Monday, December 29, 2008

Holding Promises, sermon edition

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Rembrandt, 1627/28

(This sermon contains portions of a blog entry from 2005 that came in handy for writing a sermon two days after Christmas. During the preaching of the sermon, I sang the hymn that is quoted in italics.)

Luke 2: 22-40
******** Congregational Church, ******** CT
December 28, 2008

One of my pet-peeves is the saying "Children are our future". Bah, humbug! Ever since I gave birth to the first of two, I have known with all my heart, soul, mind, and especially body that children are our right now, this minute, can't wait any longer. Forget that Hallmark nonsense about today being a gift: that's why they call it the present. Usually, having children is nothing like a Hallmark card. If it were, they'd sell them ripped and torn, scrawled in crayon, with greasy fingerprints all over them, and when you opened it, an explosion of dirty laundry and the sound of milk bubbles being blown through a straw would greet you.

I can remember with great clarity when it was I knew I was a mother. You would think it might have been when I found out I was pregnant or the moment when I heard the cry of my firstborn. I was too much in joy and in love to be in reality, that wonderful mixture of light and darkness. No, it was after all the visitors had left, after my husband and I had settled into the double bed in our room at the hospital’s birth center with our daughter, after the three of us had fallen asleep. In the wee hours of the morning Andrea awoke crying, demanding attention. I came out of sleep in a post-birth fog, groggily realizing that a baby was crying: my baby! No nurse came to my rescue. My mother was asleep in the next room. My husband blissfully slept on. I went straight into mother-mode, finding a diaper and wipes, laying her on the changing table, unwrapping her swaddling blanket, and cooing to her. It was then that I knew I was a mother.

Before she was born, I was a pastor, a wife, a daughter, a friend. After, I was, and will be forever more, a mother. Her birth is one of the major pivots upon which my life turns. Both she and my younger daughter literally changed my life and how I live it. How much more so do our lives turn at the birth of Jesus? Before he was birthed into our lives, what we were we? What difference has the birth of Jesus made in our daily living? What changes have we made to adjust to this small, dependent ‘God with us’?

Author Caryll Houselander wrote, “By his own will Christ was dependent on Mary during Advent: he was absolutely helpless; he could go now where but where she chose to take him; he could not speak; her breathing was his breath; his heart beat in the beating of her heart. …Today Christ is dependent on us. This dependence of Christ lays a great trust upon us. … [We] must carry him in our hearts wherever he wants to go, and there are many places to which he may never go unless we take him.” We celebrate Christmas every year, not as a birthday party for one who really doesn’t need it, but as a very insistent reminder of this baby who needs us if he is to grow into this wisdom and strength.

Born in the night, Mary’s Child, a long way from your home;
Coming in need, Mary’s Child, born in a borrowed room.

The beauty of the Christmas story is that the One who set this universe and you and me in motion revealed the power of love in a vulnerable little baby (and thus every baby)--right now, this minute, can't wait any longer. We hope and pray that our children will take care of us when we are older, but we know the truth is that they saved us from the moment we knew they were on their way to us. And they save us each day of our lives. They save us from being self-absorbed, greedy, depressed, angry, and lonely. If nothing else, the Christmas story reminds us of this as we attend a birth in a mean and lowly place.

Clear shining light, Mary’s Child, your face lights up our way;
Light of the world, Mary’s Child, dawn on our shadowed day.

Christmas is a salvation story as much as Easter. In fact, the stories of Christmas come from the Easter story, from resurrection witnesses trying to make sense of who this Jesus was. If we are to understand Christmas and its meaning for us, we must read the Christmas story through the lens of death and resurrection.

As we read this morning toward the end of the birth story in the gospel of Luke, a priest named Simeon holds the baby Jesus in his arms and proclaims that he is now ready to die for he has seen the salvation of his people, the promise of God. Jesus hasn't done a thing but be born, yet he has saved this old man from despair that he may die in peace. Simeon also tells Mary that a sword would pierce her soul, flashing forward to the future we already know. Yet I would bet that Mary already knew about that sword the moment she looked into her son’s eyes, the moment any of us first looked into our children’s eyes.

Truth of our life, Mary’s Child, you tell us God is good;
Prove it is true, Mary’s Child, go to your cross of wood.

Early in my ministry I had a long talk with a Unitarian pastor about how the crucifixion was not a case of divine child abuse. I still believe that because I do not believe God sent Jesus to live on earth only to die like a criminal. I do not believe that God required the blood of his son to expiate our sins so that we might be forgiven. The whole of Jesus’ life illustrated in stark detail that relationship, justice for the poor, compassion for the stranger and healing for the despairing were God’s priorities, and it is through these that we are saved. These elements are present even at Jesus’ birth in the witness of the shepherds, the innkeeper’s hospitality in the stable, the rejoicing of Simeon and Anna in the temple, and Mary and Joseph keeping their faith tradition to pass on to their infant son.

If we are saved by Jesus’ death, it is that we see how the world behaves in the face of such unbridled, unlimited love, that innocence does not guarantee rights in the hands of the powerful, that love is more powerful than death, that life is not life if we have not love. The Christmas story, like the Easter story, is the story of love; not just any love but God’s love: love that keeps its promises. And ultimately it is this love that saves us from ourselves, from leaving a world to our children that is worse off than when we came into it.

The birth story of Jesus has the power to remind us of all the children who need saving right now, this minute, can't wait any longer: children being conscripted into armies; children orphaned by AIDS, war, floods, earthquakes, and the tsunami four years ago this past Friday; children sold into slavery and prostitution; children who need nutrition, health care, education, a home or a legal marriage for their same-sex parents. In short, children remind us that we are all worthy of love, simply because we draw breath.

What we don't realize is that the sword that pierced Mary’s soul will drive home its dual edge of pain and love into our souls as well. Our world needs to have its soul pierced, to see that we still practice child abuse of the worst kind—the kind we choose to be blind to.

We are our children's future. We are holding the promises we made to them when they were born. In our eyes they see their future. We are the ones who create policy, social structure, decide what is truly valuable and what is just dust in the wind. The trouble is, we spend more of our energy chasing after that wind than on what is right in front of us, right now, this minute, can't wait any longer. God is watching us but through the eyes, ears, hearts and minds of our children and they are taking copious notes.

Yes, there is great joy at Christmas, for God has kept a wonderful promise, but there is also a mandate from this poor, lonely manger. We are to keep our promises to the children of this world, preserving the world for our children, that we would also experience God’s salvation for us. And for this, we need Jesus—right now, this minute, can’t wait any longer—just as he is: tiny and helpless, ready to go wherever we might take him.

Hope of the world, Mary’s Child, you’re coming soon to reign;
King of the earth, Mary’s Child, walk in our streets again.




1. “Born in the Night, Mary’s Child”, Geoffrey Ainger, © 1964 Stainer & Bell, Ltd., printed in The New Century Hymnal, © 1995 The Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, OH.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Charlie Brown remix

Find more videos like this on Monroe Congregational Church Online Community

This is from Jazz Sunday at my church this fall. Listen at the end for a surprise theme added to the song. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, blogfriends!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

How lovely are thy branches

One of my favorite things to do at Christmas, a tradition that I have held since I was a child, is to lay down near or under the decorated tree on Christmas Eve and look up through the lighted branches. Like looking up at an azure sky on clear summer day, I get lost in it: in its depths, its height, the twinkle of the lights, the quiet of the night.

Perhaps as a child I was imagining what it was like to be a present under the tree, waiting to be unwrapped, to give joy and surprise to someone. Maybe I imagined myself as Clara in The Nutcracker when the festive tree grows to accomodate a small army of mice.

Now it is a time of meditation and peace on a late, busy night when I am going back and forth to church to sing in the choir and playing Santa in between. And it really isn't Christmas until I have done this.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
Your beauty green will teach me
That hope and love will ever be
The way to joy and peace for me.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
Your beauty green will teach me.

What is your favorite Christmas tradition, one that you might celebrate alone?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

To Tell The Truth

St. John the Baptist from the Isenheim Altarpiece, c. 1516

Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11; John 1: 6-9, 19-28
****** Congregational Church
December 14, 2008

Frank Abagnale Jr. was a confidence man, though you’d be a fool to place your confidence in him. He was an infamous forger and impostor of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, writing bad checks and posing as an airline pilot, a professor, a doctor and a lawyer. His story was the subject of the 2002 movie Catch Me If You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. In 1977 he even guest-starred on the game show To Tell the Truth, where ironically two other contestants posed as Frank, while the celebrity panelists had to decide who was the real Frank Abagnale Jr. As was the custom, at the conclusion of the show, the host Garry Moore demanded “Will the real Frank Abagnale Jr. please stand up?”

However, in this morning’s gospel lesson we have Jesus’ authentic, honest-to-goodness confidence man of another kind, John the Baptizer. And the priests and Levites are playing the same game, except they want to know if John is the Messiah. They want the real Messiah to please stand up and make himself known to the authorities. John beats them to the punch by confessing that he is not the Messiah. The gospel writer has already beaten John to the point by telling us, the reader, that though John was not the light, John came to testify to the light, that true light which enlightens everyone, which was coming into the world.

You see, it had been a long time since the Jews living in Roman-occupied Judah had seen anyone resembling a prophet. The last time God’s people had been inspired to rise up against the powers that be was in the time of Judas Maccabee, in the 2nd century BCE. But first, a little backstory is necessary.

After returning from exile in Babylon, the Jews completed the construction of the Second Temple, near the end of the sixth century BCE but only one thing was missing: the Holy of Holies was empty. The Ark of the Covenant, containing the tablets of the Ten Commandments, had been destroyed in the devastation of the first temple. It was also believed that the Spirit of God was absent along with the heart of God’s law. Since prophecy—that is, telling the truth of God—depends on the Spirit—God’s living presence—prophecy in the land of Judah was at an all-time low.

Toward the end of the third century BCE the Seleucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes, conqueror of the eastern Mediterranean, set about Hellenizing his conquest, including modest little Judah. He constructed a gymnasium, where men competed in athletic games in the nude, something unknown to Judeans. Jews who were eager to comply with these Greek influences disguised their circumcision, often painfully. In truth, they disavowed the sign of the Covenant between them and God, that which gave them their identity as God’s people. Next, a Greek Acra was built, a center for military administration that towered over the Temple, a sure sign of what was to follow.

The final blow that sent Judas Maccabee and his followers into a rage-filled rebellion was a statue of Olympian Zeus set on the altar in the Second Temple, in an attempt to fill the Holy of Holies and to unite the Syrian occupation of Judah with its Jewish citizens. Judas, the ‘Hammer of God’, along with an army of thousands, crushed the Greek troops and sent the Hellenizing king and his forces back where they came from. The desecrated altar was demolished, removing the stones and leaving them in a place to await the coming of a prophet, which alas did not come. A new altar was built, the Holy of Holies was restored, the great menorah was lit, and a celebration was made for eight days: the Festival of Rededication or Hanukkah. (1)

So, approximately 150 years after Judas Maccabee, when John began his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, he struck a deeply-felt chord in the hearts of his listeners, that perhaps the Spirit of God had returned to the people, that God’s living presence was again amongst them. Being as spiritually starved as they were, the religious authorities were sent to ascertain if John was the Messiah, the one who would save them from the oppression of the Roman Empire, the latest and the strongest in a string of empires that had occupied the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The expectations of the people and of the religious authorities were high: with persecution and tribulation comes the great anticipation of redemption: Messiah? Elijah? Was John the prophet of the end times? John could have written his own ticket if he wished, but he was no impostor. John knew he could not have delivered what God’s people were seeking: salvation, light, truth: truth that would ultimately set them free. In his denial to the claim of Messiah, John gives us his most important message.

In difficult times, our expectations can also be high. We look to our lay-leaders and our pastors to provide the answers, the direction, the vision of our future, and to make sense of the present. Many in our nation and around the world are looking to President-elect Obama and his administration to rescue the United States from financial ruin and to restore our country’s place in the world as a leader among nations. A person in a position of power can fall prey to a kind of ‘messiah-worship’.

We also place high expectations on ourselves, in the Church and especially those outside the Church, who though not believing, do the work of Christ in making justice, creating peace, and performing kindness. We, too, can suffer under a sort of ‘messiah complex’, pretending to be something we’re not. Recently I saw a bumper sticker that said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Yes…and no.

Yes, each of us is a powerful, spiritual being. Yes, we who have been baptized have been baptized into a priesthood of believers. Yes, each of us has a calling, a vocation. Each moment, each day, each challenge, each experience has its own calling, its own vocation. Each lifetime has many pathways. But God is always one step ahead of us. The mystery of living and loving is still that: a mystery.

Even though we are called to do ‘messiah-work’—as Isaiah puts it, to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to declare the year of the Lord’s favor, and to comfort those who mourn—the good news is that we are not the Messiah. That is not our vocation. The position has already been filled, and by one more than amply qualified. We may reflect the light but Jesus is the doorway through which the light comes into the world.

But sometimes it can seem as though this light moves in and out of the world. And we are not a patient people, waiting for this Messiah, waiting for God to show up. Could it be that we are slow to recognize the Messiah because we are no longer in the wilderness places, where John’s voice cries out to us to make straight the way of the Lord? Could it be, that in our impatience, we have abandoned our post in the desert and our vocation, our calling to watch and to listen?

Strangely enough, all four gospels have John the Baptist misquote the passage from Isaiah 40. Earlier we read “A voice cries out in the wilderness”, but in the original passage it reads, “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” God comes in the desert, in the wilderness, in the unlikeliest of places.

I do not think that this is a mistake or an accident. Of course I could be wrong, but it seems to me that in the lifetime of John, and in our lifetime as well, the people of God have managed to escape the wilderness of God. In John’s time, many of the Jewish faith behaved and looked more like Greeks, to fit in, to not be noticed, to fly under the Roman radar. In our post-modern, scientific age, we do not resemble a people waiting for a Messiah. In communities of faith we can still witness the struggle between independence and interdependence, between the self-determinism of the individual and what is just and best for all, between being in the world and being of the world.

Waiting for the Messiah can seem like waiting up for Santa Claus, except you have to be asleep for Santa to come. John’s crying out from the wilderness tells us that we have to be awake if we’re going to wait for Jesus. John’s voice calls out to us from the wilderness, those unlikely places that wake us and shake us up.

John’s vocation is our vocation. We’re not the Messiah, we’re not the prophets of old; we’re here to tell the truth. And the beginning of the truth is, often we don’t know who we are or what we’re supposed to do. That is the beginning of wisdom, when we allow ourselves to not have all the answers. We leave room for Jesus, the Messiah, to act, to lead, to transform; to whisper, to declare what will be our vocations, our callings.

When you discover your vocation, when you have a vision of that ‘one step ahead’, both as a person and as a community, you find your joy. Energy begins to flow forth. People discover gifts they didn’t think they had. New possibilities emerge that didn’t seem to be there before. Challenges that once seemed daunting and overwhelming are now confronted. The truth about ourselves, about this faith community, about the power of God, the saving grace of Christ, the very real life of the Spirit amongst us—all this truth comes to light when we allow the light of Christ to enlighten us and to then reflect it. We live out our joy.

So, ****** Congregational Church, what is the truth that needs to be told about this community of faith? What gives you joy, as an individual and as a community? Where is God calling you next? Toward what Advent adventure is the Spirit leading you? Where are you being ‘anointed’ to do great things for God and for the world? (2)

You are being called to be the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, in the unlikely places, to be the real ****** Church, to stand up and to tell the truth of God’s love made known to us in Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the ‘Anointed One’. How will you live out your calling? God will be with you as you seek to find your joy. Amen.



1. Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills. (New York: Doubleday, 1999), Chapter 1: “Greeks, Jews and Romans: The People Jesus Knew”.
2. Bruce G. Epperly,
lectionary commentary from the Process and Faith website for Dec. 14, 2008.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Tsunami overload

(I wrote a letter to NPR today about something that has been bugging me for quite some time.)

Earlier today on Morning Edition, during a
piece about post-bankruptcy Twinkies and Wonder Bread, a reporter used the word 'tsunami', as in "there was tsunami of information" or words to that effect. Christopher Shays also used 'tsunami' in reference to the outcome of his congressional race. Since when did 'tsunami' become an adjective or a metaphor? What happened to the use of great words like deluge, onslaught, or inundated, swamped? When I think of tsunami, I think of the horrible destruction and loss of life that took place 4 years ago this month. Would you think it appropriate and accurate to say that our nation was "9-11-ed" by the recent financial crisis? Or that the Detroit Three are handling their companies like a New Orleans levee? Words are important: they paint a picture, illuminate an image in ways that make an impact, especially on the radio. Choose them wisely.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The times--are they a'changin'?

Lately I've been thinking about change. And not just because of Obama. It seems we humans are either proactive or reactive when it comes to change--I know: "Duh!". But it's very hard for us to be proactive. We'd rather skate along, get by, until we are forced to do something. The levees in New Orleans, Bush in the White House until '08, the depletion of natural resources, global warming; the list goes on and on.

What worries me is that it will take a cataclysmic event for us to form actual communities, grow our own produce, generate our own energy, give generously, buy locally, topple corporations and the might of empire; in short, create an ever-expanding ring of care and love, revealing God among us. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

We've already had several of these events in recent years (and they're getting worse), but they really haven't made a dent in our global, or even national, behavior. Ironically, war once had the ability to make a sizeable cohesion in our consciousness: food and fuel were rationed, resources were pooled and materials recycled or reused, sacrifices were made not just by some but by everyone. Not once has our current president demanded that we reduce our fuel consumption or any kind of the endless consumption this country seems to be about. Yes, we were strongly urged, but as much as we are reactive to change, we are also resistant--we have to be told what to do and why.

Nobody likes being told what to do, but really, can we afford to be so tolerant, polite and reluctant anymore? Congress must work with President-elect Obama and work hard. Money spent on war and on keeping millionaires and billionaires afloat needs to be spent on the levees in New Orleans, on education and health care, on eradicating AIDS in Africa and around the world, on making food available for every person on this planet, on creating renewable energy sources and allowing forests and mountaintops to recover from humanity's rape of them, on ending terrorism by making amends for our dominating ways as an empire.

The American empire is a direct descendant of Rome and Caesar, hence, the antithesis of the kingdom of God, that Beloved Community for which Jesus was crucified. Telling people how to live and how to resist the ways of empire was what Jesus and the prophets were all about. There is a parallel here I'm not sure I want to be around for.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Still got a long way to go, baby

from USA Today, November 30, 2008:

"Women who take on tough issues and stake out new territory are often on the receiving end of ignorance."

--Benazir Bhutto to Hillary Clinton, commiserating on their mutual challenges as women leaders, as quoted in Clinton's 2003 memoir, Living History.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The big reveal

Ta-dah!! A big shout-out to Julie over at who designed my blog header! I saw her work over at Jan's place (I like a lot of what I see over at Jan's!), found her website, and she put together this new look for me. Unfortunately for the blogosphere, Julie won't be doing web design of this sort anymore. So head on over to her site to see her work, especially her watercolors.