Friday, December 31, 2010

Regalo abbracci - Felice anno nuovo!

For all whose 2010 requires an embrace. My love and friendship to you in 2011.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Incarnation = Vulnerable

Vulnerable (c) 2005 Linda Huber

Genesis 3; Luke 2
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
Christmas Eve – 2010

(Much of this meditation is due the work of Professor Brené Brown, a researcher/storyteller at the University Of Houston Graduate College Of Social Work. I am profoundly thankful that there are academics studying what makes for joy in human living.)

Tonight we celebrate the incarnation, the embodiment of the sacred, that mystery of God-with-us in the birth of Jesus. What does that mean, the embodiment of the sacred? What does it mean that God is with us in Jesus? How does a mystery like that make any difference after we’ve taken down the Christmas tree and put away the ornaments and the nativity set? What are we really celebrating?

We call this a holy night, a holy birth because God came into this world and into our lives in a way we had not experienced before. And yet God has always been coming into this world, seeking a connection, a relationship with the creation, with every living thing. All through the salvation story we can see how God reaches out, human beings reject. God allows human beings to suffer the consequences of their disconnection, human beings repent. God then opens the way to return to connection and relationship. Sounds like any normal interaction between a parent and a child. Or between any two people who have made themselves vulnerable to one another through love.

When we say that in Christmas we celebrate the incarnation, what we are really celebrating is vulnerability. Being vulnerable is when we say ‘I love you’ first, without thought to a response. Being vulnerable is allowing ourselves to be fully seen, to risk ourselves with no guarantees. Being vulnerable is investing ourselves in a relationship that may not work and doing it anyway.

Being vulnerable is messy. It’s a messy way to live. When we open ourselves like that, when we love, we expose ourselves to the possibility of rejection and pain. We all know what that’s like, to love and to not be loved in return. We can become guarded, careful, fearful, shamed by our experience, wondering if we are even worthy of love. Some of us may have learned from those experiences not to open ourselves like that ever again.

However, when we guard our hearts from pain and rejection, we also close the way to joy and creativity and the ability to give. Professor Brené Brown says that adults today are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated in U.S. history. We find ways to numb ourselves, to keep this feeling of being vulnerable under lock and key. We all do this. If we think we are exempt, we are fooling no one but us. Perhaps we are not in debt but we still buy more than we need and save not nearly enough. We may not be obese but we still indulge ourselves at the table or between meals and we lead less-than-active lives. We may not be addicted to drugs or alcohol or tobacco; we may not be on medication but we still have to have that coffee or soda or some kind of treat; we engage in too much screen time of any kind.

All of this serves to soften the cliff-like edge between us and that open chasm of our feelings. But feelings are feelings and they travel the same pathway whether they be sorrow or joy, hope or despair, anxiety or calm, fear or love. When we numb ourselves to the bad stuff, we also blunt our ability to feel the good stuff. We then become miserable, which leads us to feeling vulnerable, which then leads us to engage in our numbing behaviors and the cycle begins all over again.

And the shocking thing of it is our culture has given us permission to do this: it’s called rewarding ourselves, treating ourselves, giving ourselves a little comfort; after all, we say, we deserve it considering all we put up with. This is how our culture makes money, it’s Madison Avenue at its finest; this is how an empire is made and recessions are born: with human misery, out of our inability to deal with the fact that life is vulnerable and messy.

From the very beginning life on this earth has been that way. The only instance when there was no mess, no risk was in that formless void. When God spoke, when energy became matter, mess and risk entered in and hunkered down for the duration. In the creation of the heavens and the earth and especially in human beings, God not only created vulnerability but also became vulnerable to the creation. In reaching out and desiring a connection with those made in the divine image, God became willing to the possibility of being a jilted lover. And our history with God has been one of the messiest love stories ever since.

In the birth of Jesus, God became completely and utterly vulnerable. In both the Matthew and Luke nativity stories, Jesus is born into a mess of some sort, whether it be under the rule of a vengeful king, the Roman occupation or laid in a feeding trough for animals. His parents were peasants, his hometown full of coarse, minimally-educated folks who worked hard and lived simple lives. His birth was witnessed by homeless shepherds or a few magi wanted for questioning, depending on which story you read.

When we are born and when we die we are at our most vulnerable and dependent. As children we love with our whole hearts, we immerse ourselves in joy and in play. It is only as we grow that we learn that the world may not and sometimes does not love us as we love ourselves. And so we begin the cycle of shame and fear that can plague us all through our adult lives.

In Jesus, God shows us how to live a vulnerable, open, wholehearted, joyful life. From Jesus we learn the risk, the price of a wholehearted love but we also learn courage, hope, and the knowledge that not only are others worthy of love and compassion but that we are too. Jesus teaches us through his vulnerable life and messy death that the practice of gratitude, joy and love are possible even in the face of great terror so that we might be able to face our own fears and be healed.

The Vulnerable Happiness of a Cherry Tree, Trine Wejp-Olsen, 2007

In Jesus we celebrate that God is fully known; God allows God’s self to be fully and deeply seen, granting us the trust we need to allow ourselves to be fully and deeply seen by others. Only in this way can we truly and deeply see others as they are. Yes, we are imperfect; yes, our lives and our life together are often quite messy. We are also worthy, just as we are.

So, baby Jesus, welcome to this messy, imperfect world! We’re glad you’re here. A weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Merry Christmas, Church! Amen.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Least likely

Saint John the Baptist, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591 - 1666)

Isaiah 35: 1-10; Matthew 11: 2-11
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
December 12, 2010 – Advent 3

I am a fan of the underdog, the supposed losers of this world. I cheered for the New Orleans Saints in last year’s Super Bowl. I grew up south of Boston, with a baseball team that long-suffered under a curse. I work for a guy who was homeless, poor, talked about loving one’s enemies and being blessed for meekness, who died a horrible death, convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.

I’m a soft touch when it comes to Salvation Army volunteers, a street person asking for a few bucks, or the many causes that fill my mailbox and ask for my time on the phone. I invite those wet-behind-the-ears, young Mormon men into my home for something to eat or hot to drink as they pass through our neighborhood every few years. When someone comes to my front door to ask for support I sign the petition and write letters to folks in Congress to abolish the death penalty or to save Long Island Sound.

I love stories about individuals and communities facing incredible odds, and maybe they don’t win the battle, they don’t save the day, but they get back up again the next day and try once more. I appreciate the courage it takes when someone is willing to step out on a limb, try their best, and though it may be far from perfect, it is enough. I love the rich, sumptuous, crowded list of those ‘least likely’.

In this morning’s reading from Isaiah we have a rather strange neighborhood: God’s ‘least-likelihood’: wilderness and desert are singing, flowers are blooming on the dry, barren land, weary hands are given strength, wobbly knees are made firm; the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap like deer, the voiceless break into song; springs of water spout forth in the desert and streams flow, like a wadi or a dry riverbed after a heavy rain; the hot sand will become a quenching pool, the thirsty ground will spout like a water fountain; even where jackals and coyotes hang out will be like a soaking swamp, and the dry grass will become lush and glossy.

Blue Reeds, a glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden

And in this least likely oasis there will be a highway, a holy road that will lead God’s people out of exile. The least likely possibility will happen, that God’s people who had been taken captive will now be welcomed home. Even those who usually lose their way will be able to find this road and follow it. For so very long God’s people could not sing their songs of home; now they shall find their voices. The seemingly endless sorrow and grieving will give way to everlasting joy. It is a dream that belongs to all of us, for we all long for home and wholeness.

By the time of John the Baptist, a time of house arrest for God’s people with the Roman occupation, the collective memory of this ‘least likely’ dream had faded. It had been some time since a prophet had been seen in Judah. Given the circumstances, many had expectations that the Messiah would come soon. Some thought he would lead a revolution to oust the Romans and establish King David’s dynastic throne once more.

So when John appeared on the scene, the very voice crying out in the wilderness, many thought he was Elijah come again to herald the advent of the Messiah, who would be the stream flowing in the desert. John’s call to repentance reminded God’s people of that least likely oasis, that peace where one expects strife, that hope where one expects despair. The people flooded the wilderness with the anticipation that now it would be God who would travel that holy road to them, that the Messiah would be their rescuer.

John also had his own expectations, someone with more fire, who would put things right, overturn the oppressive regime; someone with more power than one who talks about turning the other cheek. This Jesus didn’t seem like a very likely messiah. As John sat in prison thinking about what he was hearing from his followers, he might have been wondering if losing his life was worth it. And it sounds as if John’s disciples may have come to the same conclusion: “Are you the One we’ve been expecting, or are we waiting for another?”

Can you hear the guardedness in that question, the desire to not misplace their hopes: “You sound like the least likely candidate for the Messiah. Are you sure we can trust you, follow you?” After all, Jesus’ curriculum vita wasn’t exactly top drawer. The prophet Micah wrote about the place of his birth: “And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” Or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “But you, Bethlehem, David's country, the runt of the litter—from you will come the leader who will shepherd-rule Israel.” And before you form in your mind a lovely pastoral image of green pastures and still waters, let me remind you that shepherds were one of the lowest-caste occupations in the Middle East. They were poor, uneducated, sometimes criminal. From the most hick-town will come a bandit to lead a ragtag, often rebellious people. Yup, it’s got success written all over it.

Even Jesus’ hometown where he grew up had a rotten reputation. In the gospel of John, as Jesus is collecting disciples, one of them says to another, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazarenes, like other Galileans, spoke in a coarse dialect, sounding not quite as refined and educated as those in Judea. So here we have a coarse-speaking itinerant rabbi, the son of a carpenter and a peasant girl who descends from the none-too-perfect King David. Again, Jesus is not exactly what was hoped for.

All of us know what it is like to have our hopes dashed. Christmas is the one holiday charged with more expectations than any other and can set us up to be disappointed in any number of ways. Some of us may have hard feelings attached to this season or at least know someone who does. We’re raised on stories of magic, yet the magic does not come so easily when one grows up poor. Those of us who grew up in an alcoholic or abusive home know that Christmas was most likely the worst day, week, or month of the year. And if a loved one has died in the month of December, Christmas is never the same again.

Trouble is, we all know how this story ends, with Jesus on the cross dying a death no one deserves, least of all him. An ignominious death isn’t exactly a selling point or an obvious source of redemption. Which is what prompts John’s question: what am I here in prison for? What am I dying for? Did I proclaim the right person? Did I get the message right? Are you the one?

So Jesus reminds John’s disciples of that ancient dream, that the least likely things to happen are indeed happening: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lepers are cleansed, the lame walk, and he adds a couple of the very least likely to happen to up the ante: the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense that Jesus hasn’t lived up to their expectations of him.

Jesus came not to satisfy our expectations but God’s expectations for the kingdom. And in God’s kingdom everything is upside-down, backwards, from the bottom up, from last to first, for the least and lost. In God’s kingdom what is least likely is most likely to happen, to bear fruit, to be true.

What expectations do you have about Christmas, about yourself, about this church that are unrealistic or least likely to happen? Can you appreciate the difference between unrealistic and least likely? When have you been surprised, or uncertain, like John, about how God was at work in your life, and in the life of this community? In what ways do you long for streams to break forth in your own desert wilderness? And in our longing, how can we praise God?

And you, O Woodmont United Church of Christ, though you may be one of the littlest UCC churches in the Connecticut conference, from you shall come forth, for God, leaders who will be like springs in the desert, the Hail Mary pass in the fourth quarter, those who have the courage to step out on a limb, try their best, and though it may be far from perfect, it will be enough. A small church with no steeple that sometimes worries about its financial solvency, that can often feel chaotic and disorganized yet feeds the poor and hungry and makes everyone feel loved who comes through their doors. The dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them. Yup, it’s got success written all over it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Five Christmas markers

from Jan at Yearning for God:

Name five things that mark the Christmas season for you:

1. Salvation Army volunteers ringing their bells in front of the Stop and Shop.

One of my Advent devotions is whenever I see the red bucket and hear the bell ringing, I put a dollar in the bucket and shake hands with the volunteer, wish them a Merry Christmas, and thank them for their work.

2. Buying presents not only for my family and friends but for co-workers and for folks in town for whom the town social worker has posted a wish gift.

I love being creative and generous with gift-giving.

3. Christmas movies.

I like the classics like It's a Wonderful Life but I also like any movie that illustrates the power of the incarnation, unusual ones like Temple Grandin, about a brilliant autistic woman in the 1960's and '70's who's now a professor at the University of Colorado; or Seabiscuit, about a horse who was not only healed by those who loved and understood him but who also gave healing to those around him and to a country in the middle of a depression.

4. Thinking about my Christmas Eve meditation so I have some idea what I'm going to say.

You'll have to wait for this one.

5. Getting the Christmas tree and decorating it with my family.

We went this afternoon, to a tree farm we've never been to before but whose price seems reasonable for the quality of trees - $49. I've been looking at it as I've been writing this post. And if you've been reading this blog for a few years, you'll also know I'm looking forward my lifetime Christmas Eve tree tradition.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Vulnerable = Incarnation

Big thanks to Nina from Woodmont UCC, who shared this with me.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Church blocks

Isaiah 11: 1-10; Matthew 3: 1-12
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
December 5, 2010 – Advent 2

First, I want to thank everyone who participated in our Advent congregational art project by painting a pair of wooden blocks, which have been and will continue to be arranged differently each Sunday in Advent. On each of the blocks are words and images illustrating God’s dream for the kingdom and those things which thwart it. Participants were asked to think of something that needs to change in the world or in the Church or in ourselves and to paint that on one block. On the other block I asked folks to paint what would need to happen in order for that change to take place. For example, ‘greed’ and ‘share’, ‘confusion’ and ‘focus’, ‘war’ and ‘peace’.

As the blocks are arranged in different configurations each week, the pairs we painted are juxtaposed with other words, other images we may not have imagined. Just as in the reading from Isaiah, where we see the wolf with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the calf, the lion and the fatling together, and a little child leading them, so now we see ‘fear’ and ‘give more’; ‘racism’ and ‘let go, let God’; ‘let it go’ and ‘forgive’; ‘gossip’ and ‘respect’; ‘working together’ and ‘homeless'.

And we begin to realize that God’s kingdom is built with not only with the just but with the unjust as well; that in God’s vision of the world, predators, those who tear apart, come together with innocent prey, not to hurt or to destroy but to live in the fullness of the knowledge of God.

In the reading from the gospel of Matthew we see John the Baptist in the wilderness of Judea, by the shores of the Jordan, proclaiming a message of repentance. People poured out from the city of Jerusalem and from the Judean countryside and came to John for baptism, to be made whole. They turned not only from their sin but also from the persons and places of power toward someone who by all appearances was homeless, poor, and a bit on the crazy side. John was all these things out of his radical love for the Lord and so that the way of the Lord would be not only obvious but in your face.

Perhaps those who were coming to John had an inkling of some of what was wrong in the world or in their religious structure or in themselves and they recognized that this baptism, this cleansing was something that could make change possible. Certainly the poor were there and those considered easy prey by those in power: widows, orphans, the blind, the lame, the deaf and mute, ordinary folks who had to work hard to earn a living, maybe a few prostitutes and tax collectors—the folks that would soon be Jesus’ closest companions. John being who he was would have attracted the least of God’s people: those who were hungry and thirsty for God’s realm.

But then some Pharisees and Sadducees arrive for baptism as well, those with religious authority whom John viewed as predators, calling them vipers—vicious snakes with long fangs and deadly venom. John had not wasted his breath in warning them that the kingdom of God had come near. John, who was an Essene, one who rejected the religious authorities and the power they held over human souls and lives, knew that God spoke from the wilderness, not from the seat of power.

Pharisees and Sadducees were natural enemies—both spiritually and politically, yet when they had seen the crowds of people heading toward the river they joined forces to protect their status and resist the coming change in Jesus. I’d like to think they might have been motivated by a sense of guilt or shame about their past actions. After all, it was this ragtag prophet leading the people to greater devotion and not them.

But guilt and shame have a way of stopping us from changing. Though there are such things as healthy guilt and shame, more often than not, these feelings can paralyze and wound us to the point that we judge ourselves flawed and defective or it is the world around us that is to blame. Sometimes we can take our guilt too far by taking too much responsibility for others, convinced that we are good only if we can be perfect or perform tasks perfectly.

Strangely enough, the emotion that we need more of, and that John the Baptist is seeking in those Pharisees and Sadducees, is remorse. Remorse is the capability of feeling the pain we have caused others. It is the flip side of empathy, that ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, for predator to know what it is to be prey and vice versa.

Remorse is more than just the consumer regret we hear about. It comes from the Latin remordere which means to torment or to vex, or literally, to bite back. It is as if with our words or actions we sink a predator’s teeth, long fangs into someone, knowingly or unknowingly; yet also bite ourselves at the same time. With remorse the pain we cause another is our pain. When we feel that pain, it is then that we can be made whole, for we realize that we—human beings, animals, plants, the very earth, the whole of creation—are one.

It seems every day we witness those in power as lacking in remorse. To be sure, there is plenty of shaming and fists beating the chest but very little in the way of remorse. As human beings we are pain-avoidant, to the point of often taking little responsibility for the pain we cause. But we know from experience that at some point it will come back to bite us.

The irony is that what appears to block our way to the kingdom of God makes the very pathway to the wholeness God intends for us. Greed, war, guilt, shame show us the need for generosity, peace, forgiveness and respect. The pain of remorse leads to wholeness. In Advent we focus on hope, peace, joy and love, for we know the world and we ourselves can be tempted to believe that despair, strife, sorrow, and hatred are normal and even to be expected.

Where are the places in your own life and in the life of this church where you feel remorseful? With whom do you feel juxtaposed, like polar opposites, oil and water, day and night, where there is unresolved tension and the need for reconciliation? What do you do to cope with pain or to avoid it altogether? How have guilt and shame paralyzed and wounded you in your life and in your life together as the Body of Christ? In what areas of your life and your life as a congregation have you come to expect the worst? What is it that you really hope for?

What would this church, this world, what would you look like if none would hurt nor destroy anymore, if the need for remorse was no more? As God’s Advent rearranges us and puts us with people and situations that seem like natural enemies, like polar opposites, let us watch for the unexpected, for God’s surprising love to lead us to healing and to wholeness. Amen.