Wednesday, December 27, 2017

"Be Not Afraid" (Christmas 2017)

We know this story. You have heard it before, and if not at church then surely from Linus when Charlie Brown asks, “Does anyone really know what Christmas is all about?” You have heard it, you have sung it, I have preached on it before. And yet you came to be a part of the story again. And that is kind of how Christmas works. Every year we make the make the list, send the cards, wrap the gifts, put up the tree with ornaments new and old, we make the bread or the cookies that our great-grandmother made, and probably the same cookies that her grandma made. We check in with Scrooge and Tiny Tim, we watch as the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes, we do feel like it is a Wonderful Life, and even commercials from the U.S. Post Office can make a person tear up… I’ve heard. We enter into this season that is new and yet timeless in the same moment. We hang ornaments that remind us of the past, we kneed the dough our Grandmothers did, read Mary’s Magnificat, and so we bring the past to the present and we bring a diversity of voices into one song.

That’s what we do. We mix traditions and stories and songs into one season of celebration. It is a part of who we are. We put out our a nativity every year which is totally, ‘Biblically Incorrect,’ if that is a thing. There is no place in the Bible where wise men and shepherds show up at a manger to see a newborn. Matthew and Luke tell different stories, and we have never been forced to choose between Joseph’s dreams and Mary’s magnificat, between wise men and shepherds. I mean, how could you choose? The wise men have the best outfits in the nativity, and children dressed as sheep are the most adorable part of any Christmas pageant. For 2,000 years, Christians have been wise enough to see the same truths in different stories. Wise enough to value the differences that make us stronger.

Without Matthew, we would miss Joseph and his dreams. We know about his family and we know he is a righteous man who discovers that the woman to whom he is engaged is “With Child.” Which is kind of a problem, no matter what century or country. Mary is pregnant and she shouldn’t be, and Joseph discerns to dismiss her quietly, which doesn’t sound great to me but is the nicest thing he can do. His family probably breathes a sigh of relief, one uncle is probably just glad it is over, and his grandma is probably just glad to put this mess behind them and move on. You see in a culture of shame and honor, taking on Mary’s shame could be a struggle for the whole family. Joseph goes to bed ready to dismiss Mary quietly and then he has a dream. An angel asks Joseph to stop being afraid, stick with Mary, and give the baby the name Jesus, which is a reflection of the name Joshua and means “God Saves or God Helps.” Joseph wakes up ready to get married and give this “illegitimate child” a big powerful name, no shame here. His uncle is probably urging him to think about this, his dad is probably making the puffy face he makes every time he is disappointed, and his grandma is taking his temperature and saying, “It’s the hummus! It was off. Somebody check the hummus. I think it’s bad.” But Joseph is faithful, not fearful. He wakes up with resolve to follow that life-changing dream.

From the Gospel of Luke, we learn about Mary, and we can’t loose her verse in the song. Mary is the only one in the Christmas story that talks back when an angel delivers big news. She takes in the news of her pregnancy, she ponders and she speaks up. She does not bargain with the Divine, like “Sure, if I can have a better house or if you can make everyone know this baby is legit, or at least give people heartburn when they make nasty comments.” She discerns, and when she says “Yes,” she is all in and will not accept the world's shame. She puts her hand on her belly and says to the world, “You think I should be ashamed, and I tell you I am blessed to be a blessing. You think I should be embarrassed, and I help you see God. My soul magnifies the Lord.” Where would we be without her powerful song!

The Gospel of Luke not only gives us Mary, but shepherds. Luke tell the story of these men who labor out in the fields. And while we might hear shepherds and think of adorable, freshly bathed children in a Christmas pageant, that’s not really the picture first century folks are seeing when they hear the Christmas story. They know shepherds are out on the hills, caring for a flock of animals that probably belong to someone else, someone who likely doesn’t pay them to much, particularly considering the extreme weather, wild animals, long hours and the totally dependent sheep. And shepherds are not treated with much respect in town. It doesn’t matter how many Kings like David got their start as shepherds, they are associated with the smelly, stupid animals they serve. But here in the Gospel of Luke, these outsiders get called up to deliver the big news. Here in the Gospel of Luke, angels illuminate the once midnight sky and the shepherds are terrified. The Angel says, “Fear not for I bring you good news of great joy that shall be to all the people.” The Angels conclude with a mission: Go, find the baby and share the good news, and they do just that. They don’t wait for permission, they don’t check their PTO, they don’t find a sitter for the sheep, they just go. I imagine them, moving these animals used to wide open spaces through the narrow streets of ancient Palestinian streets… hooves on the paving stones, weaving their way from the margins to the center, everyone in town waking up at the noise, joining the procession that these outsiders lead until they arrive to sing and celebrate and make the royal decree of Good News.

The Gospel of Matthew may lack shepherds but it has three wise men, or kings, or magi. We know them as the people who show up with the big ticket items on the registry, gold, frankincense and myrrh… which today might be a crib, a car seat and a diaper genie. While we have all kinds of names for them, it would help us to think of them as philosopher-research scientists. They have a job that is different from the shepherds. They study history, culture and religion; they study the sky and chart the stars. They see a star at its rising, and they put everything that they could have stayed home to do on the back burner, and with deep intention they show up. We may not catch it, but seeing a “star at its rising” links to Hebrew poetry in the Prophets about God bringing light to people in deep darkness, and we may not know the ancient short hand the first folks hearing the Gospel of Matthew might have, but we can learn it. In the ancient world, when an important man is born or dies, the universe speaks up and a star appears. And so they go. The wise ones look to the sky and show up. That is the truth of the story, everyone grows when they let go of fear, indifference and distractions. Everyone in this story changes. If you were not clear, the story shows you by literally moving everyone to a new place. That is the power that links all these differences together.

Of course, there are two people in the story that don’t change, and they go nowhere. We know their names, King Herod and Caesar Augustus. Luke begins with Caesar, forcing Mary and Joseph to go and be registered, and it is obvious there are no medical waivers, even for very pregnant women. He is immovable and his title of Emperor is followed up by the name Augustus, a title conferred by the Roman Senate which could mean something like, “One who is to be favored by God and deserving of human adoration.” He claimed divine favor, ordination, blended theology and politics in his favor, and the early Christians would use his language. Phrases like “Lord of Lords” and “King of Kings,” or “Prince of Peace” or “Savor,” or pronouncements of “Good News of Great Joy” belonged to the empire that kept peace by force. Early Christians would point to the Empire begging us all to see how this man, Caesar claims ordination by God, claims God’s authority, claims the divine purpose, and it makes him all the more cruel, brutal, and wealthy, while this man, Jesus, claims divine authority to live God’s call and it makes him more vulnerable, compassionate and generous.

The Gospel of Matthew offers a different King, King Herod. He is King of the Jewish state, but it is more of a result of Roman connections than royal lineage. Imagine a leader, insecure and obsessed with his image, (I know that is hard to imagine right now). Imagine a leader trying to make the temple great again… bigger again, obsessed with military power and building better walls, and doing all of this at the expense of most of the people to the benefit of very few. Herod enters the story with the Three Wise Men. They arrive at the Palace, an obvious place to find the baby that is bound to be the future king and the problem is… well… Herod doesn’t have a new baby boy. Herod calls in his own Philosopher/Theologians, and they alert Herod to an old prophesy, from a prophet whom probably wouldn’t care too much for a king like Herod either, and it says that there will be a baby in Bethlehem. This is where it gets tricky, or at least sneaky. Herod, the text says, calls the wise ones in “secret” and urges them to go find the child and let him know where he can go to pay homage himself. The wise men are warned in a dream to go home another way, though I like to think someone could be wise enough to see through this villain’s lie. The gospel tells us how everyone is afraid, Herod and all of Jerusalem with him. Maybe it is because they knew deep down that Herod the Great was not so great, and when afraid of losing power, capable of the unthinkable, like assassinating some of his own children. Herod has all the power and money, status and the Roman army whom are masters of crushing resistance, and yet in this story he is driven to anxiety by a peasant baby born in the back woods of the kingdom. The next part of the story is why Christmas pageants never involve Herod in the story, it's just wrong to make kid play the part. The next part of the story isn’t substantiated by sources outside of the Bible, but it must have seemed plausible to first century listeners. The next part of the story is the part we tell the Sunday after Christmas, when no one shows up and an Associate Pastor preaches It is about Herod, so insecure and so violent, that he orders the execution all of the baby boys guilty of being born in Bethlehem around the time of a star rising.

This is a part of the story of Christmas. We don’t make any ornaments about it, and you don’t see a lot of kids named Herod, but it is a part of the story. God shows up, and it is messy and ugly, there are harsh realities and violent leaders. God shows up anyway, God does not wait for Israel to get it all together with a really great king or the right Caesar to make peace the right way. God shows up in the brutal mess and says do not be afraid. God shows up, Emmanuel, God with us. Because for every Herod there is a faithful man like Joseph, who hears God echo in his dreams and wakes Mary up to say, “We have to go. Jesus is in danger…. no, it was not the Hummus. Let’s go.” God shows up, and for every Caesar there is a woman like Mary who sings a song about God lifting up the lowly and tearing the powerful from their thrones, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. Mary pretty much drops the mic when asked, “Does anyone know what Christmas is all about?” God shows up, and for every dictator there are shepherds coming in from the margins to be counted and for every bad king there are three good ones showing up with big gifts to change the status quo. Everyone has a choice in this story, God shows up speaks into the world, “Do not be afraid,” and they choose.

And so do we. Maybe its not an illuminated night sky or an angel in a dream, but God shows up with the challenge, “Be not afraid.” And yet we are, afraid of what we might lose, afraid to feel, afraid to love, afraid of who we might miss. Afraid to fail, afraid to succeed. Afraid to lose power, privilege and possession. Afraid to miss out. Afraid to look foolish. Afraid to get lost. Afraid! We are afraid, we are worried and anxious… most of us …a lot of the time. Can you imagine what it would mean to let go of those limits and fears? Can you imagine were you would go? What we could do? This is the story of Christmas, God showing up and not in the distance but as close as a baby’s tender touch. God showing up, with us. God challenging us, “Do not be afraid.” Fear not, I am with you. Do not be afraid is the chorus that holds the Christmas song together, we hear the verse of Joseph’s faithfulness and Mary sings her courage into the world. We need all the verses that Matthew and Luke have to offer, we need the shepherds, as much as we need the wise men to sing their song. We dive into this story every year, every week, sometimes every day. And at Christmas, we pause as God whispers yet again, What is your song going to say? What is the verse you are singing with your life? What is your part in the great, big, messy symphony of life?

Be not afraid.


Thursday, December 14, 2017

Peace Versus Plan

John 14:27
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

“My peace I give to your… Do not let your hearts be troubled…” Jesus offers peace to his disciples, urging them to not let their hearts be troubled and I think to myself, I wondered if they thought, “Jesus… do we live on the same planet? Look around at this mess and tell me how your heart is not troubled.” Maybe they are more faithful, but when I look at the world around us I am tempted to think offering peace is just not enough. Peace seems almost impossible. “Peace be with you” is hollow when it seems impossible. He might as well say, “I am giving you 100,000 billion dollars, or here is a unicorn,” the way we hear, “My peace I give to you.”

That might because when when we think of peace we think of it as what it is not; it is an absence. Peace is the absence of war; peace looks like beautiful people in black and white photos celebrating the end of WWII with pure joy on their faces. Peace is the absence of violence, pausing the words and weapons that wound. It looks like the absence of politicians bickering, or perhaps no more tweets. Peace in our relationships might look like partners putting an argument on hold or siblings getting along and letting things go, or at least not bringing it up… like that one Aunt not demanding Grandpa apologize publicly for his vote last November before he opens his Christmas present…hypothetically. Peace looks like the absence of tension, debate and argument at home. And then there is the question, “How is it with your soul?” I think of that deep question that Wesley asked his friends in his small group that we continue to share when we wonder how someone is and we expect a bigger answer other than ‘fine.’ When I think of peace in my soul, I think of the absence of worry, tension and anxiety; I think of finished to-do lists and plenty of time.

But when Jesus says, “My peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives,” he is not talking about an absence. In the Gospel of John he is preparing his disciples for the final moments of struggle he will face. He is preparing them for the reality that prophets don’t live long and that they will have to journey on their own. And in this moment of struggle and grief and preparation, he does not give them a plan. He does not reiterate the Ten Commandments or give a checklist; he offers peace. Peace, not an absence but a presence. He does not offer the absence of struggle; he offers peace for the struggle. He does not offer an easy plan; he offers resilience and support for the journey. He is rooted in a tradition of Shalom, this greeting of wholeness and well-being. And when Jesus offers peace, he connects it with the gift of the Holy Spirit, this advocate and presence that will journey with them. Peace is not only a presence rather than an absence, it is a gift that comes with a companion and a teacher. Peace is not a simple plan, it is so challenging that it requires a teacher and thus learning. Jesus offered this wild, vivid spirit that will help us discern, learn and grow. Peace is a gift, a complicated gift. It is generative and life-giving in the midst of a world that deals destruction, hurt and violence. It is generative in the midst of grief, heartbreak and sadness. It is the deep well of resilience that make the disciples capable moving forward… even when Jesus asks them to pick up a cross and follow him.

This summer, I will celebrate 10 years under appointment as a Methodist Pastor, and during my ten years people have shared heart-breaking stories… partially because if you are on an airplane and you tell them you are a pastor… People have shared their stories of loss and grief: the death of a child, the death of a lover to cancer, the terminal illness with no mercy, the horrors of childhood with abusive parents, emotional abuse, divorce, terrible bosses and terrible companies, fires and incarceration. And in almost every case, there is a pause, and it ends with the phrase, “But God has a plan.” And I think… “What…uh…noooooo.” This plan theology always catches me off guard; it shouldn’t because it is everywhere. Perhaps I struggle when I hear it because it reminds me of when people said it to me. I was 26, I had been married for five years to my high school sweetheart, and he wanted a divorce. I was heartbroken. It wasn’t my idea, I didn’t want it, it didn’t make sense to me. I cried so much my eyelids were swollen and my lashes were matted down… at least once a day… if not all day. It was a hard moment, and I was pretty sure I would never love again and would live alone, as a shell of myself, and to make matters worse, I didn’t even have a cat. People would listen to my grief and then perhaps, needing to close the conversation, or just tired or just not sure what else to say, they would say things like, “Well at least you are so young,” like that made it easier. Or, “At least you didn’t have kids,” or “At least you didn’t own a home,” and I would think, Right, less paperwork… I guess… I should feel better. And then most conversations would crescendo to a final and resounding, “Well God has a plan for you and you are going to be great.” And I would think, Well if this is God’s plan it is a really bad plan. Later that year, I started seminary and people began to say something like, “Well God just wanted you to go to seminary so He could use you in ministry!” and I could think of about 100 other ways She could have accomplished that goal. 

I needed peace but people offered me what I’m going to call plan theology, and there is nothing unusual about that. Maybe we lean in to plan theology because we just need something stable and solid to hold onto when the world feels too uneasy. Maybe we lean into plan theology because we get nervous sitting with people in those really hard spaces or allowing ourselves to be there. Grief and loss make us uncomfortable, it is hard to be present in broken spaces. It makes us aware of our own vulnerability, which we don’t like. Maybe it is that we like to make something seem reasonable, even when it is not, so we don’t have to worry quite so much about how our own lives could change in a moment. Maybe we lean into plan theology because we don’t know what else to say and aren’t quite skilled at just not saying anything at all.

This holiday season, I wish we as the church could lean a little bit more into peace theology, rather than plan theology. I wish we could shut up, get uncomfortable, and sit with someone in their worry, hurt, pain and anxiety and not say anything about plans, rationalize it, or proclaim we know how they feel. I wonder if we could just be present and listen. Maybe if we listen we will start to hear how the whisper God’s peace is seeded within and begin to notice in these tremendously painful stories a glimpse of that courage or resilience and honor it. Maybe if we are still, we will sense God’s peace and be God’s peace.

As I look back on my journey. I am grateful for every moment of struggle and broken heart, in both my personal and my professional life. Even though I would have rather read a book on some of it, I learned and I grew, and I wouldn’t change a moment of it because I wouldn’t dream of changing where and who I am today. And that also puts me at a vantage point where I could say, “It was all part of God’s plan… see how perfectly it worked out.” But the truth for me is that peace is what brought me through. It was the people who stood by when my eyes were full of tears and just let me cry. It was the people that listened and named the strength and resilience and grace they saw with me when I couldn’t see it myself. Jesus offers us peace and the Spirit that shows up in teachers around us and whispers direction from within. God’s peace is generative and life-giving. It is not a plan and it doesn’t make life easy, but it is a presence that sustains us through the grief, brokenness and pain. God’s peace is that resilience that lets us love again, knowing we are strong enough to be vulnerable again. It lets us risk again with the confidence that we will rise from falling, and it grants courage in new ways to journey down new roads… with or without a plan. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do