Hope with Legs

(sermon 12/22/19 – Fourth Sunday of Advent)

Advent-Wreath-4-candles-lit

Matthew 1:18-25

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.

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A few weeks ago, on the first Sunday of Advent, the sermon was all about hope, since that was what the first candle on the Advent wreath symbolized. I have to admit, though, that as I preached that sermon, I felt a littlbe bit like a hypocrite, because honestly, as of late I’ve had trouble finding hope, or feeling hopeful, about much. It seems like no matter where I’ve looked, I see the divisions and hostility. I’ll see something awful, and I’ll think “Oh my gosh, things can’t possibly get any worse,” and I wake up the next morning and see the news, and find out it has. And it isn’t just here in this country; it’s a worldwide phenomenon. With all the setbacks that we’ve seen in being a compassionate and just human society, I’ve just reached a point where it’s become very difficult, almost impossible at times, for me to summon up any sense of hope.

And I know that I’m not alone. In fact, it’s become an identifiable phenomenon in mental and emotional healthcare circles, that a large part of our society has developed this same loss of hope, and has settled into a state of dread and despair because of what they’re seeing and experiencing in a world that they increasingly can’t even recognize.

For those of us here in the U.S., this dread has been caused in large part by our own history. As early as the 1830s, the French diplomat and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville studied and wrote about this relatively new “American Experiment,” and he noted that possibly the most significant difference between Americans and our European counterparts was this hope embedded within us – this strong optimistic belief that in American society, progress and goodness was inevitable – it was nothing more than the linear outcome of just continuing to work at it, and do the right thing. It was something you could count on like the sun rising every day, or the cycles of the tides. And that embedded sense of hope and inevitable social progress is still deeply embedded within us.

But now that core part of our self-understanding has been in large part yanked out from under us. We’ve had to learn the hard lesson that hope, and this idea of inevitable continuous progress just isn’t operational anymore.

At least, it isn’t operational in the way we’ve thought it was. In our society, we’ve always understood success as being defined strictly by the outcome. Success was achieving that goal, meeting that quota, getting the ball across the goal line. If you did that, you’ve succeeded; if not, you were a failure. And that’s precisely where this mindset collides with our faith. It isn’t that outcomes aren’t important, or that we shouldn’t hope for those good outcomes or accomplishments. It’s just that our Christian faith teaches us that, as many people have put it, what is most important is the journey, not the destination. It really is a tired cliché, but it is true. Our hope has to be grounded, first and foremost, in the idea that what’s most important in God’s eyes is how we live our lives in the moment, in every moment. That’s far more important than whether our actions achieve some large goal that we might have had in mind; there are so many variables outside our control that we might never reach those end goals.

I saw a meme on Facebook recently that got to this point pretty well. Someone asked God to tell them what their purpose in life was. Expecting some big, profound answer, God replies, “What if I told you that you fulfilled your purpose in life when you took that extra hour to talk to a kid about their life? Or when you paid for that couple’s meal in the restaurant? Or when you tied your father’s shoes for him?” Simply put, God isn’t interested in your achievements, whether what you’d lived and worked for was actually accomplished – maybe they will and maybe they won’t – but what God really cares about is your heart, and how you’re applying your heart, your faith, in whatever circumstance you’re in.

My long-time pastor and mentor, Phil Hazelton, once put it this way. Phil said that he had a dream where he met God, and God didn’t seem to recognize him. So Phil started to list off all the things he’d done in his life. “I was a Freedom Rider during the Civil Rights Movement!” God sat there puzzled, saying “No, I’m sorry, I can’t place you.” Phil continued, “Well, I marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma with Dr. King!” “Hmm, no, I still don’t recognize you.” “I hosted a classical music program on the local public radio station; I’m the Senior Pastor of a thriving, 2,000-member church!” “Look, I’m sorry, your name just still isn’t ringing a bell.” Frustrated, Phil started to run down a complete list of everything he’d done in his life, eventually even getting down to the fact that he fed squirrels in the park, when all of a sudden God’s eyes light up and he says “Oh yeah, Phil, the squirrel guy! Of course I know you; why didn’t you say so before?!”

God cares far more about how we live in all of our moments, than about whether we’re able to pull off the big things we work for in our lives, if things ultimately turned out the way we’d hoped. Understanding that truth can keep us grounded in our faith, and can keep a spirit of real, and reasonable, hope alive in our hearts.

But – and this is important – hope without action is just a delusion. Hear that again – hope without action is just a delusion. As we’re living all those moments, God very much expects our hope to spur us to action. And the specific action we’re called to – regardless of the situation, and regardless of how things play out later – is the course of love. Love in all things, in all situations, toward all people, and whether they show gratitude for it or not. It’s love that makes hope realistic – it’s what give hope legs.

And that – finally, you might be thinking – actually gets us to today’s gospel text, and to the lighting of today’s Advent candle, representing love. The coming into our world of Christ, God’s anointed one, is the perfect, crystalline moment of love throughout human history. In this gospel text, we hear about Jesus’ birth largely through the experience of Joseph – a good man who is engaged to Mary, who has suddenly become pregnant in a manner that is highly suspicious, to put it mildly. But despite his natural inclination to end the engagement, and to lose hope, Joseph acts, in that moment, in love. In spite of his concerns, he accepts the word of the angel, and he doesn’t break off his engagement with Mary.

Jesus’ birth is this single, blessed moment, in which God shows pure, absolute love for humanity, in spite of ourselves. God giving us this one whose life becomes a model of love and real hope, by being faithful and true in all the moments of his life, regardless of which way the arc of history might bend. The life of this one being born into the world and destined to suffer the ultimate failure of public humiliation and execution, is the greatest illustration that we have that what matters are the moments, what matters is the journey, not the destination. Ultimately, God will take care of the outcome, as we also see in the resurrection of this little one come into the world in Bethlehem.

God has given us the gift of love in the flesh, so we can have hope with legs. So always act with love, as a sign of gratitude and a reflection of God’s love for us. Work for progress, work for good, absolutely. But if things don’t end up the way you’d hoped, don’t despair; don’t dread. Remember that all of history, and all of our faith, is all about the moments – particularly, the moments of love.

Thanks be to God.

The Peaceful Heart

(sermon 12/10/17 – Advent 2B)

Fallingwater-resized

Fallingwater, Mill Run, PA, 1935 – Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

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,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

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One of the true masterpieces of modern architecture, not just in this country but in the world – and arguably the most recognized house in the history of modern architecture – is Fallingwater, the house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s for the Kaufman family, built over a waterfall in a beautiful wooded area in southwestern Pennsylvania. This house is the definitive illustration of what Wright called Organic Architecture – the idea that a building design should respect and spring from, and be uniquely tied to, its site. At Fallingwater, you can see this in a number of ways – as just a few examples, a large boulder on the site stayed in place and became an integral part of the main floor. Terraces cantilever out over much of the site, making its actual footprint on the land less imposing. Windows are set at a level that makes you feel as if you’re living in a tree house. Stone walls are laid up using native stone quarried onsite, and in a pattern reminiscent of the natural stone outcroppings that are found around the site. You can see one small symbolic way that Wright expressed this respect for nature, as an integral part of the design, near the entrance of the house. Wright designed a trellis, a series of concrete beams, that spans over the entry drive and ties the house together to an exposed ledge of stone that crops out of the hillside on the opposite side of the drive. But as it turned out, there was a tall, thin tree that was growing right in the path of one of the trellis beams. So instead of just cutting the tree down to make way for the beam, Wright had the beam built to bend and go around the tree, deviating from its straight path and giving the tree room to grow.

Fallingwater trellis with tree-resized

It makes for an interesting design detail, while making an important statement about  incorporating the natural elements of a site into the overall design of a building.

Of course, it only takes a moment or two to realize that trees don’t stop growing just because you’ve built something close to it. Over the next number of years, the tree eventually got too big for the bend in the trellis to accommodate it. It had to be cut down anyway, and another young, thin tree was put in its place to keep the design intent intact. In fact, I’d imagine that it’s been probably been replaced several times since the house was originally built, but I suppose the idea is the important thing here.

For whatever reason, the image of that tree, and how it caused the beam to bend off it’s intended path came to mind when I read today’s gospel lesson – Mark’s account of John the Baptist, calling on people to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord; to make the paths straight and clear for his arrival.

John was offering that message to people who were in many was a lot like us. Most of them had been raised to know about God’s goodness, and God’s love for them. Most of them knew about the prophets who called them to a certain way of treating one another with compassion and mercy, caring for the orphan and the widow, the outcast, the refugee and the resident alien – and that this was the purest and most pleasing way, in God’s estimation, to worship and show love and gratitude to God. They knew the Ten Commandments, and in their hearts, they knew the simple, profound truths found in what we now call the Beatitudes, long before Jesus was even born to teach them – they knew the Hebrew scriptures, so when they would eventually hear Jesus’ teaching years later, they’d know that there was very little if anything in his words that couldn’t already be found in those scriptures.  For the most part, they knew the way of the Lord, and for the most part, we do, too. The path that John was calling us to return to really isn’t too hard to see.

But if it isn’t hard to see, it can still be hard to follow. For the people who came out to hear John, and for us, the concrete experiences of life can sometimes collide with its abstractions. Boulders and trees, of one definition or another, can obstruct the way. Concerns about living life “in the real world” can cause us to make compromises, deviations, from the straight path. And then, as it always works, one deviation will lead to another that builds upon the first, and then another, and another, until eventually we’re so far in the weeds, removed from that straight path that we know in our hearts, that we can’t even see it any more.

And then there are other things that can cloud our vision of the straight path that John called people to, also. Just like those people who came out to the banks of the Jordan River, our minds can get overwhelmed, bogged down, preoccupied with what’s going on in the social, cultural, and political surroundings, the landscape of the times. In thinking, worrying, fearing those kinds of things, we aren’t necessarily led any further away from the right path that God desires for us; they just tend to cloud our eyes so that we can’t see the path through the fog of the 24-hour news cycle and all the worries and anxieties that it can bring.

John’s stark words, and yes, no doubt his slightly scary appearance, cut through the fog and the deviations in the lives of the people who came out to hear him, and across the years, his words can cut through all that for us, too.

I think that often, when we hear his words, what we hear is challenge. We hear yet another “to do” list, a bunch more things to worry about, that we’re somehow supposed to add to everything else we have to get done. We hear more things to take on. More work, and hopefully, all that additional work will make God pleased with us.

But I think that the reality of John’s message for us can be heard a little differently. Instead of it being a challenge to do *more* in order to please God, I think it’s more of an invitation to do *less,* to let go of all those fears and distractions and deviations, in order to see that God is already pleased with us. God already loves us, and to whatever extent that it’s necessary, God has already forgiven us for our shortcomings and failures and deviations from that path, because God knows, literally firsthand, how difficult it is, that it’s truly impossible, for us to completely stay on that path, living in this broken world.

Hearing John’s words as invitation instead of challenge can help to create a peaceful heart within us instead of just adding anxiety on top of anxiety. And after all, isn’t peace, and a peaceful heart, what God desires for us above everything else? Living a life of true shalom, true contentedness and peacefulness through our relationship of love and gratitude with God, and compassion and connection with one another? Isn’t peace what the angels proclaimed to the shepherds in the fields when Jesus was born? Isn’t peace what Jesus repeatedly wished for his disciples after his resurrection? Isn’t having a peaceful heart, and being at peace with God, the entire reason for God’s choosing to enter our world, to live, and laugh, and cry with us, to work, and play, and die with us, so that we can have the peace of heart and mind that comes from knowing that God is truly with us?

Observing Advent is, in a way, our creating a “safe space” where we can help one another live into John’s invitation, and to let go of those things that cause us to lose sight of God’s path, and, like the concrete trellis at Fallingwater, to bend, to turn back around, and to get back on that original path. In this season, we’re trying to hear God’s Spirit speaking to us, enabling us to rediscover our own peaceful heart and to rediscover God’s path of love, mercy, and compassion, the path of hope and peace. In part, we observe Advent to help us to no not miss seeing the forest for the trees.

Thanks be to God.

The Longest Night (Evening Sermon, 12/21/14)

longest night

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. – John 1:1-14

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If you’re here tonight, you know that this time of year, so filled with happiness and joy for so many people, isn’t so joyful to everyone. The odds are that you’ve suffered some loss, maybe this past year, maybe longer ago, that you’re still wrestling with. Maybe your loss occurred at this time of year, and its anniversary has brought it to the forefront of your mind again; or maybe the memory of that loss, or separation, or disconnect, or just plain loneliness, is just brought more sharply into focus during this time of family and friends and togetherness. For whatever reason, whatever the details, there’s an aching in your heart, something that just doesn’t correspond with the overriding emotion of the Christmas season. The Book of Proverbs warns us not to sing songs to a heavy heart, but in fact that’s exactly what you feel every time you turn on the television or radio, or see friends gathering together and laughing and having a good time, apparently without a care in the world. It can make us feel disjointed. If we aren’t acting happy like everyone else, we gradually get pushed to the side of all the festivities. We can start to feel like we and our pain don’t matter; not to the people around us, not even to God.

We aren’t alone in this. A lot of the Psalms are songs of lament –  outpourings of pain, sorrow, anger, even accusation against God. After laying out the pain in the psalmist’s heart, some of them turn around toward the end, conceding that God is really good and in control, and the psalmist is confident that everything is going to be alright. But some of them don’t do that. There isn’t any neat, tidy resolution to the problem like a TV sitcom where everything’s resolved by the end of the episode. There’s no acknowledgement of God’s goodness or compassion. There’s only the anger, the sadness, a sadness that’s hung in the air and in our ears for some 2,500 years.

I think it’s important that these Psalms are a part of our tradition. They show us a number of things, but tonight, they’re especially important because they show us that in our faith, we take pain and sorrow seriously. We don’t sweep it under the rug and try to act like it doesn’t exist. We don’t try to prescribe some quick-fix for it. All of those psalms of lament, and the other places throughout the scriptures that paint pictures for us of the sorrow and suffering of people, show us that we are not alone in our sadness. We’re in the company of all of these people from the past – and we’re in the company of each other here tonight as well. This evening, as we look around, we can see that we’re not alone in our feelings; there are many of us here who are experiencing the same thing And it isn’t unnatural, it’s perfectly normal, and we don’t have to apologize, or feel guilt or shame over the way we feel. Instead, we can honestly recognize and acknowledge our feelings, and we can honestly share them with God. This evening, we can look around us, and see faces of good friends who can offer us understanding and comfort for our feelings, because they know those feelings themselves. And as we look around, and we see those faces, we see people who we can offer that same kind of comfort and support too in return.

People coming together on this night, the night of the year that has the least amount of daylight and the most amount of darkness, looking forward to the coming of greater and greater light, is something that predates the Christian faith by thousands of years. As Christians, we’ve borrowed the same idea, through our observance of Advent, as we gradually light more and more candles, symbolically increasing the light until the arrival of Christmas – the birth of Jesus, and the entrance of the ultimate, true light into the world. And we continue to observe this service, as we ask that the light of Christ, the light of God, would increasingly break into our existence, and into our own heavy hearts.

As hard as it might be to believe while we’re in the midst of our grief, that really is possible. We can see that possibility when we think about God’s light breaking into the world through Jesus, in the weakest, humblest way possible – a man who knew near-constant sorrow and setback. He didn’t know any of the benefits of wealth or power or prestige, but all of the pain of rejection from family and friend alike. A man who seemingly never had any real security or stability in his life, and who eventually paid the ultimate price while being persecuted by his enemies. So even while we suffer, and mourn, we can know that God, through Jesus, knows and understands our loss and suffering. Jesus walked this same path. And he walks it together, with us, now.

Christmas is the time that we observe God’s light breaking into the world, to shine into its darkest places. In a little while, we’ll invite you to come forward to light a candle to remember and acknowledge your loss, your sadness, whatever it is. And when you do, imagine that you’re coming into the very presence of Christ, presenting your sadness to him, and asking him to heal you of its pain and to remove that burden from your shoulders. And after you’ve lit your candle, take it, and the candle holder, home with you. Put it somewhere in your home that you’ll see it often. And whenever you wrestle with your sorrow this coming year, light your candle again, as a reminder that Christ, the light of the world, is with you always – especially in the midst of your suffering. Christmas is a time of joy, certainly. But a big part of that joy is that God has come into the world to set the captives free – especially those who, like us, are held captive by the pain in our own hearts. Amen.