Archive for December, 2008

The Unveiling

Sunday, December 21st, 2008

2008 will in part be remembered at this church as a year in which three beloved members-–Clara Welder, Jere Bruner, and Enid Buckland–-all passed on to be with the Lord. All were in their 80’s; all were unique individuals with their own lengthy earthly struggles, whether physical or emotional. Each has shown us a glimpse of God in his or her own special way.

Perhaps it is with their collective memory in mind that my heart is drawn today to the story of Simeon and Anna, a prophet and a prophetess of advanced age. It is unclear in the original text whether Anna was 84 years old or had been a widow for 84 years. We don’t know Simeon’s age, but it is clear from our story that meeting his Maker is within the immediate grasp of his vision.

Peggy Malone has worked a great deal with people in hospice who are nearing the end of their lives. She tells us that there often is one person they must see or one thing they must do before releasing this life. It may be reconciling with that estranged sibling, or seeing that prodigal son who has been their heart’s agony. Simeon, like many, has that ‘one person to see’ before meeting his Maker. For him it is the Christ child, the babe born in Bethlehem.

Both Anna and Simeon spend a lot of time in the Temple. We don’t know anything about their earlier years, but we do know that they devote their later years to worshiping, praying, and waiting on God. As they serve God in the Temple, they listen attentively for a word from God.

Mary receives an angel visitant. Zechariah is struck dumb for a season. The shepherds receive an unexpected birth announcement from an angelic choir. But Simeon and Anna? They worship, fast, and pray in the Temple, faithfully, day by day, year by year. They park their hearts in the sanctuary of God. In the fullness of time, into that opening of their spirits, comes an unveiling of the Divine Presence and purpose. The very constancy of their vigil strengthens their faith and confirms their hope.

I cannot help but think of our seniors’ group, the Lightbeams, at this point. If ever there was an appropriate name to describe a group of people, this is it. Simeon and Anna remind us of the gifts age, wisdom, and faithfulness wisdom offer the gathered community. The losses of the past year and the fragile health of many today underscore the incredible ways that the constancy and prayerful service of our seniors undergirds both the history and present ministry of this church.

In our nearly 30 years here, two people have provided Communion Bread and faithfully prepared the elements we receive the first Sunday of the month, Christmas Eve and Maundy Thursday. These two have been Bob Thomas and Mary Caroniti. Yes, there have been occasional substitutes, but for 30 years, month in and month out, these two seniors have performed this service in our Temple, the church, for God and for us. Waiting patiently, praying faithfully, loving constantly, they have quietly served. We may be separated from Simeon and Anna in time, but not in the richness of the gifts our older members lavish on both God and the people of God!

But, back to our story.

The day finally comes. Mary and Joseph present their infant son in the Temple, bringing along two young pigeons. This is the sacrifice poor folks offer after the birth of a firstborn son as required by the Law of Moses. Simeon’s final wish is met, and more. He not only sees the Child but holds him. Simeon cradles Jesus in his arms as he speaks words of both blessing and warning to the baby’s parents.

There must be both joy and agony in Simeon’s heart as he shares the wondrous yet heavy word from God that he has received for them. A light for the Gentiles as well as the Jews–astounding news! A sorrow that will pierce Mary’s soul like a sharp sword–agonizing news! Salvation and destruction, rise and fall, blessing and conflict–overwhelming news, so much for the young parents to take in! They were just coming to present the baby in the Temple and offer their sacrifices!

Anna enters during Simeon’s prayer. She, too, has been waiting for this moment for a long time. Instead of focusing on the parents as Simeon does, she turns toward the others in the Temple. With a heart filled with praise and thanksgiving, she proclaims the advent of the Messiah to all who are waiting for Jerusalem to become free. There is a deep collective groaning in this occupied land.

In tandem, Simeon and Anna proclaim God’s message. Their prophetic testimonies confirm one another. They joyously greet the unveiling of the child, the beginning of a new era in the long history of the Jewish people with God.

It is important to see the work of God in the Temple shortly after Jesus’ birth, because the Temple eventually becomes a symbol of Jesus’ adversaries. Shepherds, angels, and prophets proclaim his coming. The fields, the manger, and the Temple are all scenes of God’s revelation. The outsider and insider, heaven and earth shout out in praise. The Kingdom of God explodes outward in this newborn baby.

Anna and Simeon remind us what waiting looks like. It looks like patience and perseverance. It looks like listening and learning. It looks like worship and prayer. It looks like steadfastness over years and decades, even generations. Anna and Simeon don’t come to the Temple to make friends; they come to the Temple, first and foremost, to encounter God. That makes all the difference in what they find there.

As we continue the Advent journey, we have made a “fast forward” today to the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Yet we are still immersed in the Unveiling of the Promised One. The true gift of this season is the Christ Child, the One we our hearts yearn to know, to love, to follow, and to serve. He is our life. He is our peace. He is the hope of our redemption. Amen.

Yes, [your name], you can be a prophet, too.

Sunday, December 14th, 2008

Listen to these words from the beginning of Isaiah 61, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me; God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of God’s favor.”

Have you read anything similar to that anywhere? Jesus echoes those words in Luke 4. Isaiah and Jesus both proclaim that they are anointed, that they have a word from God. Another character in the Christmas story, John the Baptist, makes his own claim to being a prophet, a person anointed by God, someone with a word from the Lord.

And then, in a minute, as we light the advent candles, we will hear the words of another prophet, a person with a word from God, Mary the Mother of Jesus. Isaiah. Jesus. John the Baptist. Mary. They were all prophets, people with a word from God. Did it ever occur to you that you can be a prophet, too, just like them, with your own anointing and a word from God? We’re going to think more about that a bit later this morning, and see if we can take that Advent challenge seriously. But now let’s light the candles on our Advent wreath.

“So who are you, they asked that crazy guy in the desert? What credentials do you have to go wandering about claiming you have a word from God? What school did you go to? Which Rabbis did you study with? Who gave you permission to baptize people?”

They were very curious about John. Nobody had ever seen anything like him before. And they weren’t about to let him make any claims for himself that they could not substantiate. But John didn’t care. He knew he had a word from God, a calling, whether they acknowledged it or not.

Like Isaiah, like Mary the mother of Jesus, like Jesus himself, John claimed God’s call in his life in very bold and audacious ways. They all claimed the right to speak for God and to change the ways people think about God. That’s intense.

And we celebrate something incredibly intense during Advent and Christmas. But, this is more than a celebration. We make the crazy claim that what happened in Bethlehem was meant to change this world. And that it has started by changing us. We are the witnesses to Jesus and what he means in our lives and for this world. We have our own callings. We have our own word from God. Like John, like Jesus, like Mary, like Isaiah, that word is ours to claim and live out in some pretty bold and exciting ways.

We don’t have to get carried away like some street preacher. Because, like John the Baptist, we are not the light. But, we are here to show the way to the light. We are here to make Jesus real to this world even though we may not think of ourselves as prophets, or as having much to say at all about religious stuff, much less a word from God.

But we can have more confidence in ourselves than that. God does surprising things with surprising people. That’s all over the Bible.

John the Baptist said he wasn’t even fit to untie the shoes of the one who was to come. But, nevertheless, he realized that his calling didn’t need to be judged in the light of someone else’s calling. God wasn’t asking him to be Jesus. God wasn’t asking him to do anything other than prepare the way for Jesus into the lives of others. Any of us can do that. We don’t have to be Jesus, or John the Baptist, or Mary, or any number of people we think are more spiritual or better Christians than we are. We just claim our calling from God, that we have a word from God. And that word can prepare the way for Jesus into the lives of others, just like John the Baptizer did.

Jesus wasn’t just speaking to the disciples, or exaggerating when he said we would be his witnesses. And we already have the word from God we need. It’s all there in the gospels, beginning in Bethlehem, this amazing thing we celebrate during Christmas, this light that has come into the world.

Like John, we just have to figure out how best we are going to bear witness to the light. Bruce Epperly from Lancaster Theological Seminary asks, “Are we going to hide the light or let it shine in ways that will bring justice and transformation into our communities, families, nations, and daily relationships?” This word from God about peace and wholeness and reconciliation and healing and hope and inclusion, this word from God about the lowly being lifted up, the swords being beaten into plowshares, of resurrection life, is ours to do something with.

That’s what Isaiah, Mary, John the Baptist, and Jesus were doing. They were letting the light shine, imagining something new for our lives and our world, seeing God in new and life giving ways. They were bold enough to claim that God was at work in them. They claimed they knew something of that love and forgiveness that would not only reshape their lives, and the live of others, but change this world. And they weren’t shy about it. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” “God has anointed me.” “All people will call me blessed.”

The light needs to shine, and we need to shine it. If not us, who? We get frustrated because some who claim a word from God, seem to only offer a word of hate or division, or judgment, or intolerance. They fill the airwaves of Christian radio and TV stations with a gospel of violence and death, rather than a gospel of life and peace. There is no Bethlehem there.

We can’t do much about what others say about Jesus and what it means to follow him. People have got to work this thing out for themselves. We have to do our own work because all we can do is bear witness to the Jesus we know, and be the Body of Christ, his hands, his feet, his heart with each other. If we object to the witness others are making, but aren’t being light bearers ourselves, making our own witness, the problem is not just those other guys.

We need to stake our own claim. To give voice to the word we have from God. If we really believe something significant happened with the birth of Jesus. If we believe that his coming into the world testifies to the goodness and beauty of this world, if we believe the story of Bethlehem testifies to the possibilities of how our lives can be transformed by the vulnerability of God, we can trust the Spirit to be at work in us to make that story real in our lives and the lives of others.

Bethlehem offers us a vision of how things can be. Here’s another quote from Bruce Epperly. “When a community or person discovers a vision, everything changes–life is transformed, energy flows, challenges are confronted, possibilities emerge. The challenge of Advent is to look beyond the limitations of life and our fears for the future in order to imagine, along with God, new possibilities that will transform us and our world. Where will God call us next? Toward what adventures is the Spirit leading us? Where are we being anointed to do great things for God and our world?” These are not questions for some of us, but for all of us.

When you come in the front door of the church, you see a banner hanging right there in the hallway. It’s black, with a white dove and red lettering. Do you remember what it says? “The Spirit of the Lord is upon us.” Not just


Thursday, December 4th, 2008

Out of the whole Church Year, I love the season of Advent the most. God bursting out of a womb is one preposterous mystery. It is a non-fiction story line that cannot be beat…so simple, so natural, and yet so profoundly unexpected!

There is something deeply visceral about God becoming flesh. Flesh–the skin, bones, joints, and ligaments of bodily presence. Blood coursing through Jesus’ veins, just like it does ours. Emotions, thoughts, and dreams alive in Jesus’ heart, just like they are in ours. Prayers and temptations, blessings and disappointments filling Jesus’ days, just like they do ours. It is all there in this disarming story that unfolds so dramatically throughout the Advent season.

The word that came to me as I was thinking about Incarnation this week was “embedded.” The Christmas story is about God, embedded within the human race. I couldn’t help but think about journalists ‘embedded’ within various military units in Iraq. They report their first-hand experiences on the front lines to the wider public. Although right there in the thick of the situation, their comings and goings are still proscribed by the United States government. “You can go here, but not there; you can report on this, but not that” is the ‘official’ reality.

So different, the story of this one named Jesus who came to earth as a baby born in a manger. He, too, was embedded–sent into the “war zone” we know as planet earth, with all its sickness, sorrow, and injustice; with all its religious and political violence. Jesus was embedded here in order to speak the truth to us, about us, with us, and on our behalf.

This God-made-flesh arrived the slow way–as a baby. He matured in the deliberate, daily way that all children mature, month by month, year by year. Eventually, he reached adulthood, launched a ministry, and gathered a following.

God comes in slowness. This is something I can relate to. On my last mini-Silent Retreat a couple weeks ago, my primary goal was to cut my internal chatter and spend more time in pure silence. Somehow, it didn’t seem like a Silent Retreat if my mind and pen were going 400 miles per hour, with the only thing quiet being my mouth and my schedule. The difficulty of shifting to sustained internal silence demonstrated for me the distance between the speed of my daily life at home and the solitude and slowness of the silent retreat.

There is something important for us to learn about ourselves and our own lives that God comes in slowness. The fullness of time. Nine months in the womb. Time to grow. Time to change. Time to mature.

God also comes in obscurity. Bethlehem, of all towns. A teenage mother, of all women. A dirty stable, of all birthplaces. Shepherds, of all witnesses. Could God have appeared in any greater obscurity? No trumpets, no queen mother, no palace, no capital city? Yes, we have the angel choirs, but how many have the ears to hear them sing?

Have you ever heard the saying, “If you keep doing the same thing the same way, you will get the same results?” Another similar saying is also true: “If you keep looking at things the same way, you will see exactly what you have seen.” If we look for the things the world looks for, we will miss both the real Christmas story and its inestimable gift. If we are looking for God in obscure, out-of-the-way places, we are likely to encounter God’s holy presence.

On my week-long Silent Retreat in June, I spent a lot of time studying. Not books, but nature. In that studying, I three times rescued lost bugs–two very large ants and one stunned bumblebee. All were circling frantically in totally different locations where they clearly did not belong and would never find their way back to their natural habitat without help.

I thought I was just being attentive to nature by rescuing some of its most vulnerable, lost-looking friends. As I told my spiritual director about the three bugs, she stopped me in stunned amazement and said, “Mary, listen to yourself! You rescued three dislocated bugs, circling frantically. Think about your life, think about yourself, think about your relationship with God…what does that symbolize for you?”

I was aghast, more at my own poverty of vision than at the plethora of insights that began to fill my mind. Does anyone here ever feel like a frantic, lost bug, out of place, circling around and around and around? Does anyone here ever need the strong, gentle hand of Another–who can see the big picture–to help you find your way back to where you belong?

These three little insects remind me that God comes to us in obscurity. At this time of God’s Appearing that we know as Advent, do we have eyes to see? Are we sharpening our vision and gazing at heaven’s gift with eyes of faith and yearning? Are we slowing down enough to notice the Holy One in our midst?

Finally, the God who comes in slowness and obscurity is also the God who comes in love. Why embed God’s Self on this planet, in this chaotic war zone? Why participate in the gamut of human experience–the good and the bad, the lovely and the loveless? Why suffer, alone and forsaken, on a Roman cross? Why forgive those who plot such great evil? Why become vulnerable as we are vulnerable? Why? Why?

I cannot believe how much I love my grandchild, Sofia. Someone once told us that grandparenting is one of the few things in life that lives up to its advanced billing. They were right. Ever since Sofia was 4 pounds, 12 ounces, she loved sleeping on me. She’s now around 20 pounds, and getting big to position on my lap for a nap. But she still loves to do it. When I hold Sofia as she sleeps, and look at that beautiful little face, I often meditate on God’s great love for us. Can it be as big, profound, determined, and committed as my love for this child? Yes, indeed, yes!

Why did God embed God’s self on this planet, in this war zone?

It is God’s gift, pure and simple. It is God’s magnificent Christmas offering to us. How great is the grace of the One who came, and the One who sent him.

Let us celebrate the Lord’s Supper together in remembrance of this marvelous gift of Advent–this expectation of the glorious promise of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Today, he invites us to know him as Lord, Savior, and Friend. Let us meet him anew in this meal that we share together.

As we prepare for Communion, we will sing the hymn, “What Child is This?” Through its simple story, we proclaim his glory. Amen.