Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Simple, Elegant Equation (Christmas Eve Sermon)

A new movie came out a couple of months ago, a movie entitled The Theory of Everything.  The Theory of Everything tells the story of famous scientist Stephen Hawking – of his extraordinary career as a physicist, of his marriage family, and of his experience of life with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or what we often call Lou Gehrig’s disease, the degenerative neurological condition which over the course of his adult life has destroyed most of his physical capabilities.
As a brilliant young graduate student, Stephen Hawking began to explore the topic that would become his life’s work: Time. Does time have a beginning or does it not?  How does time work? As he himself explains it, Stephen Hawking wants to find the simple, elegant equation that explains – everything.
I’ve been thinking about this movie for weeks, and about this idea of a simple, elegant equation that explains everything.  As a physicist, Stephen Hawking’s  writes equations that look like math problems.  And if you’ve forgotten what an equation is – and I know that anyone here in high school is a lot closer to that definition that some of the rest of us! – an equation is an assertion that proclaims the equality of two quantity quantities.  For example, 2+2 = 4 -- one quantity is described as 2+2, and the other as 4, and they are equal.  That’s what most of us understand to be an equation. 
What on earth do equations have to do with Christmas?  (I'm sure you're wondering now how this happened ~ you came to a Christmas Eve service and landed in algebra class?)
Well, when Stephen Hawking, who is apparently not a person of faith, at least not in the conventional sense, does his work, he writes in the numbers and symbols of math and science.
But what if he is actually overlooking the simple, elegant equation that explains everything? 
What if the simple, elegant equation that explains everything is the Christian proclamation, the Christmas message?  What if the simple, elegant equation that explains everything is this:
Jesus is the savior of the world. Jesus = savior.
What does that even mean?
What does savior mean?
We have a lot of different ways of thinking about Jesus as the savior of the world, but as Professor Joan Nuth reminds us, it helps ~ yes, it really does help! ~ to begin with the Greek and Latin words from which the word savior comes – words which mean:
To make whole.
To heal.
One who saves -- makes the broken whole.
One who saves--  heals the sick and the injured.
One who saves, in other words --  gives life.  Creates anew. 
It seems unlikely, doesn’t it?  That the Christmas story could be the story by which all things cracked and smashed are made whole, the story by which all trauma is healed, the story which relates the beginning of a grand new creation, a new heaven and a new earth, a re-creation of the lush, flourishing garden of vitality and peace in which we got our start?
Yes, it seems unlikely that this story could tell us how God embraces the world.
The setting? An apparently arbitrary time on a speck of land on a very small planet in a vast universe of galaxies.
The cast of characters?
A man and a woman on the road, relying on visions and dreams for their sustenance while they are caughtup in that most bureaucratic of human enterprises – a taxing authority!
A baby – the most vulnerable of creatures, entirely dependent upon other human beings for nurturance and care.
Some shepherds and their sheep – the rough and tough guys and girls of their world, and their band of smelly, dull-witted animals.
And angels – all right, that might be a clue: something completely unexpected and entirely new is happening here.  But as far as the people are concerned?  They all look pretty ordinary.
And what about the context?  A world in profound need of healing, both then and now.
Then: Domination and oppression by a world power, slavery, poverty.  People who were lame and blind and ill, lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors – isolated and excluded and reviled.
Today: War and terrorism, Ebola, relations between black and white in turmoil, injustices and protests, people who are hurting and sick and angry, isolated and ignored.
It seems unlikely, that this story of a stable and a star, of people on the road and a baby delivered in a manger, unlikely that this story could have any impact on the vastness of human need. And yet, and yet --
Jesus is born to save, to make whole, to heal
By bringing together heaven and earth
God and humanity
Angels and shepherds
And by embracing the whole of human life: birth, death, great joy, unfathomable suffering ~
Jesus is the savior.
A simple, elegant equation? 
Let me tell you just one thing more about equations this time, about chemical equations.  Now for this I needed help, from my friend Michelle, who is a chemistry professor and a gifted spiritual writer, as well as from two friends who are chemistry teachers – one of them our own S.A. They explained to me that a chemical equation often requires a catalyst.   A chemical equation tells us how certain kinds and amounts of materials to which a specific catalyst is added result in certain products.
Michelle also pointed out to me last night that in a chemical equation, the materials we start with often bear no resemblance to the products  --  the results -- in the equation. 
For instance, hydrogen and oxygen are both gases and both highly flammable – and oxygen at high concentrations is poisonous to breathe! But let’s say that these gases, hydrogen and        oxygen – are our starting materials. 
Now add a catalyst -- a spark—and the product is not another gas, but water!  As michelle says: Pure, cool, wondrous water is formed.   
From gases, from something we cannot see, we get water – something we can hold and drink and bathe with and swim in, something tangible and refreshing -- and essential to our lives. 
Was that too much?  I’ll tell you the truth: it’s hard for me to think about.  Gases plus spark equals water. A mystery.
But – tonight – let’s try, just for tonight, to extend this idea of an equation in which we start with one kind of thing and end with another.  To a mystery more vast and more incomprehensible and – yes – more filled with joy than the mystery of H20.
For tonight, and for always, the equation is this:
A tiny baby, lying in slumber deep, and a human community in constant turmoil and pain – those are the materials with which we begin.
Love – that’s the catalyst.  God’s great love for all of us.
And the product? The product of baby plus humanity catalyzed by God’s love?
A whole, complete, healed, redeemed world.
The end product doesn’t look anything like the materials with which we start, and yet -- There it is: the simple, elegant equation: Jesus is the savior of the world.
Jesus, that tiny baby, is born tonight, to make whole, to heal, to re-create, to make new. 
Jesus is the savior.
Merry Christmas.

Prayer for Christmas Eve Service

Come in, Come in!  O Lord of our lives, come in!
We have been waiting . . . and waiting. 
We have been decorating trees and wrapping presents and baking cookies . . . but we have been waiting for you.
Come into our world, O God. 
Come into our world amidst its sorrows and heartbreaks.  Come into our world as a baby, small and helpless, who yet carries within his hands the power to heal and to release those burdened by illness, by injury, and by loss.

Come into our world amidst its chaos and violence.  Come into our world as a child, in need of the care of others, who yet holds in his arms the potential to bring together peoples and nations, and individuals and families, and to sprinkle the seeds of peace into our midst.

Come into our world amidst our joys and celebrations.  Come into our world as one of us, one who drinks wine and shares bread with friends, who walks into all the potential of human life to brighten each moment and make of each of us the complete person we are designed to be.

We need your human presence among us, O Lord.  We need to know that our lives are shaped by yours, that our needs and our longings are yours.  We, who are created in your image, find hope and possibility when we see your image in us.

We rejoice in your eternal, creative presence among us, O God.  We know that you have been here before time and will be here after all time, and we are grateful that you bring with you the peace that will bind all peoples together in love and in joyful thanksgiving to you.

We are present to you tonight, O God, as all sorts of people.  We are married and singled, divorced and widowed, gay and straight, old and young, energetic and exhausted, healthy and hurting, hopeful and despairing, all shapes, all sizes, all colors, all backgrounds – all yours, and all saying, Come in! Come in! Come into our world! ~ as we pray in the words taught to us by the baby born on this night so long ago.

(with nods to Mary Oliver and Cloth from the Cradle)

Are We There Yet? (Advent 4 Sermon)

I preached from notes last week, so I don't have a complete sermon to post, nd the stories I used sounded better in the telling than they do in print ~but here are bits and pieces of it:

Are we there yet?
Anyone who's traveled with kids has heard that cry ~
And the adults often echo them.

What about Mary and Joseph?
In Bible study this week: instead of the lonely couple we usually imagine, we learned that they might have been members of a caravan ~
A caravan with all of its chaos might make you wonder: are we there yet?

Do you suppose that even if they were members of a caravan, Mary and Joseph felt alone?
You know how you can be in the middle of a crowd and still feel alone?
Think about it: they were responding to a call different from any call ever before heard by anyone.
Maybe they felt completely isolated, even in the middle of a caravan,

 I like to think of Mary and Joseph as pilgrims.

And what do pilgrims do?

Not travelers focused only on speed and destination.
Not tourists, remaining apart to view and record.
But deeply engaged, becoming part of the story ~
in this case, partnering with God to create the story

So maybe they weren't at all asking: when will we get there?
Maybe they were soaking up the sights and sounds of each day.
Maybe they were allowing themselves to be completely immersed in their adventure.
Maybe they were savoring each step in the journey - the mark of true pilgrims.

Have you ever said to yourself: pay attention - don't forget this moment?
There it is again, that advent command: Pay attention.

Do you suppose Mary and Joseph said those words to one another?
Pay attention - notice it all - remember - don't forget ~
The sky, air, light, people, animals . . .

That's what I hope for you these last days of Advent.
Don't settle for: are we there yet?
It's tempting ~
But don't settle.

Instead: keep awake - stay alert -  pay attention - be a pilgrim, not a speed traveler or a tourist.

Where is God for you in these last few days ?
Where is Jesus about to be born in your own life?
Where are hope, and light, and love becoming more visible in your own world?

Are we there yet?
I hope not quite.
We have four days left to anticipate and to keep watch.
Four days left to savor the coming of Christ ~
if you haven't quite gotten around to it yet, it's not too late

Look and listen with care.  Let it all soak in.  Let your hearts open.

Prepare the way of The Lord.

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.