Sunday, December 10, 2017

advent II

NOTE: This morning I baptized two precious children from a family I cherish. I
married this couple almost 10 years ago, baptized their older boys and now had the blessing of welcoming the younger two into the community of Christ. I also said good-bye to two dear church friends who will be away until Easter; given the protocol of the United Church, after I leave this pastorate, we are obligated to stay apart for a full year. I have shared TONS with this loving couple and rejoice in it all. We had hoped to sup with them last night, but a snow storm interrupted our plans. This was a sad leave taking. And I noted that just a week ago, not long after worship, another brother in Christ died unexpectedly - and I will bury him this coming Saturday. Today was a full and rich time in the paradoxical blessing of serving God as pastor. My hour is coming to a close - and it should.  Here are my modified worship notes from this day as I returned thanks to God and God's people...

It is a particular privilege for me to share these words with you on this second Sunday of Advent both because I cherish the Biblical texts assigned for this morning; and, because I adore Pitor and Elizabeth’s precious family. To celebrate the baptism of two of their beautiful babies in the company of First Church is grace upon grace for me. For it is days like this one that helped me know beyond the shadow of a doubt, that for a season I truly was called into parish ministry.

· I’m not sure if you know this, but even after I was called by Christ’s Spirit into ministry – way back in 1968 shortly after Dr. King’s assassination – most of my mentors and advisors told me that I should NEVER go into local church ministry. I was too brusque they said; too much like John the Baptist and not enough like Jesus; too interested in radical social justice and not enough in the slow transformation of human hearts that comprise the essence of ministry in the local church.

· Even the President of the United Church of Christ at the time, Paul Sherry, said to me: Lumsden, I don’t think this is a good idea. There’s NO question about your commitment to Christ, but change probably happens too slowly in the local church for your temperament. So you might want to think about other options!

Well, nearly 40 years after hearing this advice, I’ve discerned that the time has come to bring this phase of serving Christ to a close. But if you were to ask my wife what part of ministry brought me the most joy – fed my soul and nourished me in the bleak times – she would say clearly and without equivocation, being a local church pastor: visiting the sick, marrying and supporting lovers, baptizing their children, burying their dead and celebrating Eucharist as often as possible. And she would be right. The times we live in have demanded that people of faith become part of movements for social change: when did we see Thee Lord and feed you, clothe you, visit you and love you? Whenever you shared compassion and justice with the LEAST of these, my sisters and brothers! Action on behalf of the common good is a spiritual discipline for us much like prayer or fasting or coming to worship on a regular basis. But social action is not what has nourished my heart over 35 years of ordination.

No, it was days like today the made my heart sing, times when the tender hours I spent building relationships of trust and respect began to bloom and bear fruit. Writing editorials, organizing protests, engaging in social analysis is how God called me to use the intellectual gifts the Lord gave me at my birth. But it has always been the one-on-one connections of pastoral care that gave me life.

Perhaps that’s why the poetry of Isaiah resonates so soundly within me: Comfort, comfort o my people, tell of peace thus says the Lord. Comfort those whose hearts are shrouded, mourning under sorrow’s load. Speak unto Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them; tell them that their sins I cover and their warfare now is over. I love that hymn, I love that passage in the Bible, and I love the invitation into both God’s strength and God’s tenderness that it promises.

· Originally this poem emerged when ancient Israel was living in despair: their Temple had been destroyed and burned to the ground, Jerusalem lay in rubble and the best and the brightest had been taken into bondage by Babylon. For 150 years God had been warning Israel to start taking care of the poor and quit giving perks to the fat and greedy. The first 40 chapters of Isaiah tell that story – check it out and tell me if it doesn’t evoke some contemporary concerns for you. First were the warnings: and from my perspective, 150 years of warning seems long enough for a patient God to wait, don’t you think?

· So then came the consequences of selfishness and greed for that’s how God’s judgment works. What we set in motion bears fruit – and it can be either the fruit of righteousness – what we speak of as compassion and right relationships as good neighbors – or it can be the fruit of injustice – like racism, fear-mongering, sexual harassment and social inequality. What ancient Israel experienced was the fruit of their own selfishness – and that is what the Bible calls judgment.

Now here’s a little aside: in the first chapter of Romans St. Paul explains to us how God’s judgment works when he tells us that the Lord has set creation in motion with order and balance. When we respect God’s order – when we follow the ebb and flow of God’s balance – life flourishes: neighbors are cared for, food is sufficient so that no one starves, and the weak and vulnerable are treasured as special ambassadors of love not a burden.

But when we violate this order, when we act only for ourselves, when we neglect and wound one another, St. Paul writes then we experience God’s wrath. But let’s be very clear about this word: wrath does NOT mean violence poured down from heaven – that is superstition – rather God’s wrath means God’s willful absence. Much like a loving parent who has tried everything to help a rebellious, self-centered child change his or her ways, eventually the Lord says to us in love: Ok, you really want to live like you are in charge? Go ahead and do it – see what it feels like to be without my comfort and grace – please, do it: it will break my heart – and cause you incredible pain and suffering – but go ahead and try it. Maybe then you’ll want to stop having it your own way.

· God’s wrath is God’s absence given to us to help us return home like the Prodigal Son when he realized he truly needed his father’s help. Are you with me on this? This is so important: God’s wrath is God’s broken heart giving up control so that we might freely choose to return to love.

· And individuals and nations often seem to need this absence before we’re ready to repent – and please recall that repentance means changing our direction – returning to the gracious balance of God’s order. And THAT is what this portion of Isaiah’s poem tells us: after 150 years of warning, God’s protection was withdrawn and ancient Israel experienced 75 years of consequences for their selfishness. Human beings, you and me included, are slow, slow learners: 75 years of consequences.

And then, when the season was right and the hearts of God’s people were broken open, there came a word of comfort from the Lord: my absence, saith the Lord, and your wounds need not be forever. Now that you are ready to return to my order, I will make a highway for you in the desert so that you can come home to my love. That’s originally what the words of John the Baptist referred to: God creating a safe and straight highway from Babylon back to Jerusalem. This return would NOT be like the Exodus with all that wandering in the wilderness: this would be a super highway of grace. What’s more, their long absent God would now come like both a warrior to protect and a tender shepherd who bends down to embrace the tiny lambs. 

How does the Psalmist put it: Justice AND mercy shall kiss? Compassion and right relations shall embrace? This was the promise - a return to life within God’s holy order – and just so that we don’t miss what this really means, we’re given the story of John the Baptist to show us what the marriage of tenderness and strength looks like in person. And like everything else about the Lord, it’s upside down defying the status quo. Think about it:

· John is born into a priestly family – but where does he choose to live – out in the desert, right? He abandons his power and privilege to preach and pray about right relations between neighbors and getting back into the groove of God’s balance again. Then along comes Jesus – and where was he born? In a stable on the periphery of power – and where does he eventually die? In Jerusalem, the center of religious, political and economic power in his era. John acted out in his life the upside-down kingdom that Jesus embodied in his birth, life, death and resurrection.

· Mark’s gospel goes on to tell us that John the Baptist understood that in time another would come along who would be more powerful than himself – a Messiah whose sandals he was not fit to untie – and yet, if you know the story: what happens when Jesus finally goes to meet John at the River Jordan? John, the lesser, embraces Jesus, the stronger; and Jesus the powerful subordinates himself to the Baptizer, right? This whole relationship between John and Jesus is a sign to us of God’s great reversal: Jesus the Savior is held in the arms of John the unworthy and plunged into the Jordan for the forgiveness of sins.

And, that is the ultimate charism and blessing of the local church: serving one another with unconditional love. We’re not called to LIKE one another – become best friends for life – or anything so trite and sentimental. No, we’re called to serve one another like John served Jesus – and like Jesus served the world.

· So often we make excuses for ourselves: o my life is too hard, o I’m too tired, o that person is such a schmuck and all the rest. Beloved, that’s not of the Lord. It may all be true – we may, indeed, be too tired and our lives may truly been too hard – and God knows there are enough schmucks to go around, right?

· But there are consequences to selfishness: there is judgment – and isolation – and fear. St. John writes that mature love casts out all fear. Not without sacrifice. Not quickly or over night. It takes a life time of walking that highway of grace in the wilderness that brings us comfort. 

This morning, before worship, as I looked out upon the silent snow in the wetlands behind my house, I felt the peace of God's comfort. And I gave thanks to the Lord that there are small communities of faith where we can gather as God's broken people called to the highway of grace. I gave thanks that I would have this chance to celebrate with Elizabeth and Pitor. And I realized that as we gathered today our voices were crying out in the wilderness of our culture showing those with eyes to see  that there is another way.  A way of comfort beyond the selfishness of our own hearts. A way of tenderness and hope in the midst of challenges too bleak to name. So my heart was at peace. I give thanks to the Lord this day for this community - for these children - and parents and those who love them and pray you never take this blessing for granted. 

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