Primitive religion is not believed, it is danced!

Arthur Darby Nock

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Elizabeth Browning

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Love Story

One of the greatest theologians that ever lived, Karl Barth, was asked to be a guest lecturer at the University of Chicago Divinity School.  At the end of a captivating closing lecture, the president of the seminary announced that Dr. Barth was not well and was quite tired, and though he thought that Dr. Barth would like to be open for questions, he shouldn't be expected to handle the strain. Then he said, "Therefore, I will ask just one question on behalf of all of us."

He turned to the renowned theologian and asked, "Of all the theological insights you have ever had, which do you consider to be the greatest of them all?

It was the perfect question for a man who had written literally tens of thousands of pages of some of the most sophisticated theology ever put into print.  The students held pencils right up against their writing pads, ready to take down verbatim the premier insight of the greatest theologian of their time.

Karl Barth closed his tired eyes, and he thought for a minute, and then he half smiled, opened his eyes, and said to those young seminarians, "The greatest theological insight that I have ever had is this: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."

My dear friends in Christ, I submit to you that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the greatest love story ever written!

I wish with all my heart that everybody could read it that way, but I'mafraid to say that I meet people every day for whom it reads more like a Used Car contract.  Somehow in the midst of all those beautiful love verses, they hear only clauses and conditions and the spelling out of all the consequences should any or those clauses and conditions ever be violated.

So I thank God that Christmas comes around once a year to remind us that God isn't in the business of keeping books and tallying ledgers, nor is God concerned about our status or position in life.  If God were concerned about any of those things,  then I submit to you that the Christ of God would never have been born into such disagreeable circumstances as we find
in the Christmas story.

No.  Christmas is the beginning of a classic love story with all the right ingredients:  infatuation, pursuit,  risk and relationship... But in all relationships of love, there does have to be that first meeting doesn't there?

When I was a child, I remember asking "what if my parents had never met? Could I have been born to another set of parents?  If I was, how would I be different?  And time and time again, I have wondered, what if had had made difference choices along the way.  Chosen a different college, a different career.  Think of all the people whose paths would not have crossed mine.  Of all those “first meetings” that wouldn’t have happened.

What if I had met an entirely different set of people?  What would my life be like?  Maybe I would not be here.  Maybe I would not know you.  Maybe I would not have my children.  Or have the relationships I have now. 

But no matter how my journey has unfolded, I know that certain people have come into my life who have changed my life.  Created a shift.  There have been certain “intersections” that have been critical.

Christmas is such an intersection.  It is one of those “crossing of the paths that changes things, significantly – for Christmas is where we find God intersecting with humanity!  Christmas is our first best meeting with the God who has desired us from the very beginning.

I submit to you that if it weren't for Christmas we might never have known the intensity of the love that God has for us.

In this story, with Mary and Joseph, far from home because of imperial rule, a peasant mother giving birth in unsanitary substandard housing.  In this story of shepherds, in this story of Kings weren’t open to the arrival of this baby, and heathen magicians who were -  in this story we meet the God who loves us.  Who loves us with an amazing love… a love that when we cross paths with it - changes everything.   

This story is God’s love letter.  Not just the story of the baby, but also the story of the man.
As Jesus grew and went out into the world, so our understanding of just how much God loves us also grew.  We find in Jesus that God's love doesn't demand perfection, that forgiveness isn't given away sparingly but recklessly and indiscriminately, that unconditional really means unconditional, and that God's love is completely and thoroughly inclusive.

We find that even the likes of us gathered here this morning fall within the embrace of that love, and that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I said that when we cross paths with this baby, with the man, with this Jesus, there is a shift.  A change.  And so there is.

If you were to ask people what they would want, most of all.  For themselves, for their children, for the world, how do you think they would answer?  It is the classic answer of the beauty pageant participants.  “What I want most of all is world peace.”  We are people who live in troubled times.  Our world is trouble.  Our country is troubles, our lives are troubled, our hearts are troubles.  We want… oh do we want,  peace

Christ brings us peace.  A peace begins with the knowledge that God loves and accepts us just that much.   A peace that begins with Christmas!  That is a key shift that comes with the advent of the child.

There are other shifts as well.  Wayne Muller, in a book about the impact of a painful childhood, suggests that Christ can create all kinds of shifts….He allows us to shift from pain to forgiveness, fear to faith, emptiness to fulfillment, and judgment to mercy.   Most of all, Muller suggests, this Christ enables us to move from isolation, from loneliness to intimacy.  This love we receive enables us to tear down the walls of fear and distrust, and become open to one another.

Now having said all this, I know that Christmas is a time of great emotion for many of us.  The things we say Christmas is all about, joy, peace, hope love, can actually, when life is hard, cause a measure of sorrow to come into focus.  The Christmas season can give rise to some painful memories for a good number of people...   People often think about the failures they have suffered and about loved ones they have lost...

It is at Christmas time that I sense most keenly the loss of my parents.  I remember my father, and his quest for the perfect tree, and my mother with her amazing boxes of candy and cookies.  I remember Christmas Eve in my little home church.  Caroling in the snow.  Times and relationships that are no more.

But I also know this...without Christmas my life would be positively unbearable!

I would like close by telling you a story about a nativity pageant that like life itself, didn't go quite as planned...The youth group at a certain church was performing a manger scene.  Joseph and Mary and all the other characters were in place and ready.  They did their parts with seriousness and commitment, looking as pious as they possibly could.

And then it came time for the shepherds to enter. --- Dressed in flannel bathrobes and toweled head gear, the shepherds proceeded to the altar steps where Mary and Joseph looked earnestly at the straw which contained a single naked light bulb that was playing the part of the glowing newborn Jesus.  With his back to the congregation, one of the shepherds said to the person playing Joseph, in a very loud whisper for all the cast to hear, "Well, Joe, when you gonna pass out cigars?"

The solemn spell of that occasion was not simply broken by his remark, it was exploded. Mary and Joseph's cover was completely destroyed as it became impossible to hold back the bursts of laughter. The chief angel, standing on a chair behind them was the worst of all.

She shook so hard in laughter that she fell off her chair and took the curtained back drop and all the rest of the props down with her.  The whole set was in shambles.

But do you know what?  The only thing that didn't go to pieces was that light bulb in the manger. ... it never stopped shining.

My dear friends in Christ, that baby in the manger is the light of my world, even when my world is in shambles...For in that baby the Divine and  the human cross paths.
The infant Jesus is our living, breathing sign of the immeasurable love that God has had for all of us from the very beginning.  Christmas is the living promise that we are never ever alone.  No matter where we are in life, no matter in what condition we find ourselves, no matter how far we might stray away, or how unfaithful we are, God, the supreme lover, will pursue us in love for eternity!

It's a love that never stops shining.

May God bless each of you and those you love this Christmas Season

Sunday, December 19, 2010

This shall be sign

God has a message for us that he doesn’t want us to miss.  That message, simply put is “I love you.”  Now God has a problem.  He doesn’t normally actually speak, but God still has a way of being very direct and congruent.  Now, I myself have never heard the voice of the Lord  -  but I have seen the love of God displayed in many ways.  One of my favorite Palms is Psalm 136.  Over and over again the Palmist affirms the love of God, with that repetitive phrase, “His love endures forever!”  Why can the Psalmist say this?  Because of what God has done, in history.  In the world that surrounds us.   God has made creation.  God has acted in history.  God has provided for the people.  God’s love is there for all to see.  It has been fleshed out!

But the most powerful way God ever expressed his love, ever “fleshed out” his love was in the child in the manger..  As the angels pronounced the birth of Jesus to the Shepherds they uttered this very important phrase.  “And this will be a sign. . . “ A sign is something which points the way.  It is something which identifies and defines.  This baby, was a sign!  To think about it another way, this baby was the body language of God.  What was God trying to say?

Some have said that, since one of the names for Jesus was “Immanuel”, which means “God with us”, that this was the message of Jesus birth.  “I am with you.”  Not a bad start.  We might call the ministry of Jesus “Project Immanuel.”

But there is more to it than that.  For there is more contained in the baby than just the message that God is with us, although that is an absolutely core message.  There is also the message of HOW God is with us.  God could have staged his arrival any way he wanted.  God could have come as a warrior King, emphasizing power.  God  could have come as an apparition in the clouds, emphasizing glory and majesty.  But God came as a little baby – emphasizing love.  Not just love, but agape, God’s unique kind of love.

Agape love is unique because it is giving not seeking.  It does not demand value, it creates value.  It does not look back, at what has been, but looks forward to what might be.  If we look at the Christmas birth, all that becomes clear.

Here we have a baby.  A little defenseless one.  One born in poverty.  Visited by the shepherds, the poorest of the poor.  One who was, at least at his birth, homeless, basically a street person.  In this odd choice of an arrival God shows that he came to be with people.  I mean really with them.  Not with them in a condescending manner, not in superficial way, but with them – in all the pain, hunger, frustration and despair of human existence.

God’s arrival, in that wee baby, was a sign.  It pointed to something deep and wonderful.  In the baby God said, “I love you.  I love you so much that I am willing to come and live, and hunger, and thirst, I am willing to come and hurt and suffer, and yes even die, that you might know and received my love.”

Every time I read the Christmas story I am overwhelmed.  I am awestruck by the audacity of God.  To choose to immerse himself in the world.  The  infinite becoming finite.  Power taking on weakness.  Life taking on death.  To choose to reach out to us in this way.  To choose to be a baby in  cave, surrounded by the outcasts of the world.  Incredible.

God was born in a cave.  In the midst of the dirt and smells, the poverty and hurt of this world.  He came to be with and for the world.  He came as a real person, not be a person apart, but to be a person with.  He came to be with the ragged old men.  The addicted young mother.  The person suffering from hallucinations who mumbles to himself as he walks down the street.  The workaholic business person.  The harried mother.  The confused youth.  He came to be with and not apart.  To be with, in love!  In hope.

And still God  comes.  God still arrives in the midst of the hurt, the frustration and pain.  God is still with “with us”.  And God is still saying, “I love you!”

How?  Through the Spirit – of course.  But think about how God chooses to embody himself in this place and this time.  It’s the church.  The Immanuel Project is continued through gathered believers.  Through us.  For we are the body of Christ in this time and this place.  We are not the one’s through whom God puts flesh and bones on his love.  It is through us that God is present and active in the world.  It is through us that God loves and heals, helps and cares.  We are Project Immanuel, Part II.  Through us God is to be born and is to be offered to all the world.  To the attractive, and educated, to the alien and outcast alike.

To be with,  in the form of people who care, who heal, who help, in practical, down to earth ways
To be with, as people who offer help as a gift, not expecting anything  back
To be with, as people who are without judgment or condescension.

That is what it means to be part of the Immanuel Project
To be Christ’s people, the people of the child

I like the way civil rights leader Howard Thurman once put it.  “When the song of the angels is stilled. When the star of the sky is gone. When kings and princes are home. When the shepherds are back with their flocks. The work begins… to find the lost. To heal the broken. To feed the hungry. To rebuild the nations. To bring peace among people. To make music in the heart”

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sabbath Moments

It Christmas time.  And during this time Christians celebrate and event they believe created a “shift” in the universe.  That moved the world from hopelessness to hope. From angst to joy.  From darkness to light.  That event was the birth of Jesus.  But what I find remarkable about this event is that at the time, almost no one noticed.  A few assorted  shepherds, social outcasts, that’s all.  What was the problem?

I’m going to offer a theory - that one of the major reasons was preoccupation.  It was just that everyone was so busy.  First, the town of Bethlehem was crammed with people for the census.  Kind of like a mall on ‘black Friday’.  But it was more than that.  I think the people were just too busy.  They had their own agenda’s, priorities, and tasks.  They were so focused, so busy, that they had neither the time nor inclination to notice God’s presence and action.

Take the priests and other religious leaders.  Not a single one appears to welcome the Christ.  Where were they?  Probably at the synagogue having a Bible study on the coming of the Messiah.  Or maybe they were at a committee meeting. . . who knows ?  What about the rulers?  We don’t see a single person of political importance at the scene.  No kings, no princes, no governors, not even a mayor.  Not time in their busy schedules for the rumor of an infant king.  We see no people of the city.   No merchants, craftspeople, none…  They were too busy.  Everyone was preoccupied . . . so they missed it all.  Sound a little like us?

Everyone but the shepherds!  They shepherds took it all in.  Why?  It was not because they were noble and wonderful.  They weren’t.  They were probably rude and crude – forget the idyllic pastoral scenes from plays and poets.  But there were some things about the Shepherds that made them receptive.  Part of it may have been that their jobs gave them “space”.  A lot of time they were alone.  Since this was a world before ipods and cell phones, they were alone with their thoughts.  I am not saying they were by nature philosophical and reflective.  But there were “gaps” in their lives.  Times of silence, quiet, times when their minds and hearts, times when the sacred, could speak to them.  Like they had a choice.  That is what happens when we have space.  That is why most people try to make sure that never happens.  Hence the cellphones and ipods.

We don’t often have such moments.  Wayne Muller suggests that this is, in part, because most people today don’t have a good sense of what is “enough”  And this is a problem.  He writes, “When we are unable to clearly identify what is enough of anything, it can feel more and more difficult to recognize when to stop striving or grasping in our desperate pursuit of everything.  Unless we feel some certainty that our work, our gift, our time, our relationships are, at the end of the day, enough, we may never feel the permission to stop.”

Thomas Merton suggests that our failure to draw limits.  To have a balance between activity and inactivity, a failure to limit the choice, the tasks, the input… is actually damaging.  “There is” he writes, “a pervasive form of contemporary violence. . .  that is activism and overwork.  The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.  To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.”

And the victims of this violence are insight, intimacy with ourselves, and our connection to the sacred.  Being overly engaged is debilitating.  Having time to think, to pray, to rest?  That is empowering.  There is a Taoist saying.  “To the mind that is still the world surrenders.”  I would alter that just a little.  To the mind that is still, the world becomes open….  and one of the things that it can become open to is God. 
We need what could probably be called “Sabbath moments”.  Moments when we can look in, and find ourselves, and find the sacred.  In the moments of Sabbath, when  we look for God, I believe we find god… we are pulled out of our busy, chaotic lives - we are changed… everything becomes new.  God touches us… and we begin to see life in a new way.  We develop what we might call the divine perspective – the God perspective

This perspective recognizes that God is here, that the sacred permeates the world!  I love the poem by E B Browning. 
Earths crammed with heaven
and every common bush afire with God,   
but only he who sees takes off his shoes;
the rest sit round and pick blackberries.

When we focus on God.  When we pull our eyes away from our houses, our jobs, our activities, our computers… when we pull our eyes away from our agendas, our priorities, our full calendars, our anxiety our fears… when we do that  -  We see the sacred.  We do this not to be pulled out of the world, but so that we can become new people in the world.  So that we can love, and hope, and give.

The question is for us this Christmas season is this  -  Will we do it?  Will we take the time to look to the heavens? Will we slow down?  Will we make space in our lives for the sacred?  “For unto you this day a child is born, a savior.”  For unto you is born.  But only if we hear the news.  Only if we take the time to run to the stable.  Martin Luther understood.  That is why he wrote the words to this hymn.  For us they might be a prayer

Ah dearest Jesus, holy child, make thee a bed soft undefiled
Within my heart
That it may be
A quiet chamber kept for thee  - Amen!

Monday, December 6, 2010

For unto us

Isaiah 9, is one of the most powerful presentations of the Good News available.  It tells us of God’s great act on our behalf.  The great thing God has done because of his love for all people.  But if you think about it, what we find here is a strange kind of announcement.  If we are talking “great acts of God” we might expect something, well, spectacular!  Amazing!  Powerful!  You know – thunder, lightening, rivers full of blood, cataclysmic events….That is not at all what we get….. what we get is, a baby!
A baby!!!  “For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given”

What is important here is not so much that we have a baby.  Babies do grow up to be warriors, Kings,  Presidents.  What is important is this sentence is the word “given.”  This baby is a gift.  I like the way Martin Luther put it in a Christmas Sermon given sometime back in the 1500’s.  Commenting on our passage from Isaiah he wrote,  “This one is also given” to us. What does “given” mean? He is a [pure] gift, a present.  There is nothing I have to give or pay in return.  And now we have the gift . . . !  Consider these two words: “born” and “given.” A son, given; a child, born! 

We know of course that this passage refers to Jesus.  Jesus is the child, the son.  Jesus is what is given to us  -- the one who is born for us – that was made clear in our passage from Matthew.  And he is a gift.  We don’t’ have to earn him.  Deserve him.  Even ask for him…. He just is  -  a free gift. Given to us…..all we have to do is accept the gift!  So obviously the first question is whether we have accepted the gift.  Kind of seems like a no brainer…  I mean we don’t normally turn down gifts.

But it is still a valid question.  We can refuse the gift.  We can say “no thanks.”  Some people do.  But the more likely problem is that we can fail to see that the gift is a gift.  We can make it something we have to earn and deserve… and in doing so, fail, effectively reject it, because the bottom line is we can’t earn or deserve it.  Its there, but we don’t take it, open it, allow it to be ours.  

So here is the question for this morning… We have the gift… It is right here in our hands!  Wrapped, beautiful.  Imagine that!  But have we really said yes?  Are we ready to open the gift?
Are we willing to take that gift, rip off the wrapping, forget saving the paper, open it up… and with joy say “YES! Just what I needed?”  Or do we say…. “Oh God, you shouldn’t have… decide we are too sinful, to much a failure……… to accept what is offered?

Let say that we are really ready to say yes.  To just rejoice in the gift.  What does this gift, this baby, this “one” do?   In short, what difference does it make that this baby has come?

Lets look first at versus 3 & 4  “You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder.  For as in the day of Midian's defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.”

The baby shatters the yoke that burdens us.  We all have yokes  -- those things that bind us, burden us, hold us back, freeze us.  What’s your yoke? What is holding you back?  Christ will take that from you, shatter it, destroy it, and set you free

And then what?  Lets go back to Isaiah… look at how he pictures the impact of this child and the freedom it brings.  “You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder.”  These people aren’t just ‘happy’, they are ecstatic.  This is, “The Ducks are playing for the national Championship” joy.  I love the line about dividing the plunder.  I can’t help but think of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, where the Pirates are all singing ,and dancing and drinking, celebrating their victory… that’s what we have here!  God’s people gone wild!

But God doesn’t just free us from our pasts, God works to help us move forward into the future.  God brings us insight, vision, direction.  God orders our lives.  There are a number of sections that illustrate this reality.  We can look at the beginning… “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned”  With God we know were to put our feet, so to speak. 

So what is the end result of all this?  We have a thing called  Peace.  Peace, what does it mean?  We probably think that primarily it means a time where there aren’t any wars, or a least any major ones… But in Hebrew peace, shalom, means fullness, means having every thing you need to be wholly yourself.

We can have peace - We can share peace… Why?
Because ‘To us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

And he is here
Right here, in each of us