Wednesday, December 25, 2013

How silently the wonderous gift is giv'n

Sermon for Christmas Day, 2013

John’s Gospel is all about light and darkness, both literal and figurative. Today on Christmas we hear “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it”; at Easter the Marys will go to the tomb while it is still dark and then Jesus is raised and it is day. It’s never just about physical darkness or light—it’s always also about spiritual darkness and light. Today is the day we celebrate the light coming into the world in a new way, and darkness being banished.

With that in mind, listen to this quote: "… I believe that God is in me as the sun is in the color and fragrance of the flower, the Light in my darkness, the Voice in my silence."

Any guesses as to who wrote that? It’s Helen Keller. The icon of a woman who knew what it was to live in darkness and silence, but who managed to discover light and her voice. And who knew God as “the light in my darkness, the voice in my silence.” It intrigues me that once she had language, she would no doubt have read the Bible in the King James Version, in which that verse from John’s gospel today is “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not.”

How can you comprehend what light is if you live in darkness? And yet somehow she did. The light in her darkness was God, and in her darkness she did comprehend what that light was, even before she had words to describe God. I have trouble comprehending how I would be able to recognize God without having heard a single story, or having a single word to describe anything. But it inspires me that she could. That even as we celebrate Jesus born as the Word of God, we realize that words are not necessary to know the Word. That we can leave some of our intellect and education behind and discover God as pure experience, to be comprehended not by our minds but by our hearts and souls.

Last week I read an old sermon by Barbara Crafton, a colleague and friend. I learned from it that Helen Keller knew Philips Brooks, the Episcopal priest and noted preacher who wrote the text of our Christmas Carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” She was a teenager and he an old man when they met, but they corresponded through letters and impressed one another. Barbara wrote:

“Yet Brooks recognized that Helen and he did the same thing. Reaching out of the total darkness of her isolated life, Helen was already touching people's hearts with her courage and noble spirit, already challenging people to look at what could be. She lived in silence. She lived in darkness. But out of her silence the Spirit burst forth with grace and power. And out of her darkness, light shone. This was what Phillips Brooks had dedicated his life to bringing about: Let the people hear of what can be. Let them know what astonishing good can come from God, even in the face of terrible sorrow.

In one of her letters, Helen told Bishop Brooks that she had always known about God, even before she had any words. Even before she could call God anything, she knew God was there. She didn't know what it was. God had no name for her -- nothing had a name for her. She had no concept of a name. But in her darkness and isolation, she knew she was not alone. Someone was with her. She felt God's love. And when she received the gift of language and heard about God, she said she already knew.”

Barbara questioned whether Brooks might have had Helen Keller in mind when he wrote the text of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” because it deals with darkness and silence so compellingly. I did the math of when the hymn was written—it was before he met Helen Keller, so she couldn’t have inspired it—but it’s still an insightful reflection on the darkness and quietness of the gift of the Christ child. Maybe somehow he comprehended what light would mean to someone who lived in darkness; what sound would mean to someone who lived in silence; when he wrote:

How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

There are so many ways in which we may be blind and deaf today; and yet God can enter in. God comprehends light and dark; illumines our darkness before we can even find the words to name darkness or light. May this Christmas be a time to comprehend the Gift we have been given: the Word made flesh; whether it comes with silence or loud noises; whether in light or dark, whether in words or in pure experience. Amen.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Unwrapping the Gift

Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2013

I only peeked inside a gift once. Sometime before my ninth birthday, I rooted around in my parents’ closet and found a book about guinea pigs, which clued me in to the idea that I was going to get a guinea pig for my birthday. But other than that, I’m pretty good about not snooping, because I really don’t want to know what’s in the box until I open it—the not knowing and anticipation is part of the excitement in getting a present, and then the satisfaction of opening it, seeing, and playing with it or wearing it or whatever you do with the kind of thing it is.

There’s this little baby lying in a manger tonight, wrapped in a bunch of rags. And hearing the angel’s words to the Shepherds and to us, we know that this baby is a gift. “For unto us a child is born, a son is given.” It doesn’t look like a savior. It doesn’t look like a messiah. It doesn’t look like the Son of God. But it is. And over the next 33 years, layer upon layer of gift wrap will be taken off until finally there is Easter morning and Mary Magdalene can see the risen Lord and cry out “Rabbi!” Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, maybe even the angels—they look at this gift of a child and don’t quite know what it is. It certainly is a gift—every child is a gift—but even with all the prophecies, with all the strange dreams and angels and visitors—there is no way for them to really know what they’ve been given. The fullness of it only comes with the teachings, the life Jesus lives, his death, and his resurrection.

We have the privilege of knowing the rest of the story tonight. But do we really know what we’ve been given in Jesus? The English writer G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” (from What’s Wrong with the World) I think we’re still mystified by what it means that God gave us his son. There’s a line in Romeo and Juliet when Juliet is waiting for Romeo to show up after they’ve been married, “O! I have bought the mansion of a love, but not possess’d it, and though I am sold, not yet enjoyed!” Different context, but I feel like that’s sort of where we are. 2000 years of theology and Christian living after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, we still haven’t fully possessed what it means that God has granted us salvation. We don’t yet enjoy living in the mansion of love, even though that’s where we are. In theological terms, this time we’re in is often referred to as the “already-not yet”…. We have already been saved, but we have not yet come fully into God’s glory. Jesus has already come, but we have not yet managed to accept it.

Jesus lived and preached and taught things that are difficult for us to follow. Sometimes we can’t really believe that yes, we’ve been forgiven for our sins, that yes, we’ve been promised eternal life, that yes, God loves us enough that Jesus is the Son of God and Jesus does die for us. And sometimes we find it difficult to really love our neighbors; to share what we have; to respond with compassion rather than self-interest. It’s rather like we’re looking at the gift but afraid to play with it. We’re afraid to fully invest ourselves in cherishing it and letting it in to every corner of our lives. We’re still in the anticipation phase—or as if we’ve gotten a gift and we put it up on a shelf where we can look at it, but don’t take it out of the box.

Let 2014 be a year for you and I and everyone to unwrap one more layer around this prince of peace lying in the manger. Take Jesus down off the shelf and see what he can do. What layer of wrapping could you undo this year? Could you discover Jesus the teacher—and truly follow his teachings about love and justice? Could you discover Jesus the healer—and let him heal your wounds and restore your life? Could you discover Jesus the bringer of Good News—and turn around and share that good news with a world in need? Could you discover Jesus the man who prayed—and let his prayers enliven your own prayer life? Or could you discover Jesus the man who forgave sins—all of our sins, things done and left undone, known and unknown, and slip out from the burden of guilt and sin?

If each of us unwrapped just one more layer around the baby in the manger tonight, what a difference it would make in the world that God loved so much that he sent that baby. When the world sees Christians behaving like Christians, it gets excited. See the joy around the response to Pope Francis—suddenly, a role that had been pigeonholed as judgmental and out of touch with ordinary lives has come to life with compassion and humility. We could have a larger conversation about whether the Pope is actually managing to change in the Roman Church—but just at the level of how he presents his faith to the world, I am convinced that the world knows a real Christian when it sees one. We know a real Christian when we see one. And not only do we recognize it, we like it. We see it and we know oh, yes, that’s what Jesus was talking about. That’s who that child in the manger really is.

Tonight the gift is a baby. Even if you don’t really like babies, when you see one, and it looks up at you and smiles you can’t help but smile back. So too with Christians. Even if you don’t really like them, when they act like Jesus, it’s hard not to smile back, to feel warm, to want to be a Christian in return. So maybe our work tonight is not just to unwrap the Christ Child and reveal him to ourselves; maybe our work tonight is to allow ourselves to be unwrapped—to be shown for the gift we are to the world. May we be as unselfconscious as a baby in our smiles and our reaching out to touch the world. We have good tidings of great joy to bring to the world, and when the world hears those tidings, have confidence that heaven and nature will sing; that the lowly will be lifted up and the mighty brought low; and that peace will prevail. Amen.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Guilt is Good

My sermon for the second Sunday of Advent, 2013

 I don’t think John the Baptist would have an Elf on his shelf. For those who don’t have kids, Elf on the shelf is the trend of Christmas 2012 and 2013 where you get this little elf that sits in your house and you tell your kids that the Elf is going to report to Santa every night on whether the child has been naughty or nice… the elf is Santa’s Big Brother style spy. If you’re good—you get presents. If you’re bad… look out. There have been moments this week in Nathan’s behavior where I really would have liked to be able to say something like, “If you do that, the Elf will know and tell Santa!” so I totally get why this is a fun family activity and I don’t want anyone who has an Elf on the Shelf to feel bad… but I think it’s a very different take on sin than what we get today in the Gospel with John the Baptist preaching repentance. Elf on the shelf is about never sinning.. at least visibly. You can only sin in the next room over. You are naughty or you are nice. It’s about who you are, not about how you handle your inevitable sin.

John the Baptist is crying out “repent!” In Greek, the word is metanoia, and it means to turn around. To repent is to turn away from our sin and go in a different direction. That’s different from experiencing God as spying on us and judging us. Repentance is about self-judgment. Repentance is about using our knowledge of good and evil—discerned from God’s revelation through scripture, through the laws and mores of our time, through the response of our neighbors, and our own hearts—to determine that we have done something wrong or sinful, and choosing to turn away from it. He preaches his message of repentance—and the crowds come by the thousands, confess, repent and are baptized.

And those crowds include “many” Pharisees and Sadducees. John takes them to task for coming and joining in the ritual… He doesn’t seem to experience their presence as genuine; perhaps they’re only there because baptism in the Jordan was becoming trendy—a 1st Century Elf on the shelf. But I find it interesting in Matthew’s gospel that the Pharisees and Sadducees are coming not just to be voyeurs, but to be participants. They are coming to be baptized. They are coming to confess their sins and repent. Allowing for some skepticism, it speaks to me that even the people who were relatively powerful at that time and place, and who were religiously privileged, felt that something was lacking—that John’s message of repentance was something they needed, too.

What interests me today is what brings them there. Why is the message of repentance so compelling to so many people—both then and now, because our conversation at Bible and Brewskis this week was one of the more vibrant we’ve ever had when we brought up sin and repentance. What brings us to the Jordan? What brings us to a place where we feel a need to repent? What is it about speaking openly about our sins that is actually compelling and cathartic—instead of trying to hide them?

Dr. Brene Brown is a social worker and researcher whose work on vulnerability and shame went viral after she gave a TED talk in 2010. It’s available on YouTube, and I highly recommend it as a good way to spend 20 minutes—perhaps as part of your Advent preparation. I find her work resonates with a lot of people and is helpful when we think about sin, guilt, repentance and forgiveness. Dr. Brown bases some of her research on people who are “whole hearted” on distinguishing between shame and guilt.

Perhaps against our cultural instincts, guilt is good. It’s a like a little take off on Gordon Gecko: Guilt is good. When you do something wrong, you should feel guilty. You should feel bad. Guilt can make us do good things: apologize, make right our mistakes, repent and change direction so that we don’t do the bad thing again. Guilt can inspire us to connect more deeply to the people around us. But you feel guilt because you have done something bad, not because you are something bad.

When we do something bad and feel like we are something bad because of it, that’s not guilt, that’s shame. Shame is not helpful. Shame prevents us from connecting to others, isolates us, and inhibits our ability to apologize and truly repent. When we act out of shame, we do not experience metanoia—we do not turn around. We move blindly forward, because we don’t believe we—or our circumstances—can change. I would add theologically to Brene Brown’s research to say that when we act out of shame, we do not believe forgiveness is a possibility—and if we don’t believe forgiveness is a possibility, then you should just deny and hide your sins because there is no way to be free of them.

John raises the stakes of our anxiety this week with his binary clarity about wheat and chaff. The wheat is valuable and the chaff needs to be burned. We hear this and assume that either you are wheat or you are chaff. You’re naughty or nice. But think back to Brene Brown’s work on guilt and shame. A person who feels guilt says, “I am a grain of wheat that has chaff around it that I need to let go of and burn.” They know they have value—and also know that not everything about them has value. There are some things we need to let go of, and consign them to the flames. The person who lives out of shame says, “I am chaff and I have to cover that up so no one will realize it and throw me into the fire.” They do not recognize the kernel of grain inside themselves, and aren’t willing to risk starting to burn off the chaff so that that grain can become visible.

God calls us this Advent—and always—to let go of our shame. To bear fruits worthy of repentance, because we are worthy of repentance. We are worthy of forgiveness. You are God’s beloved child, and you are worthy of forgiveness from God; you are worthy of forgiveness from your neighbor; and you are worthy of forgiveness from yourself. We are so worthy that God sends his Son to us this season, to be born in that stable, to teach and preach and heal, to die, and to be raised.

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” To abound in hope means to believe in the possibility for forgiveness. To abound in home means to believe in our infinite worth as children of God. May this Advent be a season of hope abounding in each one of you. Amen.