Sunday, December 27, 2009

1 Christmas

How do you begin to imagine the Word made flesh? How does the Word in the flesh come to life in your life? For me that may be a good book that ignites my imagination, takes my brain into places it hasn’t been before, it is in the people I know and the stories they tell. It is also in music.

When I read these words from the beginning of the gospel of John, it is a symphony that I hear. I hear a perfect note as the music begins. The choirmaster at my seminary said that the note most common in nature is a G. As this symphony begins, I imagine it is a G that sings into existence the rest of the story. Music is organic; as is the Love of God. It is in every fiber of creation, the stones shout it out, the wind hums the word, the rain keeps the beat, the grace and truth of Christ is made real in the dance of the spheres.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Every time I hear these words from John I hear the language of music. Sometimes for me the language of music speaks more clearly than words. When I hear this passage from John I am encircled, enveloped, swaddled, if you will, in the awesome and abundant love of our creator. When I hear these words I hear a symphony. I hear the bass, the tuba and the tympani and the baritone, beating as the heart of creation. I hear the bass clarinets, and the bassoons, and the saxophones joining in the building of the harmonies. I hear the flutes and the clarinets and the violins with the melody of love and hope. And I hear the trumpets and the French horns with the blast of the proclamation that God who has created the world comes into it as one of us. And I hear the sadness of the oboe and the English horn, with the news that some do not choose to listen to the music. And then the voices join the fray. Ahh, the dance begins.

Music exists in relationship. The relationship of the composer to the music, the relationship of the music to the hearer, and the relationship of the musicians to the music. Can music really be music without those who hear it?

Music tells us a story. Music has a beginning, a middle, and an end. We, the hearers might like the music, and we might not like the music. When our boys were younger, in elementary school, I would volunteer in their classes to teach a music listening class called Bravo. The idea was to teach children to love and appreciate classical music before others were able to teach them not to like it. In that class we would listen to a piece of music and talk about the story it told. We would imagine the creatures and the people who populated the story of the music.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

These are words, which try to describe and contain the most awesome reality that cannot be described and contained. God, the composer, if you will, sings the perfect note, and in doing so, enters into relationship with the music. The music is Jesus, and we are the hearers. Of course there are tons of flaws with this metaphor, our language is totally inadequate to describe the reality of God. But, once the music begins, you and I, the hearers, will go out and tell others about how the music changed us, we loved it, we hated it, and everything in between. But for the hearing, we are forever changed.

That’s the awesome power here, in the beginning of John. You and I and the world we live in cannot be the same, we are forever changed; God is turning the world around. The music, the light, the word, seeps in and through us so that we can never be who we were before we heard it. And that is the rest of the story. The purpose of the gospel of John is to evangelize; the purpose of the gospel of John is to point to God. The purpose of the gospel of John is to convince the hearer that once we encounter God in the flesh, Jesus, nothing for us, and nothing for our world, can be the same, the world is about to turn.

Because the music, who is God in the flesh, Jesus, lived and died as one of us, a human being. The amazing movement in this symphony is when we thought the music went silent; we thought the darkness put out the light. But it didn’t. The composer began again with a new song, the song that returned the light to the world.

It is this encounter with the word, with the music; it is this relationship between the composer, the music, and you, where eternal life lies. The gospel of John is full of references to eternal life. And in John, eternal life is not something that happens after this life, it is this life. It is the way we live when we hear the music, when we are the musicians, when we encounter Jesus.

Alleluia. To us a child is born: Come let us adore him. Alleluia.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve 2009

Alleluia. To us a child is born: Come let us adore him. Alleluia. This is an amazingly meager set of words to proclaim the event that has changed us forever, the inbreaking of God into our world. "It happened while they were there that her term was up and the days were completed for her to deliver. She delivered her son, the firstborn. And she wrapped him up and placed him in a feed trough because there was no place of lodging for them anywhere else." Certainly an inauspicious set of circumstances in comparison to the cultural celebration of Christmas we witness today. No snowy winter, no animals overlooking the baby's crib, not even a stable, no innkeeper crying out "no room". But then, the inbreaking of God’s kingdom is announced by a rather spectacular appearance to the shepherds by an angel doing what an angel does—delivering a message. At the appearance of the angel, the shepherds respond with fear.

How do we get from the simplicity and grittiness of the feed trough into which this miraculous baby was placed and the splendor of the proclamation by the heavenly choirs singing Glory to God in the highest heaven to the conspicuous consumption that is Christmas today? How do we get from the angel announcing do not be afraid, to the fear of offending someone with the Good News? How do we look forward instead to a world that is marked by the inbreaking of God. God, who is love, and can do nothing but give of Godself. How are we changed by this inconceivable conception? What difference does the incarnation make? Why do we gather on a night like tonight?

I think there are as many answers to these questions as there are people. But I also think there is one answer. God desires not to be a distant God, not to be separate from humanity, but to be with humanity, to be with you, and me, to walk with us, all of us, as individuals and as community, to love us. Incarnation is absolutely amazing. Incarnation is God’s desire for relationship. At any time in our lives, we can choose to be in that relationship or to choose out of that relationship. In the relationship, we have a chance at wholeness, at hope. Not perfection though, you see, the flaws and the scars become part of the beauty, the victory is not the removal of suffering, sadness and death, but the victory is in the relationship that brings our brokenness to wholeness.

We respond to God’s self-giving love for humanity, God’s love for each of us, by opening ourselves to God’s presence right here in our presence, we do that by being present to God’s interruption in our lives. In a world where there is little room at the inn for a poor child, maybe we must make room for God to surprise us with unexpected revelations given by unusual messengers.

We gather on a night like tonight because God’s love for us matters. The creator of the universe, the baby born in a barn, God’s willingness to be with us matters. Without God’s relationship with us, we founder, we lose direction, we are tossed about. Without God’s relationship with us, we look to ourselves as the center of the universe, we whine in the darkness and we implode. Without God’s relationship with us, we are hopeless.

This inconceivable incarnation shows us that the world doesn’t have to be made perfect before it is made new. You and I do not have to be perfect before we are made new. That’s what’s so amazing about God with us. God comes to us in the midst of the chaos, in the midst of the darkness. God comes to be with us in the midst of our isolation and alienation, in the midst of the muck of the stable, and the pain of a Roman cross.

This is an extravagant love, an abundant love, poured out for each one of us as if each one of us was the only one in existence; poured out for all of us in unlimited supply. This abundant love is offered without reservation or regard for what you have and haven’t done, or how many Christmas cookies you make, or how many Christmas presents you give.

The prophets of the Old Testament testified to this love, but the love that God has for creation is beyond comprehension. That is why God came into our midst, to shed light on this love. You see, Jesus is more than a teacher who can help us understand the words in scripture. Jesus is the Word made flesh. We don’t have to figure it all out; we can experience it in relationship.

God with us, God in our midst, the light that has come into the world is the power and the hope of Christmas. And this isn’t just something that has happened, or that happens to us, we are not a passive observer. This is a relationship in which we participate. The Word made flesh meets us in the Flesh. One way we express this participation is when we gather together and the Word is present in our midst, and we are re-membered in the Body and Blood of Christ, just as we are doing right now.

And then we respond to the relationship that God offers us, the love that God offers us, by carrying the light into the world. You see, God’s work is not contained inside a church. We participate in God’s work, and are nourished and fortified to do God’s work, but most of that work takes place out there, it takes place in your work and in your play, in your school. We are to be the light that illuminates God, we are to be the light that shines on people and shows them the way to God.

It’s a new life. It’s a new world. Right here, right now, we are invited to experience the Incarnation we celebrate in Christmas by living and loving as Christ’s body in the world. That’s the light we walk in, that shines all the more brightly in the darkness that cannot overcome it. That’s the hope that sustains us, the peace that keeps us centered amidst life’s turmoil, the joy that makes eternal and abundant life present in the here and now.

Alleluia. To us a child is born: Come let us adore him. Alleluia.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

4 Advent Yr C

Our King and Savior now draws near: Come let us adore him. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. I was wondering with my group of pastor friends the other day about what it would be like if we greeted one another in this way. Each of us are God-bearers, just like Mary and Elizabeth, should we not greet one in expectation and hope? Our advent waiting draws us ever closer to fulfillment.

Elizabeth, barren and too old to conceive, Mary, too young to conceive, both of these child-bearings are inconceivable. Our response to this inconceivable conception calls forth Holy Imagination. I turn to one of my favorite writers, Madeleine L’Engle, when I ponder these things. She writes in a book called Bright Evening Star, “It is not that in believing the story of Jesus we skip reason, but that sometimes we have to go beyond it, take leaps with our imagination, push our brains further than the normally used parts of them are used to going.” She goes on to write “I had to let go all my prejudices and demands for proof and open myself to the wonder of love. Faith is not reasonable because it wasn’t for reason, but for love that Jesus came.”

It is for love that Jesus came, and we need to respond like Mary, like Elizabeth. We need to respond with shouts of joy, with dances of gladness. This Good News changes us forever; it changes our world forever. It is as inconceivable and unreasonable that each of us is a God-bearer as it is that Mary is a Christ-bearer. It is inconceivable that God has burst into our world. And yet, all of Advent we wait in active anticipation of the moment that God bursts into our world as a baby, and that God bursts into our world to bring our history; our lives, to fulfillment. We cannot continue to respond to this Good News with business as usual. We cannot respond to the sacredness of each other the same as usual. Words like, Hello, how ya doing, I’m fine how are you just don’t cut it. The Good News is Our King and Savior now draws near: Come let us adore him!

This inconceivable conception that God bursts into our lives must change us. It changed Mary, it changed Elizabeth, it changed Zechariah, it left him speechless, it changed Joseph, he had to defy the law in order to love and support Mary, it changed a community, it changed an entire people. Mary responds to this inconceivable conception first when the angel Gabriel comes to tell her, and Mary says “let it be to me according to your word.” My hunch is that maybe it took her a little while to come to this kind of brave acceptance, initially she probably said something a little more like “no way, I can’t have a baby, I’m too young, I’m not married.” By the time we catch up with her in the story we read today, Mary is singing “my soul magnifies the Lord.” Mary’s response to this inconceivable conception progresses from brave acceptance to joyful praise. I wonder if Mary needed some time to get used to the idea that she is the Christ-bearer so that she could move from brave acceptance to joyful praise. I wonder if Mary didn’t have a little advent waiting of her own.

When Mary and Elizabeth meet, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps and Mary is filled with such joy and hope that she sings and dances. Mary and Elizabeth lived in a dark time under Herod the Great, whose casual brutality was backed up with the threat of Rome. And yet Mary’s song is a song of freedom, a song of liberation for her people, it is subversive and it is revolutionary. It is joyful and it is hopeful. Advent waiting calls us into this paradox, the paradox that Mary embodies, that finding involves losing; that hiding involves revealing; that birth involves death.

While our culture has been celebrating Christmas since before Thanksgiving, we continue to wait. This fourth Sunday of Advent is oh so difficult, we just want to be there, we just want to have it now, and it is so hard to resist the pressure to just say Merry Christmas. But Advent waiting as Mary shows us, forms us, shapes us, so that the inconceivable conception can take hold of us, and can give birth to the Holy Imagination that bears God into this world.

Mary spent most of her life waiting; from the moment the angel Gabriel comes to her and announces do not be afraid, through the final moments as she waited for her son’s death on the cross, and the hours up to the inconceivable resurrection. Mary waits. I think Mary’s waiting can teach us that Advent is a time that summons us to embrace waiting as a way of life. Advent summons us to practice waiting, and by doing so to lay down the foundations of a life shaped by waiting, so that when those times come when we have no idea what to do, times of sadness, times of joy, times of difficulty, times of division, we fall back on that deep, still waiting in the present moment that opens up a space for God’s interruption in our midst.

We wait in this present moment with Mary, with Elizabeth. We wait with quiet and confident expectation for this inconceivable conception to come to fruition and fulfillment. In the waiting we may be changed. We may be filled with hope, hope that God indeed is turning the world around. We may act with justice and mercy, knowing that indeed with Mary we are bearing God to this world. In this present moment God turns each of us around.

It is no coincidence that the way that God interrupts our world is to be born into our world, it is no coincidence that God interrupts our world to live and love, and suffer and die just like each and every one of us. Being human means being born to die, and only a God who is willing to share that can actually help us face our own mortality and that of those we love, and to help us live every present moment fully alive. It is in the waiting for the births and the deaths, and in the moments in between, that God breaks in and surrounds us and lifts us with love.

I am reminded of my own pregnancies during Advent waiting. I am reminded of the joy and hope and dreams of bringing a baby into the world. I am reminded of the fear and trepidation of bringing a baby into the world. I am reminded of the blissful ignorance of what the future would hold. As I look backward to that time I am filled with nostalgia at its wonder, I am forever changed and cannot respond to the world with anything less than compassion and hope. And I look with hope to the possibility of what the lives of our sons will bear. But it is the present moment that is pregnant with possibility, the present moment that bears God in their lives, in my life, in our lives.

Do not be afraid; listen for God to be born in this present moment. The world is about to turn. Our King and Savior now draws near: Come let us adore him.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

3 Advent Yr C

Advent is a time of active waiting in expectation for the birth of a baby, and for the fulfillment of the hope that began with Jesus’ death on the cross and in the resurrection. Advent gives us the opportunity to listen carefully for the voice of the one who is calling us to repentance and to transformation, to a new way of faithfulness to the God who is already extending grace and suspending judgment before we ask. Advent is about living into the fullness of God’s grace. We are invited to make our decision to follow Jesus, and that invitation comes not just once for a lifetime, but in every moment we live. That is what faithfulness is; it is not necessarily about being on the right path or divining the right plan. It is not the reward at the end, and it is not the romantic and nostalgic worship of a baby, but it is the active anticipation and expectation that Jesus is here with us now, and is transforming our lives in the present, while gathering humanity to redemption and fulfillment.

Advent is a time of active waiting, it is preparing for the future while living in the present. It is living in the midst of what has been, what is now, and what will be, I think of Advent as a sort of time warp. We live in Advent for these four weeks prior to Christmas in the midst of the rush to get to Christmas, but our call as Christians is to be present to the revelation of God as it unfolds, all the while having a glimpse of what is to come as we prepare for God’s fulfillment.

In this third week of Advent, we hear in the gospel John’s ethic of repentance. John calls those who have willingly gathered at the river to be baptized a brood of vipers, but then he tells the people to bear fruit worthy of repentance. What John is saying to them is, don’t sit around doing nothing just because you know you are Abraham’s descendents. This promise isn’t yours just because you belong to the right family. And they ask John, what should we do? John’s answer is to be who you are, and do what you do, and to be faithful in that, no matter what you have or don’t have. John doesn’t judge the tax collectors, he doesn’t tell them to go get a different job, he doesn’t judge the soldiers, he doesn’t tell them they shouldn’t be soldiers. He says do that work God has brought you to do. Be fully present to whatever it is God calls you to, be faithful in your work and in your play. John’s ethic is fairly simple, to the crowds who really have very little, John says, share; to the tax collectors, John says, be fair; and to the soldiers John says, don’t be bully’s.

And then John’s ethic of repentance points these newly baptized people to the one who is God incarnate, God in our midst. John calls them and us to turn to God and let that determine your life, your relationships, your present and your future.

This Christian life is not a heroic life. In fact, it is quite ordinary. According to John the Baptizer in this passage, the markers of faithfulness, the markers that we have made this choice to follow Jesus, the markers of transformation, are the fruit that we bear; sharing what we have and being fair in all of our relationships. What an amazing passage to read as we actively wait, treat each other well right now, experience the sacred incarnation in your midst, as you look forward to the fulfillment of all humanity. Participating in God's new kingdom is available to all of us where we are, requiring only the modicum of faith necessary to perceive the sacred in the ordinary. It is, in short, entirely within our reach: Share. Be fair. Don't bully. Turn your face to God. So with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people. Good news, indeed.

As we observe this third week of Advent, as we listen to incarnation in active anticipation of all that is to come, we hear the simplicity of this message. Share, be fair, don’t bully. In a culture where the cacophony of Christmas calls us to consume, the simplicity of sharing and fairness seem almost trite. But it is incarnation and ultimately resurrection that give meaning to this simplicity. Jesus is born anew among us whenever we acknowledge the sacredness of the other. Jesus is born anew among us whenever two or three gather in his name. Jesus is at work among us wherever the poor, the sick, and the marginalized are received and find healing and power for new life. Jesus is among us whenever we share what we have, whenever we treat people with dignity and respect.

And when we keep alert, when we pay attention, when we keep our eyes, ears, minds and hearts open to receive God’s good news, we see God’s good news finding flesh in our world in places and in ways as surprising and challenging as they are joyous. Waiting in active anticipation and expectation summons us to the present moment, to a still yet active, a tranquil yet steadfast commitment to the life we live now.

Our King and Savior now draws near: Come let us adore him.