Monday, December 30, 2013

Stars of Wonder

The homily was brief yesterday, the focus on our fifth Sundays being table fellowship, songs, and stories we share with one another. 
Text: Matthew 2: 1-12

NARRATOR: In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking,

WISE MEN:  “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his STAR at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 

NARRATOR: 3When King Herod heard this, he was, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, 

PRIESTS AND SCRIBES:   “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 

NARRATOR: 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the STAR had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, 

KING HEROD: “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  

NARRATOR: 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the STAR that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the STAR had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. 

(Our children were the stars in this reading, standing each time they heard the word stars--with arms outstretched and smiles beaming.)

Stars of Wonder . . . Guide Us To Thy Perfect Light
The ancients read the stars for signs of what was happening on earth.  That’s why the story says that wise men, having seen a new star, traveled to Judea in search of some important, game-changing event. 
In a scientific sense, heavenly bodies like stars HAVE affected earthly events.  Our cosmic history teaches us that planet earth “evolved” from interstellar events. Science says that our physical bodies are literally made up of star dust.  All material here on our planet was created by compressions and explosions and interactions of stellar bodies far, far away.  In that sense we are very much connected to these distant stars.  So today’s “wise men” and “wise women” also study the stars to tell us about our history and our future here on planet earth—which we now know to be just one of countless planets.
But long ago and still today wise women and men also “PAINT the stars” as a very human impulse, as Vincent Van Gogh put it.  Our current discussion series is titled after this quote by Van Gogh:  “When I have a terrible need of—dare I say religion—then I go outside at night and paint the stars.”[i] That is, we are not content merely to measure the size and distance and brilliance of stars.  We also want to experience their beauty and ponder what all this vastness means.  We feel something when we look at the stars. And we wonder what it all means. And that is a religious impulse.

Take a look at this picture taken by the Hubble telescope recently. (See image above).  How beautiful is all this light.  How small is our own human perspective on the universe.[ii]

Sometimes we must kneel down with a realization of God’s vastness and with a hopefulness that creation continues and that not everything depends on me, on us, not even on planet earth.  Which is not to excuse our own carelessness with our earth. Because this is the only planet you and I and our children’s children will ever know as home.  But there is something bigger, grander, and more enduring.  And although there is, according to science, the element of chance and risk in the future we are co-creating, there is also purpose and a loving energy that moves us forward toward life and love. The future, which is the name some people give for God, is star-light bright—and evolving toward hope and goodness and connecting us through a fundamental connection to all things.

And yet at the center of the Christmas story is a baby.  Galaxies upon galaxies contain God—and yet one very particular manger at one moment in time contained one little child in whom God was uniquely made manifest.  God is both limitless—and highly specific.  Completely unfathomable—and yet intimately known.
The wisest of wise men and women have to kneel before such mystery.  With awe and wonder and love and thanks.

The song Caitlin is singing tonight begins with these words from a star gazer who thinks “maybe there’s a loving God”:
I’m trying to work things out. 
I’m trying to comprehend.
Am I the chance result of some great accident? 
I hear a rhythm calling me,
the echo of a grand design. 
I spend each night in the backyard
staring up at the stars in the sky.

(Sara Groves “Maybe There’s a Loving God”

Stars of Wonder, Guide us to your perfect light.  Amen.

[i] We are offering on Sunday mornings a powerful DVD-based discussion series on evolutionary Christianity using the “Painting the Stars” curriculum produced by Living the Questions:  

[ii] December 17, 2013: This festive NASA Hubble Space Telescope image resembles a holiday wreath made of sparkling lights. The bright southern hemisphere star RS Puppis, at the center of the image, is swaddled in a gossamer cocoon of reflective dust illuminated by the glittering star. RS Puppis rhythmically brightens and dims over a six-week cycle. It is one of the most luminous in the class of so-called Cepheid variable stars. The nebula flickers in brightness as pulses of light from the Cepheid propagate outwards. Hubble took a series of photos of light flashes rippling across the nebula in a phenomenon known as a "light echo.”  See for more mind-blowing pictures of stars, galaxies, and nebulae taken by the Hubble telescope. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

"Where is the Love?"

GOSPEL READING                     Matthew 1: 18-25                                  
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;  and he named him Jesus.

What if all you knew about Jesus’s birth story was contained in the seven verses we’ve just read?  If you could forget details and impressions you absorbed from the Gospel of Luke’s account and from Christmas carols and from Charlie Brown’s Christmas special, what would you understand about Jesus’s birth? Try to recall the essentials of Matthew’s nativity story:
·       Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit—not by Joseph, to whom she’s engaged.
·       Joseph, the protagonist in this story, decides to call off the engagement, but as discretely as possible.
·       Joseph then dreams an angel tells him to marry Mary and name the child Jesus.
·       The angel provides a proof text from Isaiah about the birth of a child who was to be named Emmanuel.
·       The child is born and Joseph names him Jesus.

What’s missing from this Christmas story?  No angel announcing Mary will have a baby and be called blessed. No rejoicing Mary who visits the also-pregnant Elizabeth. No window into Mary’s perspective.  No decree from Caesar Augustus. No journey to Bethlehem. No manger and swaddling clothes.  No shepherd and sheep. No joyful choir of angels.  Certainly there was not yet any theologizing about the meaning of Mary’s virginity, no dogma about her immaculate conception (which was not formalized until 1854), no doctrine on incarnation. Except for Joseph’s genealogy listed just before this first story in Matthew, we know nothing else about Joseph or Mary.

But I’ll tell you what’s also missing: any mention of love. On this Sunday when we light the Advent candle of love, I come to this story and ask: If you erase from memory that Hallmark greeting card image of Joseph gazing protectively upon Mary and the babe and of Mary adoring her infant—where’s the love in this stark story?

Don’t let other stories and your own cultural assumptions color your reading.  Go back to read Matthew 1: 18-25.  Where is the love?  Do you hear any declaration of love?  See any show of affection? Note any hint of glad anticipation of a beloved child’s birth?

I’ll tell you what I DO see. I see a good man and a woman with few options. Since the Torah commands a woman unfaithful to her betrothed (as Mary seems) to be stoned to death (Deut. 22:13-21), I see two very vulnerable people risking society’s disapproval (at the very least) to discern the right response to the loving Spirit’s prompting.  And the choice they make is NOT what was prescribed by scripture.  They are not necessarily “in love,” our notion of romantic love being foreign to their culture.  But the power of human vulnerability gives me reason to imagine their mutual vulnerability made it possible for them to develop a caring, compassionate relationship.

Let me connect the dots from vulnerability to love—but in a modern context.  

To do so I’m going to borrow heavily from the research of professor Brene Brown, the author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the way we Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.[i]  Her research has led her to this fundamental realization: our willingness to become vulnerable allows us to live more authentically, wholeheartedly, and lovingly. Vulnerability may look like weakness but in fact requires courage. Our willingness to be vulnerable defies society’s shaming mechanisms.  Our willingness to be uncomfortably vulnerable means we can see ourselves as worthy even though we make mistakes. Vulnerability is at the heart of self-knowledge and meaningful human experiences.  Brown says that, ironically, our imperfection is the human commonality that can CONNECT us.  But the imperfection we need to see in someone else is the last thing we’re willing to reveal about ourselves.

What does vulnerability look like in your life?  When have you made yourself vulnerable lately? When have you let down your guard and put yourself in a position where your weakness or failings could be exposed?

Let me be careful to say what I don’t mean.  Living vulnerably does not mean living apologetically or slavishly.  Nor does it mean you intentionally subject yourself to experiences that are harmful. It means being so confident of your worthiness and belovedness that you can make mistakes and not beat yourself up about them.  It means you take risks but know that you have a self that is bigger than any particular relationship or achievement.

It’s easy to recognize how vulnerable Mary is, but I love the way our songbook directs us to sing the Magnificat attributed to Mary “confidently.” An unmarried pregnant girl would have ordinarily been evicted by her father and rejected by  the man to whom she’d been betrothed--or worse, stoned in front of her father’s house, according to Deuteronomic law (Deut. 22: 13-21).  Mary was also living in a time when ANY pregnancy put the mother’s life at risk.  That expectant mother is the poster child of first century vulnerability.  Yet we are to imagine her singing confidently.  Vulnerability is a positive quality—not a negative absence.

Joseph is also vulnerable to great shame in a shame-based culture.  Before they began living together, the girl became pregnant.  Her (presumed) sin accrues to him—unless he denounces her.  And when, at the Spirit’s prompting, Joseph decides to defy tradition and marry the girl who’s pregnant by another, what suspicions will forever haunt their relationship? But he takes the kind of risk that only a self-possessed man can take.
Certainly the baby is vulnerable.  Even though we know he survived the risky birth, even though he may have escaped with few emotional scars from the scandal of his birth, we know that baby became the very picture of vulnerability on his dying day, hanging naked in a shameful public execution.

And what about you? You have known vulnerability when you walked into dangerous territory or  risked hurt or embarrassment, when you let your guard down and took a chance, when you faced straight into disapproval or failure, when you explored tough questions or tried something new.

It’s hard to be vulnerable. It’s safer to strengthen our walls and double our defenses, especially at this season of the year.  If you’re dreading dear old Aunt Ida’s perennial question about why you’re not married--or if the grief of a lost loved one makes you feel newly raw and ragged at Christmas--or if a friend has disappointed you, then you might be tempted to do what Joseph initially planned.  You might follow the script.  You might do or say what’s expected, what will impress, what will keep others happy.  You might work very hard not to seem the fool. You might protect your feelings. And you might keep up those defenses with alcohol. Or comfort food.  Or a shopping spree. Or an infidelity. Or tiny deceptions that one by one become eventually a phony life story.

On the other hand, you might choose vulnerability. Which means to be fully human.  And know both the risks and rewards of love.  You might ponder why you’ve erected your wall in the first place and have the courage to start tearing it down.

Certainly there are times when you need to guard your heart and rest your weary mind.  And be concerned about what others think.

But willingness to be embarrassed is freeing.  Ability to receive criticism and not convert that to shame is liberating. Experiencing failure without labeling YOURSELF as a failure both requires and leads to spiritual maturity.  Being open to something scary makes possible new thoughts and new relationships. 

It is especially the effect of vulnerability on relationships that interests me in today’s story.  I’ve tried to remove the lenses of Romanticism in reading Matthew’s nativity story in order to read it for what it plainly says. I don’t assume that the betrothal between Mary and Joseph was anything but a pragmatic arrangement, and Joseph’s eventually merciful solution to their dilemma was anything but the determination of a merciful man inspired by the Spirit of God.  I don’t think we can know if Joseph loved Mary and the baby then or later with anything like the affection WE associate with familial love.  We can’t wrench Mary and Joseph from a highly patriarchal culture in which women related more closely to their sons than their husbands. And we certainly can’t give this story a happily ever after ending when in the very next chapter King Herod is going to order the child’s death and the new family will flee to Egypt.  And the baby, as we know from the larger story, will die a short lifetime later on a torturous cross.

Yet the makings of love and hope are here in all this vulnerability. Perhaps its fruition is found in the baby who would later say, in this same Gospel, that the greatest of all commandments is to love. 

At the risk of implying first century characters inhabited the same psychological world as we, I’ve used Mary and Joseph’s unknowable relationship to talk about our relationships. Brene Brown’s argues that when women and men are willing to be brokenheartedly vulnerable, they can experience meaningful relationships and live wholeheartedly.  Did you catch that irony?  Willingness to be brokenhearted teaches us to love wholeheartedly.
Songwriter Leonard Cohen sings: “And love is not a victory march.  It’s a cold and it’s a broken halleluiah.” 

Go to the Gospel of Luke for the angels trilling “Glory to God in the highest!” 

Go to the Gospel of Matthew for a throbbing song that is a broken halleluiah, the exposed heartbeat of love.

To love another is to let down the drawbridge leading to your protected heart and invite that person in knowing how badly you can now be hurt by this one. 

To tie your fate to one in betrothal . . . is dangerous.

To birth a child . . . means you have lost all control and now this little one holds your whole world in her tiny hands. 

To create deep friendship . . . requires great risk as you surrender pretenses with no “money back” guarantee.

“And love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and it’s a broken halleluiah.”

Think back over the past week and call to mind something you did or experienced that allowed you to feel vulnerable.  How did you handle it?

Perhaps you called an old friend you’d sort of neglected and you didn’t make up an elaborate excuse for the neglect.

You loved a child enough to let make her own mistake and then loved her through the consequences.

You confessed that you failed at something without telling yourself you were a failure.

You said “I love you” first.

You listened to someone else’s story of screwing up in a way that communicated that your love was not contingent on their perfection.

You spoke out against an injustice without vilifying the opposition and held open the possibility of common ground.

You experienced emotional pain without numbing that pain with your go-to anesthesia.

You listened to an angel voice and did an unpopular but compassionate act.

And in your vulnerability you started down the path toward love.

[i] Brown, Brene.  Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.        

See also this interview with Krista Tippett for “On Being.”   

See also her Ted Talk:

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Picture of Peace, Story of Strife

 HEBREW BIBLE READING                   Isaiah 11: 6-9                         
6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall
eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

GOSPEL READING                           Matthew 3: 1-12                               
1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

I’d been wondering how I was going to pull together the lectionary texts for today. Could Isaiah’s idyllic vision of peace coexist with the story of the fire-breathing John the Baptist and his scorched earth Gospel?  Then Nelson Mandela died. And we have been remembering the extraordinary self-sacrifice, courage, and forbearance of the insurrectionist prisoner who became the reconciling president. Advent’s gift of peace now seems as if it has been wrapped this year by Mandela. His dream for South Africa reminds me of Isaiah’s utopian vision of a place where wolves and lambs live in side-by-side equality.   

Yet today’s lectionary examples of Christ’s peace include not only the idealized image of the peaceable kingdom but also the edgy portrait of the irritating freedom fighter, John the Baptist, forerunner of Jesus and, as it turns out, a figure not unlike a South African prophet who lived 2000 years later.  Like the New Testament prophet, Mandela also challenged imperialists who’d invaded his ancestor’s land and who imprisoned him.  Like the John the Baptizer, Mandela came from the backwoods to speak truth to power and paid a heavy price for doing so. John would pay with his life; Mandela with 27 years of deprivation and hard labor in prison. 
I won’t stretch the analogy too far.  I can’t imagine roughneck John ever displaying the grace and statesmanship of South Africa’s first black president.  But one of the many eulogizers warned this week that “in the desire to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s life — an iconic figure who triumphed over South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime — it’s tempting to homogenize his views into something everyone can support. This is not, however, an accurate representation of the man. Mandela was a political activist and agitator. He did not shy away from controversy and he did not seek — or obtain — universal approval. Before and after his release from prison, he embraced an unabashedly progressive and provocative platform. As one commentator shared shortly after the announcement of the freedom fighter’s death, 'Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel. Over the next few days you will try so, so hard to make him something he was not, and you will fail. You will try to smooth him, to sandblast him, to take away his Malcolm X. You will try to hide his anger from view.’” ( 

I think the range of Advent scriptures today is a safeguard against erasing the hard lines in Mandela’s portrait and in the Gospel message.  Although you and I live in a culture that equates Christ’s call to peace with being inoffensive, we forget that John the Baptist rudely paved the way for Jesus by calling his audience “a brood of vipers.” We forget that change never happens without conflict.  We were raised, most of us, by good ol’ Southern mamas who taught us to be polite, but there’s not a single word about good manners in the Bible.  We were cautioned to “be sweet”—especially in church.  But church might be the last place where we need to be “sweet” and may be the very place we need to be stirred to anger.  Following Jesus is always a nonviolent way, but that way is often confrontational and seldom popular. That’s because true peace can never be achieved without justice.

What’s true in societies is also true for individuals: peaceful personal relationships are rooted in equality and compassion. A relationship may seem peaceful in the absence of overt strife, but peace bought at the expense of another’s dignity or rights is the pretense of peace. True peace in a society is not the mere absence of revolt. True peace in a faith community is not a veneer of niceness.  True peace in a home is not made by suppressing some voices.

The following poem reminds us of a patriarchal family from a previous generation which only appeared to be harmonious because no one dared challenge the patriarch.  But “peace” at the cost of fairness is just coercion.  It’s the familial equivalent of the phony Pax Romana of Jesus’s day that used military might to tamp down unrest simmering among the Galilean peasants. 

“Ducks at Peace” by Hal Sirowitz
I'd like to take my family to the lake,
Father said, so they can see how well
the animal & fish kingdoms get along.
You hardly ever see ducks fighting.
If they do, it's done in private.
We should follow their example,
& not air out our dirty laundry in public.
That was what I told your mother
at the restaurant, that she should
save her complaints for when we
get home. She said she had already
complained there. She was hoping
she'd get better results if she changed locations. 

It may not feel polite to complain or call the powerful “a brood of vipers” a la John the Baptist. But sometimes complaint is the only option for those who are not at the seat of power.  
Today’s discordant combination of scriptures complicates our understanding of Christ’s peace.  Some folks pretend that the Bible speaks with one consistent voice throughout and have to do some pretty complicated mental tricks to harmonize conflicting scriptures and force all those passages into a unified interpretation.  Others recognize contradictions in scripture and eventually toss out the Bible.  I’m suggesting we appreciate the Bible’s disparate voices and honor the diversity of thought but ignore or speak against parts of scripture that seem exclusionary or violent.  Sometimes the simplest way to use scripture for peaceful means is to acknowledge that we may be misreading some part of the Bible—or conclude some voices in the Bible may be wrong about something.

Nelson Mandela’s life is one that deserves our admiration. After 27 years of unjust imprisonment and cruel treatment, he refused to remain bitter and instead cultivated a spirit of peace in his own life.  He invited his former jailers to his inauguration as president of a country where he previously had been unable to vote. But peace came not because he remained politely quiet or stifled his people’s cries or accepted his lot in life but because he instead exposed inequity and dreamed of justice. And peace came not because he lived a perfect life but because peace is often born out of messiness. 

We can benefit from his example without having to approve every choice he made.  We can listen to the voice of John the Baptist without having to adopt his violent imagery for God. We can aspire to be imperfect peacemakers, too.  If we wait for perfect solutions or bide our time until we’re perfect people, the violence of the wolves and lions and vipers will escalate and we may never be able to show them how to follow the lead of a little child . . . or an ex-prisoner convicted of treason . . . or a crazy dude in camel-hair clothes insulting the folks who request baptism. 

We start our peacemaking with three simple steps:
1.   Listen especially well to those who are NOT in power.
2.   Speak and act only after you have found in your heart genuine compassion for those with whom you may disagree.
3.   Trust that change is possible. We had to light the candle of HOPE before we were able to let in the light of PEACE.  I hold out hope that if we don’t blow ourselves up first, our descendants’ descendants’ descendants may one day live Isaiah’s dream of peace. With one kind word and one courageous act at a time, we are changing.

PRAYER: Spirit of Peace, we yearn for a world pulsing with justice and truth, a world in which we all sit down together at the Open Table and share equally and speak only words of love. AMEN