Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Place for All

Luke 2: 41-52
What adult among us today has not come into contact with a twelve year old?  After all, we were one once ourselves, right?  So we know that being twelve produces all sorts of different thoughts, anxieties, moods, hormones….  It’s an eclectic and confusing time to say the least. 

As I remember back to that age; make up, boys, and The Beatles were occupying a lot of space in my mind.  And, you would have found me at church since my parents were faithful church going people.  But my reasons for going would have been different than theirs.  I wanted to go so that I could be with my like-minded friend Carol who also cared deeply for make up, boys, and The Beatles.  Church was the place to be in our little world.

So I always find it humorous that, when in the lectionary, we go from the sweet and powerful Christmas story of Jesus’ birth, and imagining him as an infant to the portion of scripture this week where Jesus has grown older, a pre-teen the penultimate before teen-ager-hood.  How time flies! 

But children do that, they grow up in an instant. 

Now he’s a boy, 12 years old.  Knowing Jesus it is doubtful that he would have been seeking out his friends at the temple in Jerusalem to talk about shaving, girls, and the hottest Klezmer band.  He is approaching a very special age in the life of a Jewish boy; Bar Mitzvah age, the age of reason, where now, under Jewish law, he is to study scripture. A greater responsibility is expected of him. 
Let us open the scriptures today from the Gospel of Luke, the 2nd chapter.

Every year Jesus' parents went to Jerusalem for Passover. And when Jesus was twelve years old, they all went there as usual for the celebration. After Passover his parents left, but they did not know that Jesus had stayed on in the city. They thought he was traveling with some other people, and they went a whole day before they started looking for him. When they could not find him with their relatives and friends, they went back to Jerusalem and started looking for him there.

Three days later they found Jesus sitting in the temple, listening to the teachers and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was surprised at how much he knew and at the answers he gave.

When his parents found him, they were amazed. His mother said, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been very worried, and we have been searching for you!”

Jesus answered, “Why did you have to look for me? Didn’t you know that I would be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he meant.
Jesus went back to Nazareth with his parents and obeyed them. His mother kept on thinking about all that had happened.

Jesus became wise, and he grew strong. God was pleased with him and so were the people.  (Contemporary English Version)

Well, you know how twelve year olds can be.  On one hand Jesus shows us that he is fully 12 years old by, his smart-aleck remark to Mary, ‘Why are you looking for me?  Didn’t you know that I’d be here?’  That, ‘In my house’ remark would have been considered ‘back talk’ which was forbidden by ‘the stare’ from my mother.  And Joseph probably would have been a bit perturbed by now hearing about Jesus’ other father’s house, like what is Joseph, chopped liver?

Mary and Joseph just didn’t understand what he was saying, they didn’t make the connection between the divine mystery of Jesus’ birth twelve years prior and the day to day tasks of raising a boy in the first century.  Teens are teens.  So Jesus obeyed them and they all went back to Nazareth.  Mary kept thinking about this, Jesus got older and wiser and we are told that God was really happy with the divine Son that day in the Temple. 

Fast forward and the next we hear of Jesus at his baptism and start of his ministry when he was thirty years old, an adult.  But that is the scripture in the weeks to come.

We can assume that throughout his teen years and twenty-something years he continued to grow in wisdom, travel down to Jerusalem for Passover, say prayers in the Temple, and offer sacrifices.  The Temple was the place to be because here they would have found God through the holy of holies, a place to practice ritual and study Torah, a place to be in the fellowship of other Jews.  Hopefully Jesus never got lost again and Mary and Joseph came to accept that Jesus would be found in his Father’s [sic] house.

Jesus knew all to well the importance of being in God’s house, that holy sanctuary.  For him it was a place to ‘be in’, or maybe ‘as one’ with God until it was time for his identity to be revealed.  Here he could read Torah to learn how to live, engage the prophets of old to find a sense of direction, or even read one of the Psalms of David to soothe his teenaged soul when things may have gotten rough at home.  You know how that happens when children are teens.

Everyone needs a place to go.  A temple, a sanctuary, a church is still very important today, we all need a place where we can find a refuge from the onslaught of daily living, a safe haven when turmoil knocks at your door, and a place to learn and grow with others in our faith.  We need a place where our children can grow up to be who they are, as they are, created by God with love, a place where they know they will be accepted and cherished.

You have that place here and now, but could it be more?  Could all people feel the safety and solitude that you feel when you enter this sanctuary?  And if they could, how would it be?  How would you make it known to all that this place, this holy ground that we call Wilton Congregational is a place of healing and hope for all people? 

The mentally ill, the young adults with special needs, the mother on some form of welfare, the ethnically, racially different, the gay, the transgendered, the other whomever you determine your other to be?  We don’t typically see them on a Sunday morning in our pews but believe me, they are in our community and its vicinity.

The church doesn’t exist for itself. The church doesn’t exist for the status quo, filling the coffers or those who look and dress like us.  It exists as a lens through which we can see and envision salvation and transformation for each person who crosses our threshold. It exists for everyone and anyone who thirsts to be refreshed by the love of God through Jesus Christ.  The church exists so that people can be healed in the many ways that they are in need of healing and hope.  The church exits to be a place of inclusion rather than exclusion. 

The church exists so that we can get outside of our four walls and engage others whose hopes and dreams are similar to ours but expressed in a different way.  That’s why we exist.  The church exists to tell the Gospel of salvation P E R I O D.

Soon you will prepare to be a church with a new spiritual leader and guide.  He will bring about change because that’s what each new pastor does, not because they try to mark their territory or forge their own path, but because each pastor speaks from his or her own unique experience in God’s created world.  It is always rich and from the heart.

Each pastor has a story to tell of how God has picked them up and dropped them off in a different place of grace.  Each pastor comes to the Gospel by a different path and will tell it in their own words, yet will proclaim the glory of God.  That is the constant in all of this.  God’s glory. 

Jesus proclaimed God’s glory always.  He never looked towards himself but to God. That’s what’s going on in the temple here, he didn’t defy his parents, he was attentive to God’s call upon his life and was bold enough to live it out even from the very beginning.  May we also live out God’s call to us, gathering at church, rejoicing in one another’s differences and then going out into the world with the Gospel in your heart and grace with every step you take. 


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Time of Love Incarnate

A Time of Love Incarnate
 Nativity from the Church of the Ascension, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem  2007
It was the darkest of days for Mary and Joseph.  The scorching heat of the summer had given away to colder winds and sunset now came early ushering in deep, lengthy shadows as they traversed the rocky countryside from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea. 

It was not carefree, easy living under the Roman Empire for most people.  Mary and Joseph, Jews in the first century, were not given many religious rights under King Herod and they were subject to heavy taxation by the Roman authorities.  There was a large disparity between the rich and the poor, and insecure Herod issued a decree to slaughter the lives of the innocent ones.  Life was exceedingly demanding in all ways.  And here was Mary, unwed, young, and with child.  

They needed light.  They needed some luminosity and hope that tomorrow was going to be a better day, that, their God had not forgotten them, that God was not silent in their despair and marginalized circumstances.

And when they could not find a place to stay, forcing them to lodge in a musty animal stall, their baby was born.  “And what was come into being in him [this baby] was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1: 4-5) 

The darkness did not overcome it because this baby was the light of the world, Jesus Christ.  You see the story that you’ve come to hear tonight is so much more than just a sweetened sentimental tale that bears repeating once a year.  It is the story of life born, infused with desire and the promise of resurrection hope.  It is a story of God, and God’s love incarnate in humanity, through Jesus the Christ. It is a story that has meaning each day for your life not just Christmas Eve.  It is a story of God reaching directly into your life and shining grace in all your darkest corners.

Our days are threatening right now.   Not only is this the darkest time of the year but unbelievable events have entered our lives, very close to home, practically in our backyard so that the degrees of separation are hardly existent.  We have questions without answers, or without answers that will satisfy our deepest longing to know and understand the depths of God and our existential nature. 

Why does evil exit?  Why doesn’t God intervene and stop it?  Does God even care?  These real questions we bring with us tonight as we revisit the stable of so long ago.  Mary and Joseph may have asked those same questions.  Even though their faith was strong and their devotedness to God’s call on their lives was palpable, they still had questions.  What if?  How come?  What will become of us?     

When asked why my colleague, the Rev. Matt Crebbin of the Newtown Congregational Church didn’t use the United Church of Christ moniker, “God is still speaking” as a sign of hope in a recent interview,  pensively, Matt said, ‘because for folks God seems distant and silent right now.’  He said, ‘There are no words. Right now is the time for the ministry of incarnation, and that’s what we’re doing’.[i]

How poignant.  He meant that when there are no words that can possibly soothe an aching heart, you can, by your mere presence, be the presence of God to someone who is in need of comfort and hope.  Just by being there!  Because by your presence, and your kindness you are the face and heart of a loving and very present God.   

That is love incarnate. 

That is what Christmas is all about, God’s word, promise, and hope becoming one with us in Jesus Christ.  And then we, extending Christ’s love to others.  “And the word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth.”  (John 1:14)  Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor says, “By choosing Christ to flesh out the word, God made a lasting decision in favor of incarnation…and it is in our own flesh and blood that the word of God continues to be made known.”[ii]

When you see the outpouring of makeshift memorials in Newtown, the 1,000’s of teddy bears collected, the meals cooked and given, the 100’s gathered for a candlelight vigil you can’t help but see that God is all over the place and good hearts triumph over evil ones. That life, even in dire circumstances goes on, because God favors humanity and chooses life.

God’s love embodied, is what is in that stable in Bethlehem.  A newborn cries because God chooses to be with us and God’s greatest desire is for us to carry on in God’s holy name.  God’s love is personified in each one of us.

The manger takes on an especially profound meaning this year.  Christ ‘fleshes out’ for us a way to live that pleases God and that reflects the divine nature of a just and generous God.  The birth of Christ ushers in comfort, redemption and hope.

This tiny Savior-baby is God saying to us, live into your greatest potential.  The borning cries of Jesus beckon you to come out of the darkness of your life into a hopeful future and that is what it is all about.  A future with hope, God has plans for you. (Jer 31)  

So take God’s profound affirmation of love with you tonight out into this world.  Be the face and hands of Jesus to others and in that way the stable, the manger, the stars and the angels become a very real and living nativity of the incarnate God, not some simple story told long ago.

May the peace of God that passes all understanding be in your hearts and minds forever.
Christmas Eve Meditation, 2012

Nativity from Shepherd's Field, Bethlehem, West Bank 2007

[i] Notes from clergy gathering on Dec. 18, 2012 at the Newtown Congregational Church.
[ii] Taylor, Barbara Brown. “The Preaching Life”, Cowley Publications, Cambridge, MA 1993, p.84.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A meditation

Meditation Given at Wilton Congregational Church for the Newtown shootings

Here we gather, and around us is the scenery and the props for our pageant tomorrow.  Less than one hour ago this holy sanctuary was teeming with excited children reenacting the story of Jesus’ birth.  They laughed and sang and said their memorized lines, sometimes screwing up or forgetting as children do.  And this is the way it should be.

It should not be that children go off to school and do not come home because of one person’s heinous acts of violence.  It should not be that this one person, who still yet almost a child himself, can kill and take away the very hope of life itself; children and the ones who chose to teach and nurture them.

It is not right at all.

The poet T.S. Eliot once said, “Every now and then, life drops an unavoidable question at your door.”  We have now had unavoidable questions dropped right into the lap of our lives. ‘Why now?  Where were you God?  Why did this have to happen?”

But sadly, these difficult questions have no immediate answers that can possibly take away the pain, assuage the grief, or turn back the clock.  There are no words that can make it all better at this very moment.  All we can do is lean heavily into our faith that we will be comforted in time, that these families who were so violently torn apart will receive some sort of peace and maybe a portion of understanding that will help us re-order our lives.

I do not believe that this tragedy was in God’s plan for some higher purpose or that God painted this tragic scene in the lives of these families and ultimately ours to show us a lesson.  That would be a manipulative God that I care not to believe in.  I believe that God loves life, God creates, God does not destroy.  God is for us and not against us.  And I do believe that we can craft out of dreadful circumstances a vision of goodness and grace for us to order our own lives.     

So what do we do with all of this heartache, this intense sadness, this lonely emptiness? Where do you put a pain so deep?’

We can either retreat from life or we can live boldly the future that these children would have embodied.  We can take the smile of a child with us, we can seize the very essence of their living and carry it forward with us into the future.  We can lift up their memory and then commit ourselves to a better future in their name.  

We can remember that God loves us deeply, dearly and that we too will someday be welcomed into the cloud of great witnesses that have gone before us, the cloud that these people have been welcomed into.  We can remember that life is finite; that each day counts immeasurably and that we must tell those whom we care deeply about that we love them over and over again.  

As we sit here with Bethlehem around us we remember that Christ has come into this world to save and to heal, and to comfort us.  That what lies in the manger is hope and salvation and that the beauty of life goes on. 


Friday, December 14, 2012

Newtown, Connecticut December 14, 2012

For the children, teachers, parents, friends of the Newtown community.  May God's strength envelop you in this time of tragedy and may the Spirit of God sustain in this time of need.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Prepare Yourself

Luke 3: 1-6
After Mary left Elizabeth with a song in her heart and her soul rejoicing, she went back to the Galilee.  Both women gave birth to sons; one was named Jesus, the other named John.  The cousins grew and they played, they laughed and they learned, and they became men.

We pick up our scripture from the Gospel of Luke:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea (i-tyu-re-a) and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

Luke posits our scripture in a time and place and with high-faluting people both of the Roman Empire and of the Jewish priesthood.  Yet it is curious (but maybe not) that he chooses not to actually give the message that he needs to tell in Rome or Jerusalem, in places and with people of power, but in the wilderness with a very unique and common sort of guy named John.  
John always appears in Advent, usually about the same week, this second week.  So in the middle of angel’s wings, pre-natal conversations between Mary and Elizabeth, there appears this scruffy, locust eating, camel’s hair wearing, and wilderness living man.  Surely his family must have thought him an outcast, you know that crazy cousin John. How can he be the messenger when he himself is so, well, kooky? 

“Prepare the way of the Lord!” he says, “repent, and be saved”. 

But you see God did choose John to deliver this message, prepare yourself.  Perhaps when you are in the wilderness things become a bit clearer.   When there is no clutter and extraneous things around you are no longer present, you can make ready your heart.  The pathway for decent living and walking in the light of God is by repenting and turning your life around.  He saw this, he knew this because the word of God found him and came to him, yes, in the wilderness. 

John brings us a tough message because repent asks us to look deeply and honestly within ourselves and then to change those things which do not reflect the love of God.  Prepare doesn’t mean to pull out the silver service and shine it up.  It means something quite different.

This time of year I always get asked the question, “Are you ready for Christmas?” which really means, am I prepared?  Have I purchased all of the presents I need to give, have I created a menu for Christmas day, have I attended the parties or sent out the necessary regrets.  It means have I decorated the house and put up the tree, have I decked the halls with boughs of holly?  Have I written my sermon?  To which I say, sure, I’m ready.  

Yet this itchy-scratchy passage pops up in my mind with John’s itchy-scratchy message.  He offers a different definition of how to prepare; prepare by repenting.  So the question “Am I ready?” brings me to another place.  It really means, have I acknowledged the ways in which I may have disparaged others?  Have I considered the ways that I have not used my God-given talents, the ways in which I have utterly failed to help other people less fortunate than myself, or those more fortunate than myself, the way in which my words may have hurt others?  Bottom line: have I recognized and accepted my sins? 

No one wants to talk about sins this time of year, I know?  You’re thinking, ‘Come on Reverend, let’s just sing some Christmas carols, we want to really feel good, drink some wassail and reminisce’.  I know what’s on your minds, I go there too.  And yet, the voice of John lingers, prepare, repent, be saved.   

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 forgiveness, 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.  This is not Advent.  Advent is not adding on hills and valley’s it’s stripping them away.  It’s simplifying, introspection, and reflecting on God’s grace in your life and preparing for the advent of the real Savior Jesus Christ.

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?  How can you make a place for the Savior when your heart is burdened?  Prepare, repent, forgiveness is born. 

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 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 penitent 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.