God is on the move

Merry Christmas!  I’m reveling in lazy late-morning coffee, flannel pajamas and a little fire going, while Frank croons his best Christmas carols.  Not a bad Christmas morning for a preacher lady!

I hope today brings you light and hope in the particular way you most need it.

Our Christmas Eve candlelight communion service at Cameron (holy alliteration, Batman!) was powerful.  Church at Christmas might not be your thing, but if it happens to be and you’d like to read my sermon from last night I’ve put it below.  May God bless each of you today, and always.

120709boxes-1

“Moving into the Neighborhood”
Christmas Eve 2013
Cameron Presbyterian Church

John 1:1-15 (The Message paraphrase)

The Word was first,
the Word present to God,
God present to the Word.
  The Word was God,
in readiness for God from day one.
Everything was created through him;
nothing—not one thing!—came into being without him.
What came into existence was Life,
and the Life was Light to live by;
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness;
the darkness couldn’t put it out.
There once was a man, his name John, sent by God to point out the way to the Life-Light. He came to show everyone where to look, who to believe in. John was not himself the Light;
he was there to show the way to the Light.
The Life-Light was the real thing:
Every person entering Life
he brings into Light.
He was in the world,
the world was there through him,
and yet the world didn’t even notice.
He came to his own people,
but they didn’t want him.
But whoever did want him,
who believed he was who he claimed
and would do what he said,
He made to be their true selves,
their child-of-God selves.
These are the God-begotten,
not blood-begotten,
not flesh-begotten.
The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
 Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.  John pointed him out and called, “This is the One! The One I told you was coming after me but in fact was ahead of me. He has always been ahead of me, has always had the first word.”

Sermon: “Moving into the Neighborhood”

Moving is a stressful business.  It begins calmly enough – with things neatly packed in clearly labeled boxes.  The dishes are lovingly wrapped in paper, the books are piled like soldiers stacked one next to the other, perhaps even by genre if you’re feeling whimsical.  Yes, it begins just fine.

But then you reach The Point of No Return.  You know what I mean, that point when you start stuffing clothes into the washer and dryer because you’ve run out of boxes, or when you contemplate whether or not it’s time to part ways with your great-grandmother’s heirloom.  Your thinking becomes as tired as your sore muscles, and the idea of gasoline and a match is suddenly worryingly appealing.

Yes, moving is not for the feint of heart (or fond of fire).

In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of John 1, The Message, Eugene takes some liberties with how we usually hear this passage.  Rather than saying, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” he says instead, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”

Now if we think packing up our possessions to move to a new place is complicated, the notion of God taking on flesh and blood and moving into this world as a human being is exceedingly so.  Perhaps this is why this messenger John was so very necessary: to put the bewildering reality of the incarnation in language folks could understand and connect with.

And so he said things like Jesus is the Word of God: the inner thoughts, the spoken truths of the divine.  That Word was first vocalized with “Light” in Genesis and so all of creation tumbled out of that first utterance.  John says that in Jesus, this always-existing Word, is the Light of Life, a light that darkness can never overcome.

We may not be able to wrap our minds or hearts around the power of that first word Light spoken at creation, but we can see stars in the velvety darkness of a night sky and know that God’s Light is there.  We can feel the first flickers of hope when our souls have seemed to be lingering in the darkness of despair for far too long.  We can watch the face of one we love light up when they see us, and know that the One who first spoke Light into being has never stopped bringing it.

And so, if our messenger John just left us with Light, it would be enough. We could ponder the power and beauty of God’s light in our lives, and find hope.  But you see, that was not enough for John, because that was not enough for God. 

God wasn’t content to just loiter in our world, to pop in every now and then for a cup of coffee and a chat.  God was intent on packing up all of that Light into a too-small flesh and blood human baby.  What began as abstract poetry from John suddenly becomes a bit too close for comfort.

This Word – who always was – dimmed his own light in order to enter into the world as one of us, taking on flesh and blood.  And not Renaissance art porcelain, pale flesh and blood.  No, this Word chose to be born to a scared Middle Eastern teenager, who barely made it to that smelly barn in time.  Flesh and blood: crying, shivering, dusty, real, us, them, human.

And if our messenger John left it there, it would be enough.  We could ponder the humanity of this divine Word for all of our days, and never exhaust the search to understand it.  This flesh-and-blood God could have been born into a situation of glory and power, into a wealthy family and kept appropriately separate from the rabble of this world.  But that was not enough for God, and so it was not enough for John.  God had to become flesh and blood and then move into the neighborhood.

This God refused to be contained in the places of the powerful and religious, but instead burst forth in scandalous solidarity with the poor, the wanderer and the sinner.

And so the message of John those many, many years ago is still our message tonight.  Christmas means that the Word of God who always was, who lit the world with glory, dimmed that Light to become fragile flesh-and-blood and move into the neighborhood.

It’s not enough to say a little baby Jesus was born at Christmas.  It’s not even enough to say God became human to save our souls.  God became flesh-and-blood to save our souls, absolutely, but also to save our neighborhoods, our refugee camps, our shopping malls our battlefields and our quiet places of desperation.

Christmas is at its heart the story of a great scandal: that in Jesus Christ, God chose to become human, not that we might understand God’s divinity better, but that we might finally see what it actually is to be flesh-and-blood ourselves.  To see the fragility and beauty of this fleeting life, to embrace the hunger and thirst of our human siblings as our own, to transform neighborhoods of poverty and plenty into dwelling places for God’s light.

Moving is not an easy business.  Allowing God to move not just into our hearts, but also into our neighborhoods, this Christmas, is far more difficult than packing a few boxes.  It means letting go of those heirlooms of bigotry and fear we no longer need.  It means tenderly wrapping our every single word and action with the incarnate love of God.  It means unpacking the glory of God bit-by-bit as we shine light in the darkness of those who feel alone, afraid or that they don’t matter.

God didn’t move into the neighborhood because God was bored, or wanted to be closer to the beach.  This was always God’s plan, from that first word of Light at creation to the light of a guiding star in Bethlehem.  God was – and is – on the move!  We are not alone.  Amen.

The Advent Journey: Day 24

On this Christmas Eve, we once again revisit Frederick Buechner.  Below is an excerpt from Whistling in the Dark.

Image

The chaotic birth of several stars at Nebula NGC 1333.

The lovely old carols played and replayed till their effect is like a dentist’s drill or a jack hammer, the bathetic banalities of the pulpit and the chilling commercialism of almost everything else, people spending money they can’t afford on presents you neither need nor want, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the plastic tree, the cornball creche, the Hallmark Virgin. Yet for all our efforts, we’ve never quite managed to ruin it. That in itself is part of the miracle, a part you can see. Most of the miracle you can’t see, or don’t.

The young clergyman and his wife do all the things you do on Christmas Eve. They string the lights and hang the ornaments. They supervise the hanging of the stockings. They tuck in the children. They lug the presents down out of hiding and pile them under the tree. Just as they’re about to fall exhausted into bed, the husband remembers his neighbor’s sheep. The man asked him to feed them for him while he was away, and in the press of other matters that night he forgot all about them. So down the hill he goes through knee-deep snow. He gets two bales of hay from the barn and carries them out to the shed. There’s a forty-watt bulb hanging by its cord from the low roof, and he lights it. The sheep huddle in a corner watching as he snaps the baling twine, shakes the squares of hay apart and starts scattering it. Then they come bumbling and shoving to get at it with their foolish, mild faces, the puffs of their breath showing in the air. He is reaching to turn off the bulb and leave when suddenly he realizes where he is. The winter darkness. The glimmer of light. The smell of the hay and the sound of the animals eating. Where he is, of course, is the manger.

He only just saw it. He whose business it is above everything else to have an eye for such things is all but blind in that eye. He who on his best days believes that everything that is most precious anywhere comes from that manger might easily have gone home to bed never knowing that he had himself just been in the manger. The world is the manger. It is only by grace that he happens to see this other part of the miracle.

Christmas itself is by grace. It could never have survived our own blindness and depredations otherwise. It could never have happened otherwise. Perhaps it is the very wildness and strangeness of the grace that has led us to try to tame it. We have tried to make it habitable. We have roofed it in and furnished it. We have reduced it to an occasion we feel at home with, at best a touching and beautiful occasion, at worst a trite and cloying one. But if the Christmas event in itself is indeed – as a matter of cold, hard fact – all it’s cracked up to be, then even at best our efforts are misleading.

The Word become flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God… who for us and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.”

Came down. Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see. It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms.  It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.

The Advent Journey: Day 23

Goodness, 23 days of Advent reflections!  We are nearly to Christmas.  I’ve decided to share my sermon from yesterday, because that e.e. cummings poem I posted yesterday played a part in it.  I hope it brings you some light in the midst of what is no doubt a busy time.

Image

Interesting Christmas message, that.

Reading: 1 John 4:7-21

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.  God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.   The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Sermon:

My good friend Barbara and I went to Southern Season in Chapel Hill the other day for a nice dinner.  Barbara’s a pastor, too, and every now and then we indulge in a trip to that (expensive) foodie heaven.  As we entered, the first thing I saw were huge window decorations with brightly colored expensive-looking table settings and ornaments on them.  Above one panel was “joy”, above the second was “peace.”  Can you guess what was above the third?  Hope or love is a good guess, but nope, it said “prosperity”!

Now, I hate to perpetuate the stereotype that we pastor people talk theology all the time, but we did have quite the discussion based on those posters (as did my Facebook wall).  It was a beautiful, elegant example of how wrong our society gets this whole Christmas thing.

And as we watched people swirling around us in a state of frenetic gift-buying anxiety, I couldn’t help but think how very far this reality was from a dark night in a barn in the Middle East, when God was birthed into the world, and poor shepherds were the first to get invited to witness it by a star, and not gilded expensive cards.

The last couple of weeks, I’ve had nearly everyone I run into, from friends to vet technicians to coffee baristas ask if “I’m ready for Christmas.”  Have you been asked this a lot recently, too?  It just seems to make us feel more anxious about not being ready, doesn’t it?  But I wonder, what sort of Christmas they are speaking of.

Am I ready for a Prosperity Christmas, where I have to spend and spend to prove my love to those I care about?  I think we are all of us trying to get ready in some ways for that sort of Christmas.  We buy gifts that are hopefully thoughtful, and do want to make a point to show our love to others.  This is the sort of Christmas our society (and elaborate store posters and loud commercials) tell us we should be waiting for, and working towards.

But the Christmas we in the church rush towards this time of year is quite different.  Prosperity pales in comparison to the truth that God was born to a family of refugees, that the Love which wove the world together took on flesh and blood as a vulnerable baby.  1 John tells us that God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.

Now, I read the Greek of this text pretty closely, and nowhere can I see that it says God’s Son was sent into the world that we might…enter into greater credit card debt through him.  Or that we might buy nicer gifts than those we receive.  Or even that we might get everything done in time to collapse exhausted with our family on Christmas day.

No, we are told that God’s Son was sent to reveal God’s love to us in a way that had never been revealed before, and the result of such a revelation is life.  Not the half-life of long lines and diminishing store shelves, of empty prosperity and emptier spirits.  Love-breathed, God-With-Us life.

A life where brothers and sisters love one another not just because they want to please God but because they want to actually see God in the faces of each other.

Or as 1 John says it, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”  This incarnate love of God in the Christ child is not meant to just be something that provides an undercurrent of calm in the midst of holiday stress.  We are not called to just survive on this love of God.  We are called to abide in God’s love – just as God abides in us.

As my friend Barbara and I watched people rushing from aisle to aisle, arms heavy, faces looking tired and distracted, I saw just how destructive it can be to lump ‘prosperity’ into the meaning of this season.   Now, I’m not saying we should never buy things to show love.  That is a good thing.  But we should never mistake the meaning of this season of Advent, of expectant waiting for the Love of God to be revealed in this world in new and surprising ways, with the commercial ideal of piling presents under a tree.

Love is on its way – and we don’t need to buy a thing to receive it.  We don’t need to stand in any lines, we don’t need to take on debt, or find that perfect gift.  What we need to do is still our lives, even in quiet small moments, to see the way God’s love breaks into our world.  We will begin to see that Christmas is not a time to glorify prosperity, but instead the radical reordering of this world from more to less, from fear to love, from isolation to brothers and sisters recognizing God in the tired faces of each other.

So, the next time you get asked that question, “Are you ready for Christmas?” consider reframing the question.  Rather than answering in terms of how many gifts you’ve purchased, cards you’ve sent or menus you’ve planned, perhaps speak in terms of the Christ Child coming once more.

The truth is, we’re never fully ready for God’s love to come to us, but that Child comes anyway, coming into our burdened arms and weary faces, coming into our crowded stores and cunning marketing schemes, coming into our moments of joy and of darkness.  That child comes, whether we are ready or not.  We need only let go of what keeps us too distracted or exhausted to experience that Love being born in us anew.  I’m reminded of words from E.E. Cumming’s poem ‘Let It Go’:

let it go – the
 smashed word broken


open vow or


the oath cracked length
wise – let it go it


was sworn to


go

let them go – the


truthful liars and


the false fair friends


and the boths and


neithers – you must let them go they


were born


to go

let all go – the


big small middling


tall bigger really


the biggest and all


things – let all go


dear

so comes love

Are we ready for Christmas?  Not the Prosperity sort, but the real, love-coming, life-giving Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ?  A child is coming…and that child’s name is so much more powerful than Prosperity.  His name is Love, his every step on this earth was one of Love and his call for each of us is to abide in that Love as we abide with each other.  So, breathe.  Rest.  Pray.  Let it go.  Dare to hope, because Love is on its way.  Amen.

The Advent Journey: Day 22

This morning, I finish my advent sermon series around the wreath candle lighting with Love, having journeyed through Hope, Peace and Joy.  As Christmas hovers just a few days away, when it seems we gather more and more in a mad rush: more gifts, more food, more full calendars, I’m reminded that Love being birthed in to the world means letting go of all of that, open to God coming once more.  This poem by E.E. Cummings seems appropriate.

Let It Go 

let it go – the
smashed word broken
open vow or
the oath cracked length
wise – let it go it
was sworn to
go

let them go – the
truthful liars and
the false fair friends
and the boths and
neithers – you must let them go they
were born
to go

let all go – the
big small middling
tall bigger really
the biggest and all
things – let all go
dear

so comes love

The Advent Journey: Day 19

While this time of year can be full of joy and celebration, for many it is a time of poignant loss and sadness.  This is why many faith communities have “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” services, where those feeling heavy with grief or isolation this time of year can gather together in prayer.  My friend from seminary, Ashley-Anne Masters, wrote a powerful prayer that was used in one such service.  Whatever heaviness you might be carrying around this day, I pray it lightens the load a bit.

One: God of the Incarnation, hear our prayers:

Many: For those who cannot bring themselves to sing with the choirs of angels this year
One: For those for whom there is still no room in any inn or shelter
Many: For those who long for the angel to appear in their dreams instead of the flashbacks
One: For those who have no one with them when they give birth
Many: For those whose wombs are barren
One: For those who will spend only a portion of Christmas with their children due to divorce
Many: For those who will make their Mom’s recipes and remember Christmases past
One: For those whose adult children do not communicate with them
Many: For those recovering from addictions of the flesh
One: For those who cannot buy their children presents due to unemployment
Many: For those who will spend Christmas grieving the loss of their child
One: For those who will spend Christmas in the hospital, nursing home, or rehabilitation center
Many: For those who long for their minds to be calm and for memories to return
One: For those who long for their bodies to be restored
Many: For those who cannot even give words to their darkness and pain

One: Send the star, again, O God, and light our way to the manger of peace. Amen.

The Advent Journey: Day 18

I find myself constantly in a state of being haunted by music.  The other day, while listening to Pandora radio and working (they did not pay me for this plug, by the way), this version of U2’s One came on, sung by Johnny Cash.  I think ol’ Johnny outdoes those Irish boys.

“We’re one, but we’re not the same, we get to carry each other…”

The Advent Journey: Day 17

From today’s Daily Lectionary Reading:

Psalm 33

1   Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous. 
          Praise befits the upright. 
2   Praise the LORD with the lyre; 
          make melody to him with the harp of ten strings. 
3   Sing to him a new song; 
          play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

4   For the word of the LORD is upright, 
          and all his work is done in faithfulness. 
5   He loves righteousness and justice; 
          the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD.

6   By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, 
          and all their host by the breath of his mouth. 
7   He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle; 
          he put the deeps in storehouses.

8   Let all the earth fear the LORD; 
          let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him. 
9   For he spoke, and it came to be; 
          he commanded, and it stood firm.

10  The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; 
          he frustrates the plans of the peoples. 
11  The counsel of the LORD stands forever, 
          the thoughts of his heart to all generations. 
12   Happy is the nation whose God is the LORD, 
          the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.

13  The LORD looks down from heaven; 
          he sees all humankind. 
14  From where he sits enthroned he watches 
          all the inhabitants of the earth — 
15  he who fashions the hearts of them all, 
          and observes all their deeds. 
16  A king is not saved by his great army; 
          a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. 
17  The war horse is a vain hope for victory, 
          and by its great might it cannot save.

18  Truly the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him, 
          on those who hope in his steadfast love, 
19  to deliver their soul from death, 
          and to keep them alive in famine.

20  Our soul waits for the LORD; 
          he is our help and shield. 
21  Our heart is glad in him, 
          because we trust in his holy name. 
22  Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, 
          even as we hope in you.

The Advent Journey: Day 15

Image

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner

This morning, I’m preaching from the perspective of a pregnant, scared 13-year-old Mary (the age most scholars estimate she might have been at the time of the angel’s visit).  While these great thoughts from John van de Laar did not make it into my sermon, I thought I’d share them as today’s post.  

There are few places where our addiction to the extraordinary manifests more than in the Christmas story. It’s no wonder that Christmas has been co-opted by the forces of materialism and consumerism. It’s no wonder that we get so caught up in meaningless arguments about insignificant details and unimportant labels (is it a “Christmas tree” or a “Holiday tree”?). If Christmas is about a Special Baby being born to a Special Woman, then we are nothing more than passive observers of God’s supernatural activity, required to do nothing more than receive. Salvation is done to us. God’s Reign comes to us. And, in our passivity, we can find nothing more meaningful to do than fight for the small traditions and personal preferences that make us feel more open to God.

But Christmas is not about extraordinariness. On the contrary if it is about anything, it’s about the power of the ordinary to effect God’s purposes. Mary was not chosen to be the mother of Jesus because she was special. She was chosen because she was the epitome of ordinary. A young girl of marriageable age, living an ordinary life in an ordinary town in an ordinary country. There were probably hundreds of other girls who could easily have taken Mary’s place. The fact that God chose her probably had more to do with factors beyond her control – being engaged to a descendant of David, having relatives who were old and barren and of a priestly family – than with any special qualities that she possessed.

This ordinariness is, however, what makes the Christmas story so extraordinary. How could a commoner like this give birth to a child that would be both the fulfillment of God’s promise of an eternal dynasty to David, and God’s Son? How could the child that fulfilled these promises be born into such ordinary circumstances, grow up under such ordinary parents, and do such ordinary work (carpentry)? The answer, I believe is simply this: God’s Reign does not come through extraordinary people. God’s Reign stands or falls on ordinary people embracing it and living it out in their daily lives. The very essence of God’s Reign is that it infiltrates the smallest, most ordinary parts of the world, the tiniest details of our lives. In the same way that it is usually the ordinary people who shift the course of history, more than the generals and leaders and heroes who are remembered, it is the ordinary people who bring God’s Reign into being in the world.

Mary was not a unique human being who was uniquely chosen, and who we must simply watch and celebrate. No, Mary is all of us – ordinary, loved and called. We are all visited by God. We are all overshadowed by God’s Spirit. We are all parents of God’s Reign. Which means that it is time to stop using our addiction to the extraordinary to let ourselves off the hook. It is time for us all to accept the “calledness” of our ordinariness, and begin to give birth to God’s Reign in our own small way. It is time for us all to choose, daily, to bring Christ and the Reign of God that Christ revealed, into our world.