Thursday, January 18, 2018

It's All About the Gathering (Reflections on Epiphany 3, Year B)


“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)
Have you ever heard young people say they don’t believe in “organized religion?” That phrase always gives me a bit of a smug chuckle. I want to tell the unbelieving slacker, “Dude, if it’s not organized, technically it’s not religion. It’s just some weird stuff that rolls around in your head. It’s not a religion unless you can share it. To share it, you have to have an agreed upon vocabulary and context with someone else. Once you’ve agreed, you’ve organized it.”

Yup. That’s the thing about religion. It requires cooperation. We have to agree on a common mythology, a common interpretation, a way to regularly recognize that common story through rites and rituals, and a common understanding of how that story should play out in our code of behavior and interpersonal relationships. When some millennial tells me that she’s “spiritual, but not religious,” I just think she’s too lazy and self-involved to want to deal personally with a community.

Okay. So maybe I’m just a grumpy old fart, but look around. We in the US are a bunch of folks growing increasingly more isolated. We drive alone in our cars, spend incredible amounts of supposedly interpersonal time staring at the touch screens on our cellular devices, work in cubicles, and shut the world out with our ear buds. I go to my local Starbucks and see a table of millennials supposedly sitting together, yet each is half focused on a cell phone in his or her lap. Our technology, instead of pulling us together as was promised, is drawing us further apart as we each sink into the oblivion on our computer screens and hear only the voices we’ve chosen to hear. I’ve heard that young Muslims have become radicalized—not through fanatical imams in their local mosques—but through zealots on the internet who have tapped into the young person’s feelings of alienation and estrangement.

In the gospel lesson appointed for Epiphany 3 (Mark 1:14-20), Jesus is creating community. He’s calling people into a fellowship which continually gathers and welcomes newcomers like a fisherman gathers fish in a net. That’s what religion is supposed to do—gather people together. We’re all subjects in the kingdom of God, but we could use a little work these days on the togetherness issue.

For my part, as a parish pastor in beautiful Northeast Philadelphia, I’m going to try to work on three issues. The first is young people. If you look at our gospel text from Mark, you’ll see that Jesus really gets his recruiting motor revved up after radical John the Baptist gets locked up for speaking truth to power (v.14). I think it’s interesting to note that Jesus heads right into the neighborhood where John had been preaching. He doesn’t run away from a dangerous mission, he runs toward it. I think young Americans are just itching to speak out, make a difference, and see that justice, mercy, and fairness exist in this country. What better leader could they have than Jesus?

Can we in the mainline Christian church see ourselves as recruiters for those who want to make a change in society? Can we gather those who see Jesus’ love of the poor as a call to mission to redistribute wealth through acts of charity and a voice against the structure which seeks to give tax breaks to billionaires and cut aid to children? In any event, I’m going to make it one of my priorities this year to involve younger Christians in the work of social justice, and—just maybe—teach them a little about the gospel while doing it.

I see another call to gathering in our relationship with Christians of other traditions. My Lutheran congregation shares its worship facility with the loveliest congregation of Seventh Day Adventists. These folks have given us an exceedingly generous facilities use offering, and have been splendidly cooperative and accommodating to our activities schedule. They keep the church clean, and are unfailingly polite. Unfortunately, the way they worship, look, and speak is vastly different from the way we worship, look, and speak. Because of this, we might forget that they worship the same God and Lord Jesus Christ that we do. I think there’s a great need to bring our two communities together at some point so we can know each other, appreciate our differences and similarities, and give thanks to God for the gospel we all share. It’s far too easy for American Christians to think of renter congregations as “those people” who use “OUR church.” The church belongs to Christ, not to us, and our SDA friends belong here just as much as we do.

(Additionally, President Trump has just declared that our Adventist friends—who are Haitian and Haitian-American—are somehow less desirable than people who’ve come from other parts of the world. He should meet these people. They are kind, cheerful, intelligent, respectful, and talented. It is an honor to have them as partners in the gospel.)

Finally, I’m going to try to gather a new part of our community into the net. I have an appointment next week at the Muslim Youth Center of Philadelphia. Our Muslim neighbors have asked Christian churches in the neighborhood to help them articulate their mission, so I’m going to see what I can do to help. I want to practice what J. Paul Rajashakar called the “Theology of Hospitality.” That is, acknowledging what I don’t know about my neighbor’s faith, and trying to see if we can come up with a vocabulary to focus on the beliefs we hold in common rather than dwelling on our dissimilarities. I think God will be glorified by the effort.

I’ll admit that getting together isn’t always easy. Sometimes we just don’t want to engage our neighbor. The Hebrew Scriptures text from Jonah (Jonah3:1-5, 10) is a reminder that God’s desire for togetherness and unity is not always our desire. Jonah didn’t want those dreadful Nineveh people to be redeemed by God. But God wanted it.

That’s what counts, don’t you think?

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Jesus Calling (Reflections on Epiphany 2, Year B)

Image result for images of Nathaniel under the fig tree

“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  (1 Samuel 3:9)

Have you ever asked yourself why you keep going to church? That’s assuming, of course, that you do keep going to church. What draws you? What are you looking for, and what is the result you hope to find? How does your faith change you, and why is it important that you’re a Christian? Just what is it that you do with this faith you have?

What is your sense of call? That’s the question which comes to my mind when I look at the scripture readings assigned for Epiphany 2, Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary. Both the story of Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1-20) and the story in John’s gospel (John 1:43-51) deal with a call to discipleship and mission.

In the Hebrew scripture lesson we have the story of the young Samuel who has, basically, been offered up to God as a sacrifice by his mom, Hannah, because she was just so stinkin’ glad to have been able to get pregnant with him. If you know the story you’ll remember that Hannah was having a little trouble with conception—a medical situation which the gals in her neighborhood considered to be a curse from God. The local thinking was that any woman who couldn’t bear a son was somehow on God’s naughty list. Hannah prayed her butt off to be able to conceive, and promised that she would dedicate her son to God’s service if God took away the disgrace of her infertility. She got pregnant, had Samuel, and gave him up to be raised by the Eli, the priest and prophet.

Eli had two grown boys of his own, Hophni and Phinehas, who were going into the family business of being priests, prophets, and judges over Israel. Unfortunately, like a lot of P.K.’s (Preacher’s Kids), these boys were pretty unruly. There was no Me, Too or Time’s Up movement back in the day, so Hophni and Phinehas figured they could hit on the church usherettes all they wanted to. They also had their fingers in the offering plate. This really pissed God off.

One night, God spoke to the boy Samuel while he was sleeping. Sam thought it was Eli calling him but, after some misunderstanding, Eli figured out that God was speaking to the young fellow, so he advised Samuel to listen and be obedient. Unfortunately, God’s message to young Samuel was a word of condemnation of Eli’s sloppy parenting. God was going to smite Hophni, Phinehas, and their “I-spared-the-rod-and-raised-two-rotten-brats” father, Eli. To his credit, Eli took the Louis C.K. attitude, admitted he was wrong, and submitted humbly to the punishment God was willing to dish out (This happened to be killing the two miscreant sons and letting Eli die from the grief by falling off his bench and cracking his head open. God’s kind of a badass in the Old Testament if you haven’t noticed.). Samuel, young as he was, was then called by God to take over as Prophet and Judge of Israel and clean up the mess left by the previous administration.

In John’s gospel, we hear the voice of God coming through an enthusiastic disciple of Jesus, Philip. Philip is kind of an interesting character in the fourth gospel. He’s not the impulsive, in-your-face guy Peter is. He’s excited, but cautiously so, and he seems to have a healthy dose of skepticism in him at times. All the same, he really believes that Jesus is the guy Moses was talking about in Deuteronomy 18:15. He feels a sense of call to share this with his buddy Nathaniel. Nathaniel’s reaction is to make a smartass comment about the hick town of Nazareth, but he’s willing to come and check out this Jesus all the same.

When Jesus meets Nathaniel, he makes a little joke about an Israelite in whom there is no deceit (v. 47). Israel, of course, is the name God gave to the deceitful Jacob back in Genesis 32. Nathaniel, smartass that he is, rebuffs the joke by asking Jesus—whom he doesn’t know from Joe Blow—how he can make any judgments about his character. Jesus tells him that he saw him earlier under a fig tree.

Now, dear reader, you may well wonder what that reference means. Me too. I haven’t got a clue. I even checked a bunch of resources, but nobody seems to know why Nathaniel was so astounded by being observed under a fig tree. The point, however, is that the guy seemed to be really impressed and moved by Jesus’ words—moved enough to accept the call to discipleship. I guess he had to feel that Jesus really knew him or understood him. They shared something personal.

This encounter with Jesus would lead Nathaniel (whom Bible scholars always say is the same guy as Bartholomew mentioned in the other three gospels) to preach the gospel in India and Armenia and later be martyred in any number of very unpleasant ways depending on which legend you choose to believe. One legend (recorded in Fox's Book of Martyrs) says his personal calling was to translate Matthew's gospel into the language of India.

So when did Jesus become personal to you? Who called you out of yourself to seek a deeper relationship with Jesus? What do you want from that relationship, and what are you expecting the church of Jesus Christ to be? What are you willing to do to make that vision a reality?

I started thinking I had a sense of call when I was middle school special ed teacher in Los Angeles. For the first time I met kids who were victims of institutional poverty and a really inadequate school system. I started to think that this could be made better if people took their commitment to Christ seriously. I might not have been a Samuel who was called to go and fix the system, but I could try to be a Nathaniel Bartholomew who could carry the message that Jesus wants more from us and can give us the power to be more because he’s already seen us under the fig tree and he knows our potential.

What’s your call? What message are you to carry, and how are you to carry it?

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Thoughts on the Epiphany of Our Lord

“…we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:2)

I think one of the things that gets in our way when we look at these Bible stories is our own familiarity with them. We kind of know the story so well that it doesn’t seem to have any surprises left for us. What can I tell you about the Epiphany story that I haven’t already told you and you don’t already know?

Well, for one thing, you probably should know that Matthew’s telling of the birth of Jesus doesn’t exactly match up with Luke’s version. Over the years we’ve tended to mash the two versions together and make cute Christmas cards with the three Wise Men kneeling at the manger along with Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds; however, if you look at the details and read what smart scholarly folks say about these stories, you’ll see that there’s a bit of disharmony between the two accounts.

But that’s cool. If you insist on the stories matching exactly and your faith in the Bible is destroyed by any lack of agreement, you’re missing the point. You’re also thinking like a modern person, and you’re not quite getting the idea that our Christian ancestors weren’t all hung up on empirical data like we are. They told stories to make a point, and Matthew and Luke each have their own points to make which are still valuable to us today. So—please—take each story for what it is and get over yourself.

(Okay. If you’re into the details, Luke times Jesus’ birth when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:2). According to the Roman historian Josephus, Quirinius didn’t become governor until some years after the death of Herod the Great, under whose reign Jesus was born according to Matthew (Matthew 2:1). That’s the contradiction, but I wouldn’t lose any sleep over this if I were you.)

What makes Matthew’s version so cool is a couple of things. Just as Luke chooses to make the first worshipers of Jesus poor folks (the shepherds), Matthew makes the first worshipers foreigners. Matthew starts the story out on a note of evangelism. Jesus came for everyone in the world. People from the East who aren’t even familiar with the Jewish tradition and aren’t even looking for a deliverer from Roman tyranny are still looking to find this special baby. There is a universal hunger for who Jesus is and for what Jesus can do.

(Please excuse another digression, but, as I’ve written earlier posts about the Epiphany of Our Lord, tradition has numbered these seekers as three because of the three gifts they brought mentioned in verse 11. Matthew doesn’t really say how many there were. Early Christian iconography always depicts them as a young man, a middle-aged man, and an elderly fellow to symbolize that Jesus came for all ages. They’re also depicted as a European, a swarthy Middle-Easterner, and a black African to symbolize that Jesus came for all people. They received their Western names, Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, sometime around 500 AD, but they’ve also been known by other names.)

Another cool Matthean detail is that the Wise Men have come to worship. In verse 11 they “knelt down and paid him homage.” They followed this sign in the heavens to find something bigger and grander than themselves, and the child fills them with humility and generosity. I think this image speaks universally to us. Isn’t our life just one long journey to find that which fills what a seminary friend of mine called “the God-shaped hole in our souls?”

Matthew also introduces us to that insidious character from history, Herod the Great. Herod, like a lot of politicians, feigns a certain piety (verse 8), but his heart is far from God. Historically, he was an ambitious and murderous s.o.b. who wasn’t above assassinating his own children in order to secure his power. He isn’t sure when this baby was born so, to be on the safe side, he plans to kill every baby boy under the age of two who was born in Bethlehem.

Granted, no history besides Matthew’s gospel records this outrage (Matthew 2: 16-18), but it’s certainly something this vicious guy might’ve done. The inclusion of this plot point should remind us that we live in a world of genocide, a world that has produced Adolf Hitler and Bashir Al Assad, and innumerable tyrants who have put their own position of power and wealth above the value of innocent life.

Matthew says that Joseph is warned in a dream to take the child and his mother to Egypt to escape the murderous rage of Herod. I’ll bet Matthew knew his Jewish readers would remember the story in Genesis 39 of another Joseph who went down into Egypt and wound up rescuing the whole nation of Israel. For me, listening daily to the stories of those fleeing violence in Syria, Myanmar, and other places, I am struck with the idea that Jesus was a refugee.

So why do we celebrate the Epiphany? I always ask myself who I am in this story. Am I a seeker who longs to find something I can worship, or am I a jealous fool who wants to put Jesus out of the way so I can get on with the business of glorifying myself? Where is this Jesus to be found, and what kind of star can we follow to lead us to him?

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Cool Old People and Opposition (Reflections on Christmas 1, Year B)

"Simeon's Song of Praise" Aert de Gelder (ca. 1710)
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples…” (Luke 2:29-31)

I really love the gospel appointed for Christmas 1, Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary (Luke 2:22-40). Granted, I don’t often give myself the opportunity to preach on it. In years past I’ve kind of figured that good American Lutherans, wiped out by the bacchanal of the Yule, always want to sleep in on the Sunday after Christmas and nurse their sugar-cookie hangovers. Church attendance goes into the dumper on this Sunday. Subsequently, I’ve often taken this Sunday off and not taken the time to prepare a message on the beautiful passage the lectionary gives us. That’s too bad, because the imagery in this lesson is really exquisitely lovely. At least I think so.

Liturgical purists will recognize verses 29-32 as the Nunc Dimittis, a canticle that’s part of evening worship settings such as Compline or Evensong. For a Lutheran like myself it’s more familiar as the canticle sung right after the reception of the Holy Eucharist. In our gospel, Simeon, a pious and devout Jew who believed he wouldn’t die until he’d seen the Messiah, cradles the baby Jesus in his arms and tells God he’s now ready to hang it up. It’s actually a joyful and thankful admission, so it’s appropriate that we sing it right after we’ve encountered Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. You can find musical arrangements of this prayer in Evangelical Lutheran Worship’s first two settings of the mass (ELW pg. 113 and pg. 134 in case you want to look it up). Personally, I wish we’d include it in all settings.

I mean, how cool is this image? Here’s an old dude at the end of his life hugging a little baby boy at the very beginning of his. The old geezer is thanking God that his tradition is going to live on after him. He’s taking joy in the life and vitality he no longer has but knows this child will enjoy. As a cleric who has officiated hundreds of funerals, I can’t even count the number of times family members of the deceased have expressed gratitude that their elderly relative lived long enough to see a grandchild or great-grandchild born. It’s an affirmation of life itself.

This gospel lesson also celebrates the wisdom of the elderly. I’ve had Simeons and Annas in my congregation, and there’s something to be said for vintage Christians who have lived lives of prayer, learned mercy and forgiveness, and have figured out that you don’t need to take all the crap so seriously. Simeon and Anna know who Jesus is, and because they know, they are full of optimism for that which is to come.

(By the way, an interesting little—but certainly not unimportant—detail in this story is found at verse 24. Mary and Joseph, expected to either give their firstborn son to God per the statues in Exodus 13 or redeem him at a price, come to the Temple to do the latter. I find it significant that the sacrificial price for the Redeemer of the World is only two lousy pigeons. Since there was no Republican tax plan in New Testament times, I’m assuming that the low price was offered to those of limited means, and that rich folks were expected to make grander sacrifices—like a cow or a sheep—as their means permitted. By including this detail, Luke reminds us that our Savior came from the peasant class. Jesus loves the poor because he was poor himself!)

This gospel lesson is both celebration and foreboding at the birth of this child. Any parent gets this. Having been in my current parish for almost two full decades, I’ve had the privilege and delight of watching a whole bunch of whacky kids grow into adulthood. At Christmastime, they all come back to go to church with their parents and grandparents. The first baby I baptized from this congregation now speaks with a bass voice and towers a good head taller than his pastor. I love seeing them, love hearing about what they’re up to, and love the fact that they still show up for worship—if only once or twice a year.

BUT: Like every parent, my joy is also coupled with worry. When two lads I’ve known since they were rug rats put on the uniform of the United States military, I’m filled with both pride and dread. When the adorable little girls set off for college, I start thinking about the unsavory tales I’ve heard about campus parties and sexual assault. Over the years I’ve been so very well-pleased by the accomplishments of my “church kids,” but I’ve been saddened by their misadventures, too.

Simeon tells Mary that Jesus will be destined for the “falling and rising of many in Israel” (verse 34), but a sword will also pierce Mary’s heart. With the child’s greatness will come opposition and sorrow. It cannot be otherwise.

As we embrace the baby Jesus, we’ll find in his gentleness and humility our own sense of identity and, for want of a better word, pride. But we will also find opposition, and we will hurt along with him.

I dearly hope that this sense of hurt does not stem from cultural indignation. Personally, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass if we say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” here in America. I don’t care if we don’t have “In God We Trust” on our currency or the Ten Commandments on our courthouse walls. I care when the ones Christ came to save are violated. When God’s children become refugees, or heroin addicts, or are incarcerated, or are dying from war-related famine—that’s when the sword should pierce the heart of the Christian. And, I guarantee you, any attempt to address these situations will certainly bring opposition from someone.

At such moments of opposition it might be a good idea to remember dear old Simeon. He believed the promises of God, and we will, too. So we hold onto the baby Jesus, give thanks, and move forward into a new year.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

We Need a Little Christmas

“…I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people…” (Luke 2:10)

“For we need a little Christmas
Right this very minute
Candles in the window
Carols at the spinet
Yes, we need a little Christmas now!”

Do you recognize these lyrics? I’ll bet you heard Andy Williams singing them on your local all-Chrismtas-muisc-‘til-you’re-ready-to-barff radio station. Do you know where this song comes from? It’s actually from the Broadway musical Mame. There’s this scene in the play when the characters are having a really rough time, so they decide to celebrate Christmas early in order to lift their spirits. It’s a great scene.

Whenever I hear this song played on the radio, I think of the production of Mame I saw around Christmas time in 1994 at Philadelphia’s legendary Walnut Street Theatre (the oldest continually producing professional theatre in the United States, I’ll have you know!). I went with this guy named Melvin Rumpf. Mel was a professional dancer who’d danced on Broadway. He was African American and, I’m quite certain, gay. I met him when I was a seminarian. He was my “project” for my pastoral care class. The professor assigned me, the former actor to, to visit with Mel, the former dancer. We hit it off pretty well, too.

Mel was living at a now-defunct ELCA facility called Betak, a nursing home for those suffering from HIV/AIDS. His AIDS was full-blown, and it was obvious to me that he was dying. Not actively dying, mind you, but he was most certainly terminal. He had the emaciated frame and the distant stare of one who would not be long for this planet.

Somehow, this stricken hoofer had come into possession of two tickets to the Walnut Street, but he had no one to take him. I borrowed a car from one of my classmates, and the two of us set off on that cold December night for an evening of live theatre—very possibly the last one Mel would ever enjoy. I remember that evening, not for the stage performance (which was excellent), but for Mel’s company. We had a great time together, made all the more precious by the knowledge that his time was short and that this was a brief moment of defiant joy in the face of a horrible illness.

So now, whenever I hear “We Need a Little Christmas” on the radio, I remember that night with Mel and I give thanks that I had the chance to share it with him.

But this year, I think of another verse of that song:

“For I’ve grown a little leaner
Grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder
Grown a little older
And I need a little angel
Sitting on my shoulder
Need a little Christmas now.”

I don’t know about you, but, for me, this has been a pretty rough year. My congregation has experienced death in the family with the loss of two long-time and much beloved members. I’ve buried numerous victims of the heroine epidemic, too. There have been devastating hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. As I write this the wildfires are still burning in California. An arrogant little man is threatening the world with missiles from Korea, and Nazis and Klansmen have marched openly in Virginia. A madman shot over 500 people from a hotel in Las Vegas, and another demented soul opened fire and killed dozens in a church in Texas.

Sometimes I just feel helpless at the thought of it all. That’s when I need to turn to the Christmas story—and not a sanitized, Christmas card version, but the true, human story behind our celebration.

You see, Mary and Joseph were helpless, too. They were peasants at the mercy of a powerful and oppressive regime which ordered them to travel seventy miles over open country while Mary was eight months pregnant. They were homeless when she gave birth—forced to nestle the Savior of the World in a filthy trough for animals. The men who came to ogle that baby were also homeless—“abiding in the field” (literally, living in tents)—and could offer no shelter to our Holy Family.

The lives of those shepherds, frankly, sucked. Their lives were hard and brutal on the morning of the day when Jesus was born, and they would be hard and brutal on the day after. The only difference might be a new sense of defiant joy, and the knowledge that things would not always be as they currently seemed to be. It would take time for that baby to grow up and live into God’s promise, but someday—some glorious day—God’s love and favor would be revealed.

These days we seem to be so hung up on certainty that we have forgotten the joy of hope. Christmas and faith are all about believing that there really is light in the darkness. That’s why we need this story. We need a little Christmas. It’s not just a cute anesthetic for our worries and sense of powerlessness. It’s a defiant act of joy. If we can’t appreciate the darkness in it, we’ll never learn to embrace the light. A poor, unimportant, un-wed teen mom conceived and bore a child in cave used to stable livestock, and we call him Jesus—the name means “savior.”

When we embrace this child—his love, hos compassion, his sense of sacrifice, and his sense of thankful joy for what the Father has already given us—the world will change.

Be joyful and triumphant, my friends, and have yourselves a very merry Christmas. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

"Hail, Mary" (Reflections on Advent 4, Year B)

Image result for images of the annunciation of mary

“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” (Luke 1:28)

Lutherans, as a general rule, don’t pray the rosary, but on Advent 4 (Year B) we get the origins of that lovely prayer which is so dear to our Roman brothers and sisters. The Latin translation of the angel Gabriel’s words in Luke 1:28 is “Hail Mary, full of Grace. The Lord is with thee.” (“Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb…” come later in the chapter at verse 42 when Mary meets her cousin Elizabeth). Martin Luther, although he adored Mary, hated the Latin translation of the salutation in verse 28. He would’ve been much more pleased had the angel said, “God bless you, dear Mary!” He maintained that no good German would ever say “You are full of grace.” He translated it as “thou gracious one,” feeling this was a sweeter and more complimentary way of saying hello.

However we interpret the angel’s greeting, we may have to admit to ourselves that the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is a pretty tough one to believe. When I was in seminary we debated whether belief in the Virgin Birth was truly necessary for salvation. But Luther comes to our rescue once again when he quotes the writings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux who pointed out that this story actually contains three miracles. First, it’s a miracle that the virgin should become a mother (which Luther considered was no big deal for the God who had created the universe from nothing). Second, it’s a miracle that Almighty God would be willing to take on and share our human experience and become one with us. Third, it’s a miracle that this young lady—a child of her time, culture, and circumstances—would actually be willing to say “yes” to being the bearer of God to the world.

Luther thought that the last one was the greatest miracle of all.

Just think of our girl here. She must’ve been very young. She was engaged to be married, and if she were found to be pregnant, at the very least, her boyfriend would have the right to dump her. If he married her anyway, her child would always be the subject of snide speculation—he’d be what was called a mamzer. That’s an individual whose parentage was in doubt and could not be considered to be authentically Jewish. At the very worst, she could be accused of adultery and stoned to death as a whore.

And yet she said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

Verse 29 tells us she was “perplexed” by the angel’s words. The Greek word for this is dietracqh (I’d pronounce this dee-trak-thay) which literally translates “troubled.” From the context, it might be better to translate it “scared spitless!” I mean, wouldn’t you be? Pregnancy alone is a scary thing. So many things can go wrong, and I can’t imagine any first-time mom who doesn’t face childbearing with a certain amount of fright. And if pregnancy is frightening, parenthood is freaking terrifying!

And yet she said, “Let it be with me according to your word.”

She was not an important person. She was from a hick town. Her most important relative was small town priest. Being female, she wasn’t even considered a full member of society, just an appendage to her father or her husband. But God sent a messenger to her, because God’s eye is always on the little folks who, in their simplicity, patience, and faith, have found favor with God.

For me, the great joy in this Advent story is how God loves to show up in unexpected places—like, maybe, your house. And as he hears you pray “Thy will be done,” he invites you to be carriers of his Word.

Thanks, Mary. May we always be inspired by your faith.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Light It Up! (Reflections on Advent 3, Year B)

Mini Lights
“He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” (John 1:7)

Don’t you just love Christmas lights? I do. I’ve started putting my lights up the week of Thanksgiving, and I can’t wait to see my whole street and neighborhood illuminated. Christmas lights just make me feel happy—especially the way some of my neighbors decorate. In this part of the world a house isn’t properly decked-out for Christmas unless you can see it from the International Space Station. By Advent 2 the street where Faith Lutheran sits looks like the Las Vegas Strip. I love it!

Lights, of course, have been part of our celebration for a very long time. It’s generally believed that the date on which we celebrate our Lord’s birth was chosen sometime in the 2nd Century. Since Jesus didn’t have a birth certificate, we don’t really know when he was born; however, our Christian ancestors decided to take the pagan Roman festival of Sol Invictus (the “unconquered sun”), celebrated on December 25th to commemorate the winter solstice, and re-purpose it as Jesus’ birthday. The pagans would light lots of bonfires and such in the hope of encouraging the sun to come back, bring longer and warmer days, and grow the crops. Apparently there was much whooping-it-up and festiveness at this time, and the early Christians figured this was as good a time as any to rejoice in the birth of the Savior.

It makes sense to me. Now of days, when there’s so much darkness around us, we really need to look to the light. It’s time to brighten things up. The gospel lesson assigned for Advent 3 Year B in the RCL (John 1:6-8, 19-28) throws a different “light” on our friend John the Baptist. Last week John was calling us to repentance. This week, he’s pointing to Jesus as the light of the world.

You have to give John the B credit: for all of his flamboyant weirdness, he’s a remarkably humble guy. He’s always pointing past himself—discounting his own importance—in order to shine the light on Jesus. This Sunday, I would hope we would see a joyful light. The third Sunday in Advent is traditionally known as Guadete Sunday, or “Rejoice Sunday.” We get a little break from watching for Christ and, like John, we are called to point to Christ as we see him already active in the world (and we get to light that nifty rose-colored candle, too!).

So..? Where have you seen the light of Christ this week?

Today I had a conversation with a woman in the parish who has just lost her thirty-eight-year-old son to sudden heart failure. In the darkness of her grief she told me of how her son’s co-workers had taken a collection and presented the young man’s widow and orphaned children with over twenty-one hundred dollars in gift cards. Such a sign of love and respect is a little candle in the darkness, and an echo of the sacrificial love which Jesus came to share.

I heard on the local TV news last night the story of an anonymous donor who paid literally thousands of dollars to a Walmart store in Northeast Philly to cancel the balances on all lay-away merchandise, thereby reducing the debts owed by an untold number of Christmas shoppers—people he or she has never met and will never meet.

I look at the work done by my own congregation, and I see our light shining in the darkness. We offer support groups for the addicted, food for the hungry, clothes for the poor, shelter for the homeless, Christmas gifts to orphans, and funds for the victims of natural disasters. We may only be shining in a small, dim way, but we are still shining. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it

I look, also (as my go-to gal for sermon help, Dr. Karoline Lewis, has pointed out in her “Dear Working Preacher” column on to the light of truth that is now shining in our country on the darkness of sexual misconduct, assault, and harassment. Wicked behavior has been hidden in the shadows for a very long time, but now we can rejoice that a light is being switched on and we can hope for a more respectful and honorable society to emerge as a result.

 The light of Christ, as Matthew 25 always teaches us, is seen in the guy with the cardboard sign asking for spare change at the freeway onramp, the guy ringing the Salvation Army bell in front of the drugstore, or the kid who comes to your door selling Christmas candy to support his underfunded school program. The light shines whenever we have the opportunity to think beyond ourselves to the world’s needs. And we should rejoice to have the opportunity.

But before we get too happy about our own generosity, I remind myself again that John the Baptist’s job in the Fourth Gospel is always to point away from himself to the true light that is Jesus. No administration, program, charity, foundation, or individual act of mercy will enlighten this planet if we’re not first willing to be illuminated by the grace found in Jesus Christ. If we want a way to see in the dark, let’s first look to the one who showed us mercy, forgiveness, sacrifice, and the noble suffering of faithfulness. Then, as he said,

“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)