Friday, December 28, 2007

An "Auld Lang Syne" Friday Five


Singing Owl said: It is hard to believe, but 2007 is about to be history, and this is our last Friday Five of the year.

With that in mind, share five memorable moments of 2007. These can be happy or sad, profound or silly, good or bad but things that you will remember.

Bonus points for telling us of a "God sighting"-- a moment when the light came through the darkness, a word was spoken, a song sung, laughter rang out, a sermon spoke to you in a new way--whatever you choose, but a moment in 2007 when you sensed Emmanuel, God with us. Or more particularly, you.

1. We went on our first real vacation in 4 years. We drove up to French Canada visiting Montreal and Quebec City. We had several wonderful French meals. But most of all we visited the Ursuline houses (Order of St. Ursula) in Trois Riveiers and Quebec City. It reminded me of my stint as an Ursuline novice back in the early ‘70’s. And while it was not my vocation, it was a time when I learned much about who God was and was not. I am so grateful for that time in my life and the influence that those nuns had both in my history and the history of the development of Canada and the US.

2. I was called to St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Sept. There is such a good feeling in the parish. I know I am in my honeymoon period and I am savoring it because it will not last too much longer. I need to introduce the new hymnal! There have been other parishes where there was never a honeymoon so I am relishing this time with the parish. So this time is a blessing that I am trying to soak up for when the difficulties do come.

3. Diocesan politics have reached a new low for me. To watch our diocese continue to destroy what once was holy and blessed is a grief that is almost unendurable. God is in this somehow but it is hard to see in what way. I will continue to attend diocesan affairs because I refuse to abrogate my responsibility for the diocese. But I know that I cannot affect any change there until there is some change at the top. I will just have to bide my time.

4. Observing the world of Church from the Lutheran side of things has been interesting and healing for me. It has allowed me to step away from the nasty mudslinging in the Episcopal Church and find a group of people who are more about living out what Christianity means rather than denominationalism. I am changing, I know, in my thoughts about denominationalism, about theology, about God in general and Redemption in particular. I don’t have these ideas worked out completely but I am pleased that in my 60’s I am still trying to work out such theological issues in my life. It means that I am not too set in my ways that I can’t change. I have watched others become too set in their ways that they cannot even allow others to discuss issues anymore. I don’t want that to happen to me.

5. I spent some days with my mother this year that may be the last days of any substance I will have with her. She has slowly lost much of what made her my mother that it is sad. And yet I am now able to do things for her that she would never have allowed me to do. Even cleaning her up after she had gone in her pants was hard but built something between us that even though she cannot speak about it, I know that it has created a bond that we have never had. I feel blessed.

Bonus: I am reading some of my blogpals comments that God is so far off for them. I have known that in my career. I finally had to come to the place where I had to lay back and float on the prayers of those around me. It is was what “having faith” meant to me then. Presently I am experiencing much consolation from the Divine and am thankful. Now it is my job to hold up all of those who are feeling either lost or that God is too far away. That is my New Year’s Resolution!

Monday, December 24, 2007

O Holy Night

Many years ago when I was in my twenties I made my living teaching school and playing French horn in various orchestras. I played Church gigs a lot—they paid pretty well and the Christmas season provided a boost to my rather paltry income. I had not been raised with much religion. I respected it. I believed in a god and knew the basics of Christianity, but faith didn’t enter into my life.

I had been asked by a nun who sat next to me in the French horn section in one of the orchestras I played in to play for the Christmas Eve Mass at her convent. It was at midnight so I could play for a gig for the Methodists, who paid pretty well, early in the evening and still do that gig. “Sure,” I said. I would do a favor for Sister.

I hadn’t been in a convent chapel before. It might be interesting, I thought. I got there half an hour before the gig as the professional musician’s code demanded. The chapel was dark, warm and quiet. The nuns all were sitting there praying. Some lay people came in, but still it was quiet. Under the Altar was a crèche that was lighted and everyone’s eyes were on it. In hushed tones I checked in with Sister who was directing. I sat there in my black dress—oh so professional, and began to soak in the evening.

As the service began, I followed the service. Most of it was in English but some was in the kind of Latin that I had learned by being a musician—like the Ave Maria we heard at the beginning of the service tonight. There was something important going on but I couldn’t figure out what. I not only watched what the priest was doing, listened to his sermon and the words of the service. But it was in the faces of those who were attending that I began to understand the reality of what I was doing. I played the parts that Sister gave me but as the night progressed, it was no longer a performance, it was gift. No longer was what I doing was playing—it was service, to God and those who were attending. I moved from being a jaded professional to being a suplicant. I got the worst case of stage fright I have ever had because what I had to offer was my best but even then I found it wanting.

I had found out what the season meant. Something changed in me that night. I went from observing to living out what this night means. The God who had always been “up there” was firmly rooted in me after that night. And even though that happened almost 40 years ago, I know that Christianity moved from a being a religion to a relationship. It moved from a series of beliefs to a friendship with the holy. No longer did I need proofs for the unprovable. No longer did I have to have answers to the questions that plague us all when we are in our twenties. I KNEW that somehow God knew me and had touched me. I understood the meaning of the Feast of the Incarnation—the infleshment of God.

Now, even though I understand the meaning of Incarnation I cannot explain it. If I could explain it I would be teaching in some great school of theology, or preaching in some great pulpit somewhere. I can no more articulate what it means for God to become man—to take on what it means to be human—than I can describe what it means to be faithful. But every week I stand up and try to do that. It is what you pay me the big bucks for!

All I can do is offer to you the opportunity for you to make yourselves available to that touch of God. I do understand what God’s becoming human says about what it means to be human. I believe that in God’s willingness to come to be born among us says that humanity has been touched with the divine for all time. For God to participate in the human experience says that for all time, we humans have a direct link to that which is beyond us.

When I was a seminarian I spent a summer internship at a big church in Ithaca. During my first sermon in that big church with its high and lifted-up pulpit, a small child got away from her parents and crawled under the pews and proceeded to climb up the steps to the chancel. I learned something about preaching that day. I have learned NEVER to try to compete with children! Every eye in that church was on that little child. NO one was listening to my sermon.

Christmas has us focus on a child born in Bethlehem. Jesus catches our eyes just as Isaac, Cadon, Hannah and Cristina take our hearts and eyes here in the parish. We never hear of Jesus being obstreperous, but I believe that he gave his parents a tough time of it too. Take heart, parents! I don’t even think that Jesus was a perfect child, because Jesus came to become one of us—-human with all that that entails.

This metaphor—this mystery of faith—that God became human reminds us that in our humanity we are touched with the Divine. We no longer have to worry about death. We no longer have to worry about being saved. We no longer have to strive for righteousness for its own sake. We do not even have to be good. With this act of God touching humanity by becoming a little Child, says that we who are human have a chance to walk with God. We do not have to wait for heaven to know that God. By becoming human in the conventional way God reminds us that we may not think of ourselves as less than what we are.

I am not sure what people thought of themselves in the First Century. But I do know that by the early Middle Ages, humanity was seen as damned. It is interesting that the concept of Original Sin does not figure in Judaism. Neither Jesus, nor his followers thought of themselves as fallen. Sinners in need of repentance?-- yes, but not damned. It has been a mistake in our theology throughout the history of Christianity that we have come to an idea that humanity is totally depraved. Luther struggled with this. He finally came to the opinion that even though Humanity was depraved, God’s sacrifice redeemed all humanity.

One of the things that has disturbed me about this Christian position is that all too often I see people, good Christians constantly putting themselves down, seeing only the sinner part of themselves rather than being willing to accept the blessedness that God has bestowed upon them. In Christ all are called to Sainthood. Luther understood this touch of God when he said that we are both Saint and Sinner. But somehow all folks seem to have heard was that we are sinners. And that is why I think it is important for us all to hear the promise of Christmas.

The promise of Christmas is not about Ipods, or new clothes, or fascinating toys. The promise of Christmas says that humanity is raised to a new level. We who are human can call upon ourselves to live a humane life. We are called by a Child born in a barn to a life that not only has meaning, but that to be human means that we are invited to live a life open to the Divine. We are called into relationship with all that is holy. We can encounter the sacred in our lives everywhere if we but prepare ourselves.

In choosing to appear to us on earth as a child God has opened our eyes and our hearts to hear and receive that message that cannot be articulated but can only be KNOWN in that non cognitive way. God has come to us in a wee child, to draw our attention not to might, not to the flashy, not to the grandiose. We are to know the power of the powerlessness of the child. We are to experience the magnificence in the lowliness of a stable. We are to embrace our own humanity just as surely as Jesus embraced it—through selfless love.

My prayer for you tonight is that somehow during this season—perhaps even at this service that God will touch your humanity with Divinity. My hope is that you will once again know the power of the child to draw your eye to dream. And my wish for you that you know how honored it is to be human when God can be infleshed for the sake of the world. May the Christ who came to us as a tiny child enliven in you a faith in God and in yourself that we can be about loving this world in to peace for the sake of us all. AMEN

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Advent 4

The conditions late in the first century before Christ and the first century of the Common Era were times of tremendous upheaval in what we call the Holy Lands. The Jewish people had been promised one who would come and rectify all the ills of the world. The prophet Isaiah in the last part of the 700’s BC had prophesied that a leader would come to lead the people of Israel to greatness once again. This anointed leader would not be like the other kings of Israel or like the kings of nations around Israel. He would be God with us, Emmanuel.

That is a tall order. But that is what the people waited for—the Messiah, the Anointed One, in Greek is he was called, Christos. Now in the first century day there were many christos—there were kings all around who had that title. But this Christos—this Anointed one was to be from the line of David, the greatest king that Israel had ever had. He was to be a direct descendant of King David. And it is for that reason I read the first part of the Gospel reading for today—the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t make any sense without all of these “begats”. The whole point of Matthew’s Gospel is to remind his Jewish-Christian followers that Jesus was the descendant of David and therefore the Messiah.

In Greek the opening words of this Gospel parallel the opening words of the book of Genesis. We can’t hear it in English but in Greek, the word in Greek for “begat” is the same word for Genesis. “In the beginning” is the same as “the birth of” and it comes out saying the same thing. The people who heard Matthew’s Gospel would have understood the Gospel in the same way as they heard that Moses had proclaimed Torah. The Messiah was to be the New Moses—the bearer of a New Law of love. He was to be God-with-us. Emmanuel.

For the people of the First Century to have God-with-us meant that they would not be under the dominion of the Roman Empire. Some time in the century before Jesus was born, there was an idea that many people believed was that when the Messiah came, God, God’s self would be the ruler of Israel. And with God on the throne, other nations would come streaming to Israel’s doors in tribute to their King. The image of the time of God-with-us had been distorted into the end of the world when time would come to a stand still and God would reign and heaven on earth would commence.

I believe that to be a distortion of what Isaiah had meant some 700 years before, nonetheless, many of the believers of the first century understood this as the cataclysmic justification for wars and revolts. Isaiah foretold of one who was to come—born of a young woman—please note, not a Virgin in the biological sense--who would be God-with-us.

This God-with-us was to be a leader, but he was also to be one who taught others how to live. Isaiah does give us many different images of what Emmanuel was to be. “A bruised reed, he will not break.” He will be “Wonder-Counselor, Mighty God, the Prince of Peace.” They had an idea of what kind of leader he would be. But I would suggest that we in the Twenty-First Century do not know what Emmanuel means, especially in the mainline Protestant –or even in the catholic theologies that I hear bandied about these days. I DO hear descriptions of who God-who-is-to-come from more fundamentalist traditions that are quite disturbing to me. And with the depression of what I call Apostolic Christianity—that which is founded and stems from the teaching of the Apostles rather than on imaginations that have come up with rather recent descriptions of Emmanuel in such traditions as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of the Latter Day Saints or many of the independent Christian churches—I am concerned that we need to have some idea of what God-with-us means.

The Christ that comes as Christmas is the God who stays with us. And while we relive and reenact this Advent anticipation each year, it is not a matter of Christ is coming again that is important. It is how we prepare ourselves to see the God-with-us throughout the year and each day of our lives that is important. Joseph named the child Jesus, Yoshuah—one who saves. We all know the saving power of God. We have all become one who has put away the requirements of Mosaic Law so that we can know the freedom of Christ in our lives. And yet all too often we live lives of enslavement—lives so invested in work, family, relationships, promises, etc. that we have lost our ability to free ourselves to remember the love and joy that those relationship used to have. We have forgotten the simplicity that God-with-us reminds us of—the kind of unfettered loving that first moved us to love.

Joseph did not put Mary away because his dream spoke a reality that he had forgotten—a reality about relationships that had gotten so intertwined with the laws of righteousness that the original feeling of the freedom to care had been lost. And I would suggest that the reason that people go nutz around Christmas time is in their trying to conjure up that simplicity for themselves. We buy more and more. We give more and more and we enjoy it less and less. And I would suggest that even in our alms giving we have lost the sense of loving that comes when giving things away.

Emmanuel is the God who is with us at all times to remind us of the reason for the season. The God that we worship is one who is with us spiritually and physically in the kindness that come at every moment of our lives.

I met a former parishioner in the mall on Friday. I haven’t seen him for almost 4 years and didn’t know he had gone on a vacation last spring and had had a heart attack and almost died. He was better now. But he said he knew the prayers of those who loved him. He said they were palpable and lifted him and his wife up during those very desperate times. He knew that God-with-us was in the prayers of those around him when he could not pray himself.

I have heard stories like this before. Emmanuel is the God we draw into our lives with our prayer. Emmanuel is the God who stands beside us when we are alone. Emmanuel is the God who when we are feeling either the most deprived or the most exposed rubs shoulders with us and reminds us not only of the fidelity of the Divine, but of the fidelity of those who are God-in-skin for us.

One of the greatest fears that we Christians often have is “becoming gods ourselves.” We cling to humility because we do not want to transgress the First Commandment. But sometimes I think we need to think a bit more of ourselves in the light of God’s call to be God’s hands and hearts to the world. We need to be more willing to step into the shoes of God-with-us, to be Christ’s hands to the world. We need to trust God a bit more to be about “the Father’s work” in the world. We need to step up to the plate and accept the role of Emmanuel for others.

This does not mean that we become God. It merely means that we have been willing to take on the role of Christ to the world because we have been loved and saved by him.

Embracing Emmanuel calls us forth to minister to one another with confidence that we are doing the work of Christ. Being willing to live in a world in which God is with us all the time means that there is so much more freedom, so much more simplicity, so much more peace in our lives. And in the midst of all our hustle and bustle over the next few days, I would invite you to take some time and allow yourselves to think on how you are making Emmanuel present to those around you. Slow down! Rest a moment! Pray! Spend a bit more time loving even if you don’t get everything done.

Meeting Emmanuel is by far more important. Amen

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Advent Imagination

Advent IIIA
December 16, 2007
A sermon preached at
St. Luke’s ELCA
Sidney, NY

The people of Jesus’ day waited for the Messiah to come. The Messiah was one who was going to return Israel to its past glory. He would be just like David. The ten tribes who were lost in the Babylonian Captivity would return, all nations would look to the Temple as the center of their faith and justice would reign in the land because God would be in charge.

It was a nostalgic look at the past, just like we who are older often look to our youth as the time when all things were wonderful. We want the “good old days.” But the prophecy of Isaiah foretold a time when God would be in charge again. The kind of “good old days” that Isaiah foretold had never happened except in the dreams of the older generation.

If there was ever a time when God seemed absent to folks it was in Jesus’ day. Rome held the people imprisoned in their own land. Taxes were hideous. Puppet-kings controlled the people with terror rather than with laws. It is not surprising that people longed for the Messiah, the Anointed One who would come and bring in the time that Isaiah envisaged.

But how were they to tell that the time for the new age had come? That is the question that John the Baptist has for Jesus in today’s gospel. Jesus does not tell John Baptist that he is the one. He just tells the messenger:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

These were the signs of the Messiah. Anyone who heard of these events would know that the Messiah had come. They didn’t have to wait anymore. The Christ was here.

I think that the only ones who chart the signs of the times in our own age are politicians, actuaries, and clergy. The other night I heard an actor being interviewed who said that he went to church every Sunday because he wanted to hear what “professional thinkers” had to say. I thought that was a heck of a reason to go to Church, but sometimes we need to hear those who say things differently than we normally get if nothing more than it gets our imaginations running. But for me, the reason I preach is that there is a message –some good news that Christ came into this world to make our lives valuable, livable and important. That is good news. I am not sure that we who wait on the Lord are waiting for the same signs that John Baptist waited for. We don’t especially wait for the lepers to be cleaned, the deaf to hear, etc. because through modern medicine much of this has been done. We wait for the dead to be raised. We know that the poor hear the good news. But I wonder if we are willing to set up new criteria for the coming of Christ? What if we said “the AIDS epidemic was ended, the hungry were being fed, corrupt leaders were being overthrown, democracy—real self-rule was being practiced by the majority of the world’s populace and fairness in trade was the norm in big business. Would that not look like the Messiah had come? Would they not be the signs that we would like to see at the advent of Christ’s coming?
I signed up to read the book of Revelation before Christmas. I am still not happy with this book. Like Luther didn’t believe that James should be in the Bible, I think that people’s dwelling on the dreams of John inhibit and distort the Gospel. As I have said before, the God that I know does not mean for the world to end in fire, be a time of judgment or people who have loved to be left behind. And much of Revelation is the response to a time of persecution following the Jewish Revolt rather than a mirror into the life of Jesus, the Messiah who came so that the blind could see and lame to walk.

That said, I do believe that we are called to live in a time of newness. The Good News is that we are to know what it means to live a saved life—a life that is considered holy—albeit with the tinge of the sin we always have with us. But we are called to live not just waiting for Christ to come, but living as if we are in the kingdom. We are to rejoice in the coming of Christ because we know from his first appearance that God’s love is being acted out in us because we have the witness and the liberation that Christ brought us in his life and his death upon a cross. Christ came so that we would know how to be about living in the fullness of his love.

Are we about abolishing hunger in the world? Are we about ending the AIDS epidemic throughout the world? Are we about demanding fairness from our politicians, our leaders, the producers of products sold world wide? And we think, what can I do here in Sidney, NY?

An Anglican theologian Marilyn McCord Adams said recently that the difference between liberal theology and conservative is that liberal theology is concerned with systemic change and conservative theology is about individual change-or repentance. And to a certain degree I agree with her. But I would also say that all systemic change begins at home with the individual. That is the reason that John Baptist did preach a baptism of repentance. But when one person changes, all around him or her has to change too. The drop in the bucket changes the bucket.

The good news of Christ’s coming reminds us that we have some serious living to do, that our lives are not to be lived in vain. It reminds us that together we are to bring in the kingdom, not because our salvation is dependant upon it, but because we return thanks for our salvation that way. The Coming of Christ, the incarnation of God-with-us reminds us that we do not wait for judgment, but foresee what God envisions for us.

One of the problems of present society says Neil Postman of Technopoly is that we have become so preoccupied with computers that we have lost our imagination. He says that we wait around for more data and that we have more data than our brains can consume. “We don’t need more data,” he says; “What we are dying of is lack of courage, lack of dreams, a failure of nerve and no computer can give us that.” And I believe that is right. As we have gotten more and more capable to make realistic toys, we have eroded each successive generation’s ability to practice in the world of imagination. Do we even think about how life could be better? Do we even bother to think about how others live in other countries and try to make their lives better? Do we even hope for a life that is just and beautiful for our children, grandchildren or great grandchildren? Are we really ready to work so that this fragile earth can be handed on to our great grandchildren in a way that they can receive it the way we did?

While I was in TX last month I watched my mother, who cannot speak, see or hear and can’t remember what she did a few minutes before, hold her great-great grand child. It was a powerful moment—because the look on her face was wondrous. The hope in her blind 95 year-old eyes was palpable. She lives her life waiting to die but for that brief moment the hope was there. The imagination was there even though she could not explain it. It is what we all hope for—a future, whether we are 5 or 95. It is the gift of Advent, that hope. And Advent’s hope is that we can bring in the kingdom with God’s grace. We don’t wait around for the good news, we live it. We who are baptized embrace what it means to be Christ’s own. It is a time of rejoicing that our work is not finished and that we have the mind's eye to re-image the hope for each generation, because without that hope we are dying.

All too often I hear parents or grandparents wanting their children and grandchildren to have lives like they lived, or better. But often those who are older are unwilling to hear the hopes and dreams of the younger ones.
This is one of the things that I think that we need to do in church. This does not mean that what the younger ones dream will get accomplished before or in lieu of the elders. It just means that we hear both old and new dreams. But I have a sneaking suspicion that many of those dreams are the same, just articulated a bit differently.

Rejoicing in the Lord is what it means to hear the good news. We today need to hear the good news just as surely as did those of Jesus’ day. We need to know that because Christ has lived, died, and rose we may have imaginations, that we may have hope, that we may live in a freedom that allows us to be the hands of Christ to each successive generation.
Now, I have no children. I have no offspring that will remember my recipe for chili or my nurture of them. But the hope I have is that what I do will change the bucket just a bit for the next generation—that the love of God that I live will somehow impact those who will attend this church or the churches I have served in the future. It isn’t what I do. It isn’t the data that is important, but if I can help others to reach into their souls and draw out their imaginings of what a future in Christ’s love could mean, then I will have done what I am called to do.

In what ways do you wish to change your bucket? In what ways to you want to envision the future for another generation? How can you make the changes in yourself so that your visions can be caught by another generation? Is the good news being heard because of you? This is what Advent asks of us this week. They who have ears---listen. AMEN

Friday, December 14, 2007

Revgals Friday Five: Rejoice! From Mother Laura

Can you believe that in two days we'll be halfway through Advent? Gaudete Sunday: pink candle on the advent wreath, rose vestments for those who have them, concerts and pageants in many congregations. Time to rejoice!

Rejoice in the nearness of Christ's coming, yes, but also in the many gifts of the pregnant waiting time when the world (in the northern hemisphere, at least) spins ever deeper into sweet, fertile darkness.

What makes you rejoice about:

1. Waiting?
It is always more fun to wait than it is really to get there I have found. Christmas in Church is always the greatest of the feasts for me. The anticipation and expectation that are part and parcel of Advent is especially significant. I liken it to the kind of anticipation that my cats have when the electric can opener runs. Not because of gifts, but because the Christmas Eve service speak so warmly of the meaning of the Incarnation. For me the Incarnation—that God became human for my sake is far more important to me than that he died on the cross for me. It says that God so loved humanity as to honor us with a spark of divinity. What a marvelous act!

2. Darkness? I am a SAD sufferer so the darkness means that I have to take better care of myself that I normally do. Advent and Christmas used to be very difficult to get through without going into depression. But since I started getting more sleep than I normally would, eating less sugar that I normally would and paying attention to my emotional needs ---which means I stay out of shopping malls as much as possible, I have more energy to meet the needs of work and community. Like M. Laura I like praying in the dark with just a candle as long as I am warm.

3. Winter? I basically like winter. It is why I live in Upstate NY. I do not ski or do winter sports but the beauty of snow, especially on those cold days after a snow when the sun comes out and it is clearer than the rest of the days of the year, are wonderful. But the snow has come quite early this year and I am afraid that winter is going to be long and tiresome. There is nothing worse than snow that gets black and grubby to dampen one’s spirits .

4. Advent? I love purple seasons, not because they are penitential but because the readings are so lush. Advent with all its hope resonates in my soul.

5. Jesus' coming? I am one of those who acknowledges that Christ has come. I also make the distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of eternity. So I am not so taken by the “Jesus is coming soon” mantra that seems to fill the more evangelical teaching. I believe that Christ comes to me at every moment and the important part of living the Christian life is to be awake at the moment God comes so I can be present. I do not believe in a cataclysmic event at which Judgment with a capital J is meted out. The God that I know is not that kind of judge. God is the kind of judge that poses a question that calls me to wrestle until I can make a decision for God. The God I know wants all to be saved, and I must choose that salvation. But I can only do that with God’s grace.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Be Prepared

I grew up with a father who was very big into Boy Scouting. Scouting was by far the religion practiced by my family when I was growing up. I knew the Scout promise before I knew the Ten Commandments. And “Be Prepared” was etched into my soul at such an age that I still don’t know the Ten Commandments in order—that’s in part that they are in different order in different parts of the Bible….but that is another sermon.

For those of you who did not live with “Be Prepared” sewn to your sleeve, we have John the Baptist. The character of John Baptist is an interesting one in the New Testament and in history. He was according to Luke, a cousin to Jesus. In Mark it seems as though Jesus and John have never met until Jesus is baptized by John at the river Jordan. We do know that John the Baptist was a holy man called a Nazir, or a nazirite. This does not mean that he was from Nazareth. It means that he was dedicated to God in a way that he did not eat or drink anything from the grape family, he did not cut his hair and did not touch the dead. It also seems that he wore camel skin and ate locusts and honey. Such practices were not uncommon for those who were dedicated as a Nazir. Such nazirs were to be respected by the faithful and they occasionally carried on the prophetic tradition that so characterized the Jewish faith. John saw himself as a herald. He was to remind the people of their faith, of their heritage and what had happened to Israel in times past when they had forgotten God.

John’s work was to wake up the people and prepare them for the Messiah. It was a difficult time in the history of the Middle East. It was easy to just ignore the law of God. It was easy to just go along with the injustices that the Roman Empire was perpetrating. It was safer to just ignore that King Herod Antipas was consorting with the enemy, ignoring the needs of the poor, rejecting the commandments of God and being a tyrant. But John Baptist was not the kind to keep quiet about those injustices. John said, “Be prepared.”

What was he preparing his listeners for? Just how can you be prepared for the Messiah? John is not too nice to the Pharisees or the Sadducees, the religious leaders of his time. Why? I believe it was because he thought that the religious leaders were leading the people astray—allowing them to ignore the requirements of faith—the care for the poor, the sustenance of widows and orphans, the injustice in business practice, the need for repentance at all levels of their lives. These are the same things that we, two thousand years later still need to heed. John Baptist’s call is still as fresh for us today. We too need to know what it means to be prepared to meet the Messiah, the Christ.

Being prepared for Christ is not just a matter of having our packages wrapped or knowing Jesus as our personal Savior. Being prepared for the Christ to come again is being about the work of being fair and honest. It is about being willing to forgive and be forgiven. It is about not attributing motives to people are wrong: such as blaming the poor for being lazy, or the sick for not taking care of themselves. We do it all the time. We don’t like having to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves, and yet that is exactly what Jesus tells us to do.

Another thing that John Baptist preached was that we cannot depend upon our status in life. There were those Jews who thought that just because they were ethnically Jewish, they were justified. John reminded him that such happenstance as our ethnic background had nothing to do with fidelity.

John baptized with the water of repentance. There are two words in Hebrew for repentance. One is the word for “to return” shuv. The other is nicham which means “to feel sorrow.” These words show that repentance was an activity--it was something that we are called to do. That’s what it took to “Be prepared.” It meant that there was a sense of humility that was required in being prepared for the Messiah. It recognizes that to be ready for God to be present, to be Emmanuel, the God-with-us means that we must be supple, we must not be so convinced of our own righteousness, that we cannot hear God calling us to new depths in our faith.

We often confuse this call from John Baptist as a call to those who have never heard of salvation. Salvation is just the beginning of our journey in the kingdom. Salvation has been worked for us by Christ two thousand years ago on a Friday afternoon. But the constant encounter, the continuing relationship is what it means to “Be Prepared”, to be ready to meet Christ at each moment of our day, at each turn in our journey, at every difficult task we have before us.

So often I see people who see hardships in their lives as punishment by God. They want to know what they have done “to deserve such a misadventure.” Faith in God does not mean that we won’t have trials or tough things happen in our lives. Coming to Christ merely gives us a way to be prepared for the tough things that come--to face the hardships. We have someone who will walk with us through the tough times. It means that we have the humility that allows us to know that we cannot and do not have to go through things alone. ‘Being prepared’ for a Christian means we can always call Christ into our lives to walk with us.

Jesus, the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the Christ, is the one who reminds us that ‘being prepared’ is a matter of constant vigilance. ‘Being prepared’ requires constant refresher courses. And those refresher courses are held while we are at prayer, studying Scripture, sharing faith, doing good works. Each time I am doing any of those things, God brings me another step closer. And the closer I get to God the more I am clear that I am not as prepared as I would like to be in the presence of the Lord of my life. That is why repentance is a constant part of my life. It isn’t because I am so sinful, although I am. But it is because I want to be prepared when my Savior is with me—I want my house straight, or my nails clean, or whatever it is that means ‘ready’ to you. This is the reason for the season of Advent. It is to remind us how much we anticipate this coming of Christ.

I have friends who make their own Christmas cards. Libby is an accomplished photographer and each year I look forward to their cards. But one year there was a picture of their two cats up on their hind feet with their whole attention looking out the window. My cat has the same attention whenever I run the electric can opener! It is that kind of anticipation that we need to look forward to the Second Coming of Christ.

I do not believe that the God that I know is going to come with war, pestilence or fire. I do not believe that the God I know is going to come and slay those that don’t follow some kind of rule that they do not understand. I do not believe that the God I have committed my whole life to is the kind who would leave any behind. The Second Coming is not a time to be fearful of. Death is not a time to fear either. The God that I know is one who welcomes those whom God made from the beginning of time. The God that I know that loves me and whom I love is one who is waiting for us to treat one another with the kind of respect that we desire to be treated with. The God that I know wants us to anticipate the full meeting of God and humanity with the kind of celebration of a new year, a new era, a new life in Christ.

In Jewish spirituality it is considered appropriate to repent before you celebrate. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement comes just 10 days before the New Year celebration. It is considered inappropriate to celebrate if you aren’t cleaned up both physically and spiritually. Advent is a time of repentance for the same reason. Before we celebrate the wonderful season of the Incarnation, of God with us, I invite you to clean up your spiritual house, to ‘be prepared’ for the coming of the Christ child. This does not mean that God is going to love us any more. It is just good manners! I don't know if your mother had the same mantra as mine had--"you don't decorate a mess!" and "Clean up your room before you invite your friends in."

If you need help cleaning up you spiritual space, feel free to call upon me. Pastors do that sort of thing. That is what the old idea of confession was all about. It was about inviting someone in on your spiritual journey and asking for help when you wanted to reach a new depth in your faith life--not stand between you and God. I know that “Lutherans don’t do confession.” But I do know that at times we all need someone to help us to discern what is next in our journey in faith. I am here to do just that.

So our ‘Be Prepared’ is not attached to our sleeve as Christians, but it is a part of what we as are called to do. I pray that this time of spiritual house cleaning is full of the joy of the season. AMEN

Friday, December 7, 2007

Christmas Preparations

Sally at Revgals has set this Friday Five:

“This has been a difficult week for me, the death of a little six year old has overshadowed our advent preparations, and made many of us here in Downham Market look differently at Christmas. With that in mind I ask whether you are the kind of person that likes everything prepared well in advance, are you a last minute crammer, or a bit of a mixture.....”

Here then is this weeks Friday 5:

1. You have a busy week, pushing out all time for preparing worship/ Sunday School lessons/ being ready for an important meeting ( or whatever equivalent your profession demands)- how do you cope?

Part of the way I cope when there is too much on my plate is by floating on all the prayers of others. I really do allow myself to trust that God will give me the words I need for sermons, or important meetings. We as clergy spend a great deal of our message on trying to get people to trust in God and yet as clergy we all too often fall into the secular realm of trying to do it all. We have to live with the reality that God will provide for our every need. If I am not prepared for a meeting, I have to have the temerity to say that “because of so and so’s funeral, or because I have had to be with a parishioner who is in crisis, I am not prepared” and leave it at that I am not doing what is necessary for my parish. If we are prepared most of the time, most congregations are willing to call forth from themselves the kind of forgiveness that they themselves want. (I have also been in parishes where that kind of dynamic was significantly absent, but I did not stay there long!).

By depending on God when things getting jammed up, I not only remind myself of the primary things of my ministry—being there for a family in crisis, but I also model for those in my parish that ministry is about caring, not a job. Sometimes they get it. Sometimes they don’t but at least I can present myself to God and my congregation with integrity.

2. You have unexpected visitors, and need to provide them with a meal- what do you do?

I don’t have a good place where I can wine and dine my friends even though I love to cook, so I take them out. Taking folks out for a meal is a way that I can value them and show them that I care. Sometimes it really takes a bite out of my billfold, but it all comes back in someway. My small town doesn’t have very many places, but there are a few restaurants that do the trick. If it is a parishioner, I will often use discretionary funds to do it. I have been known, on a nice day, to pick up sandwiches and go to a beautiful place and have a picnic.

Three discussion topics:

3. Thinking along the lines of this week’s advent theme; repentance is an important but often neglected aspect of advent preparations.....

It is interesting that in Jewish culture it was considered highly unseemly to celebrate before while one was “unclean” or not “at shalom” with another. It is the reason that Yom Kippur comes before the celebration of the New Year. It seems appropriate to clean the house before the Second Coming, so repentance seems to go with Advent. I presently am trying to clean off my desk at the office and clean the house at home. Both are disreputable. This time of clean up has always been a part of how I prepare for Christmas.

Decoration always has to begin with being cleaned up. I am not sure where that idea comes from, but I would imagine that my mother had something to do with it. It was unheard of to decorate a messy house. I guess I have applied that maxim to my spiritual life. But then again, I am not much for Christmas decorating.

4. Some of the best experiences in life occur when you simply go with the flow.....

As one who has spent her life swimming upstream, I find it rather difficult to go with the flow. But the older I get, the more that I am finding that I allow some things to slide. I don’t get as gnashed as I used to when things don’t go the way I had planned. I am also more able to deal with events that insert themselves into my best laid plans. I am more able to see that those incidents are as much gifts from God as they are problems for me to deal with. Also I think that I have had more practice at dealing with problems and I don’t have to think about how to deal with them as much. Experience is a wonderful gift! It is a shame that the present generation doesn't listen as much to the older one these days. They spend so much time doing things that we older ones have finally figured out how to do and we would be glad to share our experience.

5. Details are everything, attention to the small things enables a plan to roll forward smoothly...

I am not a detail person. (It has taken me a long time to admit that, because I like being in control.) I am lucky to have an over-all plan; I depend on others to deal with the details. And I have found that there are so many who really want to help me with the details. The important thing is for me to get out of the way of those for whom detail is their thing. I have to be willing to allow them to do their work. The parish I now serve has people in it who are absolutely wonderful with the details. I am bowled over at their ability to “sweat the small stuff” and what’s more, they don’t seem to mind that I come up with the big stuff. Thank you, God, for finding me the right spot.

Bonus if you dare- how well prepared are you for Christmas this year?
I just finished my sermon for Sunday on being prepared. And the older I get, the less I get up tight about being prepared. Part of it is because I know what I can do and can’t do. As I said, I don’t decorate. But I am preparing my sermons a bit more carefully not because I am not prepared, but because I want to be clear and clean and the message be clear. I guess there is less ego involved and it is more a matter of faith that is part of preparation.

The Christmas liturgy is ready to go to press. Advent III and IV are still on the drawing board but Christmas Eve is done. Tonight is the Christmas Play, which is a grown-up affair at St. Luke’s. I am anxious to see what this parish does to celebrate the Advent/Christmas season. It helps me get in the spirit.

But the Feast of the Incarnation figures in my faith life even more profoundly than does Easter. (Easter I am usually just too tired to appreciate.) I spend so little energy on Christmas Day and opening presents and so little time with family for this holiday, that Christmas at Church is the event that articulates my faith. I care more that Christ became human for my sake than he died and rose for my sake. That God became frail flesh, so entered into my life and the lives of my fellow human beings moves me beyond all other statements of salvation. God has so chosen to be part of me is a mystery that goes beyond my ability to calculate. And so I am always prepared for Christmas.

I am never prepared for secular christmas, that plastic holiday that is advertised in malls and such. I generally ignore that holiday.