Sunday, December 21, 2014

How can this be?

Luke 1: 26-38, NT pages 56-57 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month of her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. Sermon Here it is, Christmas time again. This has been my favorite season of the year for so long, because with Christmas time comes cookies, Christmas carols, egg nog flavored just about anything, getting together with friends and family, Christmas cards, and presents. It’s terribly exciting, but something that I learned to do a long time ago to ensure that I’ll enjoy Christmas, is to not get too caught up in it. I’ve learned to manage my expectations. That started when I was a child, writing to Santa Clause for this particular kind of train set. The train set was all that I could think about in the weeks leading up to December 25th. I had cut out a picture of it from the toy catalog. I’d pull the picture out of my pocket to look at it from time to time, and I was so full of anticipation on Christmas Eve that I couldn’t sleep. When morning finally came I remember running down the stairs, ignoring a pile of gifts, pushing them all aside, looking for this one particular train set that wasn’t there. When I realized that it really wasn’t there, nothing that was there mattered, and it seemed like, all at once, Christmas was ruined. Maybe you can tell a similar story, and so you’ve tried to help future generations by limiting their wish list even as they circle every single toy in the Toys Are Us catalogue. They look up from its pages just long enough for you to say, “Now remember kids, Santa can’t bring you everything in there,” but a part of them wishes for everything any way, just as a part of me still does. I try to manage my expectations, but sometimes that’s easier said than done. Every year I watch the movie White Christmas, and I’ve listened to Al Gore enough to doubt that a white Christmas going to happen, but I’ll watch for snowflakes any way, and will most likely end up disappointed. Which is typical. Most of the time, Christmas is so built up in my imagination that I’m at least a little disappointed, and maybe that’s how it is for you too. You get excited about your daughter’s Holiday assembly at elementary school. She’s been walking around singing the words to the song for weeks, but this event ends up being kind of like Space Mountain at Disney World because to sign in at the school you have to stand in line for an hour, and your kid sings for about 30 seconds. This is supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year,” but do you know how many people have heart attacks during Christmas? Have you seen the panic in their eyes as they push an empty cart through Walmart? I bet there’s a part of you that can understand why your mother in-law started leaving the tree down in the basement, why your uncle started going to Florida for the month of December. I bet there’s a part of you who can relate to Mary, who when addressed by an angel telling her that a miracle is about to happen, can’t help but reply by saying, “How can this be?” Which isn’t nearly as skeptical as what the Priest Zechariah asks. It’s his story that is told right before Mary’s in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. When the angle came to him in the Temple, telling him that his wife Elizabeth who had been barren for so long would conceive and have a son in her old age, he doubted the angel’s claim. It’s just like a priest to act holy in front of the congregation but to harbor doubts when he comes face to face with a real angel, so as punishment the angel Gabriel made him mute, unable to speak until the day when John the Baptist was named and Zechariah could see for himself. Mary is different though. While Zechariah says, “How will I know that this is so?” – prove it to me angle because I’ve been disappointed enough times in this life to know that not every little boy gets a train set from Santa Clause – Mary on the other hand asks, “How can this be?’ For generations Christians have been trying to answer her question. How can it be that Mary, this young, unwed woman, would become pregnant with the son of God? We give up on miracles. That’s why when I heard about the woman in the nursing home who requested, “I’ll be home for Christmas” to a group a carolers it made me sad. How will you get there? Will your children even come to visit you? Or will you be there all alone eating a meal that came out of the microwave humming to yourself the tune turned bitter by reality? “I’ll be home for Christmas,” and nearly every other Christmas Carol is packed so full of hope that the Ebenezer Scrooges who lives in my heart is ready for the Christmas music to stop, but the angel said to Mary: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end,” she simply asked, “How can this be?” She didn’t close the door, saying it can’t happen, it won’t, and I’m too old for believing such childish things – instead she simply asked the question, “How?” A question that leaves room for something miraculous. We are so convinced we know what is impossible however. Just the other day I was walking back to the church from Downtown. A lady yelled out to me from her car, but I couldn’t understand what she was saying, so I ran out there to her while traffic was stopped. When I got close enough I understood that she was saying, “Honey, you need a ride?” I didn’t know what to say, but it was an old Honda Civic – a man was driving, she was there in the other front seat, I looked in the back and there were literally 6 people back there. “There’s nowhere to sit,” I said. She looked me up and down, then smiled up at me so that I could see where she was missing teeth, “Honey, you look so good in that pink shirt, you’ll just sit here in my lap.” And there I had thought there wasn’t any room. Don’t be so sure you know what is possible and what isn’t. Some think they know already that there aren’t any jobs out there, so they’ve already given up applying, ensuring their fate. Convinced that love will never find them, others have given up looking. And sure that failure is their destiny other can’t gather enough energy to even try. Mary on the other hand – not concurred by the power of sin and death – opens the door of hope enough to ask “How can this be?” and soon enough it will. Christ our Lord will be born to you – the greatest sign that the God who created you is still at work in ways that will defy your experience and your expectations if you have faith enough to leave open the door of possibility. Do not give up on hope - for nothing will be impossible with God. Amen.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

One whom you do not know

John 1: 6-8 and 19-28, NT pages 91-92 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. This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. Sermon I have a new suit. There’s a chance that you’ve seen it already on Facebook or when I was marching in the Christmas Parade last Monday, but I don’t have it on today because while Jim Ross told me that he’d pay me $100 to wear it to church Marcy told me she pay me $200 if I didn’t. It’s that kind of suit. Bright red pants and jacket, decorated with reindeer, Christmas trees, snowmen, and holly leaves. There’s even a matching tie, and after I wore it to the Youth Christmas Party last Sunday, Dawn Taylor posted a picture of it to Facebook and all kinds of people wanted to know where I got it. More than one person from Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, the church I last served, wrote a comment too, which was exciting, only they didn’t say anything about the suit. Not having seen me in more than four years all they wanted to know was what happened to all my hair. Sometimes no matter what you put out there, no matter how flashy and ridiculous, it won’t attract as much attention as what is missing. Even a Christmas suit can’t make up for a receding hair line. A new car can’t make up for a youth come to an end. And no matter how beautiful the dress, how covered up in furs, all some people will talk about is the absence of a wedding ring on her finger, because sometimes we’re defined not by what we have, but by what we’ve lost. We’re not just identified according to what we do but also by what we abstain from. Sometimes we are defined, not by who we are – but by who we are not. Take step children, for example. They are sometimes more than willing to tell the man married to their mother, who he is not by proclaiming, “You are not my father.” Frustrated people everywhere yell, “You’re not the boss of me,” and when they do it’s meant to hurt a little bit, but don’t forget how much freedom comes from knowing and accepting, not just who you are, but also who you are not. John the Baptist was absolutely clear. “I am not the Messiah,” he said to the priest and Levites from Jerusalem who were sent by the Pharisees. No doubt there were many who wanted him to be, there may have even been a part of him willing to pretend and reap the benefits of being the person the crowds wanted him to be. However, he was secure in his role as the voice crying out in the wilderness, the one who proclaimed: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ He was secure enough to avoid the trap of being someone other than the person God created him to be, even if that meant coming to terms with his limitations. Maybe you know that following his example is not as easy as it sounds, so there’s an important lesson here for you and for me, maybe especially during this time of year. My sister on the other hand, excelled sometimes. Every year growing up we’d go to my grandparent’s house for Christmas. My grandmother wanted to buy us all something special to eat from Costco, the only thing is that she never asked us what we wanted, she just went from memory, and according to my father, if she couldn’t remember she’d just make something up. At breakfast she’d announce to my little sister, “Elizabeth, I bought you those poppy-seed muffins that you like so much,” and since it was from Costco there were at least 50 of them. Our grandmother would go to heat one up in the microwave for her, then put some butter on it, because she thought that was delicious, but my sister, ever determined to be known on her own terms, would stop her in her tacks by saying, “I don’t like those muffins Nanny.” “But I thought you loved them, so I bought them just for you,” our grandmother would respond, and it’s at this point where I’d try to communicate with my sister using telepathy – “just take a muffin Elizabeth”, I’d say to her in my mind without speaking at all – “Just take a muffin, it’s not worth it!” But my sister would go even further, “I never liked those muffins Nanny. The seeds get stuck in my teeth.” I can hardly imagine doing such a thing. For me, it is hard to be honest about who I am not, especially around those members of my family who want me to be, not the person that I am, but the person they’re expecting me to be. Doing so is so hard in fact, that my grandmother went to her grave believing that I loved the red shirts she bought me every year for Christmas. A few of them are in my closet right now. I’m used to having them there, because I’d pull one out to wear it whenever she came over, but now they just hang there reminding me of not having enough courage to be myself. That’s a hard thing to do. Especially if you’re used to practicing, straining even to be someone else. When I was 12 or 13 I hated the sound of my voice and how it hadn’t changed, so I’d just pretend that it had, talk in as deep a voice as I could muster. We were on our way to Florida for Thanksgiving. We stopped for lunch. I ordered: “I’d like a chicken melt plate,” and the Waffle House waitress commented to my mother, what a strong, deep voice her son had. “Strained voice, more like it,” my mother responded. Doesn’t it sound liberating – to stop straining. To relax and be the people that we are instead of the people we think we’re supposed to be. That’s what John did. He knew who he was and he knew even better who he wasn’t, but if you’re anything like me, accepting yourself as you are and as you aren’t is easier said than done. Perfection is the goal – creating the perfect Christmas where everyone gets what they want to eat, everyone gets along, and snow covers the ground, airbrushing away every flaw. Sinless, flawless, ageless and beautiful – that’s what we want and who we think we’re meant to be, but let me tell you the truth, the truth that John knew – if you could be the family pictured on your Christmas Card 365 days of the year, then what reason would you have for the Savior to come? “I baptize with water,” John told the priests and Levites from Jerusalem, but “Among you stands one whom you do not know.” And we don’t know him, who he is and what he came to do, we don’t understand Christmas so long as we buy this lie that perfection is the goal and that until we’ve attained it we are disappointments. We don’t know him if we think we were supposed to strain for salvation ourselves, for he came not to give you a reason to decorate a tree and fight over some toy in Walmart – he came to bring comfort to you – all of you who work for perfection without ever getting it. He came to make the desert like the Garden of Eden. He came to bring gladness to the ones who can’t seem to find a reason to get out of bed. In him and who he is, “everlasting joy shall be upon [your] head”… you “shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall fall away.” Not because you’ve finally done it. Not because you’ve been enough or you’ve done enough. Simply because you’ve finally seen yourself for who you are not. And once you know who you are not you finally can understand who he is, this Savior who is coming soon. Amen.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness

Mark 1: 1-8, NT page 34 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.” Sermon Someone backed into our car while it was parked behind my parent’s house. We didn’t hear it happen so no one rushed outside to see, and whoever was driving the car that hit ours just drove off without leaving a note or making an effort to put things right. And that was frustrating. That frustration was all that I could focus on for a little while, especially as I stood out in the rain talking to the insurance lady who was processing our claim. She was perfectly nice, cheery even two days before Thanksgiving, but it’s hard to be thankful for a kindness when the voice inside your head that’s primed for frustration has some injustice to focus on. “How could someone be so selfish as to hit another person’s car, and then just drive off,” the voice asked. “It was probably somebody talking on their cell phone who didn’t even notice what was happening. Or someone listening to their music too loud. Or someone trying to write a text message not watching the road.” “Just what is the world coming to,” the voice in my head asked next, as the dent in my driver’s side door became a reason to air all of my grievances and my grievances became all that I could focus on. Sara came outside to check on me after a while. She said, “No one was hurt, the car still runs, and we have an insurance policy to cover the whole thing,” her voice rescuing me from the voice in my head. It’s amazing what just one voice can do. A voice cried out in the wilderness, and when people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem heard it, they went out to John, and were baptized in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. This voice must have been something like my wife’s voice, calling their attention away from distraction and frustration, refocusing the minds of women and men to gratitude and thanksgiving. It must have been a voice like the voice of a child to a mother’s ears. No matter how loud the television, no matter how focused her mind is on listening to a conversation rooms away, that small voice of a child penetrates the noise and “Mommy, I need you,” is all that she can hear. The voice of John the Baptist – like a glimmer of truth in a culture of smoke and mirrors – like the taste of authenticity when all around you are fake smiles and false promises – like a whisper or a shout – like a warning and a hope – but it is always one voice among others so your ears must be trained to listen. That’s easier said than done in a culture as noisy as ours. There may be in all of us, something that recognizes the truth when it speaks, no matter how softly, but that’s not to say that the truth can’t be drowned out. It can. One or two voices can drown out the other ones, so every Sunday many church members listen to our church service on their radio. They’ll call me and say that the choir sounds so much better in the sanctuary than on the radio, and that’s because I stand closer to the microphone than the choir does so unfortunately for everyone out there listening on WKRM my voice drowns the choir out. It’s so hard to train your ear to listen to the right voice among so many others. Our culture is noisy. It’s flooded by sounds and claims, many are the lies and few are the truths, and we are all drifting in the midst of them, left to discern the fact from the fiction on our own. With conviction John the Baptist preached from his pulpit in the wilderness, but know that the Pharisee in the Temple preached with just as much conviction, and with far more polish, poise, and all the trappings of authority. There’s a Christmas special on PBS for kids. The point of the thing is that getting toys isn’t what Christmas is all about, but how will a child ever grasp that message when the exact opposite is proclaimed on every other channel. There are competing truth claims all around us. It’s as true today just as it was then, and when so many people heard the voice of John the Baptist they knew who to listen to. They journeyed out there to hear him by the hundreds, by the thousands, but would you have been among them? Can you recognize the truth when you hear it? Sometimes I can. Sometimes I can’t. Like a needle stuck on one grove of a record album, there’s a voice in my head that repeats over and over again. It is silent while I sleep but it will pick right up again when I wake up if I let it. And it’s there to convince me that my frailty is what counts. That my mistakes are what defines me. That my failures are obvious and severe, and nothing that’s gone wrong can be made right again. That voice is right there in my head; it’s always there, but I need not always listen, for a voice cries out from the wilderness. Soft as it may be, sometimes nothing more than a whisper but there always none the less. The voice of a man sent from God proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins – yes you can be made clean. All that is wrong will be made right again. A Messiah is coming to you. Can you hear it? There’s a shout that rises from Ferguson, Missouri. It’s as loud as any other, it has everyone’s attention, it boldly proclaims that racism defines our justice system, and that white and black are no closer now than they were 50 years ago. I hear that voice, but there’s a whisper too, for just days before the verdict was read two churches worshiped here in this place, one white and one black, singing the same songs, eating from the same table, worshiping the same God, learning what it means to live as brothers and sisters. But nothing is getting any better a chorus of voices proclaim. In fact, it’s all getting worse, and that is the voice that I hear day in and day out. The city government is foolish, the school board ineffective, no one hears and no one cares says the voice, and the more you let this voice in the more you’ll believe it and the more the evil one will have you in his grasp. He wants you to give up. Hope is what he fears more than anything else, for as long as there is hope there is life, and where there is life death does not have the final say. He whispered in my ear as I stood outside the body shop to drop my car off for repairs. A man with a rental car was there with me, ready to drive me back to Hertz to fill out some paper work and send me on my way. His shoes were white and scuffed, his jeans a little dirty, and I asked him how he liked his work as he helped me take our car seats out of one car and put them into the other. He said, “I’m a glutton for punishment I guess.” He wanted to know what I do for a living as we stood there waiting for an estimate from the body shop, and whenever someone asks me what I do there’s a voice in my head telling me not to answer with the truth because funny things happen to people when they realize they’re talking to a preacher. I told him anyway, and this man, his name was Jake, didn’t say anything for a long time after I told him. When we got into the rental car to drive to the Hertz office he told me that his neighbors were Presbyterian. “Where do they go,” I asked him, he couldn’t remember the name. Then I really ignored the voice in my head, the one that told me to keep things professional, to never speak of religion if you’re not sure who you are talking to, and I asked him where he goes to church. A little embarrassed, he said that he didn’t. That he was raised Lutheran, always went to Vacation Bible School as a kid, but grew disappointed with the version of religion he was offered when he started to study for himself. That there was more to it than he had been told. “Have you read the Talmud,” he asked me. “The Talmud?” I said. “Yea, I really like it, and I have every volume of Strong’s Bible Commentary. And then there’s my favorite, what’s his name? The historian?” He couldn’t remember. “Josephus,” I guessed. “No, it’s Philo,” he remembered. “Philo?” I said. Then I asked, “Now who exactly are you?” The voice cries out in the wilderness, but you must listen to hear it. You must silence many voices, especially some in your head, for this voice cries out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’ He is coming, and he comes because he has not given up on you or on this world. Comfort, comfort, you my people. The Savior of the world draws near. Amen.