The Birthplace of Joy, Creativity, Belonging, of Love: a sermon for Christmas Eve 2014

This sermon, offered on December 24th, 2014 at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin is based on the Readings for Christmas I in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

 

Standing there in a small cave, on the slopes outside Bethlehem, our instructor asked us to imagine that we had seen something compelling enough to cause us to leave our sheep, or to leave them in the care of the junior shepherds, and to make the trip into Bethlehem in search of a newborn child.

Something compelling?  seriously?

You mean something compelling like a light unlike any we had ever seen, an angel of the Lord speaking to us, a host of angels praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven and peace on earth to those whom he favors…”

It’s hard to imagine what that might have looked like. It’s hard to imagine what that must have felt like. But it’s not hard to imagine that it would have been pretty compelling. Once our hearts stop pounding, our knees stop shaking, as the adrenaline begins to settle into our bellies we are on our way, heading into Bethlehem, the sheep and all else forgotten in our excitement and anticipation.

And it’s not just the special effects, the heavenly host and the light show that have us taking to the road here in the middle of the night. As the darkness settled back in, as we have relived that spectacular and terrifying moment, the words that the angel spoke have begun to resonate in our heads…

“Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

Those shepherds, living in the fields, keeping watch over their sheep that night,

anyone who was hearing or reading Luke’s account of this moment,

and we sitting here this evening

all recognize in the Angel’s proclamation a promise of freedom, redemption, and salvation:

 

“For a child has been born for us,

a son given to us;

authority rests upon his shoulders;

and he is named

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

His authority shall grow continually,

and there shall be endless peace

for the throne of David and his kingdom.

He will establish and uphold it

with justice and with righteousness

from this time onward and forevermore.

The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”

Endless peace, justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore… No wonder we are on the move, gathering here around the manger, daring to hope that this is the one who has been promised from of old… The

“Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

 

But you know… now that we are here I just have to ask the question… is this the right place, the right child, the son we have been waiting for? I know that the angel said we would find him in a manger… maybe in our excitement we sort of glossed over that one detail… but I just don’t see how this could be right…

“Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Those words, words that have been so important to us, words that have given us hope and comfort, those words evoke

power,

majesty,

might!

Authority is supposed to rest upon his shoulders and grow continually…

But this child, this son, has been born among the animals, wrapped in rags, and laid in a manger filled with hay. How can this child hope to restore the nation? Do we dare rest our hopes and dreams on him, on one born in such mean estate… where ox and ass are feeding?

 

Luke tells us that after they saw Jesus and told their story to Mary and Joseph,

“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”

 

I don’t know… Clearly they were convinced… But I think I would feel much better about it would feel about the hopes and fears of all the years being met in a child destined to become the

 “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…”

…if that child had arrived with just a little more power… majesty… and might…

Resting our hopes and fears on this vulnerable little child feels too risky. It leaves us feeling vulnerable too. So how could those shepherds come away from their encounter with a child born among the animals, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger so ecstatic, so sure of what they had seen? Perhaps in that encounter they had discovered something about vulnerability that has been lost on us today.

Power, majesty, and might sound attractive when we are desperate for relief, when we long for an intervention that will make all things right, that will restore order and justice, and return us to our proper place in the world.

But power, majesty, and might are difficult things to manage in a relationship. They create an imbalance, diminish mutuality, and make love difficult, suspect, maybe even impossible. Power, majesty, and might almost always come across as saying, “I own you. Bend your knee to me.”

We don’t have to look far to see how this plays itself out… the news is filled with people who can’t seem to risk being wrong, who don’t want to risk the possibility that they might learn something from someone else, who don’t want to risk having to change… All of that risk leaves them feeling much too vulnerable. So they assume a position of power, majesty, and might… trying to force their opinion on others and demonizing anyone who disagrees with them or challenges their authority.

We don’t have to dig very deep to understand how a fear of risk and an aversion to vulnerability impact our personal lives. The fear of rejection, the fear of not measuring up, the fear of being laughed at keep us from risking, keep us from allowing ourselves to become vulnerable to another. We hide our true selves so that we won’t get hurt. The fear of risk, an aversion to feeling vulnerable leaves us estranged from one another, cut off, from the people and the world around us.

Three days ago, at the Sunday Forum we watched a TED Talk by Brene Brown, whom Wikipedia calls a scholar, author, and public speaker but who prefers to call herself a “researcher story teller.” In her research she has found that people who express a true sense of connection with the people and the world around them are people who embrace vulnerability. They believe that what makes them vulnerable also makes them beautiful. They are willing to risk, “To do something where there are no guarantees. To invest in a relationship that may not work out. To say ‘I love you’ first.” Taking risks, making ourselves vulnerable may, at times, leave us hurt or wounded but, according to Brown, “it is also the birthplace of joy, creativity, of belonging, of love…”

Hear that again… “Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, of love.”

Those shepherds who came to the manger expecting to meet the son who was promised from of old, the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…” were folk who lived pretty close to the bottom of the social order. They were looked down upon, not welcomed among polite company. It’s easy to imagine how their lives might have left them risk averse, unwilling to reveal themselves to another, avoiding moments, situations, and relationships where they might be vulnerable to more hurt, rejection, or shame…

So I am guessing that when they found the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay, they were startled, that they were confused, maybe even a little disappointed at first. They came looking for someone with power, majesty, and might to intervene on their behalf.

And then the dawn began to break upon them…

If what the angels had told them was true, if this is indeed is indeed the one who was promised, the one who would become the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…” then God has chosen to begin that work by risking, by daring to become vulnerable to and for us. In coming to us as a defenseless, dependent baby, born in a stable and laid in a manger God has risked doing “something where there are no guarantees,” Has risked “investing in a relationship that might not work out.”

No wonder we will all go home tonight glorifying and praising God for all that we had heard and seen. Gathered here at the manger we have experienced an incredible revelation of God’s nature and purpose among us.

God doesn’t come to us and speak from a position of power, majesty and might, to say “I own you,” to demand that we bend our knee…

God comes to us in the cry of a baby, holding out its arms, dependent upon us, exposed, unguarded, vulnerable, willing to be the first to say “I love you,” and to invite us into “the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, of love!”

“Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

Amen

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Waiting and Watching with God’s Eyes: a sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church on December 14, 2014, is based on the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

The passages quoted from the Gospel of Luke can be found here.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

Please be seated.

Here in this season of waiting the mood, the tone, for this morning’s liturgy is set right away, in our first reading; words that are filled with comfort but words which are often chosen to be read at a funeral. We hear these words from Isaiah in those moments when we are bereft, grieving, mourning, perhaps feeling defeated but definitely in pain. Hear the words again of the prophet Isaiah:

“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,

because the LORD has anointed me;

he has sent me 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 the LORD’s favor,

and the day of vengeance of our God;

to comfort all who mourn;

to provide for those who mourn in Zion—

to give them a garland instead of ashes,

the oil of gladness instead of mourning,

the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”

(Isaiah 61:1-3a)

Here this morning, whatever it is that drives us in this season too long for God to break into the world, to break into our lives, and to make things right, Isaiah reaches out to each and every one of us with these words of great comfort. Isaiah was speaking to the people of Israel on their return from exile in Babylon when the infighting and power struggles that they were experiencing as they tried to reestablish themselves as the people of God and as a nation had devastated their spirits. They were longing for God to intervene.

Isaiah goes on and speaks to them.

“They shall build up the ancient ruins,

they shall raise up the former devastations;

they shall repair the ruined cities,

the devastations of many generations.”

(Isaiah 61:4)

 

Words of great hope and comfort… promises from God that God’s action and intervention in the world will transform our mourning into joy, that the losses that we have experienced will be reconciled, and that the state of our nation can and will be restored when God’s anointed, comes to set all things right. Words of great comfort…   and you would think words that a preacher would delight in delivering, standing in front of a congregation, offering this promise, this hope, this comfort. But there was a time when a preacher used these words and it all went terribly wrong.

Jesus filled with the Holy Spirit returns from his temptation in the wilderness and finds himself in Nazareth.   Here’s how that preaching moment went.

“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him”  (Luke 4:16-20).

Then he began to preach. Jesus said, “Today the Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). The promises have come true here and now. God is intervening, breaking into the world to make these things a reality.   And his hometown folks were delighted.

“All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son’”  (Luke 4:22)?

Oooh! Can you hear the pride? Is not this Joseph’s son? This is our homey, right here, bringing God into the world, this is a miracle. And we’re right here on the ground floor!

In this moment, with these words, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” they’ve claimed him. And they have claimed God’s intervention on their behalf. Then Jesus starts to turn things on them a little.

“He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum’”  (Luke 4:23).

Jesus’s response to that is

“Truly I tell you no profit is accepted in the prophet’s hometown”  (Luke 4:24).

Wow! Imagine how that would’ve felt. Your hopes were high. “We are ready! We are in! We are on the ground floor!” And then Jesus says but now I’m not going to do for you the things that that you heard that I have done… And then it gets worse…

“But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon”  (Luke 4:25-26).

None of the widows and orphans and starving people of Israel… He was sent to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon…. a foreigner, an outsider, a gentile! Jesus goes on to remind them of another story…

“There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:27).

…a foreigner, an outsider, a Gentile…

Now I think it’s easy to imagine and to understand the disappointment of Jesus’ friends and neighbors and family there in Nazareth. They were, after all, right there at the head of the line, about to receive the best of the best, the miracle to end all miracles, and so they were unhappy and angry.   But their response when you read it seems more than just a little disproportionate.

“When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff”  (Luke 4:28-29).

I can see being disappointed. I could see being envious. I could see being jealous, but murderous with rage? I think the truth is that Jesus was saying something even more than you’re not at the top of the list.

Imagine believing for generations that you are God’s chosen people and then hearing that your suffering, your captivity, your mourning, your grief is not at the top of God’s Christmas to do list… that someone else’s needs, someone else’s mourning, someone else’s captivity might just come first. That would be upsetting but as you ponder that and begin to think about it I think we become nervous. What if their being set free, their being released, their receiving the good news means that I have to give up or lose some of the freedom, some of the good news, some of the liberty that I enjoy? What if God coming into the world to make all things right so that we all might live together as brothers and sisters fulfilling God’s vision for all of creation means that I have to step back in the line and allow others to go first? What if it means that I have to give up some of what I have, some of my status, privilege rank, in order to let others join me at the table? That gets to be a little more difficult. It’s fine with me if others are brought to the table as long as I don’t have to give anything up to allow them to do it. And then there’s that other layer that’s unavoidable. It may take a little longer to get there. It seems like the folks in Nazareth got there pretty quickly based on their response…

What if when God comes into the world to set the captives free, and by necessity confronts the captors… What if that turns out to be me? What if God coming into the world and confronting the oppressors, and those who keep others down, who leave others in ashes mourning, and grieving… what if it turns out that I have something to do with that?

We wait in this season of Advent for God to break in it to the world to set the prisoners free, to proclaim release and liberty, to change our mourning and our grief to joy and the oil of gladness and a garland of victory flowers, and we think we know what it will take for that happen. But our vision of that moment might be only half the truth.

Jesus is holding that possibility open and asking us to stand in that uncomfortable place, and wrestle with the possibility that when God comes to set all things right we might have to change, or give, or let go.

In these last several weeks I think we have been called to stand in this place by the events that have surrounded and swirled about us. Stories from Ferguson Missouri, from Staten Island in New York, stories about our own Central Intelligence Agency leave us wondering just who are the oppressors, who are the captors, who are those who are contributing to the systems that keep people in mourning, and in ashes, grieving, despairing, and lost.

In the words of the prophet Isaiah the prisoners must be set free, the captives it must be released, the oil of sorrow, the ashes must be replaced with the oil of gladness and a garland of victory in order that the rulings may be rebuilt. The way that that prophecy runs those injustices are corrected before the nation is restored. I think that is the message that Isaiah proclaims to us this morning. If we listen to Jesus’s own interpretation of these words there is no doubt that this prophecy cuts two ways.

In our Gospel reading from the Gospel of John this morning John the Baptist stands in the wilderness baptizing and when the authorities approach him and asked him what right he has to be baptizing, who is he, “Give us answer. Tell us who you are…” John the Baptist quotes the prophet Isaiah.

“He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord,’’ as the prophet Isaiah said”  (John 1:23).

John is reminding us, all in one moment, of the prophecies of Isaiah and the fact Jesus is coming.

He also tells us, and this is I think the miracle in the paradox of the season of Advent, that he is coming and he’s already here. John says to them there is one among you whom you do not know. I am not fit to untie the thong of his sandals. That I think is the mystery of this season. We wait for one who has already come, and who will come again. And while we wait for him he stands right next to us, waiting with us. So we have the opportunity to remain awake, or to be awakened, to open our eyes, to open our hearts, to see the world with God’s own eyes: captor and captive,, oppressor and oppressed and to honestly struggled to find our own place within that equation. And then to work to move things towards the light, to bring all the nations in to the light of God’s love and grace, and to make sure that not one of God’s children is left behind or lost.

This morning when I got up, and I always do this on Sunday morning I checked the Washington Post webpage, I checked the Wisconsin State Journal, just to make sure that nothing’s happened overnight that I need to be aware of when I stand in front of you all… this morning I was devastated to read that on the campus of U.C. Berkeley three black effigies were hung in prominent locations around that campus so that they would be there present as protesters gathered to march under banners that said “Black Lives Matter.”

On this day and in this moment we are called to open our eyes, to acknowledge our place in this economy, and in this system, and in this world. And to work to bring about the transformation that Isaiah calls for. Jesus is here standing beside us, standing behind us, standing in front of us, and calling us to participate in bringing good news to the oppressed, binding up the broken hearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners… Jesus is behind us, before us, and standing beside us asking us to join him in providing comfort to all who mourn, giving them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning… the oil of gladness instead of mourning. We look back, we look to the future, and we wait, we listen, and we look with God’s eyes.

Amen