Sunday, December 30, 2018

Lost and Found in God's Grace

Luke 2:41-51; Col 3.12-17
            In all the gospels, we have only one story concerning the childhood of Jesus.  That is why the Sunday after Christmas we are reading about Jesus when he was twelve.  Of all the stories Luke could have shared this one is incredibly irritating.  Just the idea of a child being lost sends tremors up our spines.  A week or so ago I was finishing my Christmas shopping at Target.  As I turned down an aisle I saw a young boy with a commode brush in one hand and its container in the other.  He was desperately trying to return the brush to its proper place but was having little success.  I started to help him, but then I stopped.  Surely his mother was just around the corner.  She wouldn’t dare let him out of her sight.  If I approached the boy she might call 911 and have the security guard arrest me.  On the other hand, what if the boy was lost?  His mother must be out of her mind with worry.  Maybe I should see if he was OK. As I was playing out all the possible scenarios in my mind, another young boy, obviously the older brother, came running around the corner screaming, “You better come quick or mom is going to light up your butt.”   I looked around the corner and spotted a rather perturbed woman headed our way.  The commode brush was the last of this young man’s problems.  He dropped the brush at my feet and scampered away.  As I picked it up a Target Associate looked at me with that, “You break it you pay for it look.”  And folks wonder why I hate shopping.
        Sometimes the mother is not just around the corner.  Sometimes she is not even in the same town.  Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover on his twelfth birthday.  This was a huge event. Boys would go to the Temple to recite various scriptures to the priest.  At the end of the ceremony, anyone passing the examination would be declared a man.  There is no doubt that Jesus had been reading his Torah for the past year in preparation for this ritual.  Obviously the event had gone well. Mary and Joseph joined the rest of their friends from Nazareth for the trip back home.  It was assumed Jesus was playing with friends so his disappearance was not discovered until they stopped to rest.  Imagine the fear of the parents when they discovered Jesus was missing.  There was no way they could travel the dangerous roads at night so they were forced to sit and worry until daybreak.  Then they retraced ever step, disappointed with every turn.  Finally they went to the Temple, and there he was, unharmed and unfazed by the events of the last three days.  Mary probably didn’t know whether to hug or strangle him.  As her love overcome her anger she embraced the child and asked why he had scared them half of their minds.  Jesus’ choice of words left a little to be desired.  “Didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house?” 
        For three days Jesus had sat among the wisest men of his religion.  At first he had recited the words he had learned.  Then he took the second step in biblical interpretation.  He began to ask questions about the scriptures he had memorized.  Finally he began to interpret those scriptures with such a depth of understanding that even the wisest priests were impressed.  Jesus embraced God’s word in such a way that it became impossible for him to continue to be just the son of a carpenter.  Jesus discovered the word, the vision, the hope, the grace, the imagination, the possibility of becoming a child of God.  As a child, in the house of his Father, the Word embraced the word and the child of God became the Son of God.  
        This story is about more than Jesus.  I like to think of this church as our home.  I like to imagine this is a place where we feel safe, secure, challenged, embraced and loved.  I like to believe this community is where we come to discover a new way, a different way, a transforming way of living.  But is our church a place we would risk being lost in order that we might be found?  That takes more than viewing the church as a haven for good fellowship with friends.  It calls on us to embrace God’s word to the extent that we discover what an irritating effect it can have on our minds and our souls.
        I was in seminary when I first met Al Winn. He was the minister at Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond Virginia.  He had done a lot of other things including being President of Louisville Seminary and moderator of our General Assembly. The year before Dr. Winn Second Presbyterian had been served by some very polished preachers.  Then Dr. Winn arrived.  It was to be his last church before retirement.  He was a bit smallish, almost frail.  His voice always needed to be aided by a P.A. system.  The first Sunday he arrived the church was filled with anticipation but to be honest, his sermon was a bit disappointing.    A month later, the church was not quite as crowded. By the end of the year some folks had found their way to one of the other Presbyterian churches.  But those who stayed discovered something fascinating about this man.  In his hands, the Bible became a living, breathing document, touching us in ways we had never been touched before.  It was obvious that at some point in his life Dr. Winn consciously declared the church to be his home and God to be his Holy parent.  Along the way Dr. Winn had quietly but firmly committed himself to the strange decision that God’s word was to be valued over conventional or worldly wisdom.  Dr. Winn could read Colossians 3:12, “clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience”, with an absolute straight face.  How many people do you know who can say, “I am going to be unconditionally kind, humble, meek, and patient” and then turn around and act that way? 
Dr. Winn kept insisting this was possible and yet I would always think, “Who in their right mind can live up to the gospel?  That is not the way the world works.”  Yet, with a straight face, that kind and gentleman  would continue to read, “Bear with each other, forgive each other, clothe yourself in harmony and let the peace of God rule in your hearts.”  Those are crazy words, impractical words, words which might lead us to ruin, or defeat, or something even scarier; a deep and irrational trust in the one a 12 year old dared to call Father.
Imagine the consequences of devoting your life to being more compassionate, kind, lowly, meek, patient, forgiving and loving.  Imagine if this could become our top priority.  Imagine joining with Jesus in following the ways of his Father. Imagine being lost and found in God’s grace.  We are all looking for a New Year’s Resolution.  Imagine adding this one to our list.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Who Was Mary?

Luke 1:26-38


        Have you ever heard a song and dismissed it to only later discover it was not the music but rather your lack of rhythm that caused the original rejection. Sometimes we think we hear the music but we fail to feel the poetry.

        Back in the mid 70’s a friend suggested I take Deb to see a young singer who was on her maiden tour. “You’ll love her. She used to sing for Graham Parsons.” So Deb and I spent big bucks to hear a couple of songs.  That’s all it took. With Deb in tow we headed for the exits.

        Thirteen years later Deb and I headed for San Angelo, Texas. Now for those of you who have never visited West Texas it swings to its own rhythm. While the temperature was a bit too hot, my family and I loved spending better than a decade embracing an enchanting culture quite different than my beloved South.

        A couple of years into our stay I was riding through the desert with a friend listening to the radio when a song called, “Waltzing Cross Texas” oozed through the dashboard. With a couple of years of Texas culture under my belt I found myself swaying to the hypnotic voice. “Do you know who is singing that song?”

My friend looked over in disbelief and said “You’re kidding? That’s Emmylou Harris.” 

        In disbelief I blurted out, “Emmylou Harris! I walked out of a concert of hers a few years ago.” 

In the great state of Texas, claiming dislike for Emmylou is akin to saying you don’t remember the Alamo. My friend just shook his head and turned up the volume.

        Sometimes we think we know everything when we really know nothing at all. In our infantile state we hear a song but never fully appreciate the blessing we received.

        During the Christmas Season, with the possible exception of Santa, no one gets more air time than Mary. The interesting thing is we all view her differently. Some see an obedient woman embracing her rightful place in God’s family. Others argue she was a strong woman who didn’t need a man in her life. Many of our Catholic friends exalt Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Our Orthodox friends adore her as the God-bearer. Hallmark Cards romanticizes her and the U.S. Postal Services puts her on Christmas Stamps. We intellectual Presbyterians argue over the significance of her virginity. Each, in our own way,adore Mary. But do we actually know who she was?

        Mark, our earliest gospel has no birth narrative and only mentions Mary once. The gospel of Matthew is more interested in Joseph. John only mentions Mary when Jesus turns the water into wine. Even in the gospel of Luke, Mary is only mentioned by name in the birth narratives. It is from this gospel that most of our stories and mythologies are born. So who might Luke have imagined Mary to have been?

        Luke begins by describing Mary as a virgin, betrothed to a man. In the Hebrews culture, girls celebrated their marriage at the age of 16. But the girl was betrothed, promised to a man, when she was 12 or 13. She lived with her parents until the wedding. So we know Luke’s Mary was a young girl between 12 to 15.

        Mary is greeted by the angel with the words, “Greetings, Favored One. The Lord is with you.” A more literal translation would be “Rejoice! You are full of God’s grace. The Lord is with you.” This is a standard greeting shared each Sabbath as people entered the synagogue.

        What is not ordinary was what Mary was told next.

        The Spirit will come upon you.

        The power of the most high will overshadow you.

        The child born will be called holy, the Son of God.

        Mary responded, “How can that be? I am not married.”

        For 2,ooo years our primary understanding of Mary begins and ends with the word VIRGIN.  In our minds this makes her extraordinarily different from the rest of us.

        But what if we view Mary as an ordinary child, with nondescript parents, in a little known village, of an obsolete country? Who would we see? In other words, before the 2,000 year old discussion declaring Mary to practically be God, what made her different from us?

        In a word, “Nothing.”

        One thing that we miss when casually reading the Bible is the authors believed God had remarkable sense of humor.

        Abraham and Sarah, the mother and father of the Hebrew Nation were in their 90’s when Isaac was born.

        Esau, the strong trustworthy hunter gets rejected in favor of his scheming little brother Jacob.

        Joseph, the mama’s favorite, gets thrown into a pit and sold into slavery by his own brothers.

        God located Moses in the middle of the desert where he was wasting his life herding sheep.

        Need I continue? I challenge you to name one hero in the Old Testament who was born with a silver spoon in his or her mouth. Every one, in some way or the other was flawed or ordinary. And so was Mary. Oh yes, Mary was full of grace. But so was Sarah and Abraham; so was Isaac and Rebekah; so was Jacob and Rachel………. and so are you.

        The wonder of Christmas is not that Mary was a virgin. The wonder of Christmas is that God wants each of us to become pregnant and give birth to something divine.

Like Mary, we cry out, “How is that possible? I am so ordinary?” But the angel of the Lord continues to sing, “You are a child of God. You have always been blessed.”

I think the real miracle of Christmas begins when we not only hear the music but we sway to the rhythms. For so many years Christmas has been about Mary, Joseph, and the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. It is a miraculous story centering on our preconceived notion of the magnificence of Mary.  But what good is Christmas if only Mary is full of grace? It is sort of like hearing Emmylou with a tin ear rather than a longing heart.

You are filled with the ordinary and the holy. Each day the grace of God within you longs to expose new horizons and possibilities. So this Christmas, Waltz Across Bethlehem and be introduced to the rhythms of God’s melody.   Waltz Across Bethlehem and be reminded you too are full of grace.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Tender Mercies

Luke 1:68-79


        The last story in the Old Testament is found in the book of Luke. I know what you are thinking. Luke is not in the Old Testament. Yet the narrative leading to the birth of John the Baptist reads like something we would find in Genesis or First Samuel. It begins like this. Once there was an old woman who was barren.

        A lot of folks assume Luke’s gospel begins, In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be taxed. But as you astute Biblical scholars know, that verse comes from Luke 2. Before Mary meets Joseph, we are introduced to Zechariah and Elizabeth. We are told this couple lived blamelessly according to all the regulations and commandments of the Lord, and yet Elizabeth was barren. How can this be? Regardless of their righteousness, the couple was cursed to live in disgrace.

        According to Hebrew beliefs, the righteous are rewarded as God’s elect, but the unrighteous are marked by divine judgment.  Zechariah believed he was destined to live with this curse. Even though Zechariah was a priest, he was treated with disdain. After all, if he was truly righteous, Elizabeth would have given him a son.

        One morning Zechariah entered the temple to light the candles. He encountered Gabriel, an angel of the Lord and Zechariah was terrified. But Gabriel spoke the mantra that appears throughout the Gospels, Do not be afraid.

        How could Zechariah not be afraid? It is not every day the angel of the Lord stands before you. Zechariah must have thought, finally I am going to discover what Elizabeth and I have done wrong. We lived our lives the best we could and yet we have been cursed. People have looked upon us with contempt. Many have openly wondered why I am a priest.  I am old, I am tired, and some days I just want to lie down and die. And now here comes Gabriel to pronounce my final verdict. I want some evidence of God’s accusations. I demand at least 27 8x10 color photos with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each picture.

        But Gabriel had not come to condemn. Instead the angel said, Your wife Elizabeth will have a son and you will name him John. He will be the new Elijah. He will prepare Judah for the coming of the Lord.

        Zechariah looked at the angel and said, You have got to be kidding. Do you know how old I am?  Let me remind you that Elizabeth is not much younger. Is the child going to be born in the geriatric ward and will Medicare pick up the bill?

        The angel of the Lord lost all patience with Zechariah. Because of your lack of faith you will remain speechless until the child is born. And Gabriel disappeared.

        So Zechariah went home. He walked into the kitchen and Elizabeth asked how his day had gone. Zechariah was speechless. Come on old man, what have you been up to today? Zechariah just shook his head, grabbed a pencil and wrote, Today I had a visit from the angel of the Lord. Guess what he suggested we are supposed to do?


        Nine months later John was born. Each of those days Zechariah was imprisoned by silence. Imagine how maddening that must have been. How can a priest bless folks if he cannot speak? How can a vengeful man brag of his wife’s pregnancy if his lips are sealed? For months Zechariah must have stewed, caught between his inability to fulfill his calling and the powerlessness to tell the neighbors what he thought. But at some point Zechariah allowed the silence to inspire rather than torment. Like any expectant father, Zechariah pondered what his initial words might be to his son, this gift from God. He thought long and hard about the words he received from Gabriel. Finally he realized, My son will announce the coming of the salvation.

        Initially he might have been jealous that his son would not be the Messiah. It is sort of like being Robin to Batman. No matter how great you are, your destiny is to always be second best. In a way, once again Zechariah and Elizabeth had been slighted. For years they were barren and when vindicated, it is only to be the opening act.

        But nine months is a long time. The closer it came for the boy to be born, the more Zechariah understood. For his entire life he and Elizabeth had lived broken lives. Who they were and certainly who the community imagined them to be was predetermined by their inability to have a child. They lived holy lives only to be judged by the hole in the middle of their existence. Now Zechariah began to think outwardly. He was not the only person prejudged by communal standards. He seldom thought about the folks who lived on the edge of town. Last year Jacob lost his wife and Zechariah had yet to drop by to offer his condolences. As he expanded his vision Zechariah realized he was not alone in his misery and his self doubts. One way or the other, I suspect we are all broken……waiting……..hoping for God’s tender mercies.


        The Hebrew word for salvation is a bit different than the word folk use today when they talk about their free pass to heaven. In the Old Testament salvation is understood as deliverance from an oppressive place or state of mind into the broad safety net of freedom and right relationships. Zechariah and Elizabeth longed for salvation. They desired to be seen within the context of a healthy community. Somehow they considered the condemnation of their neighbors as a sign that God had forgotten them. During nine months of silence Zechariah remembered that God heals rather than destroys. In his epiphany, Zechariah discovered that God also calls each of us to become vessels of healing, reconciliation, or you might say……. salvation.


 Finally the child was born. A father, once broken, was now made whole, not by a birth, but by the realization that we all walk this earth with the opportunity to offer salvation to others. When he could finally speak, Zechariah lifted his child and said, You won’t believe the plans God has for you.


Could it be that God has the same plans for us?

To God be the Glory.   Amen.     

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Why Advent?

Jeremiah 33:14-16


A number of years ago I had a church member come to me and say, “I will see you in January. The Methodist start singing Christmas carols right after Thanksgiving and the minister preaches happy sermons about angels, shepherds, and wise men. You like those dark Advent hymns and scriptures. I need more Ho-Ho-Ho in my Christmas.”

I can understand her frustration. We like Christmas to be that break from the ordinary where we run away from our reality by thinking a baby born in a born is going to make everything perfect. Of course we shop till we drop, indulge in all those foods Dr. Oz said were not healthy, and go out way too often. By January 2nd, other than having gaining fifteen pounds and misusing our Visa Card, nothing has changed.

So much for Ho-Ho-Ho.

Maybe this is why before opening presents and singing about Mama kissing Santa, I like to spend some time reflecting on the songs and stories of Advent.  Advent is dug from the harsh soil of human struggle and dashed dreams. The stories emerge from a landscape where sin reigns supreme and it seems hope has gone on vacation. And yet, in the midst of the darkness, like that sliver of light seen before the dawn, we receive the promise of the emergence of a new day. To fully understand this promise, one cannot skip to the conclusion. We must have time to slowly chew on what God has promised. We must taste the stories and the songs in order to discover the world of yesterday is not so foreign from our everyday lives.

But this adventure should not begin without a warning. Jeremiah is not the book you pack for your summer vacation. On the surface, Jeremiah is the writings of a soulful, some would even say, delusional man, who correctly predicted the destruction of Jerusalem. But the reason the writings of Jeremiah survived are not because of his ability to gaze into a crystal ball and see the future. Truth is no one, not even the king, felt Jerusalem could endure the onslaught of Babylon. The reason Jeremiah’s writings survived are because in the midst of horrific destruction and death, Jeremiah could visualize the dawn.

“The days are coming when God will fulfill the promise to the house of Israel. A righteous branch shall spring up from the seed of David, and God will execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

What good is a promise when you are living in the valley of death?  A couple of days ago I sat with a woman whose son has been deployed to Syria. He is a helicopter pilot who transports Special Forces Units in and out of the desert. She said, “He loves God and attends church regularly. I know God will take care of him.” I was speechless. No words could give comfort to her fears. Even thanking her son for his service seemed a bit artificial. People who live in the midst of death face a world few of us ever encounter. Such was the situation of Jeremiah. He knew the odds were very good that he would die in the coming days. He also knew there was nothing he could do to avoid this fate. King Zedekiah summoned the prophet to the palace for words of hope. The King asked if he should sign new treaties, refortify the city, or bargain with Babylon. Jeremiah replied there was nothing the King could do. Actions of the past had sealed the fate of the future. Zedekiah responded, “Then what good is God.”

Jeremiah responded, “Give thanks to the Lord for the Lord is good. God’s steadfast love last forever.”

That ishardly what anyone wants to hear. In our moment of darkness don’t we all want to know what God is going to do? We want God to protect us. We want God to rescue us. We want God to deliver us.  The Advent response is, “Yes God will”, but not necessarily on our time table or by the means we might desire.

The promise of Jeremiah was, “There will come a day when people will not live through strength and power but rather with justice and righteousness. There will come a time when people will live in peace, when they will not fear the stranger. On that day people will open their arms to the powerless. It will be a day when trust replaces fear and truth is spoken freely.” 

The skeptics among us might ask, “When has there ever been a day when strength has relinquished its grip allowing the defenseless to be lifted up?” That is when the dreamer, or perhaps the one with the heart of a poet will respond, “When is it ever the perfect time to have a child?”

Madeleine L’Engle wrote,

        This is the irrational season

        When love blooms bright and wild.

        Had Mary been filled with reason,

        There’d have been no room for the child.


Mary was a virgin. Now for those of you who want to get into a discussion of Mary’s virginity, feel free to debate the possibilities of having a child without intercourse during the coffee hour. But this isn’t a story about biology. I believe Mary’s virginity was cerebral. The idea of anyone deciding to have a child is overwhelming. Childbirth radically changes life.  In the case of Mary, perhaps she looked at the Galilean landscape with all the political intrigue of Jerusalem and thought, “Who would want to bring a child into this mess?”

But our God has a habit of creating something good out of our chaos. Mary saw birth as impossible. But God’s imagination exceeded the limited vision of a young woman already crushed by her perceived reality. Mary could imagine nothing beyond a society controlled by power, greed and ultimately fear. But God announced a new creation in which justice and righteousness would spring forth and the child would be called the Prince of Peace.

Listen to the poets. Sing the advent carols. They have not been limited by pragmatic eyes. They perceive with hearts released to the likelihood that God can still do a new thing. The miracle of the virgin birth is that Mary opened her closed mind Godly possibilities. Mary accepted God’s vision by giving up the virginity of her limited imagination. The she sang, “My soul rejoices in the Lord for God will bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly. God’s reign will be one of justice and righteousness.”

So why celebrate Advent? Why not just go straight to the tree and the dinner table? Because Advent affords us the opportunity to lose our virginity.  We have convinced ourselves that life is predictable. We believe nothing new can happen and even if it did would it really matter. We are stuck in our reality fearing change, suspicious of anything thing new and most of all accepting death. Then along comes Advent reminding us that God has never been limited by our lack of hope. Out of the ashes of Egypt, and Babylon, and Jerusalem, God created a new day. Do you really think God stopped confronting chaos when the biblical message was complete? Surely you can remember one time when you broke through the rigidity of your own expectations?

THAT WAS GOD AT WORK. Spend this month dreaming. Spend this month visualizing a new creation. Allow yourself to become impregnated by the imagination of God.      Amen.