upper room daily devotions

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Enter the Song: The Magnificat

(This is last year's sermon for Advent 4B).

When I was a little girl, one of the things that I loved about visiting my grandparents during the holidays is that I had a special job. My cousin and I, the two youngest kids, were tasked with ringing an old flecked green bell to call people to dinner. There were always gobs of people. We had to walk all through the house, out to the porch where people would be in the rocking chairs and swinging on the porch swing, and we would ring that bell, and everyone knew our message. For two kids who were too young to do much more with the family, this made us feel pretty special. We couldn't understand the conversations about politics or religion. We didn't care to listen about people long dead whom we would never know. We were too short to sit at the adult table. What we had was that green bell, flecked and dented from decades of being rung by the youngest members of the family. The tone of that bell was the music that allowed us a special place in the family. The music of that bell heralded something very special - that 40 or so people who saw each other once, maybe twice, a year would be sitting down to break bread as my family has done for generations. Through the clear tone of that bell, we entered into my family's ever evolving story. Now, we could have just as easily walked around and said, "Dinner's ready" or "Come and eat." But the ritual of ringing a bell passed down from youngest child to the next youngest child made the act holy. By touching the metal of the bell, by holding together the wooden handle that always threatened to fall apart, something bigger and more wonderful transpired. That sound was more than a call to dinner; it was a part of my family's unfolding story. And, it was holy.

Throughout Advent this year, I have invited you to enter into a holy story. We began the first week with an invitation to Enter the Challenge of Advent. The second week the good people from Mary's Place asked us to Enter into the Reality of Advent. Last week, I talked about Entering into the Dream of Advent. And, this week, we Enter the Song of Advent. Today Mary sings her soul for us. She pours out her faith. In the face of tremendous challenge, she is willing to enter into a terrifying reality because of the gift of God's mighty dream. And, her spirit is caught up in a song that remains a cornerstone of our faith. For those who pray the hours every day - a daily rhythm of praying with other Christians at prescribed times in a pattern of prayer that has been done for 1500 years (at least) - every day ends with the Magnificat. Almost every day ends with Mary's outpouring of faith, the dream that the Holy Spirit leaves in her. This song ushers us into a week that culminates with Christmas Day when we welcome the babe into the manger, into our world, into the mess of life.

Music touches us and changes us like no other experience. It is deeply personal.

Despite much tradition around Mary, we don't know much about her. She was probably poor, but so was most everyone around her. She is able to travel to her cousin's house. She is able to stand in the presence of an angel and hold her ground. When given an opportunity to respond to the angel's message, she responds with joy and in song. Moreover, the song that bursts from her is a song that challenges the powers and principalities of this world. She doesn't sing a lullaby or a song about domestic life with her child and husband; she sings about a new world where the rich are brought low and the poor are lifted up. She sings a song of justice and love and compassion. She sings a song born from humility at her own station, and she connects her poverty with the poverty of the world. Her song is intimate and personal, and it is grand and political. It is a song that changes everything. Through it we enter into the meaning of the Christmas, which bears us to a new hope for a world in which the poor and humble find dignity, relief, and release. Through Mary's song, we enter into a hope for how the world might be on December 26. Her words will find resonance in the mouth of her most holy and blessed son when he unrolls the scripture from Isaiah and proclaims the purpose of his life and his ministry. He comes to tear us from our sin, our greed, our self-serving. He comes to rip us from the allegiances that hurt and maim and destroy. He comes to shred the worlds that are erected on the backs of the poor and vulnerable. He comes to scatter us in the imagination of our hearts, that we might be born anew and afresh. And, he comes through Mary, who not only gives birth, but who knows that she is giving birth to this new coming. Aren't we all called to be Marys - to be joyful messengers of God's gospel - to give birth again and again because the world needs Jesus to be born oh so many times? All of us are needed to labor and groan our way to a new hope, to the light that warms the coldest hearts and chases the shadows of injustice away.

If Christmas and the Christ it proclaims are about anything, they are about a God who brings life out of places where there should be no life. Christmas is God entering into the finite, crazy, embodied world fully and without protection. Let's listen for Mary's voice and let her lead us through to the promise of Christ who is coming, of Emmanuel - God with Us. Look through the ancillary and peripheral of life. There is Mary who sings for a new world, who sings for her child whose body will bear the fullness of God's grace and love. Look through and sing with her.

This next week promises to be busy for everyone. Stop once and a while and hear Mary's song. Heck, join in with her. Let it carry you as only music can to a new place and a new hope. Stop and hear her words sung so many years ago - words we still yearn to hear and feel and know. Mary's song is a bell that calls us home, that pulls us from our places of comfort and repose, and brings us back to our story, which is ever unfolding. Let us, with her, sing, "Our souls magnify the Lord." May it be so. Amen.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Into Deeper Darkness: Shooting in Newtown

I just wrote this on our church's facebook page: "Just a few hours after we posted a joyful message that 35 of our kids will be singing in worship on Sunday, the nation mourns, once again, over the senseless and brutal deaths of children, this time in Conn. QAUMC mourns with deep sorrow over the deaths of the 20 children in Newtown. We pray for the children who escaped death but not a lifelong scarring. We pray for their families and their community. And, we pray for our nation, which has yet to learn how to talk sensibly about violence, safety, and community."

On The Huffington Post, about the fifth story down is "White House: Today Not the Day for Gun Control," but if one scrolls down just a few stories, Hark!, there is a story on gun control.

It's hard not to politicize situations like this, and, indeed, as we say after every national tragedy, we must find a way to deal with guns in the hands of angry, mentally ill, disenfranchised, broken people. My stand on this would probably surprise many. However, today is not the day for this debate. Today is a day to mourn.

I know many of my liberal friends respond, "If not today, when?" While I understand their point, which recognzies the fickle and transitory nature of American emotional convictions, this is still a heartless position to take. Today children are dead. It is okay to stop the political bickering, to set aside NRA affiliation or opposition, to leave behind language like "fascism," "anarchy," "socialism," and phrases like "trying to destroy America" and let this community, these families, and our nation mourn. Precious souls were lost to this world today. Future moms and dads, singers, teachers, artists, insurance salespeople, burger flippers, check-out clerks.

I know many of my conservative friends are already trotting out the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" trope. Don't. It is equally heartless and quite indefensible. Let it go today. In the days and weeks to come, you may need to hone your arguments. Stay silent on this day.

Even as we as Christians are beginning to turn from the deep darkness of Advent toward the beautiful light of Christmas, we must slow our turn and sit in the deep darkness of this day, recognizing that many will not make this turn at all this year. Many will sit in darkness for a long time to come. Those of us privileged not to be directly affected by these deaths are commissioned with a holy task of holding the light for those who cannot touch it, see it, or experience this year. It is up to us to hold up this light even higher, to sing even louder, to act with more compassion, and to tirelessly and relentlessly seek justice and serve as peacemakers in a world filled with too much tragedy, loss, despair, and violence. If we believe in the Prince of Peace, if we believe that we are to be his body in the world today, we have holy work to do. Let us not bind this work with the strictures of partisanship, but be freed by the gospel to seek God's peace on behalf of those whose hearts are so broken and torn that not only can they not seek it but they cannot even dream of it.

Today, Advent became darker. We mourn. I pledge myself to allow those who need to mourn the space to do it. And, I pledge myself to be a seeker of peace - not just in this season, but in the seasons to come. Blessed be the Prince of Peace, the Light of the World, Hope of hope.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Marriage Equality Finally a Reality in Washington State

Throughout the campaign to pass marriage equality in Washington state, many religious voices were raised in opposition. Both the National Organization for Marriage the the LDS pumped in millions of dollars for its defeat. Their efforts proved ineffective, however, and marriage equality finally became reality. This past week, couples lined up to receive their marriage licenses. Choral groups serenaded those in line. It was a celebratory event that spread throughout the downtown area. Then, on Sunday, couples were finally able to marry. The King County Courthouse opened to hundreds of couples that streamed through line to be married. Two couples were married Sunday evening at a performance of the Seattle Men's Chorus. And, at Seattle First Baptist Church, couples married en masse. During the evening, the Paramount Theater opened for a giant wedding reception with speeches by the governor and other dignitaries, but more importantly, for dancing and celebration. So many have waited so long to do something so normal and so holy; it was time to party.

My own denomination, heck, even my own congregation, is not of one mind on marriage equality. We will be offering the same kinds of marital support at my church for all couples. If two people support and love one another, live in fidelity, and pledge their troth one to the other, it is my obligation and privilege to stand with them and to offer blessings upon their union. Somewhere along the line, Protestants ceased to recognize marriage as a sacrament. While I understand the reasons for so doing, something was lost. You see, I don't "perform" a wedding or "marry" people. In this sense, marriage is a sacrament. The wedding is an outward sign of an inward grace - how we refer to sacraments. This weekend, there were many outwards signs of much inward grace. And, every church I serve will support grace in all of its forms.

I have been pretty quiet about the weddings taking place across the state - all over my city. But, I have watched them. The photos of joyful children literally hopping up and down with excitement for their two moms or two dads. Families in tears of joy. Couples in shocked disbelief that their state and some of their churches and synagogues were welcoming them in the exact same way as every other couple.

This seems like a problem for the privileged. Marriage equality. In some ways it is. But in many ways it is about basic civil rights. Basic human dignity. Basic spiritual nurture and care. There is nothing superfluous or ancillary about these things.

I know that millions upon millions of people think that marriage equality redefines marriage, perverts family, and harms children. The data don't support these prejudices, as much as fringe research projects are lifted up as proof. I know that many people are "turned off" by gay marriage by what I call the "ick factor." Yet, more and more people are opening their hearts and changing their minds. Even eight years ago, these weddings would have been but a distant dream. Today, they are reality. Let me say that again. Today, these marriages are reality, not only as an inward grace, but in the code of law...at least state law.

By no means is the fight for equal rights over. By no means is the struggle for equal spiritual care and nurture over. Sadly, religious people tend to be further behind on this than other people. However, those who try to paint all religious people with the same brush are wrong. Hundreds of couples will have weddings just as mundane and as sacred as every other couple...in churches...with ugly bridesmaid dresses...with bickering parents...and friends who show up drunk to the rehearsal. What a wonderful thought. Churches and synagogues will welcome people to no fanfare at all. That's really my dream. The celebration that is going on right now is wonderful. History is being made. But, what a day it will be when Adam and Steve can be married just as easily and without any more attention that Adam and Eve. Then we can focus more on their love and less on the political struggle. That's what will support and strengthen these families - the simple opportunity to be families.

Congratulations, history makers. Thank you to all of the civil servants who made this weekend's weddings possible. Blessings to all of the churches that threw open their doors in welcome...and repentance.

One more photo-essay, just because they are all wonderful.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Remembering Thomas Merton (Jan 31, 1915-Dec10,1968)

“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous...”
-Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton died two months after I was born and yet he has always seemed very near to me. When I first read his autobiography "The Seven Storey Mountain," my life was profoundly affected. I was seventeen years old, and this book left an indelible mark on my soul.

His was a voice of peace amidst war, a voice for the oppressed amidst tyranny, a voice of friendship in a divided world, a voice of raw honesty, a voice of struggle, a voice I could hear. His friendships with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Dalai Lama fascinated me. That he was a Trappist who was a writer was an apparent contradiction that made me smile. His interest in technological advances, anthropology, and culture made him relevant for me in ways that the clearly religious and self-aware pious weren't. Thomas Merton profoundly affected me because he was acutely human. He was a holy man, to be sure, but he was a man.

I give thanks for his life and for how his writings and witness continue to influence other seventeen year olds, all of whom face their own mountains to scale.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

"The Beginning is Near" - A Sermon for Advent 2C

The Beginning is Near.

A photo of this sign was sent to me a week or so ago. It has stuck with me. Of course, we never hear "apocalypticists" herald that The Beginning is Near; they always announce that the end is near. Just to show you how much attention we give to the idea of an apocalypse, I want to show you what I found when I went to the internet to pull off a quick definition of "apocalypse." The following three things came up and, I kid you not, were news headlines. They read:
"Be honest; Apocalypse seems exciting, in a way" (CNN)
"Mayan Apocalypse: spreads as Dec 21 nears" (Telegraph)
and, more simply: "Zombie Apocalypse"

All around us are murmurings of apocalyptic activity. Just yesterday, I treated myself to a spa day and my massage therapist started talking about the Mayan calendar and odd cosmic alignments. I remember not long ago when the country was up in arms about Y2K. And, of course, in our perpetual war on terror, we color coded our safety in such a simplistic and unhelpful way that no one could take it seriously, but it was always there on our tvs glowing orange at us. Whether people are decrying the state of our political affairs, nuclear armament in unstable or despotic countries, or things as fanciful as cosmic alignments and zombies coming to eat our brains, it's easy for us to believe that the end is near. But, what about the beginning? It seems much more difficult to trust or expect in new beginnings.

Our readings from Malachi and Luke are all about beginnings. Endings, too, for sure. But the endings serve only one purpose, to give way for a beginning. You see, I finally made my way through Mayans and Zombies and found a proper definition of apocalypse on the Merriam-Webster website, which says this: "one of the Jewish and Christian writings of 200 b.c. to a.d. 150 marked by pseudonymity, symbolic imagery, and the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the ruling powers of evil and raises the righteous to life in a messianic kingdom." That's what apocalypse really means. A cosmic ending to injustice and the beginning of a holy and righteous justice. An apocalypse is an an ending/beginning collision.

Luke is not considered apocalyptic writing, but it is tinted with apocalyptic assumptions...and hopes. Right off the bat, Luke does something that none of the other gospels do - it includes three songs that proclaim a coming ending/beginning moment. This is something we need to pay close attention to. When a non psalmist includes a song, something major is happening. In the Exodus, after the Israelites cross through the parted waters, Miriam dances and sings what is possibly one of the oldest hymns in the Bible: “I will sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea."
(Exodus 15)

So, when Luke puts song in the mouths of Mary, Simeon, and Zechariah, we need to pay attention. Mary sings the Magnificat (and we will, too, on Dec 23). Simeon sings what is known as the Nunc Dimittis (or in English "now dismiss"). It is a beautiful song of beginning/ending collision. In his song, Simeon, an old man who has faithfully waited for the Messiah, stands as a representative for all of Israel and, in many ways, the whole world, when he sings at the sight of the infant Jesus: "Lord, now you let your servant go in peace;
Your word has been fulfilled.
My eyes have seen the salvation
You have prepared in the sight of every people,
A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people, Israel."

What a gorgeous and haunting giving way to God's glory.

Today, we hear Zechariah's song. The angel Gabriel visits Zechariah in his priestly duties and announces that he and his wife will bear forth a son who will be a messenger for the Messiah. Zechariah is struck dumb. His voice is muted until his son is born. There is no way, his rational mind tells him, that he and his wife, advanced in age, could bear forth new life. In many ways, Zechariah is like Sarah in the Old Testament. Beyond child bearing years, Sarah laughs at hearing of her impending pregnancy. Such a beginning is impossible. She is compelled to laughter. Zechariah is pulled into muteness. But, God has different plans for each of these of our ancestors. And, once those plans are put into place, what collisions we have. And, what songs are sung.

Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth both hail from priestly lineage. Yet, they do not bring to us a priest. They give birth to a prophet who heralds the ending of one age and announces the immanent appearance of a new age, which will be known by a man of peace. Zechariah's song is known as the Benedictus, so called for its first word "Blessed." It is no coincidence that his song begins with that word and ends with "peace." This is both blessing and proclamation of hope. In fact, the coming Messiah's role as the Prince of Peace runs throughout Luke in a very special way. He uses the word "peace" more than all of the other gospels combined. Zechariah sings of the approaching Messiah and of the immanent birth of his own son, who will prepare the way for this One of peace. His song situates both of these two births in a long line of God's mighty acts with, through, and on behalf of the Jewish people. He uses the language of the prophets, who heralded their own delivery from oppression and slavery and exile. He places the coming One in the House of David. His song anticipates the very wonder it proclaims. It is a masterpiece of faith.

In Luke 3, our gospel reading for today, the gospel writer once again wants us to believe that new beginnings will be transpiring here on this earth among us as real people. The reading starts, "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,

3:2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness." These are real people, a real political world, a real religious world. When Jesus comes, it will not be in an abstract way. He comes. Here. A new beginning here. In our mess. In this mess. Among us. That's the Incarnation which we proclaim during this season.

Last week, I invited you not to run away from the darkness of this world or the darkness in your souls. I said that for the season of light to have any impact on us, it must contrast with the shadows of this world. Today, we move from that more abstract image of Light amidst Darkness into the concrete world of the here and now, of what it means for God's hope to be born, for the injustices, wounds, and injuries of one age to pass away and for something else, something better and holy to take their place.

So, I ask you. How much easier is it to believe only in endings. In death. In mortality. In broken political systems? How much easier is it to trust that others are out to hurt, wound, belittle, and dismiss you? It's so much easier to believe that the good things of this world will go away leaving us only with despair. It's easier because the alternative requires something of us while despair does not. With despair, we relinquish our part in the world, our hope, our expectations of goodness and connection and love and reparation. But, with songs like those sung by Mary, Simeon, and Zechariah...with a real apocalypse, we expect change here and now. Changes that will bring a new age of healing and wholeness and love and justice and, as Zechariah sings, peace. To trust in this new beginning requires us to invest in it, to offer ourselves as do Mary, Simeon, Sarah, Zechariah and the soon to be born John the messenger and preparer of the way. If we really expect Jesus to be born on Christmas, for God to break into our world in a cosmic way that upsets the powers and principalities of this world, then we have no choice but to respond and to invest ourselves and to offer all that we have and are for this new age. Such a hope places a claim on us.

As we move inexorable toward Christmas, I invite you to trust not in the Mayan calendar or wars on terror or the zombie apocalypse. I invite you to trust in something much more fanciful and difficult. I invite you to sing with Mary, Simeon, and Zechariah - to labor with John in preparing the way - and to trust that The Beginning is Near. Amen.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Incarnation

"God becomes human
out of love
for humanity.
God does not seek the most perfect
human being
with whom to be united
but takes on human nature
as it is."

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

What happened to love and grace?

Recently, a few people have asked me for advice about how to speak with conservative Christian (fill in the blank - friends, family, students, co-workers...). This can be difficult as religious and political differences can tug at the bonds that hold friends, family, and co-workers together. It can be an awkward position to sit around the Thanksgiving table and hear ad hominem attacks on politicians, other public figures, or even ideas that one supports. At what point should someone speak up? How? Should we just sit quietly and hope for the horror to end? Sometime, sadly, those critiques can turn racist or fanciful in a way that demands a hearing on the facts.

As Christendom dies (well, it's already dead, but many refuse to believe it), it's very difficult for people to acknowledge and accept that Christianity is no longer the de facto ordering of American life. Blue laws are gone, Christmas holiday is now winter break, and yes, some Christmas trees are called holiday trees. It's how thing are. They are not going back. And, if people would awaken to the reality of times gone by, by and large folks might choose to live now anyway. Would we want to live during a time when antibiotics didn't exist? As much as people decry the nation's social net, talk to any senior citizen and ask if he or she would voluntarily give up Social Security. Do women want to lose the vote? Be less educated? Have no protections against rape? What about African Americans? Anyone want to return to Jim Crow laws? People have concocted a past that never happened. "Leave it to Beaver" was a TV show, not a real family. Ask those TV pundits who cry their crocodile tears over the demise of Christianity how often they attend worship, teach Sunday school, or serve on a church committee. Ask them if they give to a church, much less tithe. The loss of Christendom has left the country as a whole in chaos; that part is true. As one hegemony gives way, it leaves us all wondering what will take its place. Something will, but what? A natural response is for people to become more tribal, reactionary, nostalgic, and ideological. This is what we hear in the harsh words of people who call President Obama a Muslim, a Kenyan, a threat to American values. These are the attacks of scared people. What do those of us do who are not scared? How do we respond? What should our posture be?

For those who are Christian or who were raised Christian, it is important to become clear on what Christianity means to him or her. In answering the questions asked of me, I have had to get clear on what being Christian means to me, even more than usual. Fundamentally, what it means. And, how it is that two people who both claim this moniker - "Christian" - can mean such different things.

It seems to me that at the bottom of the many and varied debates about Christianity and culture today, there exists a fundamental (yes, that word again) discrepancy regarding core values. Yes, I say "core values" and not beliefs. I use core values because I think they color the language used to describe one's beliefs. We'll get to that in a minute.

To generalize (hopefully in a more rather than less helpful way): It seems that liberal mainliners focus on two teachings of Jesus: 1) Love God and love neighbor and 2) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is through these two teachings that they view the other activities of Jesus and, thus, what it means to be a Christian. For example, when Jesus heals people he is demonstrating love of neighbor by restoring them to community. He is loving them. Or, another example, when one of his followers cuts off the ear of one coming to arrest him, Jesus restores the ear and goes peacefully with the soldiers to his accusers. He does to that man as he would have preferred to have been treated; Jesus does not respond to violence with violence. Not once. Not ever. This strain of Christianity tends to focus more on how communal life is ordered in the here and now. It relies upon these two teachings for guidance in public policy and in liturgy. This Christian was once called a social gospel Christian, although many would not claim that label today. Moreover, more and more different "brands" of Christians are falling into this category. You have Evangelicals like the folks at Sojourners, Roman Catholics, and Baptists joining the old mainline Protestants in this pool of Christianity. This kind of Christianity is not limited to one denomination, one seminary, or one leader (Martin Luther, John Wesley). This Christian cares about Jesus' teachings more than anything else. They tend to view the Old Testament as the natural history of Jesus and the Resurrection as a teaching about God's ability to overcome the powers and principalities of this world, even the power of death. The Resurrection is not unlike the virgin birth or the story of Abraham and Sarah. The virgin should not yet be able to bring forth life. The aged Sarah should no longer be able to bring forth life. God is a bringer of life. This is not, as some conservatives would have us believe, a weak myth; it is a strong one. It is a core value that colors how one sees, understands, and interacts with the world. In a way, these folks could claim the title of "pro-life" if it weren't already staked out by another party. This kind of Christianity focuses on the life to come...after this age of injustice is beaten by the God of life, but this coming age takes place on this earth.

A particular strain of conservative Christians would never say that they jettison the teachings of love and neighbor, or do unto others, however, they show preference to other core values. These folks show preference for pleasing God in order to get into heaven. This world is but a dress rehearsal for another world after we die. Pleasing God become paramount. Even those traditions that emphasize that God and only God saves, pleasing God in order to get to heaven becomes a focus. It's an internal conflict that is never challenged...at least not very much. Yes, Christians should do good works here and now. They should feed the poor, tend the sick, and welcome the stranger, but the focus is on the life to come...after this life. These folks tend to favor the teachings of Paul. Through Paul they read the New Testament. Many would argue this is how it should be as Paul wrote before the gospel writers. In the 1800s, a new strain of this type of Christian emerged; it is called "premillenialism." Premillenialists are those who expect Jesus to physically return and reign for 1000 years. Not all conservative Christians are premillenialists. Not all disbelieve evolution, but many do. Very conservative Christianity is a very large and diverse tent. It contains conservative mainline Protestants and pre-millenialists. Many in this group tie their faith to the provability of the Bible - that is, what happened in the Bible is literally true, not true in any other way. Truth = fact. Period. Again, denominationalism has broken down in such a way that one can't point to an Assembly of God person can say, "That's a conservative Christian" in any meaningful way. To find this kind of conservative Christian (note I say "this kind"), one can look to any mainline denomination, to Roman Catholicism (increasingly in positions of extreme power), the Anglican Communion, and so on. Some of these folks think that religious traditions like Advent and liturgical colors and the lectionary are "born of man" and are thus corrupt and should be discarded. Others love liturgy. It is important, despite my generalizations, not to lump everyone in together in the same way that "liberal Christians" are not all of on stripe.

In short, core values that are in conflict with each are concerned with different and competing purposes of Christianity. Is it to "save souls for the afterlife" or is it to "live as Jesus lived"? This fundamental disagreement, I believe, pushes all of the other conflicts in the church universal. It drives what love means. For a conservative, it is more loving to correct, even harshly judge, someone if it will save them from burning eternally in hell. Therefore, "right belief" or orthodoxy becomes more important, more loving, than for a liberal, who tends to be more interested in right action ("orthopraxy") or in the value of belonging. For a liberal, it is more loving to accept and embrace difference, welcome questions, and tend wounds. Both would say they are acting out of a loving stance. One for eternity. One in the here and now.

What is not loving, regardless of these values, is ad hominem attacks. What is not loving is the creeping role of a bastardized karma that has infiltrated Christianity (note the word "bastardized"). The idea that one gets what one deserves is antithetical to Christianity. Oddly, it is the most orthodox and conservative of views to believe that by God's grace we do not receive what we deserve. Within this form of Christianity, which usually preferences "substitutionary atonement," Jesus died in my stead. Or, he is the sacrifice needed to save my soul. Or, he is the scapegoat for humankind's sin. In any of these most conservative theologies (rarely found in liberal Christianity), human beings DO NOT receive what they deserve. Quite the opposite. So, when conservative Christians start talking about payback or retributive justice (giving people what's coming to them), they have left behind (pun intended) one of their core beliefs - atonement theology. Veiled threats and not so veiled wishes for hardship or even death to fall upon one's enemy is not Christian, despite the cherry picking of scripture people use to support their uncharitable remarks and actions. The division within Christianity regarding core values should not be an excuse for hate or violence or their tolerance. There is no grace in the bastardized karma, which says that people receive their just deserts. Sick? You probably deserve it (and I won't pay for your treatment). Hurricane? Gays. Killed in war? Gays (again). People on both the left and the right are guilty of this thinking.

This thinking is most especially clear in this kind of "logic" - the economy is bad, Obama is president, Obama is Muslim (factual error), Obama hates God, you voted for Obama, the country gets what it deserves. Is there such a thing as cause and effect in the world? Yes. If we pollute, then life on this planet changes for the worse. If we elect a person who makes poor decisions on policy, we get bad returns from said policy. But, these are not religious claims. This is simple cause and effect. We needn't call Obama a Muslim if he isn't (he isn't) or a Kenyan (born in Hawaii) or a hater of American values. He may simply see a different path to a better tomorrow that you do. He may be wrong. His policies may be bad. I happen to agree with him more often than I disagree, although I disagree strongly on certain things. It is unnecessary to depict him with a bone in his nose (explicit racism) to vehemently disagree with his policies. It is, frankly, unChristian to do so.

In addition to "logic," people turn to religion to support their non-religious views. Disagree with marriage equality? Why? Because the Bible says so. No. The Bible supports polygamy much more than it supports monogamy. Why? Get to the why of the argument. Because the idea of you having sex with someone of the same sex is icky? Most likely that's the answer. I have found that once people are forced to leave behind weak religious argumentation about marriage the only argument left is the "ick" argument. I actually have a great deal of empathy for this response. Let's deal with it. Not flippantly. Not by saying, "Then don't have sex with someone of the same sex." That's not helpful, either. Let's unpack all of the misogyny, sexism, and ingrained self-loathing embedded in the reaction against marriage equality, but let's discuss the real issue. The objection isn't religion. It isn't. Don't argue with me. I know. It isn't.

In dealing with difference, there are two core Christian values (not just Christian, by the way) that should always take precedence over all others: grace and love. We can vociferously disagree and not strain our relationships if we favor grace and love above all else. Generous love, that is, not corrective love. So, I suppose I have some direction on what love is. Grace and love. Where are they in our discourse? In our religious discourse? In our political discourse?

When family members start saying things that we might consider nonsense, simply ask, "Does this require a response?" If it is devoid of grace and love, the answer is probably "yes." If they are simply espousing things you disagree with, probably "no." But always respond in grace and love. Maybe with humor. Always believing in their better character. If you find that you don't believe in their better character, then it might be time to ask about the health of that relationship. I'm not always the most tactful person; I've been accused many times in my life of being quite the opposite. Yet, I recognize that grace and love can take us a long way. Right and wrong rarely get us very far at all. At the dinner table, over the beer with a friend, at the water cooler with a co-worker, when the uncomfortable moment arises, try to find out their core value, and then respond in grace and love.

*One perfect example of two Christians whose core values in conflict can be found in this exchange:
The President of conservative seminary Asbury wrote this article on marriage equality.
Liberal UMC pastor Sandy Brown wrote this rebuttal.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Sermon Advent 1C "Dark and Light-An Advent Rhythm"

A few days ago, the ceiling light (my only light) in my study burned out. Because I’m too short to reach it, changing it requires me to go to my detached garage, lift the ancient wooden door, scrape around in boxes until I find a replacement, carry in the ladder, climb up, remove the fixture, and change the bulb. Okay, in the scheme of things, not a complicated process, but with work and rain, I simply couldn’t bother, so it’s still burned out.

As Advent begins, I’ve been thinking about light and darkness and justice and righteousness and signs and portents and a baby. It’s a lot . But I keep coming back to my study. Light, for me, has always meant hitting a switch and voila – Light! All my life. I’ve never lived without electricity. Even when I spent time in Congo, although it was sometimes intermittent, the house I stayed in had electricity…even hot water. On the evenings when the power was off, we simply turned to our flashlights and battery powered lights strategically placed all over the house. Switches…and voila…light.

This has not been true for most of human history. By and large, we were active during daylight hours and we were quiet, still, and restful during the night. It was a rhythm that ordered our whole interaction with the world. While today we suffer from what scientists call “light pollution,” this would have been a ridiculous concept even 100 years ago. We are oversaturated with illumination: the light from street lamps, buildings that never go dark, clocks with digital displays, TVs, computers, ereaders like the Nook and Kindle, car headlights, and so on. We are so overstimulated that we don’t know how to stop, slow down, take stock, be still, appreciate the darkness, and get back into the groove, the rhythm that evolution has relied upon in us for safety, rest, and rejuvenation. A few years ago, I lived near I5 and I used to get a little loopy thinking about how the traffic never stopped on the interstate. All night long headlights burned through the darkness and people catapulted their way from one destination to another. Culturally we do not stop. And this culture of limitlessness, of constant movement, it has a cost. Advent can help us pause.
Advent is not just a season of Light. Too much light washes everything out, washing away. No. Advent is a season of light in the midst of darkness. Darkness and light playing off one another. We have to welcome the darkness in order to appreciate the light. It’s important to know and not be bowed by the darkness in our world, in our lives.
As a holy season of preparation like Lent, Advent is a time of prayer and preparation. But, the Latin root of the word for Advent means “to come.” Something is coming; and we are waiting for it. But, waiting, anticipating, resting. These things are not our forte.

In many ways, Advent is a seasonal mirror of the Jewish Sabbath. Jews start their days at sundown. We begin our year (Advent is the start of the Christian calendar) in a season of darkness. During Jewish Sabbath, people are called to worship, reflection, community, and joy. Advent does as well. Jewish Sabbath leads people away from the busy-ness of everyday life back into a rhythm predicated on the belief that we were made for no other purpose than to commune with our God. Advent brings us back to our purpose, too. During this season, more than any other during the church year, we celebrate all of the many titles and roles given to and taken on by Jesus. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, Light of the World, Word of God, vulnerable child, a baby born into poverty, Emmanuel (God with us), and so on. During our waiting, we anticipate the coming of this complex and wonderful God.  Moreover, we can’t begin to commune with God if we can’t spot God, if we can’t see God, feel God, know God.
Luke’s portents could have been written today: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” Whoever says the Bible is irrelevant hasn’t read it. This past week, the UN has been gathered in Qatar to wrangle, once again, over global climate change. Once again, the world had few expectations of this meeting. And, once again, it hardly was covered by the media. Yet, hurricanes continue to intensify, the oceans continue to acidify, the Northern hemisphere is growing warmer with fall and winter becoming delayed by weeks, fresh water is scarce in many places, drought, and climate change driven famine are taking place. There is distress among the nations due to the roaring of the sea and waves. And we are confused. To address climate change with any seriousness would require us to interrupt our patterns of behavior – globally to do so – and to change our rhythms of life. To slow down. To use less. To expect less autonomy. To live differently.

Luke, clearly, wasn’t talking about climate change, but his words are prescient, all the same. Luke, recalling words from a prophet, speaks of international chaos. We see that all around us, too: throughout Africa and the Middle East, but all around us. Even here in the United States, as we debate the fiscal cliff, economic policy, and engage in hyper partisan politics, we are fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the earth.

We experience spiritual darkness, too. Loss of loved ones, economic stress and distress, old and painful psychic wounds, uncertain futures, unknown purpose, our own mortality. Individually, we faint from fear and foreboding.

Then Jesus tells a story, which seems to make little sense. A great storyteller, but sometimes his stories leave us scratching our heads in wonder. Yes, sprouts on trees tell us that life is coming, but what has that to do with the sun, the moon, and the stars, and distress upon the earth. Moreover, this passage comes from the end of the gospel just before the events of Jesus’ final week of life. They move us toward the crucifixion. Why are they read during Advent?

Change. This is a story about change. About endings and beginnings. God’s time is more mystical than chronological. During Advent, we look back at the birth of Jesus but we also look for Christ coming again. Each Advent we declare that this age is ending and a new one is being born. We celebrate not just to arrivals of Jesus (his birth and the second coming) but we remind ourselves that God is born into the world all of the time. We are incarnational people. God is here. In the hyperbolic portents but in the quiet moments, in our struggles, in the poor babies born today, in the margins of society now, not just 2000 years ago, not just in the future. We wait for what is all around us. We celebrate the birth of the not yet. It’s a jumble of mystical wonderful frightening experiences. This is the why the angels must declare again and again, “Fear not!” for this kind of mystical hodge podge is uncontrollable, uncontainable, unpredictable. It is interruptive and disruptive. Change. Everything changes.

Where is the darkness in your soul? Is there a way you can move into your darkness this Advent – embrace it a little? Touch the sorrow. Touch the loss. Touch the fear. And remember, everything changes. There is a light that splits your darkness. A light different from all others. A light emanating from the Light of the World. A light found in the stars. A light that is leading us, sometimes circuitously for sure, but leading us all the same from the stars to the stable, to the side of a God who is born among us, who knows the completeness of the human condition. There is a light of justice that shines wherever there is injustice and oppression. There is another light that calls us back to a rhythm of existence of dependence upon it; it demands that we let go of the artificial lights upon which we rely. Let them go, it says. Let them dim. Let them fall to the ground. They are worthless. There is only one light that shines with truth and mercy, and it cannot be found in the sky or in a lamp.

Go to Christmas by way of a route of rest and justice. Awaiting the change that only our God brings. So, close your eyes and enter that moment of darkness as I leave you with a poem from Wendell Berry called The Peace of Wild Things. It says,

"The Peace of Wild Things"
-Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of the wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.




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