Sunday, December 28, 2014

No Plastic Jesus Here: The Word Became Flesh

John 1:1-18

We had our "Christmas in the Barn" again this year.  The weather was a little warmer and so the crowd was a little bigger and there were a number of children present with us --- ranging in age from 18 months to maybe seven years.  I called them to the front after I read the Christmas Gospel --- up close where they could get a closer look at the pair of goats and the pig and a couple of miniature donkeys.  And the manger.  Of course, the manger.

We have a life size wooden manger we keep at church.  For eleven and a half months it is stored away, but it gets pulled out every year at this time, of course --- first for the Children's Christmas Program and now for our barn service. Gerry had come into town earlier in the day to pick it up and deliver it. The straw stays in it year around. The blanket had been left from the Children's Program a couple of weeks ago.  And nestled into the straw was a plastic doll ---- meant, of course, to remind us of the baby Jesus.

The little ones gathered around as we pointed out pieces of the story represented there that night, for we were in an actual barn with animals and all the associated sights and sounds and smells.  Indeed, I think they were probably more excited about the proximity of the live animals than by our plastic approximation of Jesus.  Even so, I noted that one of them --- probably four or five years old --- with a sense of wonder and curiosity that children sometimes show--- was reaching in to touch our baby Jesus' eyes.  I've seen small children do this with actual babies, too.  They go for a most vulnerable place ---- closing the eyelids --- even as this little one did this Christmas Eve.

I didn't get the chance to ask, but I have to believe he didn't think this baby Jesus was real. Even so --- everything else in the barn was real that night, so maybe he thought this was, too?  Maybe in some small way he wondered if this could be real, too?

It is, of course, the first wonder of Christmas and one that carries throughout Jesus' life here on earth.  He was human.  He was flesh and blood ---- real --- like you and me with all of its wonder and all of its frailty.

I have become a little more aware of this frailty this year.  I know I've mentioned this before --- my mid-summer's meeting of the ground from my place on an extension ladder.  I am so very fortunate that the ground was not hard and my distance from it was not so far.  I was so very fortunate, I know, to walk away with only some bruises. But, oh, those bruises... In fact, it was only after a quick trip to Minneapolis this fall that I realized how wounded I really was.  For when I returned I was not able to twist and turn to look over my shoulder.  It turns out I had and have a rib out of place.  For some reason the symptoms did not kick in until late October.  I've been seeing a chiropractor about it ever since.  It seems to be helping, but it is slow healing, that's for sure.

Here is one thing I have noticed in the chiropractor's open room where adjustments are made and traction is held and where ice and electric stimulation are applied.  At any given time there can be a dozen patients in there at once.  Now I confess, I don't get it, but there are toddlers brought in as well.  And infants, too.

Truly, it's beyond me how a newborn could possibly be in need of a chiropractic adjustment but since I am usually otherwise occupied with my own slow road towards healing, and really it is none of my business, I don't ask.  Even so, I can't help but think of how very fragile this human flesh is --- how from the start we are so very vulnerable to wound and disease. And to think that God's Own Son would take this on in our behalf?  To think that Jesus would come as one of us?  When I pause in this simple truth, it takes my breath away.

For this human flesh will not last as long as that plastic baby doll we placed in the manger on Christmas Eve.  (I'm told that given the right conditions, that one's life span could be indefinite!)    In fact, even as I write this afternoon, I find myself remembering an old song called "Plastic Jesus" which was recorded in the early 1960's.  You can look up the lyrics or listen to it sung elsewhere online, but here is the Wikipedia summary.  If you haven't heard it before, it may be helpful to know that it was 'inspired' by a radio station in Del Rio, Texas in the late 1950's "which was run by a dentist and religious fanatic who sold the most outrageous stuff imaginable, all with magical healing properties."  It is a spoof, of course, and speaks to our certainty that inanimate objects in and of themselves cannot protect us or save us.  At least not in the way Jesus --- the Word become flesh ---did and does.

And so it is that we pause here on the far edge of the Christmas season to marvel once again that "the Word became flesh."  With all of its risk and all of its promise, Jesus became one of us.  No, this is no 'Plastic Jesus' --- even if we have to use such as that to represent him in a barn on Christmas Eve.  This Jesus lived like us, as we did and do.  Oh, just think of it: God stooping to this for you and me! And of course, you and I who know the rest of the story know exactly what happened to the 'Word become flesh' who lived and died among us.  That, of course, is the greatest wonder of all!

  • How have you come to think of 'the Word becoming flesh?'  What does this wonder mean to you?
  • It is not enough, of course, to stand still in this wonder.  How does this truth of Christmas speak to our callings as individuals and as congregations?  How does faith in the living Jesus lead us to still 'become flesh' for the sake of the world? 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

What Christmas Eve is For

Luke 2:1-20

As we approach another Christmas Eve, I find myself  remembering now one of the first Christmases I served as a pastor. I was still young, of course, and I confess I found myself not quite settled into the role or even into my life as an adult. To be honest, I was struggling then with what to do with holidays where I had to work and could not just ‘go home’ to where Christmas had always been provided for me. And so it was, I found myself a little bit at loose ends: trying to figure out how to make new traditions which worked for my new life, but unable to come up with the time or the energy to do so in any meaningful way. And while it is no excuse, on that late December day, I was just plain tired.  For December had been filled with one pre-Christmas gathering after another with every committee, every women’s circle, every choir, expecting the assistant pastor to show up --- an expectation I had done my best to meet.

Well, it so happened that December 24th fell on a Sunday that year. I had participated in three worship services that morning and was looking ahead to several more that night and another one on Christmas Day. It was just after noon and as I let myself in through the back door of the parsonage I could hear the phone ringing. I went to pick it up and was told that Glenn, a member of our congregation, was dying. His wife Edna was with him. They couldn't reach the Senior Pastor (in that age before cell phones) and would I please come.

And so I did… trudging back out into the late December chill, I went, carrying all of my weariness with me. I made my way past the front desk at the nursing home and paused to listen to the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” being played on the trumpet by the local Brethren pastor who was leading the service that afternoon. The strains of that trumpet followed me as I made my way down the hall and found my way to Glenn’s darkened room. Edna sat next to him, stroking his hand, watching him breathe. I quietly sat next to her and together we listened to his labored breathing until the room went quiet. I hope that I prayed with her, with him.  I’m certain I must have, but it’s been so long now that I don’t recall.

After a time then, Edna gathered herself up and headed for home. I followed her in my own car and went with her into her apartment which bore no signs of Christmas. Instead, a pile of unfolded laundry and unopened mail sat on the kitchen table.  Clearly, her whole heart had been at Glenn's bedside in that nursing home during those weeks when the rest of the world's energy had gone towards festive preparation. She called a nephew and we sat together quietly until he arrived. When he came, he sat beside her, too, and he said to her then, “Aunt Edna, Christmas Eve is just another day.”  Oh, he meant to comfort her, I know he did. He wanted all her future Christmas Eves not to be tainted by this. As if she could possibly ever pass another December 24th and not remember.

After a time then I made my way home. It was a while yet before I had to head back to church and so I took a moment to call my mother. I dialed the phone, pretending even to myself that I was calling to see if she needed anything for our family gathering the next day. Really, I expect I just needed the sound of her voice then.

And so I told her about my day. Perhaps I sounded sad.  More than that, I imagine there was an edge of complaint in my tone for this was not how I had pictured Christmas at all. When I was finished she very quietly said to me, “But Janet, don’t you think this is what Christmas Eve is for?”  Indeed, for you and I who pray and singing for the coming of Emmanuel, God With Us ---- isn't that precisely what Christmas Eve is for?

As  you can tell, her question has stayed with me these many years.  Indeed, as I hear again the story of a child born in an out of the way place to unlikely parents. As I remember the truth that God's Own Son was born not to riches, but to poverty.  As I recall that those who first heard the news of Jesus' birth were lowly shepherds. And yes, as I remember that Christmas was and is about Emnanuel, God coming to us in his own Son, I am renewed in my understanding that for those of us who follow him, we should not be surprised to discover him now in such places, too.  Even on  Christmas Eve. Perhaps especially on Christmas Eve.  In places like Bethlehem. Or a lonely nursing home.  Or a small apartment where there was no time or will to decorate for Christmas.  In places where grief hangs heavy and hope may be hard to find.  With and among those who are most hungry for the good news of God With Us.  Even here.  Even now.  So yes, spending part of my Christmas Eve watching an old man breathe his last among us here and accompanying his wife home, may in fact be the most fitting way to spend Christmas. Oh yes, I do expect that such as that is precisely what Christmas Eve is for...

  • I kept silent that afternoon when her nephew said, “Aunt Edna, Christmas Eve is just another day.” No, I did not argue with him then, but I have been shaping my response ever since. Even understanding his kind intent, I do believe he was so very wrong. What do you think? What would you say to that?
  • Have you ever spent Christmas in an unexpected way?  How was it in keeping with the first Christmas? 
  • What do you think Christmas Eve is for? 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

"Do Not Be Afraid!"

Luke 1:26-38

These powerful words are spoken by angels more than once in the first chapters of Luke.  First to Zechariah, who, when he saw the angel standing at the right side of the altar of incense, was, in fact, terrified and was overwhelmed by fear (Luke 1:12).  And later when an angel appeared to the shepherds 'keeping watch over their flock by  night' --- again we hear they were terrified.  (Luke 2:9) Indeed, it gives one pause to hear that Mary did not have the same altogether reasonable response to the sudden appearance of an angel.  For as we listen closely, we hear Mary described as merely 'perplexed.'  Even so, the next words out of the angel's mouth are "Do not be afraid."  Perhaps even before she knew she needed those words, they were spoken.

And oh, how we all yearn to not have reason to be afraid.

On Friday afternoon I drove back from the cemetery with a local funeral director.  Our conversation in those brief moments centered around community matters --- about a number of prominent retailers who are shutting down and about the fact that the city we call home is not really growing.  And she said, "Well, you know, they just came out with a list that says that DeKalb is the twelfth most dangerous city in the state of Illinois."

I have to say that I didn't think of her words again until later that day.  I had run out for a few groceries.  I glanced down at my watch as I carried my bags out to the car and realized it was 10:30.  Her words echoed in my mind as I found myself glancing around to be sure all was well.

Now I suppose that fear in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing.  At the very least, it can deepen our awareness about our surroundings and that can't be all bad.  In fact, the fears which haunt me too much of the time are not, on first glance, much like the fear that Zechariah or Mary or the shepherds might legitimately have felt.  No, my fears usually stem from a sense of God's absence --- not God's presence as all three of these clearly experienced with the visitation of angels.

And so today I would offer an example of where one might have experienced God's absence, but instead, the command to not be afraid was somehow heard.  Or at least it appeared to be so in the courage that was displayed.

So here is how it was. I spent two hours sitting on a hard bench at the DeKalb County Courthouse on Wednesday morning.  Oh yes, that time and place seemed as far away as it could possibly be from Angel's Announcement to Mary --- in spite of the decorated Christmas tree right outside the courtroom. In fact, it seemed like exactly the sort of time and place where such urging to not be afraid would be so every welcome.  For fear was all over that time as I sat together with a family, extended family and friends. They came and sat and waited for something that would take but a few minutes: the appearance of the man who had sold their son, brother, grandson, nephew, neighbor, friend the heroin which took his life. 

Courtrooms are fascinating places for about fifteen minutes --- maybe twenty.  On this Wednesday morning the judge went through a couple of dozen cases in the first hour --- most of them with those whose fates were in question appearing by live feed from the County Jail across the street --- making decisions about bail. Again, this is interesting for a little while and then the names and the charges and the circumstances start to blur.  Next came several people who were appearing in person.  Now these were a little harder to hear.  Even though the details evaded me, I found it exhausting to look such human misery in the face for so long.  I really don't know how those who do this all the time keep their spirits intact.  I found it profoundly wearing to pick up on the fear which showed in the faces and postures of so many.

Finally, a man was led in wearing leg irons and a striped uniform.  He was surrounded by corrections officers.  It took but a few minutes to grant a continuance. And through it all a grieving mother -- who had every reason to be afraid as she laid eyes on one who was, at least in part, responsible for the pain she will always carry now--- through it all she sat in the front row with tears streaming down her face.  When the man turned around I could see the look of terror and rage in his eyes. It seemed to me that what I saw in him was carried by most everyone who paused in that courtroom last Wednesday morning.  Indeed, as I said,  I felt it, too, as the minutes turned to hours.  I felt it, too, as so many troubled and troubling stories passed before my eyes.

At first I wondered what it would be if the Angel Gabriel were to show up in the courtroom and make his announcement, "Do not be afraid."  And then I realized he already had.  Especially in the heart of a grieving mother who like  Zechariah and Mary and the  Shepherds heard that call as more than words to be at peace but to move and to do.  For while grief has been her ever present companion in the last year and more, she has heard the call to change the world.  To give her heart's energy to stamp out the use of heroin in our community and beyond.  I have watched her do this: advocating and organizing and telling her story.  In fact, I sat with her one day as she spoke of the man who we saw in leg irons on Wednesday morning.  She did not speak of vengeance then --- but only hoped this would be a wake up call for him to turn his life around before it was too late.

I don't know how one becomes 'unafraid' in the face of what should otherwise terrify us. We do not hear, of course, that Mary was ever actually afraid.  Even so, it seems to me, she must have been.  Young, unmarried, and pregnant as she was in that time and place, Mary had every reason to be afraid.  But Mary, along with all those others who have heard the Angel's urging to leave fear behind apparently did just that.  She did just that as she heard God's own call to something more than what she could possibly have imagined all on her own.

With Zechariah beside the altar and with those shepherds late at night.  In an out of the way place with Mary and in a courtroom on a Wednesday morning.  Oh yes, in all sorts of ordinary times and places we find we yearn for this message still:  "Do not be Afraid."  I have to say I'm still searching for reasons why so many of those sad and sorry people should not have been afraid at our County Courthouse on Wednesday morning, but this much I trust. God's promises hold true. This being so, God was there, too. And as I said, Zechariah and Mary and the Shepherds may well have had reason to be afraid.  It's just that fear did not stop them as they moved ahead in following the angels' urging. 

And so it is that I imagine this to be our call in these last days of Advent. You and I are to keep our eyes and ears and hearts open for the certain truth that fear has no place among us whom the Angel Gabriel has visited.  At least not fear that keeps us from being about what we are called to be about.
I have to admit, I'm not there yet, of course. I am sometimes still afraid and so I do still need to hear the Angel's Announcement.  But there is this. I'm working hard to see the signs of a time when fear will no longer hold sway. And I am encouraged by the witness of those who don't let even reasonable fear stand in the way of doing what needs to be done.  Not even in the most fearful of places.

  • Where in your life do you most need to hear the Angel's Announcement "Do not be afraid!" ?
  • When have you heard that announcement and believed it and moved ahead in spite of the fear fear?
  • Where in the world have you encountered people who heard this announcement?  Where would you most like to speak the words 'Do not be afraid' and be believed?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

John the Baptist: Pointing to Jesus

John 1:6-8, 19-28

I am not an artist, nor do I have a great deal of understanding of art.  Indeed, I was a young adult before great art even began to capture my imagination.  I was in college and my sister, Martha, and I had ventured into the Art Institute of Chicago for the Monet exhibit.  She had rented one of those headsets which narrated the exhibit as we walked through. I really was just tagging along so I hadn't bothered to go to the extra expense of doing so, too.

Well, as you might expect, the Monet exhibit was popular and the crowds were moving slowly that afternoon.  Martha could sense my impatience and yes, almost boredom.  The pictures were beautiful, of course, but I had no deep interest either in the technique used or the play of light on canvas.  I had no idea, really, what I was looking at. We were standing in front of Monet's haystacks when she took her headset off and put it on my head and handed me the volume control. I stood transfixed as I listened to the narrator talk about the story behind the paintings. He said those haystacks which dotted the countryside (and still do --- at least where I live) were symbols of the common folks.  Indeed, he said they served as subversive messages of support in that time and place where, as in so many eras of history, common folks were treated in ways less than humane.

Now I've not been able to track down that particular interpretation in these past days.  Even so, that afternoon a light bulb went on for me as I began to realize that art --- perhaps especially great art --- is often more than beautiful images captured well. Many times a larger story is being told. The art points to something beyond itself.

"Annibale Carracci: Saint John the Baptist Bearing Witness (2009.252)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (May 2011)

Perhaps this is especially so of what we might call religious art.  Indeed, this week as I was digging
into the story of John the Baptist I came across a wonderful series entitled "Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading."  It explores the artwork featuring John in the National Gallery in London.  (You can find the first episode here.)  Again and again these experts explore the detail in the paintings --- many of which at one time served as altar pieces --- and they point out the meaning behind things the less educated among us would otherwise probably miss altogether. Either way, over and over you hear that the story told with oil and canvas points beyond itself to something more.

Which, of course, is also what John does in all that we hear about him in scripture.  Right here at the beginning of John's Gospel not only does the Evangelist tell us that John was the one who came to testify to the light, but John himself says so:  "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord."  ".... the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal..."  Indeed, both in the story told here and in all sorts of famous artwork we see John with his arm outstretched, pointing beyond himself.  Pointing to Jesus.

And so I wonder now at what enabled or equipped John to do that --- to point in the direction of Jesus. It must have taken extraordinary clarity borne of discipline for him to not succumb to the temptation of grandeur with all those people flocking to her him preach and receive the gift of baptism at his hand. We don't hear directly about that, of course --- unless we stand still for a moment in those other passages which describe John's extraordinary wardrobe and diet.  We don't hear about that unless we consider that in spite of the crowds which are described in these passages bout him --- he must have also had considerable time alone. Time spent in prayer, meditation, study, and just plain wondering about what he had been called to and for.

In this season of Advent it is so, of course, that this voice of John is crying out to us as well to get ready --- to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus --- and in this way to point to Jesus.  Like John, we are reminded that our job is to get out of the way of the Coming One --- to get out of the way so that others can see Him, too. 

You know, I saw something of what this might look like in a hospital waiting room a few weeks ago.  I was sitting with a couple of members of the congregation I serve --- we had stepped out of cardiac intensive care for a few minutes. 

There were only a handful in the waiting room that afternoon and I have to say that at first I was so focused on those I was with, I hardly took them in.  Pretty soon, though, a young woman wearing a black head scarf approached us. Politely interrupting our conversation, she asked if we could point her in the direction of East.

Now this was an interior room with no windows --- and it was a snowy day anyway so I'm not sure having windows would have helped much anyway.  I stumbled as I tried to reply for I had no idea. As I tried to download a compass on my smart phone, the gentleman behind us jumped in and pointed her in the right direction. Quietly she stepped behind some chairs, laid down her prayer mat and began to pray. She knelt and stood with head bowed and knelt again. When her mother came out of the rest room, she oriented her in the right direction, too -- only she sat her down in a chair to do so.  It was especially interesting to note that throughout the time that she prayed, her mobile phone kept ringing --- but somehow she seemed able to ignore it as she continued to kneel and bow. 

Well, I couldn't help myself.  I told those I was with that I would catch up with them and I hung back to visit with her for a minute.  I asked her who she was praying for.  "Oh, I'm not, " she said. Waving at her prayer mat, she continued, "This is just my usual prayer."  She went on to thank me for our help in pointing her in the right direction.  And then she said, "You know, even if I hadn't known which direction East was, it would have been all right.  I still could have prayed." In those next moments I specifically asked her about who she was there for and she told me they were waiting on news about her father who had six bypasses that morning. She told me his name was Muhammad Eesac (I'm just writing it as she said it here).  And she said, "You know.  Like your Abraham and Isaac."   She went on to say that she had a son named "Esau." And she said, "Like your Jesus."   I told  her then that my prayers would join hers for him and I re-joined my group down the hall.

Our rituals are different, of course.  Even so, I've been wondering ever since how it is that people know that you and I are pointing towards Jesus. Normally, it can't be told in how we dress.  Or in the public practice of prayer.  Or which way we face when we pray.  So then, what is it?   How will people know that we are oriented in the direction of the Coming One: the Christ Child? Will it be in what I say and do?  Will it be in my generosity and joy?  Will it be in my saying so?  As John did?  What do you think?  How will our public witness along with John and not unlike a young woman I met in a hospital waiting room tell the world that we are pointing to One beyond ourselves?

  • What does it look like for you to face in the direction of the Coming Christ Child and to prepare the way?
  • In all of our accounts of John, he is pointing beyond himself.  How are  you and I called to do the same?
  • John had certain disciplines which, no doubt, helped him to be and do what he was called to be and do. Clearly the young Muslim woman I spoke with in the waiting room practiced certain disciplines, too.  How about you?  What disciplines do you engage in which keep you pointing beyond yourself as they both did and do?