Monday, December 31, 2018

Sermon - 1st Sunday after Christmas

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” Once the sun goes down, our two-year old son John has the habit of pointing outside asking to see the moon.  So, we put our socks and shoes on and go outside to try and find the moon. 
On some nights, we see the moon but on most nights, we do not. John, however, finds “other” moons to point at. He points at the light on our neighbor’s front porch and says, “moon!” He sees a street lamp and says, “moon!” Of course, any kind of light shining in the darkness is the moon for John.

In a world that is so often filled with darkness, we are constantly looking for light to help us navigate the nighttime of our lives. And when we cannot find the True Light, we resort to looking for manufactured lights to help guide the way. Using theological lingo, these manufactured lights are called idols – they are substitutes for God.
I recently listened to the NPR program called Science Friday. The radio broadcast focused on how the growth of cities have impacted the evolution of various species. During the first part of the episode, they talked about city lights and how those lights have impacted nocturnal species such as insects.  
Normally, nocturnal insects would set their evening course by the light of the moon. However, with lights lighting up the night sky, they are now drawn to street lamps and porch lights where they go to die. I’m sure you’ve all had to clean out your porch light covers because of all the dead bugs.
We, too, live in a world that is so often governed by artificial light. Electricity and the constant emitting of blue light from phones and tablets provide a wonderful metaphor to a culture that is not only exposed to unrelenting physical light but also unrelenting spiritual substitutes for the True Light. 
The problem isn’t simply the darkness. The problem is that we don’t let ourselves experience the darkness. In this day and age, it is so easy to replace God with idols to fill our earthly wants and desires. Our culture doesn’t like to be uncomfortable. Therefore, we are over stimulated and blinded from the True Light.
Studies have shown that those of us who live in larger cities with “light pollution” are at increased risk of obesity, cancer, depression, loss of sleep, and so on. Likewise, our spiritual lives are impacted in much the same way when artificial light tries to compete with the True Light. Our spirituality becomes anemic or watered-down. We become less aware to the Truth and fall prey to half-truths and lies that draw us away from the True Light.
During my time as a parish priest, I have had many occasions to walk into a dark church at night for some reason or another. Inevitably, the first thing I notice when I walk into a dark church is the Sanctuary candle – the candle that stays lit above the Tabernacle where we keep the reserve bread and wine. This candle signals that the living Christ is present in this place.
The Sanctuary candle is impossible to miss in the dark. However, if I come into the church during the day or when the lights are on, that light does not immediately capture my attention. I am drawn to the flowers or to the windows or to the organ or cross. For the sake of a metaphor, the darker it is, the easier it is to see the light shining in the darkness. 
So, during your prayers this week, I invite you to ask, what artificial lights do I need to turn off or get away from so that I may see the True Light more clearly? What false idols do I need to ask God to shatter so that I may know and follow the True Light? 
As you ask these questions, don’t be afraid to ask a friend or one of your clergy to sit with you in the darkness to help you see the light of Christ more clearly. You don’t have to sit alone in the darkness left in the wake of death or divorce or unemployment or disease or failure. 
I am reminded of a great scene in the movie Apollo 13. Astronaut Jim Lovell, who is played by Tom Hanks, talks about an instrument malfunction on his airplane while flying over the Sea of Japan. To make matters worse, the aircraft carrier’s lights were off because of combat conditions. 
It was pitch black. He couldn’t see. His radar was jammed. He couldn’t use the radio. When he turned on the map light, everything in the cockpit shorted out – instruments, lights, he didn’t know what his altitude was. Because he was running out of fuel he thought about ditching into the ocean.
He looked out over the ocean and saw what he described as a phosphorescent green carpet. It was algae that was churned up in the wake of a ship. It was leading him home. Lovell reflected, “if my cockpit lights hadn’t shorted out, then there is no way I would have been able to see that. You never know what events are to transpire to get you home.”
Sometimes our cockpit lights have to short in order for us to find the True Light. Sure, this might cause panic and disorientation and thoughts of ditching into the ocean. I can only imagine that this John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness announcing the True Light caused panic and disorientation. John the Baptist calls us into the wilderness – into the darkness – away from the artificial light – so that our eyes can adjust to the True Light. 
One of the great misconceptions of Christianity is that following Jesus will make your life easier. I, for one, have not found that to be true. In fact, following Jesus has made my life more complicated. Following Jesus has call me to walk in darkness, but in this darkness, I have found the brightness of the True Light.
God never promised following the True Light would be easy. It requires a faith that believes not matter how dark things get – the True Light will shine one. Only in the fullness of time, as John of Patmos describes in Revelation, will we see that True Light completely. There will be no moon or stars or sun. There will be the Lamb of God – the True Light – lighting the city of God.
But until then, darkness will be all around us. Death and disease and failure and broken relationships will cast a long shadow in our lives. The good news is that we proclaim a faith that says the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. We do not have to spend our lives buzzing around artificial light, light that might seem more convenient, but light that will blind us to the True Light, light that will zap the life out of us, light that will eventually burn out and fail us.
Like my son John, when it gets dark outside, we want to go searching for that light shining in the darkness. Often, we become distracted by the lesser lights, by manufactured lights that blind us from the True Light. We are like insects drawn to those blue zapper lights.
But we have a God who, in the Word made flesh, comes into our world to short out the artificial lights of this world. We have a God who, through his truth and grace, comes to shatter the false idols of our lives so that we may see the True Light shining in the darkness. 
As the artificial lights of this world go out on you or fail you or zap the life out of you, may you know the light that is impossible to miss – the light that no amount of darkness can overcome. Amen.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Held with Love

“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” While the glory of the Lord bursts out from the heavens from angels above and while the shepherds run with haste to share the amazing news of the newborn King and while farm animals scurry and moo around the barn, Mary, holding her newborn son, sits quietly, unaffected by the outside noise, pondering the joy born on Christmas in her heart.
This year, more than most years, I identify with Mary in the reading of the Christmas story. Specifically, I am taken back to two years ago on this night when Jamie and I brought our newborn son John home from the hospital. As I treasured and pondered that moment in my heart, I realized that I was really the one who was being held. I was being held with a love that silenced all the distractions of this life.
While the world around us was gearing up for Christmas with lights and music, pageants and parties, and excited little children, we were bringing our newborn son into our quiet home. The lights were dimmed and conversations were held to a whisper as not to startle or awaken a sleeping baby. Perhaps my memory is a little idyllic because Mary Katherine was three at the time! Nonetheless, the joy of Christmas was a little quieter that year.
            Tonight, as we gather to treasure and ponder the birth of Jesus our Savior, we gather to be held in in the same love that Mary held all those years ago on a dark and silent night in Bethlehem. After a long year, one that undoubtedly brought pain and suffering due to death and disease, failure and disappointment, we gather to be held with a love that has the power to inspire new joys and new possibilities. On the heels of the darkest night of the year, we gather to be held with a love has the power to open our hearts to the dawning of a new day.
            Likewise, the people of Israel are on the heels of one of the darkest chapters in their history. It has been 400 years since the prophet announced a Messiah. The people of Israel are being held hostage by the power structure of Rome; they are being pushed further and further toward the margin except for certain religious elite who have chosen to join the power structure of Rome and betray their own people.
            But as Mary sings in her song, when she learns she will give birth to the Savior of the world, God has not forgotten his chosen people. God has remembered the promise of mercy. Even during the darkest nights of our lives, God promises to draw near and give us the quiet confidence that comes with his presence.  
While the chaos of the world rages on around us, while we are left feeling powerless to stop disease and death, failure and disappointment, God promises to draw near and bid us still so that we may know the love that carries us through the changes and chances of this life. God promises to draw near and bid us still so that we may be held in the love that melts away our sin and sadness. 
            As I made home visits in the weeks leading up to Christmas where I read the Nativity story, I was again struck by the quiet joy born in our hearts on Christmas. While the world around me was buzzing with holiday traffic and flashing lights, I found the quiet joy of Christmas beside a hospital bed and in a home unadorned with Christmas decorations because the kids have long since moved away.  
As I read the Nativity story to the home-bound or hospital-bound, I was struck at just how unadorned the birth of Christ is. I had never read the Christmas story out loud without the sights and sounds of a pageant or a choir or a sermon or a beautifully decorated church. It was remarkable to me at just how powerful this story read in a setting devoid of the usual pageantry of Christmas.
In the Christmas story, Mary and Joseph find no place at the inn and find themselves in the company of barn animals - imagine that. The birth of their firstborn son is re-routed away from the confines of their own home because the powers that be had decided that the whole world needed to be registered for tax purposes, and there are no special provisions made for pregnant women. 
There are no obligatory pink and blue blankets to swaddle the baby Jesus in. There is no name card on the side of a proper crib displaying the height and weight of baby Jesus. Joseph’s friends are not waiting outside with celebratory cigars. There is, however, a birth announcement unlike any the world has ever seen – a heavenly host of angels makes known the birth of Jesus to shepherds tending their flocks by night.
Even then, this birth announcement is made known to only to a limited number of shepherds, and shepherds aren’t exactly members of the social elite. They are the type of people whom census workers wouldn’t even bother to count. They are on the outside of the socio-economic system. Today, we might call them migrant workers.
As I read the Christmas story to the home-bound and hospital-bound, I realized that I wasn’t the one announcing the story of Jesus birth. Sure, I was reading the words to the story but the words of the story came alive in those settings. It was almost as if the angels and shepherds were in the room pointing to the manger wherein Christ lies. 
I was reminded that the story of Christmas breaks into our lives at inconvenient times when our plans are re-routed because of circumstances outside our control, circumstances that involve illness or death or tragedy, circumstances that are dictated by the powers that be. The story of Christmas breaks into our lives when we find ourselves outside of our comfort zone, when we are left completely vulnerable to what life throws our way. The story of Christmas breaks into our lives and holds us when we don’t think we can hold on any longer.
During these last few weeks and months, you have no doubt been bombarded by the message, “show them how much you really care by buying them something you can’t afford” – a message heard in shopping malls, holiday traffic, and through glitzy advertisements. You have no doubt thought, I can’t wait for Christmas to be here so I can stop, so I can let go, so I can be still. Friends, Christmas is here. Be still and know that God is here – lying in the manger – waiting to hold you in love.
 Beloved, as the sights and sounds of this season fade into the background and you are left only with your unadorned self – lacking the dignities the world tells you that you need to be something in this life – may the Babe lying in the manger come into focus and hold you with love. May the Babe lying in the manger quiet your heart and mind and silence the worries and distractions of this life.
And may you hear the words that Mary treasured and pondered in her heart as she held the Son of God on that first Christmas night. “There is nothing you need to do to prove yourself to me. I love you right where you are. Completely helpless and vulnerable and small as you may be, I love you more than you can ever know. You are my child now and forever – nothing can ever change my love for you. I will never let you go.” Amen.   

Monday, December 3, 2018

Art of Piddling

The Gospel according to Rock Legend Tom Petty tells us that “the waiting is the hardest part.” If we think about it, we spend most of our lives waiting on something. We wait in the carpool line, the Starbucks’ Drive-thru line. We wait for the test results to come back from the doctor’s office, for our spouse to finish getting ready for dinner. 
We wait for an important phone call or letter or email or text. We get put on hold and have to wait for someone else to talk to. I like it when they can tell me how long I can expect to stay on hold. Children spend December waiting for Santa Claus to slide down the chimney to drop off presents. We can’t stand to wait!
            In Pastoral Care 101, they tell you not to pray for patience because what you are really asking is for God to help you learn how to wait some more. A colleague once told me to pray for peace instead of patience. Patience is circumstantial and depends on factors outside our control. However, finding peace is about being content no matter the circumstances. So, pray for peace if you find yourself growing impatient.
            Today is the 1stSunday of Advent. The first Sunday of the church calendar. Historically, Advent is the season of waiting. Naturally, we think about waiting for Christmas to get here. We think about waiting for the birth of Jesus. Unless you weren’t paying attention to the gospel lesson, it is obvious that the lectionary writers want us to think about waiting in a more cosmic sense on the first Sunday of Advent.
            After the disciples ask Jesus to predict the destruction of the Temple, Jesus begins dialogue about interpreting the signs in the sun and the moon and the stars. He tells his followers to be alert, to be on guard so they aren’t caught off guard when the new age breaks into the present age. He also says this generation will not pass away before these calamities take place. Basically, he tells them to expect it to happen at an unexpected time.
            Waiting for Jesus isn’t like waiting on hold to speak to the next customer service representative. First of all, Jesus doesn’t exactly give us an expected waiting time (he is pretty vague). Secondly, waiting for Jesus is not idle waiting. It doesn’t look like counting how many times you can wrap the telephone cord around your finger (does anyone still have a phone with a cord?).
            Rather, waiting for Jesus is active. It means preparing our heart, body, and soul to be ready when God breaks into our lives. It looks like discernment of God’s will and purpose. In particular, it looks like being open to the unexpected. And if we aren’t paying attention to the unexpected, God breaking into our lives might startle us. God breaking into our lives might cause fear and foreboding because any change – no matter how good – is disruptive. 
            Our preacher for the Celebration of New Ministry, Henry Hudson, taught me a valuable lesson about waiting. In case you haven’t noticed, I have a hard time sitting still. I feel the need to always be doing something. It is hard for me to turn off. He told me, “you need to learn the art of piddling.”
            At first, I thought that was pretty lame advice, but the more I listened the more I understood. For Henry, the art of piddling means doing what you enjoy doing without expecting a particular result (in case you are wondering, the art of piddling is really hard to do as a golfer). Piddling means doing what you like to do and rejoicing in whatever experience is in store for that day (even if that means playing terrible golf). Or like Jane said a few weeks ago, the art of piddling is not about the destination but the journey. 
            Like the disciples, we, as individuals and institutions, like to focus on the destination as opposed to the journey. We want instant gratification. We want to see the results now. We want to check the next box off the list and move. In a results oriented world, there is no room for piddling. 
However, we are following the One who is the destination. Jesus is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega. In his presence, the wait is over. In him, we have arrived because he is arrived! But there is no denying we still live in a world ruled by impatience and anxiety and fear. Sin and death still have power over us and cause us to forget that God has drawn near in Jesus Christ. Sin and death still have the power to tell us to seek our own destination rather than God’s destination in Christ. 
As you will often hear in theological circles, we exist in the already and not yet. The time between Christ is Risen and Christ will come again. We are waiting for the hope that is and was and is to come. We live between the present age – one ruled by sin and death and the age to come – the one ruled by Jesus and his love.
So, what do we as Christians do with all this waiting? Jesus calls us to be aware, be alert. Jesus calls us to be attentive to how the not yet is breaking into the present age. Jesus calls us to piddle and expect God’s kingdom to break into our lives at unexpected times – especially during the worst of times. After all, the story of Jesus’ birth is all about God breaking into this world at an unexpected time, in an unexpected place, through unexpected people.
And we aren’t simply called to notice these breakthroughs but also tell others about them. Like Mary, we are called to carry the stories of God’s unexpected breakthroughs in our lives and sing about them – to sustain this often dark and chaotic world with a word of hope and encouragement. 
During this Annual Giving campaign, you have been sharing these stories of God's unexpected breakthrough through Church of the Ascension. You were looking for a church home and almost gave up but as you were walking out the door someone greeted you cheerfully. Now you are involved in leadership. 
You came because you wanted your kids to experience church but now you are the one who can’t wait to get back each Sunday. You heard about Ascension at a car dealership when you sold a car to Mike Sparks – talk about unexpected! 
At the Vestry Retreat and Parish Retreat, we are going to take a look at all the many ways God’s kingdom is breaking through into our life together at Church of the Ascension. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure we are going to have enough time to do this but that is good news because we can keep on doing it. 
We can keep on waiting actively, piddling, keeping our eyes open to how God is reminding us that we have arrived in Jesus. When things get difficult, we can stand together, raise our heads in hope, and expect the unexpected – the Son of Man descending from heaven to make things right again. And the more we do this the more stories we will have to tell to keep hope alive. 
I can’t help you when it comes to waiting for your spouse to get ready or for the customer service representative to take you off hold. But I do want to help you wait for God to break into your life in unexpected ways. My door is open for this ongoing conversation. 
During this Advent season, I pray your waiting on God to arrive changes your posture from the hardest part to the most joyful part, from a posture of impatience to one of peace, from a posture of worry to one of expectation. I hope the mystery of our faith – the one we proclaim every Sunday – Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again – becomes a promise that you can learn to trust and count on especially during the hard times, the impatient times, the anxious times. Friends in Christ, cling to the promises of God at all times – Christ will come again. Amen.