Saturday, December 28, 2013

Reflections on Matthew 2 - Christmas I

Read all of Matthew 2 here: Matthew 2
"The Slaughter of the Innocents" by the peasants of the Solentiname Community in Nicaragua - 
c. 1980's - A companion to Ernesto Cardinal's "The Gospel in Solentiname"
Herod the King
One of the great joys of Christmas is to hear the story and to be reacquainted with the many characters which have become beloved over the centuries – Mary, Joseph, Gabriel the Archangel, the heavenly host of angels, the shepherds and the Magi (Wise Men / Kings).  Even the animals that have become associated with the story have a place in our hearts.  But there is one important character in the story who is almost always ignored and this is King Herod the Great.  As the story of the birth is told in the Gospel of Matthew Herod is a central character and is the principal mover in chapter 2. 
Chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew begins after the birth of Jesus, which is reported in the very last verse of chapter 1.  And then we have the story of the Magi from the east who have come seeking the future King of the Jews.  They get lost or confused and end up at the palace of Herod in Jerusalem – after all where else to find a new prince but at the palace.  It becomes immediately clear to them that they have made a terrible mistake.  The new baby kind is not there and Herod is suspicious.  The Magi are dismissed but ordered to return to the palace to bring information about the new “King.”  The Magi by this time have realized that stopping at the palace was a major and possibly fatal mistake.  They eventually find the star and then the baby Jesus, but then slip away secretly and get out of the country without notifying Herod.  In the meantime, Joseph is warned in a dream about the impending danger to the baby and he scoops up Mary and the baby and slips out of Judea and into Egypt.  Just in time, as Herod sends his security forces into Bethlehem to eliminate any possible threat to his rule.  And to make sure they manage to get the right child he just orders that all male children two and under be murdered.  It is a brutal end to the Christmas story.
But this act of brutality and terror was not behavior that was foreign to Herod the Great.  He had come into power by a combination of bloodshed and flattery.  He was a particularly good orator and had managed to impress the young Caesar Augustus when Herod had gone to meet him and do penance after having backed Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in the uprising that eventually had claimed both of these leaders.  Herod was also a brilliant architect.  Had he not gone into politics he might be remembered today as one of the greatest architects of antiquity.  He built great palaces, he rebuilt the temple, he built the port city of Caesarea from scratch and he built the incredible fortress Masada (by converting a mountain into an impenetrable palace).
But Herod was brutal and not afraid to murder if it would benefit him.  He had murdered or executed all of his rivals for the throne at the beginning of his reign and continued to deal with any dissention with a bloody iron fist.  Even his own family was not safe.  He had two of his own sons executed a few years before his death.  He also executed his wife and the queen Mariame I (who is said to have loathed her husband).  As he lay suffering on his death bed he became so obsessed with the possibility that at his death no one would mourn that he had a group of important and well respected citizens arrested and gave the order that at his death they should all be murdered so that there would be mourning.  Luckily for them once Herod was dead this order was not carried out.  Augustus Caesar, who was a man who was also perfectly capable to using violence when it suited him, is nevertheless reported as having been appalled and repelled by the scope of Herod’s brutality and cruelty.  He is quoted as having once joked that it would be better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.
And so on this 1st weekend after Christmas we look at both Jesus and Herod – Herod representing the values and ways of the world and Jesus showing us God’s response.  The writer Tommy Hinson comments about this comparison in this way:
Christmas is not about sentimentality; it is about sovereignty.  Our make-believe monarchy is about to come tumbling down. But therein lies the hope, and the peace, that Christmas promises. For the Christmas story is not merely pageant-fodder; it proclaims to the world a vision of the true king.

While a mortal king like Herod clamored for power, the infinite-become-infant entered in obscurity. He was born to a frightened teen mother in a backwater town, attended by unclean shepherds and Gentiles, exactly the wrong sorts of people. While Herod ruled through oppression and fear, Jesus served with compassion and love. Both were 33 on the day of their coronation — Herod in the halls of Rome; Jesus on the hill of Golgotha.

Herod took the life of anyone who stood against him; Jesus gave his life for everyone who stands against him, a divine rescue mission. Thus was the price of Christmas peace. He subverts us in order to save us, and we are left to decide, “Will we take up arms against such a king, or will we finally lay our paper crowns down?”

Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her king. One day he’ll make the world anew, and heaven and nature themselves will sing.
Herod the Great
The quotes above are from a Sojourner's Magazine by Tommy Hinson - "Our War on Christmas"

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Sermon for Christmas Eve - 2013 - Luke 2:1-20

In the Silence of This Night

   This past month has been a hectic one, has it not? Beginning on Thanksgiving we have all been frantically preparing for Christmas.  We all had stores to visit, places to go, people to see, things to buy, cards to mail, food to prepare and so on.  And so then, on this night, we are gathered to worship the God who is enfleshed in Jesus and who is laying quietly and peacefully in the manger in the far away cave in the hills around Bethlehem. But we have also come in the night to worship to Jesus who hangs from the cross on a hill called Golgotha.  The manger and the cross.  We need to see both together on this night!  In fact it is only by seeing them both together that we can truely understand and experience the depth and reality of the Gospel.
The cross? Yes, the cross – that is ultimately what Christmas is all about - the cross of Jesus!

   It is easy for us to get distracted from this.  It is partly the noise that surrounds this holiday – the commercialism is just one of the noisy elements of the season, but not the only one.  There is also the sentimentality that fills this season.  Christmas, we say, is about Joy to the world, glory to God and Peace on earth. True enough! But Christmas is also about loss, and grief and fear and poverty and loneliness and violence and death – it is about the cross!  We don’t see the cross because we don’t want to see the cross - we want warm fuzzy Christmas – angels, shepherds, wise men, mother and child is a clean and clear stable with passive animals.

   The 1st Christmas was not so warm and fuzzy though.  I have said before – the Christmas story as told by both Luke and Matthew is a dark story.  It is a story about oppression, fear, rejection and terror – this is a story that does not try to sugar coat this reality of human life but presents the it in all its stark reality.  It is then a story about how God enters into this darkness and fear and oppression and rejection and loss and loneliness and terror and death; and brings light and life and hope and love and unconditional acceptance and community and grace and peace.

   This cast of characters that populate the Christmas story represents the absolute worst of human experience – poverty, deprivation, oppression, selfishness and hate.  It is into this that Christ is born – it is into all of this that God enters.

   The birth story then is about the human experience; the ins and outs of human life in all of its glory and misery.  Those of us who call ourselves Christians need always to remember that on this night, on this silent night, while we argue about this political issue or that, or while we congratulate ourselves for our moral righteousness, or while we spend time demanding entitlement or what we think the world owes us – there are at the same time human beings who on this night, in the silence of this night are hungry, afraid, filled with terror, rejected and lonely; there are human persons whom God loves madly and passionately and for whom God was born in Jesus and died on the cross who are in despair because of the hate they feel is directed at them, or who are trapped in an addiction, or a cycle of violence, or a state of self-loathing or all of the above; there are people, old and young who are desperately lonely and filled with grief.  There are people who are ill and suffering – this night – this silent night!

   That is why as we gaze at the manger on this silent night we need to see both the Christ child as an infant laying in a manger and the adult Jesus hanging from the cross.  For the cross is the climax of the promise that God has entered into all of those dark human experiences – ALL of them!  The cross reminds us that we cannot scare God away, we cannot push God away, we cannot make God abandon us!  Someone said to me not so long ago – “Isn’t it true that God will soon have enough of us humans and will leave and abandon us to destroy ourselves!” – No! It is NOT true!  It is not possible The baby in the manger and Jesus on the cross are both signs of God’s commitment to us.  God is in it for the long haul – Nothing can force God to abandon us – NOTHING! 

   And so, in this silent night we gaze at the baby in the manger; and we gaze at Jesus on the cross and remember that God has entered into the darkness and brought light, God has entered into every dimension of human life and brought forgiveness and Grace.  And only then we can voice words of praise and join the song of the Angels: Glory to God – For this God we worship, this God we celebrate loves us madly, passionately and unconditionally.  That is the Gospel of Christmas!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Advent IVA - 2013 - Images of the Kingdom: The Crib

This year for a series of sermons for Advent have decided to take the suggestion of Dr. Barbara Lundblad and focus on the images which come out of the Isaiah texts for the season in year A.  Her suggestion is offered in this article found on the Working Preacher website:

To read the Isaiah 7 text click here: Isaiah 7:10-16

Images of the Kingdom: The Crib
King Ahaz of Judea (the Southern Kingdom) was in a tight spot.  Should he ally himself with Samaria/Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Ephraim against Assyria?  Will this make him even more vulnerable?  And what about God-Yahweh? I can imagine his struggle was this: “If I ally myself against Assyria I risk utter destruction?  If I ally myself against Samaria I risk the wrath of God?”  What a choice!  In the midst of this nightmare the prophet/counselor Isaiah comes to King Ahaz and tells him to ask God for a sign.  And the King refuses! “Far be it from me to test God.”  That sounds like he is being very pious and faithful.  But is he?  Isaiah doesn’t think so.  Isaiah responds by telling him that God will send him a sign anyway.  And the sign is a woman who is pregnant and will soon give birth.  And the significance of this particular child is this - by the time the child is weaned this geo-political nightmare situation will be resolved.  The pregnant young woman with child is a sign of hope and promise.
But why won’t King Ahaz ask for a sign after Isaiah specifically tells him that God wants him to ask for one?  What is wrong with him?  Is he really that pious?  Or maybe he doesn’t really want a sign; maybe he is afraid of what the sign might end up being.  He knows that he can’t control the sign that God will provide and that it  will not necessarily be one that he wants, or likes or one that will support his own opinions and position.  Therefore perhaps it is better not to have a sign at all!  But Ahaz forgot something important: God’s signs are not dependent on our desire for them or our willingness to accept them.  For God sends the sign anyway.  This is the way God acts!  God is constantly sending signs to us.  The question this text poses to us is this – do we see and recognize the signs that God gives us, or do we ignore the signs that God sends to us, preferring instead to avoid any sign from God that doesn’t conform with our way of looking at the world?  And preserving the fiction that we are ultimately in control!
So then, what are some of the signs that God sends to us?  And how can we recognize them.  Well, each of us will have a different experience with this, but there are some things that can be gleaned from our scripture texts for today that might help us to recognize signs from God.
First, God usually chooses the ordinary, rather than the extraordinary as the way of reaching out to us.  In the case of King Ahaz, the sign was an ordinary birth of a child – like thousands and thousands of others.  According to the text there is nothing extraordinary about this birth or this child at all.  But yet, the birth of the child represents God’s commitment to the people of Judah, it is a sign of hope and promise, a sign that God is still present with the people of Judah, despite the mistakes, the unfaithfulness and the weakness of the leadership. 
800 years later Matthew quotes from this passage when talking about the birth of Jesus. And while we prefer to focus on the extraordinary circumstances of the birth of Jesus, which are recounted in Luke, what Matthew gives us is more similar to Isaiah.  Mary and Joseph are an ordinary couple, with problems, who are placed in a difficult situation, but the circumstance of the birth itself is just like any other birth – ordinary, painful, in less than perfect circumstances.  It is an ordinary birth of a child, just like so many others births.  And that is the point: God is enfleshed in Jesus – God enters into the world and human experience in an ordinary way – just like us!  This is what it means when we affirm in the creed that we believe Jesus to be fully human!  It is only because of this ordinariness that Jesus is able to be Immanuel – God with us!
What are the ordinary signs in which you daily encounter God through Jesus? Or, like King Ahaz, do you tend to miss the sign because they are not what you are looking for and don’t mess with your way of understanding the world and how God interacts with the world?  Do you tend to look for the extraordinary and miss the ordinary?  Here is the proclamation of the Gospel for today: God sends us many, many signs each and every day.  Do you recognize them?  Or are they too ordinary to be noticed? 
Second, we also need to recognize that when King Ahaz rejects God’s offer of a sign, he is also refusing to trust God.  If I ignore all the ordinary signs and look exclusively for the extraordinary then when the extraordinary doesn’t come I can just dismiss it all and use that as a justification for self-reliance and an affirmation of my prejudices.  The famous saying (which is NOT in the bible) - “God helps those who help themselves” came into being just for this kind of situation – to give us a justification for ignoring God’s signs and thus God’s calling to us!  That saying in totally contrary to the the Gospel proclamation that God has entered into the human experience in order to help those who cannot help themselves (that would be all of us, by the way!).  This is what Jesus does – he reaches out to those who cannot help themselves and loves them and cares for them and feeds them.  And we who have been on the receiving end of God’s love and grace are then called to reach out in the name of Jesus Immanuel in order to help those who cannot help themselves.  When we recognize this – when we see Jesus active in love and grace and forgiveness and outreach – we are seeing a sign of God’s presence, love, hope, promise and commitment!
Lastly, there is one sign that God gives us every week , and this sign is particularly meaningful and profound during this Christmas season as we celebrate God’s enfleshing in Jesus.  This sign of God’s presence with us, and commitment to us, and love for us is that which we experience at least weekly through the ordinary bread and wine of Holy Communion.  Each and every week God invites you to the table to share in his love and presence.  This may not be the kind of sign we want, or think we need – we may try to put all kinds of restrictions on the celebration and  sharing of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, but ultimately this is the sign that God has given to us.  And we are commanded to do this as often as we can, because we need it!  We need to commune with God through Jesus. We all need this sign of God’s love and grace and forgiveness and presence.  This is the Lord’s Table – all are welcome! Come to the table to experience a sign of God’s commitment and love – For You! Jesus Immanuel is with us!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Advent IIIA - 2014 - Images of the Kingdom: Streams in the Desert

This year for a series of sermons for Advent have decided to take the suggestion of Dr. Barbara Lundblad and focus on the images which come out of the Isaiah texts for the season in year A.  Her suggestion is offered in this article found on the Working Preacher website:

To read the Isaiah 35 text click here: Isaiah 35:1-10

Images of the Kingdom: Streams in the Desert
As I write this reflection this morning it is very cold outside.  Today is perhaps one of the coldest days we have experienced here in Southern Illinois in a while! So our image for this weekend is Streams in the Desert stand in profound contrast to our current weather conditions.  We, in fact, might today find ourselves longing for a desert right about now.  So perhaps we should try to lift our minds momentarily out of our cold, snowy and icy environment and picture a desert – the opposite of what we are in the midst of.  As we all know, a desert is a place of intense heat and dryness.  The famous deserts in our world – Death Valley in California, The Sahara in Africa, the Arabian in Saudi Arabia and Palestine are places of desolation and death.  Very little can live there.  Scientists tell us that at one time these were places brimming with life but as time went on a change in topography and the availability of water turned these locations into places of endless sand, death and nothingness.  And one does not dare to be stuck in a desert environment for very long.
But these deserts are not completely devoid of water.  In fact, every so often there is rain.  But since there is so little rain when it does finally comes it can be equally dangerous with the dryness.  In Palestine throughout the desert there are these dry conduits that are called Wadis.  A wadi is simply a dry riverbed.  Over the thousands of years these rains have dug deeper into the sand and sometimes they are deep enough to be lined with cliffs on either side. This makes them attractive for travellers to use them as roads.  As they are deeper they are a bit cooler.  But there is a danger there.  Rain doesn’t come often, but when it comes it can come without warning and it can come as a major downpour.  People can get stuck in the wadis and can be swept away by the waters that quickly accumulate and turn these wadis back into rushing rivers.  These streams (or rivers) in the desert often do not last long, but sometimes they last long enough to encourage some growth.  Immediately following a rainstorm and a full wadi, green growth and flowers will appear and bloom, until the water evaporates and the heat of the desert return these wadis to their usual dry, desert desolation.
This is then our image today:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus  2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing… For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water… (Isaiah 35:1-2, 6-7)
Streams in the desert!  For Isaiah and those listening to him, this image was profound.  They were surrounded by desert – and the desert represented desolation and loss and death.  They had all seen and experienced moments when the sudden rains had come and turned everything lush for a moment. Perhaps some of them had even scrambled out of a wadi just in time. And they had all desired that this momentary lushness could just last a little longer, before the desert returned.  But Isaiah is not just talking about geography and weather.  Isaiah is talking about something much closer – the deserts that reside in the life of the community and the deserts in the hearts of the people of Judah.  Isaiah is talking about the deserts that dried up compassion to the extent that the South could stand by and watch impassively as the Assyrians destroyed the North. Isaiah is talking about the desert wadis within the community and individuals which lead people to ignore the desperation, and desolation of human need – the blind, the lame, the hungry, the naked. Isaiah is talking about the desert wadis that run through our own hearts that encourage us to think only of ourselves and encourage us to accumulate and hoard stuff leading us to completely disregard the needs of others.  And Isaiah’s word here is both a promise and a word of warning: the justice of the Kingdom of God will sweep through these deserts like the rains in a wadi, and human selfishness, cruelty, callousness, greed, exclusivity will all be swept away and in their place will grow love, grace, kindness, compassion, inclusivity and community! And this time they heat of the desert will not return!
This proclamation is also echoed by Jesus in our Gospel for today.  How can we tell if you are the Messiah?  How can we tell if and when the Kingdom of God will appear?  These are the questions that the imprisoned John the Baptist sends to Jesus.  And Jesus’ answer: "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."   In other words, look out!  Because the rains of God’s love and grace are coming and they will wash away all those things we prize so much – power, strength, greed, the worship and accumulation of things, the categories we put people in, cruelty and hard-heartedness, all those excuses we come up with for why it is ok for us to let children starve in our own streets and communities; And in their place we find love and grace and community and sharing and compassion and caring and justice.
What are the deserts in your lives, in your hearts?  What are the deserts within this community, parish?  What is the darkness in your lives that needs to be illuminated by the light of Christ?  What are the losses we need to give to God?  Of what do we need to confess and be forgiven?  What do we need to forgive?  What are our priorities, and how do they interface with the priorities of the Kingdom?  Brothers and Sisters in Christ - this is the Gospel message for today from both Isaiah and Jesus: Be prepared, the rains are coming! Streams will break forth in the desert and the wadis will be overflowing with the love and grace of God.  Are you ready?
 This beautiful work is by Mark Lawrence.  See his other work and purchase copies here:

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Advent IIA - 2014 - Images of the Kingdom - The Stump

This year for a series of sermons for Advent have decided to take the suggestion of Dr. Barbara Lundblad and focus on the images which come out of the Isaiah texts for the season in year A.  Her suggestion is offered in this article found on the Working Preacher website:

To read the Isaiah 11 text click here: Isaiah 11:1-10

Images of the Kingdom: The Stump
Have you ever noticed how no matter what happens you can never keep nature at bay?  For example, after a major forest fire, when acres and acres are nothing but black and charred remains, when it looks like an explosion had occurred and nothing remains, that all you have to do is give it a little time and a little rain and then watch and you will see little shoots of life begin to emerge.  It is not all destruction.  There is life there still and this life will reassert itself and reclaim the devastation in time.  We can see this same thing manifested in a whole variety of different scenarios.  Chop down a tree, leave the stump – Do you think it is now completely, irreversibly dead?  Think again…
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots…
Isaiah was an 8th century BCE temple prophet at Jerusalem and he lived through some terrible events.  The nation of Israel had been one, unified nation from King David through King Solomon, but after the death of Solomon they had fallen into a civil war which eventually led to Israel breaking apart into two separate nations: The Northern Kingdom – also called Samaria – consisted of 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel and their capital was in Shechem.  The Southern Kingdom – also called Judea – consisted on the remaining two tribes (Judah and Benjamin) and their capital was in Jerusalem.  Only the Southern Kingdom focused their worship at the temple (this was one of the issues that led to the civil war!)  The Northern Kingdom worshiped at Mount Gerezim (for an interesting discussion of this see Jesus’ dialog with the Samaritan woman in the Gospel of John, chapter 4 – especially verses 16-26). 
During the time of Isaiah the Assyrians swept down from the north and attacked the Northern Kingdom.  Instead of rushing to the aid of their northern brothers and sisters, the King of the Southern Kingdom negotiated a treaty with the Assyrians and then stood on the sidelines.  They watched and did nothing as the Assyrians completely obliterated the Northern Kingdom.  The Assyrians had a well-earned reputation for being particularly blood-thirsty and unusually cruel, and they unleashed all of this on the people of the Northern Kingdom.  By the end of it all nothing remained of Samaria.  Thousands had been massacred in the most brutal way.  Cities and villages burnt to the ground.  There was no exile this time, because there was no one left to exile.  And the Southern Kingdom had simply stood on the sidelines and watched it happen. 
The image of the cut off tree, destroyed with only a stump remaining is an image that comes out of this experience.  Isaiah is surveying what is left of Samaria and there isn’t much.  The people of the Southern Kingdom are filled now with grief, terror, fear and guilt. Who knows, maybe they are next (actually they are – but not right away – it will be another 100 years or so before the Babylonians sweep through and destroy Judea).  The biggest casualty is hope – hope is gone. Samaria is gone – completely.  The stump is cut off down to the ground and then burned.  There is nothing left.  They are gone forever.
But wait says Isaiah – not so fast.  Look carefully at that stump and what do you see?  Why a little growth, a little green shoot has sprung up from the roots and has worked its way through the destruction and into the light.  It is growing.  This image is an image of the word of God that Isaiah saw.  There is hope.  In fact, says Isaiah, there is always hope.  God will bring life from death!  God will bring growth from destruction! God will bring light into the darkest night!
And for us it is Jesus who is the foundation of our hope.  God has entered into  the world of human experience in Jesus – God has entered into the darkness – God has entered into the pain, the suffering and death – God has entered into human hopelessness and has brought light and life and promise and hope!  This is what Advent and Christmas together proclaim to us – look there is a little green shoot growing out of that stump – there is hope!
What are the stumps in your lives?  What is it that leads you into hopelessness?  What dreams and expectations of yours have been shattered?  What losses, what illnesses, what struggles and failures have led you to a sense of cynicism or hopelessness? The prophet speaks to you to say: Look and see – out of the rubble, through the rock, out of the charred remains, out of that stump there is growth, there is life, there is hope.  Can you see that little green shoot?  Well, it is there.  For in Christ, there is always hope!  And Christ will bring life and light and hope to us – now and always!
John the Baptist cries out as a voice in the wilderness!  Isaiah stands with him. Together they stand among the charred remains of the stumps of life, of death and destruction and both of them are crying out the same joyous message – “Prepare the way of the Lord!”  Hope is alive – a shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse and this shoot is hope!