Monday, December 11, 2017

Sermon: Breathing the living-giving breath (Dec 10, 2017)

Advent 2 (NL)
December 10, 2017
Ezekiel 37:1-14

            I got some positive feedback last week about offering you some context before the reading of the lesson, so that you have a sense of where it sits in the arch of the biblical narrative. So once again, I’d like to offer you some context for our reading.
            Ezekiel was a prophet during the period of the Babylonian exile – similar time to Daniel, from whom we heard last week. The Babylonian exile happened in a couple waves: the first wave of deportations happened in 597 BC. This sent primarily leaders and educated elites out of Jerusalem and into Babylon. Ezekiel, who was a priest in Jerusalem, was among those first deported. He begins his career as a prophet during this time, prophesying a lot of doom and gloom, judgment against Israel and Judah, especially leaders in Southern Kingdom. But then about 10 years later, Ezekiel learns of the fall of Jerusalem. This is devastating news for him and for the other exiles, because Jerusalem was more than a beloved city. It was the very center of their worship life, the only place to properly worship the one true God. With the destruction of that city and the Temple, the people had some very serious religious and spiritual concerns. And so at that point, Ezekiel’s prophecies turn away from judgment, and more toward hope and restoration. Today’s reading, the Valley of Dry Bones, is probably his best-known prophecy, and it is one of immense hope.
Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones
in St. Nicolas Church, Great Britten
            Last week I also mentioned the literary style of our story from Daniel. This reading from Ezekiel, we should understand, is a vision, not a literal event. Many of Ezekiel’s prophesies are visions, allegories, or otherwise symbolic. That should be pretty obvious, but – just making sure!
Okay, here’s the story. 

O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.
            One of my family’s many Advent traditions growing up was to light the Advent wreath at dinner, and sing this hauntingly beautiful Advent hymn before we prayed. I have been singing it since before I can remember, and those words came out of my mouth before I had any clue what they meant or the story behind them. I was a teenager or young adult before I really thought about what they meant. It suddenly occurred to me, “Why are we singing ‘Rejoice’? This sounds sad. I don’t know what all those words refer to, but I know mourning isn’t good, and lonely is definitely not good, and captive sounds pretty bad, too. Rejoice?”
            Now I recognize this as a story very familiar to me – both because I know better the biblical story, and because it is a story I see in my own life, metaphorically speaking. That is, it is a story in which sadness and despair find their hope in looking toward the salvation that is to come.
The biblical story is a long narrative – the whole Bible, really – but is well captured in today’s reading. Here are a people, the Israelites, who are captive to strange rulers and a strange way of life, who are lonely in exile, and mourning the loss of their homes and all that they know and love. Without the Temple, and with Jerusalem destroyed, they were riddled with questions like, “Does God even care about us anymore? Can we reach God from all the way in Babylon, and can God reach us – and does God even want to?”
And so they cry out, “O God-with-us, Emmanuel, come! Come be God-with-us!” Do something to get us out of here! Or in the words of those dry bones, “Our bones are dried up. Our hope is lost, and we are cut off completely.” Come here and do something, O Emmanuel!
Of course, this carol wasn’t written yet in the 6th century Before Christ, but Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones is in its own way an answer to that cry. It starts off like the verse of the hymn – lonely, captive, mourning. Those bones are dry, so dry. It is truly a dire situation, in which hope is completely lost. As Ezekiel takes us along for the ride, looking around and around that valley full of dry bones, our hearts, too, plead: O Come, Emmanuel! Do something to release Israel, captive to this death and hopelessness. They mourn in lonely exile here!  
But then… the rattling. At God’s Word, those bones start to shake, and move. They come together, bone to bone. Sinews form, and skin – it is remarkable! Yet for all that, they are still a valley of cadavers – there is no life in them. That doesn’t come until… what? What brings life? Ahh, the breath! The very breath of God! Just as God once breathed into the nostrils of a mud-made Adam and brought him to life, so the Spirit of the Lord comes into the army of cadavers, once a valley of very dry bones, now rejuvenated, transformed, indeed, resurrected, into a vast multitude. Hope is restored and life is once again a possibility. With God, life is always on the horizon.
I said I see this story even in my own life. There are several ways, but this week, I’m thinking about my Isaac, who celebrated this week his first birthday. Isaac, I’ll confess, was not a part of my plan – at least not yet. I had a 6 month old and was not ready for another baby, I was tired, and I was not especially pleased to be pregnant again. It didn’t help that the time I was pregnant with him was an emotionally trying time for me for other reasons. Now, of course, I couldn’t be happier that he is ours! But then, I didn’t really know what to do with this reality.
Since his birthday was this week, I was thinking a lot about that night I spent laboring him into the world. I had just sung in two remarkable and demanding concerts with my choir, pieces so difficult that I had spent hours hammering them into my head. So it was no surprise, I guess, when I felt that first serious contraction in the darkness just before midnight, that a refrain from that concert popped into my head. It was in Latin, so I didn’t think much about the meaning, but the rhythm of the words was what echoed through my head as I rocked and breathed my way through the pain. That’s what you quickly figure out in labor – when the pain starts, breathe deeply. Pain must always be accompanied by breath, the deeper the better. Breath is what makes it possible to get through the pain.
Later, I looked up the Latin, and discovered that the refrain meant this: “Know ye that the Lord is God: he made us and not we ourselves.” And so it was on
New love
that refrain, and that breath, that my Isaac made his speedy appearance, just as the sun was rising, and took his own first breath of air before being placed in my arms. And there, with his first breath – a new life began, and my heart reached a new depth of love.
When the pain starts – start breathing deeply. That is one lesson we see in Ezekiel. When the hopelessness seems to overwhelm – breathe in deeply the breath of God. When your cry is only of lament – breathe deeply. When you mourn in lonely exile, waiting for release – breathe deeply. Then we shall know that the Lord is God, that God made us, and that God has the power to remake us, to enliven us again, to transform our dry old bones into newness of life.
Where does your story meet this biblical story? Perhaps you feel your bones are dead and dry far beyond life. Maybe the demands on you and your time and energy are so great that you fall into bed each night bone tired. Or you watch the news and feel the energy and hope drain from your heart. Maybe the clutter in your life – your home, your schedule, your thoughts – leave little room for self-care, or for prayer. Or you look at your finances and wonder how you can possibly crawl out from under this much debt? As the world around us rejoices with Christmas cheer, maybe you find yourself feeling sadder than ever, as you grieve the losses of your life, the people you wish were still here, the time of life now gone by. Are there so many demands pulling you this way and that, that you find it impossible to find the time to nourish your spiritual life?
Whatever place in your life feels dry and hopeless… what would it take to once again experience life there? In what area of your life do you need the breath of God to restore, renew, or resurrect you? Where do you crave a transformation from death and hopelessness, into life?
For me, I experience dryness in the search for peace – peace in my life, peace in the world, peace in my heart. And so the words of our presiding bishop Elizabeth Eaton, in the most recent issue of Living Lutheran, our ELCA publication, really resonated with me. She writes: “Here we are in Advent. This season doesn’t exist in secular culture, where everything is barreling toward Christmas. No time to wait, no time to notice, no time to be present. Not this. Not now. All of a sudden we will find ourselves on the day after Christmas not knowing how we got there. Advent is a holy season, a season that bids us to be present, to be still. So much is evoked in this season – hope, longing, the bittersweet awareness that the world is beautiful and broken. Consider all of these things. Sit with them. Pray with them. Be aware of this time of great promise that comes … when night is longest.”
What beautiful and timely advice. It is just what I need at this time to remind me to breathe in that life-renewing, restorative breath of God. It is just what I need to remember that although we wait in this season for the Prince of Peace to come, we also already have the gift of that Spirit of peace. It is a gift that has been given to God’s people from the beginning of time – first moving over the chaotic waters of creation, then blown into Adam’s nostrils, then continually
Untitled Pentecost by John Brokenshire
active throughout time, even to enlivening a valley full of very dead, very dry bones.
And so let this be an Advent gift also to us today. In a moment, we will have an opportunity to breathe in the breath of God in whatever way best suits you. If you’re anything like me, time for quietly sitting and breathing deeply can be hard to come by. So, following the sermon, you are invited to breathe in the life-giving breathe of God by meditating on images, or quietly sitting and praying, or coloring this page. Maybe if your brain is as busy as mine, it would be useful for you to have a mantra. One of my favorites is simply to breathe in and think, “Breath of God,” and breathe out and pray, “Breathe in me.” Or the one Bishop Eaton suggested in the piece I just quoted is, “Just this. Just now.” Maybe you will consider offering a particular prayer you have for this day and this time – if so, write it and include it in this basket, and we will pray it during the prayers of intercession.
Now, I know, maybe this may feel silly to you. It is different than what we usually do, and maybe you feel embarrassed. But Advent is all about anticipating the greatest disruption to the “way we’ve always done things” that the world has ever known. Imagine – God becoming human! I’m sure that wasn’t comfortable, either. So I hope you will engage in this few minutes in whatever way you are able, and that you will find in it that God’s breath restores some of the dryness in your spirit, and/or that it will encourage you to bring that practice home. May we all experience the life-restoring breath of God.
Let us pray… Breath of God, as you breathed into those very dry bones and brought them to life, breathe into us today. As you restored the hope of a lonely, mourning people in exile, restore our hope today. As you promised to bring your peace to all the earth, bring your peace to us today. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Following meditative time (from Dag Hammarskjold):
Thou who art over us,
Thou who art one of us,
Thou who art, Also within us.
May all see Thee – in me also,
May I prepare the way for Thee.
May I thank Thee for all that shall to my lot,
May I also not forget the needs of others.
Keep me in Thy love
As Thou wouldst that all should be kept in mine.
May everything in this my being be directed to Thy glory
And may I never despair.
For I am under Thy hand, And in Thee is all power and goodness.
Give me a pure heart that I may see Thee,
A humble heart that I may hear Thee,
A heart of love that I may serve Thee,

A heart of faith that I may abide in Thee. Amen.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Sermon: Maintaining hope in a fiery furnace (Dec. 3, 2017)

Advent 1 (NL)
December 3, 2017
Daniel 3:1, 8-30 (Fiery Furnace)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Before we get into our story, let’s set the scene. The story Daniel writes takes place during the exile. King Nebuchadnezzar has plundered the city of Jerusalem, and forced its residents to take refugee status, leaving their homes to relocate primarily in Babylon. Some of those Jews were actually given positions of high status – like Daniel himself and his three buddies, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who had been appointed over the affairs of the king. But high position or not, the Jews living in Babylon were oppressed: they were not allowed to own a Torah (their scripture), or circumcise their sons (as God commanded), or keep the Sabbath. And now, as we will see at the beginning of today’s story, they are being asked even to give up the most basic tenet of their faith: the first commandment. They are faced with the problem: do we take the path of least resistance and do what the king says, hoping that eventually God will lead us back home and forgive our sin? Or, do we stand up to the king and refuse to abandon who we are?
One other quick note before we get into this – this story is a form of political satire. We see political satire all the time today, in which elements of the truth are exaggerated to make a point or poke fun, and that’s exactly what Daniel is doing: the idol is impossibly large, the astrologers are know-it-all narks, and the king is painted as a big buffoon with rage issues. It’s really a pretty funny story. So – here it is!

[read story: Daniel 3:1, 8-30]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

The Israelites were living in despair – unable to live into their identity as the chosen people of God, unable to worship, longing for their homes, uncertain for their future. Today, when we find ourselves in despair about a situation, we often look to humor for relief, and that is just what Daniel does here: he offers into this time of great despair, this piece of political satire. I think sometimes we get stuck in thinking that everything in the Bible happened just as it says, or something close to it at least, but to view it that way loses the richness of the biblical witness. Sometimes things aren’t true because they are factual. They are true because they draw us into deeper reflection on an essential truth of our faith, and in so doing draw us closer to God. In a time in which cries of “fake news!” have us questioning what we can believe, satire may get a bad wrap – but satire never claimed to be fact. Its purpose is to poke fun at something by exaggerating it, and in so doing, point us toward – and help us to see more clearly – a deeper truth.
So maybe this story happened just as Daniel says, and that would certainly have value. But I think this dramatic story is even more important and valuable for what it shows us about God, and about faith, especially as we enter today into this time of Advent and hopeful waiting and expectation for the coming Christ.
So, let’s start with that question… what truth about God does this story draw us into? I think there are many, but today, the truth that I need to see is this: that God is trustworthy.
The first and most basic way we see that God is trustworthy is in recognizing that God’s law wins over human law. We see this in the defiant act of the three men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Or rather, in their lack of an act. You see, the problem wasn’t that they did something, but that they didn’t do something: they refused to follow the orders of a pompous, arrogant, populist king, and instead to uphold the law God laid out in the 10 Commandments. In particular, the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.” Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” called this resistance an act of civil disobedience. He writes that civil disobedience “was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake.” This letter of King’s, you may remember, was written to the clergy during the civil rights era, urging them to resist the laws of the land that went against the laws of God – namely, urging them to actively resist the racist practices and attitudes of the day. As he sat in jail, he wrote this strongly worded letter in particular not to the clergy who disagreed with him on racial issues, but to those who agreed with him, yet did nothing to push against the unjust, unfaithful laws.
It’s a brilliant use of this story. You see, the three men could very easily have just followed the silly command of Nebuchadnezzar. It would have been the path of least resistance, easy, at least in the short term. Their lives, their jobs, and their families would all be kept safe. There was no imminent risk involved in that decision. They could have done this, and maintained hope that God would understand and forgive them for their sins, knowing as God did that they were in a pretty tough, life-or-death sort of situation. Yet they don’t choose the path of least resistance. They choose what is right and faithful. They choose God’s law, because they know God’s law to be loving and true – even if it wasn’t, at that time, popular. The story of the fiery furnace offers us encouragement that following God’s law at any cost will always pay off in the end – not because it is easier, or because it reaps immediate benefits, but because it is God’s, and God is trustworthy.
A second point to glean from this story is in three simple words: “but if not.” When King Nebuchadnezzar gives the three men an ultimatum, saying they can bow down or be throw into the furnace, they say, “We know our God will save us.” That in itself is very trusting! But they don’t leave it there; they take it to the next level: “but if not,” they say, “we still won’t bow to your statue.” But if not. In those three words, the men declare that their trust and hope in God is unconditional. Their trust and hope are not based on God coming through for them. They are based on the mere fact that God is God, and is worthy of their devotion.
This is the point that my heart is really wrestling with this Advent season. I want to have a “but if not” faith – a faith that does not depend on the outcome, does not depend on God coming through for me in the way I had hoped. I want to have a faith that is solid and hopeful, even if things are not going that way I would like, even if, as is so often the case these days, I look around and think, “What is happening to this world?” I want the “but if not” faith of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego… yet I find myself wondering, “How do we hold onto hope, no matter the outcome?” How do we hold onto hope when the Nebuchadnezzars in our lives are demanding our loyalty, our time, or our hearts? When we feel our core values, even our very selves are in danger if we don’t choose to follow the path of least resistance? How do we live into the hope of which God assured us in our baptism?
“We believe God will save us from this threat,” the three men say, “but if not, we still will not compromise on that which is essential to who we are. We will not bow to that which does not give life.” Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego show us in their statement that maintaining trust in God is what is needed to maintain hope. They couldn’t be sure of the outcome. That furnace was awfully fiery, and death seemed certain. But because of their unconditional trust in God, they could maintain hope. You see, hope doesn’t mean everything will turn out okay. We sometimes confuse hope with optimism. No, hope is about imagining tomorrow differently. It’s about trusting in a reality that you can’t yet see, but yet you still know is in God’s hands, and knowing that if it is in God’s hands, then it will result in freedom. As we imagine that tomorrow, the one in God’s loving, freeing hands, we can begin walking toward it. That walking – that is hope.
And this brings us to the final point about trusting God: trusting that as we walk in hope, God walks with us. We see it in that fourth figure in the furnace – walking around with the three men, formerly bound, and now unbound. When I hear this story, I’m not moved by the fact that their hair didn’t get singed or that they don’t even smell like smoke (though I do love those details!). I am moved that their deliverance came in the form of God being present with the men, as they faced what threatened them, and that when God became present, they were unbound.
And that unbound presence – that is what this season is all about, after all, isn’t it? It is the promise of Emmanuel, of God-with-us. It is the hope that comes from upholding God’s law, knowing that if God commanded it, then it will bring life. It comes from living confidently a “but if not” faith, a faith that does not depend on outcomes, but only on the knowledge that God is trustworthy and good, more so than any earthly ruler or any tempting quick fix or any unresisting path. And it comes in the hope of knowing that wherever we walk, Christ, Emmanuel, walks with us.
Today, as we begin the season of Advent, let us in the spirit of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, find ways to resist: resist false idols offering false promises, resist unjust demands on ourselves and on the vulnerable among us, resist ever giving in to something that compromises who we are as children of God and followers of Jesus. Most of all, to resist falling into the despair that comes when one has no hope. With Christ as our light, and the fulfillment of promise on its way, there is nothing to despair. For through every fiery furnace of life, our God unbinds us and walks with us.
Let us pray… Trustworthy God, your very presence gives us hope. As we face the Nebuchadnezzars and fiery furnaces of life, make us confident in faith, and assured in hope, so that as we walk forward in hope we can be assured that you will be Emmanuel, God-with-us. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Sermon: The Messiah among you (Nov. 26. 2017)

Christ the King A
November 26, 2017
Matthew 25:31-46

Grace to you and peace form God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
            I remember asking my dad once after church about the part in the prayer of confession that says, “We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” My young brain could not understand why I should confess something I hadn’t done! Why does it say that? I asked. My dad appealed to my studious nature, and said sometimes we don’t do things that we should – like, homework. That hit home! From then on, I became especially aware of the “things left undone” in my developing faith and Christian life.
            Today’s parable is the epitome of “what we have left undone.” I always felt bad for the goats in this story – they didn’t even know they had fallen short of what was expected of them! It’s not like they were bad people, or doing active harm to anyone. Maybe they went to church every week. Maybe they even gave to appeals for money for good causes now and then. But, we also know, that they saw people who were in need – hungry, naked, immigrants, sick, imprisoned – and didn’t do anything to help. They did not offer a listening ear, nor a handout, nor a call to their representative to advocate for a positive change in the system that put them there in the first place. All those things were “left undone.” And that “left undone” is what put them with all those cursed goats in the final judgment. Yikes.
            I definitely have a love-hate relationship with this parable. It’s such a rich one, such a clear expression of what Jesus wants from us: to see Christ’s face in every vulnerable person, to treat every such person as if they, themselves, are Christ, to love them and serve them, even without first determining if they deserve it. That part I love. The hate part comes in the fact that this parable is
terribly convicting, and I have this sinking feeling that, according to this parable… I’m a goat. For how many times have I known of a need and ignored it, or justified not tending to it, or decided not to help because helping someone else would harm me in some way, or at least compromise the way of living to which I’ve become accustomed? How many times have I put my selfish needs above those of my needy neighbor?
            Of course sometimes this happens because we simply don’t know what will help, or because we have different ideas of what will help. The current tax debate is a perfect example. On the one hand, cutting taxes would keep more money in the pockets of hardworking Americans, but on the other hand, paying more in taxes would allow the government to help with some of the larger expenses Americans face, like healthcare, disaster relief, excellent education and retirement. Some argue that cutting taxes for the rich might mean a heavier tax burden on the people who can’t afford it, but others say it might also mean businesses can employ more people, helping those people to make more of the money they so desperately need. So, which way better serves “the least of these”? 
             Or, to bring it closer to home, if Jesus Christ were living in Webster, barely making ends meet, and uncertain how he would pay his rent next month, let alone pay for his various and necessary prescriptions or clothes for the kids… which approach to tax reform would best be living into the ideal Jesus lays out in Matthew 25? What tax code would make Jesus say, “You cared for me when I needed it!” I certainly have my opinions, and I know you do too, and they might not be the same… but as long as both of us have in mind the wellbeing of “the least of these,” do our respective opinions make either one of us a sheep, or a goat?
            This problem of not knowing the best way to help causes me a fair amount of despair, and can quickly move me toward hopelessness: “I just don’t know what will work! How can I help, being just one person, when the problem is so overwhelming, and how do I even know where is the best place to spend my limited time and energy?”
            Of course, I don’t think Jesus meant this parable to drive us into despair. The point is simply this: treat every person you meet as if theirs is the face of Christ.
Every word we say, every action we do, every decision we make, we must ask ourselves: if I knew my action or non-action would negatively impact Christ himself… would I do it?
            If we could do this, could really take this question to heart – how would it change our relationships? How would it change our world?
There was once an old stone monastery tucked away in the middle of a picturesque forest. For many years people would make the significant detour required to seek out this monastery. The peaceful spirit of the place was healing for the soul.
In recent years however fewer and fewer people were making their way to the monastery. The monks had grown jealous and petty in their relationships with one another, and the animosity was felt by those who visited.
The Abbot of the monastery was distressed by what was happening, and poured out his heart to his good friend, Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a wise old Jewish rabbi. Having heard the Abbot’s tale of woe he asked if he could offer a suggestion. “Please do,” responded the Abbot. “Anything you can offer.”
Jeremiah said that he had received a vision, an important vision, and the vision was this: the messiah was among the ranks of the monks. The Abbot was flabbergasted. One among his own was the Messiah! Who could it be? He knew it wasn’t himself, but who? He raced back to the monastery and shared his exciting news with his fellow monks.
The monks grew silent as they looked into each other’s faces. Was this one the Messiah? Or that one?
From that day on the mood in the monastery changed. Joseph and Ivan started talking again, neither wanting to be guilty of slighting the Messiah. Pierre and Naibu left behind their frosty anger and sought out each other’s forgiveness. The monks began serving each other, looking out for opportunities to assist, seeking healing and forgiveness where offence had been given.
As one traveler, then another, found their way to the monastery, word soon spread about the remarkable spirit of the place. People once again took the journey to the monastery and found themselves renewed and transformed. All because those monks knew the Messiah was among them. [Accessed here on 11/22/17.]
Friends, I don’t know whether you are a sheep or a goat, any more than I know whether I am a sheep or a goat. What I do know is this: the Messiah is among us. The Messiah is among us here at Bethlehem/St. Martin. The Messiah is among us in here in Penfield/Webster. The Messiah is among those addicted to opioids. The Messiah is among millions of women who have been sexually assaulted. The Messiah is among animal species on the brink of extinction, and among those who fight for their survival. The Messiah is among the refugees fleeing violence and poverty in their homeland. The Messiah is among those who cannot afford healthcare that is necessary to stay alive. The Messiah is among those who suffer from mental illness, and cannot find help. The Messiah is among “the least of these,” all around us, where we might not have thought to look. Where else might we see the Messiah, and how might we serve him there?

Let us pray… Lord Christ, you have told us that when we love and serve the least of these among us, we love and serve you. Help us to see your face among those who are in need, and help us in all of our words, actions, and decisions, to consider how they will affect the least of these. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.