Sunday, December 30, 2007

When Will Restoration Come?

This morning’s scripture reading is Psalm 80, and can be found on page 419 of your pew Bibles.
I invite you to listen for the word of God.
Hear us, O Shepherd of Israel. You who led Joseph like a flock; who sit enthroned between the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh.
Awaken us to your might; come and save us.
Restore us, O God; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.
O Lord God Almighty, how long will your anger smolder against the prayers of your people?
You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have made them drink tears by the bowlful.
You have made us a source of contention to our neighbors, and our enemies mock us.
Restore us, O God Almighty; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.
You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches.
It sent out its boughs to the sea, its shoots as far as the river.
Why have you broken down its walls so that all who pass by pick its grapes?
Boars from the forest ravage it and the creatures of the field feed on it.
Return to us O God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this vine, the root your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself.
Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire; at your rebuke your people perish.
Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself. Then we will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name.
Restore us, O Lord God Almighty; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.
The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Coming back to my office after the busy Christmas season that began with a trip to Haiti has not been the most pleasant of things. When I walked into my office I added another stack of papers to my desk, moved another stack of papers away from the computer key board so I could type a little bit – at some point I am going to have to organize all this chaos that has invaded my office, but I haven’t quite gotten to it yet. Maybe this week I’ll categorize my paper, put them away into files, and then, maybe in a week or so, actually deal with them.
Scholarship often deals with the psalms in a similar way – organizing the psalms into categories before dealing with what they actually mean for the community of believers.
This morning’s psalm is categorized as a lament psalm. Not a psalm of praise surely, as the words “you have fed them with the bread of tears, you have made us a source of contention to our neighbors,” are not those of thanksgiving, but of sadness and complaint.
We hear the psalmist cry out to God, voice her predicament, finding words to describe her situation – to put words to a human calamity that cannot be filed away, but must be faced and dealt with.
What makes the words of this psalm so powerful is that the words of the psalmist are in fact timeless – for humanity’s need to lament and question God has not gone away.
And so, as we look out at the world – as we look at ourselves, or as we hear testimony like that of our guests the Allenbaugh family and those of other families still suffering from a hurricane that swept through two years ago, and to use the words of journalist Brandy Wilson, “is still a flood of suffering,” we have to ask God “Why?”Why have you “fed them with the bread of tears?” For in light of such a reality the words of the psalmist make sense again, her words speak to the seemingly timeless experience of human suffering – and the need to ask God “why”. The need to ask, “When will we be restored,” “when will restoration come?”
The psalmist speaks of Israel, a nation like a vine, plucked up and liberated from the slavery of Egypt, then planted in the Promised Land after God made a place for it through Joshua’s military conquest. This vine was able to prosper by the grace of God, “the mountains were covered by its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches. It sent out its boughs to the sea, its shoots to the river.”
But then God seemingly abandoned the people, the walls were broken down, and all who pass picked its grapes.
The psalmist calls for God to return, “Return to us, O God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this vine, the root your right hand planted, the son you raised yourself.”
And like the psalmist, we call God to restore us, asking, when will you return, when will our restoration come?
Our cities and homes were prosperous, but then the winds and rain came and would not stop. Homes were flooded, lives were lost and others put at risk, and we called out to you for help.
But did help come? We still have faith, remembering the deeds of the past, how you liberated the people from Egypt, how you led them like a flock through the sea, how you created a place for them in the Promised Land and enabled them to prosper. But today, the government seems to have given up, leaving people to fend for themselves. Providing trailers or nothing at all, while the insurance companies do little more than find loopholes. So why will you look in the other direction while your people suffer?
The psalmist voices such concerns to God – attempting to make God aware of this situation. Knowing that if God only knew how the people suffered then God would once again provide: “Return to us, O God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see!”
And the psalmist hopes for when God will see, providing a savior for the people. The psalmist looks to “the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up yourself.” The psalmist expects this man to provide redemption, liberation from the situation of want; the psalmist looks to this promised one for salvation.
And as Christians, we know this savior by name.
This savior who did not only look down from heaven on our situation, but was born in a manger and lived on earth as one of us. Who has not only observed our situation, but came to know it as his own. Who joined in our suffering – to the point of being crucified on the cross.
And the title given this King – in today’s psalm it is “the son of man.” In a sermon on John, the great United Methodist preacher, Grace Imathiu analyzes this title, saying:
“Jesus is human, he loves being human. Time and time again he calls himself human: Son of Man. And he came to teach us how to be human: Son of Man. You see, Jesus is the new beginning. Jesus is the new Adam. Jesus came to show us how God intended for us to be.”[1]
The Son of Man – the very title used by the psalmist, is the title that Jesus uses to refer to himself – the title that reflects, not Christ’s divinity or royalty, but that God chooses to be like us.
God does not choose to be like the government – fumbling through paper work or looking the other way, hoping for a scandal or celebrity romance to distract us from the failures that surround Katrina and the failure in honoring its charge to provide for those still without homes.
God does not choose to be like the insurance companies – seeking to preserve profits over care, finagling between what is flood damage and what is hurricane damage.
God choose to become one of us – knowing our pain, knowing our reality, and knowing what will truly bring restoration.
By living as one of us, God has broken the divide between the divine and the human – and broken down all hierarchy with it.
Rather than hear the psalmist’s cry to “Return to us, O God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see!” God walked in our shoes, and gave up his life to save us, suffering on the cross, quoting the words of another lament psalm saying, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
And so we know that we worship a God who does not simply know our struggles, has not simply read about them or looked down on us from a heavenly throne, but who has born our struggle on God’s very body, becoming one of us.
And by becoming one of us, God affirms our humanity, and calls us to see each other as sister and brother.
By serving us, even washing the feet of those who followed him during his earthly ministry – God calls us to model such servant-hood by serving each other.
And by sacrificing God’s life for us – God calls us to sacrifice ourselves for the good of our fellow woman and man.
Only then will we become whole – by following the example of this new Adam – and we know that it is in following his example that we will know what it means to be truly human.
In doing – we model the life of Christ, and will no doubt find the restoration of a hurricane torn region too long left broken, and the restoration of our souls, too long left longing for something more.

[1] R. Grace Imathiu, Words of Fire, Spirit of Grace: Twelve sermons from on of the world’s best preachers

Friday, December 28, 2007

Christmas Eve 2007

This evening’s Scripture reading is Luke, chapter 2, verses 8 through 20.
I invite you to listen for the word of God.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men and women on who his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in a manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
The word of the Lord
Thanks be to God.
I’ve only met one shepherd in my life. She was quite a person. I met her in a really interesting place; a place that was foreign to me, though it was only miles from our house. I met this one shepherd in a maximum security prison. To get into this prison I would first show my identification, walk through a metal detector, then maybe get waved with the metal detector wand should I set off the regular metal detector, then pass through a series of gates – and as I passed through one door it would immediately close behind me, and only then would the next door open. It was a scary place to be; a place full of walls between the inmates and the outside world.
In the women’s prison there is one program that really does something to help people get rehabilitated. This program where the women train Seeing Eye dogs to help the blind was the place that really made me feel hopeful. I ended up spending a lot of time in their building because they seemed to have a hope that life could be better – that upon release they could make a new life for themselves – that they would leave these prison walls behind them. I used to love that hope, because here was this one place where I didn’t feel so obligated to offer something, to say something, or to do something. This was the place where I could just be, or just listen. Every where else I was trying to say the thing that God would have me say, but in this one bastion of hope and rehabilitation I could just watch the good things going on.
It was in this place that I met a shepherd, an inmate who told me how she raised Catahoula Leopard Dogs before she was incarcerated. This woman told me about how she would be called out to farms when the cows had gotten out. She would release her dogs, and they would run out into the woods, chasing and corralling whatever cows were still running amuck, chasing them all back into the fenced area. She told me that she remembered a time when a particularly rough bull finally came out of the woods, but with one dog clamped to his side, this dog had bitten down so hard on the bull’s side, she refused to let go and just hung on to the bull until it had been corralled to safety.
She told this story with pride, for her dogs were so well trained that they would never give up – even risking their lives to do their job.
The shepherds mentioned in Luke’s gospel, just like this shepherd I met in a maximum security prison who raised Catahoula leopard Dogs, are not the kind of people who church going folks are used to hanging around with.
In our society, maybe you saw them early this evening in the nativity scene here at church, you might see shepherds, but these shepherds were little boys and girls dressed in their father’s bathrobes; something completely unlike the shepherds that are mentioned in Luke’s Gospel. At the time Luke’s Gospel was written, Shepherds weren’t well thought of. If you were an ancient Roman citizen you might walk into a wealthy person’s backyard and see a grotesque statue of a person with no teeth and shabby clothes.
These statues often depicted shepherds for they were considered to be a homely addition to any well manicured garden – an effigy of a person who worked on the outskirts of society, living in huts rather than houses, tending flocks in their fields rather than participating in the life city people considered normal.
At the time of Jesus, the Pharisees believed that if we follow the law to the letter then the Kingdom of God would come, that if we are stringent enough with our Sabbath observance, or are clean enough, or are devout enough in our worship at the Temple, then the Kingdom of God will surely come.
However, the shepherds of the day would never have been able to live up to any of the Pharisees’ standards. How could they observe the Sabbath fully by giving a full day of rest when their animals needed to be fed – there are no animals that only need to be nurtured six days a week after all? They weren’t clean either, rarely having time for baths or brushing their teeth, as ancient documents tell us that most shepherd’s teeth were black, and how could any shepherd make it to the temple when their vocation mandated that they live and work in the prairies and valleys where their flocks could roam.
They were surely not viewed as good enough by the standards of the time, surely viewed as having nothing much to offer, surely a group in need of help or guidance or charity.
When I think of such a people I feel pity in the pit of my stomach, and I feel responsibility bearing down hard on my shoulders. I feel guilt for all that I have, and I feel obligation – thinking of the things that I could do to break down the walls of injustice and inequality – hoping for a day when the wall of privilege that insulates us would fall to provide for those without enough.
If I could sit on Santa’s lap this Christmas that is what I would ask for. I would ask for justice, I would ask for peace, I would ask for hope.
But this Christmas I realize this gift is not one in Santa’s bag, but is a gift that the shepherds have brought.
For on the first Christmas Eve – long, long ago, God told the shepherds of Jesus’ birth. The most important event of human history was not broadcasted on the evening news, not announced to the president or emperor, but told to the shepherds in their fields.
The first ones to get the news were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And the angel of the Lord said to them, “Do not be afraid, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
These shepherds, these unclean, these seemingly dangerous, these illiterate, these virtually homeless, these poor were entrusted with the most important – the most vital information. It was from their unclean lips, from their missing, broken, or black teeth that the good news was first uttered for the good of human kind.
I am used to thinking that it is my job to say it, but here I know that I am to hear it, realizing what God has done and what the shepherds were able to bring.
We worry so often that the good news of Christmas will shrink to a whisper as political correctness encourages us to be respectful of the many faiths that now surround us, and so we say Happy Holidays or Seasons greetings rather than Merry Christmas.
We worry that our children will miss out on the meaning of this great day because it becomes a morning of presents and not a morning of celebrating the birth of Christ.
And we worry that this day may not turn out the way it is supposed to because the turkey gets dry, someone has more to drink then they should, nobody likes the new girlfriend or boyfriend, and everyone ends up arguing instead of getting along around the dinner table in their holiday sweaters.
But tonight we hear this good news – and it is not even our job to make sure that it is heard. Tonight we celebrate God’s message that we will hear, not because we say it, but because we go to the people who can tell us about it.
We are led to the prison, where the walls are so high and so real – but we go and hear the gospel from our sisters who refuse to give up, hanging onto life with a will that defies explanation, living with knowledge of hope that inspires and encourages us to never give up.
We sit at our Christmas feasts, realizing that our table looks less like our ideal and more like our reality but we are led to the manger, where the smell of animals offends our senses, where our class bids us not go, but where we hear the words of the shepherds leading us to the place where we find Jesus, forgiving us our sins, affirming our humanity, biding us together as one.