Angels Can Wait

advent-love

Sermon 12/18/16 – Fourth Sunday in Advent

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’,

which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.  – Matthew 1:18-25

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There’s a video going around on Facebook now, a version of the Christmas story as told by a group of young children. Maybe you’ve seen it; if not, I’ll include a link to it when I post this sermon online (click here to see the video). In the video, adults in costumes act out the story as the kids tell it, while lip-synching the characters’ words verbatim in the kids’ actual words as voice-over. It’s cute, and funny, and touching. One of the things that I like about it is that the kids captured all the special, supernatural parts of the story – the angels singing in the clouds, the star, the Wise Men, and so on – but at the same time, they captured the very real humanity, sometimes in interesting detail, of Mary and Joseph, and the baby Jesus.

That caught my attention because it’s easy to lose that human aspect of the story. We can focus on all the extraordinary parts, because they’re so, well, extraordinary. You just don’t see angels appearing in the sky belting out tunes every day. Those parts of the story stick in our minds because most of us have plenty of common and normal. It’s nice to think about the miraculous parts of the story.

And that’s a good thing, as long as we do like the kids in that video, capturing both the miraculous and the ordinary with the same wide-eyed wonder. That’s important, because focusing on all the extraordinary, otherworldly parts can make Jesus seem like someone otherworldly and distant, untouchable and unlike us. But I think the real power of the story for us doesn’t really hinge on the extraordinary stuff, but rather, on it ordinariness, its commonality with us.

The gospel text we heard today is the entire Christmas story as it appears in the gospel according to Matthew. As I mentioned in the Thursday email, there’s really almost nothing to it. Yes, Mary becomes pregnant by way of the Holy Spirit, and there is one angel – but it isn’t the angels in the sky appearing to shepherds; it isn’t even the angel appearing to Mary announcing that she is most favored among women. It’s the one who comes to Joseph, and he seems to almost be phoning in his appearance, showing up in a dream, to coax him not to divorce Mary as he’s struggling with his very real-world, human emotions.

Just imagine Joseph’s emotions. The scriptures say he’s “betrothed” or “engaged” to Mary, but in that time, that meant that Joseph and Mary had already entered into a legal contract of marriage – they were already married in the eyes of the law and the eyes of their neighbors, but for some reason, they just weren’t living together and hadn’t consummated the marriage yet. And now, somehow, Mary turned up pregnant, which must have led to some interesting conversations between the two of them. An out-of-wedlock pregnancy still raises eyebrows today. To be frank, that’s how I came into the world, born to two teenagers who quit high school to get married and raise me. And I’d bet that I’m not the only person here today who has that same story, or a very similar one. Even within just my lifetime, single young women who got pregnant were sometimes shipped off for extended visits to some distant relative during their pregnancy, until the baby was born and given up for adoption, and then the young woman reappeared as if nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened. That was bad enough, but in the days of Joseph and Mary, it was even worse, and it came with far more risk to Mary than just having to put up with small-town gossip and chit-chat. It could have cost her her life, since the punishment for adultery was being stoned to death.

So Joseph struggled with what he should do. And imagine the distress that Mary must have felt, knowing how much hung in the balance for her, based on what Joseph would decide.

Here’s where I’m headed with all of this: Jesus came into the world in the midst of a very human back story. Just as he said in last week’s Lectionary text talking about John the Baptist, Jesus didn’t come into the world in some privileged existence, born in a palace, with all the privileges and perks that the world could offer someone it considered important. Matthew’s way of telling about Jesus’ birth drills down on the reality that Jesus came into the world in a very human way, a way that almost no one noticed or paid any attention to. He was just another baby born to just another baby born to just another couple. Just like us.

And that’s precisely the point. That’s what God’s good news, God’s “glad tidings of great joy for all people” absolutely hangs on. Jesus coming into the world isn’t “God-Looking-Down-On-Us,” or “God-Studying-Us,” or even “God-Taking-Pity-On-Us.” It’s “God-With-Us;” it’s “God-Being-One-Of Us.” Truly knowing, firsthand, all the ups and downs of human existence, from our perspective. Knowing the joy and love, and grief and suffering. Knowing human hopes and dreams, and disappointments and temptations. Our good news is that God has chosen to experience all of that with us, and has promised to walk with us as we go through all of those things and many others too. God has chosen to extend grace and mercy to us from a position of being able to identify with us; having solidarity with us.

I read a story sometime this past week about a man who was dragging out the family’s Christmas decorations, and his small child – probably about the same age as the kids in the video I mentioned earlier – wanted to help set up the expensive, elaborate, family-heirloom nativity set. The man was nervous that his child’s little hands might drop and break one of the precious ceramic figurines, so he went to look for another nativity set that they had, one that was very kid-friendly – simple wood construction, and all the figures were made out of totally unbreakable, quilted fabric. As he was up in the attic trying to find it, he heard the child call up to him from down below, “Hey Dad, did you find a Jesus I can touch?”

Don’t forget all the amazing, miraculous parts of the Christmas story. They’re an important part of it all. But don’t let all those parts take the focus away from the most important aspect of it all. Just for a bit, hold off on the star; keep the Wise Men at bay; the angels can wait. Just for a bit, consider Matthew’s simpler version of the story of Jesus’ birth. To me, that’s truly the “greatest story ever told” – the story of a Jesus we can touch.

Thanks be to God.

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Seeing God in the Subway Station, and Beyond

(sermon 12/11/16 – Third Sunday in Advent)

violinist-in-subway

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”  – Matthew 11:2-11 (NRSV)

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Last week, we heard a bit about John the Baptist, and now we hear about him again this week. But last week, he was out in the Jordan River preaching and baptizing people, and this week he’s sitting in prison. Obviously, there’s some middle part of this story that’s missing, so to keep us all up to speed, here’s a very brief summary of what’s happened between the two.

As we heard last week, John could be pretty harsh, even insulting, to people. And he wasn’t just that way with the people who came out to hear him in person; he also took the same heavy-handed approach to the powerful people who ruled over the land. In particular, he’d heaped public scorn on the head of Herod Antipas, the ruler of that region. Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great, the incredibly powerful and ruthless man who had been king when Jesus and John were born. Herod Antipas had an older brother, who was also named Herod – Herod II, who was a ruler in an adjacent region. The older brother had a wife, named Herodias, who, as you might guess from her name, was also a part of Herod’s extended family. Herodias divorced Herod II, an act that was scandalous in that male-dominated culture. Following that, Herod Antipas divorced his wife, so he could marry Herodias, which would have raised eyebrows even now, but which was certainly scandalous back then. Frankly, Antipas wasn’t all that great a ruler, and he wasn’t all that well-liked to begin with, and he was more than a bit insecure and thin-skinned about that fact. So when John the Baptist laid into him because of all this business with Herodias, making him look even worse in the public eye, he had to do something about it. John didn’t have any problem “speaking truth to power,” as we might say today. But it was as true then as it is today, that when you speak truth to power, the power is still the power; and the truth can indeed hurt, and when it does, it can end up hurting the truth-teller as much as anyone else. Antipas didn’t have a Twitter account and couldn’t just tweet out some insult to try to discredit John; and even if he had, he needed to send a stronger message than that to show the people who was in charge – so he had John arrested and thrown into prison.

So now here was John, cooling his jets in prison, and with all that time on his hands, he appears to have started having second thoughts. As strong and unwavering as his preaching had been, and as certain he’d been that Jesus was the messiah, now he wondered. If Jesus really were the messiah, ushering in the Kingdom of God, why were the Romans, and their lackeys like Herod’s children, still occupying and controlling the land? And frankly, why was John sitting there in jail? Had he actually bet on the wrong horse? Was Jesus not the messiah? Had all of his life, all of his work, just been a big mistake? So he sent word to Jesus, asking him point-blank: are you really God’s chosen one?

And Jesus answers John’s direct question with a typical, indirect Jesus-answer. He tells John, look around you; what do you see? The blind see, the lame walk, the sick are healed – all of the things that were foretold in the scriptures that would happen with the ushering in of God’s kingdom. Jesus tells John that the answer to the question is right in front of his eyes; he just has to pay attention to it, and believe that it’s a sign of the hand of God acting in the world.

How many times do we fall into the same thing that John the Baptist did? So often, the immediate circumstances that we find ourselves in can keep us from seeing the reality of what’s really going on. It’s easy enough to see the bad, and what’s wrong, in the world – but how often do we allow that to keep us from seeing the bigger picture, truly seeing the hand of God, and real goodness, and beauty, and joy, in so much of what surrounds us?

He stood in the main entry of the subway station just as the morning rush was beginning, nondescript in his jeans, leather jacket, and ball cap. Leaning down, he took his violin out of its case, and he started to play, just like all the other performers scattered throughout the station who were hoping that some thoughtful commuters would like what they heard and leave them a few bills for their effort. He kept playing, as people hurried by, paying him little if any attention at all. Eventually, one person dropped some money in the open violin case as they hurried toward the turnstile, hardly slowing down as they did. A few more people stopped to hear a few seconds of his music, and some of them left him some cash, too, before they, like everyone else, lost interest and went on about their business. After all, it was just another day in the lives of the people who scurried past him; just another day in the station.

Except it wasn’t just another day. Because he wasn’t just another subway station musician. He was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest living violinists in the world, and his instrument wasn’t something picked up in a pawn shop; it was the very well-storied, well-traveled, multimillion-dollar Gibson Stradivarius. Just a few days before, concertgoers had paid serious money to hear Bell’s virtuosity. Here, he and his music were all but invisible.

Maybe you’ve seen that story online, or maybe you’ve even heard another sermon make mention of it; it seems to be a favorite story for preachers to use. In any case, it wasn’t that the people going by were stupid, or culturally ignorant, or uncaring. For all anyone knows maybe some of those same concertgoers had walked by and never given him a second glance. It’s just that the people going by were operating under a set of preconceptions that kept them from experiencing the magical thing that was going on right in front of them. They allowed their surroundings, and precedent, to shape and put meaning to the things they were experiencing, instead of recognizing them for what they really were. Subway stations are full of musicians. They’re a dime a dozen; if they were really any good, they probably wouldn’t be playing in subway stations for tips.

They weren’t allowing themselves to see thing for themselves, as the things that they really were. They hadn’t allowed themselves to be open to see the beauty of the moment, and to appreciate what God was allowing to be taking place right in front of them.

As we go through our days, especially during this Advent season, let’s try to be especially aware of the hand of God that’s playing out around us all the time, every day. It’s this whole idea of intentionally preparing our hearts this way, and allowing ourselves to adjust our mindsets to the possibility of God’s presence in the world, why we observe a season of Advent before rushing right into the celebration of Christmas. Sometimes, people ask about whether it’s really true, this idea of “God with Us”, as we talk about, especially at this time of year? If, in our own darkest of moments, like John’s dark moment in that prison cell, we sent word to Jesus asking if God really is with us, what kind of answer would he give us? Maybe one like the answer he gave to John. Look around you – what do you see? See the joy in the faces and laughter of children playing. Or in the faces of someone enjoying beautiful music, or making beautiful music, or engaging in some other artistic expression. See the joy of a parent making dinner for their family, or baking cookies with their grandchildren. Feel the joy of a loving hand being slipped into our own, or of giving or receiving a comforting hug. Remember the joy that you feel in those times when you’re just being silly, acting in ways that someone your age isn’t supposed to, but who cares, it’s fun anyway. Remember the joy that you feel when you’ve worked so hard to learn something, and you finally accomplish it.

I think that Jesus would say that if we kept our eyes, and our hearts, open to the possibility of seeing God in the midst of our existence, we’d see it, all over the place. We’d know the answer to our own question.

This season, when we proclaim to the world – and sometimes, to our own partially-doubting selves, too – that God is here, God is with us, let’s try to remember, with God’s help, to keep our eyes open to see the reality of that great truth. Let’s try to keep our hearts open to the joy that comes with it. Who knows? Someday, maybe we’ll experience that joy by encountering a world-famous violinist playing music in a subway station. Or maybe, far more likely, we’ll experience the very same thing as we sing, for the umpteenth time, of a nameless little drummer boy playing music in a stable.

Thanks be to God.

“None Shall Pass”

(sermon 12/4/16 – Advent 2A)

black-knight

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” – Matthew 3:1-12 (NRSV)

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They all stood there on the platform, waiting for the next subway train to come along. It wasn’t as crowded now, on the weekend, as it would have been on a weekday, but that also meant the trains were scheduled a bit further apart. They had a little bit of a wait, standing there in the stale air filed with the sometimes-questionable aromas that seemed to be typical of all subway stations, but it wasn’t so bad – there was a pretty good guitar player playing a little further down on the platform, and more importantly, they were excited about where they were going on their little weekend day trip. Just then, the next train came along; whooshing a gust of air into their faces as it went by, then gradually coming to a stop. Soon enough the doors opened, and a handful of people got off, and then they hopped on and quickly got their seats, just in time to hear the familiar “Stand clear of the closing doors, please!” and with that, they were on their way.

The subway was just the first leg of their trip, getting them to the main train station. There, they hopped on a train that went far out of the downtown core. It poked  up out of the ground in the middle of working-class apartment blocks, graffiti-covered warehouses, sidewalk vendors selling bootleg everything, and mom-and-pop bodegas, and then it kept going – out beyond all the urban buildup, first out into the nicer, quieter, suburban neighborhoods, and then even further – out into the remote, undeveloped area, well past the immediate influence of the city itself. Even though it really wasn’t all that far a distance, and it was a relatively short train ride in real time, from their vantage point this was out in the middle of nowhere; they were out in the wilderness. And then they arrived. The train stopped and over the garbled, barely understandable PA system they heard, “This stop is the end of the line; all passengers must depart the train here.” And that was exactly their plan. From here, they’d go out a bit more; maybe on foot, or maybe a cab or Uber if they got lucky, but that didn’t seem likely given that the stop was such a tiny place it really could barely even be called a town. They were headed out to a spot along the shoreline of the river to see this man who had become famous practically overnight; this man who just went by the single name, John. YouTube videos of this crazy-looking man had gone viral; news crews had come out and reported on him. Everyone in the city was talking about him. Everyone was trying to get out here to catch him in person, to see what he was all about, with his outrageous look, his big, booming voice, the wild eyes, and his fire and brimstone preaching that the Kingdom of God was near – that God was just about to step into the world in a powerful way, and that they needed to turn their lives around, get right with God, to prepare themselves for that.  So they all came out to see him. Some people thought he was right on target; he was just what people needed to hear. Some people thought he was crazy. Other people thought he was just a huckster, a con man looking for some kind of payoff on the backside of all this theater. Some of them laughed at what they thought was just melodramatic shtick; yelling at people, insulting them, calling them children of snakes and other colorful things, and even getting people to wade out into the river, supposedly to cleanse themselves of their sins and be made whole and new – when the reality was that given the murkiness of the water along this particular stretch of the river, they probably came out dirtier than when they went in. Still, lots of people heard what he was preaching, and waded on out there. Whether they thought he was nuts, or a con man, or they took what he was saying to heart, the one sure thing was that they’d all remember him, and what he’d said, long after they got back on the train and made their way home in the city.

Well – maybe going out of the city and going out into the wilderness to hear John the Baptist wasn’t quite like that, but it was probably something very similar. And it’s true – John the Baptist was definitely a memorable person. He was part of the long line of biblical prophets who made their point, who drove home the message that God was telling them to convey, in ways that were often quite memorable, even shocking at times – some of the outrageous things they did to get people’s attention make even the most shocking of actions taken by today’s protestors look bush league by comparison. And every year during the season of Advent, we encounter John the Baptist again. Right in the middle of the anticipation and excitement leading up to Christmas, right in the middle of Advent talk of hope, and peace, and joy, and love… we come face to face with John. Weird John. Socially Unacceptable John. Scary John. As I said in the Thursday email, for people of my generation, he’s kind of the Advent equivalent of the Black Knight in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, sternly warning that “None shall pass!” to all the joy of Christmas, without first encountering him, and all the potential discomfort that he, and his message, bring to us.

John demands that before we can move past him, we first have to seriously examine our lives. We have to see where we’ve followed ways that aren’t God’s ways, and change that. We have to repent – to turn away from those ways, and get back on course, on God’s path. And honesty, no matter how weird John is, and how discomforting it is to do what he tells us, he’s right – we really do have to do it. Because just as you can’t get to the joy of Easter Sunday without the dread of Good Friday, neither can you get to the full joy of Christmas without the serious reflection, and self-awareness of just how much we need it to begin with.

I know that repentance isn’t a very popular idea. We tend to think of repentance in very negative terms – that we’re supposed to be sorry, very sorry, abject, groveling-in-the-dirt sorry. We can think we’re supposed to feel like garbage when we repent, and if we don’t, then we aren’t doing it right.

Well, we are supposed to be sorry for the ways that we’re not following God’s guidance in our lives; that will always be at last a part of repentance. But as I invite you to do that self-reflection, examining what you should repent of, I also invite you to do it in a more constructive manner than just that. Think of it in terms of just taking a serious look at your life and seeing how you can do better in the future, and move forward from where you are now. Thinking of repentance that way might still be a little discomforting, but maybe it isn’t quite so doom-and-gloom.

If you do examine your life, if you’re like me, you’ll probably find a number of ways that you need to repent, that you need to turn from. And it might even be a bit overwhelming, thinking about how you could possibly make so much change. So maybe during Advent, you could focus in on just one of those things – pick one thing that you want to ask for God’s help in turning around, and improving; making your life more consistent with God’s will. And since today, we lit the candle of peace, maybe that can be how you’ll pick that one thing: is there something in your life that you can change that would establish, or maintain, or improve, peace? That might be peace within your own soul; allowing yourself to forgive yourself for something in your past. Maybe it’s peace between you and a family member, or friend, or acquaintance; maybe finding a way to make peace and move forward in your relationship. Maybe it’s a larger kind of peace that you could work for; some kind of social justice in the world, because we all know that true justice is necessary for any real peace. Whatever it might be that you come up with, hold that thought, and that desire, close to your heart this Advent, and throughout the coming year. Pray for God’s help in making that turnaround, that change. And have the courage to make the change, in every way that you can. Think about this, and pray about it, and work on it. I suspect that if you do focus on how you can be God’s agent of increasing peace in the world – or just in *your* world – it will make this season all the more meaningful, all the more special, because we know that the coming into the world of Christ, the Prince of Peace, is what it’s all about – that’s what’s waiting at the end of the line.

Thanks  be to God.