Monday, December 29, 2014

A Star, Some Seekers and a Savior

Matthew 2:1-12
Beauty of Astronomical Events
 A couple of years ago my daughter gave me a new tripod for Christmas.  I was living in New Haven at the time.  So I went over to the Green at dusk one day about 4:30 pm.  The tree downtown was resplendent with color that year and huge too!  I took a few shots and then I turned around to see what else there was to photograph until it got a little darker. 

To my complete surprise the moon was rising over the Wachovia Bank building from the east.  It was not a full moon, but almost. It was stunning and I took lots of photos of it.  I have a small photo of it at home which is such a wonderful reminder of living in New Haven.  The next night which was New Year’s Eve was the full ‘blue’ moon with a partial lunar eclipse, which was, astronomically speaking quite an event and happens, well, every now and again.  Hence the saying, “once on a blue moon”. 

Many people have a fascination with the sky and its astronomical delights.  All you have to do is go to an observatory when there is a special astronomical event happening like a comet or a meteor shower and the place will be crowded with people seeking a peak at the night skies and the beauty and mystery that it contains.  I think observing the skies is the human fascination with something so far out of our own atmosphere and realm.  We all know that there is something much greater out there than ourselves and we seek to see what’s out there…who’s out there.

Story of the Epiphany
For the Magi in Matthew’s account of the Epiphany, they saw a beautiful star, one much brighter than all the rest of the stars that season, which illuminated the deepest and darkest sky.  And they followed it.  They packed their camels with food and water for the journey and set out with their caravan over many nights.  And after some serious obstacles, they finally arrived in Bethlehem.  My friends, this is far from a simple story that gets glommed into the pageant on Christmas Eve.

It’s about some foreigners, perhaps magicians, astrologers, or sage old men, maybe even of ‘kingly’ status who, upon seeing this unusually bright object that moved through the sky with the fluidity of a bird in flight in the winter’s night, set out seeking a new born infant, a king.  That westward journey was long perhaps a year, maybe two from Mesopotamia to Judea.  The terrain was not the most hospitable either. 

And when these outsiders, Gentiles in every way and in all manner, arrive in Jerusalem they stop to ask Herod, the tyrant king where they could find Jesus, the little one who had been born king of the Jews.  It’s unsure why they stopped for directions because the star had guided them so far and had gotten them to Jerusalem.  Why wouldn’t the star just have continued a little further south to Bethlehem without this stop?   It’s clear however that their path to the manger was not direct.  But the star did not disappoint and finally got them to that particular place.

And King of the Jews?  Curious.  Herod was king of the Jewish people as appointed by the Roman Imperial Empire and no one was going to dethrone him.  You see the political struggle that we find so palpable latter in the Gospel is already present.  Herod was afraid, and all Jerusalem with him.  He calls for his scribes, his inside people, and asks about this so-called, self-proclaimed king and where this was happening.   Much to his surprise, he finds out that this subversive activity was close to home in Bethlehem a mere five or six miles from the epicenter of Jerusalem.

Then, secretly, he tells the magi to go to Bethlehem because that’s where they would find this baby king and after they pay him homage let Herod know so he too could do the same.  Secrets never work, we know that.  Herod’s intentions were not pure.  He was not a man of integrity or trust.  In fact, already then, he wanted Jesus dead.  He realized that he had been tricked by those magi so he sent out a decree to kill all of the baby boys in and around Bethlehem.  The magi, who had been warned through their dreams, then returned to Mesopotamia by taking an entirely different route home. 

Seekers of Old
The magi were seekers.  They came from a very long distance because of a spiritual longing and curiosity.  They were not Jews but Gentiles, the first of the non-Jews to worship and pay homage to the Christ child, a recurrent message from Matthew’s Gospel.  Their path to the manger was anything but smooth and their trip home was a testimony to the way in which their lives had been changed in their seeking. “Seek and ye shall find!” Jesus says later in Matthew. (Mat 7:7) Jesus’ message of inclusion, hope and justice was found and now they were taking that message, what they had seen and experienced home to people in far-away places who needed to hear that message also.

Seeker Me
It was the day after Christmas that I went to an organ concert and international carol sing at the German Lutheran Church of Augusta Victoria in Jerusalem, a large and beautiful church on top of the Mount of Olives built by Kaiser Wilhelm II for his wife.  You may or may not know that I lived in Jerusalem for a year.   It was much more than a concert and sing along though.  For me the experience posed a question that I still continue to think about long after the reverberating sounds of ‘Silent Night’ in the cavernous church were finally silent.

Rev. Ulricke Wohlrab, co-pastor of the church with her husband, gave a very meaningful message before we started our sing along.  Her first words were, “What brings you here?  Of all places that you could be, what brings you here?   Holiday?  Family?   Friends?  Perhaps a star.   The magicians saw a star and followed it and found the Christ child.”  She told the simple story of the magi with the deepest of meaning and the deepest of questions, what brings you to the manger of Christ?  Of all the places that you could be spending your time, what is it about this birth, this place?  What are you seeking when you look inside that manger?  

I was profoundly moved by her words which brought tears to my eyes because there were times that I thought, what am I doing here?  What am I looking for?  What am I seeking to find so far away from home?  I had come to this Holy Place, Jerusalem looking and hoping for transformation.  And while it was transformative in all ways, I realized to seek is not a single event but the journey of your life twined with the Christ child’s life. 

What does it mean to Seek?
When you seek it is a continual trek into the ways in which Christ really does save you at different times in your life.  I was saved from confusion and loneliness that day at Augusta Victoria because my voice was joined together with others whose pathway to the manger was probably just as circuitous as mine had been.  But yet, we were all there, in that place and at that appointed time loving God and praising Jesus, the Savior.   

We all have a story to tell concerning our pathway to the manger and what we are seeking to find there once we have arrived. 

Some people have no idea about who lies there but are willing to kneel long enough so that God’s mystery can be revealed.

Some people have mistaken ideas of who the Christ child is but are willing to ask questions and wait long enough to hear the answers. 

Some people just come and kneel because they know that there is something of much grander substance outside of themselves. 

Some people come because they have no doubt that there was born in the City of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord, the one who transforms lives.

What are you seeking?  Why are you here today at the side of the manger?  In your seeking you will find and that is the most fundamental promise that God imparts to us in this story of intrigue and love.  In your seeking, you will find!


A Christmas Eve Message

Luke 2:7
And she gave birth to her first born son and wrapped him in bands of cloth,
and laid him in a manger

Starry Night.  Does that ring a bell?  Starry Night, of course, is the name of one of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous paintings.  Famous for its swirling yellow hued stars in the deep blue sky, a small village illumined by the crescent moon and a larger dark structure, this painting has captured the fascination of art lovers since 1889 when it was painted.  It has a transcendent quality to it.

Starry Night was also the theme of one of the Christmas trees that I viewed at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven.  Each year they have a contest for local area school children from mostly all Catholic Schools.  They are invited to make ornaments and decorate a tree, which then is displayed and voted on by the museum staff and the people’s choice. 

Starry Night was my absolute favorite tree this year! Each ornament was a crèche with the background of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.  And there were lights and blue stars with swirly yellow smaller stars drawn on them and yellow paper flowers and garland…it was stunning.  And sweet because the tiny hands of children crafted each crèche ornament.

Every year a trip to the museum is on my list of ‘must dos’ at Christmas time.  Before baking (which, PS I don’t do anyway), before getting my tree or decking ye merry old parsonage halls I carve out time to visit this lovingly curated exhibit.  Most of the trees have a crèche theme because this exhibit accompanies another very beautiful and yearly museum exhibit of crèche’s from around the world.  

The crèche is the most enduring symbol and representation of that night in which Jesus was born.  We have no photos to remember this occasion by.  There were no tripods popping up or cameras snapping in the first few hours after Mary gave birth.  No iphones or selfies taken to remember that special occasion.  We only have words and our wildest and most beautiful imaginations to remember, to make sense of, to make real in our lives the birth of Christ, the incarnate love of God.

So at the very least in your crèche you have the woman Mary, mostly always seated and in a ‘virgin mary blue’ color robe, the man Joseph grey bearded and all standing beside her, a wooden, but not always wooden, stable because of course,  the ‘no vacancy’ sign were up all over Bethlehem town that night, and straw was strewn all over the ground because sheep, goats and other four footed animals aren’t the neatest of eaters.   And at the center of all of this is a banged up, gnawed on manger, an open trough, holding the animal’s fodder…and oh, yes, little Lord Jesus with his sweet heard lying on it. 
The crèche as we know it is emblazoned on the world’s collective memory.  But its endearing image is only one moment, frozen in time, unless we make it real.  Unless we find a way to engage the nativity, the birth of Jesus in our lives each day, then this iconic representation will be like all the rest of the human made crèches; they will be out for three weeks in December and then put back into the packing box with lots of tissue and Styrofoam peanuts and stored next to your nutcracker collection for the following year.  And what good is that?

I think it is no accident that the one who commanded Peter to ‘Feed my sheep”, the one who said, “I am the bread of life”, the one whose body becomes for us a meal, a feast of hope, transformation and love was born in a feeding trough.  Animals come to the trough to be fed; we do too. 

That’s why we are here tonight.  You thought your mother made you come!?  Think again.  You are hear because you too are hungry.  You too are in need of feed and nourishment for your living and provisions for your journey.  You are here because you want this story to be real, that a Savior really is born this day in the city of David.  Someone who will satiate your hunger and feed you.  You are here for your inner needs to be fed.

Because, let’s face it, the world just can’t do that for you.  You are hungry for something much greater than money can buy.  All you have to do is take a look at this despairing and absurd world around you.  Alienation and isolation produces children and cop killers.  Racism brings about division and injustice.  Natural disasters take out thousands of people at a time, moms and dads, grannies’ and grandpas’ all at once. Hatred begets hatred that terrorized the innocent.

All of humanity is starved and aching and we are in need of food that will soothe our weary souls.  We are hungry for love.  For peace. For justice.  For hope.  For cryin’ out loud, just a little happiness.  For God’s love.

I could go on and on, but after all this is Christmas Eve and all you need to know for tonight is that love has come down to us.  That God’s ineffable grace born this night is for us and not against us.  That your adversity and despair is embraced by the baby whose name is Jesus.  That no matter what your circumstances might be at this very moment you are redeemed, comforted and loved by the Christ in the manger.


Monday, December 15, 2014

The Challenge of Joy

Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11
The three books of Isaiah beautifully bind together into one book that tells of God’s presence and the lives of the people of Zion or Israel.  It wasn’t an easy time in their mutual covenantal life together so they really did need a prophet, someone who could be the ‘go between’ if you will. 

Isaiah was their prophet!  First he warned them of God’s impending judgment, then in the second book he spoke words of comfort to God’s people while they were in exile in Babylon.  The third book addresses the dire situation that they found when the finally returned home to a devastated land.  And this is where we find ourselves today in our scripture.  We will hear in our passage today three voices that of Isaiah, God and the people.

Isaiah speaks from the aftermath of exile:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations….

And now the divine voice of God speaks:

For I the Lord love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.

And Zion’s joyful response:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.

From good news to joy, it doesn’t get any better than that!  Isaiah says that all who are oppressed from whatever bondage or slavery they were in will be set free and that they will be comforted in their newly found freedom.  God proclaims a passion for justice and then promises that they will be able to rebuild their homeland not only restoring those crumbled ancient buildings but once again who they were as a people, their heart and soul.  And of course Zion cannot help but ‘greatly rejoice’ in all of this. 

Herein lies the promise of scripture this third week of Advent, this week of pink candles and joy.  We are heard and God is present even in adversity, even in darkness, even when the winds threaten to blow away our very existence; in this we can find joy and rejoice.

But it’s challenging isn’t it?  Life today is really not all that much different than then but I think that our lives are more complicated so it’s possible that joy can be more of a challenge to find or even understand.  Systems continue to keep decent people down, relationships fall apart, folks find themselves imprisoned by more than just bars, tragedy befalls a community like Newtown, children are killed and lives are changed forever.  It’s hard to keep a ‘chins up’ attitude when so much threatens to destroy but this is exactly what we are challenged to do; to find and live into the joy that God intends for us because God is present and has heard our cries.

So maybe we need to have a different understanding of joy in this instant and face paced world. Joy is one of those elusive emotions that can be fleeting at times or it can be a soft undercurrent that is hardly recognizable.  It’s what we feel when our eyes gaze upon a magnificent sunset, or you are captivated by watching a sleeping infant, or you are assembled around your dinner table and are filled with happiness just because you are surrounded by people you love and who love you back.  Joy is a positive feeling not to be confused with being happy but an overwhelmingly satisfying emotion and for us based in faith.

Recently I saw a short video of noted theologians and professors talking about what joy was for them, it was entitled, “The Theology of Joy”.  Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis believes that joy is the combination of happiness and gratitude; it is connection and relationship of a transcendent nature.[i]  It is so much more than being happy. It is being happy and being filled with deep gratitude to our eternal God for presence, sustenance and contentment.  We are never alone and herein we can feel joy.

Ellen Charry, theology professor at Princeton Theological Seminary believes that joy is to be content with your choices and the paths that you wish to pursue and those also that you decide not to pursue.  It is, she says, a deep-seated sense of well being with one’s self and with ones life.[ii]   You can and do often know joy when your life is in-sync.  It is contentment and accepting that you are right where you are supposed to be at this very moment in time.

Yet in the context of Advent joy is so much more.  Joy challenges us to go very deep into our souls in the midst of the darkest and coldest nights and find warmth and light.  And then to give thanks in that light.  At the heart of joy is believing and knowing that God is with you and by your side through tragedy, loss and darkness and then being ever so grateful.  It is a ‘resistance against despair’[iii].  It is deciding that, after considering all of the facts and circumstances, you choose to overcome the darkness, not let it overcome you.  It is choosing to believe in the inherent good of humanity because that is what brings you hope. Hope for the world. Hope for your life. Hope for this baby who is soon to come. 

Yes, joy to the world the Lord is come. Soon, very soon, God’s reminder of love, compassion and hope will be with us once again.  Once again we will no longer have to sit and wait in darkness that the light of the world has come.  Rejoice.

I leave you with a poem and blessing by artist, poet and pastor, Jan Richardson, Blessing to Summon Rejoicing”
When your weeping
has watered
the earth.

When the storm
has been long
and the night
and the season
of your sorrowing.

When you have seemed
an exile
from your life
lost in the far country
a long way from where
your comfort lies.

When the sound
of splintering
and fracture
haunts you.

When despair
attends you.

When lack.
When trouble.
When fear.
When pain.
When empty.
When lonely.
When too much
of what depletes you
and not enough
of what restores
and rests you.

Then let there be
Then let there be

Let there be
laughter in your mouth
and on your tongue
shouts of joy.

Let the seeds
soaked by tears
turn to grain,
to bread,
to feasting.
Let there be
coming home.[iv]


[i] “The Theology of Joy”, Yale Center for Faith and Culture, 2014.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Willie James Jennings, Professor of Theology, Duke Divinity School.
[iv] Jan Richardson.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

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.

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.  Don’t you hear us?  When will you come?” Many years pass, generations actually.  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 found ourselves in 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 because you had no other choice.  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’ve settled in and in doing so clutter and baggage takes up residence with you.  That’s inevitable when you settle in.  Believe me, I know.  I have had nine addresses in nine years and I didn’t move every year.  I’ve always had stuff that accumulated and then needed to be tossed out upon my move.
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.  There is a way.

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. 

Yet and all, it’s time.  Preparations need to be made and your 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 and traverse the most direct route, the path that will safely take you home again.  So too the pathway to Christ will be made so much more plain when simplicity overrules complexity.

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. 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 receive the Christ child that is coming?  Are there valley’s that you have a hard time emerging from? 

If you need forgiveness of someone, of God, of yourself, 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 a few things 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 can have upon our lives and the world.  How can you see the one light when these flashing electrical lawn displays endeavor to 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.

Prepare the way.