Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Ham

Luke 1. 46b -55

        I suspect we all have a favorite Christmas story, a moment in time that in a quiet moment is resurrected in our head.  There is something about Christmas which gives us permission to dream of a time gone by and even wistfully wish those moments would once again appear. I remember going to Williamsburg as a child for the lighting of the candles. On returning home, we would stand just off the front porch and shout for all the world to hear, “Mrs. Andrews, light your candles.” I remember firing a shotgun on Christmas morn as a way of remembering the death of my grandfather. Those memories are weaved into the very fabric of our life story and sometimes, just at the right time, they are resurrected to remind us of the delight Christmas once was and still can be when we allow ourselves to be captured by the mystery and grace of this season.
        In that respect Mary was no different from us.  This child, soon to turn woman, had her own stories, her own memories that celebrated the hand of God in both the ordinary and the extraordinary. Like most Jewish girls experiencing life swelling in side her, Mary remembered the miracle of Hannah the mother of Samuel. She remembered the song that Hannah sang when she became pregnant.  It was not just a song celebrating a son; it was a song rejoicing over what this birth might bring.
        Listen once again. “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed for the mighty has done great things for me.  Blessed is his name. God’s mercy is on those who fear him. God has shown strength and scattered the proud, God has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry and sent the rich away. God has remembered us in God’s mercy and remembered the promise made to Abraham.”
        Each birth fulfilled the ancient covenant; each birth evoked a memory; each birth offered the possibility of a miracle.
        It was late in December, 1973. I was stationed at Camp Casey, about 90 kilometers north of Seoul, Korea.  I had been scheduled to spend 13 months in an infantry company but quickly found a way to become a trumpet player for what was  unofficially but appropriately titled the Second Division Blues Band. Never was there a bluer time in my life than spending that Christmas with three other G.I’s in a metal Quonset hut half way around the world.
        Our residence was a semi-circular tin can with an oil stove in the middle. It was attached to the back another building for stability. We crammed four beds and standing lockers into the small space called it home.  Our job, during the month of December was to load up every morning in a bus and travel through out the Second Division giving Christmas concerts to soldiers and the occasional audience of Korean Children. You would have thought it would have given us great joy to spread such good news all over the land but the opposite was true. Christmas music still grates on me in a less than positive way.
        Besides myself, three other musicians occupied our hut. Steve, an artist and drummer from Iowa would occupy his time with water colors. I noticed during the holidays he only used charcoal prints. Ted was a trombone player from Pennsylvania. He loved everything about Penn State. Ron, another trumpet player, was the youngest member of our group and the only one who was married. He had a son, born in July.  Ron had only seen once. There was a fifth member of our but we never thought much about him.  His name was Mr. Lee. He was an older man who washed and ironed our clothes once a week, shined our shoes, and made sure we had fuel for our stove. If we gave him cigarettes, Mr. Lee he would find a second can guaranteeing the hut would stay warm through most of the night. 
        The highlight of our day was when we would pull in from our journeys and check to see if any mail had come in.  Packages and mail from home was a joy, especially for Ron. It was his only connection with his wife and child. One day we received a ceramic Christmas tree which stood every bit of nine inches high. We found a small table, put tree on the table and plugged it in whenever we were home. When a present arrived, it would be placed under the table. Even cookies and cakes, no matter how stale, were stashed under the table. We were determined to make something of Christmas Day.
        Our biggest surprise was a Christmas ham sent by Ron’s wife. It was one of those little canned ham, probably more Spam than real meat but for the four of us it was to be the center piece of our Christmas Dinner. We counted down the days until we could open the ham and shamelessly devour it. No mess hall food for us. We were preparing for a feast. We respectfully placed the ham on the little table beside the tree.
        I remember Christmas Eve as if it were yesterday. Every camp north of Casey seemed to have promised their guys a bit of Christmas.  We played six shows that day and didn’t pull into Casey until almost midnight. We were exhausted. All I wanted to do was pull off my boots and fall into bed. But not Ron. As soon as we got off the bus he was like a kid waiting to see Santa.  All he had talked about was opening the gifts sent to him from his son. Much to the chagrin of Steve and Ted, we decided we would each open one gift just to get Ron off our back. We stumbled into the hut, turned on the tree lights and heard Ron scream, “Oh my God, where is the ham?”
        I looked on the floor; Ted looked behind the beds while Ron stood in the middle of the room screaming. It was obvious the ham was gone. There was no consoling Ron. It was as if that ham had been picked out by his infant son. It took us some time to calm him down. It was pretty obvious what had happened. Mr. Lee had slipped in while we were gone and taken the ham for himself. Ron wanted to go into the village and search for the thief but we knew that was impossible. We told Ron we would go with him the next day to find the thief. Reluctantly agreeing, grabbed a six pack of beer, and went outside. He sat against the hut, popped a top, drank a beer and threw the can on top of the hut. I was reawakened each time a can would roll to the ground.
        The next morning was the worst Christmas of my life. Nobody had slept. Ron was drunk. Steve was mad because Ron had drunk his beer. Ted was angry because he found out all his Penn State buddies were going to the Orange Bowl to see Penn State play LSU. Furthermore, there was no ham, therefore no meal, therefore in our minds, no Christmas.
        About three o’clock that afternoon there was a knock on our door. Everyone else had left, which in retrospect was a good thing. I opened the door and was greeted by a Korean man and woman.  The woman introduced herself as the daughter of Mr. Lee. She then introduced Mr. Park.  She told us that Mr. Park would be taking over the duties as our houseboy because her father could no longer serve us. Before I could speak, she continued. Each year her father and others worked hard to prepare a special meal at a local orphanage. Mr. Lee had noticed the ham on the table and wanted to offer his additional services for the ham but feared you would not part with it. Yesterday when he knew there was not enough meat for the children, he came back to tell you his plight. But you were not here so he stole the ham. He knew you would not go hungry, even without the ham. He could not say the same of the children. Mr. Lee’s daughter left me with these words, “My father has dishonored himself and can longer work for you.”
        I wanted to tell her if Mr. Lee had told us about the children we would have given him money, but I could not. Up until that moment I had only seen Mr. Lee as a houseboy, someone who washed my clothes, shined my shoes and stole fuel for an extra cigarette. If anything we probably thought he was overpaid. I viewed him as a slave, not a savior.
Mary sang, “God has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things. God has remembered us and been merciful.” Perhaps I never fully understood those words until that Christmas Day in 1973.
        Merry Christmas Mr. Lee, wherever you are.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

We're Number Two, We're Number Two

Luke 1:68-79

        Last Tuesday the Washington Wizards beat the Miami Heat by four points. It was the Wizard’s second victory in fifteen games, yet as the Wizards left the court most of their players could be seen holding one finger high in the sky. While I would like to believe they were pointing toward the heavens acknowledging the One whose birth we are about to celebrate, we all know they were claiming to be Number One.
        What is it about our desire to be Number One? With the notable exception of Avis Car Rentals, I can’t think of anyone ever celebrating being number two. And even Avis did it as a campaign slogan to suggest they tried harder. Being Number One seems to be in our DNA, after all, who wants to be Robin when you can be Batman.
        Our text this morning celebrates finishing second. The poem we read from Luke announces the birth of a child. Nothing unusual about that, after all we are preparing for Christmas. What makes this text so interesting is the father of the child praises God for allowing his son to be second best. I may have trouble recalling my phone number, but I remember every single moment of September 26, 1980. There might have been 15 other babies born at the hospital that day but only one bore the name Martina Lee Andrews. As far as I was concerned, she was the only child that mattered. So imagine what would have happened if I, on the arrival of her grandparents, had pointed out Martina and said, “That’s your granddaughter.  I really wish she was as pretty as the baby next to her”. (pause) We all know every child born is number one in the eyes of the parent. So why was the son of Zachariah the exception to that rule?
        Sometimes we get so occupied with the birth of Jesus we forget that Luke writes about two miraculous births. The gospel of Luke begins by telling us the story of Zechariah, a faithful priest, who was married to Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary.  Zechariah and Elizabeth had tried for years to have a child. But the couple had grown old and the idea of a child seldom entered their convresations. After a long day of fulfilling his priestly duties, Zachariah was visited by the angel Gabriel.  Zachariah was paralyzed with fear but the angel assures him, “Don’t be afraid. I bring great news. Your wife is about to bear a son.”
        Zechariah went from paralysis to analysis. “That is impossible. I am an old man and my wife is no spring chicken.”
        But the Angel continued, “Listen! God is about to do a new thing. God, in the form of a child, is coming to be among us. Your son, whom you will name John, will announce the coming of the Lord. Your son will prepare the people for God’s arrival.”
        All Zechariah could say was, “Shut my mouth”, and that is exactly what happened. Zechariah was speechless for the next nine months. Elizabeth became pregnant and gave birth. On the eighth day after the birth, Elizabeth was asked to name the child. Everyone assumed the baby would be named after his father but Elizabeth shook her head and said, “You will call him John.” Shocked, everyone  turned to Zachariah and asked what he wanted the baby to be named. The ancient priest wrote one word on the tablet, “John”. As soon as the word had been written, Zechariah was able to speak Listen to what he said. “Blessed be the Lord, who is coming to set his people free. He will set salvation in the center of our lives.  There will be deliverance from our enemies and mercy to our fathers. We will worship freely and be made holy by his presence.” Then Zechariah lifted up his own son. “And you, born first but second in importance, shall prepare his way. You will show us, one foot at a time, the path of peace.”
        Zechariah spent nine months of silence thinking about what he would declare concerning this miraculous birth. Zechariah must have crafted each word carefully, knowing each syllable carried with it the power of God’s new revelation. Zechariah did not fail at his holy task. As much as he must have wanted to rejoice over the birth of a long desired son, he first raised one finger to heaven and celebrated the unborn son of Mary. Zechariah knew the first must be last, and the last, first.
        The son of Zachariah grew up to be a very strange man. When John was old enough to leave home, he headed straight for the desert.  Living like a wild beast, he prepared himself to announce the arrival of the one who would lead humanity out of wilderness.  Like some traveling medicine show, when John performed, the crowds turned out in droves. He preached only one sermon, “Repent, for the day of the Lord is at hand.” Then John the Baptizer would take his new converts down to the river for a spiritual bath.
John collected his own band of disciples. Many suggested that the Baptizer was the new Elijah. John could have started his own movement but the son of Zachariah knew why God had chosen him. He had been reminded from birth that he was the messenger and not the message. Therefore he preached, “I baptize with water but the One who follows me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
John preached a message of repentance. John invited people to look deep into their hearts and see what changes needed to be made. Then John pointed them down a different path. It was not a road that lead to glory; it was not a road that guaranteed personal wealth; it was not a road that promised they would become Number One.  John offered a radical pathway peace. He offered a chance to discover justice and righteousness in the light of God’s grace.
Words like that seem so hollow when the currents of history once again are churning into rapids, threatening to overflow every restraining embankment and carry us headlong into conflict in the land where God became flesh.  We want to be Number One and we want our God be Number One. We want our God to stand over against the tumult of madness and make it right according to our perspective. We want our God to be a strong, avenging angel. We don’t need a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. We don’t want the messenger of God running aimlessly through the wilderness. We want a message of power and might. We don’t want peace. We want victory.  That is the desire that seems to motivate the world regardless of religious preference. We want to be number one because we deserve it, we have earned it, and we dare anyone to take it away from us.
Bill Coffin once said “The world is beginning to resemble the extinct dinosaurs who suffered from too much armor and too little brains.” But then Coffin was always a dreamer. Don’t we need our strength, our power, our weapons of mass destruction? Ever look closely at that phrase, “weapons of mass destruction”.  What have those weapons, or the threat of those weapons ever really changed.  Violence, defended by lies, has a strangle hold on our destiny.  Firday was the anniversary of Pearl Harbor.  What lies did the Emperor tell the people of Japan to justify such an attack? What lies did Ben Laden cultivate to justify 9/11. What lies have we told to justify some of our misadventures? Nonviolence, a road less traveled, is more radical than violence because nonviolence is born from truth, a truth that leaves us naked, vulnerable, and exposed. During the season of Advent we celebrate that truth comes as a baby born in a barn. We celebrate truth spoken by a man who bathed in the sins of humanity even though he was without sin.  We celebrate truth as a savior, hanging on a cross to counteract the violence of one culture, and the violence of all cultures. We celebrate the Prince of Peace, who humbled himself in order that we might be redeemed.
John the Baptizer was born to bear witness to the coming of the One who claimed humility over power, peace over violence, and love over hate. 
John the Servant lowered himself to serve the One who challenged the conventional thinking of his day, and our day.
John the Messenger repeated the words that should rise in our moral consciousness every time we clench our fist.  “Prepare the way of the Lord. Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain shall be made low. The Prince of Peace shall be revealed and all people shall see the salvation of God.”    
Radical Words…..Truthful words….The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

What do you want for Christmas?

Jeremiah 33:14-16

        Many years ago, when I was younger and much more strident in my observance of religious holidays, I asked my wife to promise we would not begin any Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving. Deb, still believing part of her wedding vow was to listen to her husband, agreed. Ah, the good old days. That agreement lasted until the birth of Martina. By the birth of David the quest for the each year’s Holy Grail commenced a few days after Labor Day. I suspect we are not the only ones who start shopping early.  At Target and Wal-Mart, Bing Crosby has been crooning about a White Christmas for at least a month. Last Saturday, three generations of Andrews’s men went to our favorite Jewish Delicatessen. I have been going to Danny’s since 1960. The original owner was an Orthodox Jew.  All the meats are still Kosher and the menu has not changed in fifty years. As I waited patiently for my pastrami and knockwurst on rye, I feasted on kosher pickles and listened to a The Little Drummer Boy being played through the speakers for all to hear. Danny must be rolling over in his grave. 
Perhaps this is why I love Advent.  On Sunday mornings in December, many of us who attend church are rescued, if only for a moment, from the eternal quandary of all that goes with finding the perfect Christmas gift. For that holy hour, we not only escape the hustle and bustle of the season, we intentionally refrain from stories of the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. Even Silent Night and Joy to the World are withheld, as if placed in reserve, only to be played as an encore to the holy moment. Instead of familiar scriptures about Mary and Joseph, we wrestle with strange texts from Jeremiah and Isaiah that remind us why God originally choose to come among us.  Advent is a time of wishful thinking because faith itself is wishful thinking. I dare say that, in a sober moment, away from the intoxication of the family traditions, what we really want for Christmas can’t be purchased on-line.
The book of Jeremiah was written in the midst defeat and humiliation. Following the destruction of Jerusalem, a beaten and imprisoned people are dragged from their land and face almost certain death. Removed from their former lives without any expectation of return, they cry out to God using both words of anger and despair. In the midst of this desolation, the prophet Jeremiah dares to offer a word of hope.  Listen!   “In the days that are surely coming, God will cause a Branch to spring up and execute justice and righteousness in the land.”  With their lives crumbling into dust, Jeremiah dares the exiles to look beyond themselves and see the future through God’s eyes.  This image must have seemed laughable to a people in chains.
Why conflict our Christmas spirit with such a tale of desolation? What do we have in common with those folks who died over 2,500 years ago? Perhaps nothing…… perhaps everything. Ask yourself, “Why do you observe Christmas?” Is it a moment when your family comes together for a time of joyous festivities? Is it an opportunity to once again hear the story of a holy birth? Is it a day when the Scrooge in each  us recognizes the poverty which surrounds our lives? Is it all of these combined or is it something more? I believe Advent is a time that we are challenged to engage in the strenuous task of considering the imagination of God. In the midst of a world that once again seems to have gone mad, Advent dares us to confront our doubts and ask if there is anything God cannot do. Advent dares to whisper to our inner most consciousness that Jesus was not born into a perfect world but was a radical solution to the chains of our captivity. Sin was and always will be the reason for the season.  God’s imagination, God’s hope for a different tomorrow has always been the solution. The challenge of Advent will always be to extend our faith and allow it to actually stretch beyond the limits of our self-imposed boundaries.  In other words, do we still believe God is active in our world gone mad?
It was Christmas night, 1981, in Wilmington, North Carolina. A handful of us had gathered in the sanctuary to celebrate the birth of Jesus with the sacrament of Communion. For most of us it has been a busy two weeks. Twenty-five college student from all over the world had been our guest. Sunday school rooms had been turned into sleeping quarters as students with no place to stay came to be with us over the holidays. We were responsible for food, entertainment and transportation. Volunteers were plentiful the first few days but the social responsibilities Christmas places upon families reduced us to a faithful few.
The majority of our students were from the Middle East, most were Moslem. Five of our guests were from Iran. With the expulsion of the Shah, they watched the news each night wondering if they would be allowed to return home. Each day the Moslem students would roll out their prayer mats multiple times to pray the prayers of their faith. Don’t miss the irony of this. They were exiles, praying in a foreign place of worship,  asking God for passage home.
I stood behind the table of Lord.  How often does one go to church on Christmas night, but here we were, seeking respite from the tensions of the past week. The lights were out, replaced by the flickering shadows cast by candles.  One by one families would come to the table and be served.  In the back of the sanctuary some of the Iranian men sat observing our most holy meal.  When the last family had been served I prepared to lead the group in the Lord’s Prayer. But before I could begin, a solitary figure rose from his pew and walked toward the table. His name was Mohammed. He stopped in front of me and said, “I am not sure what you are doing but I know it is holy. I need God at this moment and I know God is here.” Without any further words I served him.
After the service, I am certain he rolled out his rug, bowed toward Mecca and prayed. Perhaps it was a prayer asking for forgiveness. Perhaps it was a prayer of thanksgiving. I would like to think it was a prayer of someone who tasted the radical imagination of God.
Mohammed did not come to the table to celebrate the birth of a child. He came to the table because his world had gone mad and he needed to confirm that God was still alive. He came to the table because he had a longing, a thirst, and anguish in his heart. He came to the table to pray for the emergence of light in a world that had suddenly gone dark.
We exiles, chained by sin, chained by our inability to dream, come to the table this season of Advent.
We sojourners, filled with doubts, yet not beyond hope, come to the table this season of Advent.
We sons and daughter of God, hungering for righteousness, come to the table this season of Advent.
And together we pray, “Come, O Come, Emmanuel”.