Do Something

 

This coming Sunday is New Year’s Day.  The choices for those of us who use the Revised Common Lectionary are many:

Christmas 1 – The Holy Family’s flight (as in fleeing as refugees) into Egypt and the Slaughter of the Innocents

Name of Jesus – The naming of Jesus at his circumcision and a look ahead to his dedication, when we hear Simeon’s Song

New Year’s Day – Matthew 25 text about “the least of these”

We decided to go with observing the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.  This was not an easy decision.  Both of the other sets of texts center around exhortations and situations that are either frighteningly present in our world or speak directly to the state of our world.

Had we used the New Year’s Day set of texts, we would have explored what it means to be a Matthew 25 church: doing for “the least of these.”  We are considering studying this for the entire year, reflecting on Luther’s call to vocation and service of neighbor (and of course putting that into action!).  But not knowing what our attendance will be on New Year’s Day – it is generally low – we will instead use this text more intentionally throughout the year.

The Christmas 1 texts, to be honest, are not pretty.  Being told to run for your life is not an impromptu vacation.  Little children being killed is horrifying.  We don’t need to look far to see this exact scenario: there are over 14 million refugees from the Syrian Civil War either internally displaced within the country’s borders or scattered around the world.  The estimated number of children killed is nearly 15,000.  We remember the riveting photograph of the little boy sitting stunned in an ambulance.

omran-syrian-boy-injured-in-war

We came to the conclusion that the only way we could deal with the horror that is all around us, and the uncertain future facing us, was to ground ourselves this New Year’s Day in basics.

So we are reading the texts appointed for the Holy Name of Jesus.

Shakespeare asks, via Juliet, “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…”  It’s the person or the thing, not the label attached to them, that is the essence of who or what they are.

And yet…..the name of Jesus carries associations, emotions, weights.

It’s been used to calm and soothe, but also to intimidate and oppress.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he invokes the name of Jesus as “the name above all names.”  It is clear Paul sees Jesus’ name as a signal to people that here is God Incarnate, the God who loves us beyond our words.

I think in our day, it’s not the name of “Jesus” that turns people off.  I think it’s the name of “Christian.”  And we do a lot of hand-wringing about how to change that.  Here’s an idea:

What if, this year, we were intentional about living into the name of Jesus?

We pray “in Jesus’ name” all the time; what if we were to DO in Jesus’ name, all the time?

Then we might find ourselves living that Matthew 25 text.  We might find ourselves standing up to sponsor a Syrian refugee family.  We might find ourselves dipping our fingers in the waters of the baptismal font and letting that cool splash remind us of who we are, and send us out reminded of whose we are.

Such an assurance of grace gives us the freedom, ALL the freedom, to DO in Jesus’ name.

It’s what our sending phrase really means:  “Go in peace.  DO SOMETHING!”

I wish you all a blessed, ACTIVE New Year!

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All In

So much for that “daily post through Advent” plan!  Ah well.  Perhaps in another season.

At Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Encinitas, CA., we worshiped on Christmas Day with an invitation to come in our jammies or a Christmas sweater.  We had DOUBLE the number of folks we usually do for Christmas Day worship!  I’m not sure if it was the jammie invite – though lots of folks did wear their PJs – but it was great fun.

I was the preacher for the day, and our text was John 1:1-14.  This passage is a creed of sorts – a statement of faith.

My thoughts on, and reaction to, this profound text are below.  May you have a blessed and merry Christmas!

Sermon for Christmas Day, 2016 – Bethlehem Lutheran Church

Mary Shaima, Diaconal Associate

starofbethlehem_1400

 

John 1:1-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,full of grace and truth.

Grace and peace to you this Christmas Day, from our loving God through his son, Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

That greeting, which precedes so many sermons in the world, is really a summation of the gospel lesson we just shared.

It’s a gospel lesson in the form of poetry.  Poetry like the type that American poet Wendell Berry tends to write.  Both broad and intimate in scale.  Speaking truths that touch our souls’ depths.  Berry writes:

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.

(Wendell Berry, “What We Need Is Here”  http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/what-we-need-is-here/ )

Contrast this with John’s gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him

… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, … full of grace and truth.

What we need … (gesture to crèche & manger) is here.

The Word became flesh, and lived among us.

Yes, this part of John’s gospel, considered a “prologue” to the rest of it, is beautiful poetry.  It also has a broad-yet-intimate scale to it, but I think of it more like the scale of the photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope.

stars-in-the-small-magellanic-cloud

 

This is the Small Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way.  The sparkles of light in the center of the photograph are baby stars.  That’s the actual term NASA uses:  “…baby stars that are still forming from collapsing gas clouds and have not yet ignited their hydrogen fuel.”

The photographs from Hubble are the visual manifestation of the word “cosmic” – seemingly beyond anything we can understand. Not unlike this gospel passage!  And yet – our astronomers and space scientists continue to watch and study.  They seek the truth about what they see through the lens.  We also seek the truth, though we find it not expressed in numbers of galaxies and spans of time far greater than we can even comprehend.  Kneeling down next to the manger, we find it in a baby, in the most vulnerable of creatures.  A baby, still forming, whose “fuel”, so to speak, may just be starting to ignite.

We understand babies to be vulnerable in terms of helplessness.  But here’s the thing in this text to really ponder: GOD as a baby takes on that same degree of helplessness.  God becomes dependent on US.

Even in the context of this gospel passage, this is a head-scratcher.  But I would invite you to consider the word “vulnerability” from a different angle.

Last week, when we heard the story of Joseph and his encounter with the angel, Pastor Laura spoke of vulnerability.  She told us about the woman who, while fighting her own cancer, stepped in to pay the medical bill for another patient without the same resources.  Responding to vulnerability with vulnerability.

This is the essence of the incarnation.  God responds to our vulnerability by becoming vulnerable.  But it’s not quite the same kind of vulnerable.

Most of us would define “vulnerability” as “weakness.”  Personally, I have issues with vulnerability.  You’ll notice I’m not wearing my jammies; that would be too vulnerable.  I chose the Christmas-sweater option.

Researcher Brené Brown*, however, invites us to rethink this assumption.  She asked people to finish this sentence:  “Vulnerability is                              .”  Here are some of the replies:

  • (Vulnerability is) Standing up for myself
  • (Vulnerability is) Trying something new
  • (Vulnerability is) Stepping up to the plate again after a series of strikeouts
  • (Vulnerability is) Asking for forgiveness
  • (Vulnerability is) Having faith

When she considered these responses, she concluded that what vulnerability REALLY sounds like is truth.  What it feels like is not weakness, but courage.

Courage, of course, has for its root word the French word coeur – heart.

This is the kind of vulnerability I see God entering when God comes to us in the person of Jesus – a newborn in a cattle hay rack.

It’s a vulnerability that is entered into by choice, with courage, from the heart.  The WHOLE heart.  It’s what is meant by the statement “I’m all in.”

God’s whole heart is laid in the manger.  God is all in – FOR US.  Not for God’s self, but for the world that came into being through God and the Word.

The NASA scientists tell us these infant stars “are still forming…and have not yet ignited…”  And the gospel tells us “all things came into being through him…”  It’s an already/not yet, isn’t it? – like so much of our life together with God.

Jesus in the manger is still forming…and we might say he has not yet ignited any fuel cell other than the ruach of his breath.  We sit down next to the manger knowing how this story ends – and yet it doesn’t end.  God’s story is ever unfolding, drawing us into the dance that is life.

Our stories are not ended either, of course.  We sit between the times that mark our lives.  We are still forming too.  How many times do we simply need to sit by the manger and look at the baby – this helpless little one – and wait for the dawn?

Pastor Laura and I have a friend and colleague who has waited a long time for the dawn.  Whether she and her husband would ever be able to have children was a question that stayed in the darkness of their lives.  The pain she carried with her was real and deep.  Earlier this year, she and her husband announced they were expecting.  She had waited for some time to announce this, and every week represented another step closer.  She knew at some point she ought to breathe easier, but she just couldn’t. She’s a pastor, but she’s also a person.  She waited for the dawn.

A couple of weeks ago, a number of our friends and colleagues also waited for the dawn.  They were gathered in the San Carlos area to remember the life of a close friend of our bishop – a pastoral colleague of ours.  As they raised a glass in his memory, the news came that our other colleague had been safely delivered of a very healthy baby boy.  The glasses were raised again – this time to give thanks for the gift of new life.

dietrich-martin-in-stocking

 

This is his Christmas picture.  Pretty darn cute.

All of these folks at the San Carlos gathering had been praying for this woman for months, and so to hear of little Dietrich’s safe arrival was a pinprick of light.  Perhaps the dawn would indeed come.

dietrich-baby-jesus

And last night, Dietrich made his debut across social media as the Baby Jesus.  Our friend is still on maternity leave but she couldn’t resist taking this picture.  Dietrich, too, is all in.

(Admittedly, that comes with the territory if you are a pastor’s kid.)

Dear brothers and sisters – this dawn has come.  It is the dawn of redeeming grace, as the hymn tells us.

And this is the hymn text that, guaranteed 100%, will ALWAYS make me cry.

Let me tell you, for years that has annoyed me no end.  Why did THIS one line tear me apart??  But some personal work this year has brought me to the place of asking:  does this hymn text probe where I am most vulnerable – where I see myself as weak, as unlovable, as not enough?

Well, this is precisely where God enters in, upending my assumptions to tell me to my face “I love you.  You MATTER.”

It’s where God’s incarnation as Jesus – as vulnerable child – invites me to re-define vulnerability.  In God’s terms.  And those terms include redeeming grace.

Before Jesus, God’s all-in, is incarnate and laid in the manger, our vulnerability is lodged in a place of uncertainty.

But once God is laid before us – we can claim vulnerability from a place of certainty.  And that certainty is that God loves us and trusts us so much that God would place God’s self into our care.  That God would be all in.

Wherever you are joyful this day – wherever you carry pain – wherever you are uncertain – know that God is all in with you, with God’s whole heart.

Love has come.  For you.  For me.  For the world.

What we need – is HERE.

Merry Christmas, dear friends.

starofbethlehem_1400

 

*Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.  Avery, an imprint of Penguin Ransom House, 2012.

Veni Immanuel

At our leadership conference this fall, the Rev. Dr. Barbara Lundblad was one of our presenters.  She took us through the lessons from the prophet Isaiah that are read in this year – what we call Year A in the three-year cycle of lessons that are read in worship.  The gospel lessons in Year A are taken mainly from the gospel of Matthew – in Year B,  they are taken from Mark; and in Year C, from Luke.  John’s gospel doesn’t follow the timeline of the other three and so is read in all three years.

The Old Testament lessons follow a number of patterns through the three years.  This year’s Advent, we hear the prophecies from Isaiah that we believe are fulfilled in Christ.

The song “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” is a traditional one through the season of Advent.  It expresses the longing for Immanuel (which means “God with us”) to “ransom captive Israel.”  Recent scholarship has questioned the somewhat anti-Semitic tone of the lyrics.  Dr Lundblad brought us her new version of the song, with lyrics that reflect the Isaiah lessons through each of this year’s four Sundays of Advent.  She graciously urged us to share it:

O Come, O Come, Immanuel

Advent 1
Isaiah 2
O come, O come, Immanuel
And bless each place your people dwell.
Melt ev’ry weapon crafted for war,
bring peace upon the earth forever more.

 

Refrain Rejoice, rejoice! Take heart and do not fear,
God’s chosen one, Immanuel, draws near.

 

Advent 2
Isaiah 11
O come, green shoot of Jesse, free
Your people from despair and apathy;
Forge justice for the poor and the meek,
Grant safety for the young ones and the weak. Refrain

 

Advent 3
Isaiah 35
O come now, living water, pour your grace,
And bring new life to ev’ry withered place;
Speak comfort to each trembling heart:
“Be strong! Fear not, for I will ne’er depart.” Refrain

 

Advent 4
Isaiah 7
O come, dear child of Mary, come,
God’s Word made flesh within our earthly home;
Love stir within the womb of night,
Revenge and hatred put to flight. Refrain


The above verses correspond to the Isaiah readings for Advent, Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary. Revised text by Barbara K. Lundblad. Used with permission.

Dr. Lundblad’s language expands the scope of the original to be widely inclusive of all peoples and all of creation.

One of the most beautiful arrangements of this 15th century French processional hymn is by Chip Davis and Mannheim Steamroller:

Veni, Veni – Mannheim Steamroller

Come, Lord Jesus.

Still time….

 

I ran across a beautiful poem by Mark Doty entitled “Messiah (Christmas Portions)” that describes a community choir assembling to rehearse and sing a part of Handel’s great oratorio.  His words describe the intersection of the everyday lives of the people of the town with the stirring, majestic tones of one of the greatest of all choral works.  The music transforms the mundane into the transcendent.

Mark Doty’s biographical info is here:  https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/mark-doty

The poem’s full text is here:  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44142

It’s a fantastic read, and I heartily commend it.  Below are the last few lines.  Peace to you this day.

 

Aren’t we enlarged
by the scale of what we’re able
to desire? Everything,
the choir insists,

might flame;
inside these wrappings
burns another, brighter life,
quickened, now,

by song: hear how
it cascades, in overlapping,
lapidary waves of praise? Still time.
Still time to change.

Stir It Up

“Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.”

This is the ancient form of prayer through Advent – the “stir up” prayers.  When I hear them, I add my own prayers for things to be stirred up, particularly my doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

Those three things are reminders from the Old Testament prophet Micah.  Micah is also the prophet whose words we read at Christmas:  “But 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.”

How right it is that the prophet who foretells Jesus’ coming – the coming of a so-called king who upends all the understandings and expectations we have of a king – is also the prophet who reminds us that this journey with Jesus is not complicated.

Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly with God.

Make no mistake, it is hard – but not complicated.  The king who comes as a helpless infant helps us to see the simplicity of it, because the baby Jesus has the same needs as any other infant: clean diapers, food, and nurturing. Ask any parent: it’s not complicated, but it IS hard!

Ask anyone who lives into those hard but simple words of Micah, and they will tell you of the deep blessings that come amid the challenges.

May we seek those challenges, and share those blessings.

Stir us up, Lord.