Wednesday, December 18, 2013

"Joseph" - December 24, 2013

For the past several years, I have written a poem instead of a sermon for Christmas Eve, picturing what might have been the meditation of various characters or even inanimate objects associated with Jesus’ birth.  In past years that has meant the Star of Bethlehem, a sheep, an angel, a shepherd, the streets of Bethlehem, and so forth.  This year the speaker is Joseph.

There’s no expression for the guilt I felt
at having brought her to this crowded town
without a plan.
What kind of man
could let things reach the point at which I knelt

beside a feeding trough and bedded down
a newborn?  Sure, I used what was on hand,
but straw can scratch
and he could catch
who-knows-what from the animals around,

that still press in whatever way they can –
as if he were their own.  I’d made one rash
decision, then
made one again –
so much unlike me – since this all began.

I felt I’d wrecked us all.  I boldly dashed
over a cliff and took them with me when
(based on a dream!
no more, it seems)
I said I’d marry her and, unabashed

about the pregnancy, offered to lend
propriety to what I’d deemed
a shameful mess –
no more, no less.
And now?  I couldn’t give a thing to them.

I couldn’t shelter them.  I was ashamed.
She was exhausted, and I watched her rest
her tired form
to keep her warm
against a donkey’s flank.  You know I blamed

myself for having thought through nothing, just
assuming angels (angels!) would all swarm
down from the sky
and they’d provide
the roof, the warmth, the food.  How had I thrust

my common sense away?  The child was born,
my wife was sleeping on the ground, and I
could only stare,
too much aware
of what we lacked.  My heart was bruised and torn.

I will admit that I began to cry
(but quietly – I wouldn’t let her share
my worry, not
when she’d just got
through childbirth).  Then, from the straw, an eye

peered out beneath a wrinkled lid, and there
and then I knew – I don’t know what –
a kind of peace
that hasn’t ceased,
and now, my friend, goes with me everywhere.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

“The Magnificat” - December 15, 2013

Luke 1:46-55

Thomas Tallis, Palestrina, Michael Praetorius, Monteverdi, Buxtehude, Henry Purcell, Johann Sebastian Bach, Karl Phillip Emmanuel Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Mozart, Antonio Salieri, Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Bruckner, Gounod, Tschaikowsky, Vaughan Williams, Vincent Persichetti, and John Rutter: these are only a few of the composers who have set Mary’s words of praise to music.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, 
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
            for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name. 
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” 

Much powerful music has accompanied those words.  Luke ascribes this high poetry to Mary in a speech traditionally called “The Magnificat”, from its first word in its Latin form: “Magnificat!”  It’s related to the word “magnificent”.  It is Mary’s exclamation of wonder at God’s magnificence.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, 
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”.

The story of the Magnificat doesn’t begin with wonder, though.  It begins with fear.  It started with the appearance of a messenger from God, who appeared to a teenage girl living in Nazareth, a small village with the sort of reputation that would lead the future disciple Nathanael to remark, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” [John 1:46].

“The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’” [Luke 1:30-33]

“Do not be afraid?”  Are you kidding?  An angel appears to you and you aren’t supposed to be afraid?  And then he tells you (and remember you’re a young woman in the Middle East) that you are about to become pregnant outside of your marriage, and you aren’t supposed to be afraid?  You are going to be responsible for a child who will “be called Son of the Most High” and you aren’t supposed to be afraid?  How could you help it? 

As proof, the angel tells you that a relative of yours who is well past childbearing years is now six months pregnant.  There’s your chance.  Go see her.  Go see Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah.  If you really are pregnant, too, the trip will get you out of Nazareth before you start showing and before anybody realizes what is going on.  If you are imagining the whole thing or if you’re going crazy and hallucinating, then seeing what’s going on with Elizabeth, that she is not expecting a baby, will be a reality check.  So, Luke says,

“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.” [Luke 1:39-41]

Well, that settled it.  That was where she would perk up as the fear changed over into wonder and awe.  The angel had said “nothing will be impossible with God” [Luke 1:37] and the next thing you know, Mary has gone from “the lowliness of [a] servant” [Luke 1:48] to someone whom “all generations” [Luke 1:50] will bless.  She has suddenly seen that God is God of the humble and the hurting, not like the earthly kings who roll over anyone in their way.

“He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly; 
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. [Luke 1:51-54]

It’s like the song, possibly the very earliest preserved in the Bible, that was sung by the Hebrew slaves who had just escaped Egypt and received freedom.  Exodus [15:20-21] says that

“the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam [whose name would be shared by the Messiah’s mother] sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’”

The truth of that was Mary’s sudden insight, the heartbeat giving life to her sudden song.  It isn’t just that God can work miracles.  That goes without saying.  It was that it wouldn’t be an isolated incident here or there, but a regular happening, and it would turn the world upside-down and inside-out.  No wonder she burst out in poetry.

What drew that Magnificat from her soul was exactly the awareness that when God is in the picture (which is always, only we don’t always realize or admit it), the folks who think they are in charge really aren’t in charge and the ones who think they aren’t really are.  It’s like a Christmas pageant.  We adults like to think we can script and guide it, but finally it’s the shepherd who shows up holding a stuffed tiger instead of a sheep or the wise man who arrives early or the angel who forgets her lines that makes the play.

Will Willimon observes,

“I venture that Mary did not look much like the queen of heaven that night in Bethlehem.  I venture, with Luther, that she looked more like a rather confused, bewildered teen-ager from your church youth group who was about to giggle in her nervousness and had not the slightest notion of what to do with a baby or even what her next line was supposed to be. …And we, whether we really like it or not, or have experience or ability or understanding, get pushed onto the stage of history to act our parts, with stage fright, filling roles that are too big for us, wondering what the next line will be, doing our best to do what he wants us to do even when we are not sure why he wants us to play the part.”[1]

[1] William Willimon, “The First Christmas Pageant” in On a Wild and Windy Mountain (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984), 39-40.

Friday, December 6, 2013

"The Peaceable Kingdom" - December 8, 2013

Isaiah 11:1-10

            According to the book of Genesis, one of the terrible consequences of the very first human sin was that it knocked all of nature so totally off-balance that it has never been right.  The story of Adam and Eve has God informing everyone involve how they have brought disaster on themselves.
“The Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.’
To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’
And to the man he said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’” [Genesis 3:14-19]

            There exists a kind of mutual antagonism not only between humanity and nature but also within the natural world when it should really be in harmony.  Hear the vision of Isaiah about what it would mean for nature to be at peace with itself.

“The 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.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.  They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.” [Isaiah 11:6-9]

It was the belief of Isaiah that the coming of a true and faithful king (of which there had been very few in his time or before) would lead to the beginning of God’s own rule in the world, a rule that would be greater than any human being’s and therefore would ultimately go so far that the whole world, in all aspects, would be set right.  Cornelius Plantinga describes the biblical, Hebrew word for this, shalom, as

“a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights.  Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”[1]

            I have some bad news and I have some good news about that.  The bad news you already know.  In the words of Woody Allen, “The lion will lay down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.”  The good news is that Isaiah was probably not as literal-minded as Woody Allen thinks he was.

            Nature, at least as we know it, is going to include some rough edges.  Nevertheless we can see a day when, out of respect for its Creator, the creation itself is no longer seen as a place of exploitation for its own sake.  We cannot take responsibility for the actions of the animals but we can at least recognize that human beings are capable of showing respect for nature in a way that, yes, we all too often fail to do, but that Jesus demonstrated for us.

            He pointed out that nature isn’t just out there on its own.  The universe is not a machine – although I would point out that even machines need a constant input of energy and periodic maintenance.  The universe exists through the constant protection and care of its Maker. 

“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” [Matthew 6:26]

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” [Matthew 6:28-29]

A basic truth is that if God is caring for nature, when we do our part we are doing the work of God.  Nature and humanity may not always be total harmony, and it isn’t realistic to think that we all either should or could go out and live in the woods without disturbing the ecosystem.  But we can at least recognize that we ourselves are part of creation alongside the natural world.  If there’s a single sermon-word for this week it would be “harmony”.  That’s when we sing different notes, but they blend together and even somehow make a better sound.  We could all probably do a better job at that.

            I’m not about to lay a guilt trip on everyone, especially when I drive as much as I do and use up as much petroleum, and produce as much carbon dioxide as I do.  When I think about how much paper I toss away every week, I’m not about to make you feel bad about yourself, just to point out that when you’re done with your worship bulletin, if you aren’t taking it home to refer to later in the week, we have a recycling box in the bell tower.  When I enjoy a thick slab of beef (with horseradish, of course), I’m not about to lay into anyone else about land taken up by cattle production or the conditions produced by factory-farming of poultry.  All I want to do is to remind you and myself that being at peace with the world means being, so far as is possible, at peace with all aspects of God’s creation, and mindful that humanity’s place within it is given to us only by God, and only as a reflection of God’s glory.

“O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!” [Psalm 8]

            Yes, nature includes coyotes and tapeworms and viruses and tornadoes.  Yes, we have added to that and produced strip mines and acid rain and global warming and toxic waste dumps and huge floating islands of trash out in the middle of the oceans.  Even so, as Plantinga also wrote, a real part of our human experience is

“on some May mornings, a sense of life’s sweetness and of God’s goodness so sharp that we want to cry out from the sheer promise of it. …Creation is stronger than sin and grace stronger still.  Creation and grace are anvils that have worn out a lot of our hammers.”[2]

[1] Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995) 10.
[2] Ibid., 198-199.