Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Force Awakens: The Light Shines in the Darkness

John 1:1-18

I will never forget the feeling of sitting at the old Hub Theater in Rochelle watching the first Star Wars Movie. I was sixteen. I was not then, and am certainly not now, especially a fan of science fiction, but the epic battle portrayed in the story caught my imagination and stirred something within me: some recognition of truth and heroism and hope. And yes, the power of darkness.

I'm not sure you can be alive in the part of the world I call home today and have missed the hype over the opening of the most recent Star Wars movie. With so many others, I wanted to see it, but I was afraid I would find it hard to follow. It has been 38 years since I was mesmerized by the first one and truth be told, I haven't seen every one since. I don't know what happened. I got busy. Or distracted. Or something.

So the other day when I learned that my sister Martha had seen it, I asked her if I would 'get it.' I wondered if I would be lost since I had been away from the story for so long. "Oh," she said, "You'll get it. It's just good versus evil all over again."

And sure enough. When I saw it this week-end, I realized she was right. It IS good versus evil all over again. Some of the more science fiction-y parts escaped me. And the older I get, I find myself becoming more and more non-violent, so I found little gratifying in the lives lost --- even if the enemy was mostly wrapped in anonymous storm trooper white.

As I watched, I found myself reflecting that not a whole lot has changed since 1977 when I was first perhaps deeply recognizing the darkness which too much marks our world --- except perhaps the role of women in the film is much stronger and the special effects are that much more spectacular. In terms of overarching themes reflected on the screen, however, it is all much the same. For evil is still profoundly resilient. And this is so as well: we continue to cling to the hope that the forces for good are stronger still.

And no, not much has changed since John first put together the words which are ours to hear once more on the 2nd Sunday of Christmas. There was and there is light and darkness. Good and evil were embattled when John recorded this beautiful poetry and clearly, as John had it and as you and I know so well, this has been true for all of recorded history. I have seen it to be so again in these last days:
For I find my heart aching in these past days to hear that two young men who returned to Chicago for Christmas break --- students from our own Northern Illinois University--- were killed by gun fire while home.
There is still light and darkness. Good and evil. And one wonders if the light will prevail.
I have spent a whole lot of time in this otherwise festive season walking alongside those whose grief is heavy. No matter their age, the one who died always died too soon and those left behind are left to sort out life without them.
Yes, one wonders when or if the light will prevail for we live in a world where darkness threatens still to have the last word.
War still rages in too many parts of the world and innocents are affected in ways that we cannot ignore their plight.
Oh yes, we wonder still if the Light will have the last word or not. 
And yet, we who cling to the Light keep on pointing to it. Even Queen Elizabeth in her annual Christmas Message pointed to these words in John's Gospel:
"The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it..."
She spoke these words as she reflected on the shared moments of darkness the world has experienced in this last year. You can watch and listen here: The Queen's Christmas Message 2015.

Indeed, we all continue to hang on to the promises of God as we hear them again today. In spite of all evidence to the contrary:
The light prevails.
Good wins.
God wins.
And yes, as you might expect this was true in the Star Wars movie which was mine to enjoy a few days back. Light wins.

But even so I recognize this in this particular story and in even more so in life as I have witnessed it: There are casualties along the way. And through it all, those engaged in this epic battle are making choices. Between light and darkness, yes. But also between responding to the impulse of fear or standing up and moving forward in courage and in hope. (I expect the latter are simply the light and darkness within us, wouldn't you say?)

I do have to say this, though. Many will go to this movie to enjoy the special effects. And yes, many will be utterly convinced (if we are not already) that violence is the only way to combat violence. And yet, it seemed to me that the most powerful parts of the story were those which reflected love and sacrifice. For one's beloved, yes. And for one's beloved child.

For this is always so. The message of today's Gospel is that the power of Light is not ours to use to destroy one' enemies. Rather, it is always ours to invite and encourage and somehow enable others to follow that Light which brings Life. Even those who seem to have been consumed by the power of darkness. Yes, even those. For in the end? Light itself destroys the darkness. Every time.

  • Certainly others will address the theological parallels and themes of the latest Star Wars movie better than I. If you have seen it, how would you modify what I have offered here?
  • It is easy to find signs of darkness in the world today. Where have you seen evidence of the light over which the darkness has not prevailed?
  • For me the most meaningful parts of the movie are where love and sacrifice are joined. This seems to be the place where light prevails, even though they are marked by profound suffering. And this is our Gospel Story, too, is it not?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Something More: Defying Gravity and Other Thoughts for Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20

One almost can't help but find oneself thinking about the cultural images of Christmas which surround us in these last days of Advent. Now there are certainly those who would hold fast to their certainty that Santa and his Reindeer and all the rest cloud the true meaning of the season. And while I cannot argue with that view, I find myself in these days looking a little more gently on our passing on of Santa Claus to our little ones. For I can't help but wonder if it is rooted in our desire to offer 'something more.' Something that can't quite be explained in the usual way. Something that allows us to believe at least for a little while that that which holds us to the earth can be denied. And maybe flying reindeer offer some semblance of that.

This is how this came to me in these last days. I found myself driving through open country this week on the same road where, but a few months ago, I was hemmed in by lush green fields of ripening corn and beans, Now, however, you can see for miles. We have no snow to speak of. What little we did have has long since melted and we are left with acre after acre of stubble which remains after combines swept through and farmers harvested their crops. Driving by these frozen fields, I was taken back to a funeral I helped put together several years ago now.

Their mother and grandmother died in summer, so as we sat at the kitchen table our gaze fell upon fields very different from the ones I passed by this week. The story told was of December nights, though, and how Grandma would be hard at work in the kitchen, making ready for the Christmas feast and urging the little ones to the window where they would see a red light bobbing across the open field: an approximation of Santa and his reindeer, with Rudolph in the lead. Grandpa was apparently the one who made his way out on those cold nights, year after year, seeking to make magic for those who still so believed. Seeking to offer 'something more' than what was normally theirs on any other day or night of the year.

It was something to realize, of course, that those remembering could not have recalled a single gift they had unwrapped in those years so long before. But they remembered the 'magic.' They recalled the certainty that anything was possible. Oh yes, for at least a while they lived in the confidence that gravity itself could be denied. And later, when they learned how this actually came to be, they remembered and spoke with deep fondness of the love behind it all.

And oh, isn't it always our dearest wish for those we love the most, that somehow we might all believe that 'something more' might be theirs in gravity itself somehow denied --- be it only even in flying reindeer and an old man dressed in red who somehow manages to make Christmas happen for all the children of the world in one single solitary night. Oh, don't we want to defy gravity in other ways even more --- all that which keeps us so bound to the earth. Be it Betrayal. Or Dashed Hopes and Dreams. Or Illness. Or Pain. Or Grief. Or Death.  And long past the time when we have come to the realization that defying such as these seems to lead us nowhere, one can't really blame us for trying to protect the illusion of this possibility for the small ones among us. If only with our tales of Santa and his flying reindeer.

So it was that a few days back I heard this yearning again in the voice of a mother unknown to me. She had called the church with a plea for help. She told me that she had not yet put up a Christmas tree this December for she did not want her five children to hope for what she thought could not be hers to give. Her breaking heart could be felt through the phone line as she spoke of her desire to give them 'at least something' this Christmas. My heart joined hers as we did what we could to make this so. For I found myself saying out loud that children should have something to open on Christmas.  I, too, was hoping that somehow in this they might believe that other things might be possible as well: that somehow 'something more' might be theirs this season, too. That --- dare I say it --- perhaps 'gravity itself' might be defied for them this Christmas.

And yet, of course, for all of our wanting to deny or defy or destroy what holds us to this earth, the gift and irony of Christmas is that Jesus came to us as he did so long ago in a way that did not defy gravity at all. No indeed, God's own Son came and submitted to being as bound to this earth as you and I. Born to a too-young mother and an at first hesitant dad. In an unremarkable town with not even a proper bed to sleep in. Surrounded by animals and visited by shepherds. It is all so remarkable simply because it is so un-remarkably earth-bound. Except for the angels, of course. Those heralding angels remind us that somehow by Jesus not defying gravity, in the end, gravity and all it symbolizes will be denied, defied, and utterly destroyed once and for all.

And it all starts with loving enough to be 'earth-bound.' For while the possibility of reindeer flying through the air towing enough gifts to delight all the children of the world gratifies us for a moment, it is nothing next to the gift of God's Presence, God's Love, God's very Life beside us and within us.

And as for those other tales of Christmas which our small ones still hold dear? May the generosity and joy they offer somehow point us back to remembering that Christmas possibility of 'something more' is not only for children. For this is what stays with me about the story I offered here. While I love the playful image of a red light bobbing through an empty winter field there was this: Those now grown grandchildren gathered around the table that summer's day remembered only the love she held for them as she passed along the possibility of 'something more.'

And so this is my prayer for each and all of you:
  •  May 'something more' be yours this Christmas and always as you remember and celebrate the One who did not defy gravity but who, in great love, became as earth-bound as the rest of us. 
  • May the gift of Jesus being earth-bound for us be not only gift but model as we seek to reach a world of people who need the same.
  • And may the certainty of God's great love for you always be yours. For this love is that which promises to deny, defy, and finally destroy all that keeps us bound to earth.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Like Mary Did

Luke 1:39-55

St. Mary's Catholic Parish is right across the street from the congregation I serve. It is a busy street that divides us and so it is not often that I have reason to cross it to be in conversation with our neighbors. And yet, this fall I couldn't help myself.  For you see, as I parked my car one afternoon I looked up to see someone refurbishing their statue of Mary.

Truthfully, I hadn't much noticed "Mary" before. For one thing, if you are directly across the street from her she is hidden behind a large tree. No doubt the one who planted that tree did not fully anticipate its growth. For another, over the years her color had faded. While that tree may protect her from the sun, it cannot fully shield her from the ravages of wind and rain and snow.

And so it was that one afternoon I walked across the street to visit with the woman who was working hard to make Mary 'new.' The artist's name is Gloria. She told me that at one time work such as this was her livelihood, but she is mostly retired now. She lives ninety minutes away, but she has a friend in this parish and so was asked to do them this favor. "This Mary is precious to them, I know," is what she said to me. And so for several weeks on sunny days this fall, Gloria could be seen putting layers of paint on this statue which has graced the church yard for longer than most can remember.

It was not quite finished on the day I took the photograph above. And perhaps it is a little hard to tell in the shade, but maybe you get a sense of what I do when I pause to look at her now. For what I see is this: Gloria gave the statue texture. Oh, we know it is just a statue, of course. It is but a symbol of the young girl whose song is ours to sing again today. Even so, this piece of religious art which is mine to glance at almost every day reminds me of her centrality to the story which is ours to celebrate in these days. And the new textures which jump out at me speak of the nuances of the experience which must have been Mary's.

And yet, this is what comes to mind first. As lovely as it is and in spite of the imagination of many artists', the actual Mary would not have worn blue. Dye such as this would have been impossible to come by for one of her presumed stature and status in that time and place. Most likely, Mary's garb was flaxen-wool colored. As I understand it, the traditional blue got added centuries later in order to visually depict Mary's 'royal status.'

And so it is that perhaps we have added texture or layers to our understanding of who Mary was
which would not have existed 2,000 plus years ago. And in so doing, perhaps we have lost sight of the texture which was already there. Indeed, consider Mary with me again:
  • This young woman whose first response to the angel's greeting was understandably confusion.
  • This one whom the angel urged not to be afraid.
  • This Mary who heard the angel's promise and invitation and apparently had the presence of mind and heart to simply recognize it and receive it.
  • This young woman who could not, would not stay alone with her news, but went as quickly as she could to her cousin, Elizabeth, whom the angel named as also unexpectedly and seemingly impossibly having life growing within her.
  • And yes, this one who, in the tradition of Hannah's Song, speaks words of depth and wisdom and promise and realized hope the likes of which the world then and now so very desperately needs to hear and witness and experience for themselves, for ourselves, again and again and yet again.

In actuality, we know so little of Mary, of course. And while it is so that her openness to God's startling, life altering will for her life is remarkable, I do wonder sometimes if in our marveling at what we do know of Mary, we somehow fail to comprehend the angel calling us to the same, in all of our layers and textures. No, of course, perhaps it is unlikely that Jesus will come again in the same way he did so long ago. But is it possible, still, that he might come --- and that you and I might somehow be bearers of him to the world? As Mary did, so might we be called to do as well?

And yes, perhaps it starts like it did with an artist named Gloria who used her best talent to portray the first Mary for all the world (or at least those of us who pass by) to see. Perhaps our 'bearing' Jesus into the world once more can begin as we go deep into Mary's story and wonder at what it means and how it looked then and when and where it was and might still be received. But don't you think as we do so faithfully and well that this might be so for us as well? That as we take in Mary's story in all of its complexity and hope, with its textures and layers, that we might recognize her in us and us in her? And that we might see anew that God intends to use us, too, to bring a message of hope to the world?
To be those who carry Jesus into the world over and over again?

Indeed, I can't believe that Mary quite knew what she was saying yes to, when she said,
"Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word."          (Luke 1:38)
Oh, I can't help but wonder what might come to be if you and I, too, would simply listen for the Angel's Invitation. Indeed, even while we cannot fully know what will follow, what might it look like if we simply respond with open hearts?

Like Mary did.

  • What do you know of Mary's story? How does this inform how you hear today's Gospel?
  • Do you have a favorite artistic rendering of Mary? What do you see when you when you experience it?
  • Do you think the Angel's Invitation is meant for you and me as well? Why or why not?
  • What would it mean for you to receive that Invitation with an open heart?
  • Indeed, what would it look like for you, your family, and/or your congregation to carry Jesus into the world this year?

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Baptism with Fire: Now Who Shall We Be?

Luke 3:7-18

I trudged through the mall on Friday night. is not a place I frequent often, but at least once a year I make my way to the Hallmark Store to purchase my nephew's Godchild ornament.

I started this tradition his first Christmas and even though this is the 19th time I have done so, I can't seem to stop. Never mind that Michael is now a fine young man who has found his footing well in his freshman year of college. Never mind that by now he has traveled to places in the world I have not yet seen. Never mind.... I keep buying these ornaments for him which mostly, as much as I can recall from these 19 seasons, are little lambs in one form or another. His mother has now purchased a small tree to hang them on. And Michael, bless him, even through his teen-age years, has always opened his gift and smiled and thanked me.

It is the picture of baptism many prefer, of course, this one of an infant dressed in white. It is, quite simply, sanitized and sweet and in many ways seems a far distance from the one our fiery John directs us to today. For the one John points to behind himself --- this one which Jesus brings--- we are told is more than baptism by water, but is one which brings fire and the Holy Spirit.

It is so, of course, that this baptism was Michael's almost nineteen years ago --- and yours and mine as well. Oh, one may have to squint to see it on that day when water is splashed and photographs are taken and the whole family gathers for a celebratory feast. And yet it is there for all to see for in those moments after the water is poured, we make a sign of the cross on the forehead of the one who often cannot yet begin to comprehend the meaning of what is happening to him or her. We make the sign of the very cross on which Jesus died and in so doing we are placing the newest among us at odds with the forces of this world where the likes of greed and violence and hopelessness and despair threaten to prevail.

Now it is so that in a world where challenges to our faith can seem global in their implications, I find it interesting that John keeps his advice to his listeners pretty close to home. No doubt his preaching might contain more than this today, but then as now his words still ring true. For you and I who have heard the judgment. For you and I who have experienced the fire. For you and I who somehow hear John's words as being meant for us, when we ask "What now?" John simply offers this:
  • Share what you have plenty of.
  • Don't take what is not yours.
  • Be content with what you have been given.
In a world where the challenges are so huge, one wonders how these seemingly small things could make any difference at all. And yet, one at a time, one person after another, seeking to live in these ways? Maybe in the end this would be, could be the beginning of changing everything.

Now I don't know, of course, the audience who first heard John's preaching. I don't know the texture of their lives, although I expect for the most part those who went into the wilderness to be baptized by him were not especially rich and powerful. No doubt they were not strangers to the worst of what life in this world can hand you. Perhaps it was so that they took the time to seek out John because they were trying to make sense of the lives they had been given.

And so it is that much of the time I would not count myself much like John's first listeners as I imagine them now. Indeed, too much of the time I can get by with believing that I am entirely self sufficient in many ways.

And then as has been so for me in these last days ...
  • My gall bladder makes itself known and I find myself at the mercy of modern medicine and now continuing on with the certainty that this human body is more fragile than I remembered...
  • Or the word comes that our cherished friend and colleague Laura Koppenhoefer has died as a result of the cancer which has stalked her for years and I find myself weeping with her family at her casket on a Friday night in December and I am reminded that life is fragile and oh so short and with many I am left wondering at its meaning...
And so it was that on Saturday morning before Laura's funeral I stood with a friend in silence as our un-shed tears kept us from speaking. When finally the words came, I said simply, 
"Now who shall we be?" 
In the wake of this fire, this judgment pointing out the brevity of all that we are, this suffering, who shall we be?

And I return to Laura's own words which are at the top of her CarePage where she tells her story beginning with: "My name is Laura. I am a Child of God."

And I return again to my now grown nephew and a Christmas tree full of little lambs.

And I know the fiery judgment which burns away that which needs to be burned away leaves us always with this. Through it all, we are still those little lambs.  We are still God's children. And to live as God's children means simply this:
  • Share what you have plenty of.
  • Don't take what is not yours.
  • Be content with what you have been given.
And oh yes, isn't it interesting that for all the hardness of the lives of many of his first hearers, John doesn't show them pity? Isn't it something that he still calls them to account and challenges them to be who God made them to be?

And so also with us, don't you think? In the wake of whatever fire has been ours, so also with you and me. May we keep wondering who we shall be now. And may we hear the beginning of an answer in John's sermon so long ago.
  • Share what you have plenty of. 
  • Don't take what is not yours. 
  • Be content with what you have been given.
Indeed, may this fire which Jesus brings always burn away that which needs to be burned away: be it pride, or false self sufficiency, or lack of empathy, or greed, or shortsightedness and on and on... May it all be burned away so that you and I might be led  to live more deeply and truly as the Children of God that we are. 

May this always be so.
  • How do you hear John's sermon today? Is it all judgment or is there promise, too?
  • How do you think John's first hearers would be like or unlike those who listen in on his preaching today?
  • When has the fire burned in such a way that it left you wondering, "So now who shall we be?"
  • John offers three ways God's children are called to live. The list seems pretty complete to me. What do you think?