Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve Sermon

NB: Based on a sermon by Eric Burtness and on a story by Max Lucado.

Our first child came 3 weeks early. She made a surprise appearance. We were on vacation at a cabin 45 minutes south of Halifax when Rebekah’s water broke. So we loaded the car and headed back up the highway through Nova Scotia’s patented syrupy fog. I was afraid we weren’t going to make it back to the city in time.

The hospital’s midnight glow announcing that the baby wouldn’t be born in the middle of the Nova Scotia bush was like a heavenly star, the nursing staff a chorus of angels singing their own medical hallelujahs.

18 hours later I was holding a tiny, gooey, miracle in my arms.

That day Macarenas around my frontal lobe each time I visit the Christmas story. I wonder what it would have been like to have been there THAT day in Bethlehem, knee deep in straw and cow pucks, when Jesus was born.

Have you ever wondered that? Have you wondered what it would have been like to be a shepherd, out there in the dark, tending the flock, when angels appears out of nowhere, the glory of the Lord blasts you in the face, and you feel you’ll pass out with fear?

Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to be the three wise men, those astrologers who followed a distant star convinced it was leading them to some king’s birth, then stumbling upon a stable instead of a castle?

Have you ever wondered what it was like to be Mary, visited by an angel, chosen by God, getting pregnant without the requisite physical act, enduring her neighbours’ scornful taunts, before giving birth to God’s own Son who would save people from their sins?

The person I most wonder about is Joseph. I wonder what it would have been like to be him that day when Jesus was born. And part of the reason I wonder about Joseph is because we know so little about him.

Joseph appears at Jesus’ birth, then there’s the story about the holy family 12 years later when a precocious Jesus runs away to the temple. That’s it. That’s all we have of Joseph. We don’t know if Joseph died of old age or died too young, we don’t know how many children he and Mary had; nor do we know what kind of marriage he and Mary had, we don’t know what happened to Joseph after he finds Jesus in the temple arguing with theology professors. In fact, Joseph doesn’t get any lines in this story. He’s the strong, silent type. He doesn’t say anything.

In our Lutheran Book of Worship (or the “Green Book”), in all the Advent and Christmas hymns, Jesus is mentioned 309 times. The angels are mentioned 28 times. Mary 32 times. The shepherds, 21 times. But Joseph? Nowhere. Nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

I don’t know about you but I find that bizarre. But think of the Christmas pageants that churches put on every year. Joseph usually stands in the background, behind the manger, almost out of sight. Radiant beams shine from Mary’s holy face, the shepherds bow on bended knee, the wise men parade to the manger bearing gifts befitting a Messiah-king. But Joseph? Joseph just stands there like a lump, leaning against his staff, trying to stay out of the way.

I should know. I played Joseph one year in the Christmas pageant growing up. When I was asked I thought it was a tremendous honour. But then I was told that my only job was to walk the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Mary down the middle aisle, sit her down, and then get out of the way so not to block the real action. I didn’t even have to look holy because no one was looking at me. Joseph is scenery. A bit player. The piece to finish the perfect family picture.

That’s why I wonder so much about Joseph. He’s a mystery. I wonder what kind of dad he was. What kind of fatherly advice he gave Jesus. If he helped Jesus with his homework. If he arm wrestled with Jesus, threw a ball around, fought with Jesus about curfew, or embarrassed Jesus when he brought girls home.

And I wonder if, at the stable at Bethlehem, as his wife was giving birth to a baby that wasn’t his; I wonder if he prayed to God, “Y’know, God, this isn’t the way I planned it. The baby’s being born in this smelly-old shack. The kid isn’t even mine. And you know how much sheep-dip I’ve had to put up with because of that. But still, God, help me be a good dad.”

Joseph probably didn’t get much sleep that night. He probably lay awake after holding God’s baby boy in his arms, looked around that stinky-old barn and prayed, “God, what ARE you doing with my life? Did I miss something? I thought being step-dad to your Son would be easier than this. I thought there’d be a choir of angels leading us to a big banquet hall. I thought there’d be a crowd waiting for us, cheering us on, opening their doors to make sure Mary had everything she needed to have YOUR baby safely. But instead the baby has cow slobber all over him and I can’t get the stink of sheep manure out of my coat. Did I hear you right? Is this REALLY what you want for me? For US?”

I wonder if Joseph prayed a prayer like that.

Joseph was, of course, a carpenter. He makes things fit. He measures twice and cuts once. He is an engineer. An Intel perfectionist. He doesn’t like surprises. He works off blueprints and likes to see a plan and follow it through. He has a hammer in one hand and a nail in the other. His work and his life are precise, according to a map he can follow.

But this. A stable and a manger. The smell. The dirt. Being alone with a worn out mule. A stack of firewood to keep warm. No bed for his wife. No crib for the baby. Just a pillow from a donkey’s blanket.

Joseph learned the hard way that when God intrudes on your life your whole universe comes apart at the stitching. Do you ever wonder if Joseph prayed, “God, did I miss something? Is this REALLY what you want? What are you doing with my life? OUR life?” I wouldn’t blame him if he did.

I do wonder if Joseph prayed such a prayer. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. But maybe you have. Maybe you’ve stood, or maybe you’re standing in Joseph’s sandals, wondering whether you’ve missed something, wondering what God is doing with your life.

Maybe you’ve stood, or you’re standing sandwiched between what God wants you to do and what actually makes sense.

Maybe you’ve asked God if there’s a plan for your life because things aren’t turning out like you thought they would.
Maybe, on a dark night, you’ve asked your own questions, and questioned God’s plan, wondering why God does what God does.

I think most people pray those prayers and ask those questions at some point in their lives. We all wonder at one point or another if we’ve taken a wrong, possibly life-destroying turn down the wrong road. An empty marriage. A soul-sucking job. An out-of-control kid. The family from Hell. And you ask, “God, did I miss something? Is this REALLY what you want for me? What ARE you doing with my life?”

What about you? Just like Joseph, you probably can’t see the whole picture of what God wants you to do, and is doing with your life. Just like Joseph, you might be worrying about circumstances you can’t control. And maybe you don’t understand what’s going on in your life. And maybe you never will.

We don’t know if Joseph knew what was going on with his life. We don’t know if his prayers were answered or if his questions haunted him to the grave.

All we know is that –somehow - he trusted that God knew what God was doing. So Joseph just did his job - without fanfare or applause. He kept his family safe. He put food on the table. He taught his step-son the ways of the Lord. He counseled and disciplined. He prayed and worried. Joseph may not have been Jesus’ Heavenly Father, but he was his earthly dad.

In other words, at the heart of the story is a good and just man who wakes up one day to find his life ruined: a baby that’s not his, his trust betrayed, his name devastated, his future destroyed. It’s about an honest man who looks at the mess that is his life, a mess he had absolutely nothing to do with creating and believes that somehow God is present in it. With every reason to walk away, Joseph stays put. He makes the mess his own and the mess becomes the place where the Messiah is born. (BBT)

God is still looking for Josephs and Marys today. God is still looking for men and women who believe that God is not done with this world. God is still looking for ordinary people to serve an extraordinary God. God is still looking for people like you, who insist on trusting that “God is still being born in the mess, among those who still believe what angels tell them in their dreams.”

That’s what God is looking for.


Sunday, December 23, 2007

Advent 4 - Year A

Today’s gospel reading sounds so ethereal, so airy-fairy that we might forget how much dirt soiled Mary’s sandals.

At least that’s how I usually hear the story. Stained-glass versions of this story tend to forget just how earthy this encounter between Mary and the angel is.

Who could blame folks for wanting to spiritualize this story? It has all the ingredients of a really cool movie: an angel calling a young, unsuspecting, unassuming woman to bear a divine child. An angry fiancé. A mysterious dream saving the young woman from certain death. It’s so fanciful that it can’t possibly be true, right?

And that’s what some folks have said.

I have a book on myself called Born of a Woman by John Shelby Spong. Those familiar with Spong’s writings probably know where I’m headed with this.

Spong has made a career of making Christianity [quote/unquote] “intelligible” to refined, urbane, overly-educated modern sophisticates. His philosophical assumption is that, if something can’t be scientifically proven to be true, then it can’t be true at all. Including faith and what we believe as Christians. And he mocks those who affirm traditional doctrine, calling them “primitive” and “childish.”

In Born of a Woman he unleashes his theological inventive on the Virgin Birth. He cites other virgin birth stories from the same era as Matthew to demonstrate how Matthew borrowed from another tradition and applied it to Jesus. He notes that Paul doesn’t mention Mary’s alleged virginity; Paul simply says that Jesus was born of a woman; no miracle reported or required. Spong surveys historical treatments of the Virgin Mary, outlining, rightly in most cases, how they were oppressive to women and dangerously suspicious of human sexuality. So, he says, since the Virgin Birth can’t be scientifically and historically proven, and since this doctrine has been harmful to women, we need to dispose of such a fairy tale.

Directly opposite Spong’s book, Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant sits in counterpoint. Well, sort of. Fr. Ignace de la Potterie goes in the other direction, outlining the evidence, historical and theological - even scientific - of the veracity of the Virgin Birth. Like Spong, de la Potterie’s book suggests that the Virgin Birth has to stand up to scientific scrutiny and historical examination for it to be true. But, for him, the Virgin Birth meets those requirements.

Both books leave me cold. So much for miracle or mystery. And I wonder if they’re missing the point of the Virgin Birth by needing scientific affirmation.

Anglican theologian Phyllis Tickle was speaking at a large cathedral in the southern US. About 500 people, mainly baby-boomers and older attended her lecture, she says. During the Q and A after her lecture, someone asked her about the Virgin Birth. As such questions invariably do, this one devolved into a debate of whether the Virgin Birth was a matter of scientific, historical fact or simply the product of an imaginative story teller using a well-know literary device and applying it to Jesus.

“It’s heresy to deny the truth of the Virgin Birth!” one side screamed. Then someone else on the other side popped up and shouted, “We need to put away these childish things and that includes all this silliness about a virgin getting pregnant without the obligatory physical act!”

And on and on, back and forth it went.

As the debate wore on, Tickle noticed a young man, about 17 years old, who was helping set up refreshments in the back of the room, had stopped to listen. She could see him on the steps leading to the balcony, listening intently to the exchange. When Phyllis closed her lecture, the young man came up to talk to her privately.

“Ma’am,” he said politely, “there’s something I don’t understand.”

“What is it you don’t understand?” she asked gently, ready to expound upon the theological complexities of the Virgin Birth.

His response, however, stopped any explanation in its sneakers. “I don’t understand why everyone is so upset about all this,” he said, “I believe in the Virgin Birth. It is so beautiful that it just has to be true – whether it happened or not.”

It is so beautiful that it just has to be true – whether it happened or not.”

Phyllis later said that she felt as if the universe had shifted. “It is a whole new world,” she said. “[This young man] had moved beyond mere facts to [an] understand[ing] based on apprehending beauty.” (Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, pp.208-209)

We can talk about the young man’s understanding of truth. We can argue about modernism vs postmodernism. We can say that the young man needs remedial catechism or we can applaud his creative mind.

But I think that young man was on to something. There IS beauty to this story. Not a stained-glass beauty, but a stained-soul beauty, still, a beauty nonetheless.

The Virgin Birth is about an unwed pregnant teenager. And her fiancé KNOWS that the baby isn’t his. There’s nothing sexy or spiritual about this. This is a capital crime. Mary could be put to death for this. And it wouldn’t be a sanitary needle in the backroom of a jail. This death would involve rocks, lots and lots of rocks.

Joseph could have led the charge, rock in hand. That would have been his right as the injured party. Or he could have grabbed the first bus out of town. “Why should I be saddled with someone else’s kid?” A perfectly legitimate question.

But instead of exacting revenge on this helpless young woman by crushing her under the full weight of the law, he was going to cut off the engagement quietly so Mary wouldn’t be punished. At least not by any legal means; she still had to deal with the baby. But then the angel in a dream tells Joseph that the baby is God’s child, so Joseph just shrugs his shoulders and marries the girl.

That’s the story of the Virgin Birth. Bare bones: a scared young woman, an angry, but compassionate man. It’s so earthbound it bleeds. To my ears, it makes the high minded theologizing sound silly.

If you rub the polish from this story and grab a magnifying glass, you might see it isn’t about Mary, Joseph, or an angel. Ultimately, this story is about us. It’s about a God’s Spirit stirring within us and God’s new world being born among us.

Now we can set aside all of the silly speculation that has gone on about biological transactions – the nuts and bolts, the history and the science - and notice instead that this newness comes because God's Spirit stirs among us. After all, isn’t that what the Bible is all about? A reflection on how God's Spirit makes all things new?

- It is God's Spirit in Genesis that creates the world, heaven and earth, and all that is.
- It is God's Spirit, God's wind that blows the waters back in Egypt and lets our ancestors flee from slavery.
- It is God's Spirit that calls prophets and apostles and martyrs to dangerous acts of faithfulness.
- It is God's Spirit that came upon the disciples in the Book of Acts and created a community of obedience and mission.
- And, now, it is God's Spirit that begins something new when the world is exhausted, when our imagination fails and when our lives are shut down in despair (Brueggeman).

It’s God’s Spirit intruding on our lives, impregnating us with God’s story, giving birth within us. God is Emmanuel – God is with us. God’s story is in us. And it’s growing.

First cry,
first smile,
first words,
first steps,
first day of school
first job
first love
first loss
through to last breath--

Emmanuel. God is with us. Not just a word or a symbol; not just a story or a doctrine. but flesh and blood. Alive. God is with us.

In church, in the street, in the school, in the hospital, in the funeral home, God is with us. When our lives are falling apart. God is with us. When diseases eat at us, when loss overwhelms us, God is with us.

In the shadows around us, in the darkness within us . . .

"Emmanuel" is heard. God's Spirit rings. God is with us!


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Advent 3 - Year A

I’ve noted that, if and when we move a block south, we can change our name from Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd to Our Lady of the Assumption Lutheran Church.

I notice that some of you don’t laugh at that “joke.”

I find it funny (not just because I like to laugh at my own jokes, which I do) because our bishop would pass kittens if we had a name connected to such a blatantly extra-biblical and thoroughly UN-Lutheran doctrine as the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven, after which the church Our Lady of Assumption was named.

Which begs the question: what DO we do with Mary? It’s a question that haunts me.

About 15 years ago I wondered openly if God was calling me to a monastery. I was chest deep in Thomas Merton’s writings and thought I might be hearing God calling out to me through them.

Thomas Merton, as many of you know, was a Trappist monk who lived at the Monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemane outside of Louisville, Kentucky. Like all Trappist monks, when he took his religious name, he took the name “Maria” which was abbreviated to “M” to be placed before his religious name, which was Louis. So, in the monastery, he was Father M. Louis Merton.

He wrote a small library about the spiritual life, especially about monastic spirituality. His spiritual journal The Sign of Jonas was formative in my maturing as a Christian. I was able to overlook the Mary stuff in his writings because it wasn’t in your face. Mary’s shadow lurked in the corners of his theology. Merton wrote so movingly about the spiritual life that I wondered if God was asking me to spend my life praying in a monastery.

So, like the bible says, I sought to “test the spirits” to see if they were from God or from my own feeble imagination. Being an impressionable twentysomething, folks wiser than I suggested I visit a monastery.

So I did. In fact, two of them. Holy Cross Priory, an Anglican monastery in Toronto, and the St. Augustine’s House, a Lutheran order in Oxford, Michigan. Down the road from St. Augustine’s House was a larger, Catholic, Benedictine Order of Monks who had a special relationship with their Lutheran brothers (and sisters) a block away. The two groups of monks would occasionally meet at early evening for vespers.

So, a group of us wandered down the road one night to pray with the Catholics. We arrived just before supper and were invited to stay and eat with them. So we gathered around the table to pray. I was expecting maybe a bible reading, or a psalm, or a hymn, something like we do as Lutherans.

But no. This little band of monks began a boisterous prayer to MARY, thanking HER for her provisions.

My protestant blood curdled in my veins. It wasn’t an appropriate prayer, I thought. It felt like we were putting Mary where Jesus or God should be.

On the way out the door we passed a small side-chapel where a statue of Mary spread her arms over a tiny altar. Well-worn kneelers at the foot of the altar invited the passerby to say a prayer and light a candle. Which a few people from our group did. Including the Lutheran abbot and a few Lutheran pastors.

My Lutheran innards clenched in protest. Lutherans do not kneel before anyone other than before Christ.

That’s when I realized that God probably wasn’t asking me to be a monk. Thomas Merton’s writings may have led me as far as they could. Now it was time to find another spiritual guide.

So I entered the seminary.

While in seminary I stumbled across two fat volumes of a book called “Mariology” or the theology of Mary. Considering that it’s just a couple of passages from scripture that talks about her, I wondered how the author could fill a thousand pages of Marian theology.

So I spent a mind-numbing Saturday afternoon thumbing through the book. Then, I came to the section on protestant objections to Marian theology and learned that neither Martin Luther nor John Calvin threw away their devotion to Mary, even after they were tossed from of the Roman Catholic Church. They said they were just following the bible.

My soul magnifies the Lord, Mary says, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

All generations will call her blessed. Luther said that that meant me as well. God chose Mary to play a crucial role in our salvation history. There was something special about Mary. But I still didn’t know what that meant; what I was supposed to do with her.

Then, last year in Mexico, we learned of a different Mary. Strangely enough, this Mary was hiding in the pages of scripture, beneath the words, where I must have forgotten to look. She was no bit player in God’s salvation story, but played a defining role. And I began to see Mary differently. I’ve shared this story with you before. But I’d like to share it with you again.

Then was an indigenous man by the name of Juan Diego who heard a voice singing. He followed the sound which turned out to belong to the Virgin Mary, appearing to him as a pregnant native woman. Mary asked Juan Diego to ask the bishop to build her a temple. Juan Diego agrees. After a few false starts with the bishop and a sick uncle being healed, the bishop finally listens to Juan Diego because he brought flowers to him that out of season, and in his cloak, an image of the Virgin miraculously appeared.

While my Coles Notes version looses the mysticism and charm of the original, the story is actually quite compelling. I did some reading of what this story was really about. One writer suggested that there’s more to this story than a simple tale of a Virgin’s appearance; of why she wanted the temple to be built.

“The Mother of God wants a home where all will be welcomed,” the writer says, “where all who come receive her recognition, love, and affection. Here, everyone will be heard; all will be free to speak in their own way. Her very eyes show that she recognizes the presence of the one who comes to her. Her very gaze lets those who are looking at her know she is ready and willing to listen to them. She is not cold, distant, and haughty, but tender, close, and friendly. She does not want her children threatened, she wants them protected. She does not want them humbled and dehumanized; she wants them self-confident and joyful.

“Her house is to become what every church should be: a center of recognition, listening, love, compassion, healing, and protection. This will not be a center of rules and regulations, but of flowers and songs. It will not be a sad church, but a festive one wherein the joy of God will uplift the downtrodden of the earth. The humanizing and liberating beauty of the divine experience will draw people into it freely and joyfully. Here everyone will be someone special, experiencing their inner dignity, infinite worth, and personal mission of building the temple of the new and truly egalitarian society. This is what every church should be. So her temple is to be a model of what every Christian temple should be; a model that few, even today, emulate.”

Don’t you think that sums up Mary’s song in today’s gospel reading? Isn’t that what Mary was singing about? Isn’t that what God is asking us to be?

This passage bounces around my frontal lobe when we talk about the new building. Are we looking for a new facility that will give us more space to spread out? Or are we building a mission? Are we, with God’s grace, building a new world?

I know now that our Roman Catholic friends don’t worship Mary because they understand that Mary always points beyond herself to Jesus and his message of new life. I overlooked her role in our salvation because my eyes weren’t big enough to see what God was doing. My vision was blocked by my own limited idea of what faith was about, rather than craning my neck to see what God was building.

If Mary has a message for us today I think this is it: The world needs God’s freedom, the freedom of knowing that we have received mercy, compassion, forgiveness; the freedom of seeing justice alive in an unjust world, and the freedom of faith bringing healing and comfort to broken people. God wants us to participate in what God is already doing.

May this be so among us. Amen.