Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Meditation for New Year’s Eve

Jerusalem takes up a very special place in my heart, most of you know that by now.  So it is not so far fetched that I have a running, non digital clock icon, with second hand, on my computer desktop that shows Jerusalem time.  Normally it is set for seven hours ahead of us and so when I look at it I can place what my friends might be doing at that moment, or what the sunset might be beginning to look like, or even where I might have been off to at that moment in time.  It’s just a trip down
Memory Lane
and a dream to return again to that holiest of cities.

Last week though I started up my computer and the time was way off.  Instead of it being seven hours ahead, it was eight and a half hours ahead.  Disconcerting to say the least.  So I checked into it a little more and I found out that instead of the clock being set for GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) + 2-Jerusalem time, it was set for GMT + 3.30-Tehran time.  How it got changed, I have no clue.  The Trinity is not the only mystery in the world. There are many others.  So I set the clock back to Jerusalem time.  Oh if it was that easy to really set time back or forward other than daylight savings time or a mishap.  Time!

New Year’s Eve is about time too - what was, was is and what will be.  That’s what happens when we cross the threshold of midnight into a new year.  The all of our lives converge in this sacred moment.  2011 is what was, I hope that for your there was growth; life is never stagnant even though we might feel stuck sometimes.   We are who we are today because of what happened to us yesterday.  That might be good and that might not be so good.  The good news is that New Year’s Eve is also about the future, the what will be. 

Dare to dream a different reality for yourself.  Turn the page and begin to read a new chapter filled with promise and hope.  Create and build upon the joys of your life.  Remember the God who loves you deeply and dearly makes a dwelling place within you.

A reading from the Book of Revelation.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
                                    ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
                                      He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples,
                                      and God himself will be with them;
                                      he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
                                      Death will be no more;
                                      mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
                                      for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.    Amen.

Monday, December 26, 2011

In Bethlehem

Sunset over Bethlehem

I walked through the checkpoint to enter Bethlehem. The security wall was before me.  This was my first time to Bethlehem.  I knew where I wanted to end up but I did not know how to get there.  I was reluctant to get into a Palestinian cab so I began walking on a path that seemed like the way to go.

Then I hear a voice, ‘Miss, Miss you cannot walk it’s too far.’ Amazingly (or probably not) this man knew that I was headed to Manger Square, to the Church of the Nativity.  ‘I’ll get you a cab’, he said.  I said, “No thank you, I’ll walk.”  He repeated himself as did I and then he just hailed a cab for me and told the driver to get me to Manger Square.  I conceded.    By now I was accustomed to the kindness of strangers.

He opened the door to the front seat on the passenger side.  I got in.  The window was wired shut to the door that did not close properly, it was an old rickety cab. Already there were two Muslim women in the backseat, dressed in full black hijab - (hee-job).  There was only a slit so their eyes could be seen.  We all were silent as the car began to drive to Manger Square.  We stopped and two more men got into the cab, it was getting a little crowded by now.  Faith and prayer come in handy at times like these.

When we got to Manger Square, I paid the cabbie and I got out.  I was stunned and thought to myself, this cannot be the place where my ‘little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head’. 

Many people have made pilgrimage to Bethlehem since that first starry, gentle night so long, long ago.  They have witnessed Bethlehem in all of its political, physical and religious forms.  Phillips Brooks was one of them but he had a much different experience than I.  Brooks was the rector at Trinity Church in Boston in 1865. He took a sabbatical year to travel.  While he was in the Holy Land, after dinner one night, he took a horse and road to Bethlehem. 

He came to the town on the eastern ridge of surrounding hills with terraced gardens.  And before dark he rode out to the hills where he thought the shepherds might have been and there were still shepherds tending their sheep as there are even today.  He was so moved by this he wrote the words to one of our beloved carols “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. 

This carol touches our hearts like the warmth and softness of an infant’s cheek pressed against our ruddy and weathered ones.  

Brooks uses poetic of phrases to express his understanding of that first night and the incarnation that saves us.  I am moved particularly by verse three

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may his His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

There is no fanfare, no bright lights, silently and quietly God gives us Christ.  God imparts to human hearts the blessings of heaven.  Our hearts are filled with so much emotion, joy, gladness, chaos and conflict, sorrow and sadness, and it is here that the blessings of heaven: God’s grace, mercy, peace, forgiveness, gentleness and love enters in.

Even though we live in a world of sin, a misaligned world, a world with much violence, prejudice and hatred STILL Christ comes to us. 

For Christians all you need to say is Bethlehem and instantly we think of Mary and Joseph, the lowing cattle and the shepherds, and we know God’s whole salvation story for us: Christ’s birth, death, resurrection without even having to explain.
Yet Bethlehem is a real place.  It is the Bethlehem of history, it is the Bethlehem of Brooks’ time, and it is also the Bethlehem of today.  This is what I learned when I tried to get to Manger Square and then was affronted by the Bethlehem Discount Souvenir Shop, and a Muslim majority because so many Christians have left.  I also learned, as I sat quietly in the Grotto of the Nativity that we are bound to Bethlehem through the covenant of Christ, not its locality or condition.

Christians may be leaving Bethlehem but Bethlehem never leaves the Christian.  Bethlehem is in our hearts.  Let us prepare a manger in our hearts so that God can impart this beautiful love.

Perhaps we have to have a wilderness experience that will open us up to accept this gift.  Or maybe we just have to concede to the imperfections that lurk so deep within us. We all hurt and heal, hate and love, experience sorrow and joy.  We all long.  The longing we feel at the Christmastide is not only for peace, love and happiness in the world. 

The longing we feel is more importantly, and maybe unknowingly for Christ the incarnate.  In Christ God has promised to be with us, to accept us, abide with us today and always.   The manger was less than perfect yet it accepted the baby once upon a time.  The manger was uncluttered, no pillow shams, or dust ruffles, or infant mobiles.  It was simple.  It was quiet.

The less than perfect manger gave Jesus a place to begin his life.  Our less than perfect hearts can too.

Christmas comes but once a year, Christ lives forever within us. God has met us in those dark streets where there is no light and meets us with Christ’s light each day and it all began in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is salvation, love and blessing.

Bethlehem is the hope that our life tomorrow will be better than today.

Hold the Christ child in your heart this night, visit Bethlehem each day.
Allow God’s grace and forgiveness to enter your heart and be at peace my friends.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Whirls, Twirls and Walkovers...Just Imagine!

Luke 1: 46-56
It was in a sleepy little village just west of bustling Jerusalem that spring when Mary came to visit Elizabeth.  Today we call the place Ein Karem and it is nestled in the rolling Jerusalem hills where stone agricultural terraces echo the natural contour of the hills. 

Imagine Mary and Elizabeth sitting on an open porch on a cool morning watching the sun rise spreading out its glorious rays upon that holy land.  The natural woods surrounding Ein Karem today are called the Mediterranean Woodland because cypress, oak, carob, olive, fig and almond trees grow abundantly; no doubt they are descendant vegetation offspring of those that lived when Mary did.  

Elizabeth and Mary are both excited.  Soon they are to become mothers because they are incubating and growing a prophet and a messiah. In Israel spring is after the first rains so the greening of the browned and dry plants was just beginning.  Like a new life inside of an empty womb so too the fallow land begins to show signs of life. 

Waters flow.  Buds appear.  Expectations arise.  As a good friend of mine in Israel says, “None of that "in the bleak midwinter" here[i].  Verdant hope comes to pass and Elizabeth and Mary rejoice in their womanhood and the very unexpected gifts given to them from their God above.  This is the occasion for Mary’s Magnificat.
Hear now once again the Magnificat, the Song of Mary from the Gospel of Luke: 

"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He 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.

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever." 

And Mary remained with Elizabeth about three months and then returned to her home.
Charles McCollough is a theologian and artist.  He was artist in residence at the time when I was a seminarian at Andover Newtown Theological School, back in the day. One of his sculptures that made a lasting impression on me is entitled, “Spirit Rejoice”[ii].  It is the first of an eight piece panel that illustrates, through sculpture, Mary’s Magnificat.

What is striking is that it is not your typical iconographic Mary sitting down and looking lovingly at her burgeoning belly. She is not donning a blue embroidered head veil nor is there any hint of a halo in sight. 

We tend to make Mary an adult in our portrayals of her but she was young and she would have reacted in a teenage way, not in an adult way.  Today, by all accounts, she would have gone on Facebook or texted her friends with the news!  If you were giving birth to a savior that had been promised for years wouldn’t you jump for joy or immediately Tweet your friends and the entire world for that matter of the joyful news??

So Mr. McCollough has depicted Mary in a much more imaginative way.  He envisions a very young Mary doing a gymnastic walkover…believe me….something that only the young can perform.  Her hair flows over her head as her arms hit the ground and her supple body follows, one leg after the other.  The continuous momentum of the walkover guides her entire young teenaged body to once again stand upright. 

Charles told me that that is how he sees Mary responding to the news of her pregnancy.  She is thrilled and she does what every other young teen would do that has just received good news – jump for joy, do walkovers and sing out praises to God.  My soul magnifies the Lord!
But really, what’s up with that?  Mary thrilled?  As compelling as this image is we have to wonder if Mary was really this overjoyed.  Let’s face it; it was a horrible time in the life of a Jewish woman in first century Palestine occupied by Rome.  Look at the facts.  She was young. She was not rich, she was probably not even middle income. She was pregnant.  She was not married.  This, my friends, is nothing short of a disaster and worse than that, probable cause for stoning.

However she conceived this was her unbelievable reality.  Her betrothed, Joseph was ready to ditch her, which in his mind was the honorable thing to do.  Folks, it can’t get any worse than that.  It is a lose-lose oppressive situation all the way around for Mary.  Why would she sing? 

Yet she is overjoyed.  Like Hannah hearing the news of her impending birth of Samuel, she sings, my soul magnifies the Lord.  She visits Elizabeth, her relative and mentor and; she sings that very same a song of praise, perhaps she does walkovers, and in that very act her hands mingles with the dirt of the land of her ancestors and the great hope of a savior.

Mary understands and believes the promises and covenants that God made to her people.  It is within her collective Jewish consciousness that, with the advent of a messiah blind people will be sighted and the deaf people will be able to hear.  Disabled people will be fully restored to wholeness and in the desert there will be streams of flowing waters.  A grand reversal was about to begin.  Hope, you see, was built into her DNA.

That is why Mary has great expectations for this little heart beating within her.  She would overcome her obstacles and he would be the Messiah who could effect this change. Mary can do walkovers all people will have the opportunities for growth and dignity.  World priorities will change.  Understanding, tolerance and inclusion will trump the status quo.  Mr. McCollough was right on, walkovers are in order when you have been given hope that life can change for the better. 

I suspect that there might be things in your life that are in need of transformation.    There are in mine.  Where do you seek change in your life? Are there demons from the past that need to be laid to rest?  Addictions in need of being tamed and arrested?  Are there relationships that long ago had been put on the curb for trash pick up; and are now in need of bringing back inside?  Do you hold a grudge so deep that it is killing you rather than the person it is intended for?

How might the advent of this baby really change your life? 

We carry our ‘hopes and fears of all the years’[iii] with us during Advent and we await the time when we can place them all at the manger. We come to the manger and lay down our heavy loads and live unencumbered into the love of God.  We come year after year to the manger of love and justice, equality and assurance, healing and hope.  We come because we believe that in Jesus Christ we find God’s grace and forgiveness, we find hope and inner peace.  We come because we can and because we must. 

We don’t know how Mary acted really but we do know that her context is not unlike ours.  Broken lives in a broken world.  And yet she rejoices with hope.  So must we. 

When you have hope you can sing or maybe even perform whirls, twirls and walkovers…..just imagine!


[i] Dina Tsoar, email correspondence December 5, 2010.
[ii] Charles McCollough, “Spirit Rejoice”, part of an eleven piece sculpture at Drew Theological Seminary.
[iii] “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, Brooks.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Squeaky Souls

Luke 2: 1-20
Sitting in the pews of St. Catherine’s Parish at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is not quite the spiritual experience that you might expect.  The ebb and flow of pilgrim groups bring a hushed awe into the sanctuary.  They come from all over the world, to worship the newborn King and see the place, where tradition says, Christ was born.  Cameras flash as they look upon the stained glass rose window of the Holy Family.  They endeavor to record this beautiful work of art and moment for the years to come after they have returned home. Who can blame them?  It is a beautiful church and there is something magnificent about being in Bethlehem.
As one group of pilgrims exit there is just a split second of silence.  I try and have a moment of meaningful reflection but that’s just not going to happen.  Squeak, squuuueak, squeak, sq, sq, squeak! The silence is broken by the squeaking of sneaker soles shuffling on the stone floor.  Another group has entered the sanctuary where the acoustics are extraordinary.  And then they too stop to admire the window.  Some of them light a candle for peace and some stand there with their eyes wide open simply looking up.  
As I sat in the Church in Bethlehem I gave it a new name in my mind.  Rather than St. Catherine’s, a more apropos name is the “Church of the Squeaky Soles”.  Every person that walks into the church without even realizing it leaves his or her individual squeaky sole (S_O_L_E) sound in the great sanctuary, a symphonic offering given faithfully to the Holy Family.  So too, we leave our squeaky ‘soul’ (S_O_U_L) mark upon that tiny Savior.  If ever there was something that would keep the baby Jesus awake it would be all those squeaky sneaker soles and our heart souls.  Forget the lowing cattle or the angels flying high above singing glory in the highest.  It is our souls. 
Our squeaky souls are exactly what Jesus was born to hear.  Me and you, each one of us squeaks loudly out of the circumstances of our lives and we are saved with each sound that we make, each cry that we let out, every lonely night that we spend, or each jump that we take in the name of joy.  This is what our Saviour was born to hear, to listen to, to understand, to heal… – our squeaky souls.  We are squeaky, we fear, we doubt, we bargain, we are human and this he understands completely.
Hear now the story of that Savior’s birth as recorded by Luke:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Isn’t it good that in the holiest of places, in the quietest and darkest of night of the soul we can show up in our noisy sneakers and find acceptance, love and grace for our souls? 

Leonard Cohen sings in his song, ‘Anthem’,
“Ring in the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”.

The light has come into this world.  He longs to be lulled by your squeaky soul.  It is a paradox we will never understand but it is one that we can embrace fully.  Let us rejoice and be glad.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

There is a Way

Isaiah 40: 1-11
It is the beginning of the 6th century BCE.  Babylon has just invaded Judah and has destroyed much of Jerusalem.  The beloved temple was demolished, commerce horribly interrupted, and God’s chosen people, the Israelites, were whisked off to Babylon.  Their exile has begun.  And in that deportation the occupiers settle in. 

Far away from home.  They were far away from the old familiar ways of doing things.  Perhaps they were separated from family or friends. They cried and lamented: “Alongside Babylon's rivers we sat on the banks; we cried and cried, remembering the good old days in Zion.” (The Message, Psalm 137:1)

They yearn, they long for someone to save them, to release them from their bondage and their captors.  “Come, God, soon, be with us.  Buy us back, redeem us.  We sit mourning because we are lonely, we are in exile.  When will you come?”  And then, like a healing balm applied to a wounded soul, the poetic voice of the prophet Isaiah speaks out……

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”

See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Unfamiliar places.  Like the Israelites, we’ve all been to unfamiliar places.  We go from comfort to a place of discomfort.  We are unearthed from a place of ease and catapulted to a place of dis-ease.  Not a person alive has been spared from changing conditions; everyone has found themselves traversing uncharted waters. 

Perhaps you get accustomed to it like the Israelites did.  You begin to lay down roots in that unfamiliar land and life gets just a little more busy, a wee bit more complicated and before long you notice that you’ve settled in and collected a few extras in your life.

But then, from that place you begin to hear some words of encouragement that all is not lost, that soon, very soon the pall of exile will lift and that you will be able to resume your life.  You feel a little bit better, comforted as a matter of fact because you remember now that old familiar place.  These words are the pin dot of light that pierces the dark.  The sound of someone coming in the distance.  This is the consolation that the words of God through Isaiah bring.  Comfort, comfort, you are going home. 

So now’s the time to make ready.  You need to prepare.  It’s not easy to leave even though it’s what you’ve been dreaming of for all of those years.  You know, sometimes we get used to our exiled place and oddly enough what was uncomfortable becomes very comfortable like a broken in shoe or slipper. 

But it’s time.  Preparations need to be made and the route needs to be planned.  There will be some street closures, some rocky roads, some high mountains engulfed in clouds or really low valley’s that you have to negotiate.  Better lighten your load or else you’ll get bogged down.  There are some things that you will just have to get rid of and unload before you can see for yourself the most direct route, the path that will safely take you home again.  The pathway to Christ will be made so much more plain when simplicity overrules complexity.

What extras do you carry around with you today that you need to set aside or perhaps just toss in the dumpster?  What very large mountains do you have to ‘make low’ in order to see the Christ ahead?  Are there valley’s that you have a hard time emerging from?  Prepare ye the way of the Lord!

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   “Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight”’, (Mark 1:2-3)

As we draw closer to Christmas the message is clear that we have to make straight the path for Christ to come.  We have to level the highs of our living and gird up the valleys of our depravity, in order to prepare the way because surely our lives have highs and lows. 

Surely there are things that just get in our way from finding and following the path that we are to take.  If you need forgivness, then ask.  If you are in need of reconciliation, then forge ahead.  If you need rest, then take it.  If you need to clear out and let go, then please, just do it.

Waiting in expectation and longing and yearning.  Clearing out, mapping the safest and most direct route, that’s Advent.  It’s not the frenzy and preparation that begins after Thanksgiving, the decorations, the buying, the parties, the buying, the cookies, the buying, the activities, the card buying, card writing, card sending, card receiving.  This is not Advent.  Advent is not adding on hills and valley’s it’s stripping them away.  It’s simplifying, enjoying, and reflecting God’s abundance in your life and preparing for the advent of the real Savior Jesus Christ.

We must reclaim this season, this very, very sacred time of year for our own preparation.  If we do not prepare our hearts we will lose the profound impact and the immeasurable influence that the birth of Christ has upon our lives and the world.  How can you see the one light when these flashing electrical lawn displays outshine the greatest light? 

Our lives are complicated but Advent is not.  It is hope.  It is faith.  It is having the strength to be, to sit in a barren, empty, exilic place and then to prepare to come home again.  It’s knowing that in spite of our best efforts the perfect Christmas will happen.  We have no control over that.  God does.  The incarnation, God revealing Godself in the person of Jesus is the most flawless Christmas ever.  It is a miracle of the most perfect kind.  And it happens without any fanfare when our hearts are uncluttered to receive this gift. Then the hills will be made low and the valleys lifted up.  You will know that the redemption of the world is close at hand.


Friday, December 2, 2011

Strength for the Journey

1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Grace to you and peace from God the Creator and the Lord Jesus Christ!

The church in Corinth that the Apostle Paul had planted earlier in time was in deep trouble. There were several issues that caused great strife among its members.  They struggled to identify themselves as Christians in the middle of well established diasporic Jewish communities in Greece.  In the world of the first century this was a difficult task because of the pervading Hellenistic culture and thought.   

Then there were issues.  Many issues, some religious and some political that plagued them, among them sexual and religious promiscuity and pluralism.  It was hard to maintain their exclusive claims to Christ as Lord and one God without being victims of syncretism with the pervasive Greek gods and temples all around them.

This was Paul’s fear when he receives word of this chaos in the community that he planted and writes to them from afar.  He recognizes that Christians must live in a world in which there is suffering and pain, this is his theology of the cross; that the light of God is manifest through and in Christ’s suffering.  It is this understanding that sheds light on and informs one’s suffering and gives hope.    

From Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians….

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sometimes it’s difficult to unpack Paul’s literary style.  It’s thick and cumbersome compared to the way in which we speak.  With a slow read however we see that he thanks God above all else for the gathered community of believers at Corinth and for all that God has done for them.  He brings them back to their original purpose of following Jesus Christ even when they begin to lose heart and lose their way.

In today’s text he reminds them that their testimony to Christ, that is how Jesus Christ has changed their lives, is strengthened because of the spiritual gifts that they have been given and that they must use. They have received all that they need and God is with them.   

On Monday night, several hundred people stood on the grand front lawn of Saugatuck Congregational Church, one of our sister churches in the Fairfield West Association of the Connecticut Conference. We were reminded of God’s enduring strength in times of adversity.    

Just the night before there was a major fire at Saugatuck destroying the fellowship rooms, offices, and the nursery school.  The Sanctuary was not destroyed by fire literally, but it was damaged severally by water and smoke.  It is now just a shell of a church with the steeple still standing.  The front doors are boarded up denying access to anyone who might try to enter. 

Many area clergy, Christian and Jewish, were on hand to pray and to stand in solidarity with the congregants of Saugatuck in a prayer vigil Monday evening.  It was said over and over again in many different ways and from different voices that God is good, first and foremost.  That the church, not the physical edifice but the people are the church.  We do love our buildings yes, but we are so much more when crisis strikes.  We really do understand that relationship in Christ and in Christ’s body matters mostly.

The people of Saugatuck were saddened by this tragic event and now a part of their history.  Yet they are determined to build up their Church and worship God and God’s enduring grace through Jesus Christ.  Deacon Chair Doug Johnston said, referring to the clinging odor of smoke, "You can smell change in the air tonight, and we hope to make that a far sweeter smell in the future."  God is in their midst - last Monday night, this morning as they conduct worship at Temple Israel on Coleytown Road and into their future whatever it may hold.   

Strength in adversity comes from God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  This is our hope for all things to come.    

We find this passage in First Corinthians at the beginning of Advent to prepare us and to remind us that hope finds its home in the most unfamiliar and discordant places.  The setting for the birth of Jesus was the gritty little village of Bethlehem in a country that was occupied by the Romans.  Herodian, one of King Herod’s palaces towers over Bethlehem as a reminder of oppressive authority back in the day.   

And yet, God showed up.  God appeared to the world in this village, in that time, when Christ ventured into this world as a tiny baby.  God was there in Corinth with the lonely Christian community to speak strength and hope when they were the minority struggling to stand firm.  God was present to Saugatuck Congregation while the smell of their charred sanctuary filled the air.  God is there.  Always, God is there.

God shows up when your eyes are wide open and when they are blinded by despair.
You may feel as if you are held captive by the outside authorities whoever they may be in your life.   You may be tempted by the exterior culture who worships everything but the One who makes us whole.  You might be suffocating from the ruins of what used to be in your life.  But believe me, God is there, to bolster you, to lift you, to wipe away your tears and get you going once again.  God has a fine track record and there is no reason to believe that it will be broken.

Advent beckons us into the deep mystery of God revealed.  We wait in hope built upon the immeasurable consequences of that night in Bethlehem when Christ’s light, the star shone so brightly.  We wait in expectation that God will reveal yet again Godself into our lives and into this topsey-turvy world. 

May this season of Advent bring great meaning to your life.  Watch and wait with me that we may bless and be blessed, that we may be filled with the peace of believing, that we may abound in hope.


Monday, November 21, 2011

Gratitude, Grace and Abundant Living

Matthew 25: 31-46
Some words of Jesus cut to the quick of human nature.  But they also show us who we can be as a people of God, centered in Christ and living the Gospel message of hope, help and redemption.  His words show us that there is grace and because of God’s life saving grace our lives can be lived in gratitude and with joyfully abundant hearts.

It seems we should be hearing today’s reading during Holy Week, not at Thanksgiving when our hearts are naturally and so easily filled with generosity and giving and fullness and love.  

In context, Jesus has just entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey in a triumphal procession.  He purges the holy temple of the money changers and merchants and is challenged by the chief priests of Jerusalem. 

Then Jesus tells some stories, some parables, four in particular with the same message.  It’s clear that there is essential information that he is trying to get through to the people.  The kingdom of God will come.  You just don’t know when so, be ready.  In the meantime, be a decent God loving human being.  Be the face, hands and heart of Christ to others. 

            Hear now the Gospel of Matthew, the 25th chapter…

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

 And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”

Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

Hearing today’s text is sort of like peering over Santa’s shoulder, watching him check his list just about Thanksgiving time.  He checks his list, he checks it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice so that he can begin to make the toys for the good girls and boys of the world.  He can also make sure that he has enough coal on hand for the other ill behaved children.  But Santa is not God, nor is Santa the shepherd who provides for our needs.  Pay no attention to those retailers out there.

The shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left hand.  In first century Palestine, sheep and goats would graze together, yet each night they had to be separated to preserve the flock.  The sheep enjoy open air living and the goats need protection.  Two different ways of living.   

So the shepherd calls them home, he gathers them in at night; separating is part of the job of shepherding.  Jesus uses this analogy to demonstrate the necessity of ethical, decent living and a way of ministering to others…..or not.  There are choices to be made.  Consequences will result.  We will be judged, like it or not.

So rather than choosing whether or not one is a sheep or a goat, or scrambling to make sure we are the sheep so we can get on God’s right side, let’s admit that there is a little sheep and goat in each and every one of us.  Most of the time we do the ‘right’ thing; sometimes we fall short of God’s expectations for us.

Yet, God affirms us all equally to begin with, we are gathered in together.  God values us individually… irreplaceably.  God protects and guides us through many a deep dark place and accompanies us to the heights of the mountaintops.  I believe it is a comfort and a joy to know that we are loved with compassion and tenderness even when we display goat-like behavior.  This is grace.  The great good news is that we can envision a future built upon hope and when we do that we free ourselves up to live our lives IN gratitude. 

Gratitude is not just a once a year occurrence pulled off the shelf, dusted off at Thanksgiving and carefully placed in the cornucopia.  It’s an each and every day way of living.  Gratitude flows NOT from the things that we have or have obtained in life.  It is a human response that flows out of the gift of divine grace that God has extended to us in all circumstances and all times. 

The moving Anthem of Thanksgiving that we just heard is an expression of gratitude for the harvest.  The Promise of Living is from Aaron Copland’s opera entitled The Tender Land written around 1952.  The libretto was written by Horace Everett and you will find the words in your bulletin so that you can reflect upon them later.

Copland was moved and inspired to write this music after he had seen photos by Walker Evans, who documented the Great Depression in poignant and heartrending black and white photography.  We know this economic downtown severely affected everyone particularly the least of these.  Not unlike today, just different. Copland was stirred by photos;  the empty faces of children in rural Alabama and the desperate looks on the faces of migrant workers. 
The setting for The Tender Land is the Midwest in the 1930’s.  Farmland folks.  Perhaps they were hit the hardest and migrant workers were the poorest of the poor as they are today.  Yet the Moss family finds great thanksgiving for the spring harvest amid the adversities of their lives.  They give God’s providence the utmost thanksgiving because  they have had an abundant spring harvest and are living abundantly working, growing, loving, and sharing.   
They were thankful for what work they had and for being able to share the plentiful crops with their neighbors. 

Hear now again in part this prayer of thanksgiving.

The promise of living with hope and thanksgiving is born of our loving our friends and our labor.

The promise of growing with faith and with knowing is born of our sharing our love with our neighbor.

The promise of living, the promise of growing is born of our singing in joy and thanksgiving……

We plant each row with seeds of grain, and Providence sends us the sun and the rain,
By lending a hand, by lending an arm bring out from the farm, the blessings of harvest.

Give thanks there was sunshine, give thanks there was rain, Give thanks we have hands to deliver the grain, O let us be joyful, O let us be grateful to the Lord for His blessing.

The promise of ending in right understanding is peace in our own hearts and peace with our neighbor.

The promise of living, the promise of growing, the promise of ending is labor and sharing and loving.

I commend this poem be read at your table of Thanksgiving. There is a promise of living that is dependent upon our neighbors because we are not alone in this endeavor.  The least of these and the greatest of these are at times interchangeable.  There is promise of growth when sharing by all will mean scarcity for none.  We grow beyond ourselves and into the world when we thank God for all that has been done in our lives.  Then we are truly free to live our lives in grace and in gratitude. 

May the promise of living be our prayer of thanksgiving to the God who loves us deeply, who provides for us in profound ways, who will gather us in each night, protect us from all harm, and renew us in the light of Christ.

Reverend Suzanne E. Wagner

Photos by Walker Evans

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Before the Door Closes

Matthew 25: 1-13
Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States once said this, “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count.  It’s the life in your years.”  President Lincoln accomplished a lot in his brief years.  From his humble beginnings in rural Kentucky to the sophisticated and decorated halls of the White House, Lincoln persevered against odds that most of us wouldn’t dream of having or being able to overcome. 

I wonder if he had a sense that, because of his outspokenness about slavery, his acceptance of war as the only means of saving the Union, his desire to unify the Northern and the Southern states, that eventually his life would be taken? 

Lincoln lived only 56 years but the life in his years, the belief, the work, and his conviction to equality and justice, his commitment to transportation and technology advanced the American people and vision of a unified people changed the fabric of America that changed our lives.  What you do in life and with your life matters greatly.  Although he wasn’t a churchgoer, he did craft some sort of belief in God and the divine providence in all matters.  He led the life of discipleship whether he would call it that or not.
The gospel writer Matthew offers us four parables in succession that deal with the Kingdom of God or the second coming of Jesus and when it will come.  More importantly, through these parables Matthew offers us a glimpse at how we are to live until that happens.  Hear now the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids from the 25th chapter of Matthew.   

‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! There will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

There are parts of this parable that are just downright uncomfortable to our 21st century sensibilities. Why wouldn’t the five ‘wise’ bridesmaids share?  Isn’t that what we are supposed to do?  Why would the bridegroom slam shut the door, never to be opened again, even after the bridesmaids went out to buy oil at midnight?  Isn’t God supposed to love us all, forgive us all and want all of us in the kingdom?  I mean they at least made an effort to replenish their oil supply.

But the door reverberates loudly as it slams shut, shaking the family photographs off of walls of the kingdom.  The reality of this parable is there will be judgment.  The truth is yes, we are supposed to share, and yes we are to be ready.  This parable might instill fear.  But should we live our lives out of fear?  No, I don’t believe so.

As was the custom in first century Palestine weddings lasted for days.  A wedding was a joyful, all inclusive event that went from one house to another. There was plenty of partying and using up of the wine, remember the wedding at Cana?  Jesus comes to the rescue and changes the water into fine wine.  The guest lists weren’t lists as much as there was an expectation for entire village participation, remember the parable of the wedding banquet?  Many were invited but few were chosen. 

Or, in the excitement of it all something was forgotten.  In this case, valuable oil.  I’ve officiated at plenty a wedding where someone would inevitably forget something.  The best man forgets the rings.  A bridesmaid forgets her party heals dyed to match perfectly her dress.  There’s so much to do and so much to remember in the frenetic bliss of a wedding. 

There were ten bridesmaids each with her own oil lamp. Five planned ahead and made sure they had enough oil to last them until the bridegroom came.  The other ones just didn’t pay that much attention to their little lamps.

They go to meet the bridegroom at his home but, he wasn’t there.  Perhaps he had last minute preparations to attend to, perhaps he was busy with his family or with his groomsmen, whatever it was, he wasn’t there at the expected time.

So the bridesmaids got sleepy, the excitement was finally catching up with them and they laid their coiffed heads to rest.  And they slept.  The groom comes.  It’s midnight and it’s dark.  It’s in this excitement, the realization that the time REALLY had come, that the groom was finally here to complete the nuptials, sign the wedding contract and marry the young maiden that five of the bridesmaids realize their lamps were empty.  Whoops.  A big life altering whoops.  They ask the five bridesmaids with oil to share, they didn’t.  Nothing is worse than fighting bridesmaids. 

They frantically try to find some oil, but the market was closed at midnight of course and even if it were open it’s possible that the merchant’s inventory would be depleted.  While they were gone in final pursuit the groom comes and the doors to the banquet hall are closed.  Access denied.  The moral imperative?  Keep awake, always be ready, you just never know when the time will come.

This end time theology is so hard for us to understand.  It was hard for the first century Christians to get it, no less we, in the third millennium, so far removed from that first community of Christians who followed Jesus intimately can understand it or integrate it into our thinking.  Who among us thinks about the end times, about Jesus’ second coming?  It’s no longer a part of our psyche as it was for the disciples and the first century believers.  But that doesn’t mean it won’t and can’t happen.

Over and over again the Bible lets us know that time will come to an end, Jesus will return and that we will be judged on the way in which we conducted our lives.  Some may find that daunting and some will find it to be a comfort depending on how you spent your years, however many you have.

We have been given freedom, freedom of thought, and freedom of actions.  God doesn’t micromanage our lives, thank goodness.  But there in lies the rub.  Because of that our freedom comes with a cost and that is responsibility.  Our choices bring consequences and it’s our responsibility to make wise choices.  The bridesmaids were measured by their actions and the choice that they made about filling their lamps.  Five were filled with life giving, light giving oil.  Five were not. 
Is your lamp filled?  Does it contain the oil of hope, justice, compassion and caring?  We don’t have to be Abraham Lincolns, but we all have been given gifts to use in our life times.  We all are given the opportunity to live Christ-like lives.

Is your lamp getting low?  Then come and refill.  Renew your spirit with the love from others on the journey.  Refill your lamps with God’s forgiveness and grace.  Will you be ready at the end of your day, or the end of your life, or perhaps if Jesus should come in our life times?

The door closed on Lincoln’s life much too early.  Yet in his lifetime and subsequently for generations to follow, his actions and decisions toward his fellow man changed the landscape of American culture.  It was for him, in the end, the life in his years. 

May it be so for ours.

First piece by Courtney L. Haley
Second piece by He Qi
Photo unknown