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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Rejoice! - Luke 3:7-18, Philippians 4:4-7

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to unite the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Dale Carnegie wrote the book on how to win friends and influence people. Really, he did: that’s the title of his book! He developed what he referred to as golden principles to assist people achieve the full potential of their professional and personal development. Today, the Dale Carnegie Training Institute resources people in all 50 states and 75 countries around the world, and graduates claim to have sharpened their skills and improved their performance in order to build positive, steady, and profitable results.

Suffice it to say, John the Baptist was not a Carnegie man. Anyone who opens a sermon to the religious establishment with the words “You brood of vipers!” does not seem to be someone interested in winning friends and influencing people. Can you imagine those words going over well in a comfortable mainline Protestant church today? I know what you would say to a preacher who painted his congregation with a brush such as this. “You can’t talk to us like that – we’re good Methodists! We’re good Presbyterians! We’re good Lutherans! We’re good Episcopalians! Take that sermon down to the Missionary Baptist congregation where it might play a little better.” May we pray.

Thus, the modern-day Baptists claim John as one of their own, and with sermons like these, most of us in the mainline are happy to let them have him. Preaching like this does not happen in our pulpits. It is not taught in our seminaries. What is taught is that good sermons happen in 15 minutes or less, because if you spend longer than that, you don’t really have anything to say anyway. While I appreciate the need for brevity and have heard many good 15-minute sermons given in 45, I also wonder if this isn’t also some commentary on the state of preaching in our churches. I wonder if preaching professors might have been doing damage control for the last 30 years or so, recognizing that if their students didn’t have anything worthwhile to say, at least they could minimize the damage they’d inflict upon their congregations by preaching only 15 minutes. As one of my seminary professors characterized the majority of contemporary Protestant preaching, it is “nothing more than a string of nursery rhymes tied together with baby ribbon.”

While John the Baptist doesn’t have much tact, is pretty low on style, and we might disagree with his methods, we do have to grant him one thing: the boy could preach. If one of the aims in preaching is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, John the Baptist has done it.
Were that the full extent of the preacher’s task, John could stop right there. But, an effective preacher knows there is more to be done. Entertaining as John’s sermon may be, he realizes that he is not the star of the show. His job, and the job of all preachers, including your preacher this morning, is to point to something and someone beyond himself. This is not John’s field. He is simply tending the earth, breaking up the ground, so that when the owner of the field comes, it will be ready to be planted, nurtured, and harvested.

Perhaps the analogy here is over-simplistic, but I see John as something of a babysitter. He’s keeping an eye on God’s people and trying to guide them as best as possible until God is able to arrive. Many of you know that I grew up as one of four kids, and I’m third in the order. My oldest sister is eight years older than I am, and as paying a babysitter was out of the question, was often put in charge of things when my parents went out. Shocked though you may be by this news, I had a bit of a stubborn streak growing up and liked to test the limits of the authority granted to my sister in my parents’ absence. I always knew I had crossed the line when she said, “Wait ‘til Mom and Dad get home.” In that threat, reality came crashing down.

But you can hear the same warning in John the Baptist’s words this morning. “Oh you brood of vipers, wait ‘til the Messiah gets home.” The day of reckoning is coming! The kingdom of God is at hand, and you’ve got to change your evil ways, baby! He gives them some pretty good advice, too – share what you have, don’t rob and steal, be satisfied with what you have. John sent the crowds away, a bit fearful for when the Messiah gets home, carefully conducting their lives so as not to incur his wrath.

There was always one possible consolation when I had misbehaved and was waiting for my parents to come home. I could always hope that my other sister or my younger brother had done something even worse than I had, and THAT would be reported instead of whatever infraction I had committed.

The crowds in John’s day walked away with a similar consolation: as bad as they had been, surely there had to be someone else out there who had screwed up even worse. While those members of the religious establishment were a bit fearful, they rested in the uneasy knowledge that they would squeak by, because the Messiah would focus on greater offenders than themselves – Gentiles – people like you and me. People who were not God’s chosen ones and never could be. People who, like the chaff, would be swept away, or gathered together and thrown into the fire and be burned into nothingness.

You can see clearly this is the type of Messiah the people were expecting. They were waiting for a militant king, who would free the Jews from corrupt leadership, but would also sweep through the world and destroy the Gentiles, leaving the world to the purified Jews to rule.

This is the Messiah John is proclaiming, and warning people to shape up and fly right before he gets home. Punishment is coming for all of us; just make sure you’re not in the group who will receive the worst punishment!

The Messiah is coming all right. He shows up in this Gospel only a few verses later. And to be sure, this Jesus is the long-expected one. There will be an earthquake, the mighty ones will be topped from their thrones, and the least will be lifted up.

But, his approach isn’t quite what we were expecting. When the parents arrive home, we are expecting yelling and punishment. Instead, Jesus walks over to each of us – to you, to me – he puts his arm around us and says “Things aren’t going so well, are they? Let’s take a walk and talk about things. Let’s stop over here and get something to eat.” This Messiah, this Jesus, is going to do an awful lot of walking and talking in this Gospel. He’s going to do an awful lot of eating, too – inviting people to join him at the table and talk awhile. He’s even going to do this with people we thought were complete losers. He’s going to invite them to sit at table, and talk and learn. This is a teacher who is going to teach not through threats and fear and fire, but around a table, as friends and enemies gather together to listen, and to learn, and to be changed.
The change he brings is what allows us to live a life filled with rejoicing, as Paul encourages us to in today’s lesson from Philippians. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” he says. “In case you missed it the first time, I’ll say it again: Rejoice!” Don’t place your security in material things, or the accumulation of stuff, or in securing for yourself a slightly better place at the expense of someone else’s well-being. Don’t worry about those things; rather, focus on Christ and the fact that he will return. And when you think about Christ’s return, rejoice!

John the Baptist has already told us; the Messiah is coming. As he told the crowds, so I tell you, he is also coming again. How will you greet him? With dread, and fear, and trembling? Or, will you rejoice at his return?

Remember the analogy of the child waiting for the parent’s return? When I had done something wrong, I dreaded their return. But, what if a child has done something extraordinarily right? What if the child has done something remarkable they want to share with their parents?
Perhaps they’ve built a city out of LEGOS in the living room. Perhaps they’ve mastered a new piece on the piano. Perhaps they have a good report card to share. Perhaps they finished a long book, or helped in some household task, or have some new work of art to be hung prominently on the refrigerator. Parents, don’t you love coming home when your kids are so excited to show you what they’ve been up to?

How much moreso, then, will Christ look forward to returning and seeing what we’ve been up to! I hope that we rejoice at his return, and can’t wait to show him just what we’ve been up to. “Look – we’ve done what John the Baptist told us to! We’ve shared what we had. We’ve treated people fairly. We’ve been exceedingly generous.” Look, Jesus! Look what we’ve done! Look at the people whose lives have been transformed because we did what you told us to!

In the sorts of lives we are called to live, we begin to experience the freedom and fullness of life promised in Jesus. We find that we are free from ourselves, and from always living to satisfy our own desires. We have been freed from selfishness to generosity, from individualism to community, from despair to hope. We have been freed from thinking of ourselves as the exact center of the universe, and realize that our role may have to do with something larger than ourselves. We find that we’ve been blessed in order to be a blessing, and that the good news really is transmitted through us.

When we realize that, we have a sermon worth preaching, whether we preach it aloud for 20 minutes from this pulpit, or in our daily lives as Christ’s disciples. We have a sermon that points beyond ourselves, as John the Baptist did, and find that maybe we have a little more in common with him than we first thought. But, as we announce that Christ is coming, it is good news rather than a pronouncement of doom. The kingdom of God is at hand, but thanks be to God, we are learning how to live like kingdom people already.

Our job as disciples, as kingdom of God people, is to free the captives and then to begin to equip those who have been freed to hear the Spirit speaking in their lives and in our midst. Because none of us here will always be around to tell others what to do. But God, in his Word, by his Spirit, will be.

Friends, when we say, “Come Lord Jesus,” it is a reminder that God will always be there to guide us into what we can joyfully do, having been saved from ourselves, to set others free and to help them begin to live. Jesus is coming. Rejoice!

Monday, December 4, 2006

Grace Re-born - Luke 1:39-45

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by her Lord.”

By noon tomorrow, I’ll have landed at the Buffalo airport and arrived at my parents’ home in Niagara Falls. When I arrive, my three nephews and one niece will already be celebrating, and at this point in my life, I can’t imagine a Christmas celebration without them. You have often heard people express the notion that Christmas is best celebrated with children around. This is usually the point when some religious zealot says “Humbug,” and tells us that this association with children is nothing more than sugar-coated sentimentality.

While I agree that Jesus is the reason for the season, and that we need to put the Christ back in Christmas, I also think our celebrations are most complete when we celebrate with children. Children teach us something about expectation and hope, and they are a living reminder of the wonder with which we too might greet the coming king. May we pray.

The imagination of children
I spend more time shopping for my niece and nephews than anyone else on my list. For one thing, I only see them a few times a year, and I don’t want their only reminder of me to be a pair of socks or some boring educational game. However, I am also aware that my careful selection may be less interesting than the box my gift comes in. Don’t you long for a return to the days of innocent imaginative power? When whatever you imagined became your reality? A box on the floor looks an awful lot like a Formula-One racer, and for the child who sees it as one, it is. Last year, my niece Valerie, who is the very definition of girly-girl, received a beautiful frilly dress. She put it on, looked in the mirror, and said, “Oh, I a princess!” And she was.

We bring children to our holiday celebrations because they are able to tap into the world of imagination so easily. In fact, we need children, we need imagination, in order to even read this story. Take this morning’s biblical text – it is a text pregnant – no pun intended – with imagination. Mary and Elizabeth imagine something beyond the rational – beyond biology, beyond common sense, beyond the limited notions of what most of us take to be realistic – but the very things they imagine turn out to be their reality. Not only theirs, but ours as well.

How many of us have looked for a rational explanation to this text? How many of us have grown up and matured beyond our imagination, and tested this text against our notion of factuality? It makes perfect sense that these two women could imagine the events of this story. Mary, after all, was a teenager – fourteen or fifteen at best. She was poor, uneducated, and otherwise oblivious to the collective wisdom of the world. And Elizabeth – she was an old woman by this time – very well could have been senile or in the beginning stages of dementia.

The rationalist among us, or, perhaps within us, looks at these two women, and can easily dismiss them as na├»ve. They were living in their imaginations. They didn’t have an accurate grasp on the facts.

However, I wonder if we have too narrow a definition of facts. Thinking, rationalistic people like us, products of the modern age that we are, have allowed facts to be determined and tested by provable, repeatable, experimentation. Only those things that can be proved are real. Only those things that can be tested are true. Give us facts – raw, unadorned, uninterpreted, provable facts.

Neil Postman, in his book, Technopology, accuses us of being people with no imagination. Our fascination with computers – fact-churning, data-collecting machines that they are – is evidence of this. We have fooled ourselves into thinking there is a shortage of data in the world, and if we can just wrangle all the facts together, figure out how to sort them out, and line them up correctly, we’ll arrive at the answers to all of life’s problems. The UN sends envoys on fact-finding missions. Our government tells us they can’t decide anything until all the information comes in. Meanwhile, we have so many facts we’re crushed under their collective weight and drowning in a sea of ones and zeros. Postman says it flat out: “We don’t need more data. We have more facts than we can possibly consume. What we are dying of is lack of courage, lack of dreams, a failure of nerve.”

The imagination of Mary and Elizabeth
And yet, those things were exactly what Mary and Elizabeth had. They dared to believe that God would accomplish what He said He was going to do. They dared to dream their dreams into reality. They dared to believe in the irrational and the unreasonable, and lo, the mysteries of God were born within them.

Friends, this is what we mean when we talk about grace. In us, and through us, and on our behalf, God does what we thought was impossible. God is working in ways we cannot explain or understand. He invites us to imagine a reality based upon his extravagant promises, and we find his promises pregnant with possibility. You have to read this text with an active imagination! How else do you explain babies who leap for joy in their mother’s womb? How else do you look your poor, pregnant, unwed, teenage relative in the face and tell her she is blessed among women? This is a world where truth resides beyond what we have come to define as facts, where we will believe that God can do whatever God wills to do.

I thank God for the witness of these two distant relatives. I am thankful for a world of hope and promise beyond the stark reality we have become so comfortable with. These women point to a world of possibility. At the conclusion of this Advent season, as we wait on these last few hours before Christmas bursts in upon us, the door to that world stands cracked open. We peek inside, and even if for only the briefest of moments, we see that world. Not only do we see it, we see ourselves in it. Mary and Elizabeth dared to imagine that world, and they dared to see themselves in it.

Re-birth of imagination as a means of grace
“Faith,” says theologian James Whitehead, “is the enduring ability to imagine life in a certain way” (“The Religious Imagination,” Liturgy 5, 1985, pp. 54-59). Peter Gomes, minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church, refers to the Bible as “A book of the imagination.”

I have to agree with these two and with Neil Postman that we don’t need more data. We already have more information that we could ever process. What we need is a re-birth of imagination. We need to see the world once again through innocent eyes. We need grace to be re-born in our midst.

If you turn to the Winston-Salem Journal, you won’t find this way of seeing the world. You’ll find more facts, lined up in neat columns, telling you what happened, and to whom, and when, and possibly how or why. CNN is no help; only more data there. Perhaps you’re like me, and you’re thinking there’s GOT to be more out there than this. Perhaps you’re like me, and are looking for hope. Perhaps you’re like me, and longing to imagine a different sort of world.

What richer ground is there for our imaginations than this Advent and Christmas season? While the world is obsessed with statistics, we appreciate the value of symbols. Come to the church in December, and we’ll load you down with metaphors, stir up the poet within you, and teach you to sing once again. We’ll shatter your preconceived notions of reality, and greatly expand your definition of what can and can’t be.

The children already get it; in fact, they’re the ones we need to teach us. Jesus taught us to have the faith of children, and we thought he was just being cute and offering us a ready-made text for Children’s Sunday. But he invites us to be born out of our proud sophistication, with our ideas about reality, and glimpse God’s reality. We see it is a reality full of grace, but we are invited to not only glimpse it, but to live into it.

As I say these things, I realize that many of us gather with the weight of the “real” world on our shoulders. You wonder if the fight with your spouse last night was the final straw. You wonder if you’ll ever get out from under your crushing consumer debt. You wonder if a donor will be found before it’s too late. You wonder if your grandmother will ever remember your name again. I wonder, now that my Mom’s cancer has returned, just how bad it’s going to be. What decision, what pain, what hurt have you put on the shelf to deal with after the holidays? You may recognize that a change needs to happen, but making that change is so risky you find yourself paralyzed by fear. This world, this real world dominated by facts and figures and statistics, comes to a place where it has nothing left to offer, and we find ourselves banging our heads against its wall. We are a people desperately in need of hope, and sooner or later, we all come to realize that this world simply can’t manufacture what we need.

So let’s face facts, but let’s operate in the possibility of God’s reality. We gather here in December, with stories of expectant virgins, and angelic choirs, and babies who leap in their mother’s wombs. We gather and listen to these stories, not because we’ve forgotten them, but because we need that hope to be born in us yet again. And sure enough, every time we open ourselves up to these new possibilities, grace is re-born. Will you, with Mary and Elizabeth, imagine for a moment that God is able to fulfill his promises? Imagine yourself open to the subtle incursions of God’s presence among us. Imagine a God who is not safely aloof from the world. Imagine a world of transformation: from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from the natural to the supernatural, from the expected to a world filled with surprise. Look upon that world, enter into it, and find yourself caught up in something bigger than you. Imagine that world, pregnant with the promise of God’s future. Imagine the possibilities.