Monday, December 30, 2013

After Christmas

After Christmas….122913
Matthew 2:13-23

The romance and warm fuzzies of Christmas have already worn off in many households....
The tinsel is a bit droopy, the trees are dropping needles, the wrapping paper is scrunched and bundled for recycling…..and this text reminds us that Christmas isn’t all sweetness and light:  Christmas is not so merry, but is shot through with dark realities.

Like Mary and Joseph and Jesus, we live in a world corrupted by jealousy and rivalry---from our homes to the halls of government
We live in a world of sanctioned genocide across the world, and of ignored emotional slaughter of innocent children even at home.   And we feel helpless.   But we are not.

From this story I understand we need to listen like Joseph for “divine instruction that contradicts bureaucratic ordinances” (Sojourners)—we see it in our own denomination where pastors like Frank Schaefer practice civil disobedience of the church’s laws, and bishops like Minerva Carcano back him up.....divine instruction--bureaucratic ordinance.   
We see it in our families, where grown children finally stand up to past abuse….divine instruction--bureaucratic ordinance.   We see it in our world....

 God is constantly trying to get our attention, through dreams and voices and visionary leaders that offer us, like the holy family, new possibilities, new beginnings, even if it means going somewhere, or doing or being something new and scary.
With all the bad news and reality that has swept in since the baby was born, it is tempting to think that Christmas is over, like any Christmas truce, or some blip in the media frenzy for bad news that sells.
But this child was born precisely INTO bad news and reality—this child came-and comes- right into our poverty or our wealth, to our fear and our anxiety, right into our grief and our pain.
As we stand on the cusp of a new year, this text calls US to ‘get up and go’—go into the unknown, yes, but confident that God goes with us, sure that God will keep in touch with us all the way, and certain that God’s, and our story is not done yet.
Thanks be to God!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

rewriting the Christmas story

On Rewriting the Christmas Story!
Isaiah: 7 10-16, Matthew: 1 18-25
Dear friends!
         I want to speak to you today about how best we can rewrite the Christmas story. Perhaps if it is written well we may like to read and reread it again and again. A little boy came home after the Sunday school, having learnt the story of the crossing of the red sea from the bible. ”What did you learn today in the Sunday school? The mother asked the son. “The Israelites got out of Egypt” the young man said, “the Pharaoh and the Army chased after them, so they got into the red sea. They couldn’t cross it. The Egyptian army was getting closer. So Moses got on to his walki talki and the Israeli air force bombed the Egyptians. The Israeli Navy built a pontoon bridge so that people could cross”. ”Is this the way they taught you this story” the mother asked the son? ”No “the boy admitted, “but if I tell you the way they taught me in the class you will never believe it”.
        A story today has to be true to its historic setting and at the same time capture the intellectual minds of the 21 st century. For the biblical story writer Matthew;  the readers perhaps were mostly Jewish. He refers to the wise men from the East or the Magi coming to Bethlehem guided by the star and offering to the baby the most valuable gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. He mentions in his story the evil deed of the crooked king Herod who killed all the children under age two to include the baby Jesus also. The Luke’s readers were gentiles and they were people lived in the margins. In his story he befriends the smelly shepherds and gets angels to sing songs for them. ”Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth and goodwill among humankind”. What puzzles me about these story writers is Mark and John does not give us any yuletide thriller or an exciting Christmas episode. His story is in the earliest recorded document written in the year of 70 C.E. But ten years prior to this date, St. Paul had written the letters of I st and 2nd Corinthians, a letter to the church in Philippi and a few other epistles.  Paul was a contemporary of Jesus however to my big surprise weather Paul or either Mark or John have not written any sensational account of Mary and Joseph, the wise men and the shepherds, King Herod, Cesar Augustus, the angels, the manager and the Bethlehem Inn. What was Paul’s Christmas message? He simply said in a finger snap God was in Christ.
         It was Christmas Eve and this family was frantic and they were moving things around the home in hectic pace for they have invited a family for Christmas dinner. Gifts had to be wrapped and the table had to be set and the youngest child of age 3 was in the way of the father and the mother and finally in exasperation she was put to bed for her afternoon nap. And the child was concerned about the confusion in that house that afternoon and as she muttered her Lord’s Prayer, she said---Our Father and continued her prayer and said “give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our Christmases as we forgive those who Christmas against us”. Have we made a mess of our Christmas stories, Christmas messages, Christmas gestures and Christmas celebrations?
       For ten years around this time of the year I had a speaking engagement in Staten Island New York. I had to share the Christmas message with about three hundred people who were not Christians. It was during these speaking engagements I learnt that Christmas cannot be an exclusive Christian celebration but rather a festival of the entire human race. So on one occasion after the infamous world trade center bombing of Sept 9th of 2001, I spoke at the cultural celebration and also remembered a few who died in Manhattan that year. The next day someone took me to ground zero and I witnessed there piles of rubbles and twisted steel hanging. People were still looking for their loved ones gazing at the sky wiping their tears with their handkerchiefs. I witnessed the indescribable destruction to humanity at its worst. Then from there my friend drove me to the Rockefeller center and we watched the largest Christmas tree in New York, beautifully decorated with all kinds of ornaments. There was music: “Silent Night Holy Night, All is calm and all is bright” .Having seen in one day both the human atrocity and the killing about three thousand people at the world trade center and the beauty of the decorated Christmas tree, I felt Christmas was an oxymoron. What is an oxymoron? It is a unique combination of terms, which makes sense and non-sense at the same time. And that to me is another facet of the Christmas story. How do we sing silent night in America today when people are busy with sending text messages, writing their e-mails, watching the 17 channels on the TV all at the same time and listening to cell phones? Perhaps we must learn to sing silent night in the midst of all noises of typhoons and air strikes and all other distractions?
     When I first came to this country 34 years ago to study at the Divinity school in Rochester, I was home sick for my family was not with me and on top of it, it was a challenge to get used to the American meals. We lived in a home next to the sea beach in Sri Lanka and every day we used to go to the beach and bought the fresh fish needed for the day. I missed those tropical fish dinners back at home. So one day my friends from the seminary took me out for a dinner and I was thrilled especially when I read in the menu something called CATCH OF THE DAY. When I asked the waitress to tell me more about it she said it is not really fresh, however it was freshly frozen and said “we had it in the freezer for a month or so”. Freshly frozen is an oxymoron. How about long shorts, jumbo shrimp? She is pretty ugly. And I think George Bush talked a lot about a holy war. Christmas is an oxymoron; the lamb and the lion, the baby was poor yet rich, the human and the divine, a peasant and a king.  In both the texts this morning of Isaiah as well as Matthew, one Hebrew word stands out. And the word is a Hebrew name called “Emmanuel” which means “God is with us”. I don’t see too many people here with the name Emmanuel. My message to you today is to invite you to take home the name Emmanuel. Christmas is not about religion or as a matter of fact not about any particular religion. It is about the goodness of God and of the sacredness of all people. God is with us in our good times and bad times, in days of sun shine as well in times of shadows. God is inspiring our blessings and eternalizing our loves. God is scattering our hatreds and reconciling our lives. God is embellishing our laughter, bearing our pain and crying our tears. God is gracing all our acts of service. Amen.  

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Upside down world

Upside down world 121513
Isaiah 35; Matthew 11:1-11

Now is this not an odd combination of texts for Advent?  On the one hand, the beautiful metaphor Isaiah uses for the day when God’s dream will come to reality; on the other, John the baptizer in prison, likely facing the death penalty for his truth-speaking.
He’s doubtful.  He’s wondering, have I wasted my life?  All that fire and brimstone preaching I did to “prepare the way of the Lord”—you don’t look much like what I thought was coming, Jesus.  I expected the world to be changed because you’d come as God’s anointed! 
I think he’s disappointed at his dashed dreams.   In the words of a recent Christmas song, “this is such a strange way to change the world.”   It’s all upside down, no great furious judge coming in on a white steed with great army to overthrow the Romans.
Yes, it’s an odd text for Advent surely—shouldn’t we be singing with the angels or watching our flocks or something by now?
What can this dark dank place John is in have to do with the cute little baby in the manger?  
Well, what can it have to say to our dark places when the joy is suddenly challenged by divorce, or diagnosis, or death, that rock our world and our dreams are dashed into disappointment?
The reality is that this time of year is often the darkest in more ways than daylight hours; it is the highest time of despair and fear for many people.   We can light candles and buy gifts and sing carols, but we’re still a long way off from peace on earth, goodwill to all—and the joy of this day seems far off for lots of people.  Disappointment and doubt seem stronger than dreams.
But the story goes that the cute little baby was born in a dark, maybe dank, cave, part of a homeless family, coming a political refugee for a while…..yet out of that grew a man whom God used to help the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk….a man who’d spend time with the weak, not the strong, the outcasts, the wrong kind of people.  An upside down world from a God who brings marvelous things out of awful circumstances… that great desert metaphor:  waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert, the burning sands shall become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water.
So those of you who, this day, do not feel the joy, don’t worry; it is merely buried for a season.   And hear the words in the midst of Isaiah’s vision:  ….do not be afraid
Many of us have known that reversal.  We have come to understand that God does bring marvelous things out of awful circumstances, and have grown deeper into joy because of it.  We have come to understand that joy isn’t something that comes from outside like a bolt out of the blue; if we believe that, we’d once again blame God and sink into disappointment.  No, joy is learned.  
We learn joy.                                                                                                                                                                       We learn it by seeing it.                                                                                                                                                          We learn to distinguish joy from entertainment.                                                                                                            We learn to develop it for ourselves….first, by looking around for it, seeing it in others, seeing it in desert places where something grows, seeing God at work still, in spite of the bad news all around…..then by working at it…intentionally turning upside down our belief system based on fear, transforming it into a spirituality of joy..
A spirituality of joy doesn’t deny suffering, but is simply open to the possibility that God is working to bring good out of it into a new future….unlike our spirituality of fear, which assumes suffering is some kind of punishment for the past, and closes off the future.
Then we learn to make joy for others….to make joy where at first it seems there is none, is to become co-creators with the God of life (Joan Chittister, in Called to Question), whereas, as she says elsewhere, to cling to the past, with its old expectations, as John the baptizer does, means the future is closed to us (Chittister, Rule of Benedict p 258).
You who know the joy even through suffering and dashed dreams,                                                                             you who are bubbling up not with the hurried excitement of the season but with the joy of knowing    God’s marvelous Presence and Power,                                                                                                                 you stand as beacons of hope to those who sit in dark doubt, anxiety and grief this season.
You joyful ones help the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk…
YOU are signs of God’s upside down world, the kin-dom of God… bring water to desert life and light to dark dungeons….because the homeless helpless child whose birth we celebrate has brought it out in you.
Thanks be to God! Amen.

Monday, December 09, 2013

This is peace?

Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

Most of us are not ready for Christmas, right?
The advent, the coming of the baby Jesus, and all his attendant celebrations and feasts, seems to be coming up pretty quick (except for children, who’re waiting rather for Santa and that wait seems like an eternity!)
The advent, the coming of peace, however, that seems like an eternity….if not an impossibility.  It’s a loooong gap between what is and what will be.    Going back to Isaiah’s vision of God’s new reign, God’s kin-dom is about 2500 years, and we’re still waiting. Perhaps that’s the problem, we’re waiting.  Just waiting.

A shoot shall come out from a dead stump—a great metaphor:  it’s fragile, small, something growing where nothing should, where loss or despair or grief or hurt deaden life.   What’s deadening you, or your family, or the church or the nation?
Waiting for something else to happen or someone else to fix it isn’t going to bring about peace for us….we must tend the seedling tenderly, wherever it is, wherever peace needs to break through our war-hardened hearts.   Then A shoot shall come out

A shoot shall come out it’s a definite verb, it’s a promise from God….but this prophetic promise seems so ludicrous, the vision so impossible, we’ve relegated it to artwork and Christmas cards…..I think it was Woodie Allen who said that the wolf might down with the lamb but the lamb won’t get much sleep!

But ANYTIME hospitality replaces hostility, anytime grace overcomes greed, anytime the power of love is stronger than the love of power, as Ghandi said, then the predator and prey lie down together, and A shoot comes out
The world lost a great peace-maker this week.   Nelson Mandela lived this vision, and worked for it even while he was waiting imprisoned on Robben Island…..and A shoot has come out and transformed a nation.

Do we not believe in a God who takes the ordinary and makes the miraculous?  So we must also believe the impossible and work to make it happen.

Then there’s this John the Baptizer character, another prophet who comes with a word of judgment, a word that exposes just how dead the stump of people’s faith was, a word that especially exposes the falsity of the respectable mainline religion.

First he speaks to everyone who’s come seeking a word for their lives, and the word they get is “Repent!”

Now most often we hear that word as guilt-making, highlighting our failures to measure up, and at this time of year we might hear it as scolding for not doing Advent “properly”.   But really, repentance is about “a reorientation, a change of perspective and direction, a commitment to turn and live differently.” (Working Preacher)

So at advent, this advent, it’s an invitation to dream a larger hope, a bigger vision, and to work towards it intentionally and actively.
Let’s give this some concrete meaning…..make a quick to-do list—or get yours out if you already have one – there are pencils and paper in most of the pews, or you can scribble on your bulletin…..I promise, no judgment.  Maybe it’s shopping for kids, or attending a school concert, or the womens communion service or deciding on which Christmas eve service to go to….make it as exhaustive a list as you can….

Now, daydream about what you hope Christmas will be like.  What kind of day you hope it will be, what relationships you want to be part of, what kind of worship experience, what kind of world do you hope for this Christmas and beyond, name your longings, and like Isaiah and God, dream big

…..distill that into one sentence and write it down somewhere if you can; if not just think about it.

Now, work backwards.  Go to the to-do list and circle tasks that contribute to your larger hopes and dreams and longings………some things may seem important in the short run, but may not contribute to your deepest hope

Repentance may be a joyful reoriention of the lists……one of our Benedictine practicers said on Friday she doesn’t do anything that doesn’t bring joy, either to herself or to others….that’s advent repentance!   I know myself that as we’ve done things differently over the years, often involving doing LESS, our family has experienced MORE….more hope, more peace, more enjoyment.

Then John goes on to address the faithful people of the established national religion…..his word to them, and to us, is “bear fruit”-your being religious, or for us doing church, means nothing if lives aren’t changed, if hope isn’t alive and peace at work, and people are offered new access to the living kin-dom of God.
Practice hope, practice peace, and A shoot shall come out

And he goes on to confront us, don’t be resting on your past traditions—it doesn’t much matter if you call yourselves Christians or Methodists or evangelicals or whatever….God doesn’t need religious folk.  If God did they could be created out of nothing—the impossible is possible with the God what takes the ordinary and makes the miraculous.  

This is why the ax is at the foot of the tree; we are on the brink of losing God’s improbable vision – and the final blow might just be wielded by institutional religion that clings to the past and won’t lift a finger, or a voice, for the global vision of God’s “peaceable kingdom”.

This advent we can look back all we want at ancient visions, and prepare all we want for the celebration of a historical event, OR we can look forward to the God who is always coming, always drawing us from the future, inviting us to join in bringing about the unprecedented kin-dom of God.   Then A shoot shall come out and be tended by our attitudes of hope, our acts of non-violence, our work and words for peace.

May it be so.  Amen.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Advent Awakenings - Theva

Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44.
Dear Friends!
To strengthen and deepen my spirituality I undertake two pilgrimages every year. They evoke in my soul, layers of meaning. They do not require vigorous walks, long distance travel to sacred places. However in these expeditions I devote time on reflections and prayer. I engage in social action and service. In the season of Lent I focus on the way of the cross. I meditate on the redeeming acts of Jesus the Christ. Today I commemorate the season of advent as I embark on this pilgrimage again. It is a four week journey. I extend my invitation to you to join in it. It is a fun filled adventure when you really want to meet someone who promised to us long ago before the departure “I will be back again soon”? Just as all generations of Christians did in the past, I invite you to wait with longing hearts; dream dreams, pray prayers sing songs and light candles. In recent times, Sir Elton Jones has helped me to understand the meaning of the candle light and its flame in a song he composed and sang for Princes Diana. In a candle the wax and the wick are closely glued together. And as the wax melts the flame shines. Princess Dianna was an ambassador of the world peace and her death was untimely. So sang Elton Jones:
        With our candle lighting let us offer to God the prayers of praise and supplication. Let us wish our world goodness and gentleness, courage and compassion patience and contentment. Just a few days ago when I heard in one of the TV channels the prediction of a nationwide snow storm and of thousands of flights to be cancelled, I was saddened for I knew it would disrupt the holiday plans of millions of people in this country. However the day before Thanksgiving the weather conditions improved. People travelled and we celebrated Thanksgiving. Just a few weeks ago the typhoon in the Philippines killed about five thousand people and made several thousands homeless. For the last several years we have been listening to news about global warming, possible extinction of several species of mammals and birds from the face of this earth. We are also told there will be more natural disasters of hurricanes floods cyclones and tsunamis. Then we manufacture our own warring spirit among ourselves, as well as hatred and hostilities. Why then we wonder when people feel anxious and angry, helpless and hopeless? Here is one of President Ronald Reagan’s favorite stories. Waking up to her 12th birthday, a young farm girl got up before dawn and ran to the barn. She had asked her parents for a pony and was hoping that it would be there. She flung open the barn door, but in the dim light, could see no pony -- Only mounds of horse manure. Being an optimist she declared, “With all this manure around, there must be a pony in there somewhere.” Friends! Have we given up on hope? If I do not have any hope in my future as well as in the future of this world, my life then will not have any meaning at all even in the present.
    The predictions of Prophet Isaiah who said to the people of Israel about 3000 years ago are still relevant. The world needs peace. “They will hammer their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning knives and nations will never go into war again”.
When will this happen? How long do we need to recognize that all lives are precious? Do we fool ourselves by saying that nobody gets killed in a war? In the land of the free and the home of the brave there are 7 million people incarcerated or in prison or in jail today. A decade ago the number was 5 million and two decades ago it was 3 million. The prison industry is the growing enterprise in our country today. Gandhi said many years ago” An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” Just as in Isaiah’s time we need the plough today to till the ground and to feed the starving masses. Just as Isaiah’s time we need the pruning knives for the grape cultivation and to use in the vineyards. The sword and the spear are designed to slash and to stab and thrust and to kill. They are weapons of destruction. We are concerned about weapons of mass destructions hidden in countries. How about the countries that produce such weapons for profit motifs? Injustice anywhere kills justice everywhere.
        Matthew writes in our gospel today keep awake for the son of man will come in an unexpected hour. The English novelist Somerset Maugham once wrote ”the most difficult things that a person has to endure in life are try to sleep but sleep not, to try to please but please not and try to wait for the one who comes not. Are we waiting for the arrival of a great mystery in our midst at any moment? I do but the details of it I don’t know. Who, When, where, and how. However in fervent faith and with great expectation I offer this prayer: “CHRIST HAS DIED, CHRIST IS RISEN AND CHRIST WILL COME AGAIN”.
        Here is a cartoon I saw recently perhaps it will explain plainly of the unexpected hour of the coming of the son of man. In the first panel of the cartoon a college student is kneeling before an altar. There is a cross in the background and a stained glass window behind it. As the young man prayed a little balloon read out: LORD HELP US FEED THE STARVING MASSES OF THE WORLD.FEED THE HUNGRY.
In the second panel the same scene with a different caption: O LORD WE PRAY FOR THE END OF THE WAR IN THE WORLD.LORD GIVE US PEACE. The third panel the subject is still more intense and the young man is still praying: LORD BRING PEACE AMONG THE RACES AND MAKE US TO LIVE AS BROTHERS AND SISTERS WITH EACH OTHER. Then the fourth panel: a shock, the picture has radically changed, a lightening has struck the alter area, the bricks and the artifacts from the alter have fallen down and the young man is in the midst of the rubble with an expression of astonishment on his face and the caption reads: ”DO IT YOURSELF YOU CLOD”. What are we waiting for?