Saturday, December 13, 2014

Did You Have Other Plans? ~ Sermon (Advent 3)

Oh, Joseph.  You did have plans, didn’t you?
And weren’t they wonderful plans?  You had a trade – you were a carpenter, which in your day, meant that you were a master builder: a stone worker, a woodworker, a mason.  In your small town in the world at that time, no one had the luxury of specializing in one form of construction alone – but your knowledge and skill meant that you were much in demand.  You built houses out of all sorts of materials – and you also made shelving, and furniture, and maybe even some items simply for the beauty of them.  You had a trade that all but guaranteed you the ability to support yourself and a family.

And you had a fiancee’ – that family you hoped for appeared to be more than a mere possibility, but a soon-to-be reality.  Your marriage to Mary was arranged and, as we know, such a betrothal was a serious business.  There had not yet been a wedding ceremony, and you had not yet begin to live together, but for most intents and purposes, the two of you were married. Your families had reached an agreement, some property may have changed hands, and you two were set – as good as married.
Yes, you did have plans, didn’t you?

And then – and then –
Somehow -- and the Bible doesn’t tell us how, or from whom – but somehow word got to you: Mary was pregnant.  Pregnant with a child she claimed had come from the Holy Spirit.  Pregnant in an era in which women did not have babies unless and until they were securely married, to the man of their father’s choosing.  Pregnant despite the fact that she was carefully supervised and sheltered by her parents.  Pregnant with a story as well as a baby – a story that made no sense at all.

And your plans, Joseph?  Shattered. Shattered along with your heart.  How betrayed you must have felt!  How disappointed!  How angry!   
You would have been well within your rights to act upon that anger and disappointment.  Mary’s story?  Highly unlikely.  The law?  Women found guilty of adultery – and what better proof than a pregnancy?  – women found guilty of adultery were subject to the punishment of death by stoning.  No one would have criticized you, had you walked into the center of town and asked that such a sentence be visited upon Mary.

But – you didn’t.  You decided instead to  “dismiss” her – to break the marriage contract, and to do so quietly, so that she would not be humiliated.  Why was that, we wonder?  Had you already developed some affection for Mary?  Did someone else suggest that option to you?  Or did you yourself find the law overbearing and oppressive, a worse injustice than the act of which Mary was apparently guilty?
We don’t know your reasoning. All we know is: no sooner had you made up your mind, than you had a dream.  And what a dream that was!

An angel.  An explanation.  And very clear instructions:

[D]o not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

This news did not fit with your plans, did it, Joseph? Plans for work and marriage and children.  Plans to live as an ordinary member of your community.  Your plans did NOT include angels - and mysterious conceptions - and entanglement with God - and a son born to save the world.  You had other plans entirely.

Now, we all know something about that saying, “Life is what happens when you’re making plans,” don’t we?  And sometimes the most amazing things happen!  Things in which we do indeed rejoice and give thanks!
I’ve told you that my niece and her husband adopted a baby a few weeks ago.  Now, they did have it in mind to adopt a baby.  They’d been working on that project for quite awhile.  But they didn’t have a definitive plan, and they certainly weren’t ready – not in the way that you get ready when you have nine months of pregnancy during which to plan and prepare.

Nope – they got a call on a week-end that there would be a baby the next week-end.  And so they started to get organized, and my niece, who’s a teacher, told her principal that she’d be starting maternity in a week.  And they started making lists and planning – planning – to buy paint and baby furniture and baby clothes and baby supplies.  They had a week to get it all finished.
And then they got a call on Monday – the baby will be delivered to you tomorrow!  Tomorrow!

They had other plans. 

A week earlier, they had been planning to host their first ever Thanksgiving dinner in their home.  A day earlier, they’d been plan to furnish a nursery.  And then, suddenly – a baby!  Right then and there, in their arms!
Now, that’s a really good sort of change of plans.  A really wonderful interruption. Craig Barnes, who’s now the President of Princeton Seminary, which is one of our Presbyterian seminaries, but a few years ago was one of my professors at Pittsburgh Seminary – Craig Barnes is fond of talking about when God interrupts our lives.[1]  When God expects changes from us.  And there are, indeed, lots of interruptions and changes, like the arrival of a new baby, even with only a few hours’ notice, that we welcome with great joy, and for which we are willing to change everything.

But we all know that there are other sorts of interruption as well. Other ways in which our plans are altered.  Interruptions which cause us to wonder aloud at this idea that we should rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances.  Changes which make the holiday season the most difficult time of the year.
There’s the meeting with the doctor, and the diagnosis that will change your life.  You’ll be spending the next month undergoing chemotherapy instead of taking that long-awaited vacation in California.

There’s the unexpected phone call, and the news that someone you love has died.  Your plans change, abruptly and completely, and you pack up the car and go.
The doorbell rings in the middle of the night, and the police are there, your son or daughter in tow, and your plans change to accommodate a court date and increased supervision of a child who seemed to have been doing well.  

All you have to do is open your newspaper or computer, or turn on the television or radio news, to be reminded that there are countless ways in which plans are demolished every day.

The question is not whether your plans will be upended.  They will be.
The question is: Will you see God at work in the interruptions in your life?

And then the next question is: How will you respond?  
Will you say yes?  Will you remain faithful to God?  Will you make room for the surprising grace of God in your life?

Craig Barnes tells us that “it is always at the turn in the road that God is most visible to us.”[2]
I would add: If we are paying attention.  If we are alert.  And isn’t that what Advent is about? Paying attention?  Being alert?  Keeping awake?

Now, what about Joseph?  Do you think that when his own great plans were interrupted, he felt more like my niece and her husband, overjoyed at the prospect before him?  Or did he feel a good deal less enthusiastic?  Worried? Afraid?  Confused?  What about those other words we’ve used – Betrayed? Angry? 
I  would guess that at the outset he felt a lot of the latter.  Isn’t that a natural set of human reactions?  Think of changes in plan which have been proposed to you lately – in your family, in your church, in the world at large.  Have you felt worried and afraid?  Betrayed and angry?  Pretty normal, yes?

But something happened to Joseph.  Whatever his initial feelings, the feelings that caused him at first to plan to put his relationship with Mary aside, those feelings were dramatically changed by his encounter with the angel Gabriel.
New Testament Professor James Boyce tells us that Joseph is

"a person of strength and purpose. He is committed and faithful to his religious tradition and ready to act on that commitment.  . . .  When the call comes, Joseph speaks not one word either of question or objection. He simply acts directly and immediately in obedient response to the  call.  . . .  . Joseph becomes visibly and audibly an example of the power of God's call to              transform our decisions and our lives."[3]
As you know, we are sharing the Bible study Taste and See[4] with folks from B. Church this week, and I’m preaching on this passage today as a way of elaborating a bit on the Bible study.  And it’s this matter of transformation which the Taste and See study emphasizes.  Joseph’s presumed fear and anger, the natural reactions any of us might experience in a situation as bewildering as the one in which he finds himself, those feelings are transformed by the grace of God.  Transformed by grace into the grace of acceptance and love.  Into the grace of determination and commitment.

Have you ever thought of Joseph as a role model for your own life? Maybe it’s time to do that. 

We don’t really give that much thought to Joseph, do we? Let’s face it: he barely makes it into our consciousness, and only during Advent and Christmas at best. But maybe we need to pay a lot more attention to this man, especially when we have plans which are interrupted.  Maybe when someone suggests that we do something differently, that we follow an unexpected course of action, that we accept a new role in a new set of circumstances – maybe then we need to ask:  Is God the one interrupting my expectations?   Maybe when life falls apart, when what we had hoped for and longed for is disrupted by disaster (and I don’t mean to suggest that God causes disaster – but I do mean to point out that God is present and at work no matter the circumstances) – maybe we need to ask: Is God calling me to change direction?  To rejoice regardless?  To give thanks anyway?
Yes, Joseph, you had other plans, didn’t you? Plans for an ordinary life in Nazareth. 

And yes, you might have hesitated when that angel showed up.  You might have protested.  You might have said, “No way! I have other plans!”  We would have understood, because we usually have other plans, too.

But you – you opened yourself to God’s transformative power, to the movement -- of possibility, of hope, of love – in the universe – and you found grace.  You became the earthly father of the Savior of the World!
To what, my friends, are we called? To what grace-filled transformation does this Advent season invite us?  How is God inviting us into the work of God?

Do you have other plans?  Do you want to cling to the past, to the old expectations and the old ways of doing things? 
Or are you willing to welcome God’s movement in your life?  Are you willing to let fear and anxiety be transformed by the grace of God?  Are you willing to let God change your lives and lead you to possibilities you’ve never imagined?

There is no doubt about it: You are called –like our model Joseph -- to participate in the life of Jesus Christ.  You are called – like Joseph – to exchange your plans for God’s.  You are called – like Joseph – to embrace a new life. 
Rejoice, and be glad!


[1] Craig Barnes, “When God Interrupts.” Shadyside Presbyterian Church Sermon.  (9/4/2011).
[2] Ibid.
[4] Jan Johnson, Taste and See.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Here I Am - A Sermon for Advent 2

An intriguing cast of characters populates our Advent panorama.  Last week, we encountered Elizabeth and Zechariah, the aging couple about to become the parents of John the Baptist, the man who would one day herald the arrival of Jesus. This morning, we hear from John himself, grown to adulthood to cry out the words of the prophet Isaiah -- "Prepare the way of The Lord! Make his paths straight!" -- and we meet the young Mary, stunned by the appearance of the angel Gabriel in her life, and yet quickly responsive to the call from God he shares with her.

This past week, two groups met for our new Bible study and had an opportunity to consider together this event in Mary’s life.  An angel appears to this seemingly ordinary young woman, this young unmarried woman, living in a small town of no particular significance, and tells her that she is to bear God’s son into the world. We imagined the possibilities:
·         Was she inside or outside? What were her surroundings like?
·         How, in the small and crowded world in which she lived, did she happen to be alone?
·         What did it mean for a young, unmarried woman of her time, a person whose status was entirely dependent upon husband and children, to be confronted with a surprising pregnancy before her marriage?
·         What did her face look like when she heard this news?  What would yours look like if you received news like that?
·         How did she feel?  How would you feel?  “Perplexed” is the word our text gives us.  What about – also – surprise?  Fear?  Shock?
And we marveled at how quickly she moved from her astonishment at Gabriel’s announcement to acceptance of the honor bestowed upon her.  “Here am I,” she says, “the servant of the Lord.  “Let it be with me according to your word.”
Now that’s not how we would be likely to react, is it?  Imagine yourself having just received surprising news – shocking news, even – that is about to transform your entire life.  News that will cause everyone you to know be skeptical of your story.  News that will alter all of your relationships.  News that sets you on an entirely new and completely unexpected path.  How likely are you to say, “I will live in accord with your will, God?” As Pastor Dave pointed out in one of our classes this week, aren’t we more likely to say, “What about MY will? What about MY plans?”
But Mary says, “Let it be with me according to your word.  Here am I.”  Or, in words with which I’ve taken a bit of liberty, “Here I am.” 
“Here am I.  Here I am” – as we’re going to sing those words at the end of our service this morning.  These are the words of prophets.
Isaiah speaks them; the song we’re going to sing in based upon the words of the prophet in Isaiah 6:8, as he responds to God’s call: “I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’”
Listen again to Mary: “Here am I.”
They are the words of Samuel, last of the judges and first of the prophets of Israel, when as a young boy he hears the voice of God calling in the night and, thinking that it is the elderly Eli calling for him in the dark, responds, “Here I am!”  And then, do you recall, that after Eli understands that God is calling, he instructs the young Samuel in how to respond, and Samuel does so, saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (I Samuel 3:1-20)
Listen again to Mary: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”
The words of a prophet.  The words of someone responding to God’s call to speak and to show God’s people how God is moving among them and how they are themselves called to respond.
And make no mistake about it: Mary is a prophet.   
In her words, and in her very body, Mary is engaged in the prophetic task: faithfully trusting in and responding to the call of God, showing what God is doing in the world, and modeling for us the way in which we, too, are called to answer God’s movement in our own lives.
Not sure?  Yes, she responds as Samuel did, and as Isaiah did: “Here I am.  I am your servant, Lord.” Yes, she carries the Son of God into the world.  But there is more, in words we did not read earlier but will hear now, in the words she speaks to her cousin Elizabeth.
Remember, the aging Elizabeth, is herself, also surprisingly, pregnant, awaiting the birth of the baby who will become John the Baptist.  Mary, quite naturally, upon learning that she, too, is most surprisingly pregnant, rushes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is delighted to receive her. And Mary says to Elizabeth – and I want you to listen carefully here -- Mary says:
[God’s] mercy is for those who fear God
   from generation to generation.
 God has shown strength with God’s arm;
   God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.
God  has helped God’s servant Israel,
   in remembrance of God’s mercy,
according to the promise God made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’ (Luke 1:50-55)
Are these not also the words of a prophet?
There is a long prophetic tradition in the Old Testament, a tradition in which those called by God are called, not to predict to the future, as we today so often think of prophecy, but called to assure those in need, those who are poor and hungry and sick and disenfranchised, that God is laboring for them. And called to warn those who are powerful and wealthy and in political control that their ways are not God’s ways, and that their power will be toppled and their wealth destroyed -- in favor of God’s new creation in which all people are called into a kingdom of peace and love.
And is this not exactly what Mary says?  And does? 
Mary is not a simple peasant girl waylaid by an angel.  Mary is not a meek and mild young woman called to quiet submission to things as they are.  Mary is a woman of prophecy, a woman who proclaims through both her very being and through her words, that in her son,
·         God scatters the proud
·         God brings down the powerful
·         God lifts up the lowly
·         God fills the hungry
·         God sends the rich away empty
·         God fulfills God’s promises.
Friends, the world is in need of prophets today.
·         The world is in need of people who insist that the hungry be fed.
·         The world is in need of those who insist that the sick be made well and the injured be healed.
·         The world is in need of those who stand in the streets to cry out against injustice.
·         The world is in need of those who work tirelessly to reform our criminal justice system.
·         The world is in need of those who persist for peace, for an end to war, for an end to all forms of violence.
·         The world is in need of those who say. “Here I am, Lord.  Here I am, your servant. Let it be with me according to your will.”
This world is in need of prophets who say, with Mary:
·         Here: In this time and this place.
·         I: This person, me, this person you, my God, created with these gifts for this time and place.
·         Am: Right now, present tense, responding with what I have to give, to your call in this time and place.
“Here I am, the servant of the Lord.”
So says Mary. 

So, God asks, say we all.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Thursday

I think I am writing these lists for a week now, and for a reason ~ which is not solely to remind myself to take a day off next week!

I played around a lot online early today, taking a bit of a break before the long day ahead.

And then ~

I did some writing, and

Taught the class on fasting,  and

Met with a woman who wanted to interview me for a college essay, and

Drove far west of town to visit a parishioner in rehab, and

Drove partway back to attend funeral home calling hours for the mother of a young friend, and

Drove the rest of the way back to teach the class on walking as a spiritual discipline, and

Gave up on the lecture I had planned to attend afterward, and

Came home and watched Gray's.

Every single encounter today was disconcerting in some unbloggable way.

The only bloggable disconcerting thing today was receiving a letter from my doctor's office which described a conversation that did not take place.  The same thing happened a few weeks ago, only the letter was from the denominational health people.  Either I am losing my mind, or people are planning to tell me things and then reporting that they did so when in fact they forgot.  Very strange.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Wednesday

Prepared two classes for tomorrow, one on fasting, thanks to Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline, and one on walking on the ground, thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World.

Spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get next year's health benefits right, which included calls  to both local and national church offices.

Had a loooong lunchtime conversation with representatives of two other churches and Presbytery, trying to address a possible cooperative future.

Stopped at the grocery.  Arrived home just as my father showed up, en route from Cape Cod to southern Ohio.  Long conversation with him.

Dinner at Mexican restaurant with father and son, who made a presentation on his summer clerking in the Seychelles court to an international law class at his alma mater today.

Husband is off at pottery class.  I am wiped out.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Tuesday

Got up early to try to get my regular orthopedic surgeon check-up over with quickly.  Still, I was there for 45 minutes (approximately five of them with the doctor).  I think he is discouraged; he hopes that I'll bound in and exclaim, "A miracle!" ~ but in truth, the pain persists.  Ten months and three weeks.
Pastors' lectionary discussion group ~ one of the highlights of my week.  Such amazing colleagues I have!  And we have moved to a new church, so we had to try out a new restaurant for lunch.  I'd be content to go there every week.
Sermon pondering.  I'm quite stuck.  I have to be un-stuck by Friday.
Reading, reading . . . . I am reading books on change and the church for the training I'm doing in two weeks.  It's not new material for me, but it's helpful to be reading right now, as we try to launch Deep, Major, Huge Change in my congregation. 
Went to Target.  I have not been able to figure out what I did with my hats and gloves last spring.  I am sure they will show up in about March, but it's cold now.
Reviewed all those papers I was grading yesterday ~ one last time before recording the midterm grades online.  I hate grading. I hate the whole concept of grading.  I know that my students are all doing what they can . . . why isn't that sufficient?  I know which two are excelling in my area, and which two are struggling due to inadequate high school writing preparation.  Why can't I just communicate that information to whomever needs to know it?
Pulled together the bulletin material needed by the woman who will be preaching for me when I'm gone and emailed her.  It always takes a long time to write out what you do each week so that a newbie will know what to expect.
No walk today. It's cold and windy and rainy.  8:45 and my husband is sitting at the kitchen table working and my son just walked in from a client meeting.  I am very, very tired tonight.  We're an exciting group.

Monday, October 20, 2014

A Monday ~

Sometimes, I just like to list my day's activities ~

Read a big chunk of a book assigned for the transitional ministry training I'm doing in a couple of weeks ~

"Met" (by telephone) with someone who's closing in on the end of the Spiritual Exercises ~

Walked two miles through my neighborhood ~

Engaged in several emails, texts, and phone calls related to scheduling a meeting for the leaders of three churches considering some sort of new venture together ~

Scheduled my mammogram, which took 20 minutes, which is reason no. 1 of about 100 for why I avoid medical appointments ~

Taught my college class on religion and law ~

Went to the grocery ~

Graded my midterms ~

Had dinner with my husband and son ~

Finished grading the exams ~

And now I'm watching The Town with my son.

Tomorrow starts with a trip to the orthopedic surgeon,  I'm going extra early in an effort to prevent it from taking three hours from my day.  Reason no. 2 of 100.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Why Walk?

Early morning before the Toledo walk, a few weeks ago
I was a senior in high school the first time I ever walked for a cause.  I don't remember the cause, but I think it had something to do with hunger.  I don't remember the route, but it was somewhere in western Massachusetts.  What I do remember is that we walked 20 miles and my big toenails turned black and fell off.
Forty-three years later, I could not hop out of bed on a Saturday morning and walk 20 miles!  But I can walk the three or so Out of the Darkness miles for suicide prevention tomorrow, despite a still-healing ankle that slows me down and a tender tendon which I have come to accept as a permanent fact of life.
In between?  Two previous of these walks.  One last year for Diversity Day here in downtown Cleveland ~ that was a lively, colorful, sunny morning.  One down to the lake long ago to support the Museum of Natural History, where I volunteered for years.  A Komen walk the year my daughter's Girl Scout troop walked to earn a badge.  Same place as we will be tomorrow. Those are the walks which come to mind at the moment.
I'm feeling a bit wistful this morning.  It took my own experience with breast cancer to nudge me into suicide prevention work ~ grasping what all that pink had accomplished in terms of public awareness, research money, and reduction of stigma.  But this is harder.  I have tremendous support from my various online communities, where many people have read my blog for years, but few of my friends here at home come out.  I muttered something some weeks ago about the weekly summer evenings given over to a friend's birthday preparations, and people can't come up with one morning for this.  "Mom!" exclaimed my son, "A 60th birthday party versus a walk focused on suicide ~ where do you THINK people are going to go?"
Truthfully, this walk has the potential to be a lot of fun -- although the steady cold rain last year and its return predicted for tomorrow quite possibly produce(d) more misery than fun.  Some people hug and cry ~ as they do at Komen events ~ but most people talk and laugh and feel a lot of energy around the ability to DO something, which was not an option for us when it mattered most.
The money?  Our little AFSP* chapter, entirely volunteer-run, is less than a year old, from an official point of view. But several of us have been to Washington to lobby for mental health legislation.  And we are launching an effort to educate first responders in suicide awareness -- a major urban police force is eager to make our training event a quarterly opportunity.  We are on our way.
I wonder sometimes what Josh would say.  His father and brother don't say much.  His sister has been writing a series of daily FB vignettes, lovely memories of her brother.  I think Josh would roll his eyes and make a droll joke, because if he were here he would have no idea that depression can run a person down as swiftly and surely as a locomotive can.
I had no idea, either.  And maybe that's, in the end, really why we walk.  It is of some comfort to spend a morning with others who get it, in the most powerful kind of way. 
*The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is the nation's pre-eminent non-profit organization addressing suicide prevention through research, advocacy, and education.  Community walks take place across the country all fall, and campus walks all spring.