Monday, December 30, 2019

The Word Became Flesh

John 1:1-18
The First Sunday after Christmas / Year A

I am reading a book by Sy Montgomery called The Soul of an Octopus.  A naturalist and award winning author, Montgomery began to visit a Boston Aquarium on a regular basis to learn about and to forge relationships with these amazingly intelligent sea creatures.  In addition to writing about octopi, she also relates stories about the people who work at the aquarium.  I want to read for you a passage from the book where Montgomery describes a project undertaken by Scott, a marine biologist, to train Suriname toads:

Not only are these animals amphibians [with small brains] but they are also blind.  There blindness has sculpted their unique appearance: At the head of the toad’s six-inch, flattened brown body are two nostrils, each set at the end of a long, narrow tube.  The front limbs have star-shaped tactile organs on the fingertips to help the animals detect food...

Alas, the public seldom gets to see these exotic toads because the animals hide in the vegetation in their pretty, naturalistic exhibit…  Scott is trying to figure out a way to induce the toads to show themselves.

How?  “You need to get within the mind of the toad,” he says.  “We’re engaged in toad psy-ops.”  How does a blind toad decide what is a safe, good place to stay – and how does he find it?  “You get to learn very fast,” Scott says.  “You learn to project empathy.  Remember the movie E.T.?  Its kind of like that.  You reach out with an invisible hand and read the organism.  You have to meet them halfway.  You have to be willing to listen.” 

…Aquarists learn the silent language of fishes.  Once, walking into a hallway… where some cichlids had just been moved from one tank to another, Scott had announced to me with concern, “I smell fish stress.”  The scent is subtle – I cannot smell it at all – but the low-tide odor Scott detects, he explained at the time, is that of heat-shock proteins…  The scent makes Scott feel sick to his stomach – not because the smell is nauseating, but because the thought that fish in his care are stressed fills him with the same urgency and dread he used to feel when his newborn son would cry.

Scott reads other fish cues just as fluently.  When we visited the cichlids in their new home, he compared those who had just been moved to those who had been living there for weeks or months.  The stripes on the new immigrants were paler.  “And look at this one,” he said, pointing to a fish who was already at home in the tank.  “See the sparkle in his eye?  Now look at this new one.  You don’t see the sparkle.”  Scott can read the faces of fishes as easily as you and I can read a person’s. 

On the first Sunday after Christmas the Lectionary always assigns the same gospel lesson – what is known as the Prologue to John, the first eighteen verses of Chapter 1:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God…

The true light, which enlightens everyone,
was coming into the world.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and from his fullness we have all received,
grace upon grace.

It proclaims the Creator’s intense, unceasing desire to be in relationship with us.  And while we strive yet struggle to cross the divide between human life and the animal kingdom, it is not possible for us even to conceive of the chasm separating us from the possibility of knowing the Holy One and interacting with the Divine. 

While we are very different from toads and cichlids, we do in fact share many characteristics.  We all have physical bodies.  We exist together within our planet’s environment.  We each have senses through which we can detect the other and the world around us.  As living organisms we eat, breath, grow, reproduce, and die.  We exist within time and space.  We share none of these things with God.  God does not have a physical body, is not a part of our environment, has no senses, does not eat, breath, grow, reproduce, or die.  God is wholly other from us, yet desires to be in relationship with us.

While we are not able in our humanity to become a marine creature, our faith holds God took on human flesh.  In Jesus of Nazareth we see the Light of God – not just a person reflecting a good and godly nature, but God incarnate, God with us, God becoming one of us yet still being God.  As we encounter God in human flesh we learn about the ways we can be like God.  St. Paul calls our common characteristics the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  This is (in part) who God is and it is what we see lived out by Jesus throughout the gospels.

I suppose if a Scott the marine biologist could become a Suriname toad while retaining his human nature, he might use the connection to entice the creatures out of hiding so they could be better observed by visitors to the aquarium.  God’s Word/God’s Light becomes human so we might reflect what we see.  As the moon reflects the sun’s light back upon the earth, God entices each of us to reflect the light of Christ to one another: 

· As God’s love comes to you, you can lavish it upon others and the world around you.

· As God’s joy fills your heart, you can be a witness to how to live with worldly cares and concerns.

· As God’s peace pervades your life, you can be a calming, stabilizing presence in a turbulent world.

· As God is patience with you, you can learn how to live with patience in a world where things often don’t go in the way you want them to when you want them to.

· As God is kind to you, you will discover kindness and thoughtfulness welling up inside you.

· As God is good with you, you will want goodness to mark how you relate to others.

· As God is faithful to you, you will begin to understand the value of being honest, true, and dependable in how you relate to others.

· As God is gentle with you, you will want to hold others with care while being caring of the world you live in.

· As God exhibits self-control with you, you will desire to have all your actions emanate from internal principles and values rather than be a haphazard response to how others treat you.

God has crossed the divide.  The Word has become flesh.  The Light has come into the world.  We have beheld the Light.  We have seen the Word.  The Light shines in us and through us.  The Word now reflects from our human flesh.  We now know who we are and what we can be… for ourselves, for others, for the world we live in, and for God.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Let Heaven and Nature Sing

Luke 2:1-20
Christmas Eve / Year A

Christmas Eve 51 years ago was unlike any before or after.  As people around the world gathered with family and friends to celebrate Jesus’ birth, three men – astronauts – were farther from home than any human beings had ever been before.  The mission to send Apollo 8 into lunar orbit was something of a “Hail Mary” attempt by NASA to reinvigorate the space program following the disastrous fire that killed the crew of Apollo 1 during a routine test on the launch pad.  It was a bold attempt to get ahead of the Russians in the Space Race and perhaps even get back on track to achieving President Kennedy’s goal of a moon landing by the end of the decade.

Christmas Eve 1968, as Apollo 8’s crew prepared for a primetime, worldwide television broadcast live from just miles above the lunar surface, the most amazing thing happened.  The astronauts looked out one of the crafts’ windows and witnessed something no one had ever seen before or imagined.  Bill Anders grabbed his 70mm camera, loaded it with color film, and took a picture which has become one of the most famous and influential photographs.  Along its bottom edge you see the bright grey landscape of the moon’s craggy surface.  Above this foreground is the black void of space.  Suspended in the center of the dark nothingness is a radiant and stunningly beautiful blue and white distant world with the lower crescent obscured in shadow.  It is us as we have never seen us before.  The image quickly came to be known simply as “Earthrise.”

It continues to reorient our self-understanding.  The Earth appears fragile and finite.  It reminds us national borders are human constructs.  It speaks of the reality this planet is our only haven and our only home.  Just a few weeks after Earthrise was published President Nixon signed legislation creating the Environment Protection Agency and congress passed the Clean Water Act.  The image underscored the need to end the Cold War in order to lessen the possibility of nuclear annihilation and create a greater sense of the human family.  It deepened some people’s faith in a Creator; which was augmented by the crew’s decision to read the creation story from Genesis 1 during their Christmas Eve broadcast.  It was a transformative moment in human history.

300 years ago another such moment occurred when an English poet sat down to wrestle with a couple of biblical texts, primarily the 98th Psalm and the third chapter of Genesis.  His name was Isaac Watts and in time he would come to be known as the Father of English Hymnody.  Listen to the words of the psalm from the King James Version from which Watts read:

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.

Sing unto the Lord with the harp;
with the harp, and the voice of a psalm.

With trumpets and sound of cornet
make a joyful noise before the Lord, the King.

Let the sea roar, and the fullness thereof;
the world, and they that dwell therein.

Let the floods clap their hands:
let the hills be joyful together.

Before the Lord;
for he cometh to judge the earth:
with righteousness shall he judge the world,
and the people with equity.

Placing the psalm’s theology of Creation’s call to praise God beside the Genesis 3 story of the fall when the ground is infested with thorns as God’s punishment for Adam’s sin, Watts pondered how creation can sing God’s praise while being under this curse.  He concluded the complete fulfillment of the psalm’s vision will not be accomplished until Jesus returns again.  Setting his thinking to verse, he crafted the lyrics to what has become the most popular Christmas carol ever written:

Joy to the world!  The Lord is come:
let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare him room
and heaven and nature sing.

Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns:
let us our songs employ
while fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
repeat the sounding joy.

 No more let sins and sorrows grow,
nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
and makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness
and wonders of his love.

To celebrate the 300th anniversary of these words we at St. Paul’s have adopted the theme of “Let Heaven and Nature Sing” for our Advent worship by inviting nature into our worship and space in as many different and creative ways as we could imagine.  And after thoughtful discussion we decided to keep much of what we created in place for tonight’s service in order to reinterpret it to speak of our Lord’s incarnation into our world.  I hope and trust what you encounter here tonight will reverberate in some profound and powerful way.

Tonight we gather to celebrate our Savior’s birth.  It reminds us God becomes human flesh and lives among us to change something about us.  We describe this conversion using many different words and images:

·    From cursed to blessed
·    From lost to found
·    From aimlessness to pilgrimage
·    From self-interest to discipleship
·    From mourning to dancing
·    From isolation to community
·    From despair to hope
·    From fear to faith
·    From silence to singing

No matter what the idea or image, each describes a transformation; a new way of seeing the world and being a part of it.  Like Earthrise and like worshipping with an emphasis on singing with Heaven and Nature, each invites us to see ourselves in a way we have never before conceived or imagined.

As profound as the Earthrise image has been and as popular as Watts’ carol has become, neither begins to approach the cosmic impact of the birth we celebrate tonight.  The God who created us has come to us in human flesh to save us from ourselves and to sing for us the song of God’s glorious intention for all life. 

I am grateful for our transformative Advent journey with its invitation to add our voice anew to the choir of the saints in heaven and saints on earth who join with Heaven and Nature to sing God’s praise.  I wish you and all you love a very merry Christmas.

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Joseph Questions

Matthew 1:18-25
The Fourth Sunday in Advent - Year A

When describing events in and around the birth of Jesus, Matthew’s Gospel tells the story from the perspective of Joseph the carpenter.  The New Revised Standard Version of the bible, from which we just heard, states he is “engaged” to Mary, but this rendering is somewhat misleading.  A more accurate translation states they are “betrothed”, but very few today understand what this entails. 

In Jesus’ day betrothal is a legally binding relationship resulting in marriage, usually twelve months later.  Sometimes the groom states a preference for a particular bride, but more often the match is made at the discretion of the parents.  During betrothal the future bride (often a young teenager) continues to live with her parents and the couple does not engage in sexual relations.  They use the time to get to know one another and adjust to the idea they will become husband and wife.  There are occurrences of a bride moving into a groom’s home prior to the marriage through a ceremony known as a “home-taking”, but this continues to be a period of celibacy.

When the times comes for the wedding, the groom and his companions process to the bride’s home to escort her and her party back to the groom’s house for a celebration which might last as long as a week.  At a certain point during the festivities the bride’s father draws up a marriage contract after which the couple goes to a “bridal chamber” to consummate the marriage.

Something significant unfolds during the time Joseph and Mary are betrothed.  She becomes pregnant and he knows he is not the father.  There are only two possibilities.  Either Mary had a consensual relationship with another man or another man forced himself on her.  Either scenario releases Joseph from the betrothal.  Either opens Mary to shame, disgrace, and the potential of being stoned to death.  Most likely Joseph believes Mary has been victimized, which accounts for his desire to shield her as much as possible from the consequences of being pregnant.  That Joseph embraces a third possibility after a dream is truly remarkable.  The couple – she pregnant – remains betrothed.

Matthew tells us Jesus is born in Bethlehem.  He provides no details about the couple travelling there from Nazareth to be registered for a census.  All he says is that Jesus is born here.  He says nothing of a stable, angelic chorus, or shepherds watching their flock.  These details are found only in Luke’s Gospel.  Matthew alone tells of the Magi’s visit.  They find Mary living in a house with Jesus being a small child, most likely not yet two years old.  Neither Luke nor Matthew provides details of Joseph and Mary’s wedding and surrounding festivities.  Whatever occurs takes place after Jesus is born and most likely is a subdued affair given all that has transpired.

Omitting the miraculous conception, we still have no way of knowing how many betrothals in Jesus’ day are as complicated as this one and we have no way of knowing how common or uncommon Joseph’s response is to it.  What we do know is the culture’s general attitude about wives.  They are property and belong to their husbands, who generally regard them primarily as reflections of themselves.  Thus, more than a betrayal, Joseph (as a product of his culture) must have held Mary’s pregnancy to be a stain on his own reputation and social standing.  A typical man of his era would think primarily about how her pregnancy diminished him.

Matthew tells us Joseph is a “righteous” man.  I hear in this he has appropriated all the best of his tradition while rising above its limitations.  Yes, he is a product of his times, but he is better than his times.  Rather than acting ego-centrically (What does this mean for me?  How does it reflect on me?), he subjugates himself in order to think first about what he can do for Mary.  And he does this even before an angel comes to him in a dream.

Fast-forward to our time where we are conditioned to ask of any situation “What is in it for me?” “How will I benefit?”  “How will it enhance the ways others think me?”  “How will it bolster the way I think of myself?”  Joseph’s example invites us to ask new questions: “What does this situation need?” “What do I have to offer?”  “How might my personal sacrifice make things better for another?”

Let’s call these “Joseph Questions”!  They are questions we ask when we see ourselves in a new relationship with all around us.  Over the course of Advent we have described this new perspective through the metaphor of a cosmic song of praise.  Each of us is part of a choir whose membership includes every created thing.  Now we can choose to sing our part much like the soprano I remember in a church choir long ago who used her powerful voice to drown out every other person and section.  Or we can sing in harmony under the leadership of the Choir Director who has created us all and called us together.  We can always push for our advantage or, like Joseph, we can act in ways to enrich one another. 

Monday, December 16, 2019

What did You Expect to See?

The Third Sunday of Advent / Year A
Matthew 11:2-11

Not only do my favorite comedians make me laugh, they help me to see the world from a different angle.  Steven Wright, whose humor is drier than an overcooked side of bacon, contends “Everywhere is within walking distance if you have enough time.”  Another comedian surmised the sinking of the Titanic was a tragedy for everyone on board except the lobsters in its kitchen.  And   George Carlin, famous for his off-the-wall observations, declared, “Some people see the glass half full, others see it half empty, but I see a glass that’s twice as big as it needs to be.”  It is all about perspective, isn’t it!

Here is something I have learned from the pilgrimages I have undertaken in Spain, Scotland, and the Holy Land.  You go on a pilgrimage (or any journey for that matter) with an itinerary – where you will go, when you will be there, where you will stay, what you will see and do.  You go with an itinerary, but you come back with a perspective, often new and deeply formative. 

You never go on a pilgrimage projecting what your new perspective will be.  God, working in and through the experience, determines what it will be for you.  And what I have gained from a pilgrimage has never been exactly the same as what any other person travelling with me gained.  And yet we are bound together by being together, by walking with one another while something uniquely personal is happening to each one of us.

I am grateful for how each pilgrimage I have been on, like every experience I have had, has enriched my life.  Steve Job, the brilliant founder of Apple Computers, recognized how these experiences enhance a person’s world, and, conversely, how their lack depletes it.  Listen to what he said:

A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences.  So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem.  The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.

While there is value in every new experience, it is not necessarily guaranteed a pilgrim will emerge from any one them with new insight or perspective on life.  Like T.S. Eliot noted in The Four Quartets, “We had the experience but missed the meaning.”  Sometimes, perhaps most times, discerning meaning takes time and effort.  It may only emerge way down the road and in concert with additional experiences.  Other times, the meaning is apparent, but appropriating it is a slow and arduous process.

I hear all of this in today’s Gospel reading as Jesus poses to the crowd a question about John the Baptist and his ministry: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?”  He is not asking about their itinerary.  He is not asking specifically about what happened when they encountered John.  He is not asking about their expectations.  He wants to know how it affected them.  What happened to you when you went out into the wilderness?  What did it mean to you then?  What does it mean to you now?  How are you different?  How have you been changed by what happened?  How have you resisted what the moment brought to you?  You had the experience.  Did you get the meaning?

You can’t open a dictionary or search the internet or turn to the Catechism to find answers to these questions because they are intensely personal.  What unites fellow pilgrims is not a shared outcome, but being together with one another throughout the journey and supporting one another throughout the process of discovery and transformation. 

These are good Advent questions and good questions for each of us to ponder as we worship with Heaven and Nature singing.  What did you come here expecting to see?  If you want to, you can get a notepad and make a list of everything we have added to our worship space.  If you are talented, you can sketch it.  But we all recognize there is a huge difference between the inventory of what is new and the meaning it has and holds for each one of us.  What is happening to you as a result of what we are doing in our Advent worship?

Last Sunday evening our Youth Group members were excited to show their friends our worship space.  And we had a really interesting discussion about what we have done, why we have done it, and what each of us might add to it.  We tried to talk about what it means to each of us, but the answers to this question proved more elusive.  I suspect the same is true for us adults.  By all accounts we are enjoining the experience, but the meaning is still percolating… and this is OK. 

I continue to pray God will use this space and time to form and shape each one of us.  I am grateful for the experience, and look forward to having a deeper sense of its meaning.

Monday, December 9, 2019

What is Lost or Left Behind?

The Second Sunday of Advent - Year A
Matthew 3:1-12

Before the Liturgical year gives us a babe in swaddling clothes, it gives us a peculiar loner in the wilderness.  Perhaps no greater difference between the Church’s sense of time and the culture’s “holiday season” is found than here.  While the culture bombards us with the promise of happiness through material gifts, the church gives us John the Baptist and his warning of a coming judgment of fire.  While our culture portrays how a variety of products will produce the perfect expression of love, John insults people by calling them a “brood of vipers.”  While the culture implores us to live it up at this time of the year, the Baptist demands we repent.  No wonder so few want to celebrate (or maybe it is more accurate to say ‘observe’) Advent.

The text tells us John appears in the wilderness and tells us the odd (but memorable) details about what he wears (clothes made from camel hair) and eats (locus and wild honey).  His is a lean lifestyle to be sure and leanness is the opposite of what many of us will be experiencing over the course of the next few weeks.  What might John’s lifestyle say to us at this time of the year?  How might it be an Advent call pointing the way for a joyful Christmas celebration?

If you were not around in the 1970’s the name Euell Gibbons may not ring a bell, but for those of us who were it is sure to elicit a smile or chuckle.  Gibbons seemed to spend much of his life trying to figure out want he wanted to do with it.  Through it all he developed a passion for foraging wild food sources.  He became a best-selling author of several cookbooks that encouraged people to use natural ingredients such as rose pedals and dandelion roots in their recipes.  Gibbons’ fame skyrocketed when he starred in a commercial for Grape Nuts cereal, famously asking, “Ever eat a pine tree?” “Many of its parts are edible,” he told viewers.  Gibbons put eating naturally on the map while at the same time becoming the source of many parodies, often laughing at himself as good-natured humor was poked at him and his eccentric eating habits.

Euell Gibbons stood out because he was different.  At a time when TV dinners were all the rage, he reminded us of our roots in eating roots off the land.  While the march of progress has much to say for it, some valuable things have been pushed aside and forgotten.  In a world moving steadily and happily toward processed foods, Gibbons reminded people other and older alternatives still exist.

John the Baptist was a similar figure.  He did not dress like everyone else and he certainly did not eat like everyone else.  Living in the wilderness, as he did, by definition is an alternative life-style.  He eschewed the halls of powers and societal institutions framing much of life in his day and charted his own course.  He held a deep conviction that the more immersed a person becomes in all these trappings the less able he or she will be to discern God’s presence in the world.

John called on people to repent; a word literally meaning to turn around, to do a 180 in order to return to your roots.  And he initiated people into this movement through an act involving one of nature’s most basic elements: baptism by immersion in the waters of the River Jordon.  When I visited the site where many hold John’s ministry unfolded, what stays with me is how cool and refreshing the water felt.  The Jordon Valley is hot and dry.  The only green in it grows by being connected to the water of the river.  Wading into it and going under was wonderfully restorative, physically at first, but then spiritually as well. 

I am sure it spoke to those John baptized and reminded them of their need to get back to basics, to return to those things that are necessary, but over time have been forgotten or ignored.  The more immersed a person becomes in the trappings of this life the less able he or she will be to discern God’s presence in the world.

I like that our Advent liturgy is built on a very simple premise: God created all things to join in a harmonious song of praise.  It invites us to ask several questions:  What is this song and when do I join in it?  When am I silent?  Why do I so often sing a different song?  And the Advent question: How do I get back to singing with Heaven and Nature?  How to I rejoin this harmony?  And finally, the Christmas Question: How will this help me to discern God’s presence in the world?

Advent invites us to shut off the cultural noise surrounding us.  It is intended to be a lean time affording us the opportunity to return to what we have lost or left behind.  As we do these things, it promises we are better positioned to discern God’s presence in our world and in our life.  I don’t advice you to wear clothes made of camel hair nor do I counsel you to eat bugs or pine trees, but I do ask where you will begin.  What will be your first step into Advent?

Monday, December 2, 2019

The Song of the Creator's Praise

The First Sunday of Advent - Year A
Matthew 24:36-44
When I was a student at Virginia Theological Seminary we were required to take two units in homiletics (a fancy word for preaching), each a semester long.  Individual classes met once a week, lasted three hours, and consisted of three different student sermons and discussion about them.  The classes were held in an old and mostly drab, deconsecrated chapel on campus.  High up on the front wall of the old chapel, above where the altar had been, there was a clear, round window about eight feet in diameter.  It afforded the only glimpse of the outside world. 

Windows in worship spaces are intended to transform light by taking the ordinary and making it sacred.  In churches such as ours, exterior light passes through stained glass to tell the ancient story through word and image.  In spaces with clear windows, such as that old chapel, the effect is transform how the outside world looks from the inside.  They allow the worshipper to see the world through the eyes of the faith.

An old, large oak tree grew beside the chapel.  From an inside, sitting position, the human eye, looking through the window, was not able to take in the whole tree, much less the entire landscape.  The circular view framed one the high-up limbs.  All that could be seen was a portion of the limb, a few of the branches stemming from it, the leaves on those branches, and the sky.  Still, during many of those preaching classes, the view through the window was the most interesting thing going on!

The window’s limited perspective did something fascinating.  Far from restricting what a person can see of the world, its forced focus enhanced and deepened what was visible through it.  On one day all in the window might be still, while on another the leaves fluttered in a gentle breeze.  With the advent of fall the color of the leaves began to turn and then, in time, the foliage thinned out and eventually was gone.  The bareness gave way to budding in the spring, which in time became new, green blooms.  The sky itself was never the same – clear blue or filled with billowing clouds or overcast or rainy or dotted with flakes of snow.  It was like a painting, except it was alive, dynamic, and ever-changing.

The original designer of the chapel did not install the window to distract daydreamers such as me, but rather, to invite the worshipper to look out on the world with the eyes of faith; to see the world as our faith holds it to be – a wonderful creation of God every bit as splendid as the man and the woman fashioned from the dust of the earth.  The window beckons the worshipper, upon leaving the chapel, to live and move and have one’s being in a world now held to be sacred and holy.

The readings for the First Sunday of Advent implore us to wake up and keep watch for our Lord’s coming.  Jesus famously describes a time two men will be working in the field and two women working at a mill.  One man and one woman will be taken away while the other two will be left behind.  It is an image providing fuel for much of the rapture theology that holds Jesus will call the faithful up into the sky while the unfaithful will be left behind to fight it out in some kind of hellish existence.  It is a literal notion based on strikingly bad biblical interpretation.  Jesus states clearly the days to come will be like the days of Noah when a few were saved while others were swept away by the flood.  Thus, as Jesus tells his story, it is the ones who are left behind who are saved while the ones who taken away are lost.

Rapture theology – with its left behind vision of apocalyptic doom – has had the effect in some circles of creating a callous and careless disregard for the role and fate of God’s Creation.  What difference does it make what happens to the environment when God is going to save the ‘good’ people from it?  Combine this with a heightened sense of entitlement stemming from God’s command to Adam to have dominion over Creation and you get a misguided theological underpinning supporting indifferent to ecological disaster.

The force of Scripture asserts the earth is the Lord’s.  It asserts God’s concern for the care and well being of every living creature.  And it asserts there is a song of Praise sung by Heaven and by Nature. 

I am so pleased with everyone’s willingness to do something different during our Advent worship and I am curious to see where it will take us.  I look forward to seeing what you might add to our visual chorus of Nature in this space.  I am interested to see how our liturgy will wear after a few weeks (will it break in like a pair of comfortable shoes or wear thin).  Most of all, I wonder how this entire experience will be like gazing through that chapel window; an experience allowing us to look on Creation through the eyes of faith.  I wonder what it will be like for us to wake up and sing again with Heaven and Nature the song of the Creator’s praise.

Monday, November 25, 2019

All Things Restored

In her day Ruth might have been called a “sour puss” or perhaps a “gloomy Gus.”  She was one of many elderly shut-ins at a previous parish where I served and I just called her Ruth.  She was taxing, to say the least, and visiting her was exhausting.  Our monthly conversation was always monologue; a prolonged, detailed, graphic litany of ills, anguishes, and perceived slights (I heard enough from her about goiters to last me a lifetime).  Her ancient stories of injustices were so well rehearsed I could almost repeat them verbatim as she spoke.  She droned of her exaggerated health problems; the only skeleton structure supporting her personality, near as I could tell.  And no matter how long I stayed, it was never long enough.  Do you have to leave so soon,” she would say after an hour of rambling on about her afflictions.  But you just got here!” she lamented as the sun sank low in the afternoon sky.  I always left feeling deflated, disheartened, and inadequate.

One day I learned Ruth had fallen and broken her hip.  She had been taken to a hospital 60 miles away and then transferred to a remote nursing home some distance beyond that.  I carved time in my schedule so I could get away and made the lengthy trip to call on her.  Given how miserable she had been when she suffered just from perceived illnesses, I was apprehension about how I would find her now that she was truly incapacitated. 

I walked into her drab, sparse room and to my surprise found Ruth to be in near beatific joy.  In spite of the pain, in spite of the nursing home environment, and in spite of the changes her injury would surly mandate to her lifestyle, Ruth was upbeat, even glowing.  She told me her long-estranged daughter was coming from Florida to be with her.  And she told me her daughter and her daughter’s live-in boyfriend (an arrangement of which she disapproved in the past) insisted she move to Florida to live with them as soon as she was able to travel.  Ruth had been estranged from her daughter for years and over the course of that time they never spoke, much less visited.  But in a matter of days it was all going to change and the restoration of the mother/daughter relationship completely transformed Ruth’s countenance and personality.  It is a miracle and a healing so stunning I have never forgotten it. 

Today is the last Sunday of the season of Pentecost, the last Sunday in the Church year.  Known as Christ the King Sunday, its theme is found in the Collect of the Day: “Almighty God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son...”  The reign of Christ and the work of the Kingdom are all about restoration.  It is the work of mending the torn fabric of our society, our relationships, and our lives. 

In the end, at the last, we believe this work will be finally and firmly accomplished.  But the Spirit, moving and active in our lives, stirs in us with a prodding suggestion: “Why wait until the end?  Why not begin the process of restoration now?  Why not experience the life of God’s Kingdom in this life by allowing the healing work of restoration to begin?

The gospel reading points to this possibility.  Scholars note Luke’s narrative of the Crucifixion differs from other gospel accounts in that it portrays Christ as reigning victoriously while on the Cross.  Luke does not record the words of Jesus, “Abba, Father, why have you forsaken me?” because he wants to convey even the Cross could not rupture the communion they enjoyed with one another.  In Luke’s gospel Jesus reigns as he forgives his persecutors because they do not know what they are doing.  And in Luke’s gospel we learn of the conversation between the other two men crucified alongside him.  Notice Jesus does not condemn the one mocking him, rather his focus is on the possibility of restoration with the one we refer to as ‘the penitent thief.’  Today,” Jesus says to him, “You will be with me in Paradise. 

Not even the agony and the shame and the pain of the Cross are able to keep Jesus from doing the Kingdom work of restoration.  In fact, in his darkest hour we find our clearest glimpse of God’s nature.  We see the core disposition of God’s Kingdom.  It is a place where all things are restored in Christ.  Because Jesus is able to lift up this work even as he is lifted up on the Cross we learn the work of the Kingdom is stronger than the bitterest brokenness we have experienced and the worst we are capable of doing.  We learn the power of the Spirit to bring about restoration is more compelling than all the pain and injury we create or suffer.  And because Christ is able to continue this work on Cross, we who live by faith see in this moment not a human being nailed to a plank of wood, but a Lord and Savior reigning from a throne.

It is popular (but mistaken) to believe the Old Testament paints of picture of a God who is judgmental and consumed with wrath.  We live into this notion by imagining God is constantly looking over our shoulder (as it were), wrathful at our every wrong thought, action, and motive.  Today’s Old Testament reading from Jeremiah gives us a very different portrait of God to ponder.  Jeremiah states clearly bad shepherds (and here he is referring both to religious and to political leaders) have scattered the people.  Their actions have led to Israel’s fall to the Babylonians and subsequent exile. 

Now if Jeremiah believes God is a God of judgment you might expect him to wax eloquent on how the people get exactly what they have coming to them; to connect the terrible events of the day to some communal sin or short-coming.  You know what I mean, a kind of statement that might say, “We got what we deserved because we __________.  You can fill in the blank. 

But Jeremiah does not even address question of why this misfortune came about.  He moves right to what God will do in response to the people’s brokenness,

“I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where they have been driven, and I will bring them back to their fold.  And they will be fruitful and multiply.  And I will raise up shepherds who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing,” says the Lord.

The prophet gives us a vision of God who works not to judge, not to condemn, but rather to restore all things.

Restoration is something so desperately needed in our time.  I don’t need to tell you there is a tremendous civic and cultural divide in our country.  What does it look like for America to a have a sense of unity and common purpose?  How can such a thing be restored?  I don’t have an answer beyond a hope it is God’s intention for this to happen, so it falls to each one of us as people of faith to move toward what God seeks to do.  We do this through our prayers, by the transformation of our attitudes, and with a change in our actions.

I once had lunch with a colleague who talked of officiating at the burial of a small child.  The parents, he told me, have not come back into the church.  They report all they can see when they enter the worship space is the tiny casket of their dear child.  What does restoration look like for these grieving parents?  My friend says to them, “That image stays with me too.   But when I am in the church I also see an image of the time you two were married.  And I see an image of the time when we baptized your child.  And I see an image of the time when your child was in the Christmas pageant.  And I remember this place as being more than a sanctuary of pain.  It was also a place of great joy and celebration and thanksgiving.”  Obviously no mere words will turn the heart of a grieving parent and my friend realizes it may be lifetime before some sense of restoration occurs, but our faith holds and hopes God is working to restore all things… even, and especially, the broken hearts of grieving parents.

So we come to this last Sunday in the Church year and are reminded God seeks to mend the torn fabric of our community, our relationships, and our lives.  As I ponder the brokenness in my life I come face to face with the realization either I can join God in this work or I can resist it.  What does it mean, in practical terms, to join God in the work of restoring those things broken in my life?  What strength and healing do I need to find before I am ready to allow God’s work in such a way?  These questions are far too personal for me to elaborate on in a sermon (and probably the answers are far too boring for you to hear), but they are real for me and I realize again the preacher’s challenge: It is one thing for me to do the work of writing a sermon while it is another thing for me to allow a sermon to work on me.

I invite you to walk for a while with a couple of Kingdom questions:  What is broken in your life?  Where is God working to bring about restoration?  How might you join in this work in order to make our future hope a present reality?  The great irony of Ruth’s life is that she had to fall and break her hip before the real brokenness of her life could be mended.  A thief had to be crucified next to Jesus before he found Paradise.  Two grieving parents still struggle to find what God wills and works for them.  What is broken in your life and how can you join in God’s work to bring about restoration?

Monday, November 11, 2019

Life is Incredibly Tenacious

A couple of summers ago I vacationed in the Pacific Northwest (an area of the country I had yet to visit) and it was a wonderful experience.  Initially I had not planned to visit Mt. St. Helen’s, but did so on the advice of a friend and I will be ever grateful for this travel tip.  It was a beautiful, clear day providing an expansive view of the mountain so dramatically changed on May 18, 1980 by a lateral blast of hot ash and debris that killed 57 people and in an instance wiped out nearly 230 square miles of forests, rivers, and lakes.  Thousands of miles of roads, highways, and railroad tracks were destroyed and numerous bridges washed away.  The explosion created a horseshoe crater nearly two miles across and lowered the mountain’s elevation by over 1,300 feet.  It remains the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in our country’s history. 

The Mt. St. Helen’s eruption transformed the landscape, blowing away, washing away, and burying in ash over 20 feet deep a remarkably large area.  After a flyover tour of the region some days later, then president Jimmy Carter remarked, “Someone said this area looked like a moonscape, but the moon looks more like a golf course compared to what’s up there.”  His initial impression, like that of most experts, suggested nothing could survive the devastation – no vegetation, no wildlife, nothing – and it was unimaginable how life could ever return to the region, at least in our lifetime.

But just weeks after the eruption and once it was safe to explore, the first scientists on the ground were startled by what they discovered.  Insects had already begun making a home out of fallen trees, pockets made by gophers digging for food were evident, and even some aquatic life had managed to survive.  Within a year, various kinds of moss and fauna took hold and began to lay a foundation for habitat recovery.  The speed of all of this stunned experts and novices alike. 

Twenty-seven years later, as I surveyed the scene from the Johnson Ridge Observatory (the park facility named a scientist monitoring the mountain from this location when it erupted and whose body was never recovered), new life was everywhere.  Vast tracts of pine forest cover the region.  These areas received a jump start thanks to the work of the Forest Administration.  But huge swaths of land have been allowed to recover on their own by “letting nature take its course.”  And what nature is doing is remarkable.  The signs of destruction still abound (most notably in decomposing fallen tree trunks as well as the crater itself), but a new and complete ecosystem is now in place.  Life is ample and everywhere, something unimmanageable to all after the initial devastation.   Summing up what he learned from this, Don Zobel, a scientist from Oregon State, said, “Our expectation should be that life is incredibly tenacious.”

As we near the end of the season of Pentecost and another liturgical year, our assigned readings from the Lectionary begin to pick up of the theme of last things.  They anticipate the end of life and the hope of a life to come.  They speak of old things being made new.  There is in these readings a suggestion God is at work in the world as a life-giving force.  They suggest God has infused all reality with a principle of renewal.  It is a principle not always evident at first, often requiring the faithful to live with a faith that “God causes all things to work toward the good” (Rom. 8:28).  Still, this principle of life and renewal has the first word, the last word, and permeates every word in between.

Consider this morning’s first reading from the Old Testament prophet Haggai.  Lumped in with other works tagged as “minor prophets”, Haggai’s ministry of speaking God’s word covers only a few years in and around 520 B.C.  He encourages God’s people to do something they have put off for almost two decades – rebuild the destroyed Jerusalem Temple upon returning to the ruined city from exile.  Once work begins a general despair takes root because all involved sense the appearance of the new Temple will pale in comparison to the glory of the previous one.  They fear what will be will not be as grand as what was.  It is a fear to which we can relate.

Cultural observers note for the first time in our country’s history we now live in a period when the majority of people fret the quality of life for the next generation will be lower than what it has been in the past.  While this is a new dynamic in our national psyche, Haggai reminds us it certainly is not a new phenomenon in the history of our world.  He spoke God’s word to a people anguishing over what awaits beyond the horizon.

At last Thursday’s meeting of the Worship Committee we did our annual ritual of lamenting the demise of the Christmas Eve Midnight Service.  We all want it to be the way it was – the church packed with people, the worship space illuminated by the flickering of candles, a robust choir leading the carols, countless children with stars in their eyes sitting in silent motionless so as not to cause a disruption, a gentle snow falling as the faithful file out the doors after receiving communion exactly at the stroke of midnight, horse drawn sleighs at the ready to whisk worshippers back to their cabins heated by a coal burning stove and decked out with hung stockings each containing an orange and new scarf.  Well, maybe I went back too far, but you get the idea.  We long for the past – a past we can no longer have and, truth be told, perhaps never was. 

Haggai speaks two words from God to the people.  First, “No matter what may change, my spirit abides among you; do not fear.”  And second, “Someday, the splendor of the Temple you are building will exceed what had been here before,” a promise which is debatable if this ever actually happened (how does one measure such a thing).  But the first word rings true.  Much may change.  Things may not appear to be as grand or as significant or as sure as they once were, but God’s spirit is still with us.  Our expectation should be that God’s life-giving Spirit is incredibly tenacious.

Paul’s two letters to the Christians in Thessalonica deal with last things.  They reveal the early Church’s thinking as it evolves from an initial notion Jesus will return soon – any day, so don’t be caught asleep –to pondering its mission as the months and years wear on to grappling with the fate of those who die in the faith while awaiting the Lord’s return.  In Paul’s final communication with this church he writes the day of the Lord is already here, but accompanying it are all kinds of temptations, trials, and ways to turn off the path.  This word, true then, still holds true in our time.  God is here and with us, and life can be a challenge.  “Stand firm” and “hold fast” writes Paul, “and may God comfort your hearts and strengthen you for every good work.”  Have faith, because God’s life-giving Spirit is incredibly tenacious.

It is easy to get side-tracked by today’s Gospel reading; focusing on what it says about marriage when its real force and thrust is about resurrection.  There are two main groups of religious leaders in Jesus day – the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  The Pharisees rub elbows with the average Joe and extend their ministry into rural locations and villages.  The Sadducees gravitate to the elite and often restrict their work to the Temple and upper echelons of society.  Not surprisingly, the two groups hold to different theological perspectives.  Most notably, Pharisees believe in the possibility of life after death while Sadducees do not and, as we see in today’s reading, have no problem mocking those who do.  Jesus states as clearly as possible what his own death will soon reveal – God is the God of the living.  The tenacity of God’s life-giving Spirit is stronger than death itself. 

Ultimately, this is what impressed me during my visit to Mt. St. Helen’s.  The power of death and destruction is ferocious beyond imagining.  It is strong, to be sure.  But life is more tenacious than we realize because God is the God of life and has made it so.  We hold to this faith and hope in ways universal and in ways personal.  We pray for the resurrection of all those we love but see no longer while we hope through God’s Spirit that things which have grown old in our life are being made new even as God moves all things toward their perfection.  The theory of entropy holds all matter and energy in the universe is moving toward an inert state unless it is being acted upon by an external force.  We of the Christian faith hold the tenacious, life-giving Spirit of God works in and through all things, infusing all reality with a principle of life and renewal.  We see it in our world and pray for it in our lives.