Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What Do We Do With Jesus In The Temple?

This week's scriptures are 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 and Luke 2:41-52.

The Social Science Commentary that many of us are so fond of reminds us in it's discussion of this passage from Luke that many ancient biographies included the story on an incident from the hero's childhood or youth that 'foreshadowed' what his (or less often, her) adult life was to be like. One can imagine that Luke, writing to a Hellenistic audience, would also utilize this literary technique.

This tradition, at it's worst, produced some horrible accounts of the 'Lives of the Saints' and those little orange biographies in my elementary school library (I read them all). Both presented pictures of individuals who were so perfect, or so gifted, or so 'something' that they were not human. One could only feel vague failure and shame if one compared ones self to them.

This Lukan story is further skewed when it is looked at through a present day lense instead of a historical/social context. One sermon I read was entitled "Jesus, A Normal Teenager." The truth is that there were no 'teenagers' in Jesus day. The age of 12 was a threshold into manhood. From this perspective the story is about Jesus in his new cultural adulthood gaining honor from the wisdom he showed in conversation with the teachers; and marking out his independence from his mother's influence. She addresses him as "child" and he responds from his new role as an adult.

There is another issue that arises. Jesus' parents have come back to find him. They've seperated themselves from the larger family unit they were traveling with, and so now their trip back will be more dangerous. An unspoken question that will hang in the air will be "what's with Joseph, can't he control his family?" And while you and I (looking at it from a distance) may understand the "didn't you know I must be about my Father's business" comment; it must have been not only confusing, but a slap in the face for Joseph.

While I don't think Luke intended this passage as any kind of lesson on parenting, I do think that Joseph earns some 'brownie points' in my book here. While Mary continues to present herself in scripture as having difficulty in letting go: even at one point sending his brothers to bring him home, since obviously he's lost his mind; Joseph once again responds with the least likely response.

Think about it. He finds that Mary's pregnant. He is going to 'divorce her quietly' so that she won't be shamed....that's something in and of itself. Then, when he is told that the child comes from God, he listens and marries Mary anyway. Now, once again, he is faced with a confusing moment. The natural response would be to upbraid Jesus and restore his own status and honor. He doesn't do this. Whatever embarrassment he felt, let let go of for the sake of his 'son-on-loan' and, we can imagine, simply turns and says some version of "well, for now, we need to head for home. Perhaps we can catch up with the others if we move fast for a day or so."

Laying aside ones honor and dignity for the sake of ones child. Does this in any way remind us of what God has done in becoming one of us in Jesus? Does this moment, in some smaller way, reflect God's attitude toward us? An attitude which culminates in the descriptive song recorded in Philippians 2 that "though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness."

Joseph did not grasp at his dignity. He did not try to prove that he was in charge. He gave Jesus the freedom to be and become who he was as he moved into his new adulthood. Maybe that's not such a bad parenting lesson after all.

Hope to see you Sunday.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sing A Song Of A Subversive Savior

This week's scriptures are Micah 5:2-5 and Luke 1:46-55

In my reading as I prepare for Sunday I have been once again reminded that one of the themes that permeates Hebrew scripture is that of God reaching down to find the lowest and the least to carry forward the revelation of God in the world. Mary's Magnificat reminds us of this again.

At one level we shouldn't be suprised that God would act this way: using a peasant girl to bring an infant 'God with us' into the world to turn the power structure upside down. That's the way God's been doing it all along!

But the Gospel has too often been co-opted by those in power. So often that they actually come to believe that their money and their position is a sign of God's favor and the poverty of others a sign of God's judgement. This "Gospel of Prosperity" has many voices. They speak, directly or indirectly, of financial, social, emotional, and physical success as the things God loves. How many of us grew up with the sneaky suspicion that God loved the Prom Queen and the Football Star more than God loved us? That if we would only work harder, study harder, lift weights more, become more beautiful....then God would love us more too. The addendum to that striving was a belief that we needed to hide every blemish, every shortcoming, every fear, everything that didn't match the cultural picture of success and goodness.

And so we all (because the truth is none of us measure up; we're just afraid others will notice) hid those parts of ourselves away. All too often it affected the way we responded to those around us whose limitations or needs were obvious. All of us have, in some way, been wounded by the heresy of the cultural religiousity outlined above.

Christmas...Thank God...reminds that "God comes in through the wound." God comes into our world where the wounds of poverty and violence and oppression cry out for relief. God comes into our lives where the wounds of our weaknesses, our personal pain, our griefs cry out for healing. This is truly a "subversive savior"; coming unlike a powerful ruler, he is laid in a manger. Through the most unlikely means, to the most unlikely people, God continues doing what God has done throughout creation: redeeming, healing, loving, calling the world into relationship with God's Self in a way that turns The Way Things Are on its ear.

This little slip of a girl, Mary, is going to sing. She's going to sing for herself, and Elizabeth, and her baby growing in her. It probably wouldn't have been safe to sing this song anywhere else, to anyone else. But Mary was overcome with the wonder of it all, and she sang. I have to believe that God smiled...cause at least for that moment, Mary understood God's heart.

See you Sunday.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Why Me?

This week's scriptures are Zephaniah 3:14-20 and Luke 1:39-45.

I was reading an article about the Lukan passage by Rev. Craig Barnes today when something he said stopped me short. What he said alluded to the idea that some of the most important words in this passage are "why me?" The whole quote spoken by Elizabeth is "and why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?"

Now let's forget for a moment all the stuff Luke is trying to do in this first chapter to establish Jesus (not John) as the Messiah. Let's just listen to Elizabeth. "Why me?"

This is not the anguished "why me?" of one whose suffering has become unbearable. There are those for whom this is a legitimate cry...and it is, in fact, that cry that is answered when God takes on human flesh at Christmas. The "why me?" of anguish becomes the "now we" of 'Emmanual, God with us.'

Nor is this the whiney "why me?" of those (myself included some days) who believe that they are entitled to avoid all the "slings and arrows of outragous fortune" and consider it a cosmic affront that they have to face whatever misfortune has come their way.

This is the "why me?" of extra-ordinary awareness in an ordinary moment. Two women. One old and maybe starting to wonder whether this late life pregancy stuff was all it was cranked up to be. The other, young and frightened; what would Joseph say? How would she face the neighbors? What about all the stories the women had told around the well and the cooking pots about pregancy and childbirth?
This is a moment as old as the beginning of social living and as new as this morning. And yet...in the middle of it, Elizabeth has a "why me?" moment. A moment of such awe and wonder that she forgets that her feet have gone flat, her back hurts, and the baby is constantly pushing on her bladder. There is life here! And what's more there is something special going on that I just can't quite fathom it is so incredible.....Why ME? Why do I get to see this?

Zephaniah was trying to spur the Children of Israel to such a moment. He described how, in spite of all of their failures, all of their sins, God was going to preserve a remnant of Jerusalem. He says on God's behalf, "I shall take away your cries of woe and you will no longer endure reproach." One proper response to such Grace is "why me?"

A mother and father look at their new born baby...perhaps even one as beautiful as Evan...and part of them must ask "why me?"

A person given a second chance at life, recieving a donated organ where once their illness would have been a death sentence: "why me?"

Every individual who has know what it means to feel forgiveness from a loved one they have injured knows the cry "why me?"

I wonder what would happen if more of our days began with the words "why me?" Why am I so blessed? Why have I been forgiven? Why have I been allowed to experience this moment, this day, this brilliant burst of love?

What gratitude would flow from us? How would it shape our day? What difference would it make in our lives and the lives of those around us?

Especially this season as we look into the manger; as we see God lying there tiny vulnerable one of us....let us ask in awe...Why Me?

See you Sunday.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Saying "Yes".....To What?

This week's scriptures are Malachi 3:1-7 and Luke 1:26-38.

Luke tells us that Mary said "yes." In spite of her confusion; in spite of her fear; in spite of how out right impossible what the angel was telling her was...she said, "yes." Simeon, the old man in the temple when Jesus was taken for circumcision (Luke 2:34-35), would give her an honest appraisal that this child would cause "the inner thoughts of many will be revealed-and a sword will pierce your own soul too." Saying "yes"...even to being the mother of the Messiah, has a price to be paid.

This late fall and early winter have been interesting times for me of observing people saying "yes" to the uncertainties of life: my son got married in late October; three members of our congregation are becoming parents-two of them for the first time; a friend begins to think about returning to school. Each of these choices, each of these "yes" responses, is a moving forward in the face of uncertainty. It is, hopefully, a move forward to joy and fullfillment. But it is also a "yes" with a price. And it's a price that no one knows at the time what it will be.

Malachi and John the Baptist both present pictures of the "Day of the Lord" the coming of the One that has been promised. Their pictures are not gentle, pastoral scenes. Phrases like "refiner's fire", "fuller's soap", and "winnowing fork" run through them. This coming...though we look for it, thought we desire it, though we ache for it will call us to account and to change at the very core of our lives.

Malachi in particular paints a picture of the priests bringing second rate offerings to God. Sacrifices that were supposed to be "without spot or blemish" are replaced with ones that God declares are "tiresome"..."if you bring as your offering victims that are mutilated, lame or sickly, am I to accept them from you?" (Malachi 1:13). [This, by the way, is a struggle in humankind's spirituality and worship that's been going on since Cain brought a second rate offering to the meal with the Lord in Genesis] He goes on to say that God declares, "I shall appear before you in court, quickly to testify against sorcereres, adulterers, and perjurers, against those who cheat the hired labourer of his wages, who wrong the widow and the fatherless, who thrust the alien aside and do not fear me, says the Lord of Hosts." (Malachi 3:5)

Second rate devotion in my personal worship; and selfish injustice in my relations with others. How different am I from the priests and people to whom Malachi spoke? How often is what I bring to God in my own spiritual life less than what God wants and requires? I come to pray, but am I really honest-even with God-about what is going on in the depths of my heart? How much of my "social justice" is 'out there' where it makes no real demands on me personally? How often do I by-pass my neighbor in need...the one who would make a daily ongoing demand on my life...to pat myself on the back for helping the distant cause? These are my questions for me...they may not be yours-you may have an entirely different set-but I'll bet you have some.

But in Malachi God speaks after these words of judgement to say "I, the Lord, do not change, and you have not ceased to be children of Jacob" (3:6). After all this, God says that we're still family! The people in Malachi's dialogue respond with the question "how can we return?" How do we possibly come back from where we've gone to?

I would maintain that this is one of the primary truths about Advent for you and me: we don't return....we do say "yes" We say "yes" to the God who comes. Our response is to turn (the meaning of the word 'repent') and to say "yes."

That "yes" will be costly. It will bring the refiner's fire, the winnowing fork, the fuller's soap. It will engage us in an ongoing process of growth and repentance and moving toward what we were created to be (the meaning, I think, of the word "sanctification"). It isn't neat and clean. It isn't necessarily pretty. It's often painful. And it takes a really long time...a lifetime to be exact. I've often imagined that one of the reasons that we celebrate Advent each year is that each year we need to say "yes" again to this ongoing "coming of the Messiah" in our lives.

This week I listened to an acquaintance talk about picking up a "chip" for 17 years of sobriety in his 12-Step program. In the very next breath he was speaking about the struggles he was having with the next phase of his growth and emotional health and recovery. The "Day of the Lord" is not a 'one and done' proposition. It is an ongoing relationship that brings us incredible joy; but that also challenges and stretches and pushes us to our limits.

Let's be honest with one another. Advent isn't all about the soft and mushy underbelly of the coming of the Baby Jesus. I love the manger scene. I love the Infant Holy, Infant Lowly hymns...they speak to the lengths that God is willing to go to bring us home. But Advent is also about what it will cost us to say "yes" to this coming. Am I willing to stand in the refiner's fire? To bear washing with the fuller's soap? To have my life tossed skyward by the winnowing fork so that all that isn't truly valuable can be blown away?

It is an old image, but it bears repeating: the refiner, working with precious metal, knows that the refining task is done when she can look down into the metal and see her image. You and I are created in the Image of God...the Imago Dei. We can bend it, we can twist it, we can tarnish it til it cannot be seen by any but the Great Refiner...but we cannot destroy it. We are still part of the family, "children of Jacob." Advent calls us to the tasks of saying "yes" to the work of God in restoring that Image in us.

Advent is here. Let all the people say "yes".

See you Sunday.