Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Choose Life

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Isaiah 60:1-6
Matthew 2:1-12

        So many of our Christmas traditions come from Matthew’s birth narrative.  Was Luke’s angel on top of your Christmas tree, or was Matthew’s star?  Our gift giving imitates the gifts brought to the Christ Child.  And oh, so many traditions their roots in Matthew’s story, but have spun out in ever widening interpretations until they have a life of their own.  When we watched a version of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol this season, I was struck by how beautifully it summarizes the message I’ve been working on for this morning.   The world is filled with all kinds of darkness and sorrow.  Each of us have choices to make a hundred thousand times during our lives.  We can choose to live in the dark, or worse add to the fear and sorrow, or we can bring light.   Sometimes the choice is even starker as the Deuteronimist writes, and Dickens’ ghosts demonstrate, the choice is sometimes between life and death.  In Deuteronomy we read,
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.  It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?”  Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.  But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them,  I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.  I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,  loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days.[1] 
        Darkness, death and adversity, are the result of choices.  Never before has the image of darkness covering the earth been as vivid as this year.  We have read about and seen footage of terrorist acts this year in Pakistan, Maiduguri, Copenhagen, Benghazi, Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait, Nigeria, Chad, Paris, and Cameroon just to name a few.  We hear unthinkable stories about kidnapped girls and boy soldiers.  We have seen mass shootings in our country in New Orleans, Charleston, Chattanooga, Colorado Springs, Lafayette, Harris County, Texas, Waco, Philadelphia, Detroit, Bridgeport, Roseburg, San Bernadino, and the list continues with more mass shootings than days in the year—351 shootings before the first of December.   As much as we try to deny it, death is part of the cycle of life, but violent death is a sign on the madness that feeds on dark ideology.  It comes from the decisions of individuals. 
But the scriptures tell us that the darkness does not have the last word.  Isaiah asserts, “The glory of the LORD has risen upon you.  For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.”  In the darkness of events and our questions, I’m reminded of the lights on our Christmas trees—tiny little lights dispelling the darkness.  Individuals make bad choices.  Individuals can make good choices that dispel darkness.

I am sure that our compassion and generosity reflect the goodness and the love of the God who creates and sustains life.  God’s love is like the electricity that powers the tiny lights on our Christmas tree.  Without the flow of electricity, the little lights, even though they have the potential, will not produce light that dispels the darkness.  The light of God is available to us, but Isaiah tells us that we have to arise, get up, and shine! 
        In the Christmas season, rising to the occasion and shining seems easier than usual.  On Christmas Eve we designated out offering to save lives through Imagine No Malaria.  We had an opportunity to choose life for people we will never meet.  It wasn’t as easy for the wise men in the Christmas story to choose life.  They risked their own lives by not betraying the location of the baby that they worshiped with gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.  They heeded a nebulous warning in a dream, and returned to their country by another road.  
       The psalmist prays,
Give the king your justice, O God,
    and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
    and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
    and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
    give deliverance to the needy,
    and crush the oppressor.
May he live while the sun endures,
    and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
    like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
    and peace abound, until the moon is no more.[2]
The psalmist prays that the king will arise and shine and choose life for the poor and the oppressed so that God’s blessings will flow in response.  He prays that the king will “deliver the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.”  He prays that the king will have “pity on the weak and the needy, and save the lives of the needy,” redeeming their lives from oppression and violence, because the blood of the poor and needy are “precious in God’s sight.”  The psalmist believes that God will give the king justice and righteousness so that it will flow with power to the poor and needy.  God will also give you and me justice and righteousness so that it will flow with power to the poor and needy.
        What would it be like to see that same kind of outpouring of compassion and love to those who are displaced because of violence, who are orphaned because of AIDs, who die daily because of preventable diseases caused by poverty?  How can we choose life for them?  It’s hard because there are risks involved.  There are political sides, ideologies, faith differences, cultural difference, economic factors, and sometimes corruption to contend with.  It’s dark out there.  It’s time to pack away the twinkling lights of Christmas, and allow the light of Christ to fill our minds, our hearts, and our lives so that we can be the light that shines in the darkness.  We can choose life, not just for ourselves, but for all of those whom God holds precious. 
         The message of Dickens’ Christmas Carol is to keep Christmas all year, to choose life for ourselves and others all year.  Some of you may know Howard Thurman’s poem with the same message. 
When the Song of the Angels Is Stilled
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.
−Howard Thurman 
God says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.”

[1] Deuteronomy 30:11-20, NRSV.
[2] Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, NRSV.

Christmas is a story about a star that shined in the night sky, that led the world to a refugee family in a manger, in an obscure town in the Middle East. It was a dark night but there shown a bright light, and those who saw it and followed it, witnessed God's answer to all the strife in the world today. Follow and embrace the Light and it will lead to Peace on Earth, Good will to all Creation
But for light to be effective it must glow in the dark...
The darker the night, the brighter our light must be!
Light dispels darkness!
So shine...
Glow in the dark of this atmosphere of vitriol, racism and Islamophobia
Glow in the dark of the tinderbox of eminent war
Glow in the dark of rancorous politics
Glow in the dark of hate filled religious rhetoric
Glow in the dark in your home
Glow when darkness comes on your job
Glow all around your neighborhood
Get a "glow in the dark" reputation
Glow in the presence of perfect strangers

The light is not confined to Bethlehem, for shepherds who watched by night...the lights of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas carry the same message of hope...blessed are the light bearers and Peace makers.
We are the 'glow in the dark' lights of the world!
Shine, my Beloveds Shine...

-Bishop Yvette Flunder

Monday, December 21, 2015

Heart Song

Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 1:39-55

This is our last Christmas together.  When I thought about what I would like to give you today, I knew that you have heard a hundred thousand words form me.  Deb paid me a beautiful compliment in a meeting a few weeks ago when she read a mission statement that she said I could have written.  It was grounded in how much we are loved by God.  If there is one thing I want you to hear from any sermon, it is how much you are loved by God.  Deb’s comment told me that you’ve heard me.  So I decided to share with you some of the words I love, words that feed my soul, that inspire me, and that make my spirit dance.  What you will hear this morning are mostly not my words, but on this day when we hear Mary’s heart song, I want to share some reflections on her song that make my heart sing.
But first, since I think it’s often hard for us to hear the scriptures as a love song, I thought we could hear Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s classic love poem, “How Do I Love Thee?”  Could you hear these words as God’s love for you and yours for God?

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, -- I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! -- and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

If I could tell you one thing . . .
The Christian faith is not a system of ethics, although ethics or right living is central to our faith.
It is not a philosophy of life, although faith is about every part of our life and the way we understand our being.
The Christian faith is an epic love story between God and humanity.  The Creator of the seas and mountains and stars loves you and me with a passion that is searching and constant.  According to theologian Ed Foley, “The scriptures are the narrative of God’s relentless pursuit of us.  At its core, this is a narrative of extraordinary love through creating and covenanting, redeeming and reconciling, and always relentless pursuit despite our wanton neglect of the eternal initiative and our frequent truancy from the divine path.  The One who brought us into being incessantly broods over us.”  Storyteller John Shea describes God as “a wide-eyed insomniac pacing the night sky scheming to get us back.”  

You want to see miracles in your life?  Return God’s passion for you!  Allow God’s passion to be born in you.  Say yes to God as Mary did.
You might begin with these words:
I trust you to love me and to provide for my every need.
I want what you want.
I give my life to your vision.

Imagine giving your life to God’s vision as Mary did.  Poet and pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes envisions a conversation with Mary to learn the secret to her openness:
can I sit with you,
this dark and silent season,
and learn to open myself?

Will you teach me
to listen for the penetrating voice of angels,
to say yes to God,
to allow love to grow within me?

Will you sit with me
in my questions and doubts,
my mysteries,
and teach me not to be afraid of the dark?

Will you teach me
what it is to surrender
to God’s passion,
to desire God’s desire for you?

Can I wait with you,
the two of us, inadequate and chosen,
swelling with sacred promise,
becoming holy?

will you wait with me,
my heart enfolded in blue and gold,
God conceived within me?

Can you imagine God conceived within you?   That God would make God’s home within you or work from within you?  How do you imagine God’s love for you taking shape or form?  Where does that love reside?  Is it outside of you, or inside?
The Christian faith makes another claim in this love story.  God loves your neighbor as much as God loves you.  Luke begins his gospel with two songs.  We sing Zechariah’s song in the morning, hearing that we, like Zechariah’s son John the Baptizer, are to prepare the way of the Lord:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
   for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
   by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
   the dawn from on high will break upon[h] us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
   to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Our job every day is to offer forgiveness so that people can know how much they are loved.  Making peace depends on forgiveness.
Mary’s song is sung in Evening Prayer.  Mary sings of a world made new for the poor and the outcast, through God’s faithful love.
Theologian Elise Esslinger muses on Mary’s song: 
...my spirit rejoices in God my Savior...

Over these past years, with many others, I have fallen in love with the beauty of Mary's Magnificat (Luke 1:46b-55), even as we are challenged by its text. This bold, prophetic canticle of praise has been sung in Evening Prayer (as well as during Advent) since early centuries of the Church. Have you wondered why? How do we embody such a song?

Certainly, the canticle invites us to join Mary in praising the Holy One who blesses and redeems all who are ready to say "yes" to God's invitation to receive Jesus: to love and follow him in faith.  

...my spirit sings of the wondrous things that you bring to the ones who wait.*

Yet even more dynamically, Mary's song captures the essence of Jesus' upturning ministry: to fulfill the shalom of God in ways which demand reversal and turnaround of the way things are in a violent world, to raise up the poor ones. This is difficult and sometimes dangerous work. It is what Jesus did, and what Jesus does through us, enlivened and emboldened by the Spirit.

A rousing Irish melody supports the urgent refrain in Rory Cooney's rendition of Mary's song: My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn! *

In our congregations, the hymns, songs and canticles of this season and its Scripture do invite us to expectant, prayerful waiting and to incarnational, prophetic living as the Body of Christ, in the spirit of the Magnificat. To turn.

May we also this season experience anew Christ as the Bread of Life -- with the poor ones at the feeding trough in Bethlehem, in shared meals, and always at the Table where all are welcome.
May our spirits rejoice in the gift of Christ Jesus, the embodiment of God's shalom, as we continue our journey of faithful formation in Christ, seeking together, boldly, to turn the world around!   

Monday, December 14, 2015

It Begins with a Love Song

Isaiah 12:2-6
Psalm 85:7-13
Zephaniah 3:14-20

John the Baptist was supposed to be here this morning—still shouting in the wilderness.  If you prepare for worship by reading the passages listed in the bulletin or Windjammer, you know that on this third Sunday of Advent, this third Sunday of waiting for God’s self-revelation, John is telling us just how angry God is.  John scans the crowd that has come to hear him and shouts, “You brood of vipers.  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  He warns that, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  John is sometimes called the last of the Old Testament prophets.  He decries the ills of his society and promises that if people do not repent, turn from their wicked ways, God will hit the smite button.  That’s the large red button that one of my high school Sunday school students imagined God having for those wrath-filled moments.  Whereas the high school student was being flippant, John the Baptist was serious.  
John expected God to be as angry as he was.  John was the revival preacher that scared people into repentance and obedience.  It’s easy to see how John imagined a fiery outcome, not a lot different that the dystopia envisioned by movies like Chappie, Mad Max: Fury Road, or the Hunger Games series, ending with Mockingjay.  I only saw one of those and it was enough!  The nightly news makes us angry and fearful.
But it turns out that John was disappointed in Jesus.  Jesus did not meet his expectations. In fact, when John was imprisoned, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the promised one.  And Jesus responded with a list of healings:  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  Jesus knew what John didn’t.  Jesus knew that God’s relationship with human beings does not start with a tongue lashing.  It begins with a love song.
That concept is so foreign to us, that we have a hard time hearing the song.  This Wednesday in Bible study we read part of God’s love song in Zephaniah and Isaiah.  When I asked what people heard, the words they picked out were “judgment,” “shame,” and the image of God as victor over enemies.  What words stuck out for you when you heard the readings?  Did you hear, “he will rejoice over you with gladness,
     he will renew you in his love;
     he will exult over you with loud singing
     as on a day of festival.”
Did you hear, “At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you”?
How does the relationship between mother and child begin?  How does a marriage begin?  How does any intimate relationship begin?  It begins with a love song.  The prophets often describe how Israel or Judah have fallen short or turned from God’s way, but they all sing God’s love song.  They sing of God’s holy passion for humanity.  The prophets tell us that this is no human created deity—no fearsome, arbitrary tyrant, but a parent, lover, friend, and savior.  The scriptures are one elongated exposé of God’s incomprehensible passion for humanity.

God longs to enter into a loving mutual relationship with us—to be our beloved as we already God’s beloved.  Isaiah writes, “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
Human beings are imaged as the bride—a bride that is more Annie Oakley than Cinderella.  We arrive splattered with mud.  You know, we clean up nice to come to church, and we may believe that the people around us have got it all together, but each one of us knows what we have to hide to clean up so well.  We don’t have to live with that.  You don’t—I don’t.

Zephaniah’s promise of salvation and love song come at the end of a prophecy of the overthrow of the corruption of Judah—Judah is accused of dismissing God, priding itself on its riches, oppression, and violence.  Zephaniah speaks on a national level.  The message works on both levels: corporate or national, and individual.  Zephaniah and all the prophets assume that there is a righteous remnant.  Salvation—healing and wholeness—starts with individuals.  It starts with you and me.  God is singing us a love song.  God is wooing us.

The Lord your God is in our midst—and this is One who rejoices over us with gladness; who will renew us with unconditional love.

So listen to the words of Zephaniah again:

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion...
        Yahweh, your God, is in your midst...
        and will rejoice over you with gladness,
                 and renew you in love.
        and exult over you with loud singing.
                 —Zephaniah 3. 14, 17  

God has no doctrine, do you know that?
Only delight.

The Desired One comes to you,
waits outside your house in the morning cold,
seeks you even in the worst neighborhood,
for no fancier reason than this:
the Beloved likes you,
and wants to be with you,
and hopes you will fall in love.

It is only the lost
for whom that is not enough.

Our Lover comes to us
even in our greed and terror
with no more complicated plot in mind
than to spend the awful hours and years
with us

and make them paradise.  
(Steve Garnaas-Holmes, www.unfoldinglight.net, December 9, 2015.)