Sunday, December 30, 2012

On Magi and Journeys

Matthew 2:1-12

It is difficult to read this piece of the Christmas story and not picture three youngsters wearing Sunday School Pageant finery and sporting ill fitting crowns, making their way down the center aisle while the congregation sings, "We Three Kings."  And yet, my imagination is taking me in a different direction this year as I consider the story before us now.  Oh, yes, there is the truth that the gifts these royal travelers presented appear to point to death for this newborn baby.  And yes, there is the wonder that all the world was coming to kneel at his feet. Still, I find myself wondering about these travelers themselves and what compelled them to take such a journey in the first place.  And so it is that I find myself returning to the poem by  T.S. Eliot, "Journey of the Magi." (If you want to hear it read by the poet, go to this link: Journey of the Magi.)  For what a journey it must have been for those who first followed that star.  Indeed, Eliot imagines it as difficult all the way through from beginning to end and his poem asserts that the challenges did not cease for them once they returned home.  And how could it have been simple after that?

For they had, no doubt, risked their fortunes and their reputations to travel far --- only to have their purposes nearly thwarted and their lives threatened by a paranoid ruler.

For they had traveled to see royalty and they were led to kneel before a baby born of poor parents in an out of the way place.

They must have had dreams and nightmares both about this particular journey for the rest of their lives as they wondered at its meaning for them and for all the world.

And so find myself thinking of those wise men, those magi, those kings and I find myself wondering about what stirred in their hearts to compel them to risk so much.  What deep yearning for something other than what they had known led them to travel so far?  And as I think of them I find myself thinking of all of us and  wondering at other journeys taken...and what it is that makes such journeys possible, necessary, preferable, even, to simply living the life that is right before us. What sign in the sky, what communication from God, would make me go that deep, that far to discover its meaning for me?

And then it strikes me that those travelers to Bethlehem were simply living their lives to their natural conclusions.  For apparently their life's work was studying the stars.  And when they saw a star which seemed to hold such meaning, all they could do, if they were to be true to who they were called to be, was to follow its direction. So having studied the stars and having felt the prodding of one particular star to take this incredible journey, when they came to the place to which the star led them, they were met there by God.  We know this could not have been at all what they expected --- at least not God in the form and circumstance before them there.  And it may well have been true, as in T.S. Eliot's estimation, that things were never quite the same again for them --- and perhaps in ways that were not all that pleasant.  Still, in that baby, they met the 'Holy One,' God's Own Son. And all they were doing was what they believed they were made to do.

And yet, at the same time, this was probably more than what they bargained for when they first started out --- for packing up to travel to far flung places was probably not in the job descriptions they first accepted.  Indeed, in what they set out on here and in what they experienced in and through this journey, there was a whole lot more for them now than sitting in a quiet, familiar place, taking notes on parchment and sharing their insights with others.

Perhaps this is so for all of us.  As we use and develop the gifts that God has planted within

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Christmas Message

This past week I headed out on some communion calls… taking the gifts of God to those who can’t be part of our celebrations with us in worship in these next hours. First I knelt with Hazel in the hallway outside the dining room at the nursing home which has been her residence these last several years.  Next I caught up with Verina and her daughter in the lobby --- she was on her way to an appointment.  Together we formed a quiet circle in that busy place and shared the bread and wine together. Finally, I made my way to the other end of the nursing home to find Ruth sitting in her room.  She complained of being cold, so we adjusted the two afghans wrapped around her as we tried to cover her feet as well. 

Ruth is not always the easiest person for me to call on as her dementia makes it so that she doesn't seem to always remember me.  Only I’ve been told Ruth had an amazing voice and so this time I thought to begin by asking her what her favorite Christmas Carols are.  When she looked at me blankly I suggested, “How about “Away in a Manger?””  And Ruth, in a voice mostly untouched by her 99 years, began to sing this song I expect she has sung since she was a little girl. 

Away in a manger, no crib for his bed,
The little Lord Jesus, laid down his sweet head;
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.
She didn’t quite have all the words but you could hear in her voice her love of this story which still lives in her heart.  From there, we went on to sing a few others until she paused and looked at me and said, ‘You know, if I could have one more job, I would like to preach.”   And so I asked, “What would you preach?”  Pausing a moment she said, ‘God loves you...and that’s about it.”  And then before we shared the sacrament we also sang “Jesus Loves Me.”

God loves you… and that’s about it.

And so with Ruth this Christmas Eve, I offer the only message that really matters:

God loves you.  And that is it.  And that is everything.
May the blessings of Christmas be yours in abundance this year and always!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Stolen Baby Jesus

Luke 2:1-20

I grew up with a manger scene, of course... the very same one that still adorns my mother's living room each Advent/Christmas season.  My dad made ours out of plywood when we were children. There is a round hole in the back at the top of the wall where a Christmas bulb fits through: shedding light on the scene below.  The various pieces are simple painted plaster --- chipped and marred by many, many years of handling by children and grandchildren and somewhat faded by the passing of time.  All of the usual players are there: Mary and Joseph, some donkeys and camels and sheep, a few shepherds, a dog, an angel who hangs on a nail on the front of the stable announcing this Good News, and some wise men bearing gifts. And the baby Jesus, of course.

In my home I have prettier ones than that I suppose.  I have the carved olive wood scene that comes from the Holy Land, the soapstone one I purchased for $7.50 at a market in Nairobi, and the dark wooden one I pieced together on my last trip to Tanzania. They are all precious to me, but none evoke the memories that the first one does, for it was on our knees that four little girls played with it as a kind of holy dollhouse. Over and over we would arrange the figures.  In fact, my folks would say they would come in and find Mary in the strangest of places sometimes. This wasn't borne of disrespect though.  It was just children trying to take hold of this amazing, familiar story and make it our own.

We still do it, of course.  In manger scenes the world over we depict this so familiar scene and if we think to do so, we pause each season to make it our own once more.  It was a few Christmases ago that I was in downtown Chicago.  I stopped for a moment before the Nativity Scene on Daley Plaza.  That one is nearly life-size and, as expected,  it offers all the usual players.  Only if you look closely, you will see that baby Jesus is chained to the ground: ensuring that no prankster will carry him off.

For it happens every year, it seems.  In fact, out of curiosity I looked again today and discovered that if you google "stolen baby Jesus" you will find dozens of news stories of the infant being taken from manger scenes all across the country.  Year after year, in town upon town, from church corners to front yards, someone will think it sport to take baby Jesus away, out of the manger, often never to be seen again.  Oh, there is the story of the city in Florida which attached a GPS tracking device to their baby Jesus and so they were able to locate the culprit quickly.  And I confess, I did find some measure of amusement in the story of the baby Jesus who showed up eight months later on the owner's front porch with photos of his adventures attached: from sitting on a bicycle to hanging out in someone's kitchen.  And I am especially fascinated this year by the story which even got picked up by USA Today.  Evidently this year in one community in Wisconsin three different manger scenes from three different churches were robbed of their baby Jesus.  Apparently, there is speculation that the thief is protesting the presence of Jesus in the manger before Christmas actually comes.  I, along with many others, will be waiting to see if Jesus gets returned on Christmas Eve.  So, given all of this, and yes, maybe they've had the baby Jesus stolen before.... the city of Chicago simply chains him to the ground.

Now I don't stand in defense of anyone who would take Jesus from his rightful place in the manger --- even if they do so on theological grounds.  And yet, you and I who hear the Christmas Gospel once more in the days to come do so knowing that the real Jesus can't be kept in the manger by means of chains.  And the real Jesus?  We don't need to attach a GPS unit to him to be able to track him down.  You and I encounter Jesus all the time in all sorts of places, although to be sure, perhaps often in unexpected ones.

Indeed, we discover him again whenever and wherever we are moved by the truth that Jesus was born humble and poor and that God still has the most tender of places in his heart for those for whom Christmas dinner will be hard to come by this year --- and for whom a decent meal any day of the week might be only a dream.

We see Jesus in all kinds of places: whenever we recall that God loves deeply those who, like Mary and Joseph, are in danger of having no warm, safe place to sleep tonight.

And yes, we see Jesus once more whenever we recall that Emmanuel, God-With-Us, can still be seen embracing those who grieve, who suffer, who struggle the whole world over.

No, indeed, no GPS is needed. For Jesus is as near as the next act of generosity shown to someone for whom a moment of kindness will make all the difference --- sometimes for the rest of their lives.  Jesus is there in every act of selfless sacrifice offered for another.  Jesus is right here in our own hearts changed by God's great love for us that we would be among those who risk and give and love this world and all who inhabit it.

So do remember the story is yours again this year. Take a moment this Christmas to kneel with a child before a manger scene.  Handle the figures in the creche. Wonder about this holy story once again and know that this birth in a faraway time and place has come to you once more and is for you and all the world Good News.  And as you do so, remember this. We can't chain Jesus to the ground.  No, we can't keep him in the manger.  For in wondrous ways Jesus will keep breaking free and making his way into the world, into your life, into your very heart. 

Indeed, I wonder where we'll see him next, don't you?  In fact, we would do well in the days to come to keep our eyes and hearts peeled because I'm guessing Jesus is going to show up again almost before we know it. And for anyone out there who might be thinking about stealing baby Jesus?  Well, there's no need. Jesus is already yours. And the truth is we don't have to wait for December 25th for that to be so.

  • Think about your own favorite manger scene.  Which figure(s) capture(s) the story for you this year?
  • What are the Christmas traditions you carry on from your childhood?  How do they continue to help you to embrace and be changed by the gifts of God this season?
  • If Jesus cannot be chained to the ground, where is it that you have encountered him of late?  Where do you expect to see him today?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Hopes and Fears

Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)

"The Hopes and Fears of All the Years Are Met in Thee Tonight..."                                                                       .... Phillip Brooks, 1867

This has always been one of my favorite lines from all those familiar Christmas carols which are ours to share in the days to come.  It is sung by those of us imagining Bethlehem the night of our Savior's birth.  And it so captures the meaning of this birth.

Although it is so that hope and fear meets in every birth, it seems to me.

The call came on a Monday morning in Lent nearly 16 years ago.  My sister, Sarah, was in labor.  Upon receiving the news, I immediately called her. The hospital switchboard put me through to her and we chatted pleasantly for a moment, until she said quite politely, under the circumstances,  "I have to go now; I'm having a contraction."  I told her I loved her and said good-bye.  I 'went with haste' across the street to my home and packed an overnight bag and drove just within reach of the speed limit two and a half hours south.  And I wept the whole way there.

At first it would seem my reaction made no sense, really. We had no reason to believe all would not be well. It's just that we had only just buried my dad weeks before and as is often the case, joy and sorrow got all caught up with one another.  Hope and fear were meeting in my own heart.

When I arrived I was greeted with the news that the baby was fine.  It was a boy.  His name was Michael and he was sporting a healthy set of lungs. And within the hour I got to hold that precious life in my arms.

Every birth ties us to all who have gone before and every one hurls us into the future.  But none more so than the two births we find ourselves looking forward to in this week's Gospel where Mary can't get to her cousin, Elizabeth fast enough.  If the news of any birth that matters to us fills us with hope and joy and yes, perhaps some measure of sorrow all at once, just imagine what these two unexpected pending births did to these two women and all who stood alongside them.  Just imagine how filled they all must have been with shock, surprise, wonder, joy and fear!

I'm struggling to put 'words on paper' with you now with the news rumbling in the background.  I came home from the hospital where I was standing with a friend whose elderly dad had just died to hear that at least 26: 20 little children and 6 adults lie senselessly dead in an elementary school in Connecticut.  I'm thinking that every single one of those precious lives began with profound hope and wonder.  Have we ever been more in need of a Savior than on this day?  How can we not look to Bethlehem in the wake of this news and not simply ache for the very presence of God with us once more?  Indeed, as those who have seen and felt so much --- so much more than anyone should see and feel --- not only here but in the wake of senseless acts of violence the world over, perhaps we find ourselves tempted to turn away, to cut ourselves off, to do all we can, all we must do to shield ourselves and those we love from all that might harm.  I would guess this reaction is all the more so as we consider those little ones whose families grieve today.  Only where would that leave us then?

And so I am comforted by Mary's song as she sings of a world which will one day be turned upside down. I find myself grasping for this hope that is meant for us. Even as I sort through my own outrage, my own grief, my own fear, I am reminded by the song of a young girl that God's intent is not this.   And I remember that in the end both of these mothers' sons suffered unspeakably violent deaths. One mother presumably did not live to see it.  The other stood by and witnessed every moment.  Only Jesus' death was not without meaning. Indeed, hope and fear met in Bethlehem so long ago.  Fear and hope also met on a cross not so many years later so that today you and I might be among those who, for the love of Jesus and one another, comfort the grieving, tend the suffering, and work together with courage and with hope for a day when we won't need to anymore. At least not for reasons like this...
  • What do you think Mary is carrying in her heart as she goes 'with haste' to see Elizabeth?  Do you think hope and fear are meeting there?
  • How do the words of Mary's Song, speak to the events we have witnessed in these last days?  How do these words speak to you?
  • How does the Incarnation of Jesus bring good news to those who are suffering?  What is the Good News of Christmas in this world, now, today?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Winnowing Fork in Jesus' Hand: Good News for Today

Luke 3:7-18

When I was in college I had a summer job working at Del Monte in my home town. Pea Pack would start mid-June and run deep into July. It was good work, although I have to say I was especially grateful to be assigned a job which was at least a little bit challenging. From 5 p.m. until the second shift ended, I tested peas. My work had some bearing on what label wound up on the cans of peas which were processed that night.The 'tougher' peas would get the store brand while the tender young peas would leave the factory bearing the Del Monte label.

So every night several trucks an hour would pull up and I would take a couple of buckets of peas off them and run the peas through a series or tests.  First I would pour a bucket of peas through a 'shaker' which would sort the peas by size and which would sift out the waste.   Each drawer of the shaker would be weighed and recorded and then each size would be put through the 'tender-ometer' to be measured for its tenderness and recorded again.  (This was almost 30 years ago now, and I still remember every detail of the work, for it was a task repeated over and over again!)  I was delighted to discover a photograph of a 'tender-ometer,' circa 1938, just like the one I used, which you can see here:

Nearly all of those summer nights run together now, but there is one I will never forget.  I had taken several bucket-loads of peas off a truck and had dumped the first bucket into the shaker.  After the peas had shaken down, I pulled out the top shelf and there in the midst of the usual waste was a piece of glass the size of my thumbnail.  I stared at it for a long moment weighing my options.  On the one hand, it could well be an exception: the only piece of glass on the load.  And yes, it is true the truck had come in without a tarp on it, but it didn't seem likely it had picked up any glass in that way. I finally did what I knew I must do.  I walked across the street to the scale shack.  Mr. Folkerts, our high school English teacher, was sitting in his usual place behind the counter.  (Second shift pea pack was also his summer job.)  I placed the piece of glass on the counter and pushed it across to him.  I can still recall him looking at me over his glasses.  I could not then and dare not now presume to interpret his look, but we both knew what had to happen next.  He called down to the plant and within the hour eight thousand pounds of peas were dumped into a nearby farmer's field. For at best, if more glass was discovered, it could halt the operation of the cannery that night.  At worst, it could wind up on someone's dinner plate.

Oh, it is hard at first to hear the good news in John's preaching now.  It is difficult to think of Jesus with a winnowing fork in his hand --- sifting out the good from the bad, the waste from all the rest. And yet, what a wonder it is to think of God taking the time to sort out, to sift through what is good and what is not so good in me.  We didn't have the means to do so for that load of peas that night so long ago.  We didn't have a backup plan for more wisely disposing of four tons of peas, most of which would have safely fed a whole lot of hungry people for many, many meals.  And yet, God does. God always does.

By now you can hear how I hear John's word for us today. I don't think of Jesus sorting out the good people from the bad ones.  No, my observation and experience and deeply held belief is that there is no one beyond the reach of God's redemption.  So it seems to me this is what Jesus does, over and over again, in all of us.  Jesus sorts out what is worth keeping in me and tosses aside all the rest.  And yes, most of the time that process is awfully uncomfortable.  But the good news is that God is willing to do it. No matter the effort it takes, the time it takes, God is willing to do it.  And what a wonder that is!

  • How do you hear John's preaching as 'good news' today?  
  • How have you experienced Jesus 'winnowing' or sifting through what is worth keeping and what is not worth keeping in you?
  •  Has the process of winnowing been uncomfortable for you?  Has it been 'worth it' anyway?  Why or why not?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

In the Wilderness with John

Luke 3:1-7

We meet up with John again every year in Advent.

And we meet up with John always in the wilderness.

It's the wilderness part that has me thinking this year --- remembering that the identity of the people of Israel was formed and shaped by forty years in the wilderness.  Indeed, I expect that is why our Gospel writers make it a point to remind us that John was in the wilderness.  God is always doing new things in unexpected times and places. And from what we know of God's history with the people of the Israel, we can be certain that the wilderness is precisely the place where we can expect God to do new things!

So it is the wilderness that has me going deep this time around.  For it seems to me that wilderness is not something many of us would choose much of the time.  Not if it's true wilderness.  Not when there is no end in sight to the suffering, the struggle, or even just the uncertainty.

It keeps coming back to me, these several years later: a conversation I shared with the chaplain of our local hospice.  She had asked to meet me for coffee and so I did.  After we got settled in, she looked at me and asked, "Why do you show up when people are dying?" I found myself stumbling over my answer, for I had never really thought about it.  In an unguarded and entirely unsophisticated way I replied, "Because I am supposed to," with a slight question at the end.

It had never occurred to me not to show up. Somehow, early on my journey I learned that this was what pastors do.  Only she was asking the question because this was not what she always observed.  Apparently we were not all taught this.  Or maybe this is just  the sort of 'wilderness' many would rather not enter if we can find any way not to.

It came up in a roundabout way at our text study this week.  I don't know how we got there, but my colleague from across town offered, "I think the most vulnerable time for a pastor is when we get called into a crisis."  I was glad I thought to ask why for his answer was good and true:  "I can only speak for myself," he said, "but I feel vulnerable because I know I can't fix it." And oh, that is wilderness, isn't it?  To be at a loss. To not be able to make right what is so terribly wrong.  Only my friend didn't end there.  He went on to tell us that the only way he  can walk into those places is knowing that the whole community of God's people across time and space goes with him.  It goes without saying that Jesus walks with him, with all of us, too, of course. Still, it's wilderness --- and something we'd probably rather not enter if we could possibly avoid it. 

And so this Advent we are called to encounter John in the wilderness again. When we arrive, we hear his urging to prepare the way for the One who would come after him.  I expect it's only after we step into the wilderness that we learn again deeply our need for the One who is coming.  I know it's in those times that I am more in touch with my own hunger, my own thirst --- physically, perhaps, but more surely, spiritually. Perhaps it is so that in Advent we pause in the wilderness to be reminded of just this. And to heighten our joy when we encounter the Christ Child once more.

But there is more to it, of course.  Wilderness time is not ours only for getting to the other side of.  One encounters the gifts of God within it, too. The people of Israel surely did in their forty year trek through the wilderness.  There they discovered God would care for them over and over again.  I wonder how we see this again in the story of John.  In the story of our own lives...  I wonder how wilderness can be gift to us once more.  I wonder how we will experience the gifts of God in the wilderness this year.

  • How would you define 'wilderness'?  When did you last step into the wilderness?  What might you discover there?  Did you discover the gifts of God in that place?
  • How does it help you to go into the wilderness if you do so remembering you do not go alone? 
  • Why do you think John is 'in the wilderness?'
  • How might pausing in the wilderness this Advent heighten your joy this Christmas?  What might pausing in the wilderness look like for you?