Thursday, December 31, 2009

Justin Case: A Fingers-Crossed-Behind-His-Back, Well-Meaning Christian (4)

Justin didn't like the Christmas sermon this year, especially all that bunk about the incarnation being the resurrection and vice versa. It sounded like something he'd say just to sound intelligent but he didn't understand what it meant.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

O Holy Night by Kristen Graves

I know Kristen (and her husband Bryan Nurnberger) from, working together down in Oaxaca, Mexico on mission trips. I hope you enjoy her soulful rendition of this Christmas classic.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas koan

Colossians 3: 12-17; Luke 2: 1-20
******** United Church of Christ
December 24, 2009 – Christmas Eve

Earlier this week I had a mystical experience, one for which I am still finding the words. The only words I have for it sound like a koan or a riddle: the incarnation is the resurrection, and the resurrection is the incarnation. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

I was watching a German movie entitled Cherry Blossoms. The story is about an affectionate, long-married couple whose children have grown up and moved away. When the wife learns that her husband is terminally ill, she keeps it from him, and urges him to see more of life and visit their eldest son who lives in Japan. She has always wanted to travel to Japan, to see Mt. Fuji and the cherry blossoms, to study Japanese butoh dancing, but her husband is not adventurous, preferring a life of routine and predictability. When the wife dies suddenly, the husband takes it upon himself to live out his wife’s dreams. He travels to Tokyo, in the midst of the cherry blossom season, a celebration of beauty, impermanence and new beginnings. He brings with him her favorite sweater, dress, necklace, and her silk kimono, wearing the dress and sweater over his own clothes under his coat, taking his wife with him to see the cherry blossoms, to Mt. Fuji and to the performances of a street butoh dancer.

Early one morning, when Mt. Fuji finally emerges from its cloud cover, the husband dons his wife’s kimono, puts on the white face makeup of his dancer friend, and dances a beautiful butoh dance, his wife now dancing with him. At the edge of a lake at the foot of Mt. Fuji, he peacefully collapses and dies. His dancer friend then puts on his coat and hat as she mourns the loss of him.

By putting on the one who has passed, the beloved not only lives again, but makes alive the one who mourns in lonely exile.

I know this sounds tremendously deep, like that snow out there on the front lawn in the dark night. But when we sing the words “Be born in us today”, “Born to give us second birth”, do we really ponder what they mean?

The creative force to write the gospel stories and the two birth parables in Matthew and Luke came from the resurrection, that powerful mystery that galvanized a motley group of disciples into a community of faith. From rebirth came the passion to write about the birth and the life of the One who changes lives. From Jesus’ birth comes rebirth, not only to humankind but to all creation.

The incarnation is the resurrection. The resurrection is the incarnation.

When we put on Christ, as Paul puts it, when we put Christ’s clothes of compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, patience, and love we incarnate Christ within us, Christ is born in us, and Christ is not only alive once more, but so are we.

The incarnation is the resurrection. The resurrection is the incarnation.

The story is told of a man who was searching for answers in his life. He found a very wise old woman. He thought maybe this old woman could give him the answers he was searching for. Thus he was surprised to hear the old woman speak of a great blunder she herself had been guilty of.

“What great blunder have you made?” the searcher asked the wise woman.

The wise woman thought for a moment and then replied, “They called me Christian, but I did not become Christ.”

That was an odd answer. The man was confused. “You did not become Christ?” he asked. “Is one supposed to become Christ?”

The wise old woman answered, “I kept putting distance between myself and Christ. I kept deploring the distance,” the old woman told her new friend. “But I never realized that I was creating it.”

“But,” the seeker insisted, “is one supposed to become Christ?”

“No distance,” the wise woman replied. [1]

The incarnation is the resurrection. The resurrection is the incarnation. In both Christ closes the distance between humanity and God until that day when we realize that in God we live and move and have our being.

The incarnation is the resurrection. The resurrection is the incarnation.

Merry Christmas. Amen.

[1] Adapted from a story from the book Tales of a Magic Monastery, by Theophane the Monk, © 1981 by Cistercian Abbey of Spencer, Inc.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Longest Night

(Last night we held a Longest Night service after a snowstorm earlier that morning. Not many folks attended but one couple, who had heard from a friend who had seen the article in the paper, truly needed it. It was a small, intimate gathering with beautiful music and candlelight and hope.)

The Longest Night, Jim Brandenburg

The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
--Mary Oliver

“God With Us”
Isaiah 40: 1-9; Psalm 121; Luke 2: 1-20
******** United Church of Christ
December 20, 2009

Friday morning I went to the New Haven Register website to read the article that was written about tonight’s service. Below the article was a comment from an angry individual whose online identity was listed as “Religiousfactsfromfraud”. This person wrote:

“How nice. What a heart-warming story. [It’s] 2009 and people still believe this...fable of Jesus being the son of God—as Pope Leo himself said "This fable of Christ has been quite profitable for us (The Vatican)”. The Virgin birth, the Immaculate Conception, an annunciation from an angel, and the "miracles": CT Valley Hospital is full of Jesus Christs. You want to do something for these folks—the Reverends should be opening their wallets and [giving] them some financial relief. The Catholic Church will pass the basket three times during holiday masses to receive. Get real, people. No matter the denomination, Christians are like cattle: they will follow a stalk of oats over a cliff. Merry Christmas.”

I paused and wondered what wound this person had suffered to provoke such a reaction to this service. It seemed to me that this individual had witnessed firsthand the inevitable pain that comes with being human and how a relationship with God can sometimes feel inadequate to that pain, so much so as to drive this person away from God and from the church. I too have had periods of sadness and loss throughout the years that have caused me to question God’s presence in my life and in the life of this world, thus deepening my sadness and feelings of isolation.

In a way this person has a point. We do celebrate Christ’s birth as though it were a fairytale, conflating and mixing together the different birth stories into a romantic sort of whole, while omitting other, more difficult details so that we do in fact have something resembling a fable. All of the shadows—the danger of King Herod in Matthew, the warning in Luke when Simeon says to Mary that a sword will piece her heart, the implications of a Jewish king being born under the occupation of the Roman empire—are banished from the story until after Christmas Day, and thus, most of the depth and meaning is missing as well.

What does it mean to have God with us? The mystery of God and God’s activity in human lives, or seeming lack of it, has been one of the more enduring questions of faith. In the original edition of the deceptively innocent book Children’s Letters to God, one child writes: “Dear God, Are you real? Some people don’t believe it. If you are, you’d better do something quick. Love, Harriet Anne.”

It’s the oldest, most honest prayer there is: “God, are you real? Why is this happening to me or to the one I love? Please do something.” The only answers I have are the ones I have lived through. No one can really tell us about what it means to have God with us in our own experience. It is something that each of us must come to, each in our own way.

A few years ago, through much tears and pain and prayer and living, I came to my own reconciliation with Christmas and all its hoopla, expectations, materialism and religious romanticism in this way.

A Real Life

There are times I question the whole thing
Is there a God
Was there ever
a real life
in which God was clothed
all earthly, vulnerable
in our human aloneness of being
What if Jesus never was

On the edge of that precipice
I am humbled
by one thought
I would rather be a fool
A companioned
voluntary fool

Thanks be to God
for this life within a life
that Word made flesh
mundane and fragile
for which I am indeed
happily foolish

For me, ‘God with us’ means that within my sorrow, within my despair, within ‘my human aloneness of being’ there is God; that the light of God is not contained solely in the light. The light of God has life everywhere, even within my experience of loss and sadness, even on the longest night of the year. The psalmist tells us “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me.” Within my life there is another life—the Word made flesh in my mundane and fragile flesh—living out each day what it means to love and to be human in my tiny, insignificant, precious existence.

Within Christmas lives Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. With this birth there will come an untimely, torturous, innocent death. Within each of us, living and breathing, is our death. But within this Christmas story and within each of us there is also the promise of resurrection, of new life and rebirth—the kind that only comes from the ashes of sorrow and loss. It does not tarnish an otherwise bright holiday but makes it all the more real and true. It is this mystery of our faith that cannot be explained but only lived out in our questions and doubts, in prayer and in the companionship of others as we struggle to love as best as we are able.

Let us pray:

Generous and gracious God,
we look to you for compassion
and thank you for your presence this night.
Overwhelmed by our burdens we easily forget
that you never leave us alone
and that your steadfast love for us never falters.
By gathering together we find assurance and comfort
that we do not suffer this longest night alone.
You have given us strength to live through this night.
Turn us to reach out to those whose night is also long.
Grant that we may be your healing presence in their lives
by bringing them your compassion and comfort
that will assure them that they do not suffer alone. Amen. [1]

1. © 2009 the Rev. Quentin Chin, member of Church on the Hill (UCC)
in Lenox, MA, and Interim Minister of the United Methodist Church of Lenox, MA.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Flagging zeal

Zephaniah 3: 14-20; Luke 3: 7-18
******** United Church of Christ
December 13, 2009

Today is the third Sunday in Advent, when we light the candle of joy. We can hear the joy in the reading from Zephaniah. God is ready to sing for joy at the homecoming of Israel. But the reading from Luke has an entirely different tone.

This Sunday John really gets down to it. Last week’s portion of John’s message was about as sweet as it was going to get. This week we get the full picture: with the words “You brood of vipers!” we can see the camel’s skin, the matted hair and beard, the fire in his eyes—what we would call passion or zeal.

In fact, in the name of passion and zeal the people of Israel have been called other names by other prophets, some even worse. Amos calls the people on Mount Samaria “cows of Bashan”. Hosea likens Israel to an unfaithful wife who walks the streets at night. Joel tells the people to wake up out of their drunken stupor. In order to get the full attention of God’s people, to get them to turn away from sin and death, to turn toward the living God, the prophets had to use strong language in naming the sin of the people. In order to fill the people with passion and zeal for God, the prophets had to be overflowing with zeal.

You see, when John began preaching, 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 full of zeal and passion for God 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.

Around the year 175 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 the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days was witnessed. This was the first 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. All that name-calling and words of warning was the signal that John was indeed a prophet filled with the word of God. Being as spiritually starved as they were, the people and the religious authorities wanted to know 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.

But this time God’s prophet was announcing the coming of a revolution like no other. There were to be no great armies, no battles as in the days of Joshua, Saul and David or Judas Maccabee, no hard-won victories for the glory of God and God’s people. This time God’s army would be two men: Jesus and his messenger John; the battlefield was the human heart and the prize to be won was none other than the saving grace of God. God was indeed coming but right up in their faces.

But who could be saved? John tells the crowd that it doesn’t matter if they are children of Abraham, which also means that being a non-Jew doesn’t necessarily condemn either. What matters is not only repentance but the fruits of repentance—a changed life, a life of passion and zeal for God lived out not only in faith but joined with good works and righteous living.

It doesn’t matter if we have been baptized, if we’ve read the whole Bible, and gone to church every Sunday of our lives. Garrison Keillor once said that you can become a Christian by going to church every Sunday about as easily as you can become a car by sleeping in your garage.

It doesn’t matter what denomination we belong to, if we’ve been born again or how often we have Communion. It doesn’t matter if we read the Bible literally or with an interpretive eye. It doesn’t even matter if we’re not sure we believe in God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit or the doctrines of the church. What John is telling us is that none of these will save us. What saves is forgiveness and the fruits of a changed life. What saves is the fire of God that winnows away all that is false and leaves behind only what is necessary: an empty altar in our hearts that is ready to receive the light that burns eternally: the passion and the zeal of God that shines through in all that we do and say.

When was the last time any of us took a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, naming the sins that come between us and God? What is the sin that comes between God and your life together as a church? What are the false idols that sit on the altar of your heart that need to be cleared away? How is God getting up in your face this Advent? What are some of the fruits of a changed life that you see in yourself and in this faith community? Who are some folks you know who do not share your faith but through whom you can see the light of God?

Having the zeal of God within us doesn’t mean we have to carry our Bible with we everywhere we go or that we have to save others or commit our whole lives to the service of God. It means having the light of God burn brightly within us and to allow that light to shine through us, even to the point of changing our lives. And that is a cause for great joy. Amen.


1. Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills. (New York: Doubleday, 1999), Chapter 1: “Greeks, Jews and Romans: The People Jesus Knew”

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Repentance: God’s Positioning System

Because of its automatic play feature, if you wish to view the video mentioned below, click here.

I included this video because I liked the the photos and how it illustrated the theme of the sermon. I also like the idea of imagining what God's voice would be like. Since I've been a mom, the voice of God has often been like that of a child in my imagination. How would you imagine God's voice on your own inner GPS?

Baruch 5: 1-9; Luke 3: 1-6
******** United Church of Christ
December 6, 2009

I hear the prophet callin’,
“Prepare the way of the Lord.”
I hear the prophet callin’,
“Prepare the way of the Lord.”

Come and make straight the way in the desert,
a highway for our God,
Come and make straight the way in the desert.
Prepare the way of the Lord.
Prepare the way of the Lord.

When the crowds heard John crying out to them, it wasn’t a sweet song they heard. The voice that calls us to repentance more often than not has an edge to it; sometimes harsh, sometimes a whisper, but it usually manages to get our attention one way or another. It can be that annoying voice that tells us (voice now in modulated GPS mode) “You have missed the turn”; “You are going in the wrong direction”, “Make a U-turn when possible”. Or you could have Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s voice installed in your inner GPS telling you, “You’re almost home! Slide! Slide!”

In fact John was probably sounding pretty cranky and hoarse by now. If you were to look at a map of the region where John was preaching, which was “all the region around the Jordan”, you’d see that the river Jordan, about 200 km of it, runs right through the territories of all those rulers listed at the beginning of the reading from Luke. John was calling people out of their familiar and comfortable hometowns out into the wilderness of the Jordan. By preaching from the sacred river and quoting the prophet Isaiah, John’s message would have been very plain to the people, that God was coming in a very real way.

But actually, he’s misquoting Isaiah and upending the meaning for the purposes of his own truthtelling. The third verse in Isaiah 40 reads “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord…”. These words were spoken to the people of Israel when they were in exile, that God would come to them and lead them home.

However, in the gospel of Luke, we heard: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” John is the voice in the wilderness calling for the crowds to join him there for a baptism or a mikvah, a ritual bath, for the forgiveness of sins. A mikvah is ritual immersion in a bathing facility with a natural source of water, such as a spring or a groundwater well. According to Orthodox Judaism, a mikvah is necessary to make one spiritually pure in order to worship in the temple. To facilitate purification, the water has to be living water—water that moves. And so John went to the Jordan, the sacred river, to offer this baptism, this mikvah of repentance.

In a hot arid climate, such as the Middle East, water is the antithesis of death. Many of the purity laws in Leviticus relate directly to some form of death. In Orthodox Judaism women are required to have a mikvah after their monthly period, not because the bodily function is unclean, but because the loss of blood is a form of death. Death is considered unclean because it is believed to be a consequence of sin. Death did not enter God’s creation until the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

And so John was proclaiming a baptism, a mikvah of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. To repent is to return from exile, to turn from going the way of sin that leads to death, to turn toward the Way that leads to the promised land of God. The Greek root of the word ‘repent’ means to think differently, to go beyond the mind that you have, beyond conventional understanding. Einstein is quoted as saying that we cannot solve a problem with the same mind or consciousness that created it.

To think with a sinful mind is to think we are in death. That’s the positioning system we usually listen to. To repent is to realize that we are forgiven; not only forgiven but loved unconditionally, that God intends us for life and for love, and then to live that truth as a way of life; as in (voice now in modulated GPS mode) “Jesus is the Way, the truth and the life”.

But why is John offering this repentance, this forgiveness in the wilderness? If a Jew who followed the Torah wanted to be cleansed of sin and death, they would go to the temple in Jerusalem, to be washed in the temple mikvah and proclaimed pure by the temple priests. One would think that that would be the right direction.

Most scholars agree that John was an Essene, a desert sect of the Jewish faith that rejected the temple authorities, believing them to be corrupt, that they had taken too much power and authority for themselves, controlling who was in and who was out. John prophesied the coming of the Anointed One, the Messiah. To prepare to be ready to follow the Messiah, the people must turn from their sin that they may be able to accept the teaching and the Holy Spirit this Messiah would impart. They must be able to think differently about God and their relationship to God. And desperately wanting to be close to God, they came from all over the Judean countryside, from the surrounding territories, and from Jerusalem, away from the seat of religious authority, to participate in this cleansing mikvah that was free to all.

How do you need to think differently about your life and your life together here at ******** United Church of Christ? In what ways do you live as though you were in death that you need to turn away from? What familiar and comfortable places do you need to be called away from to join God in the wilderness of life-change and transformation? Are you ready to follow wherever the Christ child may lead you?

I hear the prophet callin’,
“Prepare the way of the Lord.”
I hear the prophet callin’,
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”


1. “I Hear the Prophet Callin’”, words and music by Pepper Choplin (based on Isaiah 35: 1-2, 4-6; 40: 3), © 2008 Lorenz Publishing Company.