Sunday, December 25, 2016

Sermon: God-with-us

Grace Presbyterian Church
December 25, 2016, Christmas 1A
Matthew 1:1-25


It is both an amusing and enlightening exercise to compare the four gospels and note how differently each one begins, how each gospel chooses to introduce its central character, Jesus, or to provide what in modern superhero comic books or movies would be called his “origin story” – the account of “where Jesus came from”.
Mark, the earliest gospel, doesn’t provide an “origin story” – that gospel jumps in directly to the account of Jesus’s baptism. Luke provides an “origin story” that almost overshadows the entire rest of the gospel, with its elaborate account of the events leading up to not only the birth of Jesus, but also of his forerunner, John the Baptizer. The gospel of John, on the other hand, goes cosmic; its poetic and mystical prologue explores the eternal significance of the one who “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
From there it can then seem deflating to turn to the Gospel of Matthew and find that it begins with a family tree. A genealogy, as it typically called in more formal scholarly terms; or in more informal lingo, “the begats.” You know, so-and-so “begat” so-and-so as it was translated in the King James Version. It’s not a word we really use anymore, and the NRSV’s choice of “was the father of” is much more communicative and understandable for a modern reader. But…yeah, “the begats.”
So, why the family tree? For one thing Matthew wants you to see the three fourteens in the genealogy (not only is three a big deal in this tradition, but so is seven, and three double-sevens has to mean something. For anohter, a geneaolgy (interestingly, the word here translated as ‘genealogy’ could also be translated ‘genesis’) was not uncommon in those times as a way of establishing the royal lineage of a new king – showing that the king had ‘good bloodlines,’ so to speak. You can see why Matthew would find it worthwhile to include such a genealogy if the whole point here were to portray Christ as King.
But this is a strange genealogy, though. For one thing, while some of the figures included in this geneaolgy were regarded as among the great heroes of the Hebrew faith – Abraham for certain, and also David – there are some serious bad apples in this genealogy. Manasseh, for example? A bad king. A horrible king. If anybody its making a list of all-time worst kings in history, Manasseh is a contender.
Additionally, though, some of the extra details that Matthew includes would, according to the usual usage of these genealogies, diminish rather than enhance the ‘new king.’ Tamar, for example, was Judah’s daughter-in-law; that story is in Genesis 38, and it’s ugly. Rahab was the prostitute in Jericho who hid Joshua’s spies, aiding the Hebrew people’s conquest of that city. Ruth was a Moabite – another foreigner. And ‘the wife of Uriah’ was none other than Bathsheba, the woman who David took by force (that is, raped) despite her being married to one of Israel’s front-line soldiers who was off in battle.
These don’t look good in a royal bloodline, to say the least.
Yet Matthew presents it to us, ugly stories and all, as evidence of nothing less than God’s hand in the birth of this child to be called Jesus – what else could it be? It also works well as preparation for the messiness of the story as it relates to the man named Joseph, who Matthew calls ‘the husband of Mary’, the one charged with being the human father of the Son of God.
Joseph is called a ‘righteous’ man, though we might initially be more inclined to call him ‘upright.’ When he finds out that his contracted wife, Mary, was pregnant without any involvement from him, his first thought was not to have her put to death – acceptable under the law at that time – but to ‘dismiss her quietly,’ which was certainly less fatal but would nonetheless have condemned Mary to a lifetime of humiliation and likely inescapable poverty as well. Fortunately, the Lord was in the business of sending angels at that time, and one of those invaded one of Joseph’s dreams to set him straight on the origin of Mary’s child ‘conceived in her of the Holy Spirit.’ Once he was set straight Joseph turned out to be a good guy after all,  capable of empathy and even compassion, being a father and husband in a situation where many lesser men fail, and listening for the guidance of God to keep this family safe (but more on that next week).
All of this messiness and seeming lack of purity of line and conception and delivery might be difficult for some to swallow. Let’s face it, that’s not the impression you get from this lovely Nativity scene up here. It is rather pristine. Let us be blunt; Mary there doesn’t look like a woman who just gave birth. Joseph is awfully calm. The animals are awfully clean, and the shepherds...oh, the shepherds. They’re not even in Matthew’s gospel, of course; they are part of Luke’s more elaborate story. Suffice to say they wouldn’t look this clean. The wise men are part of Matthew’s story, but technically they aren’t here yet. If we were going to get the time line right, they wouldn’t show up until Epiphany. And the child? I don’t care what the second vere of ‘Away in a Manger’ says, a newborn infant is going to cry at some point.
The scene is lovely, but somehow lacks chaos. I wouldn’t make a big deal of it except for the tendency we Christians have to act as if our lives need to be as pristine and pure as this Nativity scene in order for Jesus to be born in us, in order for the Christ child to grow up into the Messiah who saves us. And that’s a real problem, and that hurts us.
First all we will never be that pure. We will never be ‘good enough’ without the Christ for whom we’re trying to be ‘good enough.’ When Matthew singles out Isaiah’s prophecy of a child called Emmanuel, and points out that the name really does translate as ‘God-with-us,’ it’s not because Jesus was born into a pristine family tree or because Joseph and Mary had been such spectacularly good people that they somehow earned the honor of becoming the Holy Family. Remember, Joseph was ready to put Mary away; it took angelic intervention to talk him down from that tree. And as we noted before, that family tree was pretty messy and difficult.
Christ is not waiting for us to be good enough. We never will be.
Second, we need Jesus if we are ever to move towards that goodness. We don’t make ourselves good; to the degree we are ever good it is God working in us, enabling us to live the life a disciple of Jesus lives. Even the act of confession and repentance only comes from the Spirit’s working in us because of Christ’s love for us. We don’t get there on our own.
Finally, even if we do manage to move towards that goodness, we won’t be led to a blissful little paradise of sweetness and light, and our lives won’t be as pure and pristine as this manger scene. This child in the manger does grow up, after all, and that grown-up Jesus was anything but a go-along, get-along guy. He made trouble. He challenged authorities, religious authorities in particular. He wasn’t a family-values guy as we would define him; later in Matthew’s gospel, when his family comes looking for him, his own words were that ‘whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’ (Matthew 12). He also says, in this gospel, ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’ (Matthew 10:34). If we really follow the Messiah that this child grows up to be, our lives are only going to get messier and more challenging, not less.
In short, while we celebrate the birth of this child, nothing less than the Incarnation of God in human flesh, we need to avoid getting distracted by the sweet music and pretty scenes. It’s in the messiness and clutter, the chaos and the despair, the grief and sorrow that God is with us. It’s in the struggle and confusion that God is with us. It’s in the rejection and pain that God is with us. It’s in the loneliness and terror that God is with us.
If Matthew’s troublesome ‘begats’ and messy Nativity story have anything to offer us, it virtually has to be that ‘God-with-us’ is not a far-off fantasy achieved only by favored heroes. It is the here and now, for all of us, no matter how much our lives don’t look pretty. Even the most broken of us. Even the most sorrowful of us. Even the most messed-up of us.
For ‘God-with-us,’ even us, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#132            Good Christian Friends, Rejoice
#112             On Christmas Night All Christians Sing
#125            Before the Marvel of This Night
#127            Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
#110            Love Has Come
#136            Go, Tell It On the Mountain

Credit: Cerezo Barredo, via

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A word about Lessons & Carols

Note: this isn't a sermon; I didn't preach one today, as we celebrated a Service of Nine Lessons and Carols. It seemed, though, worthwhile to go back and give a little background to that service, in case it had become one of those things you do without thinking about it. I learned a little bit in doing so, and maybe it might be useful to others too.

The first known example of a Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, in something like the format that has become popular today, dates to 1880, when such a service was held at the cathedral in Truro, in Cornwall, England, on Christmas Eve. Services of lessons and carols had been held elsewhere, but the then-Bishop of Truro formalized a pattern of scripture readings and carols that would prove popular for years to come.
It was thirty-eight years later, though, that the service began to take off in popularity when it was adapted for use at King’s College, Cambridge, by its Dean Eric Milner, who felt that worship in the college, and perhaps more generally, needed revitalizing.
Thirty-eight years later, of course, was December 1918.
The Great War had ended little more than a month before. Milner had himself served as a chaplain through January of that year, and knew well the horrors that not only he, but many who were entrusted to his spiritual care, had witnessed in the four years before. Indeed, Milner was no doubt mindful how many of the young men who had been part of the college four years before had been killed in the war, or wounded, or knew well someone who had been killed. Most likely, no one before whom Milner presided in that first Lessons and Carols at King’s had escaped being affected by the war somehow.
To say that worship, in the face of such horror, needed “revitalizing” was a dramatic understatement. How could one simply go on as before, in unthinking routine and idle songs about Heaven, in the face of four years of unremitting Hell?
For Milner the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols provided an answer, one that has always been useful throughout the church’s history; when all else fails, go back and tell the story.  Starting from the Genesis account of human sin and fallenness, the Lessons unfold the story of God’s relentless working in human history for the redemption of us all, tracing the work of God through God’s promises to Abraham and the words of the prophets, finally culminating in the unlikely and world-changing birth of a child in an out-of-the-way corner of the Roman Empire.
You can hear these concerns in the Bidding Prayer that has become part of the tradition of the service. Worship leads us to lift up in prayer “the needs of the whole world,” not to ignore them or dismiss them as meaningless to us. We may not be fresh from the most destructive war humanity had yet known, but war still rages in our world, visiting fresh atrocities upon children of God for the whole world to see. Perhaps we, too, need to hear the story again.

Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmastide our care and delight to hear again the message of the angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.
Therefore let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child.
But first, let us pray for the needs of the whole world; for peace on earth and goodwill among all his people; for unity and brotherhood within the Church he came to build, and especially in this city of Gainesville and the church worldwide.
And because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us remember, in his name, the poor and helpless, the cold, the hungry, and the oppressed; the sick and them that mourn, the lonely and the unloved, the aged and the little children; all those who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love.
Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are for ever one.

Let us worship God.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Sermon: That's What Christmas Is All About, Charlie Brown

Grace Presbyterian Church
December 11, 2016, Advent 3A
Luke 1:46-55; Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

That’s What Christmas Is All About, Charlie Brown

I have long been a fan of Charlie Brown.  Even as a child, I “got” him.  I could understand where his perpetual frustration with the world and its inhabitants came from, because I felt it often myself.
 My favorite of all Charlie Brown/Peanuts stories was, no surprise, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”  Even today I’m willing to hold that the existence of that show itself single-handedly justifies the existence of television.  For one, I’ve always liked the music, even before I knew anything about Vince Guaraldi or how unusual it was to use jazz as an accompaniment to an animated TV show.  But most of all, again, I “got” Charlie Brown’s frustration.  At the dramatic climax, when the tree he selects has been laughed and hooted down, and he finally lets out his exasperated exclamation “isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?”, well, I could feel where he was coming from.  I knew what I heard at church, and I saw what went on “out in the world,” and they didn’t match.
Of course in the TV show, the absurdly philosophical Linus, having quickly memorized his lines under threat of violence from Lucy, takes center stage and recites the Christmas narrative from Luke (you can’t do that on TV today, that’s for sure!), and everyone is properly chastised; after one small setback the tree is decorated (not to mention miraculously filled out) and all ends well.  Warm fuzzies are safely delivered, and everyone can go home happy.
When I see the scriptures offered by the lectionary for this third Sunday in Advent, I wonder if Linus has gotten things slightly wrong.  Yes, Linus has given us a good summary—the best possible summary, you could even say—of what Christmas is.  I’m not sure, though, if he—or we—necessarily get from that what Christmas is all about.
The reading from Isaiah 35 points to a day and a world we probably don’t recognize.  It is a world turned upside down and inside out.  A world in which the desert is blossoming abundantly is not the usual world of the prophet.  Words like “wilderness,” “dry land,” “desert” . . . these are not places in the biblical landscape typically associated with rejoicing and blossoming.  But the prophet keeps driving the images home:
“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; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.” (Isaiah 35: 6b-7)
But there’s more; it isn’t only the wilderness being undone.  We are also promised sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, dancing for the lame, and speech to the mute; even the infirmities and disabilities that afflict the body are turned around.  And even more emphasized is something not associated with the wilderness, or the desert: safety.
Through this undone wilderness the prophet sees a road, one promised only to God’s people.  No threats will be found there; no lions, no predators of any kind (which beats last week’s Isaiah reading, in which lions were reduced to eating straw).  But this promise is ultimately capped by the image of the “ransomed of the Lord…joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”  All this undoing and turning upside down has a point.
If the prophet promises an undoing, the words of the Magnificat are a virtual assault on The Way Things Are.  The words out of Mary’s mouth exhibit no ambiguity at all.  God looks with favor on the lowly servant.  The proud are scattered in the “thoughts” of their hearts. The powerful are brought down, the lowly are lifted up.  The hungry are filled, the rich sent away without.  The reversal of the world’s ways, the ways we are accustomed to living and tolerating while getting through the day, cannot be more explicit.
If there is still doubt, Jesus echoes the very words of the Isaiah reading in his message to a weary, worried, wounded John the Baptist, languishing in Herod’s prison.  One can hardly blame John for wondering.  After all those years in the wilderness (which was distinctly not blossoming and flowing with streams in his experience), it had seemed so certain.  Cousin Jesus, nondescript though he may have seemed, sure looked like he must have been the One, what with all those noises from heaven and things descending upon him.
But now, while Jesus was still preaching out in the countryside, John sat in Herod’s prison, a place people didn’t leave alive, and doubts crept in.  Is this how it ends?  Is Jesus really the One?  Have I wasted my life just to lose my head to this corrupt so-called king?  So he sends some of his disciples, maybe some of the very few left to him, and asks directly:  Are you the One?  Should I be looking for someone else.
Jesus’s answer seems anything but direct, unless you remember your Isaiah.  Again, the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear.  Plus as a bonus, lepers are cleansed and the dead are raised.  And then the last, cryptic comment:  “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11: 6).  Is that a jab?  Or something only John the Baptist would understand?
All of these witnesses proclaim in concert that the world as we know it is due to be overturned.  A world in which the poor and lowly continue to be oppressed and impoverished, in which the powerful continue to lord it over the powerless, in which the rich are filled beyond gluttony and the hungry only get hungrier; this is not the world proclaimed in Isaiah, or the Magnificat, or the Gospel.
Is it a mistake to tie this world undone, turned upside down and inside out, to Christmas?  I don’t think so.  While it is no doubt tempting to sprint ahead to the babe in the manger, we do so at our peril. For one thing, we risk failing to understand exactly what we’re embracing.  Even that babe in the manger makes no sense at all without the words from Isaiah, from the Magnificat, from Matthew.  Look at it this way: when Prince William and Princess Catherine had their children, it wasn't at a feed trough, not with hospitals and palaces at their disposal.  That’s not how it’s done among those of high status. Yet the One we call Messiah, Immanuel, Christ the King, was born in a nondescript setting in a nondescript town in a nondescript backwater of the Roman Empire.  Nowhere near Rome, the seat of earthly power.  Not in Jerusalem, the focus of spiritual authority.  This cannot make sense to us without the images and contrasts drawn by Isaiah, by Mary.  Even the appearance of this babe is part of a world undone.  Herod in all his power could not stamp it out, though he tried, brutally.  The Roman Empire couldn’t comprehend it.
For another thing, we run the risk of finding ourselves—dare I say it?—on the wrong side of this world undone.  Very few of us think of ourselves as “rich,” or “powerful.”  We are pretty good at casting our eyes longingly at those with more than us: more money, more power, higher status, a better car, a bigger house, you name it.  But is it possible, just maybe, that we don’t always remember the poor, the hungry, the blind, the lame, the oppressed as being those blessed of God?  Are we too comfortable, are we too much at home in a world where the powerful just get more and more powerful, the rich get richer and richer, and the poor . . . well, the Bible itself says they’ll always be with us, right?  Are we too ready to accept that justice is a thing to be bought and sold? That the true meaning of the Golden Rule really is “he who has the gold makes the rules”? That the only way to cope with The Way Things Are is to play the game, grab as much gold and power as we can, and as for those less fortunate, well, tough luck?
If that way, The Way Things Are, has found so cozy and comfortable a home in us, then we’re in serious trouble.  Isaiah’s blossoming wilderness, that desert with springs bursting forth, is forbidden to us.  We become the powerful who, Mary warns us, are brought down from our thrones and sent away empty.  If we’re at home with the way things are, then we have no part of God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven.
And this, Isaiah and Mary and even Jesus tell us, is what Christmas is all about.  “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger” are just noise if that babe in the manger doesn’t grow in us into the One Who undoes and throws down the powers and thrones we humans so adore.  Without taking time to hear the stern rebukes of the prophets, we risk turning Christmas into little more than a too-cute idolization of a highly sentimentalized children’s story, something too easily accommodated to The Way Things Are and, frankly, something far worse than the crass over-commercialized boondoggle so many of us vocally deplore.  That at least is a clearly false and sham “Christmas”; to trivialize the real thing, to try to take what Christmas is without the life-changing demand true Christmas makes of us, is something like an abomination. 
So then, if Isaiah and Mary and Jesus may be allowed to bump Linus from his spotlight, what then do we learn?  The desert blooms and flows with life-giving water.  The blind see.  The deaf hear.  The lame walk and even leap (and dance too, I’ll bet).  God’s people walk in safety.  The lowly are exalted.  The poor hear good news.  The proud are scattered, the powerful dethroned, the rich denied.  And those who are not offended at this undoing Jesus are blessed.
And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#88                          O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (stanzas 1-4)
#106                        Prepare the Way
#100                        My Soul Cries Out With a Joyful Shout (Canticle of the Turning)
#88                          O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (stanzas 5-7)

Monday, December 5, 2016

Sermon: Weirdoes, Little Children, and Other Advent Saints

Grace Presbyterian Church
December 4, 2016, Advent 2A
Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

Weirdoes, Little Children, and Other Advent Saints

There are a lot of reasons I, and other people as well, find it necessary to resist the urge to plunge too soon into Christmas when Advent is still in progress. For one, this is not an area in which I think it’s a good idea for the church to follow the larger society, which has already extended “Christmas” to well before Thanksgiving and has got Halloween in its sights next (and after that look out Labor Day). For another, without the preparation and self-examination of Advent, Christmas too easily becomes a sentimental, even gooey exercise of cute decorations and rituals performed without meaning or substance, leaving us singing with Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?”
Another reason, perhaps not quite as important as the above but still one I appreciate, is that if you rush too quickly through or pass over Advent, you miss out on the weirdos and crazy stuff.
Take the Old Testament readings we tend to get during the Advent season. While there is some of the talk of judgment we expect from these old Hebrew prophets, Advent is the time when we get to delve into the opposite vein of this literature. And if prophets like Jeremiah or, here, Isaiah could be incredibly harsh and stern when speaking of God’s judgment, they are also capable of getting positively trippy when they turn to the fulfillment of God’s promises in a more, shall we say, optimistic vein.
Our reading from Isaiah starts off sounding a bit like last week’s reading, using the imagery of trees and stumps and branches to suggest a forthcoming new king out of the line of David, who was, you’ll remember, the son of Jesse. It’s again a prophetic utterance that sounds a bit like a wish-list for the Ideal King – “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” it begins, and goes onto add righteousness and equity for the meek and faithfulness – along with a bit of old-fashioned enemy-smiting in verse 4.
But then verse 6 arrives, and we seem to be off on something completely different. After all, no matter how good a king might be, turning predatory animals into grass-feeders is not likely to be one of his accomplishments. And yet here is where we get these long-beloved images of wolf living with lamb, leopard with baby goat, and cow with bear, as well as lions that feed on straw rather than prey.
But don’t miss the little children – the one who will lead them in verse 6, and the infants doing all sorts of dangerous things around snakes in verse 8 without being struck. While Isaiah’s readers and hearers would not have had the highly sentimentalized image of children that we do today, they would have recognized in Isaiah’s language that these children represent vulnerability. We don’t have to be told that the smallest children, the ones young enough not to understand the dangers of the world around them, are inherently and frighteningly vulnerable. The smallest toddlers don’t quite understand that playing with snakes will get you hurt or worse. But here, these children, these most vulnerable of all, are not at all vulnerable on God’s “holy mountain.”
Clearly this is a “not yet” prophecy. And yet it is a part of what we await in Advent, that coming reunion with our Lord when no one will hurt or destroy. We know all too much of hurt and destruction. We need to hear the crazy stuff. That’s where the hope is.
Still, though, wild and trippy hopeful story that this might be, I’m not quite sure it matches up with the straight-out weirdo that shows up in our reading from Matthew.
John, sometimes called the Baptizer, looked the part of the crazy man, and his diet also fit the bill. His sermons were a bit one-note – all about “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” and the like. He wasn’t very deferential to the respectable religious authorities; they were the ones who caught the most flack from John, and calling them “brood of vipers” wasn’t likely to gain John their approval. And this is the one who was “preparing the way” for Jesus. Maybe it takes someone a little bit crazy to get us humans to wake up to the coming Messiah.
If you do much social media you may have seen a photo that recently went “viral,” as they say, of a man with a sign. The man bore a full beard and had on his cowboy hat and flannel shirt – he was, by appearance, as clearly a Texan as John the Baptizer was, well, himself. He was standing in front of a mosque in a Dallas suburb, holding that sign, and at first glance it was easy to think “oh, no, not again,” expecting a story of one of the now more than 800 incidents of racial or ethnic or religious harassment since Election Day.
But it turns out the sign he was holding up, in front of the mosque, said, “You belong. Stay strong. Be blessed. We are one America.”
After about a week of anonymous fame (the kind of thing only the internet can do), the man stepped out to tell his story and what motivated him to make this striking show of support for his neighbors. He said, “This was about binding up the wounded. About showing compassion and empathy for the hurting and fearful among us. Or, in some Christian traditions, this was about washing my brother’s feet.” He then added Matthew 25:35-36 (it starts “I was hungry and you gave me food…”, you might remember) and the poem found on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor…”).
And God bless him, he’s a Presbyterian.
We need the prophets telling crazy stories and the people doing crazy things, because sometimes they’re the ones through whom God is speaking to us, maybe even yelling at us, trying to get our attention.
Even the table we’re about to come to is a little bit crazy. We are all over the map in terms of social status, family status, economic status, place of birth, political beliefs, theological beliefs, you name it. And yet Jesus expects us all to gather at the same table, be fed from the same bread and cup, to be united in him? In a world with as much division as ever and in which churches split over any- and everything, that really is a bit crazy.
And maybe it’s just the crazy we need.
For the crazy stories and weirdoes who point us and pull us and call us back to Jesus, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#87            Comfort, Comfort Now My People
#96            On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry
#378            We Wait the Peaceful Kingdom
#383            Dream On, Dream On