Sunday, December 16, 2012

You will say in that day....

You will say in that day,…
Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
“I will trust, and will not be afraid,” rings a little hollow in a society where kindergarteners are gunned down with semi-automatic weapons while sitting in their classroom on a Friday morning. We are broken-hearted. How can we not be afraid? How can we not be angry? How can we not be sick inside? How can we not be in murderous fury and anguish and deep, deep, sorrow all at once?

How can we find words adequate to describe what is going on inside us after one more in a line of horrific incidents?

In today’s scripture, the prophet’s song begins, “You will say on that day….’God is my salvation’.”  And struggling humanity wants to know: just what day will that be? What day is it that I will be able to trust, and not be afraid? On what day, now, can we send our kids or our grandkids or ourselves off to school trusting that we, or they, will come home at the end of the day?

An ancient lament gives the sense of the spasm of grief that convulsed our nation on Friday:
“A voice is heard in Ramah; wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel is weeping for her children;
She refuses to be consoled, for they are no more.” 
What day is it that the world becomes a safe place? What day is it that we have peace? What day is it that we stop hearing news of school shootings, and mall shootings, and movie shootings, and temple shootings, and college campus shootings? Because I want to live in that day, God.

Show of hands: Who’s emotionally exhausted by this news? Who’s anxious, worried? Who’s sick at heart? Who’s P.O’d? Who would like to take “that day” right now?
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” 
Let’s face it: We need God. Let’s stop this pretense that somehow it’s all working out fine as an arms-length relationship. We are here because we need Jesus. We need the Prince of Peace. We need the God whose heart breaks for us, for twenty students and their families, for teachers and staff and those whose sense of safety has been shattered. We need some evidence that this is not all there is.

We know, too well, how to live in a society built on fear. But we were not born for fear. We were not born for such brokenness. We know this week’s act, deep within, for what it is: evil and broken and pain-ridden and sorrowful and desperately needing to be redeemed. And it is the fruit of a society needing to be redeemed. We know – very well - American independence and individualism and we know “I’m gonna make it on my own.” But these are not Gospel values.

Our misguided attempts at saving ourselves have come to nothing. We are sick, and we are heart-sick and we come to the point at which we know, we cannot fix this ourselves. We do not have anything more to offer as a solution to this horror. We cannot fix it with wishful thinking and we cannot fix it with avoidance, and we cannot fix it with mere sentiment, no matter how deeply heart-felt.

We cry out, “How long, O Lord, how long….” And the answer comes: As long as we pretend that the time is appropriate for mourning but not prevention. As long as we value our guns more than our children. As long as we give assault weapons moral and constitutional equivalency to a colonial-era musket. As long as we slash mental health funding and glorify violence and expect these twin evils to have no consequence.

I am praying for a day when children do not need to go to school in fear, when parents do not need to send their children to school in fear. I am praying for a day when I no longer have to write these damned sermons about gun violence. I am praying for a day when we will have the courage to face our American demons around gun rights and find a solution that keeps all of our children safe.

But until that day, to hold all of this, I need Jesus.

Sisters and brothers, God knows that we’re tired. That we’re weary and anxious and heart-sick and soul-sick. So the messengers keep coming, to remind us that salvation does not lie in pretending a naive faith despite the latest horror. God keeps knocking at the door to remind us that we are not alone. What is it the angels say, every time they show up? “Be Not Afraid.” What is it the prophets proclaim, to a sick and weary and disenfranchised people? “Be Not Afraid.” What is it the grown Jesus says when the boat is rocking and the storm threatens? “Be Not Afraid.”

God was not born into the world because it was practically perfect and just needed a little window-dressing. These are the circumstances of the incarnation: Violence. Loss of life. Anguish. Fear. Blood and tears and spit and vomit and the messiness of life in a land occupied by the powers of death. That is where God came, and that is where God comes: to a broken world in desperate need of a Savior.

It take so much energy to live with this level of fear. The land of fear has left us with parched and dry souls. It is impossible to praise from a dusty, scratchy throat; knowing that our cracked lips have forgotten the song of the angels, God offers living water from a deep, inexhaustible well.

We have a sickness for which there is only one cure: the Holy One who offers freedom, hope, love, peace. Some day, we will stop living in the illusion that we can save ourselves, from ourselves, and we will let go of the fear and the agony and the anxiety that goes with it. Some day, we will have the sense to say, “Surely, God is my salvation.” Until then, with Advent anticipation, we wait.

We wait through the world’s brokenness, through violence, and fear. We wait for love to be born. On that day, the deep wisdom of the holy writings will be ours, and the Gospel will be ours, and the Savior will be ours. On that day, the body of Christ will proclaim, together, prophets to the world, “Be Not Afraid.” And great in our midst will be the God who made, and saves, and sustains us.

Christmas comes to us on that day: when we proclaim:
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid.

Let all God’s people say, “Be Not Afraid.”

And let all God’s people say, “Amen.”

Text:  Isaiah 12:1-6.  Preached at McFarland UCC on December 16, 2012 (Advent 3), in the wake of the shootings at Newtown, Connecticut.  Following the sermon, we proclaimed life in the face of death, light amid darkness, and hope amid despair, by singing together, Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee. 

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Psalm 139 - a responsive paraphrase for my first confirmation class.

One:                God, you have searched me out.
Many:             You know what I hide in the deepest parts of me.
One:                You are familiar with all my ways.
Many:             You know me completely, and still you love me, Lord.

One:                You go before me, and behind me; you wrap me in your protection.
Many:             Such knowledge is almost too wonderful,
                        it is almost too difficult to grasp.

One:                Where can I hide from you?
Many:             If I sing out with glory and praise, there you are;
                        If I lie down, despairing and fit to die, you are there too.

One:                When I soar on the wings of dawn,
                        When I settle with the twilight breeze,
Many:             You guide me and hold me.
 One:                I need not hide from you, morning or evening, or anywhere in between;
Many:             You are the one who created me.                                                                        

One:                I praise you, for the wonderful way you made me.
Many:             I was woven together, with love and blessings,
                        Before the world ever knew me.

One:                You wrote me into your book of wonders.
Many:             Your love and care for me is written there for all to see!

Written for Confirmation Sunday at McFarland UCC, 12/2/2012

An Advent Prayer

Holy One,
You who creep in among us on a starlit night,
An unlikely blessing in an unlikely place,
Hear our prayer. 

We offer you our sorrows, and our joys.
We offer you our questions and our doubts.
We offer you the best and worst of ourselves.
We trust that you know what to do with it –
Celebrate, transform, redeem, forgive.

Teach us to be vulnerable, as you were.
Teach us to accept love, as you did.
Teach us to make a home for you.

Inspire us to be for you,
a light that shines in the darkness,
Let our words, and our actions, and
our hearts testify to your light.


Game of Thrones

From time to time, popular culture coincides with our church year in a particularly helpful way. I speak not of the cult of Black Friday, nor of Wisconsin’s high holy days, the gun deer season. While one could make an argument for the entire genre of reality TV as a monument to sin and depravity, that’s not where we’re going today, either. Instead, I want to take you to HBO, to a popular series known as Game of Thrones. 

In the church calendar, today is known as Christ the King, or Reign of Christ, Sunday. It marks the end of one church year, and the beginning of the next. How could we not talk of Kings, and Thrones, and what rules us, on Christ the King Sunday? Cable TV dramas are not generally a refuge for saints – and this one is no exception. I was going to show you a clip, but it was a little hard to find one safe to show in the sanctuary. The program is based on an epic fantasy spread across six books (and counting). It has its fair share of foul language, revealing dress, violence and blood and beheadings. In other words, this is not a series to be watching with your young children. 

The premise of Game of Thrones is this: Centuries ago, one king conquered seven kingdoms, and his family ruled for centuries until a rebellion by feudal lords ended the dynasty. The leader of this rebellion became the new King. Years later, he dies of a wound taken in a hunting accident, and a new power struggle begins. His best friend and right-hand man – know as the “Hand of the King” asks too many pointed questions about the King’s heir, and finds himself accused of treason. (Those of you who are familiar with the series will know that I am guilty of gross oversimplification…forgive me) Things don’t end well – for his dedication to the realm and to finding out the truth, he loses his head. The kingdom fractures. For a time, nearly everyone is declaring himself a ruler: the dead King’s son, the dead Hand’s son, the King’s younger brother, the King’s elder brother, the dead Hand’s foster son’s iron-willed father…in the way of epic plotlines and dysfunctional families everywhere. 

And these are just the players we know about! Everybody gets in on the action. At one point, a group is holed up for the night behind the gates of an abandoned town, when some soldiers ride up and bellow, “Open up in the name of the King!” The retort from inside the barricades is brief: “Which one?” 

“Which one?” 

Like the characters in this series, we are constantly part of the Game of Thrones, whether we see it, or not. To which king do you owe your allegiance? For which ruler do you open the gates? To which ruler do you bend the knee? Today, of course, you can’t figure out which ruler someone follows by looking at what banners they carry, what device is on their shield, or whose Great Hall they feast in. Most of us don’t go through a ritual of offering our sword to someone and swearing fealty. 

Maybe you already know who, or what rules you. But if you don’t, here are a few ways to figure it out: 

  • How do you commit your time? Consider, for a moment, what is the most frequent entry into your calendar. Pull out your smartphone or your pocket calendar if you need to, while I’m talking. Maybe you’ll find your ruler lurking within. How do you actually spend your time? Maybe your work schedule rules you, or the sports schedule or your overwhelming load of homework. When you have to choose between two conflicting activities, what wins? That one might just be the ruler you have chosen. There’s another place you can look to see what rules you. Take a peek – as scary as it is in this gift-giving season -- at your checkbook register or your credit card statement. Pull out your checkbook, if you need to, as we talk. 
  • How do you commit your financial resources? On what categories do you spend most of your money? Housing? Home decorating? Travel? Debt service? Groceries? Charity? Your smartphone bill? Eating out, theater or sports tickets, club memberships, hobby equipment? So, what rules your schedule, or your pocketbook, or, a third category…just in case you haven’t settled on one yet: 
  • What captures your attention? On what do you spend your emotional, psychological, spiritual energy? What do you obsess over when you can’t sleep at night, or think about when you lose your focus at work, or muse on when you’re stuck in traffic on the beltline? When you snuck away from family gatherings this weekend, what was it for – surreptitious glances at your phone for work emails or text messages? Taking a turn at Words with Friends?
In at least one of these places, you will find what rules you. I ask you this: is it worthy of your devotion? Your allegiance? Is it worthy of your one wild and precious life? Sometimes, we don’t feel like we have a choice: it’s about brawn – we are captured or conquered with overwhelming force. Sometimes it’s a pragmatic decision, letting ourselves be ruled by whatever’s in closest proximity to us. Sometimes, our allegiance is won with stirring words…and sometimes it’s the influence of the crowd all around shouting, “Long Live the King” that causes you to lift your voice in acclaim. Sometimes it’s the ruler who has lifted you up from lowly places, and given you a title or an inheritance, who wins your undying loyalty. 

We’ve heard of a ruler like that: One whose kingdom is not of this world. One who came to testify to the truth. One who lifts up the lowly, seeks the lost, embraces the outcast. One who honors you a title better than any this world could bestow: Beloved child of God. And an inheritance beyond all we could earn or merit: a home in the heart and household of God. We who have been baptized, we who seek to follow the prophet of Nazareth, we who believe that God came to live among us as one of us – and in ways that confound logic, overcomes even the power of death: we know who wins the Game of Thrones. We know who conquers the false rulers, who offers freedom from tyranny and despair and division and madness. 

We call him, Lord. We know – at least a little bit – what his realm is supposed to look like. And we swear ourselves to it on a regular basis. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. The words are all over scripture and Christian tradition, and sometimes they come without thinking, because they are familiar to us. We proclaim them week after week, day after day. We offer our allegiance to the carpenter, teacher, healer, son of Man, son of God, ruling over an upside-down Kingdom. 

He tells us that his kingdom is not of this world. He shows us that the way is not easy. He asks us to set aside all other rulers -- Kings, Queens, habits, addictions, conveniences – for the sake of the Realm of God. On this last Sunday of the Christian year, when we celebrate the end and the beginning, when we celebrate the Sovereignty of God, we hear: 

“Open up, you ancient gates, open up you ancient doors, that the King of Glory may come in!”

To what King do you owe your allegiance? For which ruler will you open the gates? 
The Sovereign One is drawing near: “Open up, in the name of the King!” 


 A sermon for Christ the King, or Reign of Christ, Sunday
Text: John 18:33-38