of God With Us.  That breaking is never easy—it can be quite painful—but as God mends those broken places, we discover that we are stronger and more pliant.  The Holy Spirit transforms our self-righteousness into Christ-like obedience to the unconditional love of God.

Joseph is our mode in practicing God With Us in everyday life.  Joseph took action, standing between Mary and public ridicule, or worse, and very real danger.  He cared for her and provided a home for the child that she bore.  We never hear his song.  He says nothing to us.  He simply does the right thing again and again.  He listened to God’s word in a dream and never turned back.  He was faithful, even when he could not, would not know the end.   Advent is a time of waiting and watching—noticing.  How is God with us?  How are we with God?  If this is a time of uncertainty for you, know that God is With You.  If you are in a good place this season, watch and notice who needs your hands, who you needs your care.

Pray with open hands.  What am I to receive?  What am I to give?  May we learn to live with our minds, and hearts, and hands always open to the unexpected, knowing that God is With Us.

I’ll close with the ending to Ann Weems’ poem:

This Christmas, let us give thanks to God
     for this man of incredible faith
     into whose care God placed the Christ Child.
As a gesture of gratitude,
     let’s put Joseph in the front of the stable
     where he can guard and greet
          and cast an occasion glance
               at this Child
                    who brought us life.[2]

May all people be safe in our hands.

[1] Ann Weems, Kneeling in Bethlehem (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1987), 50.
[2] Ibid.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Inside Out and Upside Down

Isaiah 35:1-10    
Luke 1:47-55

Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord,
     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
who has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant.
     Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
     and holy is God’s name.
God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation.
God has shown strength with a mighty arm,
     and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
     and lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things,
     and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped God’s servant Israel,
     in remembrance of God’s mercy,
according to the promise God made to our ancestors,
     to Abraham and Sarah and to their descendants forever."
--Luke 1.46-55

“In Advent we prepare with Mary and Joseph for the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem long ago, we open our hearts for Christ to be born now in our hearts, and we await the future coming of Christ in human history. We can see such interwoven layers in Mary’s song—not only past, present and future, and mercy and strength, but also inward and outward.”[1]   Mary’s song holds tremendous power for transformation and because of the power in its words and images, it is prayed daily around the world.   Used as a template for prayer it calls us to praise and gratitude for God’s hand in our history and an open surrender to God’s will for the future.  It envisions a world restored to justice—not in some distant future or in a heavenly realm, but here and now.   “God’s triumph is a single grace with inner and outer manifestations. When we are changed, the world is changed.  God’s transformation of the world happens in our own souls as well.  Each one affects the other.”[2]

Mary’s prayer begins with turning ourselves inside out.  Our hearts beat no longer for ourselves, but for others, especially the poor and the hungry.  Dominating power is no longer a thing to be sought or grasped; in fact it will be overturned.  God will reign in our hearts and in the world.  Turning our hearts inside out changes us.  We lay all of our stuff—our desires, greed, emptiness, fear, arrogance, anger, and joy—before God to be integrated and healed.  Our focus moves outward instead of inward, toward understanding and compassion, welcoming the other into community.  Only then can we begin to see as God sees and love as God loves. 

“God upends the human power structures around us, and also within us.  If you seek hope that God is indeed changing the world, look within for evidence.  God scatters the pride in our own hearts, and brings down the powerful from our inner thrones. God lifts up what is lowly in us, and fills what is hungry in our souls.  How does God dethrone those mighty forces within you, so that God alone reigns?  How does God lift up the weak in you, and help you know your blessedness?  Nelson Mandela believed that he could never be truly free until he gave up his bitterness and left behind his hatred.[3]  We must be turned inside out before we can even attempt to transform the world. 

The good news is that restoring justice is possible.  If it is possible for people to change, it is possible for nations to change as well.  For justice to be a possibility, the power structures must change.  The power pyramid inverts.  No longer does power rise to the top in ever decreasing numbers of individuals.  Jesus demonstrated the world’s powers resting on one servant.  In other words, the wolf really must lie down with the lamb and the lamb must learn to stay and remain in community.  We must change our way of being in the world that causes enmity and strife.  The world must be turned upside down so that, in the words of Nelson Mandela, there can be “justice for all . . . peace for all . . . work, bread, water and salt for all.”[4]

“When you see this good news [of the power structures within our hearts and in the world, being upended so that justice may be restored], when you deeply trust it, you rejoice.  And then you carry it out into the world, and spread the change.  As Gandhi said, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’  Where is God calling you to bear witness to your inner transformation by outward signs?  Watch and witness.  This is Advent. Pray that you yourself may be a living sign of the coming of Christ.”[5]  I encourage you to pray with Mary every day throughout the seasons of Advent and Christmas so that her words may become your words.  And together, we can turn the world upside down.


[1] Steve Garnaas-Holmes,
[2] Ibid.
[3] “Nelson Mandela,” People, December 23, 2013, p. 63-64.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Garnaas-Holms.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Wolves, Lambs, and a Little Child

Isaiah 11:1-10
Matthew 3:1-12

    This is the Sunday during Advent when the gate crasher arrives. Here we are preparing for the birth of the baby Jesus, the sweetest time of the year when we sing our favorite carols and listen to the mystical tales of angels, shepherds, kings, and a star. We imagine donkeys and cows and baby lambs. And on the second Sunday, without fail, every year John the Baptist intrudes on our celebration. Suddenly we’re out in the scorching light of the desert sun being threatened with hell fire and brimstone—okay, John never mentions brimstone, but he does paint a pretty vivid picture of hell fire.  “You brood of vipers!” he shrieks at the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Merry Christmas. . .from John the Baptist. You don’t see him on Christmas cards. But we do see the image from the other prophet we heard this morning, Isaiah—the lion and the lamb lying side by side smiling for the camera in perfect peace—actually, that’s one of my favorite Christmas cards.
     John the Baptizer preaches and baptizes for repentance. Isaiah yearns for the peaceable kingdom in which the new king (whose coronation this was most likely written for) will rule with wisdom and righteousness. In this kingdom “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” You can’t have one prophet without the other. I’ll tell you why. One cynic has said that for the wolf to lie down with the lamb, one would need a practically inexhaustible supply of lambs. The hope for reconciliation in Isaiah demands that the wolf has to stop eating lamb. That’s a drastic behavioral change for a wolf. And the lamb would have to overcome its instinct to run and hide—again, a 180° turnaround in behavior.
    That’s what John the Baptist meant by repentance—a 180° turnaround, doing the opposite thing. People, ordinary people, were coming out to the wilderness where he was baptizing in the river Jordan. They confessed their sins and sought to have those sins washed away by the ritual cleansing John offered. He yelled at the Pharisees and Sadducees because he took issue with their spiritual arrogance and lack of remorse for behaviors about which we can only speculate. While not everything that he says is helpful, John’s genius was in offering a ritual for repentance and a challenge to change behaviors so there was evidence of true repentance. It’s one thing to say, “I’m sorry.” It’s another thing to change my behavior so that I do not injure again in the same way. Remember that a sin is not some arbitrary restriction or taboo, but something that hurts either myself or someone else.
    We often describe a fool as “one who does the same thing over and over expecting different results.” That’s what John is addressing—our very human tendency to do the same thing over and over, while hoping for different results. Apply that unrealistic hope to Isaiah’s yearning for the peaceable kingdom. We want there to be peace, the kind of peace where there are no predators, where the wolf can dwell with the lamb, where the rich do not prey upon the poor to enhance their wealth; where armies do not kill, loot, and conquer; where children are safe. We want a world free from pollution, free from violence, free from terrorism, free from hunger, poverty, disease, and addictions. Are we willing to change our behaviors to get that kind of world, or are we fools continuing to live the same way today, hoping for a different outcome tomorrow?
    I’ll be the first to admit that I am a fool. I am astonished at my ability to hope for a different outcome without changing my behaviors. I am always asking God for forgiveness and a new start without taking advantage of the new start to try a new approach. It’s like the wolf asking forgiveness for eating the lamb every night, saying, “Bring on another lamb tomorrow, God. You’ll see, I’ll be different.”
    Eric H. F. Law is an Episcopal priest of Chinese descent whose book The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb applies Isaiah’s dream to cultures learning to reside together and work side by side. He insists that in order to work with another person, you first have to understand yourself. Before there is any dialogue between cultures, individuals are required to assess the messages that they have learned through their own families and cultures. No one else is like me. No one else is like you. We heard different messages growing up. We learned how to cope differently. We have very unique personalities. If we are going to live peacefully, we have to find out who we are and how we live and be open to changing behaviors that hurt, devour, or destroy ourselves or others. How carefully we need to listen to one another to really understand. How damaging it is to make assumptions, especially the assumption that we think, perceive, feel, or act as another does.
    None of us likes change. Change is hard, but it is possible. If there is something that you would like to change in your life, concerning your health, your finances, your marriage, a friendship, the way you discipline your children, your school work, consider John’s words, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” That means that wholeness is ours to live into. Peace is already ours to live into. The power to change, to turn around, is already ours through the presence of the Holy Spirit because the kingdom of God is ours right now, right here, for the living—for “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”

In God's Peace, power and vulnerability lie together. This peace does not ignore conflict or difference; rather, in this peace the vulnerability in power and the power of vulnerability become companions. Neither threatens the other; instead, the friendship of power and vulnerability transforms expected hostilities into deep, deep peace. When we read these ancient words, we can feel it: This peace is what God means for our lives.[1]

Nelson Mandela, who died this week, was living proof that it can be done. The work is hard; the sacrifice is great; the peace is fragile. But it is possible. The vision and the promise endure. So we await Jesus' birth in Bethlehem and the final coming of Christ to transform human history—and [the lion and the lamb; vulnerability and power] are met as Christ is born in our own hearts. The world we envision is already within us. Pray for peace in the world. Pray for the healing of your own fear, and the removal of all your enmity, prejudice and division. Pray for the courage to extend grace and reconciliation to the lambs to whom you are a wolf, and the wolves to whom you are a lamb. Give thanks for the people like Nelson Mandela who shine the light of peace and justice on our path, and pray to be one of them. Welcome into your heart the little child who will lead us to the new world.[2]

[1] Pamela D. Couture, The Upper Room Disciplines 2007: A Book of Daily Devotions. Copyright © 2008/
[2] Steve Garnaas-Holmes, www.unfoldinglight, December 6, 2013.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Preparing for Peace

Psalm 122
Isaiah 2:1-5

Neither shall they learn war any more. On this first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the Christian year, we pray for peace and reconciliation among nations.  Over two and a half millennia, God’s people have longed for peace, prayed for peace, wished each other peace, and prepared for war. The children of God who call themselves Jew, Christian, and Muslim make war with each other, sometimes in the name of their God whose word declares shalom, peace, salaam. What if, instead of preparing for war, this year, we prepared for peace? What if we actually considered beating our swords into plows, and our spears into pruning hooks? Other nations have chosen not to learn war.

On the 1st of December 1948, Costa Rica disbanded its army in order to avert a civil war, but also and above all, to invest more in education and medicine, improving dramatically the standard of living of its inhabitants in less than 10 years. Disbanding the army was an initiative undertaken by President Jose Figueres Ferrer, "Don Pepe", the head of government at that time, to mark the occasion when he decided to offer the army's barracks to the national university.[1]

I know that it’s totally unrealistic to think that the United States might do the same. We are engaged in the longest war in our history. It has been incredibly costly in terms of lives lost and the irreparable damage done to our soldiers and their families as well as to our economy and our infrastructure. Our enemies have fared even worse. We take pride in thinking of ourselves as the most powerful nation in the world and even as a force for good when we act as the world’s policeman. The power of our weapons is staggering.  We are very good at war. What would it take for us to beat our swords into plows, and our spears into pruning hooks? Are we even interested?

          Violence is deeply ingrained in our culture. We love explosions and shoot outs in our entertainment. We are willing to tolerate mass shootings in schools, theaters, malls, and businesses in order to preserve our personal freedom to bear arms. We have the highest death rate by gun violence in the world, and not just by a little—exponentially higher than any other country not engaged in a civil war. What would it take for us to beat our guns into plows and pruning hooks?

          So far it’s been all bad news this morning. I’m sorry for that. Not sorry for the sermon, but deeply sorry for our reality and deeply discouraged. I honestly don’t know how we even begin to prepare for peace. Our bishop, Grant Hagiya, sent all United Methodist clergy an encouragement to endorse a statement by the Faith Action Network which is partnered with the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, asking for common sense gun reform: requiring background checks for all gun purchases. I gladly signed the endorsement. It is a first step toward peace in our homes, schools, businesses, and streets. But when asked if our congregation would endorse required background checks, I couldn’t answer. Frankly, the first question in my mind had to do with keeping peace in our congregation and knowing that we will not all agree on controversial issues. That’s odd, isn’t it, to be afraid that working for peace might disturb the peace?
Working for peace, preparing for peace, means that we have to respect each other’s views and values, and the more divergent our values, the greater our need for respectful inquiry and honest engagement. Our bishop assures us that it is completely legal for us to stand against gun violence and to encourage our congregations to sign the I-594 petitions. I do encourage you to sign the petition. And whether you sign a petition or disagree with the premise, I would love for us to have serious conversations about preventing gun violence while preserving rights to protection. I would also love for us to have serious conversations about ending wars and the possibility of disarmament. I wish that our grandchildren would not have to have these conversations. But wishing won’t achieve peace. It won’t achieve peace in our families, churches, schools, communities, or among nations.

The prophet Isaiah envisioned God
judging between the nations,
  and arbitrating for many peoples—that means working for justice.
Then they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
  and their spears into pruning hooks;
Then nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
  neither shall they learn war any more.

If we want peace, we must work for justice through arbitration. That means give and take with compromise so that both sides’ needs are met in mutuality. Arbitration requires careful listening and a willingness to share power. To prepare for peace we need to develop our listening skills. Only with deep respect and careful listening will we be prepare to negotiate and maintain peace. I long for peace. I’m willing to listen.  

[1], accessed December 1, 2013.