1st Sunday of Christmas

mini sermon on Matthew 2:13-23

 

I get criticized if I mention the crucifixion at Christmas. Even though it seems like an easy play on words. Crucifix-mas? Christma-fixion? Anyway…

You may not be as much troubled at it now, feeling Christmas is somewhat past, though we’re only on day 5, less than half done with Christmas. It may not have struck you intensely this morning, but Pastor Sonja and I still felt this was a jarring reading that needed a few words, even if it took a couple minutes away later from the pleasant carol singing of your favorites.

But that’s actually exactly where I want to start. See, when Christmas feels like it’s supposed to be a favorite-filled pleasant diversion of holiday cheer to distract you from whatever variety of other feelings or current events, that’s a watered-down mediocre Christmas. Christmas and incarnation need to be God’s answers to all of our life. Not just a different story, but something that changes the story we know too well. If it’s going to be powerful, it needs to confront the powers that rule over us.

Just as Luke’s Christmas story situates the birth in and against the Roman Empire—giving Jesus titles like Savior and Lord instead of Caesar—Matthew also deals with the realities of an oppressive and hostile government. This story is brutal. Herod kills all the babies, infants, toddlers, children under two years old, furiously trying to maintain his position. And because he’s mean.

It’s important to realize Matthew is echoing another story, of Old Testament patterns. While Jesus is fitting into our human story, he’s also fitting into God’s story, since God’s story always needs to meet and speak to our human story.

Particularly the slaughter of the innocents, as this Bethlehem killing is called, happened in the book of Exodus, when Pharaoh in Egypt started killing babies, and Moses escaped by being hidden in a basket in the river. Standing for the whole “let my people go,” with Jesus the escape was reversed, fleeing to Egypt, eisodus instead of exodus. Matthew is hinting that Jesus, in part, will be a teacher like Moses, beginning with the Sermon on the Mount. And we expect him to lead his people to freedom.

You might like to know the slaughter of the innocents is frequently figured to be Matthew’s story-telling device and not a historical event. Nobody else writes about it, though it seems like it would’ve been kinda worth reporting.

But even if the fiction makes you feel a little better, it’s not to brush it aside. One instance might not have happened, but there are still people and even little children killed because of religious persecutions and vindictive rulers and because some people are mean, who would rather destroy than help life.

Again, Jesus having to flee to Egypt is an important identifier for Palestinians and many others, that he also was a refugee, since too many have to face that reality.

For God meeting human reality, in our own much smaller ways, we don’t ignore the bad things. We need God to deal with them. Even, eventually in Jesus’ life, dealing with our death.

We need to be saved from such. Christmas can be sweet and tender, but it has to matter, to make a difference.

It’s within this context and not apart from it that we receive this good news, the tidings of comfort and joy, the one who brings peace to earth, the only way we say all is calm, all is bright. So, still: Merry Christmas

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Christmas Eve sermon 2019

Six weeks ago I was there. In Bethlehem.

It’s certainly not to brag, nor to compare myself or our group to Mary and Joseph, because it’s quite incomparable. For example: no angel chorus for our trip. Another example: I didn’t give birth to the Messiah, the Lord. Actually, I didn’t give birth at all.

But some then-and-now gives perspective. So in other divergent details, I was coming up from contemporary coastal Tel Aviv, while the betrothed wayfarers journeyed south from ancient Nazareth.

The Bible doesn’t indicate anything about a donkey, you may be surprised to observe, yet we may safely hunch that the expectant couple didn’t travel on a coach bus with WiFi.

One constant is military occupation. Imperial threats prompted the original risky trek 80 miles through Palestine for the burstingly pregnant young woman and her caring fiancé, while we witnessed confrontational soldiers at checkpoints who would harass or maybe totally preclude their travel.

When they made it to Bethlehem, the precarious parents-to-be were on the hunt for a place to stay. My group’s accommodations were pre-arranged by the tour company, and not only was the bed in my room plenty comfy but I had a lovely evening view over the lights of the city, which is still at heart that same little town of Bethlehem with dark streets where the laboring mother and descendant of David could find no room in the inn.

Ironically, the crowded place while I was there weren’t the hospitable hotels but was, in fact, the little cave under the Church of the Nativity, for centuries claimed as the spot of Jesus’ birth. With bustling back-to-back worship services, bowing and chanting, the line stretched on for three hours or more. The old stable that hosted the unstable family, the out-of-the-way outpost for the outcasts had become the center of attention and most popular place in town, so buzzing and busy we couldn’t even get in, as if it were an A-list club hot spot and not a last resort.

But with attention on the ancient labor and delivery venue amid the manure of a cave with its bassinet filled with saliva-saturated hay—that such an odd place could draw attention!—maybe rather than distinctions between Mary the mother of God and myself, maybe the more obvious match is with the shepherds.

That association isn’t so much for my claiming responsibility for this flock, nor prompted by personal hygiene, nor for sleeping outside yesterday, since the only thing I was keeping watch over by night was the inside of my eyelids.

The shepherds did come flocking (indeed!) to the unlikely maternity ward, not bearing gifts, not bothering to use hand sanitizer on the way in, not asking permission or taking turns or lowering their voices for the tuckered tot and exhausted mother, jostling to elbow in on a view of the holiness, a little encounter with God.

That still serves as a description of what happens at the Church of the Nativity.

I’d also suggest it’s why we arrive here tonight, our own local pilgrimage to meet baby Jesus and witness the divine.

So as we’re assigned the part of shepherds in this pageant, one more detail struck me in Bethlehem, not then-and-now but there-and-here: for a town at the very center of Christmas, it didn’t feel like Christmas there. For twice that long our stores have been decked out up to our elfish ears in holiday décor, but Christmas decorations weren’t much around Bethlehem at all. A few lights and stars, but not evergreens or Santa hats or dazzlingly-wrapped packages. Mostly life seemed to go on. The farmers’ market had stacks of fruit. Students kicked soccer balls. Bus drivers smoked and talked with each other.

We, far from Bethlehem, are so invested in Christmas preparations, while they barely bothered. We sense this time as set apart, as removed from regular life. It’s a lot of what we long for! We may not be trying to go back in time, but our traditions can still feel like it, including as we reenact or re-erect manger scenes.

So we don’t prefer the ornate structure of the Church of the Nativity and its thronging diverse devotees obscuring the story. We want a quaint cave. We want it to feel quietly pastoral, even though that one-time stable had sheep squalor and a bawling baby. We want idyllic, cozy, picturesque—neither like a crowded gaudy church nor like scary unhygienic childbirth and the forlorn loneliness where shepherds were surely no substitute for the absence of Mary’s mother to help in the early days. We cherish this time of year for being serene, for some of you even the rare wishing for snowfall, for things that are beautiful and pleasant and dear.

While we might not wish ourselves off to Bethlehem now, neither should we dream back to bygone Bethlehem. With shepherds’ perspective, we notice that witnessing the birth really is what this is about, what is essential, and not ambience, or a certain place or time, or what comes before or after.

Clearly, the shepherds hadn’t prepared for Christmas. They didn’t have notice to deck and dazzle and dress up and clean up. They didn’t get their shopping done or carefully plan menus. So preparation or lack of preparedness isn’t the point.

Afterward, the shepherds didn’t leave with a to-do list. They just celebrated. They didn’t rush off as if sent to work for justice or plan any other missions. Such may show we’ve gone away distracted in our own thoughts and not focused on the baby, the angels’ song, the joy and praise and holy pondering at this good news of what God is up to.

We arrive for Christmas here tonight not to imagine warping through time and space to Bethlehem. We don’t come to escape normal life or ignore reality or pretend into some frame of mind. We know the world as it is, with things that go right and that don’t, with its good traditions and its constant change, in regular days and with what’s beautiful and memorable, with what we wish would stay just as it is and all that we long to be different, with our sharp lack of blissfulness but also recognizing we do have and share happiness.

That is to say, we come as modern shepherds. Folks who live in the world, who aren’t perfect, who won’t be. We come because we heard there’s a birth. A birth that is good news for us and for all the world. Behold! to you is born a Savior. We come because this birth exclaims that God is not someplace apart, not waiting for our lives to be in order, not only when we’ve cleaned up our act, not restricted to special places or exceptional occasions that shine with a tranquil glow.

God is not cut off from us, from our lives, from where you’ve been and where you’ll go. That is where God is working, transcending, enlivening. With you. For you. For peace on earth. Salaam. The shalom that means all is right. Ready or not, we come here to witness this good news, news we need, news we can barely believe. Then we go on our way, glorifying and praising God for all that we’ve heard and seen. It’s not because suddenly everything in the world is all right. And it’s because it is.

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Tough Ax to Follow

a sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Advent

on Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12

 

Let’s think about trees.IMG_1103

We’ve got the benefit of a visual aid. Earlier in the week, I was trying to figure out how you could rotate your chairs and get to stare out the windows. But then conveniently the great group of decorators Tuesday evening established the visual aid for you with scarcely a craning of the neck muscles.

And so what do you notice with these trees? Or what do they cause you to think of? I’ll give you a moment to reflect, then would be eager to hear and have you share.

 

Trees usually make us think of life, not least because we even have Bible stories featuring the “tree of life.” We picture growth, and hold them as an abode for creatures, a shelter for not only these red cardinals but squirrels and grubs and mosses and more. With this reason, the kingdom of God is even portrayed as a tree, harboring us all. It’s sort of like a family tree, realizing we branch in various directions and progress or digress from each other, but are all still held together.

We conceive of trees as steadfast, for past and future, changing only slowly with small growth rings marking years and decades, like the “good oak” Aldo Leopold and his chief sawyer spouse cut down, and deeper rings to centuries or even millennia, like 5000 year-old bristlecone pines. That firm, unbending, solid presence and tough trunk calls to mind Psalm 1 and the tune “like a tree planted by the water, we shall not be moved.”

But about such solid strength, I also heard that inside the Biosphere 2, a closed dome system in Arizona meant to replicate Earth’s environments, the trees weren’t replicating. The trees had to be propped up with posts. It turns out that without air movement and wind pushing against the trees, they don’t learn to stand firm. Of course it’s not a surprise that creatures adapt to and respond with their natural environment, that no tree is an island. But it is a reminder of rugged resiliency as a benefit, that calm, quiet isolation isn’t necessarily best.

Another for odd ironies and paradoxes: we use evergreens at this time of year as a symbol of eternal life (paired with the circle of the Advent wreath as another unending symbol), but these nice wispy pines turn out to be very limited life as we’ve cut them down and they’re drying out and before too very long will be tossed out.

It happens again at Easter when we have blooming flowers with the fragrance of new life (and usually an early glimpse before they’re ready to bud outdoors), but those bright colors quickly wither, and—zip—there goes the sense of new life. Easter’s eternal freshness lasts not quite a week.

I guess that means there’s always a theological yes and no to symbols. Anything we use to represent God or faith is inadequate and incomplete. And it reminds us we can read from God toward nature, seeing in the world signs of the God we know, but it’s much more difficult to extrapolate from nature to God.

So today we’ve got the image of a stump, of a tree cut down, even of an ax lying at the root of the tree. We’re actually, then, reflecting less on the tree of life than the tree of death.

For trees cut down, we’ve already seen they might be trying to indicate eternal life, even if it’s in a temporary or momentary way. These evergreens are intended not only to be beautiful and to invite creation to worship with us, but also make us recall even in the cold of winter that life persists, a marker from God, too.

Then we’ve got this big trunk chunk up in front here. This came from the crabapple tree, formerly outside the upper entrance. It might be a marker for us of gratitude or grief, the tree having provided our best kid playground around. It is also a marker of disease, of things not going right, of the rot that was splitting it apart and resulted in Jim Muehl’s chainsaw being applied to it.

That may be similar to this dead remnant of the Burr Oak tree that Lindy Wilson preserved. It was included in our All Saints service, remembering those who had died and whose legacy has shaped us. It is a memorial. Other parts of that Burr Oak wood have been crafted and reshaped around church to serve other purposes; this knotty unearthed remainder just testifies to former life.

While we’re thinking of stumps, I have in mind these days those in arid Palestine. On the trip, we heard plenty about people cut off from their trees. I’m not sure if any of the rest of the group noticed, because one set went by in the bus I didn’t get to point it out, but there is a heart-wrenching scene of a grove of olive trees wiped out.

non-olives

Barren clear-cuts are always a sad and desperate view, I’d say. But these tend to be ancient groves, farmed by the same family for hundreds of years, part of their livelihood and certainly their identity and culture. From Palestinian families, the Israeli military comes in and saws them all off to stumps. They say, again and ever that it’s about security, because somebody could hide in those trees, but it really seems about pestering persecution. Those remnant olive tree stumps are meant as markers to convey power and powerlessness, about who has potential.

That’s still not exactly our Bible reading, with the cut down stump. It would seem to stump the future itself. (It wouldn’t be worthwhile to have a sermon like this if there weren’t any puns. Where would the tree-t be in that? Okay…now I’ll leaf you alone. Except to point out the sermon title.)

Anyway! In the words of the prophet Isaiah, the stump is an alleged symbol of lifelessness awaiting a surprise. It is called the stump of Jesse. Jesse was King David’s father. David was the highpoint of the Hebrew kingdom in ancient Palestine. The most power. The most territory. Then things quickly fell apart. This is saying that the family tree has been cut off. There won’t be more branches. It won’t continue to extend and reach to the heavens. By this time of Isaiah a couple hundred years after David, it was pretty bleak. The mighty tree had been hacked away at by enemies. It was no longer flourishing and maybe even seemed like its life was over.

But Isaiah sees a shoot, a tender leaf coming up from the lopped off stump. It may not yet look like the verdant foliage stretching out, but it comes from the same source, the same stock, right out of the stump. The life of David’s kingdom may make a comeback. So in that case, the tree that seemed dead was only mostly dead.

That contrasts rather strongly with the image from John the Baptist. It doesn’t seem to hold out much hope it’s only dormant, that after a bare season things may green up again. For John, it’s not oppression or persecution or enemies that have done the pruning and slashing, but God. God’s will was to get rid of that tree. What’s chopped off is thrown into the fire. Not much apparent life left there.

But that’s maybe the clearest place where our symbols don’t line up with the reality of faith. For these wispy pines, for the logs up here, for what we may get to sprout or leaf and live again, if we pitched any of these slabs of dead wood into the fire, that would be the end.

Yet even when cut down, thrown in fire, God pulls out from death, out from destruction new life. The ashes of our past are not representative of what awaits us to come. Ashes to ashes? Not for God. Not just from decrepit stumps, but even from a burned up pile of soot, God can breathe in the breath of new life, raising from the dead.

That is the promise of baptism. You are a tree planted by the water. In the water. Not just when things look good and life is green and abundant. Even when you’re withering and wondering, still comes the promise of life, of breath, of wind to reinforce and sustain, to kindle not just purging fires but the living fire of life. You are a burning bush. You hold the promise spoken in baptism from the prophet Isaiah, that God’s Spirit rests on you, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the Spirit of joy in God’s presence now and forever.

Since we started with a pause, let’s end with one, too.
As a tree of the Lord, what do you expect of growth?
What do you wish were pruned away, purged, burned off?
Where are the areas that feel like life’s goodness has been carved and whittled away?
What are the memorials of old growth?
Where are signs of hope?
And what is new life, even beyond expectation?

 

 

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Ain’t Gonna Study War No More

a sermon for the 1st Sunday of Advent on Isaiah2:1-5; Psalm122; Matthew24:36-44

 

I ain’t gonna study war no more.

It’s a line from an old antebellum spiritual. That neat word “antebellum” is just Latin for “before the war.” This song of not studying war was sung before the Civil War, our biggest domestic study in war. But for the depth of that study, I’m not sure how much we find that struggle edifying. What did we learn?

Yet the insistence of these notes—I ain’t gonna study!—with the cheery jangle propelling us away from war, is a song that echoes on, harmonizing words from our 1st reading where the prophet Isaiah envisioned the coming day when “neither shall they learn war anymore.”

We continue waiting and hoping for when we and all nations shall walk together in the paths of peace. I ain’t gonna study war no more.

 

I ain’t gonna study war no more.

This morning we practice putting those words in our mouths, and go on to speak peace, to proclaim peace, to offer the good news of peace. As the children lead us, we’ll hear and receive that declaration of peace. And shalom. And salaam.

Along with the maybe more familiar Hebrew word, the Arabic is kept in our mouths because it often seems muffled, choked back. Where shalom is announced as God’s intention for the world, the Arabic version almost sounding the same—salaam—somehow comes across as if it’s less desirable. If one seems prayerfully biblical and the other conjures terrorists, then we need to keep hearing and speaking. Salaam. Shalom. The Hebrew is not closer; the Arabic is not further. They need to speak and listen to each other for us to practice peace. I ain’t gonna study war no more.

 

I ain’t gonna study war no more.

Thinking about the salaam/shalom pairing also perhaps highlights our Psalm, on praying for the peace of Jerusalem, a meeting place of the tribes, coming together. “Jerusalem’s a city meant to be at peace with itself,” we read. This internationally cherished place is a holy city to three sibling religions, three squabbling siblings.

So how do those interactions go? On the Holy Land trip, we saw lots of M16 automatic weapons in that city. We saw people forced to wait through checkpoints to get in. We met people who were barred for life from going to the city because they were born outside of it, because they were male, because they were presumed and labeled violent, a prejudging unjust prejudice. Not at peace with itself.

Wandering the city, we heard of the powers, the armies, the empires, that controlled the city through history. Jesus lamented over it, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! If only you had known the things that make for peace.” We saw where the powers killed him, crucified him, Jesus who came with a word of peace, came in nonviolence. The way of empire doesn’t know peace. I ain’t gonna study war no more.

 

I ain’t gonna study war no more.

In Lutheran schools we visited, Christian and Muslim students study side-by-side. They have breaks for separate religious studies. But being able to study together paves the way of peace, from elementary school up.

It marks a striking contrast with those soldiers with the M16s. Almost all Israeli young adults serve two or three years. The settler we met was proud of his three children being trained to fight. He kept saying, “We want peace. It would be nice. But instead we have to be well trained to fight.”

It makes me think of Einstein saying “you can’t simultaneously prepare for and prevent war.” One side was preparing for war. The Lutheran schools were preparing for peace. How do we convince ourselves what to study, and with what aim?

I ain’t gonna study war no more.

 

I ain’t gonna study war no more.

Isaiah talks also of “beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks,” the effort to “transform the metal tools of death into the tools of life.” A recent book updating this idea says prophets like Isaiah “were provocateurs of the imagination. They weren’t trying to predict the future. They were trying to change the present. They invite us to dream of the world as it could be and not just accept the world as it is.”* This dreaming and imagining is a practice, then, of how we study.

You might know that the former pastor of this congregation, inspired by the book inspired by Isaiah, took a blacksmithing class, ironically studying under a guy with an NRA bumpersticker. Jeff took up an idea of transforming guns into garden tools, to melt down assault rifles and handguns, to take violence out of our hands, and rework it and forge it into tools for life.

That’s dramatic and beautiful. But more than guns, many of us might have wallets in hand. Maybe the transformation we want to pound out of the system, to melt down and bring out a new creation, is to change the huge portion of our taxes that go to the military and invest them instead in the Department of Agriculture. To support family farms. Into ELCA World Hunger. There’s a lot of possibility to dream and imagine. I ain’t gonna study war no more.

 

I ain’t gonna study war no more.

It can be a difficult resistance. When there is news about North Korea nuclear weapons and about shootings in schools, when we’re told to fear people who are different from us or trying to stay woke against racism, when we see semi-new news of unrest in Iraq or ignore Syria because it’s no longer news, when hate speech fills our ears and minds, when this bad news invades our lives, it can be demanding. It can seem like the only wise response to nukes is nukes. That a bad guy with a gun should be met by a good guy with a gun. That the world is scary, so we need to be prepared to defend ourselves

But is the study of war really helpful? Does it seem like it’s slowing the spread of violence? Do our lives feel safer? What if we responded not with threats and bigger barriers but with humanitarian care and an open hand and an olive branch? What do we not accept of the world as it is? What could be? I ain’t gonna study war no more.

 

I ain’t gonna study war no more.

This, of course, isn’t just international relations. It’s not just neighboring Palestinians and Israelis. It’s personal resentments and animosities, when it’s easier to complain and argue, those studied perspectives of looking askance at each other, looking down on, looking warily at. It’s the retrenched hardness around some Thanksgiving tables, or who was absent. It’s breaking retaliatory cycles by refusing hostility. It may feel like we need remedial coursework to continue this study of peace, the way of Jesus!

I ain’t gonna study war no more.

 

I ain’t gonna study war no more.

But if it’s mostly our work, of changing the federal budget, of changing our culture, of changing our family, of improving ourselves, I start to despair and my imagination gets overwhelmed.

So I look for good news. I remember this is God’s good news, that we will walk in the paths of the Lord. I take some confidence in Isaiah’s vision that all nations will stream to this postbellum future, and in Paul’s vision that sees the hour is now nearer.

And I listen to Jesus. His word subverts our usual patterns. When we want security and try to protect ourselves, when we are steeped in fear, when castle laws fake fortify us in our abodes, the notion of a thief breaking in is terrifying. It’s exactly the sort of image we would study systematically against.

But Jesus breaks in, perhaps coming to steal away our mis-education, to rob us of false notions of security, to burgle our self-pretension, to thieve the thinking that we can study war-into-peace.

After all, he steals our sin, leaving grace and peace instead. He replaces our shortsighted hatred with a vision of all people as siblings, all creation joined in loving sustenance. He breaks in to take death, and life and health come in its place. “Renew our lives again; Lord Jesus, come and reign!”

 

 

 

 

 

* p20-21, Beating Guns: Hope for People Who are Weary of Violence, Shane Claiborne and Michael Martin

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