Tuesday, December 28, 2010

[27] "Incarnation in the holiday season" [Rest and Bread; Wed. Dec. 8, 2010]

[Preached at Rest and Bread on Wednesday, December 8, 2010. Thanks to la bff for helping me select a Scripture passage.]

[Inspired by The Advent Conspiracy, Keith and I picked 4 alternative themes for Advent this year -- relationship, incarnation, sharing, and activation. Today is Incarnation.]
All you who are thirsty,
come to the water!
You who have no money,
come, buy food and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk,
without money, without price!
Why spend your money for what is not bread,
your wages for what fails to satisfy?
Heed me, and you will eat well,
you will delight in rich fare;
bend your ear and come to me,
listen, that you may have life
I will make an everlasting Covenant with you--
in fulfillment of the blessings promised to David.
-Isaiah 55:1-3, The Inclusive Bible
"You who have no money, come, buy food and eat."

What a message that is for this season, when so many are struggling with economic scarcity.

The kindom of God, for which we wait expectantly this Advent season and all days, is a place where sustenance and abundance are available for all.

This passage also speaks to the goodness of nourishing our bodies.

While this season is full of pressures to buy more stuff, our physical bodies, the very stuff that houses our spirit, often become our enemy. Facing the glut of holiday sweets, we are deluged with tips and tricks for how to not have "too much," how to not "overindulge." We are pulled in opposite directions -- retailers invite us to gift ourselves and our loved ones with chocolates from Godiva, fruit baskets from Harry and David, colorfully foil wrapped candies from Hershey's ... while the morning shows are full of advice about how to enjoy the ubiquitous holiday parties without using up all our Weight Watchers points.

Hear again the word of God: "Heed me, and you will eat well, you will delight in rich fare."

I'm not saying that God wants you to eat nothing but processed sugar, but God's table is a table of abundance. The Communion table there, around which we will all gather later in the service, holds bread and fruit of the vine ... food to nourish and sustain you, food for you to enjoy. And of the surplus you are invited to eat and drink more after the service is over.

Food is central to so much of Jesus' ministry. Jesus eats with everyone -- from the Pharisees (scholars of the religious law) to tax collectors (agents of the oppressive Empire).

In Matthew's Gospel, we read Jesus saying:
     What comparison can I make with this generation?
     They are like children shouting to others as they sit in the marketplace, "We piped for you but you would not dance. We sang you a dirge, but you would not mourn."
     For John the Baptizer came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, "He is possessed."
     The Chosen One comes, eating and drinking, and they say, "This one is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners."
     Wisdom will be vindicated by her own actions.
(Matthew 11:18-19a, The Inclusive Bible)
Jesus experienced the same opposing cultural pressures as we do today. Wear a cloak of camel's hair out in the desert and eat locusts and honey, and people will say you're possessed. Say you're not buying Christmas gifts for anyone this year, and people will say you have no sense of the holiday spirit. Share meals with those who are "socially unacceptable," and people will say all sorts of nasty things about you. Head directly to the chocolate fondue station at the office party, bypassing the veggies and low-fat dip, and people may call you a glutton (though probably not to your face).

Our culture gives us lots of conflicting messages about bodies. I want to give you one message to take home: God likes bodies.

God thinks bodies are so good that God said, "I will have one of these myself."

"And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."

This is what we anticipate and remember during the season of Advent -- that God, who had shown up in the world plenty of times before, in booming mountaintop and still small voice, in pillars of fire and cloud, chose to take on flesh, to be embodied...

{I extemporized an ending and as usual don't remember what I said -- I think it was about loving the bodies that God gave us, that God so loves, that God who formed us in our mother's womb called good.}

[26] "3 thoughts, approaching Advent" [Pentecost +25(C) Wednesday, Rest and Bread]

[Preached at Rest and Bread on Wed. Nov. 17, 2010. Thanks to Scott for last-minute editing.]
Matthew 23:37-24:14

37“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38See, your house is left to you, desolate. 39For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God.’”

24 1As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, the disciples came to point out the buildings of the temple. 2Then Jesus asked them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 3When Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

4Jesus answered them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 5For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray. 6And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: 8all this is but the beginning of the birthpangs. 9“Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. 10Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. 11And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. 13But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.
One metaphor for Advent is that of pregnancy -- we, like Mary, wait in joyful (and perhaps more than a little fearful) anticipation for the Promised One -- Emmanuel, God With Us.

In today's reading, however, we are reminded that Christ is already mothering us. Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem, crying out, "How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" How familiar that must sound to parents of willful children...

Confident in her own power and security, Jerusalem has rejected the prophets God has sent to her, has refused the transformative calls from her God and Maker.

Jesus prophesies the destruction of the Temple -- the focal point of religious power and authority. The coming of the Kingdom of God on Earth means the overthrow of all the human kingdoms that are already here on Earth, even the ones we might have a strong personal investment in -- "Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."

The disciples ask, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?"

Typical, Jesus avoids answering the question directly. Instead, Jesus cautions them not to be led astray -- and also not to be afraid. "Be not afraid" is a greeting we hear often from divine messengers throughout Advent and Christmas. When God shows up, you can be assured that you are going to be asked to make some radical changes in your life -- and the more we have to lose, the less that appeals to us (one of the many reasons God has a preferential option for the poor).

Jesus also cautions the disciples that there will be much conflict ahead. I don't think this is necessarily to be read as an assertion that all of this disaster will be a sign that the Second Coming is at hand -- famine and disaster are as old as the Fall; they predict nothing, though they indicate quite a lot. Rather, Jesus exhorts the disciples to endure; "you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet."

All this pain and suffering and disaster? This is not the end. "This is but the beginning of birthpangs."

I have never given birth -- and I really have no desire to, in fact -- but I have it on good authority that it can at times be an incredibly painful and difficult process. If that's true of bringing a regular human baby into the world, would we expect any less of bringing a whole new world to fruition?

And unlike pregnancy, where we have at least an approximation of a due date, we don't know when this Second Coming will be. We hear over and over again throughout the Gospels that no one knows the date or the hour, and so we must always be prepared. We can ask, "What would you do if you knew that Jesus was coming back next month?" or "What would you do if you knew that Jesus wasn't going to come back during your lifetime?" but the reality we have to work with is: "What would you do if you were assured that Jesus would return but you had no idea when that would be?" Every year, during Advent (and also during Lent) we take time to intentionally practice both waiting and preparing ourselves.

So as we approach the season of Advent, let's review Jesus' advice:
* you will not see me again until you say, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God."
* Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, "I am the Messiah!" and they will lead many astray.
* you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed
* the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

I'm intrigued by the twinning of these first two -- the second one is perhaps more salient, connected as it is with all the doom and gloom foreshadowing, but the first is no less important. Jerusalem is exhorted to proclaim: "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God." While we should be wary of those who claim divinity for themselves, we are also exhorted to be open to the presence and call of God in our lives.

Be not afraid. An exhortation used throughout the Advent and Christmas stories to assure us not to be afraid of the new thing God is doing in our lives and in the world -- but here we are also reminded not to be afraid of all that is happening in the world. For we have so great a hope... as we heard Paul proclaim on Sunday: "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus."

Do not let your love grow cold. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself." "Love one another as I have loved you." Over and over again we hear this exhortation, this love which is at the heart of the good news.

And so I invite you, as we move into this this season, to remain open to God, to be not afraid, and to not let your love grow cold.

[25] praying in tune [Rest and Bread; Wednesday, September 22, 2010]

[I gave the Reflection at Rest and Bread on September 22, 2010 -- feeling tired, hungry, and ill-prepared; I extemporized the second half of my Reflection and I think it went okay, though after the service was over I couldn't tell you what I said.]
1First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, 2for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. 3This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, Christself human, 6who gave Christself a ransom for all—this was attested at the right time. 7For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
(1 Timothy 2:1-7, NRSV)
We are exhorted to pray for everyone, even the rulers -- which I think also pointedly means, "even the people we don't like much."

Because there is one God and one Mediator -- and neither of them are us. In the prayer that Jesus taught us, we pray "Thy will be done" -- God's will, not ours. Yes, we are Called to be agents of God's Will here on Earth, but that doesn't mean we get to dictate the Plan.

Paul understands himself to have been commissioned to share this Good News. That there is one God -- and one mediator between God and humankind, which is to say, Christ.

We are not God. We are not even mediators between God and humanity. Now, many of us went on retreat in February to reflect on the topic of "prayer," and one of the things we discussed there was the idea that prayer changes God. The Jewish tradition that Paul and Jesus and most of the early Church had inherited was rich with a culture of arguing with God. And I support that. As does Paul, I think. After all, he lists intercessions and supplications in his prayer list.

But I think there's also an important lesson here about getting out of the way a bit. To remember that it is not all about us, that it does not all rest on us, and to shift our focus appropriately. Sometimes all we can do is pray, and sometimes the most useful thing we can do is pray.

One of the powerful images I have encountered for prayer is "getting in tune with God." Sometimes God is (or seems) out of tune, and that's where righteous arguing comes in -- but often we are the ones who are out of tune, and so we are exhorted to recenter ourselves in the one in whom we live and move and have our being.


My mom gave me a copy of Kathleen Norris' Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith for Christmas, and I've been underwhelmed by it thus far, but I really liked her piece on "Grace":
     Jacob's theophany, his dream of angels on a stairway to heaven, strikes me as an appealing tale of unmerited grace. Here's a man who has just deceived his father and cheated his brother out of an inheritance. But God's response to finding Jacob vulnerable, sleeping all alone in open country, is not to strike him down for his sins but to give him a blessing.
     Jacob wakes from the dream in awe, exclaiming, "Surely the Lord is in this place -- and I did not know it!" For once, his better instincts take hold, and he responds by worshiping God. He takes the stone that he'd kept close all night, perhaps to use as a weapon if a wild animal, or his furious brother Esau, were to attack him, and sets it up as a shrine, leaving it for future travelers, so that they, too, will know that this is a holy place, the dwelling place of God.
     Jacob's exclamation is one that remains with me, a reminder that God can choose to dwell everywhere and anywhere we go. One morning this past spring I noticed a young couple with an infant at an airport departure gate. The baby was staring intently at other people, and as soon as he recognized a human face, no matter whose it was, no matter if it was young or old, pretty or ugly, bored or happy or worried-looking he would respond with absolute delight.
     It was beautiful to see. Our drab departure gate had become the gate of heaven. And as I watched the baby play with any adult who would allow it, I felt as awe-struck as Jacob, because I realized that this is how God looks at us, staring into our faces in order to be delighted, to see the creature he made and called good, along with the rest of creation. And, as Psalm 139 puts it, darkness is as nothing to God, who can look right through whatever evil we've done in our lives to the creature made in the divine image.
     I suspect that only God, and well-loved infants, can see this way. But it gives me hope to think that when God gazed on the sleeping Jacob, he looked right through the tough little schemer and saw something good, if only a capacity for awe, for recognizing God and worshipping. That Jacob will worship badly, trying to bargain with God, doesn't seem to matter. God promises to be with him always.
     Peter denied Jesus, and Saul persecuted the early Christians, but God could see the apostles they would become. God does not punish Jacob as he lies sleeping because he can see in him Israel, the foundation of a people. God loves to look at us, and loves it when we will look back at him. Even when we try to run away from our troubles, as Jacob did, God will find us, and bless us, even when we feel most alone, unsure if we'll survive the night. God will find a way to let us know that he is with us in this place, wherever we are, however far we think we've run. And maybe that's one reason we worship -- to respond to grace. We praise God not to celebrate our own faith but to give thanks for the faith God has in us. To let ourselves look at God, and let God look back at us. And to laugh, and sing, and be delighted because God has called us his own.

"comfort and joy..."

me: [catches up on some blog reading]
me: [enjoys Loreena McKennitt's "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" {found here} {lyrics here} ]

Housemate: "I'm amused that this is the first time I've heard you playing Christmas music."
me: "You can't play Christmas carols before Christmas."
Housemate: "But Christmas was 2 days ago."
me: "The season of Christmas lasts for 12 days."
Housemate: "So you're going to play this on repeat for 12 days?"
me: "... No."

Friday, December 10, 2010

today's wisdom from Molly

Sometimes I do wonder if the Mary-like ability to accept whatever reality comes my way (usually mingled with the spiritual temper tantrum in a winning combination) is not actually spiritual enlightenment, attunement with God, a state of grace, but rather an even deeper and more insidious need to control every little thing? Like, I’ll show you God, I refuse to experience pain or dissonance around this new wrinkle in my life?

I’ve talked about retroactive prayer here in this blog, what about retrofitted prayer? When we square whatever it is we really want with what we already have—shaving off the bits of desire and longing that stick out past the edges of the current reality?

Is this a real discharge of desire, sloughing of concupiscence (a good thing in mystical Christianity), a release of attachment (a good thing in Buddhism)? Or is it merely a denial of our shadow side?

Like daughter, like mother? Carmen has a lot of life-threatening food allergies, has since she was a tiny babe, so she’s never known what it was to eat whatever comes across her path. We’ve adapted, and so has she. Humans can get used to just about anything. People say, “oh, how hard for her not to be able to eat that bag of Chee-tos/bacon double cheeseburger/pounder bag of peanut M&Ms” but I say that she doesn’t know any different.

But that’s not strictly true. For years I got away with keeping a cache of homemade whole-wheat apple muffins in the freezer and grabbing one out when it was time to go to a celebration rife with allergenic treats. But she is almost five now, and she can see that a cupcake at a birthday party looks perfectly delicious, and is not equivalent to a whole-wheat apple muffin.

She has squared this paradox in her own way. If it is true that her mother loves her, and if it true that she it totally, totally worthy of the best possible treats, then the thing that she has MUST be as good as the thing that will put her into the emergency room. Therefore she will lean over to me at family parties and say, sotto voce, “My carob surprise is so much better than that old premium ice cream parfait with warm caramelized marcona almonds and Callebaut fudge drizzle, right?”

God our mother also loves us, and we also are totally, totally worthy of the best possible treats. But sometimes we still get carob surprise.

-from Let It Be With Me