Sunday, December 30, 2012

God's Consolation: Meditation on Luke 2:21-40

Simeon and Anna Recognize the Lord in Jesus: Rembrandt van Rijn

Scripture can be found here...

The month of January was named by the ancient Romans for their god Janus, the god of beginnings and, therefore, also, endings. Also the god, therefore, of transitions, gateways, doorways and time. Janus was the god who looked both backwards and forwards, so he was depicted as having with two faces, so that he could do both at the same time.

Looking back and looking forward. It’s what we do at this time of year. We look back at the year gone by. Print and online magazines will provide us photographs and biographies of the famous and infamous people who died this year—Maurice Sendak and Sally Ride. Donna Summer and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. Phyllis Diller and Neil Armstrong. Nora Ephron and David Rakoff. And the critics will offer up their lists of the ten best movies, and the ten best novels, and the ten craziest things said by this or that pundit or news station this year. We look forward too, by the making of our own lists—our New Year’s Resolutions, the ways in which we will become, we hope, better people. I will learn to play the mandolin, I will lose weight, I will cut down on the time spent online, I will write letters with pen and paper. We look back and we look forward.

Have you ever wondered why this time of looking back and looking forward is most commonly celebrated by getting good and drunk?

There are lots of possible answers to that question. Here’s my guess. I think it can be hard to look back. For some, they are looking back on a tragedy like that suffered by the community of Rochester on Christmas Eve, or the one ten days earlier in Newtown, CT, the death of so many innocents. For others, the hardships were not on the scale of sudden tragedy, but were sustained over time, like a long, dull ache that does not go away. Life transitions, job losses, relocation, relationship troubles or breakups, health problems small, medium and large.  These are the kinds of painful realities that may well still be with us as we transition into the New Year. Looking back can draw a sharp red line under the pain that only seems to increase the ache. Thus, the impulse to dull it, deny it, and cover it up with a celebration whose main feature seems to be not being able to remember too much the next day.

Simeon and Anna look back and look forward, too, but in a way that is very different.

When we meet Simeon, we are told he is a man “righteous and devout, and looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” Simeon looks back, and he sees the pain—all that pain and suffering we have been hearing about all through the fall, the story of the struggles of God’s people. But Simeon looks forward as well. He looks forward to God’s consolation.

That word, consolation, is from a Greek word meaning “calling near.” Simeon is looking forward to that time when all God’s people will know that God walks beside them, that God hears their cries and pleas and calls for help. You could make the argument that Simeon is looking forward to the coming of a Messiah.

Simeon sees that consolation in the flesh when he sees the infant Jesus, the one brought to the temple by his parents.

Anna, too, looks back on a life with its share of pain. She and her husband had just seven short years together, and she has lived the rest of her life—fifty years or more—in the temple. Anna is a prophet, and that means she is a truth teller. Anna’s truth is that she spends all her days hoping, praying, waiting, looking forward that time when the balm and healing of God, will pour down upon her and upon all God’s hurting children.

Anna sees Jesus, and he becomes her truth, he becomes that healing balm of God.

Both Anna and Simeon look back and see in the past, not just the pain, but also the joy. They see both pain and joy in the future as well, in their own lives, and in the life of this tiny child, still in the arms of his parents. We hear Simeon’s words to Mary, and we wonder—is this the kind of thing one says to a new mother? But this is not just the very real and human story of the life of Jesus unfolding; it is the story of scripture, too. As we tell the story, we tell it all—we don’t leave out the painful bits, or the traumas, and we don’t leave out the joys and beauty. We try to tell the truth, tell it whole.

Looking back and looking forward. Like Anna and Simeon, we are here in the midst of the still-beautiful celebration of Jesus’ birth, God’s consolation, God’s drawing near to frail and fragile humanity. We have called, and God has come. This morning, after our offering, we will all share in an opportunity to pray, not simply with words, but with actions, for healing and wholeness, for ourselves, for those we love, and for God’s whole world. You will be invited to come forward, if you wish, to receive anointing and prayer, from either myself or one of our ruling elders. Anointing with oil and prayer is an ancient way of showing that you are asking for God’s healing. It is an enacted prayer, a physical sign of your spiritual hope.

You will also be invited to light a candle, as another form of a prayer-in-action. These can be prayers for yourself, for a loved one, for a group of people, for a community, for the church, for the whole world. Your candle is a physical sign of your spiritual hope.

And you will be invited to a time of silent prayer. Prayer in community is a powerful thing. Even if you choose not to come forward to light a candle or to receive anointing, you can participate by praying.

“My eyes have seen your salvation,” Simeon says, “which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” God’s consolation is for all. God’s promise of healing is not about holiness or worthiness or praying hard enough or being anointed well enough. God’s consolation, God’s healing, is a gift. As we look back on the year past and as we look forward to the year that dawns, God’s consolation is free for the asking. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

God in Exile: A Christmas Eve Meditation


Scripture can be found here...

I want to welcome you. It gives me incredible joy to see you—all of you, those of you I see practically every week here at Union Presbyterian Church, as well as those of you who make this place your ‘home for the holidays.’ It gives me great joy to see you. Welcome.

But you know, if the angels are out and about and looking for a place to announce the birth of Christ, they probably won’t be coming here tonight.

Not that our hearts wouldn’t be open to that—they would! We would thrill, we would rejoice, we would sing louder and more passionately every last carol, and gaze into the flames of our candles and see with greater clarity than ever the mysteries of God’s love! How amazingly wonderful that would be!

But the angels probably won’t be coming here tonight. That’s because Christ is being born where he is needed the most.[i]

If we’re looking for an angelic announcement tonight, my bet is that it will come to someone sitting alone in a bar, or it will come to someone hanging out with a gang in some dark corner of a parking lot, or it will come to one sitting woodenly in a chair in a quiet and empty apartment, or maybe in a prison cell, where it’s never truly quiet. Christ is being born tonight where he is needed most.

On that first Christmas so long ago, the angels gave their announcement to the shepherds. Here’s the thing about shepherds. They were the ultimate outcasts in the ancient world—for all I know, in parts of the world that may still be true. If you were a shepherd, you came from the lowest rung of the social ladder. You were probably a youngest son, one with no other prospects, someone who couldn’t find any decent work. The people—the nice people, the kind of people who could go to services on the holy days and nights of the year—they, for the most part, thought of shepherds as thieves and thugs, liars and degenerates. Towns had ordinances preventing shepherds from coming within the city limits. The testimony of shepherds was inadmissible in court. Think of the last person you’d like to see walking into this sanctuary tonight. Be honest with yourself. On the night Jesus was born, that would have been a shepherd.

As for the professionally religious people, they didn’t let shepherds come anywhere near the holy places—shepherds’ work meant that they were in a perpetual state of ritual uncleanness, meaning they couldn’t get in to offer sacrifices or hear the scriptures proclaimed even if they wanted to.

But why would they want to? Every message they received—from good, decent, hardworking people—was that the world had given up on them. God had given up on them. So, it stands to reason that they had given up on God. Why wouldn’t they? As one pastor writes, “Spend enough time in the field, shunned by decent and religious folk, disappointed by God, or overwhelmed by grief, and we stop caring that we are outsiders. We give up trying to get inside religion, or even on God, to get on with life. But God does not give up on us. God sends angels to people who have given up on God.”Christ is being born where he is needed the most.

It’s practically a cliché, but think with me, just a moment, about the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The angel—the bumbling, adorable, wingless Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class—where does he shows up? He doesn’t show up at church, while the people are singing and praying. He doesn’t show up around a dinner table filled with loving people, friends and family come together for the holiday. He doesn’t even show up at the old Building and Loan. Clarence shows up on a bridge over a river, where a man at the end of his rope is ready to put an end to the terrible pain and humiliation he is enduring. Christ is being born where he is needed the most.

And Christ is leaving behind just about everything that makes God, God in order to do this astonishing thing. That’s why the story of the birth of Christ is a story of God going into exile. In Christ—this is the central affirmation of Christmas, this is why we are here tonight—God leaves behind the power and majesty and glory of being God, and takes on powerless, ordinary, unglamorous human life. And not even impressive human life. God does not come as a king or priest or ninja or something else that would make sense because of its awesomeness. God comes as a baby, utterly vulnerable, utterly dependent, frail, and fragile. And the ones God tells first, the ones who get that angelic announcement, complete with the heavens practically bursting into flames to get their attention, are the ones who have no earthly reason to think God cares for them at all. God goes into exile to save a people in exile.

We are exiled from God’s original plan for us, to love God and enjoy God forever while at the same time caring for God’s beautiful world. We are exiles—out of place, out of time, not where we should be, and that exile takes all kinds of forms. We are sinful and sorrowful. We are angry and filled with hate. We are numb and hopeless. Or even, we are distracted, removed, out of touch with God, our Creator, our first and perfect Parent, our divine Lover and Suitor, the one who is always doing all kinds of amazing things to get our attention, sunrises and snowflakes, to name just a few. We are a people in exile. Some of us—even some of us here, tonight, maybe—have given up on God.

But God does give up on us, any more than God gave up on the shepherds, outcast and exile though they surely were. God cared for them, and God cares for us, every last one of us. Those of us who are here completely confident that God will show up and those of us who have been dragged here because this is what the family does, and we think, it’s quaint, it’s picturesque, maybe it’s even a lovely tradition, but it’s not real. Take heart. Christ is being born tonight where he is needed the most. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the angels will be here after all.

I read a story at 6:30 this morning—you know how you can subscribe to something, and they send you emails every day, and sometimes you think, agggh, enough with this, I’m going to unsubscribe. But you don’t, for whatever reason. Well, this is what I read in one of those emails at 6:30 this morning.

One time on Hollywood Boulevard I saw a young girl with a baby. It was a crisp winter morning and her hair shone dark purple in the sun. She was panhandling outside the Holiday Inn & the door clerk came out & told her to be on her way & I wondered if anyone would recognize the Christ child if they happened to meet. I remembered thinking it’s not like there are any published pictures & purple seemed like a good color for a Madonna so I gave her a dollar just in case.  
~ Brian Andreas, “Purple Madonna,” 2012.

We just don’t know. But we can trust. Christ will be born, is being born, precisely where he is most desperately needed tonight. That may well be in you, that may well be in me. So, eyes wide open. Ears cocked, like a donkey in a stable trying to figure out who’s at the door.  All is readiness for the marvelous birth that means we need live in exile no longer. And for that, all thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] This meditation owes its heart and soul to the reflection by Craig Satterlee at My heartfelt thanks. Craig A. Satterlee, “Luke 2:1-14 (15-20), Commentary on Gospel,”

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Longing for a Child: Advent 4 Sermon on Luke 1:26-38

"Annunciation" by John William Waterhouse (1914)

 Scripture can be found here...

She was nobody special. She was young. Someone told me this week that one of the most memorable things they ever heard in a sermon was her age: She was probably about 14 years old, when all these things happened—the angelic announcement, the most assuredly unplanned pregnancy, the being swept up in God’s Very Big Plan. Or maybe even younger. Maybe, according to scholars, as young as twelve.

Mary could have been in our confirmation class.

She wasn’t married, but plans were underway. That was pretty normal for girls her age. And unlike her older cousin Elizabeth, and her husband Zechariah, whose story takes up the first twenty-five verses of this gospel, Mary had no distinguished pedigree. She was not, best we can tell, a member of a priestly family, or a family with connections of any kind.

She was just a young girl, from an unremarkable family in Nazareth, a rural backwater if you want to know. Nobody special from no place special.

And yet. And yet.

As for the world Mary inhabited, here’s what we know: Since the passage we read last week, those words of encouragement to the people returning from exile, about five hundred years have passed.

Since the writing of Chronicles, the last-written book of the Old Testament, about 275 years have passed.

Since Mary’s people, and God’s people, were last oppressed… well, that has been an ongoing kind of thing. After the Babylonians came the Persians, and after the Persians the Seleucids. Then came the Ptolemaic dynasty, and finally, the brutal and ever-expanding Roman Empire.

Mary’s people are still not free. They still do not have the full extent of God’s covenant promise of land, offspring and blessing securely in hand.

And yet. And yet.

They continue to tell the story. They continue to hope for—no, expect—God’s promise to be fulfilled. They are still a people full of longing. They are longing for God to extend a mighty arm and save them. They are longing for salvation.

God has a funny way of replying to our longings.

Just to be clear, Mary is not, at the beginning of our story, longing for a child. Far from it. And that makes this birth announcement unique in the Bible (though, not in the ancient world). In the Old Testament, in the midst of a culture that places a premium on childbearing, and honors women for performing that function successfully, the longing for a child by a woman is an often-told tale. In fact, that is precisely Elizabeth’s tale, and Zechariah’s. It is a classic Old Testament story: a woman has all but given up hope of having a child. And then, by the power of God, it happens.

Here, Mary has not expressed any hope of having a child. She probably just wants to graduate from the ancient Palestinian equivalent of middle school before the wedding. And yet. And yet.

An angelic messenger arrives. Our translation sounds a little stilted, like a greeting Mr. Spock might give to a visiting dignitary aboard the starship Enterprise. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Presbyterian pastor, scholar and poet Eugene Peterson offers this translation:

Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.

Good morning. We have spent some time over the past weeks reading accounts of angels in our Monday evening Bible Study. And it is not unusual for the appearance of a messenger from God to strike fear into the heart of the ordinary mortal. Most often, the first words out of an angel’s mouth are “Fear not.” “Don’t be afraid.” Remember the ecstatic, booming angel chorus at the call of Isaiah several weeks ago?  This is a very gentle kind of angelic greeting. A greeting for a young girl, a girl of twelve or thirteen or fourteen. Good morning!

Mary is troubled, though. She is perplexed. That message that “God is with you” is a perplexing one. In Mary’s world, God is with prophets like Isaiah, mighty kings and warriors like David, perhaps the ancient Judges like Deborah. God is not with young teenagers from unknown families in out-of-the-way villages.

And now the angel says, “Don’t be afraid.” And then he drops the bombshell, that first for the Bible—that one-and-only, in fact. A virgin will conceive and give birth to a son. That virgin is Mary, and the name of her son will be Jesus.

To a people longing for salvation, God will send an infant whose name means “God saves.”

It almost sounds like God is playing a joke.

God’s people: Save us!

God: Ok. Here’s a baby. And, trust me, you’ve never heard of his mother. Oh, and his patrimony is absolutely unbelievable, and will be the cause of scandal.

If the people are longing for salvation, God could have sent an army. An army of angels! An army of highly skilled warriors, a kind of Divine Delta Force, Holy Navy Seals. Or, at the very least, God could have sent a warrior, a king, a prophet unparalleled.

God did none of these things. Because the truth is, whether they knew it or not, God’s people were longing for a child.

And not just because the child would be a king, or be called ‘Son of the Most High,’ or  ‘Son of God.’ All these titles are titles Mary and her people have heard, time and again. They are all titles claimed by the Caesars, the Roman Emperors, the oppressors of Mary’s people.

Mary’s people are longing for a sign that God sees. That God hears. That God gets it. That God understands what they are going through, oppressive regime after oppressive regime, senseless death after senseless death, hard life followed upon by hard life.

What better way for God to show how fully God understands than this? Not to send, but to come. Not to swoop down in power, but to be brought forth with the cooperation of a young girl? Not to emerge in Jerusalem or Rome, but as nobody special, from no place special?

God’s people were longing for a child, because only by coming as a child could God truly reveal the extent—the length and breadth, the height and depths—of God’s own love and longing for humanity.

Longing for a child. This child. Not for the usual reasons we long for our children. More similar, perhaps, to the reasons we long for our parents—the irreplaceable knowledge, that we carry deep in our bones, that we are seen. We are heard. We are known. We are loved, without condition. And that someone is there to make it better when we are suffering. A tall order, certainly, and one that most of us who are parents know we fall far, far short of filling.

But God doesn’t fall short. Nobody special—we are seen. From no-where special—we are heard. Without pedigree—we are known. Without achievement—we are loved, we are cherished, and we are given, day in and day out, an opportunity, like Mary, to say, Yes.

Yes to the unknown.

Yes to our small part in God’s Very Big Plan.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

So, to you, from God:

Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Prayer for a Sorrow-Filled Advent 3

A Christmas Icon, made by young people from our church. <3

Church was glorious this morning. Our choir sang the cantata, "And Glory Shone Around," and the music and voices lifted all our hearts and spirits.

My job was to proclaim scripture (Isaiah 61:1-11) and pray. Here is my prayer.

God of day and God of night, God of sun and God of storm, God of joy and God of sorrow, you have anointed your Son Jesus Christ with your Spirit: to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of your favor; to comfort all who mourn; to give those who mourn garlands of flowers instead of urns of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of the tears of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a spirit faint with horror and sorrow.

And we are oppressed by the news of another slaughter of innocents—your children in Newtown, Connecticut, and in Oregon, and in China, Afghanistan, and Chicago.

And we are brokenhearted, at the thought of so many empty arms and beds and hearts, torn apart by unending violence.

And we are in need of comfort, comfort and joy, on this day when all joy—even joy that rings out in beautiful voices and music—is salted with the taste of tears.

And so we turn to you, God of Gentleness and God of Power, and we place it all in your hands. And we ask you:

You who know the agony of watching your Beloved child die, weep with us as we mourn these children and adults.

You who taught in Jesus that we must become like children to enter into your life, rage with us at the senseless loss.

You who promised garlands instead of ashes, show us the signs of your life and love, every green bud of hope that pushes through.

You who promised to bring good news to the oppressed, give strength and courage to those who are sick and dying.

You who promised to comfort those who mourn, surround all who lose loved ones with your powerful and loving presence.

You who promised to lift us up on the wings of eagles, strengthen our failing spirits,

Until every one of us can proclaim, with confidence, with hope, and yes, even with joy, the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, God has anointed me to bring the Good News, in the name of Jesus Christ, the prince of peace, who taught us to pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven: hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever, Amen.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Friday Five "Still Advent, Baby!" Edition

Those of you who are my friends on Facebook know I've been trying to post Advent music in this season, which is no small trick because, as you well know, it's been "Christmas" since Halloween in the world out there! So today we focus on Advent and its music-- the good, the bad, the new and the as-yet-unheard!

1. First, do you come from a tradition in which the Advent season is embraced? This is not true for all of us. If you do, what is your personal preference? Do you love it or hate it? Embrace it or want it to go away already? How enthusiastically does your church enter into Advent?

We Presbyterians love our Advent-- NOW--, and I come from a tradition (Roman Catholic) that embraces it also. But I think Advent is still relatively new in our denomination, so there are still folks who would like to hear Christmas carols in church pretty quickly after Thanksgiving. But I want us to linger in the season-- it's theological! Our longing for Christmas reminds us of our longing for Christ, and that's a good thing!

2. What is your favorite Advent music? Link to a favorite piece if you can.

I adore THE most traditional Advent hymn, "O Come O Come Emmanuel," which is based on a medieval prayer, which is itself based on ancient names for Christ. Here is my currently favorite version.

3. What Advent music makes your skin crawl-- or at least annoys you and makes you wish it were Christmas already?

None, really. Okay, that "light the Advent candle, one" song used to bug me until my children learned it, and then I got all gooey inside.

4. Any Advent discoveries or re-discoveries? Again, we love links-- share your music with us!

I spent yesterday cooking to the sounds of "The Miserable Offenders" (!!!), an all-too-short-lived duo. They have an album still available on iTunes, "Keepin' the Baby Awake" which EVERYONE MUST BUY! (I am not related to the Offenders in any way.) Alas, their genius has not yet made it to Youtube. Go listen to their original song "What is the Crying at Jordan". Beautiful.

5. Tell us how your Advent is going this year. Lost in a haze of church busyness? Finding ways to sit quietly in the darkness and wait? Give us your tips for a really rich Advent experience!

I am sorry to say, I am somewhat lost in a haze of busyness, personal and churchy in nature. But I have hope and faith that it will not always be so.

Blessings of this dark, sweet season come your way!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Longing for Innocence: A Pre-Pageant Meditation on Joel 2:12-17, 28-29

Scripture can be found here...

This season—this beautiful, sparkling December season—is known, it is notorious, for inciting attacks of nostalgia and melancholy. Personally, I am subject to longing for the days so beautifully captured by Taylor Swift as she sings about her mother in “The Best Day”:

It's the age of princesses and pirate ships
And the seven dwarfs
Daddy's smart
And you're the prettiest lady in the whole wide world.

This season brings to the surface our underlying and persistent longing for innocence. That longing can take many forms.

We long for a time when we saw the world through the eyes of a child. I carry with me the image of a boy, about 3 ½ years old, wearing a red fair-isle sweater, his round face crowned with curly hair. He is playing with a wooden toy that involves turning a crank so that angels will spin and dance. For me, this is an indelible vision of innocence that still resonates: to see that toy, that Christmas celebration, with such pure openness and wonder.

We long for things to be the way they used to be. For one, that might mean a return to his high school physique. For another, that might mean a return to a relationship she misses. For still another, that might mean a return to the days when the house was filled to overflowing with the energy of our children.

Or we long for real innocence, in the original meaning of the word. We might be carrying around a burden of guilt—maybe we have disappointed someone, or hurt someone, or simply not been as loving as we could have been. And we are longing to be relieved of that burden, to know that we have made it right, that we have been forgiven, that we can start fresh.

The longing for innocence can take many forms.

For the people listening to the words of the prophet Joel, their longing was complicated. They say you can’t go home again. But what they mean is, you can go home, but it will be different, so different that it might not actually feel like home any more. The view from fifty is not the same as the view from five.

The exile is over. The Persian regime has given permission for the temple to be rebuilt, and has also started the process of repatriating those Judeans who want to return to Jerusalem. For those who return after the rebuilding of the temple, they are in for a shock: it is smaller, it is unlovely, it is not the same as Solomon’s splendid edifice. Their hearts break all over again. It’s not as good as it was. And, as a wise preaching professor said, they are not as good as they were. The people of God who are returning to Judea can only see what has happened to them as a punishment. They had cheated the Lord. They had cooked the books of their relationship with God. They had betrayed the Holy One. And here is the result: their home, even when they are able to return to it, is not what it was.

They are longing for innocence. They are longing to see their home and temple with uncritical, hopeful, childlike eyes. They are longing for things to return to the way they one were. They are longing to be unburdened of the guilt they carry with them, like an invisible marine’s sixty-five-pound backpack.

Joel has the words they are longing to hear. “Return to me,” God says through the prophet. Let everyone come, the old, the young, even infants at the breast. Return. Return to me. It is not too late, because I, your God, am the one who looks at you and still sees the curly-headed boy full of wonder, the strong-headed girl full of determination. I am the one who looks at you and still beholds your original innocence. Return to me. See the world with new eyes. Hear my call afresh. Leave your burdens behind. Return to me. Return to me.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Longing for Righteousnes: Advent 1 Sermon on Daniel 6

Scripture can be found here...

Advent begins in exile.

We begin Advent, this season of anticipation, by singing a hymn whose origins are so ancient we’re not even sure whether it dates from the 15th century, or the 12th, or the 8th.

O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.

At the beginning of Advent we place ourselves in solidarity with those who, in the great story of scripture, found themselves in exile.

Exile: the state of being forcibly removed from one’s country or home.

Exile: the one who is forcibly separated from his or her country or home.

Advent begins in exile, and exile began with a war.

Beginning in the year 599 BCE the Babylonian Empire laid siege to the southern kingdom of Judah, attacking Jerusalem, the capital city and home of the temple. There followed a series of three deportations, in which the political strategy of “decapitation” was carried out: the occupying power either kills or sends into exile all those of the ruling and educated classes. The king and his court, priests, scribes, officials, prophets—anyone who could write, anyone who might be a threat because they might be able to inspire or organize a resistance movement—they were all carried off into Babylon. This left the working people, the peasantry, the poorest and most powerless, to try to scratch out an existence in a scorched landscape, in full view of their desecrated holy place.

Jerusalem, God’s holy city Zion, was not forgotten by those who went into exile. The people sang,

By the waters, the waters of Babylon
We lay down and wept, and wept for thee Zion.
We remember, we remember, we remember thee Zion. ~Psalm 137:1

After the year 538, when the Babylonian conquerors were, themselves, conquered by the Persians, there began a gradual return to Judah and rebuilding of the Temple. But some remained in exile. Some, like Daniel, had found a life in the foreign land to which they, or perhaps, their parents, had been carried.

Why wouldn’t you go home, if you had the chance? Why would you choose to stay in exile?

Sometimes, the answer is simple: good and rewarding work. Daniel, like Joseph many generations before him, had risen to a position of power and authority in the Persian regime. He was one of just three presidents over a group of 120 governors, called “satraps,” and he performed so excellently, he had such a tremendous ‘spirit’ in him, according to our story, that the king, Darius, had decided to put him in charge of the entire land.

This was too much for his colleagues, for the other presidents and satraps. Maybe Daniel is disliked because he was an immigrant, even though he had been brought into the land entirely by force. Maybe there would have been resentment for anyone who’d made his way to the top of the pile.

Whatever the reason, Daniel is targeted. A law is fashioned specifically to make what he does in his every day life illegal: praying. And we’re not talking about praying at public events, or in the classroom, using his power and authority to subject the good Persian citizens to his personal religious beliefs. We’re talking about prayer in his own home, to the God of his faith, the God of his people, the God who is with him even in exile. Not only does the king sign the law, he signs an additional provision that makes the undoing of the law illegal and therefore impossible.

What does it mean to be righteous? Not self-righteous, which is probably our most persistent association with that word. But righteous: living up to our own highest hopes and expectations for our behavior. Good. True. Loyal. Noble. I think most of us hope that, if we ever found ourselves seriously morally at odds with some entity—an employer, an organization, a club, even the government—that we would somehow find it within ourselves to do the right thing. All around us, day by day, we see just the opposite, in every sector of society. But we hope we would be different.

In Advent, in exile, I think we are longing for righteousness.

We are longing for the righteousness that does the moral thing, whether it is politically expedient or not.

We are longing for the righteousness that holds fast to faith, even at the risk of losing everything.

We are longing even for the compromised righteousness of a King Darius, who spends the night unable to eat or sleep because of someone who is not his kin, not his tribe, not even his nationality: sleepless and fasting because he has a conscience, and when something is wrong, it’s wrong.

And when something is right, it’s right. Daniel is a man living in exile, but one who clings to his faith, his sense of what is right, and his hope in God’s kindness and mercy. Daniel is a righteous man.

O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.

Advent begins in exile. Which, as I ponder it, is something like the human condition. We are all, at some point, people in mourning, separated from those we love. We are all, at some point, lonely, strangers in a strange land, even if that land is the very same place we have lived for twenty years or more. We are all, at some point, exiles, wondering how we can sing songs of joy when life feels barren and hostile.

But even in that foreign land we sing our song. We share a story of one man whose righteousness reminds us of what we are longing for. We kindle a flame of hope and gather around a table, seeking bread for this journey—the journey every exile longs to make. The journey home.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Written on the Heart: A Sermon on Jeremiah 36 and 31

Scripture can be found here...

I can’t remember when it was that I first became aware of the “problem” with kings. Like many children I grew up immersed in fairy tales, with their stories of kings and queens and princes and princesses. As a college student I eagerly watched the TV and print coverage of the royal wedding between Diana, the princess who was exactly my age, and the man who will be king Prince Charles. And, like many women my age, I actually wept years later when her fairy tale had turned into a nightmare that ended with her untimely death.

Did I first become aware of the problem with kings then?

Or was it years before, when I was studying my U. S. History, in elementary school and high school, and learned about George III, who unfairly taxed the colonies right into revolution and the birth of a new nation? Or, was it when I learned about the various other kings throughout history whose peccadilloes and/ or crimes and/ or poor decision-making cast serious doubts on the whole concept of “divine right”?

I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point I definitely learned that some kings are examples of inspiring leadership: Shakespeare’s Henry V comes to mind, as does the real-life George VI, who saw Great Britain through World War II. But the institution itself, at a human level, tends to be deeply flawed and problematic.

That’s pretty much what God said it would be like. Back in 1 Samuel, when representatives of the twelve tribes said to the prophet , “Give us a king to govern us.” God responded:

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.

~1 Samuel 8:1-18

As God was paraphrased in an earlier sermon, “here’s what human kings are good for: forced labor, taxes, harems, armies, war.”[i] A word that is repeated again and again in this passage is “take.” A king is very good at “taking.”

And by this point in the biblical story, we have met many kings. We have met faithful but also deeply flawed kings like David and his son Solomon. We have met flawed and deeply unfaithful kings like Ahab, and now, Jehoiakim. If there’s anything the institution of hereditary monarchy in the bible teaches us, it’s that the character of the parent and the character of the child can be radically different. Jehoiakim is the son of one of the southern kingdom’s great heroes, the faithful reformer King Josiah. Jehoiakim couldn’t be more different. His faithlessness is exceeded only by his arrogance.

When we meet him, the year is about 605 BCE, the Southern kingdom is in much the same state Isaiah described last week: a sinful nation, unfaithful, chasing after other gods and not only ignoring the welfare of the people, but crushing them. This is while the great empire Babylon is consolidating its power, and King Jehoiakim is paying the Babylonians tribute as a precautionary measure, trying to stay on their good side. “At this crucial junction, God is giving Judah one more chance to repent.”[ii] This is where the prophet comes in.

Jeremiah is a towering figure of the Hebrew Scriptures, called when still a young boy and having a long career as a gadfly to the powerful. His prophetic ministry lasts almost 40 years, through five separate kings and into the time of the Babylonian captivity and exile. One article on Jeremiah lists several of the tribulations to which he is subjected as a result of his intense, unflagging ministry:

Jeremiah was attacked by his own brothers [12:6], beaten and put into the stocks by a priest… [20:1-4], imprisoned by a king [37:18, 38:28], threatened with death [38:4], thrown into a cistern… [38:6], and opposed by a false prophet [Ch. 28].[iii]

God’s word comes to Jeremiah continually throughout that time period, and it is a word beseeching all—king, commoners, priests, prophets alike—to repent, turn around, and be faithful to God once again. At this very moment, when Babylon is becoming more and more of a threat, God prods Jeremiah yet again, and he dutifully dictates God’s words to his scribe, who writes them all down on scrolls and reads them aloud in the temple, where, suffice to say, Jeremiah is a persona non grata.

Jehoiakim, is in his winter apartment, and that little detail evokes so much of what is wrong with this king. He is cozy and warm while others are freezing. He is insulated, inside before a toasty fire, while others are exposed, both to the dangers without and to the warning word of God as it is being read in the temple. But he must know that gadfly Jeremiah is at it again, because he calls for the scroll to be read aloud to him. His response to what he hears is utterly shocking: “As [his servant] read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire…” [Jeremiah 36:23]. The king of Judah, the southern kingdom founded upon the covenant promise of God, treats the words from God as fuel for the fire to warm his winter apartment, and no more. God’s words of warning are falling on deaf ears.

Jeremiah is undeterred. He calls his scribe and instructs him to write another scroll, with all the same words on it that have been burned by the king of Judah.

There are a number of problems with the institution of the monarchy, as we see it unfolding in the story of scripture. But let’s just focus on this one: If the people regard the king as a kind of stand-in for God on earth, and the king does NOT regard faithfulness to God as the first priority… a chasm opens up between God and the people.  It doesn’t always have to be that way. King Josiah, made spreading God’s word among the people his life’s work. But his son’s casual use of the sacred scroll as kindling to warm his toes tells us all about his priorities. This king will not lead his people back to God.

At this point in our reading, we go back… we go back to the words of chapter 31, because the message of God through Jeremiah is the same after the king’s arrogant gesture as it was before. God offers the people a complete do-over. God, who, as ever, is kind and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing, offers a new covenant.

… [T]his is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. ~Jeremiah 31:33-34

It is God’s plan to bypass the king entirely. No longer content to let the king—or any king—be the determining factor in God’s relationship with the people, God is prepared to close the chasm in the most dramatic and direct way.  Rather than having a law that exists only on a scroll or in the words of a prophet, God makes each person a kind of living scroll. Rather than charging a king or an order of priests to enforce God’s law, God will place the law directly into every human heart. Rather than having the law written on parchment, it will be written on the heart.

And so we have, in starkest terms, the contrast between an earthly king and God as king. The earthly king is the king who takes and takes and takes—taking sons and daughters for armies and harems, taking taxes and wealth to pay his expenses and butter up his nobles, taking the people’s very lives for his forced labor and military campaigns. God as king gives and gives and gives—giving second chances, and third, and more in endless number; giving the law to be planted in the hungry soil of every heart; giving the intimate knowledge of real relationship: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”

I suppose the question is as crucial for us as it was for this king and his subjects of two-and-a-half millennia ago: What will we do with the word of God? What will we do with God’s call—which starts to sound less and less like the command of a king and more and more like the wooing of a lover? What will we do? In the words of our prayer of confession, will we yield ourselves to God’s transforming grace? In the words of the prophet, will we allow the law of God—which is love—to be written on our hearts? And if we can’t, or won’t, or find ourselves saying “Not now, later,” will we, can we trust that the offer remains open? That our God is a God of kindness and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love? For the continued, gracious invitation, all thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Rolf Jacobson, Podcast: “Narrative Lectionary 051, Solomon,” October 21, 2012.
[ii] J. Clinton McCann, “Narrative Lectionary 055, Jeremiah,” November 18, 2012.
[iii] “Jeremiah,” Wikipedia (

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Grateful Response: Sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8

Scripture passage can be found here...

It is the year 738 BCE. The place is Jerusalem, the capitol of the southern kingdom, Judah, the Temple Mount, often called “Zion” in the psalms. You are Isaiah, son of Amoz: probably you are the son of a priestly family, someone with a reason to go into the temple, at any rate. Uzziah, the king of Judah, has just died. And as you look around you, as you look at the kingdom, and its people, and the ins and outs of its wanton ways, all seems lost. You describe what you see in angry, bitter terms. You say,

“Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged! Why do you seek further beatings? Why do you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and bleeding wounds; they have not been drained, or bound up, or softened with oil. Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners. And daughter Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a shelter in a cucumber field, like a besieged city” [Isaiah 1:4-8].

And then, you enter the temple.

This first temple, the one built by Solomon, is not large by 21st century standards. At 180 feet in length, it is dwarfed by the likes of the Crystal Cathedral (at 415 feet), or Saint John the Divine (at 600 feet).  But the exterior of the temple is imposing and majestic from its vast quantities of beautiful stone, and the interior of the temple into which you walk is fragrant with the scent of fine wood, cypress and cedar. And in the innermost part of the temple, the sanctuary that contains the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant, you walk into a fiery glow that comes from the walls being covered with an inlay of pure gold.

It is here that our passage begins. With the terrible destruction you see all around outside, you, Isaiah walk into a space that is filled with, not only the beauty of craftsmanship and costly materials, but with the true presence of God on earth.

“I saw the Lord sitting on a throne,” you would later say, “high and lofty. And the hem of his robe filled the temple” [Isaiah 6:1b]. No one can literally “see” God, scripture is careful to tell us. But what you see is the very tail end of God’s glory, God’s hem, this tiny fragment of something too enormously holy and gorgeous for the likes of a human being to really apprehend.

You try to describe the angels. “Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.” Seraphim us a Hebrew word meaning “fire.” You see beings that are made of fire, yet they are also made of wings, and the oldest representations of them show us, they are made of eyes—they are covered with eyes, every winged fiery inch of them. They are monstrous. They are holy.

And the fiery winged eye-covered monsters are crying out to one another, “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, Yahweh Tzabaoth.” “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” This does not sound remotely like our hymn this morning. This is a cry of distress. Even to these fiery winged beings, God’s holiness is distressing, it is too much, God is way too holy. To be “holy” in the Old Testament means to be other, completely foreign and incomprehensible and unreachable. They are horrified. They are in awe. They cannot stop singing it, in strange tones that hurt the ears as much as the vision hurts the eyes. The temple is shaking with the noise. It is filled with smoke.

You, Isaiah, react in a way that makes sense. “Woe is me!” No. No. No. “I am lost.” The Hebrew word really means, not lost, but “stilled.” Made silent. I am silenced “…for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips…”  Yet, I have seen you. I have seen the Lord. [Isaiah 6:5].

Well, you can “see the Lord” in scripture, as it turns out. However, most often, this experience leads to death (for example, Exodus 33:20).

OK. You are not Isaiah any longer. You are… yourselves. And I won’t ask you, I’ll ask myself: when is the last time I had an experience of God that was not simply… comfortable? And reassuring? And kind of normal and maybe even a little boring?

Annie Dillard, in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, writes:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.[i]

We have tried our best to tame God, to domesticate God. And I think I understand a little of how that happened. I think there was a time—the phrase “sinners in the hands of an angry God” comes to mind—in which the focus of the church was so strongly on God’s wrath, God’s power to smite, God’s absolute intolerance of sin, that we forgot almost entirely the truth about God’s character: in the words of the star of last week’s sermon, cranky northern kingdom prophet Jonah: “You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” [Jonah 4:2b]. And over time, as the church refocused its message on that essential truth about God’s nature, we did that oh so human thing wherein the baby and the bathwater go together down the drain.

Except, they don’t. They never can.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil[ii]

Ask someone who’s stood at the lip of the Grand Canyon. Ask someone who’s been out to sea, or in the middle of a Great Lake when a squall comes up. Ask someone who’s held a newborn infant in his or her arms. Ask someone who’s stood in awestruck wonder at the beauty of a sunset, or the sight of a tree turning itself into a pillar of flame, or the crystalline silence of an early morning snow that is as yet undisturbed by human intervention.

Ask someone who’s known himself to be utterly unworthy, a sinner to the bone, but who nevertheless understands himself to be forgiven. Ask Isaiah, whose lips forever after burn with both the memory of the glowing coal and his commission to action. Ask Isaiah, who, in the end, understands that God has said to him, in essence, “Things are hopeless out there, But you are my hope.”

You are my hope. When all the world is every bit as dark as Isaiah experiences it, God says to a flawed human being, “You are my hope.” And the first five chapters of Isaiah tell us how very dark the days are. They tell us of worship that has grown meaningless to God, because it is not made authentic by hearts that are moved with compassion. They tell us of kings who care only for power, and people who care only for wealth. They tell us of people who are abiding injustice, oppressing the powerless, ignoring the orphans and the widows right at their doorsteps.

And yet God sends Isaiah out into all of it. God commissions him, a flawed but forgiven man, and Isaiah’s answer is a firm “Here I am; send me.”

As creations of God, beautiful and flawed, we forget. We forget the grandeur of God, the mountains and the oceans and the storms and the stillness that all arose from the very breath of God. We forget how fearsome and terrifying the power of God is. And we forget, too, the essential nature of God as kind and merciful, slow to anger and overflowing with rock-steady love. We forget it all.

Gratitude begins with remembering.

There is something about Isaiah’s response that speaks of a grateful heart. A heart that has remembered, been confronted with the truth about God and the truth about himself, and who has lived to tell the tale. Maybe he’s just grateful he survived. That is entirely possible. But he has also experienced that burning coal, and in so doing, has experienced something else, too. The God who is holy, holy, way too holy—other, foreign, unreachable, unapproachable—has for some reason chosen to bridge the gap. God who is wholly mysterious has chosen, by virtue of that purging touch, to connect with Isaiah, to say, You are a part of my equation. And I can only see Isaiah’s response as the response of one who suddenly knows that he matters, that he can make a difference. Even to God. Even for God.

We are so great at taking days of remembrance and turning them into something else entirely. But one day we seem to have figured out and that we seem to be able to carry on with some connection to its original intent is Thanksgiving. We gather around a table with loved ones—friends, family, friends who have become family—and we know the purpose of the gathering is to acknowledge that we are blessed. The purpose of the gathering is to remember. Gratitude begins with remembering.

You are not Isaiah, but you. And you remember. You remember the God who created the Finger Lakes and the grapes that grow along their banks, who created the thousand shades of green that cover our hills and valleys, and the clouds and the endless varieties of beautiful configurations with which they cover our skies. You remember the God who designed both the patterns of frost you saw on your car this morning and the opposable thumb, and who placed you in the body you now inhabit, and surrounded you with loved ones or with the ceaseless longing for genuine connection.   You remember that God looks at you, and looks at the beautiful and broken world all around you, and says, “You are my hope.”

And because you remember, you can be grateful. And because you are grateful, you can say to God, “Here I am. Send me.” All praise and thanks be to God. A

[i] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1982).
[ii] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” in Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985).