Sunday, December 24, 2017

Isaiah 2:2-4
“Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
        It was eight years ago, the day before Thanksgiving when the rains began to fall.  This was not just a passing shower but a dreaded Nor’easterner, packing winds of 40 miles an hour.  Deb and I had driven to Norfolk to pick up our daughter and grandchild at the airport.  Martina and Andy had found a flight and we all planned to spend a couple of days together with Deb’s parents.  It was a glorious plan until the rain began to fall.  By the time we got to Hampton the roads were being swallowed by water with no place to go.  As I pulled into my father-in-laws drive way, I knew from similar storms we were safe, but stranded.  It rained all day Wednesday, continued on Thursday and finally quit on Friday.  We had electricity, which was a blessing, but much of the town including all the major roads were under a couple feet of water.
        How do you explain to a soon to be two year old that you cannot go outside?  For Andy, walking was a newly discovered freedom and he was ready to exercise his liberated limbs.  Wednesday through Friday he wore out the rug and tile in my in-laws house traveling around and around and around through the kitchen, living room, hallway and den.  By Saturday morning I was ready to teach him how to swim.  But thankfully, or so I thought, the waters had receded.  
        It was my daughter that came up with the grand plan.  Not so innocently she remarked, “We need to let Andy run around a bit.  Since we can’t take him outside, let’s hop in the car and find a Mall.  That should be good exercise. Who wants to go?”  Instantly my wife, mother-in-law and daughter were headed for the door.  Then, with the precision of synchronized swimmers they turned, and said, “Come with us. Andy would love to spend time with his grandfather. We will only stay a few minutes.”
        The first shopping mall was built in Kansas City in 1922. The first enclosed mall was opened near Minneapolis in 1956.  The first mega mall was developed in Edmonton with 800 stores, a hotel, amusement park, zoo, and a 438 foot long lake.  In these 88 years of Mall development the least kept promise has been, “We will only stay a few minutes”.
        Off we went; three women, a husband/father/son-in-law, and a baby.  As soon as we entered the hallowed halls I knew my grandson and I were about to spend a lot of quality time together.  We watched as the three women disappeared from our sight and I wondered if they ever would return.
        What do you do with a young child when stranded in the middle of a place straight out of Dante’s Divine Comedy?  We walked for a while.  That proved dangerous particularly when the child thinks that every piece of merchandise needs to be touched.  We drank juice and ate cheese crackers until we both had our fill.  We even raced the stroller through the halls which proved to be great fun until the Mall Cop asked us to slow down.  Eventually Andy fell asleep.  Since I had foolishly left the book I was reading at the house, I sat and observed the rituals people perform during this time we fondly call the holidays.
        While we were in the mall two days after Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims had long been forgotten.  The air was filled with Christmas songs of all flavors just loud enough to be heard above the constant roar of the gentle masses.  I watched as families gathered in long lines for their Kodak moment with Santa. I noticed all the splashes of green, red and gold that seemed to highlight each display window.  The Christmas Spirit was certainly in full gear.  Then I noticed the people.
        Some folks were there just to get out of the house.  They passed us innumerous times, always carrying something different purchased at the food court.  It is amazing how much we eat during the holidays even when we are not hungry.  Then again maybe we are hungering for something other than food.
        Some folks wore the hardened expression of a shopping warrior. They were looking for the perfect gift at the perfect price and they were determined to find it.  I wondered if their campaign to discover perfection continued when this day’s quest had reached its conclusion.
        Some folks had a glazed, exhausted expression of fatigue.  Maybe they had been shopping warriors when the day began but now they were tired and weary.  Maybe they had come to the realization that this holy temple only offered superficial answers to their genuine problems.  Maybe, during the season of Christ, they were shopping for the wrong gift.
Some folks were really loud.  Every word, every physical expression was bigger than life.  They lorded over their companions and yet the endless chatter seemed inane, as if they had nothing to say but were determined to say it very loudly.  Isn’t amazing how the most holy words are often discovered in the silence of a deserted barn in a forgotten village.  
I closed my eyes and begin listening to the music.  Bruce Springsteen was singing my favorite rendition of “Santa Claus is coming to town.”  Then, in a radical transition, my ears were filled with a jazzy version of Dave Brubeck playing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”  In the midst of people who were hungry, a people searching for perfection, a people with weary and cluttered lives, the gift of grace was freely floating through the air as an answer to the confusion of a wayward people.
Come Emmanuel, fill our spiritual hunger; Come Emmanuel, direct our misguided quest; Come Emmanuel, bring light to our darkness; Come Emmanuel, speak your  words of peace. 
My grandson woke up, and he was very, very hungry.
Aren’t we all?    Aren’t we all?           Amen.  

Sunday, December 17, 2017

What Does Mary Want for Christmas?

Isaiah 61:1-2; Luke 1:46-55


There are seven more shopping days till Christmas. Remember when that created a panic. We had only a day or two to fight the crowds and hope beyond hope that our desired special treasure was still on the shelf. Today we go on a computer, or our phone, and punch a couple of buttons.  Deb even has Amazon Prime so we don’t have to pay postage. A couple days later the door bell rings and the gift arrives. If I could just find someone to wrap my acquisitions my Christmas experience would be complete.

        But even with all these modern conveniences, one problem remains. How do we if know we are getting the right gift? I know it is suppose to be the thought that counts, but there is nothing worse than have the recipient look up with an expression that shouts, “What were you thinking?”  

I used to buy gifts for my niece and nephews. I have what you might call an eclectic taste in music. I felt each Christmas it was my duty to rescue my kin from their limited exposure to the world of song.  I would spend endless hours thinking about each child and how I might be liberate them  from boy bands, drum kits, musical loops, and any singer that had never listened to Etta James, Sam Cook, or Patsy Cline. Each year my nephews and niece would pick up my contribution to their Christmas celebration, roll their eyes, and pretend to be delighted. I once heard my oldest nephew mumble, “It’s not his fault. He’s just weird.”

What is actually weird is what Christmas has become. Remember when Christmas morning was a bit mysterious with no one really knowing what lay wrapped so beautifully under the tree. Today Christmas has become the parental fulfillment of a prearranged wish list. Remember when Christmas was a celebration of grace. It is easy to understand why we fled from years of yore. One of my favorite southern novelists, Flannery O’Conner, wrote, “All human nature vigorously resist grace because grace changes us and to change is painful.”  Our need to know eliminates the possibility of the improbable. And what could be more improbable than the birth of Jesus.

Do we fully appreciate the Christmas story as told by Luke? Like any 14 year old, Mary had her Christmas wish list but it was like nothing that regularly ends up in Santa’s mailbox. Mary asked God to deliver joy to the broken hearted. She prayed, “Let my son bring down the powerful. Let my son lift up the lowly. Let my son fill the hungry with good things. Let my son be merciful.” This child’s uncle definitely had her listening to Odetta and Billie Holliday, or to be more precise the poems of Third Isaiah.

Last week we spent a little time listening to the voice of Second Isaiah. That poet’s job was to encourage a handful of slaves to travel back home. He promised God would level their road.  They believed and they packed up to travel west. They were not prepared to find what was at the end of the rainbow. The Jerusalem they had heard of lay in ruins. For fifty years no one took the effort to restore what had been the gem of David and Solomon. The travelers were disheartened, disillusioned, broken. They had not imagined the task before them. But a second poet arrives. He has traveled with them. He knows their disappointment. He understood the seemingly impossible task before them. The poet sings, “God is bringing good news. Once you were captives and now you are released. Once you were prisoners and now you are emancipated. Now you are brokenhearted, but the God who freed you will also bring joy and comfort.”

Mary knew those words. They had been placed on her lips by that crazy uncle who loved the songs of the prophets. Then she received this crazy angelic message that she was to have a son. Instead of praying for herself and the welfare of her child, she prays that this babe might be a blessing to her neighbors. She prays for a cosmic event that will overturn everyone’s world. She prays for a miracle that will lift up the brokenhearted. She joyfully prays for grace.

Wednesday night in our Advent Meditations we shared one of the great Christmas stories of all time, The Grinch that Stole Christmas. For those of you that don’t know the Dr. Seuss classic, it is about a very mean and small hearted character who tries to ruin Christmas by stealing all the toys delivered on Christmas morning. The Grinch is successful in his thievery but not in stopping Christmas. Instead, the Christmas meal is prepared, the songs are sung and the holiday preserved. The Grinch is flabbergasted. He discovers the joy of Christmas is not about what is under the tree but what is in one’s heart. The Grinch is welcomed into Whoville and his heart grows three times its original size.

Isaiah, Mary and Dr. Seuss understand that Christmas is about binding up broken hearts and making the impossible probable. Trust me, it takes more than a visit from Santa to accomplish this.   How often do we make our way through Advent, sing the songs, listen to the scriptures, and go through all our rituals, only to discover when Christmas is over, our Jerusalem is still in ruins? Where is the grace in that? How easily we forget Flannery O’Conner’s warning. How quickly we dismiss the vision of a 14 year old girl. Grace is hard because grace asks us to believe in something beyond our comfort zone.

Every Christmas I pick up a book of poems by Ann Weems called Kneeling in Bethlehem. She writes, “The Christmas spirit is that hope which tenaciously clings to the hearts of the faithful and announces in the face of any Herod the world can produce, and all the inn doors slammed in our faces, and all the dark nights of the soul, that with God anything is still possible.” When I read that poem I jump up and down and say, “Ann you are right. I’ll just sit right here and wait for God to change my world.”  And then I make the mistake of turning the page. Weems continues, “We are freed to free others, we are affirmed to affirm others, we are loved to love others. We are family, we are community, we are the church triumphant. We are renewed, redirected, empowered to change lives together. We are the church of justice and mercy. We are the people sent to open the prisons, heal the sick, clothe the naked, to sing alleluias when there is no music. This mantle has been placed upon us. Joy is made apparent by how we choose to live.”

There are seven shopping days left till Christmas. We could spend a day of frenzied exhaustion at the shopping area just west of Richmond which I choose to call Babylon. We could hop on the internet and buy something that no one ever needed and pretend we care. Or we could perform an act of grace. Who do you know that needs a moment of joy? You might gather some friends and go sing Christmas carols on the porch of someone who lost a spouse this year. You could bring a cup of coffee to the guy ringing the bell at the Salvation Army display. Maybe he will even let you sit in for a set. Maybe you could invite a neighbor over for Christmas dinner. Even better, invite yourself over and sit in their darkness. If you really want to be brave, introduce one of your grandchildren to Dizzy playing Night in Tunisia. It can be cool to be the weird one in the family. The point is, find a way to bring joy into someone’s life. It is not all that difficult. The hard part is going back the second time. But that is when they learn that you really love them.

To God be the glory.     Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Beyond the Waiting

Isaiah 40:1-11


Many of you have shared the experience of sitting in a hospital waiting room. I know, because I have sat with you. Even with our advanced intellect, there are certain words such as cancer and heart disease that cause fear and trepidation. As we sit in that waiting room, those words silently lurk behind any conversation.  We make small talk, we try to read, we take walks, but most of all we worry that the message we will receive from the surgeon will not be good. The clock on the wall makes each moment seem like an eternity. Perceived deadlines are missed and our anxiety rises. Then, when it seems our emotions are beyond restraint, the phone rings and we are told the doctor will visit with us shortly. She arrives and despite the technical jargon, what we hear are the tender words, “Comfort, Comfort my people. Everything is going to be alright.”

My favorite biblical passage is Isaiah 40. You might know it through the brilliance of Handel. You certainly have recognized it’s presence in our Advent hymns. But before Christians adopted the text as synonymous with the birth of Christ, the poem had its own perplexing story to tell.

In the 39th chapter of Isaiah, the Judean king Hezekiah was in dialogue with the prophet. Jerusalem had dodged a bullet.  The nation of Assyria had swept across the middle-east destroying everything that stood in its way. Syria and Lebanon had capitulated. The ten tribes of Israel stood briefly against the Assyrian onslaught and were completely destroyed. Every man was slaughtered and every woman raped. The nation of Israel disappeared from the face of the earth.  The Assyrians surrounded Jerusalem and the siege began. Then something happened. The book of Isaiah records that the angel of death entered the Assyrian camp. The ancient Assyrian historical records say that there was a revolt in Nineveh. Regardless the reason, the Assyrians retreated, Jerusalem was saved, and the people rejoiced. 

Now the prophet and the king are having a conversation about the fate of the city. Hezekiah is certain Assyria will return. Isaiah encourages the king to first look inward, suggesting the sins of the people was the beginning of their downfall. But Hezekiah remarks, “We must contact the Babylonians and form an alliance.” Isaiah responds, “Days are coming when your ancestors shall be carried to Babylon and nothing will be left of Jerusalem.” Hezekiah responded, “At least there will be peace in my day.” This is the last verse of Isaiah 39. This conversation happened in the year 703 B.C. The next verse, “Comfort, Comfort, my people”, was written 150 years later. What happened between those two verses? Absolute chaos!

Assyria did come back and Jerusalem became a vassal state. The alliance with Babylon proved worthless. Eventually the power of the Assyrians diminished and Jerusalem found itself caught in the middle of an Egypt and Babylonian power struggle. Jerusalem chose Egypt, giving Babylon the excuse to destroy the city twice. The second time, in the year 586, the residents of Jerusalem were enslaved and forced to march across the desert to Babylon. There they resided for nearly 50 years until Babylon was overthrown by the Persian Empire. Cyrus the Great released the slaves of Babylon and gave them the option to return to their homes. Among these slaves were the remaining Hebrew people. The poet, wanting to assure these children that there would be a tomorrow, spoke these words, Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Cry to her she has paid her debt. 

I am sure you enjoyed that little dash down memory lane but you may be wondering, what does Isaiah 40 have to do with our observance of Advent?  After two generations the grandchildren had forgotten Jerusalem. To a certain extent they had been drugged by the gospel of Babylon and had no real desire to return to a home they never knew. The poetry of Isaiah served to refresh their imagination concerning a God who offered mercy and pardon. The poetry was an invitation to an alternative perception of reality. They had been born in captivity and had never experienced freedom. Now they are encouraged to forsake a culture of death and step into a promise of new life.

Over the past 20 years many leading theologians have suggested that the church is now living in a time of exile. We have hitched our wagons to a new world in which we have substituted numbers for names. I used to be Louie Andrews. Now I am simply known by the digits on my credit card. I fear folks with less than noble intent will acquire access to those numbers and my life will be destroyed.

We have hitched our wagons to pills which promise relief from pain. The cruel results are America is ravaged by an opium crisis. The third leading cause of death for folks between the ages of 15 to 25 is suicide. Recently suicide became the 10th leading cause of death overall.

We have hitched our wagons to consumerism.   This is the prime month. The success of many a company depends on you overloading the stockings and Christmas tree. And the only ones who will enjoy a consumer Christmas are the executives at Visa and Mastercard.

How many folks do you know who are enslaved by fear, or painkillers, or economic stress or all the other factors that accompany life in Babylon? Every day my phone rings with someone who can’t pay the rent, can’t keep the lights on, or can’t find food for their children. It rings so often I am starting to become a cynic who wonders how much money they are spending on beer, or meth, or both.

Are these folks so unlike us? Aren’t they waiting for a word of good news just like we do following the surgery of a loved one? Are these folks so unlike those slaves in Babylon who longed to hear a word of comfort or hope? We try our best here at Rockfish but how often do we leave a house after delivering wood and think, “How are they possibly going to make it?” Taking on the ills of the world will drive us insane. So where do we find a word of hope? 

Isaiah 40 reminds us in order to get from Babylon to Jerusalem a lot of mountains are going to have to be lowered and a lot of valleys lifted up. While I marveled at all the Head Start children who filled our fellowship hall Sunday afternoon I wanted to weep. How many of those children have two parents? How many of those children have parents who can read? How many of those children have parents who are not diabetic? How many of those children have a parent who works full time? There are so many hills and valleys in front of those children. But what are we suppose to do?

The poet in Isaiah promises that God will change the world. Do we really believe that? We substitute Santa Claus for God because Santa can offer joy for a moment. But where is Santa in January? The poet knows how wearisome this world can be. Yet this poet promises, “God does not grow weary. God gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. They will mount up with wings like eagles. They will run and not be faint.”

Those are powerful words but they fall on deaf ears if people of faith have already concluded that God is irrelevant in our culture. What can we do? The fate of so many children seems to already be set in stone.  I fear we have been persuaded by Babylon. We call our situation “reality” and know it cannot be changed.

So when did we stop believing in Christmas? Jesus never preached the world couldn’t be transformed. Jesus never found God to be obsolete. Jesus believed God would find a way to allow children the chance to fly and Jesus believed we would be the agents of that transformation.

Last year on one of our bike rides on the Skyline Drive Mary Dudley introduced me to a friend of hers who believed in Jesus in a very big way. I can’t remember his name so I will call him Fred. When Mary Dudley’s son Daniel was in kindergarten, this Fred decided to give one day a week to Daniel’s class.  When Daniel moved up to the first grade, so did Fred. He did this for 12 years. Fred had made such a huge impact on the lives of those kids they insisted Fred walk the stage with them as a graduate. Think how many lives Fred touched with one simple gesture.

This year was our second Head Start Christmas party. Next spring we will host the second children’s spring fling. Last year the children and parents hardly spoke to us. This year the crowd was larger and the conversations more pronounced. What would happen if each one of us unofficially adopted one of those kids? What would happen if once a week we could be involved in their reading and writing? Maybe in five years they would see us as their academic grandparents. Maybe, with our encouragement, when they enter middle school they would excel. Maybe in 12 years they would be the first person in their family to go to college.  This can happen if we become involved. This can happen if instead saying, “Santa Claus is coming to town”, we promise, “Comfort, comfort, my child. Let me help you step out of this valley. Let me make those hills a little less scary. Let me help you down a road that leads someplace else.”

In Isaiah, the poet asked the question, “How is the glory of the Lord revealed?”

Jesus responded, “One child at a time.”

So how will we respond? With a convenient, “Ho, Ho, Ho,” or a committed, “Comfort ye, Comfort ye, my children.”

To God be the glory.  Amen.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Nervously Waiting

Isaiah 64:1-9


        During this season of Advent I have chosen to preach from passages found in the Book of Isaiah.  While the first 39 chapters cover the life of the prophet Isaiah, the entire book spans a period of over 200 years. It is a combination of prose and poetry written as meditations on the destiny of Jerusalem as it resided within the shifting sands of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian Empires. Writing about the destruction of Jerusalem, exile in Babylon, and finally restoration, these poets speak freely concerning the judgment and promises of God. From suffering to well-being, from displacement to homecoming, the writers of Isaiah understand history through the intentionality of God. Why invite Isaiah into our Christmas preparations? Because no other Old Testament book has had more influence on the NT’s understanding of the coming of Jesus.

        Isaiah 64 begins, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”

        When tragedy strikes often our response becomes, “Where is God?” Let’s face it, what good is God if God is non-responsive. Three weeks ago there was a community gathering to pray for the folks that had been murdered in a Baptist church outside of San Antonio. One minister stood in the pulpit and railed against the forces of evil that dared to challenge the sanctity of Sunday morning. Another prayed endlessly that God would step out of the heavens and place, “a protective shield over his beloved people.” More than one minister claimed Satan had taken over the land. Another vowed to arm himself so that this kind of tragedy would never happen in his congregation. I sat, listened, and eventually spoke, only adding more confusion to the mix.

        Imagine if God responded to all our prayers? Everyone who spoke did so with great conviction. Every person who spoke is someone I know as a person of faith. Yet none of us were anywhere close to agreeing on what we were asking God to do. Furthermore while each prayer was given approval by passionate “Amens” from the congregation, no one seemed to be bothered that each prayer represented a vastly different mindset to an impossible dilemma.

Sometimes prayer becomes an instrument to placate our frustration. We pray, and then turn the problem over to God. This does more than just relieve us from our responsibility. It arrogantly demands God be guided by our emotions and perhaps even our intolerance. Then when nothing happens, God becomes the target of our anger.

This poetic response in Isaiah 64 does not give us that satisfaction. The complaint I hear most often by folks who don’t spend much time in the Old Testament is the “Jewish” God is vengeful and filled with anger. I think a more correct observation would be that the God we discover in the Old Testament is painfully honest. God stands behind the claim if we don’t lie, if we don’t steal, if we don’t commit adultery, if we don’t murder, if we care for the downtrodden, and if we challenge those who individually or systemically work against the well being of the community, then there is a possibility we might live in peace.

That is a very high, perhaps impossible standard that is certainly not universally accepted. The folks of Isaiah’s day who would point their fingers toward the east and say, “They started all the trouble.” Claiming to be innocent they would call on God fix the crisis.  And the response of the Lord would come be, “The problem begins with you.” 2,500 years later that is still not the answer we want to hear.

This morning our bulletin was blessed, or cursed, depending on your perspective, with a call to confession written by Jill Duffield. You might remember Jill preached at Rockfish twice last June. She is an articulate person of faith who completely understands confession as the first step toward wholeness. Her prayer begins, “We hate violence,” and mimicking the poet of Isaiah her initial response is, “Come down here and fix this mess.” But then Jill makes the move that any Old Testament prophet would applaud. Instead of pointing the finger at others, Jill confesses, “We who trust Christ lay before you our failures.”  That is so hard to hear. We want Jill to condemn the young men chanting vile phrases. We want her to place equal blame on the young folks pushing back from the other political spectrum. But Jill speaks only to us. She writes, “Silence in us any voice but yours. Then give us the courage to respond.”

Jill echoes the words of the poet who writes, “O God, you are the potter. We are the clay.” Once we establish our less than equal relationship with God, once we admit that our actions or lack thereof might be part of the problem, once we admit confession might be good for the soul, like that lifeless clay sitting on the wheel we are asked to wait. There is a distinctive reason for this. Before anyone listens, a whole lot of stuff has got to be unloaded.

The poet knows there is trouble. The poet is willing to acknowledge his responsibility for the mess. But the poet also dares to hint that God is equally guilty because he believes God has neglected Israel. The poet needs to release these words, these accusations, and this anger. We who bring a “modern perspective” to this discussion not only accuse God, but often dare to deny God’s existence. But the poet either cannot or will not make that leap. The accusation is spoken. The cancer that clouds his faith is released and then the poet reclaims his relationship with God.  The poet cannot change the past. But now the clay can be molded to shape the future.

During this season of Advent we are called to sit in the juices of our own discontent and take a good long hard look at who we are.

We are called to look deep into our silent rage, perhaps even acknowledging our dissatisfaction with God.

Then, once our discontent and rage have been given the time and respect they deserve, we are asked to consider that we might not be the center of the universe.

Now the real waiting, and healing begins.   

Come Lord Jesus.