Sunday, December 17, 2006

Advent 3C

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Psalm 85:7-13; Philippians 4:4-9; Luke 3:7-18

“I would rather preach a gospel sermon to an appreciative, receptive congregation than write a hymn,” insisted Robert Wadsworth Lowry, an American Baptist minister in the late nineteenth century. But the melodies in his mind and the poetry in his proclamation would not be stopped. Today, appreciative, receptive congregations continue to sing his gospel songs. “I need thee every hour.” “All the way my Savior leads me.” “Shall we gather at the river?” And this one:

My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far off hymn that hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul – how can I keep from singing?

How can I keep from singing? That’s how I feel this time of year. How can I keep from singing in these seasons of Advent and Christmas, filled as they are with melody and poetry? I secretly don’t mind that the music starts playing in stores before the end of – what, is it May now when sleigh bells and silver bells start to jingle all the way?!?

I’m sure my love of preparing for and celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ in song goes back to first grade, when I was in the children’s choir at Otey Memorial Parish in Sewanee, Tennessee. We practiced and practiced our little Christmas anthem. We practiced and practiced a handful of Christmas carols. We practiced and practiced and practiced singing while walking in a straight line carrying a lighted candle. But none of that prepared me for the wonder I felt on the first night of the Annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, when we processed slowly around a darkened All Saints Chapel, illuminated only by the soft glow of our candles, half-singing and half-listening to the university choirs (or were they angels?) singing with us, Once in royal David’s city, stood a lowly cattle shed…. Twelve years later, although at a different school, I was in the university choir, holding a candle, processing slowly around a darkened church, singing the same beautiful hymn.

One week from tonight we’ll all be singing once again all those beautiful gospel hymns – good news of great joy hymns. Our Advent hymns are also lovely, their melodies and poetry reflecting this strange season – sometimes set in darkness and minor keys, and sometimes filled with rejoicing. How can we keep from singing?

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion, the prophet Zephaniah exclaims to Jerusalem and her people. Shout, rejoice, and exult with all your heart! For God is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. Rejoice in the Lord always, the apostle Paul exclaims to the church in Philippi. Again I will say, rejoice!.... The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything.

This third Sunday in Advent was traditionally known as Gaudete, from the Latin word for rejoice. The penitential purple was lightened to rose. The readings and even the liturgy itself reflected a shift toward joy. In the Roman missal, a new antiphon was appointed, more hopeful than those sung earlier in the season – we know it as the sixth verse of a beautiful Advent hymn: O come thou dayspring from on high and cheer us by thy drawing nigh; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadow put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

On this day even God rejoices. God sings. God exults over you with loud singing, Zephaniah writes, as on a day of festival. Perhaps C.S. Lewis had this image in mind when he wrote The Magician’s Nephew, one of the books in the Narnia series, in which the lion Aslan sings the world into existence. Madeleine L’Engle imagines in one of her stories that the universe is held together by song. Even science sings – I once had a scratchy record on which astronomers had layered the pulses and beats and sounds associated with wavelengths measured from distant stars. So many ancient melodies and harmonies. So much poetry. How can we keep from singing?

We can read today’s gospel, that’s how. John the Baptist doesn’t sing. He shouts. Zephaniah and Paul sing such lovely songs of gladness and love and gentleness and rejoicing, and then John comes along shouting about slithering snakes, and axes at the roots of trees, and fire burning away chaff. (My homiletics professor suggested that “You brood of vipers!” is perhaps not the most effective way to hold on to a receptive, appreciate congregation!) John was shouting. But then, most of the crowd that came to see John weren’t interested in singing, anyway. They weren’t there to hear a sermon or join the choir. They came because darkness had been looming as Roman rule grew more oppressive and the application of Jewish law more rigid. Fears of impending divine judgment were rising. Most of the crowd that came to see John were interested only in proving their innocence before God. They believed that a quick trip into the wilderness for baptism, which at the time was simply a ritual act of cleansing, would do the trick. They were, after all, God’s chosen people.

Perhaps they had forgotten – as we are still inclined to forget today, in this wilderness season of Advent – perhaps they had forgotten that the wilderness is not a place to rush into and out of. In the story of the Exodus and in all the history of salvation, the wilderness is a place to journey through on the way to a renewed and restored and fruitful life as people of God. Getting wet, whether in the Red Sea or the Jordan River, wasn’t enough. In fact, it was and still is only the beginning of the journey.

By now John was preaching a gospel sermon to an agitated, anxious congregation. What then should we do? they asked him, and it became a refrain. Teacher, what should we do? And we, what should we do? Take your fingers out of your ears, John seems to reply. Let the wilderness filter out the cacophony of sound that assaults you each day, and listen to God’s song of salvation. Hum its melody, learn its poetry, and make your life become that song. Let your life resonate with the ancient song of love and peace and mercy and righteousness and truth and gentleness. Let your life be what God created it to be – a song sounding outward just as a tree bears fruit.

John is preaching repentance, in Greek metanoia, which means a change of mind. Not just washing clean but literally taking out one mind and putting in a new one. Taking out one song, perhaps, and putting in a new one. One is coming, John said, who is more powerful than I and he will fill you with that very song if you let him. He will light a fire for you to carry into the darkness.

How can we sing, though, when we are choked by chaff – things that don’t matter but are nonetheless mixed up with our lives, like bits of husks and stems and leaves mixed up with wheat. How can we sing when we are breathless with anxiety? How can we sing when our voices crack from despair? How can we sing when are throats, like our lives, are aching and raw? When we hurt, the call to rejoice can sound as harsh as the call to repent. And yet, it is precisely our hurt, our voicelessness, our diminishment, our losses, our sadness, and our weight of sin that Advent confronts and calls us out of that we may face the divine judgment, which is….Emmanuel, God-with-us. Remember the good gospel hymn? Good Christian friends, rejoice with heart and soul and voice, now ye need not fear the grave: Jesus Christ was born to save! Calls you one and calls you all to gain his everlasting hall. Christ was born to save! Christ was born to save! The fire he brings is not punishment but refinement, for we all have chaff, we all need a change. The burdens we carry do not make us unfit for Advent’s message of joyful expectation. They qualify us for voice lessons.

It will be true for many of us that the noise in our lives will increase this week – work to be done, cookies to bake, relatives to entertain, parties to attend, traffic to negotiate, gifts to wrap, cards to write, expectations to be met, or not met…. But let us not forget that we are still in the wilderness of Advent. Where might we hear God singing, out in the world, in our life together, and in our own lives? In the gospel of Luke, which has journeyed with us through this season, God is heard through the songs of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, and Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Simeon, an old priest who thought he would never see the light. They sing about a world in which all voices are heard and honored and nurtured and comforted.

Perhaps John isn’t shouting, but rather singing very loudly and off-key the same song, and showing us by example that we don’t have to master complex arias, we don’t have to save the world. What then shall we do? Hum a tune in our daily life. Live and sing the good news right where we are. Give a coat. Be honest in our work. Respect others. Be nice. Tell the truth. Share. We’d be surprised what joy the most ordinary songs can bring, suggests Madeleine L’Engle, noting that the melody of one of Bach’s most beloved chorales was the melody of a popular street song. “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred,” she writes, “and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”

John’s strident chord of repentance doesn’t seem to belong with today’s songs about rejoicing, but as it resolves it moves us into what will be a new key in that ancient refrain of God’s power to save. It’s a good gospel hymn – may we be receptive and appreciative.

What though my joys and comforts die? The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round? Songs in the night he giveth….

I lift mine eyes; the cloud grows thin; I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smoothes since first I learned to love it:
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing:
All things are mine since I am his – how can I keep from singing?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Advent 2C

Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Moving three times in the past six years has given me so many opportunities to take a good look all around myself and not have any idea where I am. We moved most recently, of course, from here to Jackson, where my internal compass is still spinning on roads that only pretend to go north-south or east-west (they curve so gradually that you have no idea you’re actually going at a right angle to the direction you think you’re going), and where the geography of city and suburbs baffles me. My husband works in Brandon, east of where we live, but when we go south from our house to find the road that pretends to go east, we have to drive through Ridgeland, which is north of us.

Moving to Meridian from New York City, from one grid to another, wasn’t as easy as I expected. In New York, 10th Avenue was as far west as you could get before hitting the West Side Highway and the Hudson River, which made working on 23rd Avenue in Meridian, well….that would have been in Jersey, I guess! And whereas in New York the grid system starts to break down south of 14th Street, where streets mysteriously change names, or change directions, or dead end only to reappear again several blocks away, in Meridian, that happens north of 14th Street.

Moving to New York City wasn’t as hard as I expected. If you can count backwards and forwards, you can pretty much get around . I can still picture the little wallet sized subway map I carried with me, with its tiny grid of city streets and avenues that was like graph paper on which brightly colored lines indicated the trains that always rumbled underfoot, and points indicated all the stops. Underground, though, there’s no grid – it’s a tangled maze of tunnels instead – but color-coded signs overhead and on the sides of the trains tell you everything you need to know. Even so, you're sometimes just going on faith when the sign says the number one train is that way, and that way is a tunnel that slopes downhill until its ceiling obscures the end from sight.

As the train approaches your stop, you know that somewhere above you is your destination. Up there is natural light, fresh air (well, fresher than subway air), and sounds other than the rattle of subway cars and the screech of metal-on-metal brakes. Getting up there, though, isn’t just a matter of climbing the stairs. You have to climb the right stairs – there’s usually more than one way out, each leading to a different corner of the intersection of street and avenue. And at the top, you might find yourself facing the street or the avenue or the sidewalk or a building. I never could get my bearings. Many times I set off down the block only to find at the next intersection that I should have gone the other way.

What’s missing from subway maps is the friendly little star they put on maps at the entrance to the mall, the one saying, “You are here.” You put one finger on that star, and another finger on the color-coded block that is your destination in the mall, and then you trace the route from here to there. I always have to check the map at Northpark Mall with its double layer of stores, and in a hurry (especially during this season!) I locate the one I want – second floor, two down from Belk’s. But when I look up, I realize I don’t have my bearings. Am I even anywhere near Belk’s? Many times I set off down the mall only to find at the end that I should have walked the other way. I have to go back and look for the little star. When I know where I am, suddenly the map is readable. A path is prepared. A way is made in the wilderness.

“You are here.” The prophet Baruch writes to Jerusalem, fixing a friendly star six centuries before the birth of Jesus, when the Babylonians seized the Holy City and burned it, destroying the Temple and scattering the people of God, taking many of them into exile in Babylon. Jerusalem had lost her bearings, and her people their hope of ever finding their way home. You are here, in this time, in this place, but look, Baruch writes: you are also here, and he fixes a star on God. Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One. Suddenly the map was readable. A path was prepared. A way was made in the wilderness, traced by God, lighted by God’s glory, and not for the first time God led the way from here to there.

Once before, in the Exodus, God had led the people through what seemed an impassable wilderness from Egypt, a land where they had no bearings, to a land of promise where that Holy City would eventually be built. These journeys are how the people of Israel and the nations that watched them go would come to know God as One who saves, who offers hope, who is infinitely patient along way; as One who loves deeply and irrevocably, who is present in the story and on the way; indeed, as One who makes the way and who is the way.

“You are here.” Paul writes to believers, fixing a star some few decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus, when the church in Philippi was growing and maturing as a community of faith in the midst of some pretty rough terrain – suspicion, hostility, persecution, and internal division. You are here in this time, in this place. Paul rejoices, though, that the deep Love in which they were held by God, and in which the Philippians held one another - that Love would trace their journey and level their way.

Luke’s gospel is full of friendly stars – full of time times and places – and he fixes a very important one in the reading we hear on this second Sunday in Advent. “You are here.” In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when all these other folks were governors and rulers and high priests, in the region around the Jordan River, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah. This is a real story, Luke is telling us. A real story that happened at this real moment in history, when these real people lived, in this real part of the world. But look, Luke says as he reads in the very next breath from the poetry of the prophet Isaiah, you are also here in a real story about the One who saves. You are here, waiting in darkness, like the Israelites in Babylon to whom Baruch and Isaiah were writing, waiting for the day of the Lord when God will prepare a way and the salvation of God will be seen by all.

Luke portrays John the Baptist as the last in a long line of prophets, like Isaiah and Baruch and so many others who had spoken God’s word when the covenant community lost their bearings by taking off in the wrong direction (as they so often we so often do) or by simply finding themselves far from home. Look for the star, John and all the prophets urged the people. Look for God. From wherever you’ve been wandering on your own, no doubt following some bright light the world has flashed your way (it will burn out, you know, at the top of some peak or the bottom of some valley), from wherever you’ve been wandering, return to God and God will shine on you and make a way for you through the wilderness and the darkness.

In the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, in the region around the Jordan, in the darkness with those waiting for a savior to come, the history of the world and the history of salvation were deeply and irrevocably joined in Jesus Christ, Love come down, Emmanuel – God-with-us. Later in this chapter of Luke’s gospel, just after Jesus is baptized by John, Jesus gets his bearings: the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and a voice from heaven says, you are my beloved Son. But by the power of the same Holy Spirit, in a story we’ll be hearing soon enough, the One who Saves was born of a woman, and as the voice from heaven still rings in our ears, Luke writes that Jesus was son of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, tracing the line back through every human generation, making every stop until he reaches Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.

And so, everyone who is part of history – everyone, back through the first generation, and up through ours, and in every generation to come – everyone who is part of the history of the world is also part of the story of salvation. In Jesus, God was here at a stop in Jerusalem, in Philippi, in the region around the Jordan, in Mississippi…. In Jesus, God walked with all humanity through all the valleys and hills and gorges and dark places of life. And nowhere is that more evident than in the gospel of Luke, in which Jesus personally brings the good news of God’s love to a wide variety of people: to sinners and tax collectors, to Jews and Gentiles, to women, to the marginalized, the oppressed, and the poor, to the sick and the hungry...and also to governors and rulers and high priests. All flesh shall see the salvation of God.

On the second Sunday in Advent in the year 2006, in the region of East Mississippi, in the darkness with those waiting for a savior to come, the word of God proclaimed by John comes to us: Prepare the way of the Lord! The Reverend John Pridemore writes, “Originally, the promise was that God would clear the road for the returning exiles. But the road [this gospel] looks down is the road to glory. The stumbling blocks on that path, symbolized by what prevents earth-bound travelers getting where they want to go – impassable mountains, impenetrable valleys, and the like…” …stumbling blocks like taped-off stairwells in the subway, turnstiles that won’t turn, seeing from one side of the tracks that you should be waiting on the other…stumbling blocks like racism, sexism, classism, corruption, violence, poverty, and prejudice…stumbling blocks like pride, despair, fear, self-doubt, greed… “stumbling blocks on that path…will all be leveled,” Pridemore continues. “Then, at the last, ‘all flesh shall see God’s salvation.’ This is Luke’s hope, the Advent hope, and the Christian hope. It is grounded in the universal of the love of God, and it is the keynote of the gospel.”

The season of Advent is a time for us to look all around in our life and faith. It is a time to discern where we’ve been going, where we’ve been wandering, and where we are. What stumbling blocks stand between us and the coming of Christ, what impassable mountains and impenetrable valleys must be leveled? Where is our wilderness? Where is our darkness? Advent is a time for us to get our bearings, to step back and look at the map, and trace the journey from where we are to Christmas day. Paul tells us the way is traced by Love, and John the Baptist will share his suggestions next week. When we finally do reach that destination, where a real star shines down on a stable in which a mother holds her newborn son in her arms and in her heart, then we will see the salvation of God, who says to all the whole world, “You are always here.” Amen.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Advent 1C

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

How do we know when the big day is drawing near? We look for the signs. They are unmistakable. 15% off all holiday candles. Trees for sale. Red bows appear along fenceposts, polar bears drink Coca-cola, and Rudolph, Frosty, and Charlie Brown make their annual appearances. Thousands and thousands of lights fill the darkness with a soft white or merry multicolored glow. Inside we hear holiday music, outside we hear Salvation Army bells. 21 shopping days left….The signs are all there!

How do we know when the big day is drawing near? We look for the signs. They are unmistakable. Pageant rehearsal tonight. Caroling at the nursing home. Shades of purple and blue appear where there has been green, green, green for so long, and the Holy Family makes their annual appearance somewhere in the back of the church, making their way to the creche. Four candles on an evergreen wreath begin to fill this space with the promise of light increasing. We hear new service music, we sing beloved hymns, Come, thou long expected Jesus….

How do we know when the big day is drawing near? We look for the signs. A growing belly. Birth pangs intensifying. A star filling the sky with light as the Light of the World fills a stable with love.

How do we know when the big day – that last big day – is drawing near? There are signs for that, too. Fire, earthquake and flood, scripture tells us. In this morning’s gospel Jesus says there will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars. Distress among nations, roaring seas, confusion, fear, foreboding. ‘The Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.’

How do we know when the big day is drawing near? Look for signs like this, Jesus says: growth. Greening – like leaves sprouting on all the trees. Beginnings where there seemed to be endings. Life where there seemed to be death, life exploding outward into the world, nourished by roots deeper than winter’s soil, warmed by the light that fills the sky.

Today is the first Sunday in the season of Advent, the first day of a new liturgical year in which we celebrate the mystery of salvation beginning with the adventus, the coming, the arrival, the birth of Jesus in the world. Since the 6th century, these four weeks have been set aside as a time to look forward, and backward, and forward again to the coming of Jesus.

We look forward to Christmas by looking backward to that night when God became incarnate in a baby boy, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, with tiny fingers and toes and cry that melted his mother’s heart. We know these stories, we know the signs, and of these signs we are certain.

But in Advent we also look forward to Jesus arriving – Jesus coming – again. We know these stories, we know these signs, but of them we are less certain. They do not lend themselves to candle-lit pageants or jingling bells. So many of these signs are frightening, full of foreboding, full of disaster and dread. Foundations, earth, and even heaven are shaken.

It is important for us to remember that prophecy, and in this morning’s gospel Jesus echoes so many of the great prophets, prophecy is not about predicting the future so much as it is about attending to the present, about living fully as God’s people in the world now, in each and every present moment. All those prophets – and Jesus – lived in times when the world was growing dark, when nations were troubled, when the air was full of foreboding.

And so in every age believers have wondered if the big day, the last day, was drawing near. The signs always seem to be there. Terrible natural disasters. Distress among nations. Fear. Suspicion. Hatred. Violence. Poverty. Hunger. Exclusivity. Just pick up a newspaper, or watch the evening news. Signs of endings all around us, poet Dean Nelson, writes. Signs of endings all around us: darkness, death and winter days shroud our lives in fear and sadness, numbing mouths that long to praise.

While global events press fear and foreboding upon us, the signs that for us take on cosmic significance are those that are most personal, most intimate. We are distressed by war in the middle east; our foundations are shaken when a loved one is deployed. We are concerned about national statistics on drug and alcohol use; our foundations are shaken when a drunk driver doesn’t swerve in time to avoid our friend’s car. When we lose a job. When a relationship is strained or broken. When we fail a test. When a pet dies. When illness threatens. When we aren’t welcomed. Signs of endings all around us. Stand up and raise your heads, Jesus says, when what we really want to do is run and hide.

In the season of Advent, looking forward and looking backward, we remember that Jesus has already come, born in a stable, in the midst of instability. Jesus has already come. The kingdom of God is at hand. The day of redemption has passed, and we are already saved. But it seems the fruit of salvation grows slowly in us. We don’t make it easy: we forget to nurture it, we let doubt and fear and pride grow like weeds around it, so that the Light of the World can barely shine through. And yet it grows, despite us, and like the fig tree and all the trees as summer approaches, our salvation begins to sprout leaves. It begins to show. When we begin to live as Jesus showed us, with hands and feet and eyes and ears just like ours, when we begin to live in the kingdom of God at hand, the leaves begin to appear. New life. Hope. And so, rooted in God’s saving love, we become living signs of what will be when the end finally does come.

For what is beyond that great ending, and was before the great beginning and is present in each and every moment, is God, whose compassion and love, the psalmist declared, are from everlasting. In Jesus Christ, God came literally into our midst, and yet, Madeleine L’Engle writes, “The second person of the Trinity was with us ‘before the worlds began to be, he is Alpha and Omega, he the source, the ending he,’ as the ancient hymn says. All of God has always been part of creation, part of the story, taking us in the everlasting arms as the shepherd clasps a lost lamb,” as a mother clasps her newborn son, singing to him by the light of a star.

How do we know the big day is drawing near? We look for the signs. And although there are signs of endings all around us, the same poet urges us to pray, Come, O Christ, and dwell among us! Hear our cries, come set us free. Give us hope and faith and gladness. Show us what there yet can be. Can it be that from our endings, new beginnings you create? Take our fears, then Lord, and turn them into hopes for life anew: fading light and dying season sing their glorias to you. Look for the signs. Look for what brings light, life and hope. Look for wonders growing deep within. Look for transformation. Look for invitation. Look for compassion and love. Perhaps we will see signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, but my guess is we’re far more likely to see signs right here. In a Christmas card from a long-lost friend. In a plate of cookies shared with a neighbor. In gifts wrapped up for families whose trees would be bare. In smiling, however wearily, at the person in front of you as you wait and wait and wait and wait to check out at Walmart. In remembering that this crazy season is not about us, not about our loved ones, not about turkeys or gifts or cookies or reindeer, but about Jesus Christ. This season is about the big day arriving, the day of redemption, the day when darkness was filled with light. This season is about the beginning of a story filled with signs and wonders in the midst of ordinary everyday life – the story of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us – a story that calls us, as the Body of Christ, forward each and every day into a world that needs so desperately to know that it is loved.

Goodness knows Advent is not a calm or peaceful time. We may pause more often in our worship, we may sit in darkness for a time, we may steal a few moments of stillness, but not as a way to run and hide from traffic, endless parties, and stringing lights. Well, not just a way to hide. In Advent we are called to reflection in order to deepen our awareness of God’s presence already planted within us, God’s salvation already taking root and growing and revealing itself in our lives. Preparing for the coming of Jesus Christ – in a stable, in a cloud, or over and over again in our daily lives, in the people we meet, in the experiences we have – preparing for the coming of Jesus Christ is about seeing signs all around us and knowing that the kingdom of God is at hand.

How will the world know the big day is drawing near? May they see us, and we see them. And in seeing one another, God-willing, may we see signs that the kingdom of God is at hand. In words from our old prayerbook, let us pray: Eternal God, who commits to us the swift and solemn trust of life: since we do not know what a day may bring forth, but only that the hour for serving you is always present, may we wake to the instant claims of your holy will, not waiting for tomorrow, but yielding today. Amen.