Monday, December 31, 2012

A love letter and thank you note to Open Table

an early gathering of Open Table


I thank Linda T. for being willing to facilitate tonight’s Festive Fifth Sunday gathering and lead you in sharing stories.  Even missing one gathering time with you means I’ll miss something important—an insight someone shares, a story that helps us understand one another better, a joke that loses some of its humor when it’s retold in another setting, the light of your dear faces.  I will miss being with you tonight, but I am thankful for a few days to be with my family.  

I told a somewhat silly story in my sermon last week.  Your stories for tonight might be funny or tender or both. Sharing stories and a meal, which you'll do tonight, are two of the most powerful of spiritual disciplines in all cultures—and are at the root of Christianity’s central ritual. Holy Communion is all about retelling the story of Jesus and recommitting to his ways of loving union through a common meal.  A faith community called Open Table knows well the hows and whys of this communal practice. 

According to the liturgical calendar, this is the sixth day of Christmas, so although the larger culture thinks Christmas is over, the Church continues celebrating the coming of God in the very unexpected form of a human child.  Although the “after Christmas sales” have started, we’re still mining the story of the incarnation, the “enfleshment” of the sacred.  We recall that the incarnation is a story that shows God being revealed to us in ordinary physicality, God coming to us as vulnerable love.   

Next Sunday I’ll share with you some themes we’ll explore in the new year.  But our year-round and life-long theme is vulnerable love, which we picture best in a manger and on a cross—and that you, my friends, represent in the ways you care for others, listen to another’s heart, lay aside ego for the greater good, forgive generously, communicate honestly but humbly, and pursue Jesus’s peaceful ways with passion without taking yourselves too seriously.  I see the Light of God in each of you.    

YOU are the best sermons anyone ever hears at Open Table.

With love and thankfulness,

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Christmas Chipmunk


You might assume that I, a Christian minister, grew up celebrating Christmas in traditional ways, with solemnity and religiosity aplenty.  I did attend my share of Christmas Eve services with my church-going family.  But our family Christmas celebrations have, over the years, included zanier moments, like the annual visit from the Christmas Chipmunk.

You’ve not heard of the Christmas Chipmunk?  Then I’ll begin with the origins of this mythical character. 

While I was in my late teens, my father drove home from work one evening wearing a chipmunk costume.  He’d found the full body costume, like the ones Disney World characters walk around in, which someone discarded at his office. My father decided it would be funny to arrive home incognito.  He knocked on the front door just to see what kind of reaction he’d get.  Since I answered the door, he received a loud reaction.  Though chipmunks are the most adorable of all rodents, the seven-foot variety lose some of their charm when they surprise you at the front door.  After the giant chipmunk calmed me down, the rest of the family thought it would be fun to take turns donning the costume.  Someone ran to get a camera.  Soon we were all excitedly trying on the chipmunk costume and posing for the camera—realizing only after a whole roll of film was wasted that all the pictures of the chipmunk looked exactly alike regardless of who was inside the costume.  This delay of insight should give you a clue about our limited capacity for maintaining holiday decorum.

Years later, again on a whim, my father rediscovered the chipmunk costume on the Christmas Eve when his then only grandchildren, my daughter and my sister’s son, were two years old and visiting with their parents for the holiday.  Following some grandfatherly impulse to entertain, my father secretly costumed himself, went outside, and then knocked on the front door.  My mother, the only other person in on the scheme, answered the door and in her grandmotherliest tone announced, “Oh, goodness, it’s the Christmas Chipmunk!”  She ushered in the visitor, who spoke not a word but waved and smiled his painted-on smile. 

“Georgia.  Alex.  Here’s the Christmas Chipmunk!” their grandmother introduced, as if we’d been expecting him.  “Would you like to come give him a sweet hug? He’s come to see if you’re getting ready for bed so that Santa can come.”

In an instant, the other adults understood the mythology being constructed.  This Christmas Chipmunk was to Santa what John the Baptist was to Jesus:  a forerunner, a harbinger of the real deal.  We caught on to the plot and chimed in with things like, “Thanks for coming to see us, Mr. Chipmunk!  You can tell Santa that we’re going to bed now.  See you next year!”  Although the chipmunk did not exclaim, as he waddled out of sight, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” he did wave, and Georgia and Alex, stunned, waved back. 

The chipmunk would visit each Christmas Eve at bedtime for the next ten years.  And as my sister and her husband and then my brother and his wife added more children to the extended family, the Chipmunk’s Christmas Eve audience increased.  Every Christmas Eve the Chipmunk helped our children prepare for Santa’s visit.  And the Chipmunk ritual continued until the costume finally wore out.  And by then the children were past the age of credulity.

But for a few years there, we allowed our children to live in a bizarre subculture that may have scarred them for life.  For you see, my daughter and her cousins assumed that, like Santa, the Christmas Chipmunk, whose story we embellished a bit more each year, was part of everyone’s Christmas.  We parents of these deluded children discovered later that Georgia and cousins would talk with their little friends about Santa’s helper, the Christmas Chipmunk—and these little friends would then look askance at the tales of his annual visitations.  Kindergartners in Nashville, Montgomery, and Tampa then brought tales home to their parents of a deviant celebration of Christmas.

We also exposed our daughter and nephews and niece to other counter-cultural traditions.  Before our family’s annual Christmas Eve reading of the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke, my sister and I staged the family nativity drama.  When the children were babies, we’d dress them up in ridiculous costumes and pose them for a live nativity scene.  As they grew older, we’d teach them songs, creatively choreographed, to perform in my parents’ family room.  We’d get our pets in the act, too, putting antlers on our dogs when we needed reindeer or draping a dog in a nubby white bath mat when we needed a sheep.  As the children grew even older, they began to produce the pageants themselves, complete with misspelled playbills and homemade costumes.  Georgia one year performed her Christmas piano recital piece, “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” as cousin Alex manipulated his family’s puppy, dressed in a tiny tutu, into a lovely ballet of that Christmas standard.  Once my nephew Patrick, at about age 6, delivered a spot-on Elvis impersonation while singing “Blue Christmas.”  And my sister and I can still be persuaded to sing in annoying falsetto our impersonation of Alvin and the Chipmunk’s “Christmas, Christmas Time is Here” after which my father annually pronounces with heavy sarcasm, “Makes you proud.”  Incidentally, as far as we know, Alvin is unrelated to the Christmas Chipmunk.

There are times when I do wonder if our silliness is irreligious.  At times I wish my family and I would spend as much time reflecting together on the “serious” message of Christmas as we do planning a punch line.

Then again, maybe it’s best that we not strain at tradition, that we not calculate customs, that they evolve from who we are and what we enjoy and need and how we express love in wide-ranging ways to one another over time.  Maybe traditions need not be so, well, traditional.

Besides—and I hope I’m not simply justifying my own penchant for silliness—playfulness can be holy and healing.  But let me be clear. I’m not recommending humor that is insensitive to others or feeds an attention-starved ego or helps us mask our true self.  Jokes can’t produce Advent joy. Good humor can be truly good only when it’s not at someone else’s expense.  The deepest joy rarely gets expressed in a belly laugh.  Sacred gladness does not gloss over grief or deny depression.  Yet there is a holy joyfulness to the life of faith that helps us be authentic and requires us to become vulnerable, and these are important spiritual dispositions.

I believe there is something freeing about being willing to look foolish.  Think how spiritually daring it is to cast aside any pretense of dignity when you are with the ones you love.  Consider what a gift we give to be extravagantly un-sober in order to prompt a smile.  It is profoundly generous and trusting to fling aside one’s pride to delight another.  I’m stretching the analogy here, I realize, but isn’t loss of dignity what the Christ-child experienced, being disreputably birthed in a stable among a rude audience of sheep and shepherds, who in effect applauded at his abdication of nobility?  Wasn’t it Jesus’s rejection of decorum and tradition that brought him to the manger and then to the cross? 

Let us now return to today’s Gospel reading—where the ridiculous prompts the rejoicing.  Elizabeth, well past childbearing age, is pregnant with her first son, and that improbable child in her womb improbably leaps with joy as Mary approaches—Mary, the preposterous virgin mother.  How wild is that?  Maybe this is what Madeleine L’Engle had in mind as she invites the God of Advent to Come speak in joy untamed and wild.”

Mary responds to her cousin Elizabeth’s exclamation of joy with her own song of joy we now call the Magnificat.  What a lot we can learn from Mary’s joyful outburst.  First, Mary’s own good fortune is not the chief cause for her happiness.  Though she describes herself as blessed, Mary is celebrating good news for her people.  Those who’ve been hungry will have good things to eat; those who are lowly will be raised up, and the powerful will be brought low.  Mary is ecstatic for the good fortune of others. That capacity to be happy for others is a mark of Gospel joy.

Notice also that Mary’s joy is subversive.  Often humor in the Bible, written for people under political oppression, comes from the idea of turning the tables on those in power. Mary is delighted that the unexpected can happen. The God of the Bible does the unexpected and makes the wise look foolish.  Mary smiles at the preposterous thought that God has favored her—and her child will save a desperate people. 

One writer claims that the Bible is basically a comedy rather a tragedy because comedy works through surprise and ends with celebration.  Comedy is hopeful.  Mary’s song belongs in a musical comedy, you might argue.  Maybe a family Christmas pageant performed by children in bathrobes—and the family dogs in sheep’s clothing—is not so far off the mark.

If you’re able to attend the Christmas Eve service here tomorrow night, you’ll find it a sweet and solemn service.  But listen for the note of joy.  During the reading of the Christmas story, you might imagine the angels in that celestial pageant singing, with halos slightly askew, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!  So have a good laugh!  Be not afraid, shepherds.  Loosen up!  And do not take yourselves too seriously, you stuffy Magi!”  Author Annie Dillard, who espouses living exultantly with “unseemly joy,” contends that she has “not seen a great deal accomplished in the name of dignity.”  I agree.

Still, I wonder how close hilarity is to heresy. 

Well, it’s too late now for my family.  You’ll have to find that line for yourselves. 

This evening the final Advent candle shines in the name of joy.  In my family, joy looks a lot like hilarity.  I hope that is close enough.

PRAYER  God, help us get good at the spiritual art of joy.  For our sake.  For the sake of this ol’ world.  Amen

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Light Shines in the Darkness

Worship at Open Table yesterday was a beautiful service of Lessons and Carols.  After the reading of the final lesson from the Gospel of John, I offered these words:

Today is traditionally the Sunday in Advent when we light the candle of Joy. For several reasons I had weeks ago decided that we'd change the order this year and light the candle of Love today, saving the candle of Joy for next Sunday.  Maybe that was prescient. Maybe on this Sunday we need the focus on God's love.  And maybe joy will be a word we can hear later.  

The cookie baking party with eleven creative, loving, and delightful children yesterday was certainly joyful, and it was one way we could do what our President recommended on Friday: That we all "hug our children a little tighter and . . . tell them that we love them, and . . . remind each other how deeply we love one another."  That is, of course, what we as a faith community try to do each and every time we gather.  How we grieve for those who are this day unable to hold their children close.

Hear now these Gospel words from John 1:1-5.

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 without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Our Lessons and Carols service this evening will soon conclude as we sing “Silent Night” while lighting our individual candles from the flame of the Advent candle of Love. Though our individual candles may glow feebly, we find hope in Gospel assurance that God’s light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not—and will not—overcome it.  We believe this Gospel truth.

Yet our hearts are left to ponder the imponderable.  Since last Friday’s news from Connecticut, you and I have struggled to fathom the unfathomable, to explain the inexplicable. Our minds search for answers and solutions.  And indeed we need to use brain cells and human resources and political will to reduce violence.  We must look at gun control legislation and mental health interventions.  We must examine the media’s role and even, as one source I read yesterday asserts, recognize that white Americans often assume violence is “out there” and thus miss signs of violence in white communities.  We need wide-ranging research and courageous leadership. 

We do NOT, as people of faith, need to fall back on religious platitudes that dodge responsibility and eschew good sense—as, unfortunately, Mike Huckabee did in theorizing the Newtown shooting was the result of taking God out of our schools.  Our commitment to nonviolence requires the problem-solving of good minds.

But let us ground smart thinking and courageous action in a spirituality that says the answer is within our hearts, too.  We must begin with a place of compassion for all and with a faith in God’s love.  Our trust is not in guns. Our faith is not in the Second Amendment.  We will not sacrifice any more precious ones to the God of Violence.  We will not.

On this evening it is fitting that the Advent Candle of Love is lighting the way.  In the vast darkness that falls around us, that one candle seems inconsequential.  But by that one candle we can light other candles—as we will in a few moments.  By attending to the voice of love within, we can carry our one light into the world, and know we are not alone, know we can help light the flame of love in others.

Kyrie Eleison.

I share now a link that I've passed along to my congregation to aid parents as their children begin to hear about the tragedy in Newtown, CT. .

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Getting Ready for Christmas Day

Sermon Texts:   Luke 1: 68-79  ; Luke 3: 1-6

 John the Baptist

Singer Paul Simon knows something about preparing for "the power and the glory and the story" of Christmas.  Hear his lyrics to “Getting Ready for Christmas Day”:

From early in November to the last week of December
I got money matters weighing me down
Well the music may be merry but it’s only temporary
I know Santa Claus is coming to town

In the days I work my day job
In the nights I work my night
But it all comes down to working man's pay
Getting ready I’m getting ready ready for the Christmas day

I got a nephew in Iraq
It’s his third time back
But it's ending up the way it began
With the luck of a beginner
He’ll be eating turkey dinner
On some mountain top in Pakistan

Getting ready oh we’re getting ready
For the power and the glory and the story
Of Christmas day (repeats)

If I could tell my mom and dad
That the things we never had
Never mattered we were always ok
Getting ready ready ready for Christmas day

Ready getting ready
For the power and the glory and the story
Of Christmas day

Many songs have been composed about getting ready for Christmas Day.  Some of those songs imply we prepare for “the power and the glory and story of Christmas” by “decking the halls” or roasting “chestnuts . . . on an open fire.” In contrast, Paul Simon’s preparation happens in the midst of relentless work and the horror of war, which drive the rhythm of this song.  But somehow in spite of or because of those realities, folks are getting ready, getting ready for Christmas Day.
Arguably the very first song recorded about getting ready for the coming of the Christ is “recorded” in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel.  It is attributed to the priest Zechariah and presented as a song he sang to his newborn son John. The joyful anthem, which the church later named the Benedictus (meaning blessing), anticipates that John will play a key role in helping others get “ready for the power and the glory and the story of Christmas Day.” According to Luke, the angel Gabriel had previously visited the aged priest to announce that his wife Elizabeth would at last bear a child. (This is the same angel who’ll tell Mary, an unmarried girl, she’ll also have a son.) Elizabeth’s child will become a holy prophet who would “make ready a people” for Mary’s son.  Nine months later, Zechariah is singing to his newborn son—who’ll grow up to become John the Baptizer, kinsman and forerunner of Jesus.
What exactly does it mean to prepare a people for the Lord? How is that done?  As a pastor, I need know.  Preparing people for the coming of the Lord is sort of my job description.  And for that matter, you, too, may be hoping your life points others Godward. We all might benefit by taking a second pass at Zechariah’s song lyrics.
Zechariah first blesses the God of Israel—we sang those words as a chorus earlier—and then Zechariah sings to his newborn a lullaby that perhaps he repeated night after night and which might have become the homeschool curriculum for the budding prophet. “My son,” Zechariah croons, “Go before the Lord to prepare the way, to give God’s people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us to give light to those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1: 76-79). Zechariah was preparing his son to prepare others for the coming of the Christ.
 If Zechariah’s song were the lullaby we sang to our children, there might be a lot more wild and crazy prophets roaming the countryside—and a lot more peace.  Listen to that song again with lyrics stripped down to their essence:
“Prepare the people, my son,” Zechariah might have whispered a few years later just before a young boy fell asleep. “We can be saved through forgiveness made possible by God’s tender compassion.  Then the dawn from on high will break in on our darkness to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Years later a father might have draped his arm over the shoulder of a son nearing adulthood as they walked a dusty road.  “Forgiveness,” he might have counseled, “is made possible by compassion, which will let God light up the path of peace. That’s how this ol’ world will be saved, John. And you can teach us that.”
What if forgiveness, compassion, and peace were the core of the curriculum in our homes and churches?  Would our children, rooted in God’s compassion, become more forgiving of their own inevitable mistakes and allow themselves to risk more and judge less?  Would our children understand God differently and therefore see the world more lovingly?  Would our children—would we—so value right relationships with others that we would work through the hard stuff instead of moving on and putting all the blame on someone else?  Would we know God’s peace within our own spirits and beyond us in the world—if Zechariah’s lullaby played in our prayers each night and prepared us to greet God each new dawn?
We, too, can be open to the inbreaking of the Holy into our lives by giving and receiving forgiveness.  Forgiveness became key to Jesus’ mission of reconciliation, restoring right relationship with God and neighbor,  forgiving others or ourselves because we accept God’s tender compassion, which lights up the way of peace within and without and points others Godward.  
This forgiveness-compassion-peace path in one sense doesn’t involve much action.  Elizabeth prepared for her child—as Mary prepared a few months later for hers—by waiting.  The pregnancy metaphor at Advent is powerful because it captures well a spiritual preparation that is not about striving and doing but about allowing.  You can’t make yourself more pregnant.  You can’t accelerate the pregnancy.  The dramatic changes your body goes through are beyond your control—a terrifying and beautiful experience.  We can use Advent spirituality to prepare for God to take up residence in our lives--not so much by doing but by accepting and allowing for a compassionate spaciousness within, by imaging the divine within. The spirituality of Advent is about giving God an empty womb in which to dwell and grow and fill us with love.
But let me not sentimentalize God’s peace, which is neither passive nor disengaged from the messiness of the real world.  We see just how dangerous God’s peace can be in the life of John the Baptist, who grew up to be an abrasive figure on the fringes of society, a man who disturbed the peace for the sake of peace.  The lectionary has paired today Zechariah’s lullaby to infant John with the adult John’s shouted sermon that threatened the powers that be and would eventually get him beheaded.  Two readings from Luke: a lullaby and a strident sermon; one for John and one from John.
Apparently, like all children, John was influenced not only by his parents’ explicit teachings but also by his culture’s implicit lessons.  At the start of chapter 3, Luke calls our attention to John’s political-social setting.  John had been living in the wilderness outside the control of the head priests Annas and Caiaphas, farther still from the reach of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, and from Herod, the appointed tetrarch, and much father from the attention of Emperor Tiberius in Rome.  But Luke wants us to understand that John is still embedded in that specific political context. Thus, Luke’s Gospel underscores that peace is not just a spiritual goal—it’s a social and political one as well.
Rome at that time understood peace to be the result of all opponents being annihilated or beaten so severely they could no longer resist Rome’s domination.  Pax Romana—Rome’s version of peace during the first two centuries of the Common Era—came at the expense of others’ freedom and welfare. The peace was maintained violently.  That’s a practice we glimpse when our own culture sometimes permits police brutality or fosters militarism in the name of peacekeeping.
Living under foreign occupation and oppression, John knew the party line he’d been fed about Pax Romana. But John also had studied the ancient Hebrew prophets who had likewise endured foreign invasion and injustice.  So John’s sermons are influenced not only by his father’s teachings but also by some verses from the prophet Isaiah’s scroll. The result is social justice Gospel that says God’s Spirit can transform harmful systems as well as hurting souls.
Keeping in mind that Rome’s road to peace was actually paved by privileging some and squashing others, let’s read again the words John chooses for launching his ministry in the wilderness.  It’s not his father’s song: it’s the prophet Isaiah’s, who’d cried out six centuries earlier in the time of another foreign oppressor: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and ALL flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
John said the saving work that God does in the world happens when the valleys are elevated and the mountains are made low. In the political context of that passage, such leveling probably refers to leveling the big discrepancies between the very rich and powerful and the very poor and powerless , when ALL are saved. There will always be diverse circumstances and abilities and choices of individuals.  But there cannot be true peace when the fundamental rules of the game and the playing field are uneven. 
Pax Romana is not God’s peace.  John learned his father’s priestly instruction in forgiveness and compassion.  He later studied the prophet Isaiah and understood that a whole network of relationships and rules may need to be redeemed in order to “save” the people.  John became a prophet who exposed injustices in the systems of his day.  Unfortunately, sharing that vision for a more equitable system would cost John his life. 
But not before he had influenced his only slightly younger kinsman, Jesus, who likely was a disciple of John for a while and was baptized by John, who was the very one for whom John was preparing the people, whose ministry John blessed, and who would likewise be executed by the state.
We’ve seen how Zechariah prepared the way for John, and how John prepared the way for Jesus.  I suspect that the writer of Luke saw his own role similarly. The entire scope of Luke’s Gospel is to prepare us for the inbreaking of God’s spirit in our world to guide us in the ways of peace.  This is how we, too, might find salvation.  We stand in a long line of peace preachers who have passed this vision of peace on from one generation to the next.  Our job is not to be God but to “go before the Lord” and “prepare the way of peace.”  We will forgive, find compassion, and thus walk the way of peace—even as we stick our necks out—which John did quite literally—to expose injustices. 
Paul Simon’s Christmas song has a very specific political context.  You and I are getting ready, getting ready amidst economic hardship and war. But we know there is a power and a glory and a story.  It is a saving story. My prayer is that we experience that power and glory afresh this season.  And that we, like John, carry on that story.

PRAYER:  Blessed Jesus, we would carry your peace within and be harbingers of peace to a world on which your justice will one day fully dawn.   Amen