Hope with Legs

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

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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.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

(sermon 21/8/19 – Second Sunday of Advent)

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Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

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Matthew 3:1-12

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.”

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This always seemed like an odd week in Advent to me. We start off with this beautiful passage from Isaiah that we heard earlier, where he speaks so eloquently about this wonderful future time of peace, when the wolf will lie down with the lamb, and so on – and then we hear this second reading, about wild, cranky, angry John the Baptist, insulting the people standing around listening to him, calling them a “brood of vipers.” I mean, I get the idea of John’s call to repentance fitting in with the focus of Advent, but his whole attitude seems more than a bit off-putting, especially this week when our Advent litany recognizes the peace embodied in the coming of Christ. It’s like that crazed panhandler that you’re trying to avoid eye contact with while you’re stopped at the traffic signal, who’s yelling at you through the window because you won’t give them any money.

But the more I consider it, I guess I understand it. John knows this passage from Isaiah; he’s read it and heard it many times, and he knows its hopeful vision of a peaceful existence for all the world; and he knows that he’s telling people about this very same vision, this same time, except he’s telling them that it’s about to break into the world. But he looks around, and almost everything he sees is the exact opposite of that vision, and quite simply, he’s ticked. He’s angry at what he sees going on around him, and he’s calling people out for it. What he sees is an existence where sin hasn’t just tainted everything, it’s completely taken over.

At this point, I suppose it would be important to recognize just what it is that John considers that sin to be. Just what is it that a Jew in first-century Palestine would consider sin? The biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine has pointed out that we Christians have often been misinformed, mis-taught, that the Jewish religion of Jesus’ time was all about ritual and ritualistic practices; a kind of checklist religion, over against a Christian religion that is supposedly so much different from that, when in fact Judaism then wasn’t any more ritual-based than Christianity is. She goes on to explain that the Jewish concept of sin, then, wasn’t that some set of ritualistic traditions hadn’t been adhered to – but rather, throughout the Hebrew scriptures, whenever sin is discussed, whenever it’s identified, almost without exception it refers to attitudes and especially actions that have the effect of mistreating or hurting other people. Did you hear that? Almost every single description of sin details actions that hurt other people. Actions that treat others without justice, or mercy; actions that exploit or cheat others from enjoying the same existence that a person wants for themselves. It’s a virtual constant in the Hebrew scriptures, and we see the exact same message in Jesus’ words in the gospels.

So John looks around him and sees a society that is completely under the thumb of the Roman occupation. Oh, sure, Rome has given the Jews some degree of autonomy in their local governance and their religion, but not much – they’re on a pretty tight reign. The people are paying heavy taxes to a faraway empire and have very limited freedoms. People are being treated unjustly and abusively. And any time they get even a little bit out of line, the violent power of Rome comes crushing down on them, making sure they understand who’s really in charge. And adding insult to injury, some of their own people are collaborating with Rome to impose the dictates of this occupying force, simply because they realize that if they go along with the Roman occupiers, things will go well for them, and they don’t want to upset their own relative comfort and well-being.

John sees all this – how the people, especially the poor, are being mistreated and exploited. How God’s commands for caring for the widow and orphan, the sick and poor, are being ignored. And he gets mad. He recognizes that this just isn’t the way things should be, especially now, as God has told him that this eternal peaceful kingdom is about to break into the world. Prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. You brood of vipers, you poisonous snakes, change your ways, now, before it’s too late.

And now, as we think about this future time of peace ourselves, we look around us and we see the same thing. We see a society, a culture, that in so many ways seems to have gone off the rails. Poor people – men, women, and children; young and old – who can’t find work and who don’t have enough money to eat are being kicked off of federal food assistance. People legally entering the country seeking refugee status are illegally jailed, and families are separated, often without any plan for reunification, in violation of federal law, international treaties, Christian moral teaching, and just plain common sense and decency. People of color are enduring generations of injustice, being mauled in a criminal justice system designed to destroy individuals and families in multiple ways, and to deprive them of the right to vote, and to essentially create a perfectly legal replacement to Jim Crow society and a return to near-slave era conditions. One particular religious group imposing its narrow, burdensome, discriminatory beliefs on the entire society. Innocent men, women, and children becoming victims of human sacrifice to the false god of gun proliferation. A consumer culture that brainwashes us from before we’re even out of the cradle that we should want everything that we don’t have, and more of everything we already do; and that our worth as human beings isn’t that we’re loved by God and that we’ve been created in God’s image, but instead, our worth is measured by the worth of our stuff. Government leaders who rule with impunity, with no sense of accountability or ethics, only out for their own personal gain at the expense of all of us. Thousands of people being bankrupted every year by outrageous healthcare costs charged by for-profit healthcare corporations, or even dying simply for lack of health insurance or affordable life-saving prescriptions. The resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist, with nationalist groups, the rise of neo-Nazism and neo-Fascism all despite our thoughts that it could never happen here. But it’s happening here.

If you can see all of those things and not be every bit as mad as John the Baptist, you’re just not paying attention. Just John saw what he saw, we can see and know that this isn’t the way things should be. That it doesn’t have to be this way. That we need to repent from these kinds of things in our own personal lives, to be sure, but also that there are systems at work in our society that are causing and enabling these problems in ways far worse than we could ever cause them on our own. We’re all inescapably enmeshed in these harmful, these sinful, systems. Thinking about all of those things makes John the Baptist’s calling people out as a brood of vipers sounds almost tame.

As a congregation, we’ve signed on to the Matthew 25 vision. Next month, I’ll host a three-week Bible study that focuses on Matthew’s gospel, and Matthew 25 in particular, and just what the whole Matthew 25 emphasis really means to us as a congregation, here, where the rubber meets the road. But as a bit of a preview, I can say that it has a lot to do with exactly that kind of turning away from the current ways, and turning toward God’s ways, that John was calling for in this passage. The Matthew 25 vision echoes the idea that all those things don’t have to be that way, and it calls us to taking concrete steps to try to change them.

John was so upset, so angry, because he could see that same vision that Isaiah saw and told about. It was wonderful, and beautiful, and peaceful. And while we can’t create that final, ultimate peaceful world that only Christ will finally usher in some day, having that vision in our minds is enough for us to see that the current world could be so much better, so much more just, so much more peaceful, than it is now – and that by turning our lives, and especially our social systems and structures, toward God’s paths, toward God’s standards of compassion, and mercy, and justice, we’ll be adding just that much more straw into the manger in preparation for our celebration of Jesus’ birth, and in hope of his eventual return and establishing that wonderful world that Isaiah and John  saw. So have righteous anger at what you see – but don’t stay in the anger. Let that anger become repentance, and let that repentance become action, and in that action, find hope. Hold on to that hope, because those words from Isaiah, and from John, are true; that peace, that shalom, is coming.

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.

Shock and Awe

(sermon 12/3/17)

manger

Isaiah 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

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Mark 13:24-37

“But in those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

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He looked around and saw a world turned upside down. Living under a government that had taken away people’s rights, their freedoms, their wealth. Every day the news chronicled yet another way that things were going wrong, and every day he thought this was rock bottom, things couldn’t get any worse, and yet, every day, they did. People were filled with uncertainty and dread, and coming to believe that things would never get any better, they lived their lives in the hell of lost hope.

That was what the prophet Isaiah saw as he and his fellow countrymen were living in exile as slaves serving the Babylonian Empire, which had conquered Jerusalem and Judea, destroying the Temple and life as the Judeans had known it. They had believed that in a very real and special way, God dwelled in that Temple, and the only way the Babylonians could have captured and destroyed it, they felt, would have been if God had left the Temple, abandoning them to the Babylonians – and if that was the case, then what hope was left? Many of the Judeans were angry at God. Many of them gave up believing that God had ever existed and been present at all. No all-powerful and loving God would have ever let something like this happen.

That was the situation that prompted Isaiah to write the words we heard this morning, calling, begging, even demanding that God return and save them – and to do it in a big, dramatic, decisive way. Shock and awe. Earthquakes, fire, nations trembling in fear; make sure there’s no doubt who’s in charge, and that the good people would be vindicated and the bad ones punished. God, if you really exist, come down here and set things right.

Today, we start the journey of Advent, week by week considering a different aspect of the meaning of Jesus’ birth, and the incoming of God into our world and our human existence. This morning, we think about the particular aspect of the hope that Jesus’ birth offers. Hope is essential to us. It’s the water that sustains our roots; without it, our life itself withers and dies. In the facing of the biggest challenges and setbacks, when people were the most discouraged, the gay-rights activist Harvey Milk used to say “You’ve got to give ‘em hope!” because he knew that without it, everything was lost, and he was right.

Hope is what makes it possible to see past the hard realities and setbacks of the present, to the goodness that can, and will, eventually follow. And it’s hope that enables us to somehow see God in the midst of all of it.

Many times, when we’re struggling to have hope for something better than our present, for things to be set right, just like Isaiah, we want God to come with a big, bold show of force, something that won’t leave any doubt about what’s going on – something like a literal playing out of the words Jesus uses to describe his return, the end of the age, in today’s gospel lesson. Darkened skies, clouds rolling back, ominous events better than any Hollywood special effects team could come up with. However each of us imagines that culmination of this age, we have to realize that in some way, literal or otherwise, what Jesus describes is going to happen eventually, and because of that we can have hope.

He sat in the assisted living center that he’d been living in for the past couple of years. All of his life he’d been in control of his own life. He’d always been on the go, physically and mentally. Now, he spent his days in this little shoebox of a mini-apartment, and it might as well have been a real shoebox – he felt as if someone had just put him up on a shelf in a stockroom, out of the normal flow of daily life, left there and largely forgotten. His physical abilities had definitely declined, but mentally he was as sharp as ever, and it made his furious when the staff, and just as often, his family and friends, talked at him – and it was *at* him, almost never actually *with* him –  they treated him as if he were a helpless little child. The whole system seemed to be designed to strip away every shred of human dignity he had left. And at some point almost every day, the prayer entered his mind: “God, where are you? Do you even exist at all? I want to have hope, but right now I’m so mad at you that I wonder if you are even there, or if I’ve just been wasting my breath all these years. I deserve better than this! God, if you really exist, come set things right.”

In Jesus’ birth, God has come to set things right. In his birth, we see that God loves us so much that God actually chooses to live among us, as one of us – knowing all of our joys, sorrows, fears, doubts, suffering, and eventually, while on the cross, even experiencing the feeling of being completely abandoned by God, and the hopelessness that comes along with it. Understanding this about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection allows us to know that when we experience the same things, God hasn’t abandoned us any more than Jesus was abandoned. And that just as God vindicated Jesus through his resurrection, God will vindicate us, too. Looking at Jesus’ birth, and everything that followed, we can be assured, and have hope, because we can know that even in our darkest moments, God hasn’t abandoned us at all, but is actually right there in the midst of those moments right alongside us.

In Jesus’ birth, God entered the world not in the dramatic way that Isaiah wanted, or the way that we might want intervention today, or the way that people often imagine Jesus’ return. Instead of shock and awe, when that intervention actually happened, God appeared humbly, in the middle of nowhere, out of the spotlight, born to nobody parents that the world would consider losers; not with trumpets blaring and riding in on clouds of glory, but with sheep bleating and lying helplessly in hay in a manger surrounded by animal manure. The thundering voice of God now the frightened whimper of a newborn.

Maybe entering the world this way actually makes it easier for us to find hope, because now we know that we can find God in the everyday. We can find the face of Christ in the face of anyone, without having to wait to see him in the clouds, in the sweet by-and-by. We can find the love of God in the love we receive, and give, to one another.

In Mark’s gospel lesson today, Jesus doesn’t tell us why we, or he himself, would have to endure hardship and suffering, and why God wouldn’t spare us from it before the culmination of all things. He just promises that whatever the actual details of it happening, when it’s all said and done, it really will be all said and done. Things will be set right. And it will be good, and just, and peaceful, and loving, and reconciled, and it will be forever. And it all starts to unfold with the birth of a child in a stable. And whenever and however it does finally come to completion, it will be so dramatic and different that people will understand it as being a time when the current heaven and earth actually passed away. Speaking just for myself, that will be all the shock and awe I’ll need.

Thanks be to God.

Christmas Eve Sermon, December 24th, 2014, 7:00pm

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In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.- Luke 2:1-20

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They finally finished packing and set off on their way to Bethlehem. But this wasn’t a pleasure trip. It was a trip made solely because the Roman emperor had ordered it. Everyone had to be registered in a census, but this wasn’t a census to figure out how to distribute members of Congress or how to allocate social welfare programs. This census had only one purpose – to identify every person under the power of the Roman Empire, so they could all be taxed. Yes, name right there, address just below. Sign here, please. Thank you, here’s your taxpayer ID number; one of our agents will be contacting you shortly.

They barely had enough to survive on as it was, before the tax, and the cost of this trip was going to make things even worse. Why did they have to go to Bethlehem to register, anyway? Rome couldn’t have cared less what tribe or clan you were from, much less where its ancestral home was; all they cared about was that the check cleared. The tax was going to be collected in Nazareth anyway, why couldn’t they just register there? No, this trip was just another way for Rome to inconvenience the locals just because they could; just to remind them who was in power; who was calling the shots. So like it or not, and with the added inconvenience of traveling while extremely pregnant, off they went.

At very least, they’d be able to mix a little pleasure with the business. At the risk of contradicting countless Christmas pageants and TV specials, there wasn’t any such thing as a commercial inn or hotel in ancient Palestine. When you traveled, you had to stay with relatives, or rely on the hospitality of strangers. That’s why the idea of extending hospitality was so important in the ancient world; it was a life and death matter. It was so important, the prophet Ezekiel tells us that it was a lack of extending hospitality and compassion to others that caused God to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. So when they got into town, Joseph and Mary checked in with some of Joseph’s relatives, but with all the people pouring into the little village for the census, all the relatives’ homes were already full with other houseguests. The homes in Bethlehem were all very similar – the family’s sleeping quarters, what in the ancient Greek was called the kataluma, were all on an upper floor, while the ground floor was cooking space, and work space, and where the animals were kept. So since all the guestrooms were already full, one family member gladly welcomed them into his home. Sure, the bedrooms are all full, but we’ll put some sheets on the couch, blow up the air mattress, and you can sleep here on the first floor. It isn’t much, but it’s warm and safe and dry, and we’ll all have a good time visiting together; come on in.

Of course, while they were there, Mary goes into labor and has her baby. And just like so many people who have used a dresser drawer as a makeshift bassinette in a pinch, Mary improvises for her newborn baby, wrapping him up snugly and laying him in a niche cut into in the wall that was normally used as a food trough for the animals. And as soon as they can, all of Joseph’s family members staying in this house and probably several others nearby, all of the baby Jesus’ new aunts, uncles, and cousins, crowded the ground floor of the little house to get a peek at their new little relative, to touch him, hold him, count his fingers and toes, kiss him on the forehead.

Not far outside of town, some shepherds had finished their work for the day and were trying to get a little bite to eat just before they tried to find a soft spot on the ground to sleep on. Shepherds were typically, the weakest, the slowest. The family members who couldn’t really do much of anything else, so they were sent out into the field to watch the sheep; it was hard to mess that up. They were at the lowest rung of society. Plus, they just smelled bad. And yet, it was to these shepherds that God chooses to be the first to hear about Jesus’ birth. The angels tell the shepherds about the wonderful news of this magical night, and the birth of this child, God’s chosen one, who would change the world forever.

So they head into town and somehow, they find the right home, and they knock on the door. The owner welcomes them in and offers these strangers the hospitality of his home. He shows them where they can clean up a bit; his wife offers them some bread and a little wine and maybe some dates. After they’ve eaten, they work their way through all the relatives and introduce themselves to Joseph and Mary, and ask if they can see this wonderful child they’ve been told about. And one of Jesus’ little relatives, wanting to act oh-so-grown-up, carefully picks up her little baby cousin and shows him off to the visitors. And like everyone else, they look at the little baby in all his newborn perfection and can only imagine the hope and possibility of this tiny new life. If they only knew.

Well that isn’t exactly the traditional way to tell the Christmas story. But it certainly isn’t anything contrary to the scriptures, and it’s probably a lot closer to the way the events actually would have unfolded. Thinking about the Christmas story this way helps us to remember some important things, things that can easily be missed if we just hear this story yet again and imagine it in the same way that we’ve all gotten so familiar with.

Jesus’ birth occurred in the midst of the powerful rule and oppression of an occupying civil government. Emperor Augustus was officially known as the Son of God, the one with all the power. This story says no, *here* is the Son of God, here’s where the real power and real goodness is. Real peace is God’s peace, not the heavy-handed peace imposed by Rome which caused so much trouble in the people’s lives. This story reminds us that we need to place our trust in God, not in the powers of the world who would try to take God’s place in our lives.

This way of thinking of Jesus’ birth also emphasizes that from the moment of his birth, love, and compassion, and hospitality are important elements being held up in this story, if we can pay attention to it, that set the stage for how important these issues will become in Jesus’ teaching as an adult, and how important these things are to us as his followers.

And it’s important to notice that the very first people who God comes into contact with, in this direct way, are the common people – Joseph’s family, and their neighbors, and the lowly, smelly shepherds just in from the fields. This is who God first reaches out to, to share the good news of God’s favor for them. Not to the Emperor Augustus in Rome. Not to Herod the Great, the emperor’s appointed king of the Jews. Not to the chief priest at the Temple in Jerusalem. Not to the rich or powerful. Frankly, not even to people like us. To the poorest of the poor; the lowest of the low. God’s good news is good to them first, and then to us.

All through Advent, we’ve been lighting candles, symbolizing and building up to this night, the night we observe God’s light breaking into the world and changing it forever. That light, the true Light of the World, started in that humble little food trough cut into the wall. It spread out, first to the family gathered around, and then to the poor, lowly shepherds and the others who came to see the baby, and then out into the street, and then out into the street, and across time, and ultimately, to us. Tonight, we’ll take that light and we’ll share it, and spread it again, and then we’ll take it out even further, sharing it with everyone we encounter, showing them the same kind of love and hospitality offered to Joseph and Mary. This is the night of celebration – Christ, the Light of the World, has come –

Thanks be to God!