Sunday, December 20, 2015

Feast of Fools


Luke 1:39-55; Psalm 80:1-7

 

        In the Middle Ages, during the week after Christmas, the peasants, the outcast and anyone who was no one participated in a parade that meandered through the streets of most villages and every township. It was known as the Feast of Fools. Folks dressed up in costumes which lampooned any political or ecclesiastical character of note. Bishops and Earls, Kings and Popes who constantly disputed amongst themselves all agreed the Feast of Fools was an abomination to everything sacred. Eventually those with the power to make laws declared the Feast of Fools to be heretical and banned the local citizenry from participating in such debauchery. By the 16th century the Feast of Fools disappeared, never to return, although I have been told the Mummers Parade on January 1st in Philadelphia expresses some of the mischief and naughtiness of the original.

        As we enter this most holy time of the year, why on earth would anyone want to revive thoughts of an absurd festival banned 500 years ago?  Maybe the problem is I read too much. Recently I have spent a great deal of time with my head firmly planted in this incredibly dangerous book called the Gospel of Luke. It begins like this.

A long time ago, in a culture far, far away, a mighty empire ruled all of the world that was thought to be known. No one was safe. The roads and the cities were overrun with legal thieves and local rogues who robbed the population blind. It was a time of great darkness. The people cried out to their God, “Give us your ear, O Shepherd of Israel. Restore us, O God of Jacob. Let your face shine through the darkness that we might be saved.” After years of pleading and seemingly centuries of being ignored, God responded. You won’t believe God’s Holy solution.

It began with two women. We live in the 21st century. To offer a solution for the ills of the world by saying, “There were two women”, gives me great hope. Today, women run families, businesses, and even run for president. We celebrate the brilliance and imagination of women and you must admit men have a history of making a real mess of  this world? Thank goodness, today is different. If you ask a majority of people living outside the United States who is the leader of the free world, the over whelming response would be Angela Merkel. That is not a slight to President Obama. When Mr. Reagan was president the same people would have responded Margaret Thatcher.

But the world of today and the world in which the writer of Luke lived are vastly different. Women had no status in the Roman Empire. Their primary role was to have babies and hope those babies were boys. So imagine my surprise when the first chapter of Luke centers around an old woman who is assumed barren and a pregnant virgin.

IS THIS GOD’S PLAN TO SAVE THE WORLD????

“There were two women.” Too often when we read the gospel of Luke we start with chapter two. We all know the story of a man and wife traveling 60 miles by foot to pay taxes. What an absurd demand on a woman nine months pregnant.  But then we rationalize; no one wants to get in trouble with the IRS. Anyway, once the child was born, Mary and Joseph got to claim their first deduction. It was a win, win situation.

We occasionally we raise our eyes at the idea of Jesus being born in a barn. But the truth is we have heard the story so many times when are mystified when no stable makes it into Matthew’s version. As for the shepherds, who else would proclaim the birth of the son of David but shepherds? We sanitize the story, making the baby in the barn scenario seem like the most natural occurrence. We wrap the story up so neatly all Mary has to do is “ponder” what she has observed. No pain, no mess, and no cleaning up afterwards.

Let me invite you back into Luke 1. It begins with Elizabeth, a woman who had been trying to get pregnant for as long the day was long. She had reached the age where most women are spoiling their grandchildren. Then suddenly, out of the blue, her husband gets a visit from an interested party and the next day they are turning the sewing room back into a bedroom. Elizabeth was with child and cannot contain her joy. Her husband was literally speechless.  After months of a one-sided conversation, Elizabeth was thrilled to receive a visit from her younger cousin and share the miraculous news. But Elizabeth was not the only one with a story to tell.

“Elizabeth, I heard the good news.”

“Yes Mary. Who can explain the wonders of God?”

“You can say that again. Elizabeth you are not the only who has been blessed. I am also expecting.”

“God be praised! Who is the father?”

Mary smiled, “Who can explain the wonders of God?”

Two pregnant women, both believing they are touched by God, sat down to share a meal. To the rational or the faithless, this most assuredly was a feast of fools. And then things went completely out of control.  In an explosion of gratefulness, Mary began to sing.

My soul magnifies the Lord.

God has blessed this lowly servant.

        Generations from now people will call me blessed.

        If Mary had stopped right there, things would have been just fine. How could anyone argue with her joy? She was about to have a son and the son was a gift from God. But this was not an ordinary baby shower. This was a feast of fools and this fool refused to be quiet. Mary continued.

                God will scatter the proud.

                        God will bring down the powerful.

                                God will lift up the lowly.

                        God will fill the hungry.

                God will send the rich away empty.

        What on earth got into this girl? Mary sounds like Bernie Sanders railing against Wall Street, or to be more precise, like those 14th century peasants who took one day out of the year to raucously remind Popes and Princes alike that Christ didn’t come just for the powerful.

        I am not sure we react well to Christmas Day as a feast for fools. But what better way to celebrate the vision of Mary and the grace of God then by acting just a little bit foolish on the one day of the year when we are allowed to be bold enough to remember that at the wrong place, under the most precarious circumstance, Jesus was born.

        Not quite two years ago Deb and I drove to Columbia to be with Martina as she delivered our first granddaughter. Since Deb is wonderful with the boys and I do equally well with solitude, it was mutually decided she should entertain Andy and Austin while waited outside the delivery room. When the glorious moment arrived, Zach rushed out to tell me Siddalee was fine but Martina was having an emergency procedure to stop some excess bleeding. Right on cue the nurse came through the door with my granddaughter. I nodded for Zach to go to Martina. The nurse placed this delicate life into my hands and nothing else mattered. Such is the amazing love of our God.

        One might assume since God created the universe, life’s fragility might be forgotten.       But Jesus, like all of us, was born powerless and dependent on the loving hands that held him. What an eternal memory this must have fashioned. 

        Jesus was born, not among the powerful and not in germ free hospital. Jesus was born absolutely reliant on the whims of an exhausted teenager, a confused husband, and nothing but Jesus mattered to them.

        The absurdity of Christ’s birth, the absurdity of any birth, reflects the contradiction of our lives. We imagine we are so powerful, but compared to what. We imagine ourselves to be in complete charge of the universe, but we know better. Jesus, who was born in obscurity, knows our fears, knows are confusions, knows our insecurities because Jesus was born into our confusion, lived among our insecurities, and eventually died because of our fears.

And Mary,

Sweet Mary,

Dangerous Mary,

        Perhaps even Proud Mary

Continues to sing:

God will scatter the proud.

        God will bring down the powerful.

                God will lift up the lowly.

        God will fill the hungry.

God will send the rich away empty.

       

That should cause us to pause.

Are we proud?

                        Are we powerful?

                                Do we oppress the lowly?

                        Do we ignore the hungry?

                Will God send us away empty?

       

Certainly those are questions worth considering,

but not today.

It’s Christmas,

That day when God’s memory was fully charged.

It’s Christmas,

The day when Jesus invites us to a feast of fools, where the only item on the menu is the grace of God.      

                                                                                Amen

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Rejoice


Philippians 4:4-9
 
Of all the letters attributed to Paul, Philippians is my favorite.  If you have not read this epistle, I encourage you to pick up your Bible and do so.  Philippians is only four chapters long.  It will take 15 to 30 minutes.  Once read, I promise you will read it over and over and over again.
        As you read Philippians, it will quickly become apparent that Paul dearly loved this church.  Paul knew the congregation intimately and while imprisoned in Rome found time to thank the Philippians for their generosity and faithfulness.  But there was a second reason Paul wrote his beloved friends.  The Apostle had received some discouraging news of discontent among the church membership.  We are never made privy to the source or extent of these problems, but the rift afforded Paul the opportunity to share a side of his faith that we may not always appreciate when reading Romans or Corinthians.  Paul wrote to the folks he loved about the God he loved.  Then Paul revealed things we might take to heart during this Christmas season.
Paul began by exhorting all Christians to rejoice.  Sometimes life in the church becomes so complicated by details, by dotting every “i” and crossing every “t”, by meeting budgets, by doing all the so called necessary “stuff” that we forget that first and foremost the church is called to be in the rejoicing business.  Paul was not suggesting we become a bunch of Polly-Anna’s that have lost touch with reality. Paul understood what it was like to be overwhelmed by the doubts and uncertainties that cloud our hearts.  But Paul never tired of rejoicing over that moment when he first “saw the light”.  He frequently recalled that experience on the Road to Damascus where he encountered God’s revelation in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul believed with all his heart that God’s grace overcomes darkness, God’s grace overcomes confusion, God’s grace overcomes chaos, and God’s grace overcomes the apathy which leads to despair. 
It reminds us of those angels that disrupted the sleep of shepherds the night Jesus was born.  The shepherds lived in a dark world, ruled by fear and trepidation.  Being a shepherd was not an honor.  Children did not dream about watching sheep.  Only those qualified to do nothing else spent their nights tending the flocks.  Yet it was to lowly shepherds that God appeared.  Remember the instructions of the angels?  “Rejoice! Something incredible is happening.  Rejoice! Darkness is turning into light!  Rejoice! God has come among us! 
Then the Angel of the Lord gave the most absurd instructions.  “Go to Bethlehem and see this thing which has come to pass.”  We have heard those words for so many years they slip right past us without a thought.  Let me offer a modern translation.  The Angel of the Lord declared a revolution, a transformation of power, an overthrow of darkness, and then added, “If you want to see it for yourself run down to Stuart’s Draft.  That is where it will all begin.”  Revolutions happened in Jerusalem or Rome, not places like Bethlehem.  Revolutions happened in the palaces of kings, not in the stable of an Inn keeper.  Revolutions began with political intrigue and often ended with death.  The revolution of God began gently, with a birth, in the most unlikely place you might ever imagine.  I love the carol written by Joseph Cook.                 
“Gentle Mary laid her child, lowly in a manger.
There he lay the undefiled, to the world a stranger. Such a babe in such a place, can he be the Savior?
Ask the saved of all the race, who have found his favor.”
 
Doesn’t that sound a lot like what Paul wrote to his troubled friends, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  Remember the Lord is near.” 
We don’t live in a gentle world, and neither did Paul.  The Apostle was imprisoned, beaten, rejected, and often ignored.  He started churches only to see them disintegrate in the midst of fiery arguments ranging from disagreements over the sacraments to who was in charge of the kitchen.  Early in Paul’s adventures as a missionary, he would wade into fights with both theological fists blazing.  But as Paul sat in Rome, removed from the fight but not from the faith, be wrote, “Be gentle to one another.” 
One of my favorite Christmas stories is “The Greatest Christmas Pageant Ever”.  You might recall The Herdman’s. They  were the worst kids to ever darken the door of any church.  They traumatized everyone they encountered. The boys stole candy from the other kids. The girls terrorized the women of the church by smoking cigars in the bathroom. Gladys portrayed the Angel of the Lord by hollering out, “Shazzaaamm!”  But in the end, Imogene sheds a tear in the bathroom as she removes her earrings and make-up thereby transforming herself into the most improbable Mary.  She embraces the doll, wraps it an old blanket, and mystifies an anxious congregation with her gentleness.
Where do we find that brand of gentleness today?  It seems to be little out of vogue.  What could be gentler than stepping back and allowing the spot light to shine on someone else?  What could be more Christ-like than to gently walk through life creating a path that others might choose to follow?  Gentleness never seems to have an agenda.  Even in this time of greed and vanity, the campfires of gentle people continue to burn bright. 
Paul’s third suggestion is without a doubt the most difficult. He has the audacity to suggest we not worry about tomorrow.    I can rejoice…. for a day.  I can be gentle….. for maybe an hour.  But how do we not worry about tomorrow?  As parents and grandparents we have already sacrificed the New Year’s budget for that smile we receive when gifts are open on Christmas morning. But let’s be honest.  We decorate the tree, share wonderful gifts, and eat a great meal. Then we take the tree down, put the gifts in the back of the closet, and wonder what we have to do to lose the weight we gained. We celebrate the holiday but find ourselves right back where we started, with the same worries, the same uncertainties, the same life. 
Remember those shepherds we left out in the fields.  In all our Christmas plays they enter the stable, and silently kneel before the Christ child.  But in the Gospel of Luke, from the moment the shepherds arrive, there was no shutting them up.  They went on, and on, and on about the Angels and their promise of a universal transformation through this child.  Mary listened.  Mary treasured each word. Mary pondered them in her heart.  For Mary, Christmas was not about the moment. Christmas was about tomorrow.  Mary pondered the words of the angels and discovered the amazing truth of what was to come.
 
 
                Soaring above the cry of the dying,
                Rising above the whimper of the starving,
                Floating above the flying machines of death,
                LISTEN to the long stillness.
                New life is stirring,
                New dreams are on the wing,
                New hopes are being readied.
                Humankind is fashioning a new heart,
                Humankind is forging a new mind.
                Listen! God is at work;
Listen! This is the Season of Promise.*
 
Imagine allowing Christmas to fulfill its actual intention.  Christmas was never an event unto itself.  Christmas was only a beginning, an incarnation to the everlasting promise of God’s grace.  So often celebrating Christmas is like blowing air into a balloon.  As the 25th gets closer, our anticipation expands to an improbable size.  And then Christmas is over. Sometime before New Year, we let the air out of Christmas and start to plan for the next big event.  I think we blow so much air into our Christmas balloon that we often fail to leave room for God’s Holy expansion.  Imagine coming to the stable with the expectation of discovering more than a child.  Imagine coming to the stable to discover the entire Christ event. Imagine coming to the stable as a beginning rather than an end.
Ann Weems writes, “Christmas is that hope which tenaciously clings to the hearts of the faithful and announces in the face of any Herod the world can produce that with God all things still are possible, that even now unto us a child is born.”
Against that dark night of despair 2,000 years ago, the Angel of the Lord declared, “Glory to God in the highest; Peace to all God’s children.”   Isn’t that what Paul wrote to his friends?  Isn’t that what Paul is still saying to us today. “Rejoice always.  Act gently. Place your worries in God’s hands. Allow the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, to guard your hearts and minds now and forever more.”     Amen.
 
*Howard Thurman

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Going Home


Luke 3:4-6; Luke 1:68-79

 

        Imagine living in a world where rushing toward the waters of chaos is a more sensible alternative than being home. Images of mothers and fathers urging their children into boats to escape oppression is burned into the back of my eyelids, yet I have no starting point to comprehend their pain, their rationale, or their terror. I grew up within the confines of a safe community where my most radical act was daring to listen to shaggy haired poets sing about a brave new world.  Ironically, a few years later as I sat in my Quonset hut in Korea the words of my more radical songsmiths were trumped by an unremarkable Jewish kid from Queens named Paul Simon who wrote:

                Home, where my thought’s escaping,

                Home, where my music’s playing,

                Home, where my love lies waiting,

                Silently for me.

                     

        There is something about going home. For many the holiday season offers just the excuse needed to suffer all kinds of inconveniences for a day or two with family or friends.   Deb and I are no exception. As much as I preach the good news, sing the blessed carols, and faithfully script the holiday greetings, if both Martina and David aren’t around the tree on Christmas morning, the glorious day is tinged with sadness. Christmas never feels quite right if everyone hasn’t made it home.

        An often forgotten piece of Luke’s Christmas story is the song of Zechariah. In every way it is about coming home. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had grown old but not content. They had not been blessed with children. The poor man gave up hope of ever having a child, much less a son. Then completely out of the blue, an angel of the Lord announced Elizabeth would have a child. Zechariah, instead of rejoicing, mocked the announcement. Gabriel responded, “What is impossible for man is never impossible for God.” Then, as a reminder of his lack of faith, the old man was left speechless. Eight days after the birth of the child, Zechariah finally, speaks. What does one say after nine months of silence?

        For nine months, and eight days, Zechariah thought about the promise of Gabriel, “Your son will prepare your people for the Day of the Lord.” Zechariah, being a priest, knew exactly the implication of the inspired words. The Messiah was coming. He would be the one to lead God’s people home. Zechariah also understood that his son was not the Chosen One but rather the one who would announce the Messiah’s arrival.

        For nine months, and eight days, Zechariah must have gone through a silent agony. One day he would rejoice the homecoming was near. The next he would lament that his son was playing second fiddle. What a complex and combustible concoction of fear and joy. Eventually Zechariah began to remember the story of God’s people. Moses played second fiddle when God brought the Hebrews out of Egypt. Cyrus may have defeated the Babylonians but no one doubted who orchestrated the movement of Israel coming home to Jerusalem. 

        After nine months, and eight days, Zechariah spoke. “Blessed be the Lord. God has remembered the covenant and raised a mighty savior for us. We will be rescued from the hands of our enemies. My son will prepare the way for the Messiah. His message will be this. “By the tender mercies of God, the dawn will break, giving us light and guiding all into the way of peace.”   Sometimes going home begins when we remember the tender mercies of our God.

        Last week I was making my monthly visit to Dillwyn prison to visit Dane Roberts. Dane has completed 16 months of his three year sentence. Because he has stayed out of trouble he was moved to a new pod designated for prisoners within eighteen months of released. In our conversation he remarked how different the new section is. On the one hand, everyone wants to stay out of any trouble that would land them back in the general population. On the other hand, the existence of drugs, particularly meth, is very prevalent in this section.  I asked Dane, who is a meth addict, what he was doing to resist temptation. He held out his right hand. “Once I had a wife and a daughter.” The he held out his left hand. “I lost both of them because of what meth made me. I’ll never see either again because once in my life I could have chosen home, but I chose drugs. Today I have that choice again. I can choose meth or I can choose home.”

        Dane and I have grown close and can be very honest with each other so I said, “Dane, you are right. You will never see your wife or daughter again. They have moved on. So where is home now?”  

        He hesitated for a moment then responded, “It is more than Pricilla. It is you, and Mr. Clark, and all the folks at your church who are praying for me. I believe with all my heart when I see your church again, I will know the way home.”

        Is that the gibberish of a convict telling a minister what he wants to hear, or the words of a re-born man who honestly believes God is working to make the way home possible by filling his valleys and making his hills low?

Years of ministry have made me a bit suspicious, yet years of ministry have also taught me that Advent remains that season we need to open our hearts to the words of Isaiah and remember the glorious deeds of our God.

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.

Speak tenderly of home,

Your term has been served.

        Within your wilderness,

                In the midst of your loneliness,

                        God has already made a highway straight.

        Every valley has been be lifted up,

                Every mountain and hill has been made low.

                        Softly, tenderly,

God’s glory has been revealed.

                                        Come home,

Come home.

                                Ye who are weary,

        Come home.            

                                                                               

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Isn't It a Little Early to Talk About Christmas?


Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37

 

        Today is New Year’s Eve. Let me put this a little differently. Today is Christ the King Sunday, which happens to be the last Sunday in our liturgical year. Next week a new liturgical year begins with Advent. I don’t preach many sermons on Christ the King because this is the Sunday we usually celebrate Thanksgiving. But recent events in our world have left me in a less than thankful mood. Therefore I ask you to join me in turning to a couple of New Testament texts which promise that the Kingdom of God lives among us, even when the evidence might suggest otherwise.

        Surely the most complicated and misused book in the Bible is the last letter in the New Testament. If I should announce next week the Sunday School class will begin a study on the marvelous book of Second Isaiah, only those who come faithfully every Sunday would attend. But should I announce a four week study of the Book of Revelation, we would have to build a new fellowship hall. It amazes me how much interest Revelation creates. Most of the curiosity stems from its misuse by excitable yet barely biblically literate charlatans who want to fill your heads with predictions about the End Times. Such exploitation has caused many a brilliant mind to reject the book entirely. Martin Luther deemed the book to be utter nonsense. Calvin refused to preach from it.

The Book of Revelation was written about 60 years after the death of Jesus to a group of churches located in what today would be southern Turkey and Northern Syria. Jerusalem had been destroyed by Roman troops. Pompeii and its neighboring towns had been demolished by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Each of these events weighed heavily on the hearts of the inhabitants of this particular region. Some Christians were convinced the eruption was God’s reaction to the destruction of Jerusalem. Many Romans believed Christians were secretly plotting to overthrow the Emperor Domitian, the same emperor who demanded everyone address him as, “Our Lord and God”. Failure to do so was considered an act of treason.

The recipients of the letter of Revelation, commonly known as the seven churches of Asia, were faced with a difficult decision. They could leave the church, fight Rome, lie about their faith, water down their beliefs, or die.  These people desperately wanted to know what to do. They were citizens of the Roman Empire, they were raised in a culture vastly different from Rome, and they had been recently converted to a religion which often stood over against their citizenship and their culture. In their anguish and confusion they listened as the letter began, “I know things are looking bleak, but heaven will reveal a different truth. Take heart. Christ is the Alpha and Omega. Trust in God’s future, not your past. The Holy One will arrive soon.”   I wonder if these words left them comforted ………… or disturbed?

Religion, culture and citizenship often make strange bedfellows. The brilliant novelist Marilynne Robinson, in a recently published essay, points to the contradictions that arise when the three are blended. She writes, America is a Christian country. That is true in a number of ways. Most people living in the United States, if asked, will identify themselves as Christian, which may only mean they aren’t something else. We are indentified in the world with this religion because some of us espouse it not only publicly but rather enthusiastically.  As a consequence, we carry a considerable responsibility for its good name in the world, though we seem not much inclined to consider the implications of this fact. If we did, we might think a little longer about associating our precious Lord with the ignorance and intolerance often associated with our faith.

My difficulty with claiming that America is a Christian country is that contemporary America is full of fear and fear is not a Christian discipline. As children we learned, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Thou art with me.” Before and after his resurrection Jesus told the disciples, “Fear not, I will be with you always.” When we forget this, or place the words of Jesus to the side, fear rules our lives, making us unable to make the distinction between real threats and irrational responses. Our anxieties and prejudices are channeled into the emotions of those who misuse words like courage or patriotism. Ultimately this translates into our lives being ruled by fear, as unchristian as that may be.

I know Robinson wrote the last sentence with her tongue fully pressed against her cheek, but her point is valid. What we confess on Sunday morning is often in conflict with what streams across our televisions on Monday morning. Forgiveness, grace and mercy play well in sermons but not against headlines which make our blood boil. Are we first Christian, American, or citizens of the world? How can we be all three and not exist in a paradoxical conundrum?

Jesus stood before Pilate. Can you imagine the headache the governor must have been having? Who was this guy? He looked like a peasant. Some claimed he was a rabbi though the Temple swore he wasn’t. The accusation was treason. Pilate must have thought somebody was really frightened of this guy if those were the charges. Jesus had no Army, we had no weapons of mass destruction, and he certainly didn’t have that crazy look in his eyes that would have the betrayed a sickness in his brain.

Pilate was in a pickle. Jesus might have been guilty of something but it certainly wasn’t treason. But releasing Jesus might result in a riot and the last thing Pilate needed was word getting back to Rome that he couldn’t control the affairs of Jerusalem. So Pilate posed a question. “Are you the king of the Jews?”

The answer Pilate got was hardly what he expected. Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

Pilate probably thought he needed to check Jesus’ eyes a second time. “So you are a king?”

“Yes, I was born to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate then uttered the line that too often falls from our own curious or frustrated lips, “What is truth?”

I am not so sure “The word of the Lord” as it came in a letter to the Seven Churches of Asia was all that comforting. A thin reading of the text would be, “Here is the truth. This world doesn’t really matter; just don’t lose sight of heaven. God has a plan.” Yet a deeper reading of the Book of Revelation becomes complicated. It addresses the “things of this earth” by promising the destruction of Rome or any other hegemony that places itself above the one true God.

 So what is God’s truth? Does it only pertain to things of heaven or does the Bible have something to say concerning immigration, inner city turmoil or terrorist threats? One thing for sure, “Fear not” preaches really well on Sunday but usually falls on deaf ears by Monday.

What a mystery we have? Consider the complexities from a theological perspective. Our first declaration of faith is God created heaven and earth. If heaven and earth are the dominion of God, should we be so quick to flee the plight of earth for the promises of heaven?

What about good and evil? Can this only be answered from our perspective? If Jesus demanded we love our enemy might that mean we are to at least attempt to see the world through their eyes?

        More than a handful of you have spoken or e-mailed me this week asking if I might take a moment and offer some wisdom concerning the horrific tragedy in Paris. After session meeting I spoke briefly with Dave Lawson, who as you know is one of the “real radicals” in our congregation. Dave wisely said, “I am not one of those people.”

        I applauded Dave’s wisdom, mainly because any word I might offer is certainly flawed by my limited perspective. Imagine my surprise when Dave sends an e-mail which included the following poem.

What if we awoke one morning to find ourselves

        A member of a different race?

                One despised by our neighbors.

What would it be like if we went to bed

in a comfortable home,

        Only to wake in some cold hovel

                Without running water and no plumbing?

What if we went to bed in a peaceful valley

        And were jarred awake in the morning

                By automatic weapons just outside our door.

What would it be like to fall asleep

in Virginia as Presbyterians,

        and awake in Syria as Muslims?

What would it be like?

 

If we claim to be a people of faith, shouldn’t we be open to the claims our faith makes. Is God loving? Is God vengeful? Is God merciful? Is God judgmental? Are God’s people limited to a select few, or is God’s grace universal?

Does faith mean we blindly follow God or can we be blinded by faith statements which are ungodly? Can faith be flexible and open us to transformational moments? How can our faith journey be kidnapped by culture, intellect, fear or antiquated beliefs?

Today is New Year’s Eve, Christ the King Sunday. Next week we begin the season of Advent, a season of self-examination and expectation. It is a season when we wrestle with Godly intentions. Why did God send Jesus? Why did God become involved in the waywardness of humanity? What is heaven? Can there be heaven on earth? How expansive is the idea of being a child of God? What is truth?

        The beginning of fear is when we are too fearful to examine the world through the lens of our faith or when we are too fearful to examine our faith through the lens of the world. Tomorrow a new year begins. Have the courage to plunge into the mysterious and revealing essences of God’s Word. Use Advent Season to wisely address your hopes and fears. Pray unceasingly that new answers and perhaps new questions might arise as together we search not only for truth but a deeper trust in the one we call Alpha and Omega.  

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Exaltation Despite Barrenness


I Samuel 2:1-10; Hebrews 10:16

 

        Deb and I used to live in West Texas. We loved the people, but the land and weather wore us out. I think what finally broke us was the year I only mowed the grass on Memorial and Labor Day. The grass didn’t need cut on Labor Day but I wanted to empty the gas out of the tank in order to store the lawn mower for the winter.

West Texas defines barren. It is a 400 mile drive from San Angelo, where we lived, to El Paso. There are three stops along the way. Big Lake, which has no lake, is occupied by the 937 meanest folks in West Texas. Ft. Stockton, which has no fort, survives because it is the only gasoline and fast food stop on Interstate 10 for 200 miles.  Van Horn is a uranium waste dump. Traveling west you can spot Van Horn long after sundown.

Other than those three towns there is nothing but sand, mesquite, tumble weeds, wind mills and oil rigs. It is a waste land so barren that despite attempts to irrigate it, none have proved successful. There appears to be no water, no life, and no hope. To the naked eye, West Texas is as barren as Hannah, the subject of our Old Testament text.

In the ancient Hebrew culture, and unfortunately in some cultures today, a woman’s worth was defined by her ability to have children. When a public census was taken, the worth of a family was determined in the following order: the male, any male children, livestock, adult females, and finally female children. When the adult females were no longer able to produce children, they were not included in the census. To be barren was the equivalent of being as desolate as the West Texas desert. This morning we meet  Hannah, a woman who was barren, but not without hope.

As Ruth played a crucial role in the birth of David, the boy who would be king, so Hannah played a critical role in the story of Samuel, the priest who anointed kings. Without Ruth and Hannah, there could be no David or Samuel. How amazing that God used an immigrant and a barren woman to bring about the golden age of Jerusalem.

If you don’t know the story, it is worth hearing. Elkanah had two wives, Peninnah and Hannah. Peninnah was the mother of multiple children. Hannah had failed to produce a single off spring. Daily Peninnah threw this in Hannah’s face. You can imagine the conversation. “Hannah if you were a real woman you would give our husband at least one child. Oh, that’s right, you can’t have children. So why don’t you run away or even better just die? What good are you? You are taking the food my boys need to grow stronger.”

Hannah daily lived with the humiliation of infertility. I think we all know stories of young couples who are unable to have children. My daughter underwent test and procedures valiantly trying to get pregnant. Hannah had no procedures available to her. All she received was the disgrace and shame of being childless. Even words of encouragement from her husband fell on deaf ears. In her desperation, she went to the Temple to pray.

Despite her condition, Hannah remained a strong and determined woman. As she entered the temple, Eli, the chief priest, asked if he could be of assistance. Hannah looked at him and must have sarcastically thought, “Just what I need, another man.” By coming to the Temple she sought the only entity that could address her problem.

Hannah prayed. At first she prayed silently. Then she began to groan as her prayer erupted from a place of utter vulnerability. Her prayers were so intense that Eli thought Hannah had been drinking. How could he understand her plight? Hannah had come because of her loneliness. Hannah had come because of her despair. But Hannah also came as a person of great faith. She knew God to be full of grace, full of compassion and full of life. She came to the Temple because she had the audacity to believe that God is able to create life out of chaos.

There is a song the first service choir sings that brings me to tears every time I hear it. The words are:

Write your blessed name, O Lord, upon my heart.

There to remain, indelibly engraved;

That no prosperity, no adversity shall ever,

Ever move me from your love.

 

The words come from the 16th century poet Thomas a Kempis, who took them from the tenth chapter of Hebrews:

This is the covenant I will make with them. I will put my love in their hearts, and I will write my law on their minds.

Hannah had written upon her heart that nothing could separate her from God’s love for life.  The old patterns, the ancient laws that derided and eradicated those deemed unworthy begged to be transformed through an invitation to the God who will not be limited by our vision. So she prayed, or perhaps she sang, with a faith that would not be confined by the social structure of her day. She prayed, or perhaps she sang, with God’s name engraved upon her heart.

Faith is something that cannot be rationally explained. Every generation believes it has more knowledge than the last and perhaps this is true. I remember watching Star Trek as a kid and was amazed that Captain Kirk could flip open a small hand held device and communicate with Spock who was hundreds of miles away. Because of the intelligence of our generation, our communication devices rival Captain Kirk’s and our personal computers are something Spock would love to get his hands on. We are a brilliant generation, but we are no more equipped to understand faith than we were a thousand years ago. If anything, our dependence on rational thought has made faith somewhat obsolete. In the minds of many, prayer is seen as an act of the desperate and faith has become the crutch of the na├»ve. That said, may I remind you, despite all attempts by our greatest minds to bring water to West Texas, it remains barren……..until the second or third week of March, when for no rational reasons, the desert blooms. Bluebonnets and Mexican Hats dominate the wasteland reminding anyone with eyes to see that grace exists despite the evidence to believe otherwise.

Hannah wanted to bloom. Hannah wanted to erase the barrenness of her womb. Despite the evidence, Hannah knew, God willing, life could be brought into her desert. And so she prayed, and then she bargained, and finally she went home. Nine months later Samuel was born, and Hannah broke into song.

I Samuel 2 is one of those great poems of the Old Testament which ought to be written on our hearts. It celebrates the power and faithfulness of God. Hannah sings even when the human imagination is exhausted. Hannah sings because she believes that nothing is beyond the power of God. Barrenness is redeemed. Death is left humiliated. Life in the form of a child is resurrected.

I cannot imagine any mother not giving thanks at the miracle of birth. I have heard there are no atheists in foxholes. The same might be said of the birthing room. This daring and dangerous song of Hannah transcends any simple lullaby. Listen to the words.

God lifts the lowly. God raises up the needy. God gives             life to the barren. God restores the feeble with strength.

Walter Brueggeman writes, “Yahweh’s cosmic power is mobilized for the socially marginal. No wonder Hannah sings. The hope of the weak is rooted in the power of God which holds the world together. No wonder every Jewish mother joins Hannah in this song. Yahweh is the only one with power who is attentive to the plight of the poor, the needy, the hungry, the ignored, and the barren.”

Tradition suggests that every Jewish mother since Hannah has prayed this song upon discovering she is with child. I am sure that is terribly overstated. But then, it is recorded in the Book of Luke that a young girl, on learning that she is pregnant, sings her own version of Hannah’ song. Listen to Mary’s words.

My soul magnifies the Lord, for God has looked with favor on his lowly servant. God will scatter the proud and bring down the powerful. God will lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things. God will remember the promise made to Abraham and to David and to Hannah.

 

There is life in the desert.

There is hope for this world.

We might not find it in the shenanigans

Of those who would be king.

We certainly won’t find it among those

        With malice in their hearts.

But if we look,

        With our hearts rather than our eyes,

If we look,

        Believing in what other’s disparage as foolishness,

If we look,

        Not for power as the world defines it,

But power as God ordains it,

The Bluebonnets will bloom,

        The Mexican Hats will dance,

                And the barren will experience

                        The joy

of unexpected life.

 

To God be the glory, Amen.