Thursday, December 24, 2015

Sing a Lullaby

See the child that Mary bore
On her lap so softly sleeping
In a stable cold and poor
Ox and ass their vigil keeping

Sing lullaby, sing lullaby
My own dear son, my child
Lullaby, sing lullaby
Lullaby, my little baby

Flights of angels ‘round His head
Sing Him joyful hymns of greeting
Peace on earth, goodwill to men
Each to each the song repeating

Shepherds kneeling by His bed
Offer homage without measure
Wise men, by a bright star led
Bring Him gifts of richest treasure

You may not know the name Yip Harburg, but surely everyone here knows this lyric he penned:

Somewhere over the rainbow
way up high,
there’s a land that I heard of
once in a lullaby.

Lullabies have been around for a long, long time.  The earliest recorded lullaby is a Babylonia text over 4,000 years old.  While its aim was to get a baby to sleep, its message was rather menacing.  It chastised the baby for disturbing the household god with its crying and also contained a list of repercussions if silence did not follow.  Many cultures have lullabies with dark overtones.  The Luo people of western Kenya sing “Rock, rock, rock,” to their infants before starkly warning, “The baby who cries will be eaten by a hyena.”  Think about our own western tradition of singing “Rock-a-bye-baby” where wind and crying result in a cradle falling from a tree branch!

Well, while some lullaby lyrics are more child-appropriate than others, Nina Perry, in a BBC article notes, “Wherever you go in the world, women use the same tones, the same sort of way of singing to their babies…  Rhythmically, there are shared patterns… giving them a characteristic swinging or rocking motion.”  All of this has a way of mimicking a baby’s experience in the mother’s womb. 

Lullabies function in at least five different ways:

  They build a bond between parent and child.

  They pass down cultural knowledge and traditions.

  They help to develop communication skills.

  They regulate emotions and behavior.

  They help a baby fall asleep.

One study of premature babies concluded gentle music helps to slow down the heart rate and improves feeding and sleeping.  Another study determined a live voice is more beneficial than recorded music.  Still another study found lullabies enhance an infant’s neurological development.

Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers fame) observed “All of us have had the experience of hearing a tune from childhood and having that melody evoke a memory or a feeling.  The music we hear early on tends to stay with us all our lives.”  Would it surprise you to know that lullabies help hospice patients to transition from daylight to darkness? 

Do you have a memory of someone singing you to sleep? 

The beautiful anthem we heard moments ago highlights how the lullaby has figured prominently in the Christian spirituality surrounding this night.  Angels praising, shepherds knelling, gift-bearing travelers from the east, all of this awe and wonder and still our attention is drawn to the most human of all experiences: a mother singing softly to her newborn. 

At last Saturday’s beautiful handbell concert, Al Reese introduced Cathy Moklebust’s arrangement of Still, Still, Still, saying it evoked the image of “softly falling snow, quiet dreaming, and the great mystery of God made flesh”.  You may remember he encouraged us to listen with our eyes closed, which I did and, true to his words, I was caught up in softly falling snow, quiet dreaming, and the great mystery of God made flesh.

As I listen to Mary’s Lullaby I hold it next to my faith that all things have been created through God’s Son.  The incredible power that launched the Big Bang, the Vision who dreamed up the quark, the One who is All and beyond All and largely incomprehensible to our human mind became flesh.  God needed to be held and succored and sung to in order that the heart rate might slow, digestion might improve, neurological pathways might develop, communication skills be learned, and cultural traditions assimilated.  Is there any better way to describe this than “the great mystery of God made flesh”?

I wonder how many of us have oriented our religious selves around coming to God.  We come before God with our petitions in prayer, our confessions, our praises, and our thanksgivings.  We come to God.  This is how we do religion.  But tonight suggests there might be something we are overlooking: God comes to us.  God comes to us through the unexpected visit of a friend.  What does a lullaby to our God sound like in this moment?  God comes to us through a soft and serene majestic sunrise.  What does our lullaby to God sound like in this moment?  God comes to us in the person who desires a new beginning in life, perhaps by attending tonight’s service.  What does our lullaby to God sound like in this moment?

The great mystery of God made flesh reminds me of my need to be gentle and tender and soothing and nurturing in this life.  So much of what God is seeking to do in our world begins as something vulnerable, as something in need of care, of compassion, of a lullaby. 

Earl Wynne was one of those solid, salt-of-the-earth good guys I have been blessed to know in my ministry.  He stood at the front door of the church, greeted every person by name, and escorted the women on his arm to their pew all the while shushing the choir and clergy out of the way, saying “make room for the paying customers!”  His association with the parish began in the 1950’s when he and his young bride first attended a service on a hot, humid Richmond Sunday in July.  Because the church was not air-conditioned the usher encouraged him to remove his jacket so he would be more comfortable.  That simple act of gracious hospitality convinced Earl not only to join the church, but to carry out a decades-long ministry of greeting people.  Earl would never say the usher sang a lullaby to him, but tonight that is what I would call it.  Earl and his wife, Juliet, were in a vulnerable place looking to begin something new in their lives.  The church received them with the gentleness and care of a lullaby.

When was the last time you realized God came to you?  How did you respond?  What did you do?  Do you think there are times God comes to you, but you fail to recognize it?  If so, what might you do to be more attentive?  When, where, and how do you sing a lullaby to the vulnerable new thing God is doing?  And what about you?  What vulnerable new thing might God be seeking to do in your life?  What does your lullaby to it sound like?

Monday, December 21, 2015

Keep on Singing!

I have a lot of Christmas music on my home computer.  How much?  Well, enough for five days of non-stop playing; 1,750 songs!  Please don’t tell the Bishop, but I start to listen to Christmas music even before Thanksgiving.  A few weeks ago I was making a purchase and asked the cashier how she was doing.  “I don’t think I can take much more of this,” she said.  “What is the problem,” I asked, suspecting that the volumes of holiday shoppers in foul moods had worn her down.  “I can’t stand the Christmas music playing all the time in our store.  I hear the same songs over and over all day.”  I could offer her no words of comfort.

When an artist records a song already released by another artist it is referred to as a ‘cover.’  Here are the top five most-covered Christmas songs of all time:

#5  The First Noel – 12,476 covers

#4  The Christmas Song – 13, 208 covers

#3  Jingle Bells – 19,080 covers

#2  White Christmas – 20,721 covers

#1  Silent Night – 26,496 covers

Did you know that Jingle Bells has appeared in 373 movie soundtracks? 

Here are the five most requested Christmas songs this year:

#5  Fairytale of New York by The Pogues

#4  Mistletoe by Justin Bieber

#3  Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee

#2  It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas by Michael BublĂ©

#1  All I want for Christmas is you by Mariah Carey.

According the play count feature on iTunes, my most-played holiday song is The Cowboys Christmas Ball by The Killers, which I have listened to a whopping 58 times.

One of the unique features to Luke’s gospel is its emphasis on music, or what has become music.  In today’s reading Mary sings when she is greeted by her cousin Elizabeth.  Zechariah sings when his son John is born.  Angels sing to shepherds.  And finally, Simeon sings when he sees the infant Jesus in the Temple for the first time.  Scholars debate the origins of these ancient texts.  Did the original characters compose these hymns on the spot, or were they developed over time, and if so, by who?  In the interest of Christmas cheer, I’ll spare you the details of their discussions.  Still, it is worth noting that Matthew, Mark, and John either knew nothing of these songs or deemed them not significant enough to include in their gospels.  We are indebted to Luke for recording them.

More important than where they come from is what they mean and how they function.  This morning we hear the words of Mary’s Magnificat.  At its heart it is a song of praise and joy: “My soul magnifies the Lord!”  But it is also deeply rooted in another traditional aspect of music: it is an act of resistance.  Singing is a powerful way to protest when you do not have the power to change the way things are.

Are you familiar with the traditional call-and-response carol Mary had a baby? 

Mary had a baby (yes Lord)
  Mary had a baby (yes, my Lord)
Mary had a baby (yes Lord)
The people keep a-comin’ and the train done gone.

Sung by slaves, the reference to the train is an allusion to the Underground Railroad and by including it in the story of Jesus it served to inspire people to throw off the shackles of bondage and to hope for freedom and a better life. 

Think about the Von Trapp family singing Edelweiss as the Nazis are set to take over Austria.  That was an act of resistance to be sure.  The Civil Rights movement was fueled by songs like We shall overcome.  The Velvet Revolution, the non-violent transition of power in Czechoslovakia that was the precursor to the fall of the Berlin Wall, began when a small group of people started to meet on Monday evenings at St. Nikolai Church to sing.  Over the course of a couple of months their numbers swelled to over 300,000 thousand people, more than half the country.  When the secret police were asked why they did not crush the movement, they replied they had no contingency plan for a song!

Mary too sings in this tradition:

God has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud
in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful
from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

These are not words describing a historical reality at the time, but lyrics of protest and resistance.  In no uncertain terms, Mary proclaims that the world is not right and God is doing something about it.

We say Advent is a time for waiting, but with the waiting there is a strong element of protest and resistance.  Our Advent readings and hymns proclaim that something is wrong with this world.  This season highlights the darkness all around us while holding out hope for God’s Light. 

Much of the spirituality of Lent revolves around the realization there is something wrong with me.  It focuses on the changes I need to make in order to live God’s dream for me.  If we look inward during Lent, in Advent we look outward.  We look outward and we see the hatred which infects our world, the violence that plagues our society, the sin which is racism in our land, our lack of care for the lost, the least, and the lonely.  We see it and we sing about it.

O come, o come, Desire of nations,
bind in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice!  Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

Come thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.

Comfort, comfort ye my people,
  speak ye peace, thus saith our God.
comfort those who sit in darkness,
  mourning ‘neath the sorrows’ load.
Speak ye to Jerusalem,
  of the peace that waits for them;
Tell her that her sins I cover,
  and her warfare now is over.

O Zion, that bringest good tidings,
  get thee up to the heights and sing!...
he stands in the midst of nations,
  and he will right the wrong.
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd,
the lambs he’ll gently hold,
to pastures of peace he’ll led them,
  and bring them safe to his fold.

He brings God’s rule, O Zion,
he comes from heaven above.
His rule is peace and freedom,
and justice, truth, and love.
Lift high your praise resounding,
for grace and joy abounding.
Oh, blest is Christ that came
in God’s most holy name.

Let the endless bliss begin,
  by weary saints foretold,
when right shall triumph over wrong,
  and truth shall be extolled.

Have I made my point?

Gracia Grindal, a Lutheran hymn writer, composed We light the Advent Candles as a way of explaining the meaning of this popular liturgical act.  The first line of her hymn says, “We light the Advent candles against the winter light.” Now, she could have written “We light the Advent candles because of the winter light” or “during the winter light” but by using “against” she proclaims this season to be a protest of the darkness around us.  We sing because we hope for something better.  We sing for change. We sing, because we cannot give up or give in.  We sing because we believe.  We sing for strength and for courage.  We sing because we know a new world is coming.  We sing!

So let’s retrace one last time our journey through this Advent season:

· On the first Sunday of Advent we said “Take Advent Slowly!”

· On the second Sunday we said, “Change Your Clothes!”

· Last week we said, “Your Life Matters!”

· How about we draw Advent to a close with this:  “Keep on Singing!”

Monday, December 14, 2015

Your Life Matters

For the life of me I can’t figure out why “crowds” of people went out into wilderness to listen to John.  Beyond being a difficult walk, beyond the lack of amenities (think no Starbucks), and beyond the insufferable heat, who wants to be told off by a crazy man?  What would the response be at announcement time if I said, “OK folks, we have scheduled a twenty mile hike into the Dismal Swamp so that we can meet a religious fanatic who will tell us we are sinners, call us names, and let us know our time on top is just about up”?  My hunch is there would not be a long wait at the sign-up sheet in the Parish Hall.

Every Advent we get not one, but two – TWO! – Sundays to focus on John.  One commentator calls him “an irritant in the midst of Advent”.  Another remarks, “If this is his idea of good news, I’m not sure I want to hear the bad news”.  I tend to think of him as being the harbinger of fruitcakes and ugly ties.  Just as you can count on getting a couple of unwanted presents at Christmas, so too you can count of John in Advent. 

I think his appeal is this: John preached a message of hope.  He promised something new and good and restorative was about to happen.  Back in Jerusalem, back in the Temple, back in the halls of privilege and power, the message was “Everything is fine just the way it is.  The system is working for us, so let’s not mess with it.”  The problem was for most people everything was not fine.  Everywhere they turned someone was putting the screws to them – politicians, religious leaders, bankers, Roman mercenaries.  The “crowd” believed deeply in God’s promise for a better world and they yearned for it happen.  John was a lone voice saying this world is broken and God is about to send someone to fix it.  At its core, it is a message of hope and it was gladly received by everyday people like you and me.

But here is the rub: along with his message of hope John said something else, “God is about to do a new thing, but you are not ready for it.”  Why weren’t they ready?  Did they need to improve their technology and infrastructure?  Did the streets need swept and storefronts given a fresh coat of paint?      Did someone need to compose coronation music?  What was the holdup?  Here is what John said: “You have got to change yourself before God will change the world.” 

As you might imagine, each person responded with a question: “What do I have to change?  Think of all the things John said:

· You must go to church every Sunday.

· You must tithe 10% of your income.

· You must pray for an hour a day.

· You must convert four heathens.

· You must memorize the names of the books of the bible in order.

· You must become a fan of the Cleveland Browns.

The list of arduous possibilities is endless. 

Instead of any of these, John tells them their lives must bear good fruit.  Plain and simple, each person must lead a good, decent life.  He tells the crowd specifically, “If you have two coats, share with a person who has none.  The same goes for food.  If you have food, share with a person who does not.”  He told tax collectors, who were notorious for over-charging and keeping the difference, to take no more than the prescribed amount.  He told soldiers, who were not at all like our professional military but more like hired thugs, to stop taking advantage of people and pushing them around. 

One commenter says John’s message boils down to “share, be fair, and don’t bully.”  It sounds a lot like lessons we were taught from the first day of kindergarten.  Eric Barreto, a New Testament scholar, describes John’s message as “a call to ordinary acts of grace.”  They are things we can do without the supernatural assistance of God’s Holy Spirit.  If we could do it in kindergarten we can do it today.   God is about to do something new, but you are not ready for it.  To get ready you must become what you once were – a decent human being who in every day, ordinary ways thinks about others and cares for others. 

The 19th Century Dutch politician and theologian Abraham Kuyper is remembered for saying “No single piece of our… world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’ He contends that Jesus is as concerned with presidential decisions as a student’s PowerPoint presentation, as concerned with an investment firm’s policy as with what we purchase at a department store, as concerned with the movement of planets as with how wide we open our hearts and our hands to a person in need.  If you think like this you will understand that the decisions you make matter, that your words matter, that your actions matter, that your life matters.  The quality of fruit you bear matters.  It is as true for the most important and influential person in the room as it is for the least significant person here: John says your life matters and what you do with your life matters.

There is a sentiment held in some Evangelical circles that says Jesus still would have died on the Cross even if I was the only sinner in the world.  What if we turned that around a little bit and gave it a dose of John the Baptist: “God is about to do a new thing, but it won’t happen until I am ready for it, until my life starts to bear good fruit.”  If you believed this then you would believe that everything you do in life matters.  Your every very action either is moving you toward being ready for God’s new and restorative thing or it is not.  Either it is helping the world to be ready for God’s new, restorative thing, or it is not.  What you do matters.

I like this picture of a mother and toddler on the beach.  I have sat with it for some time and continue to reflect on its richness.  It is such a common experience.  I think most people can relate to a moment like this.  It occurs to me the child will not remember this particular event, save for the picture.  Still, it matters because the mother is building a bond of love and trust and joy and happiness.  The relationship develops around thousands upon thousands of experiences like this one.  Each is an instant of bearing good fruit.  It reminds me how much every big and every small decision and action matters.

John’s message of hope electrified his listeners.  Through his words, they began to realize God was not going to break into the human world before God broke into the human heart. 

So, continuing our three-word Advent, here is where we are:  On the first Sunday we said, “Take Advent Slowly.”  Last week we said, “Change Your Clothes.”  Today we hear, “Your Life Matters.”


Monday, December 7, 2015

Change Your Clothes!

After last Wednesday I am near the place where I dread checking out the news.  There is just so much that is awful and disheartening: killings abroad, killings in at a Planned Parenthood Clinic, killings in San Bernardino.  We are living in a sad, sobering time where each day we discover a new depth to darkness and despair.  In between each tragedy we live with the inevitable dissection of what happened, who is to blame, and what should be done about it.  It is a conversation – well, not so much of a conversation as it is people yelling at each other with no one actually listening – that tears us down and tears us apart and fosters only a spirit of anger, meanness, and hopelessness.

Jonathan Safran Foer, is his novel Everything Is Illuminated, wrote this about one of his characters, but he just as easily could be describing our country as a whole:

She was a genius of sadness, immersing herself in it, separating its numerous strands, appreciating its subtle nuances.  She was a prism through which sadness could be divided into its infinite spectrum.”

As a people we have responded to the times we live in by immersing ourselves in sadness and in the process we have become a prism through which sadness can be divided into its infinite spectrum.  If this is true, and I think it is, then the biggest challenge we face in the world today is not how to secure our safety.  It is not how to identify those who mean to do us harm.  Our biggest challenge is spiritual. 

There is no question but that we live in a difficult and challenging age.  There is little we can do to change this reality.  But how we respond to our times – how we allow it to affect us – is well within our control.  Chronic sadness, hopelessness, and despair are choices we make in response to what we experience.  No one forces them on us.  Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “Sorrow looks back.  Worry looks around.  Faith looks up”.  What do you choose?

This morning’s first reading was taken from the inter-testament Book of Baruch.  It is set during the period of the Exile, a time after God’s people had been conquered militarily, taken from their devastated homeland, and forced to live in Babylon.  It was about as bleak a time as anyone of us could ever imagine.   God’s people lived in captivity for more than two generations until no one alive had ever experienced anything other than life in Babylon.  In that dark time Baruch’s words shined with the brightness of the sun:

Take off the garment
of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,
  and put on forever
the beauty of the glory from God.

Put on the robe of the righteousness
that comes from God;
put on your head the diadem
of the glory of the Everlasting;
  for God will show your splendor
everywhere under heaven.

We like to say, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”  Baruch might change that up a tad to say, “When the going gets bleak, put on festive clothes and celebrate.”  In the face of real life social and political problems he points to a spiritual solution: “We must mourn no longer.  It is time for us to reflect the beauty and the glory of God.  We will choose in whom we live and move and have our being.  And people everywhere will know and see who we are, what we believe, and the power of God working in us.”

Today’s gospel reading demonstrates how Luke sets his story in a historical context: the emperor, the governor, rulers of various regions, and religious leaders in the temple.  All of these people possessing all the world’s power and yet the word of God comes not to them nor does it come through them.  God’s word is spoken by a prophet preaching not in the halls of privilege and power, but in the wilderness.  His message is simple: “Repent of what you have become and be baptized into what God would have you be.”  It is a call to choose spiritual renewal in a time of darkness and despair.

Advent is a season of waiting.  We wait for God’s promise to be fulfilled.  In a little more than two weeks we will celebrate the birth of Jesus and receive its gifts of peace and hope and light.  But these gifts won’t sweep around the globe like some kind of holy tsunami transforming everything in their path.  Peace and hope and light are more like the image Baruch gives us: new garments we put on and wear after we take off the old garments of sorrow and affliction.  They come into the world as God’s free gift.  They are made real in the world through each one of us as we wear them.

Shannon Alder, in her book 300 Questions to Ask Your Parents Before It’s Too Late, makes this obvious, but important observation: “Anger, resentment and jealousy don't change the hearts of others, they only change yours.”  As I watch and read the news I am keenly aware of how what is happening is changing us, changing me.  Looking backward and looking around without looking up has a way of affecting our wardrobe, doesn’t it.  It makes us people of the moment rather than representatives of Eternity.  I for one need to hear John’s call: “Repent of what you have become and be baptized into what God would have you be.”  I need to take off the clothes I am wearing and put on the clothing of peace and hope and light that reflect the beauty and the glory of God.  I began Advent last Sunday with a simple, three-word message: Take Advent Slowly!  Here are this week’s three words: Change Your Clothes!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Take Advent Slowly

Jesus said, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with… the worries of this life, and that the day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” 

Today is the first Sunday of the year in the church calendar.  Happy new year!  Advent 1.  Advent.  Of all the seasons in the Church year, it most has been bulldozed and buried by contemporary culture, its wisdom and value lost in the marketing rush to get to Christmas.  That other new year celebration, the one in Times Square, has its descending ball and sixty second countdown.  For most, Advent has morphed into a countdown to Christmas: only X number of shopping days left, only three more candles on the wreath to light, only so much time left to trim the tree, send out cards, and bake cookies. 

Is this all there is to Advent?  Is this what it is supposed to be?  Can Advent be something more?   Can it be something else?

I have been reading a book by the writer Rinker Buck about an adventure he set out on a few years ago with his brother.  They decided to retrace by mule-drawn covered wagon the original route of the Oregon Trail – a feat which, to the best of their ability to figure, hadn’t been attempted in over 100 years.  Inspiration (or what some might call “insanity”) for the journey came from several sources.  One was the memory of a similar, shorter trip with their father on a family “vacation” in the 1950’s when they travelled and camped by covered wagon through parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Their dad hung a sign on the back of the wagon for passing motorists to read: “We apologize for holding up your drive.”  And then in huge print it said, “See America Slowly.”

Rinker Buck’s book, titled The Oregon Trail, is all about what happens when you see America slowly.  As I flew to California last week I was keenly aware I was retracing sections of the Trail myself, albeit at 450 miles per hour from an altitude of 40,000 feet.  My United flight and Buck’s covered wagon both got from point A to point B, but as you can imagine, they were completely different experiences.  I was transported from one coast to another in a couple of hours.  Rinker and his brother were transformed by their journey, which lasted the better part of a summer. 

I am confident you recognize what it is like to go through Advent (and life, for that matter) at 450 MPH from 40,000 feet.  What might it look like to “Take Advent Slowly”?  What might it look like to live slowly and intentionally with Advent’s themes of longing, peace, hope, and love? 

If I asked you what you longed for, could you give me an answer?  If not, do you think your life would be richer if you made some time to sit with yourself until you understood the deepest longings of your heart?  That, I think, would be Advent time well spent.  What if I asked where you find peace in your life?  Can you identify a place, an experience, or a time when peace envelops you on a consistent basis?  If you can’t point to anything, wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could?  What about hope?  What would you say if I asked how hope sustains and encourages you in your life?  Could you give me an answer?  And what if I asked how you experience deep, unconditional, healing love?  Our faith tells us this is how God is in relationship with us.  When, where, and how do you experience it in your life?

If you struggle to answer any or all of these, don’t feel bad.  You are not a failing as a Christian.  My guess is you simply have not taken time to live with yourself in a way that fosters spiritual and personal awareness.  You have been living a 450/40,000 life.  You are not alone, in fact you are part of the majority.  Advent comes not to remind us to get ready for Christmas, but to speak to the value of waiting; of the necessity we have for space to be still, to live with God and ourselves in a slow, quiet way.

Those of you in the Women’s Study Group will recognize how what I am saying connects with the book you are studying by Sue Monk Kidd.  In it she writes of being on a retreat and trying to sit for a period of meditation, only she can’t.  She has lost the capacity to be still and even has come to believe doing nothing is a waste of time.  Then she sees a monk sitting perfectly still under a tree.  He remains motionless for a long, long time.  When his mediation is complete she engages him in conversation, confessing she has trouble getting used to the idea of doing nothing.  Listen to what he says in response:

“When you’re waiting, you’re not doing nothing. You are doing the most important something there is.  You’re allowing your soul to grow up.  If you can’t be still and wait, you can’t become what God created you to be.”

Kidd goes on to make this observation,

“When it comes to religion today, we tend to be long on butterflies and short on cocoons.”

So we have two different, but related images for Advent: the covered wagon and the cocoon.  The covered wagon eventually gets you where you need to go while changing you by the experience.  The cocoon is a slow and necessary process leading to transformation and new life.

God’s promise to us is always new life.  Throughout the Church year we retrace how God’s promise is fulfilled in the person of Jesus.  As it tells the Jesus story, the Church calendar has us waiting four weeks for the promise to be incarnated in a stable in Bethlehem.  In our lives, the waiting can and does take much longer.  In fact, waiting is an indispensible spiritual skill we must draw on regularly if we hope to stay in touch with God and with ourselves. 

Kidd points out that the Greek word for soul is psyche, which often is symbolized as a butterfly.  She writes,

“The fullness of one’s soul evolves slowly.  We are asked to go within to gestate the newness God is trying to form; we’re asked to collaborate with grace.”

Hers is an Advent insight; one challenged by what she calls our “quickaholic” spirituality and lifestyle.  “Be on guard,” Jesus told his followers in today’s gospel reading, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with… the worries of this life, and that the day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.”  I hear him encouraging us to take Advent slowly!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Not One Stone will be Left

Jesus said, “Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left upon another, all will be thrown down.”  These are not comforting words for us, especially while St. Paul’s is in the midst of a tuck-pointing project to grind out and replace failing mortar in the joints of our exterior bricks.  I’d like to think this work will keep the building solid, well, forever.  Today’s reading is not comforting.

Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem in 957 BC to replace the movable Tabernacle constructed under the direction of Moses.  Over the next 100 years the Temple was sacked at least twice and left in disrepair.  King Jehoash made a push to have it repaired in 835 BC, but it was stripped again by an Assyrian invasion around 712 BC.  The Babylonians assaulted Jerusalem several times after that, completely destroying the Temple and sacking the city in 586 BC; giving rise to a period in Jewish history referred to as the Exile. 

That time came to an end when a Persian army led by Cyrus the Great defeated Babylon in 538 BC.  The new ruler allowed Jews to return to their homeland and authorized the construction of a new temple.  Twenty-three years later this work was complete, although the second Temple lacked grandeur of the first.  This structure was almost destroyed in 332 BC by Alexander the Great, who was angry that Jews refused to acknowledge him as a deity.

The Seleucids came to rule in Jerusalem in 198 BC.  They wanted to erect images of Greek gods in the Temple.  After a Jewish rebellion ensured and was brutally put down, efforts to change the Temple were halted.  Several years later Antiochus IV outlawed circumcision and worship on the Sabbath.  When he placed a stature of Zeus in the Temple Jewish anger rose to a boiling point.  In 167 BC a Jewish priest by the name of Mattathias was ordered to perform a pagan sacrifice, but rather than capitulate, he killed the Greek official.  This led to a mass uprising and Mattathias’ son Judas Maccabeus led the fight to free Jews from Seleucid rule.  The Temple was rededicated in 165 BC and many of the events around this period continue to be celebrated as a major part of the Feast of Hanukkah.

After Rome invaded Jerusalem in 63 BC, Pompey entered the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the Temple, thereby desecrating it.  Crassus looted the Temple treasury in 54 BC.  None of this sat well with Jews, but Roman rule was too strong to confront.  Herod the Great launched a major building project in 20 BC.  Construction on the Temple as Jesus knew it was largely finished just before birth.  The new structure covered an area roughly the size of fifteen football fields.  Its exterior was covered in white marble and had many gold embellishments.  Located on top of a high hill, you can imagine the reaction of pilgrims as they caught sight of it for the first time.   

If you want to understand the place the Temple held in Jewish society, try to imagine a single building that functions as our National Cathedral, Capital, White House, and Pentagon.  Add in the Untied States Treasury building and you begin to understand what this one site meant for Jews.  And while it held an incredibly significant psychological place, many Jews in Jesus’ day had mixed feelings about the Temple.  Yes, it was the epicenter of their national life, but also was rife with corruption and its core had shifted from devotion to God to collaboration with Rome.  Our gospel readings over the past few weeks have thundered with Jesus’ criticism of how it operated.  The text says many people listened “with great delight” as he sparred with and bettered Temple officials.  

Today’s reading has Jesus leaving the Temple.  One of his disciples has what one commentator calls a “Gomer Pyle” moment – the country bumpkin in the big city saying, “Well Gol-ly, this sure is a big building and them-‘thar’ as some big stones.”  The disciple is not exactly incorrect.  Some of the stones erected in the wall were as big as a city bus.  But Jesus is not at all impressed and is livid with how the Temple preys on the pious.  Jesus did not emerge in a cultural vacuum.  The span of his life was pocketed with several minor uprisings and revolts.  He was just one of many Temple critics and by the time he emerged Roman officials had come to realize better to eliminate the lone voice before it garners a larger following. 

The protest movements did not end after Jesus’ crucifixion.  Three decades after his death, an all-out war between Rome and Jews erupted in 66 AD, with the Jews enjoying early victories.  They set up a provisional government and it is telling that once they gained control, rebels broke into the Temple archives and burned all the records; effectively freeing all those made destitute by foreclosure on their land and assets as a means to finance the building project.  Jewish fanaticism was at an all-time high, as was the expectation God would send a messiah to lead them in a final battle against Rome.  It reached a fevered pitch when Nero, the Roman emperor, died in 68 AD and Vespasian, who was leading the army against the Jews, had to return to Rome because the capital was in disarray.  Many in Jerusalem proclaimed this evidence God was intervening on their behalf.  

Eventually Vespasian ceased control in Rome and sent to Jerusalem an army of 60,000 soldiers.  A siege was enacted that lasted several years.  In 70 AD the city fell and a bloodbath ensured.  The Temple was burned to the ground and, in the words of Jesus, not one stone was left on top of another. 

Scholars note Mark’s gospel was written right around this very time.  Either the city was under siege, or the Romans were in the process of destroying the Temple, or it was lying in ruins as the ashes smoldered.  Given this context, Mark’s record of Jesus’ words stands not so much as a prediction as a theological interpretation of current events.  Did you catch what I just said?  What we heard read this morning is not so much a prediction of future events as it is an explanation of what is happening.  Many people today misunderstand the bible’s apocalyptic writings.  It is used in turbulent times to interpret, not to forecast.

Given this, Mark portrays Jesus as saying several important things to his readers:

· These are crazy times and there are a lot of crazy people out there saying a lot of crazy things.

· Following crazy leaders has grave consequences.

· What appears to be destruction has the seeds of a new beginning – what Jesus calls ‘birth pangs’.

The destruction of the Temple and subsequent banishment of Jews from the Holy Land eventually gave rise to the Christianization of the Roman Empire and Western World as we know it.  It also led to a reinvention of Judaism, which now finds it locus not in a specific location, but in an ongoing practice of remembering.

As we gather this morning we realize anew we live in a turbulent world.  We see it in the horrific events that unfolded in Paris.  We see it in the cruel things that shape the lives our children and grandchildren.  And we see it in the personal challenges we never imagined we would have to face. 

I hear in Jesus’ words several things we need to hear:

· First, turbulent times call for vigilance.  Recognizing we are not safe is the first step we must take in order to be safe.

· Second, turbulent times call for great discernment.  When something goes wrong we want an explanation.  Who is to blame?  What did I do wrong?  What is God trying to say to me?  What will make this all go away?  As Jesus said, false prophets will rise up – be they spiritual leaders, political figures, or even close acquaintances – and they will give us easy answers to complicated questions.

· Finally, Jesus proclaims turbulent times, through the grace and power of God, lead to new beginnings.  The pain we experience is not the pain of death, but rather the pain of birth.  Something new is going to emerge – in your life, in the life of those close to you, in our world.  This is our faith, the faith we have received from Jesus.

We are a people of hope.  Hope is not a spiritual trait you draw on when times are good.  It comes to the forefront only when times are tough.  I remember in seminary talking with friends about the end times.  It was a heady conversation that encompassed all the various theories about tribulation, the end of the world, and final judgment.  I remember one person saying something like, “God’s Church is not going anywhere because the bible says Jesus will return for us like a groom comes to his bride as she is adorned for her wedding.”  “Brides,” he noted, “Don’t come to their wedding day dragging and tattered, but decked out in their finest.”  “That is us,” he said.  “We are not going to destroy the planet in a nuclear war [the big social issue at the time].  Somehow, someway, humanity is going to come together and present itself to Christ as a bride ready for marriage.”  Now, that is a statement of great hope and it has stayed with me.  It is as a vision that, through the grace of God, will be our future.  It is a future toward which we must labor daily. 

Jesus has told us what we need to do in turbulent times.  We are to be vigilant, discerning, and hopeful.  May the One who gives us this word give us grace to hear it, grace to accept it, and wisdom to live it.