Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas and Happy 2016!

Merry Christmas!
Happy New Year!
(Updates for "Preaching & Pondering"
will return in early January.  For now, it's time to snuggle down and read a good book!)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Advent Four: Hope Descendant (Luke 1:36-56)

“What planet are you on?”

This phrase is not necessarily about the question mark at its end. When somebody poses the question to you, they mean to say something to you more than ask. Such a question might come when you’ve said something that the other person finds a bit misguided, off the beaten path or not really tethered to reality.

“What planet are you on?” can be said in jest. More likely, the question can be thrown at you in the heat of the moment while arguing differing views. Indeed, if you have it said to you, there’s a good chance the other person has heard something that they simply cannot believe in.

Belief….It’s part of the challenge of being a religious person, yet for some, it’s a matter of absolutism (all in or faith loses all worth). A fundamentalist is quite comfortable on this side of things. For others, the experiences of life bring doubt where one has to choose whether or not to honor the questions that disturb or disrupt our trust and ardor. Here, we will find the majority of believers, sorting out where faith and life intersect, diverge and sometimes conflict deeply.

I honor when doubt enters into a situation, as it strengthens a faith able to navigate the world’s uncertainties. Doubt asks us to consider carefully how faith is a matter of the heart and mind and how we can shortchange ourselves by not wrestling with the questions and refraining from letting life in the real world be seen with honest eyes, not obscured with your head in the clouds.

How one navigates the heights and depths of faith may be a different experience for you and me in small and great ways alike. Each of us encounters hardship and triumph, uncertainty and certainty at a different pace and differing circumstances. Nonetheless, a faith that insists on seeing only in part keeps us from living faithfully while we live out our days in the present and wait faithfully God’s promised future for the old to pass away for the New Creation promised to us.

Unfortunately, too often Christianity has wrestled with visions more about “the End” or not engaging as thoughtfully the present day challenges, implying that the world somehow has a disposable shelf life that does not matter in the end. After all, we live in an era where humanity can wreak havoc indeed on a global scale. With nuclear weapons and a world of natural resources overtaxed by unchecked (and particularly American) consumptive habits, we are at a point where we cannot stop thinking about consequences.

We can wreak much havoc on the fragile web of life and humanity. We should not dismiss the responsibility that comes in such an era, though it seems we live otherwise more often. How can a word worth following ask us to take leave of the world and stop addressing the much more pressing questions of our daily existence, where so many are without basic human needs being met. How can faith become so disconnected with “pie in the sky” futures that no Christian engagement happens with the matters of food insecure households, who are often also the ones struggling to have adequate heat, shelter and healthcare access?

With Mary, we are invited to sing these words of faith as well. Indeed, you could say that the beginnings of faith can be in learning this song and letting its power move within us. We hear her song as a spiritual and a protest song all mixed into one. It has that same edge as an old song from Bob Dylan called “A Song for Woody”. Dylan was deeply influenced by singer Woody Guthrie, whose music spoke to the deep pain of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression era as surely as Dylan’s songs engaged the tumultuous 1960s:

Hey hey Woody Guthrie I wrote you a song
About a funny old world that's coming along
Seems sick and it's hungry, it's tired and it's torn
It looks like it's dying and it's hardly been born.

So arises the Song of Mary in the midst of difficult times and economic disparities. Mary lives in the midst of a country under outsider rule (the Roman Empire) with its economic disparities (only a select few owned land and had the majority of ancient Palestine’s assets while most lived at or below subsistence level) and social and religious differences (only men determined by rigorous standards to be without health or religious defect had the most standing in society and at Temple). Here a peasant woman whose pregnancy is suspect and likely to be a shameful matter for her household is belting out a song about how “everything’s gonna be all right”.

Does such a text inspire faith or fuel skepticism? Is this a text to believe in or a bit of the Bible that we should appreciate yet not count on as a vision able to come to full fruitfulness?

Does the song of Mary (often referred to as “the Magnificat”) too up in the clouds or really talking about the world we live in? What planet is the gospel on when it offers such a teaching as this one?

In the face of a world inattentive and unjust, and in spite of religious faith sometimes distanced from reality in favor of a narcissism religious fervor, Mary’s Song as told by Luke’s gospel is a word of challenge passed down the generations of those who read and seek to live out the gospel’s message. Mary imagines a world that is unlike the world she knows best, yet her faithful “Yes” to God in bearing the Christ child is not a mere song and dance routine. We are given a great word that summons us to lean forward into the world being reimagined and reprioritized by Jesus’ message, made known through his teachings, parables, healings and miracles.

In her book Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, feminist Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes, “Mary’s canticle praises God for the kind of salvation that involves concrete transformations.” Johnson challenges centuries of historic and hagiographic interpretations of Mary by drawing us closer to Mary in her historical context: a peasant woman living in the margins of society in whom God entrusts bearing the very Hope of the world. Mary’s song becomes the voice of the otherwise voiceless, proclaiming God’s just blessing for all while declaiming the “powers that be” that perpetuate an unjust world. Johnson claims,
People in need in every society hear a blessing in this canticle. The battered woman, the single parent without resources, those without food on the table or without even a table, the homeless family, the young abandoned to their own devices, the old who are discarded—all who are subjected to social contempt are encompassed in the hope that Mary proclaims. (Truly Our Sister, p. 269)
Such words just before Christmas ask us to be mindful of what this holiday is all about. It’s not the tree and the merriment (though they are delightful traditions). We are coming to Christmas Eve not necessarily for the Christmas carols we can sing without opening the hymnal. We come to reaffirm our faith in Jesus, the son of Mary whose birth is part of the greater story of his life, death and resurrection. From this faith, we hear the good word rising up to encourage those who despair and those who hunger, those who have no welcome and those who yearn for even a taste of God’s good and just world that is surely coming. And in hearing this good news, we dare further to let it transform how we live out the faith of Christ, born in lowly circumstance and yet the One who rules in ways that the world has yet to match with all its vast empires and aspiring potentates.

I recall the creed (the statement of faith and belief) offered by the Christians among the Massai, a tribal group from East Africa. These Christians live a life where they just keep moving along, nomads who have no fixed abode and keep their existence frugal without much need for establishing dwellings or urbanizing.

As some of the Massai people practice Christianity, a creedal statement arose among them in the 1960s. In turn, the creed became much admired among many Christians around the globe as a statement blending the Massai’s life with their faith in the gospel way of Jesus Christ. They confess:
We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created man and wanted man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the earth. We have known this High God in the darkness, and now we know him in the light. God promised in the book of his word, the Bible, that he would save the world and all the nations and tribes.

We believe that God made good his promise by sending his Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari, doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing that the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven through him. All who have faith in him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love, and share the bread together

in love, to announce the good news to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.


Friday, December 11, 2015

Advent Three: The Song That Goes On and On and (Zephaniah 3:14-20)

Zephaniah.  It is not one of the more popular baby names nowadays.   It makes me think of those relatives in family pictures from many years ago.  A man named Zephaniah conjures this image of  a great-great-great grandfather staring at you in an old 19th century family photo, a man who looks like he bit nails for fun (and by nails, we mean “ten penny”).  He’s surrounded by the requisite 19th century family of near a dozen children and a wife who looks even tougher than him, able to send the kids off to the one-room school house and then plow the back forty before heading to the kitchen to peel a gunny sack of potatoes to get supper going.  (For the record, I have no relatives named Zephaniah, though I do have an aunt Zelda.)

            The prophet Zephaniah serves as one of the “minor” prophets, the prophets whose writings are shorter in length compared to the “major” prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah, but by no means are the minor prophets to be considered “lesser” than the others.   They may have written less, but these “minor” prophets still carry the edgy vocation of prophet, bring a word that challenges and a life that moves against the grain of the world.  Just as last week’s readings from Malachi, the readings from Zephaniah appear in the midst of our anticipation of Christmas, the grumpy street preacher out in the cold on the corner as people bustle by, in search of presents, his message sounding an odd note.

            Zephaniah spends much of its time railing against the excesses of the nation.  The king Josiah reigned, yet Zephaniah’s prophetic work happened in the years before Josiah enacted religious reforms as one of Israel’s last “good” kings.  At this point, no one, from crown on down, had faced up to its breach of covenant loyalty with God.  Zephaniah’s critique of the politics, society, and religion of the day would have been vindicated only after the fact.

            The book of Zephaniah is structured around nine long teachings, or oracles.   Eight of the nine oracles are laden with talk of divine judgment for the people’s neglect of covenant commitments to God and the excesses of the day.  The book offers a fairly firm word that such behavior has not gone unnoticed by the Divine, and quite frankly, there will be a reckoning that no one will be escape, from the guy on the street all the way up to the royal court.

            The ninth oracle is astonishing in its content.  During the last section the prophet’s tone changes.  He speaks of God saving those who listen to the prophet and take it to heart.  I find it quite remarkable to find this section at the end of the prophetic roar, this tender appeal to join voices together and sing of the great hope that God has in store for the faithful.  Suddenly fierce Zephaniah softens, just like a “tough as nails” old man melting into tears as he is given that first grandchild to hold.

The dominant image of the prophetic utterances moves from the earth under divine judgment to a gathering of the faithful, singing of their faith at the top of their voices.   The people are called to sing of a faith that shall endure the world’s hardships and foresee the future as God brings about a reign of justice and peace, not just for some or a chosen few, but for all peoples of the world.

At first glance, you might be skeptical:  what good does this call to song really do?  The world is no less fractured as it was in the day of Zephaniah’s prophetic work.  One of the college students taking the comparative religions course I helped instruct awhile back noted the disparity.  At the final class session this past week, the question was asked:  After learning of various religious traditions this semester (beliefs, rituals, theological reflection on contemporary issues), what questions do you still have?  The student earnestly shared, “Each week, people go to religious places of worship, yet the headlines really never change.”  He noted wars, disasters, economic and social disparities still abound.  I appreciate the student’s observations.  It can seem a bit impossible.  The bright visions of a better world seem a bit detached from reality.  What good can a bunch of people at worship really do in this messed up world?

The song of Zephaniah is yet another reflection of how the season of Advent helps us live in the “now” and the “now yet”.   The Advent texts tell of people living faithfully in times of great challenge, not as those who believe in some sort of wishy-washy “pie in the sky” but rather as those who know you have got to keep your eye on the prize.  To sing Zephaniah’s song, you do not find the imagery of a life lived in pursuit of the afterlife.  Instead, this song imagines a different take on the world, where the nations shall be gathered together, where all persons will be given dignity, where the lost shall be found.

Such a song, invoked in the midst of the praise of God, maps out a different way of looking at the world.  We hear the disparities of a people who claim to be the chosen, the exceptional, yet they kept some folks invisible or at the margins.  Zephaniah is the counter witness to the official script of the day:  the nation was getting a little stronger under Josiah, regaining some international alliances, making a few strides toward new economic stability, yet some folks were kept second class citizens.  The vision of the prophets (major or minor) imagines a people not separated by status or privilege.  (A people holy and devout do not leave anyone out.)

Reading the full text of Zephaniah, you experience the full and necessary indictment of a society that tried its best to be the city set on a hill yet never gave full account for its misdeeds and myopias.  Yet, and I love that word “yet”, as it seems to be the necessary word for describing the prophets:  The people have sinned mightily against God, yet God shall bring about a different End, one of love, justice, and peace.  Accordingly, Zephaniah moves from indignant to tender in his prophecies.  The last section claims you can indeed sing a different tune and become the beloved community of God.  This song of Zephaniah presents where God will bring all things in the end, and singing this song inspires you to be part of the effort to bring the world more into line closer to what God intends.

In 2009, Baptists from around the world gathered for the 400th anniversary celebration of the first “Baptist” congregation forming in Amsterdam in 1609.  The service ended with the gathered people singing “We Are Marching in the Light of God”.   The song is also known as “Siyahamba”, reflecting the song’s origins in South Africa.  Originally, the song arose among Christians living in the long entrenched apartheid era.  The tune is quite easy to pick up, the words easy to remember:

We are marching in the light of God, we are marching in the light of God.

Getting a few hundred Baptists singing it at the end of a celebratory worship service, well, that church was rocking.  Better said, when the rest of the world joins in the song, even us relatively staid U.S. Baptists, who have mixed feelings about even clapping in church, find ourselves dancing.

The song “Siyahamba/We Are Marching in the Light of God” is not just “idle words” set to a catchy tune. The song mirrors the faith of a people who look to God for their strength and encouragement.  For people living under an oppressive government, dealing with hunger, poverty, and other forms of blatant disregard for people based on the color of their skin, this song pointed to a path through this world. Michael Hawn, a leading proponent of sacred global music, notes the power of this hymn, “Singing "Siyahamba" says that liturgy is not hermetically sealed from daily life, but is a place to mend the wounds of oppression, and to receive a blessing to return to the streets in hope for freedom.” (C. Michael Hawn, )  Not only for Sunday, this song provided a vision for the lives of people working to change a society.

The band came to a stop, as the BWA president came to the pulpit to give the benediction.  The crowd at the Baptist World Alliance meetings could not stop singing.  The president smiled and just waved his hand, conducting the crowd as we sang the song one more time.

I think back to that summer day in Amsterdam as I read Zephaniah.  The BWA singing together reminded me of the prophet’s vision of the nations of the world being gathered together, with no partiality given, gathered to sing of God’s just future coming about.  Siyahamba brought the people to worship and prepared them to return home to places where difficulties abound.  I stood alongside persons who would return to countries where poverty abounds and clean water is in short supply, where human trafficking (the 21st century version of slavery) is a critical problem, where the world’s resources are scarce because the West, particularly this country, over consumes.  These folks sang “We Are Marching in the Light of God” with the same conviction as those who composed it while living in difficult times.  Admittedly, I have sang “We Are Marching in the Light of God” at a few church services and ecumenical gatherings over the years, but this is the first time I felt the words and the tune work down into my soul.

What did that song say to me?  How does a Baptist serving in a country of veritable privilege, feel able to join in that song?   In response to the student’s pondering whether or not worshipping people can make a difference in the world, I would share with them about First Baptist, Cuba, and your commitment to become the best answer to that question.  Your church is investing its energies in discipleship far beyond just what happens on a Sunday morning. 
May we continue learning to sing a new song that harkens back to the prophets of God, who saw the dysfunctional present yet could foresee the bright future God alone holds for the world.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Advent Two: Being the Least Likely Character (Luke 3:1-6; Malachi 3:1-4)

Over the years, the nativity set has been a challenge to put together.  You would think it wasn’t.  After all, you place the manger stable on the mantle or hall table, perhaps under the Christmas tree, then you put the little baby in the crèche in the middle.  Mary’s easy to spot, kneeling and smiling upon the newborn. Poor Joseph, though, sometimes gets short shrift.  Some nativity sets are so generically designed, I have spent a good deal of time trying to sort out whether this figurine is Joseph or if he is a shepherd!  After you’ve arranged everyone around the manger, you attach the angel of the Lord to the roof.  Then, sprinkle with sheep, and you’re done.

Often, the nativity set features the Magi, traditionally three kings wearing turbans and bathrobes and carrying gift boxes.  (Of course, most kids don’t get gold. They would settle for Wii gaming consoles.  And if you think they dislike socks and sweaters, just look at their faces when they open the myrrh.)    Oddly enough, while we add the shepherds and the Magi, nativity sets forget to add some important folks:  the prophets.

Read the gospels, and the texts cite the prophetic writings regularly.  In fact, the book of Isaiah is sometimes called the “fifth” gospel as Jesus and the gospel writers alike connect Jesus’ ministry with the prophetic word.  Christian interpretation has claimed Jesus’ birth, his messianic identity, his humble servanthood, and his suffering for our redemption, referencing the prophetic texts.  So, if there are any “extra” guests at the Nativity, why not the prophets?  They are the ones who proclaim the One who is to come.  Christians confess the messiah to be Jesus of Nazareth, and especially recall prophetic texts at times like Christmas and Easter as we celebrate Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection.

In seminary, our studies of the “Old Testament”, or Hebrew Scriptures, were given over the course of two semesters.  Half of the “502” course explored the prophets, and students sometimes grumbled at the requirement to spend half a semester just on the prophets.  Why spend so much time on these texts?

For starters, if you wish to understand the Bible, you have to spend time with the prophets, whose writings comprise a significant portion of the Bible.  The God of the Old Testament is not the angry caricature sometimes perpetuated in some popular Christian thought (i.e. the God of the Old Testament was angry and the New Testament speaks of a God of love).  Including the messianic hope, the prophetic books interweave that hope with commentary on the relationship between God and God’s people, the challenge of a broken world and the hope the prophets see God providing even in the most difficult of circumstances.  The prophets are passionate, declaring God’s decisive word and radical vision for a people gone astray but forever beloved. 

For example, take the prophet Malachi.  Look the book of the Bible up on a biblical history timeline, and you’ll find the prophetic book is thought to be written seventy years after a very traumatic period in ancient Israel’s history.  Seventy years prior, the people returned to Jerusalem after a long exile, captive by the Babylonian empire.  The city was in ruins, the religious and political power built up during the years of monarchies gone.  The book of Isaiah begins the story of a people trying to get back on their feet.  The book of Malachi is further down this timeline, when the people have gotten a chance to rebuild, to find a fresh start.  And where do we find the people of ancient Israel two generations later after the veritable miracle and grace of being allowed to return home after years away in the Exile?

Still in need of being saved from themselves!

By the era of Malachi, the nation is under the control of the Persian Empire, considered at best a backwater imperial holding, of little consequence.  The city has been rebuilt, yet the people themselves are in bad shape.  The prophet Malachi moves among a people who have lost their way yet again, falling back into the same self-destructive ways, going down pathways seemingly attractive.  The economic and the religious life of the people crumbled away.  Despite being given a second chance, the people have lost their way yet again.

The prophet Malachi rails against the people’s failings, yet do you hear the great hope offered by the prophet?   The prophets are often remembered for their sharp words of criticism and indictment against the sin of the people, yet such texts as the Malachi reading need to be recalled as the counter-balance.  In the beginning and the end, God never gives up.  The prophets speak of the anger of God, the disappointment God has in our failings, and the accountability to which God holds us. The imagery of Malachi 3 is one of incredible splendor.  God shall work and rework this sinful, broken people until they shine like refined gold or silver.

The prophetic tradition sees each and every person as worth God’s tenaciously hanging onto, the God who shall working tirelessly to redeem, restore, and reconcile.  The incredible word of this recurs throughout the prophetic texts, envisioning with the prophetic imagination, the future that only God can bring.  Human history is cluttered with many failed attempts by nations, ideologies, and worldviews that claimed to be that next great vision that would bring about a world deemed “better”.  In the prophetic tradition of the Bible, God alone has the last word, not the kings, the empires, or the leading conventional wisdom of the day.  In the end, God shall redeem, restore, and reconcile.

In the gospels, John the Baptist is traditionally hailed as “the last of the prophets”, connecting John with these prophetic writers and claiming that his short ministry and death bring to an end, or a culmination, the long standing prophetic line.  Just as Malachi and the others, John the Baptist stands in the midst of a society and culture that has lost its way.  He preaches a baptism rooted in repentance, calling the people away from the world’s vanities and temptations.  His gruff demeanor and dress underscore how at odds with the world this prophet intends to be. Luke’s gospel begins the third chapter with a description of the rulers of the day, noting who could be counted among the powerful and influential.  Then, we hear John’s voice, perhaps a bit hoarse from his shouting to the crowds, cutting through the narration with his prophetic word.  Luke cites this odd figure as fulfillment of the hope found in the prophetic words of Isaiah:  a man who looks like he has left his fashion sense and probably most other senses behind when he went out into the desert to begin his contrary ministry, preaching of the excesses of the Temple and the people, claiming authority that few would believe he had.

A 20th century hymn recalls John’s prophetic ministry.  The hymn text, written by 20th century hymnist Carl Daw, encourages us to hear John the Baptist:
“Wild and lone the prophet’s voice echoes through the desert still,
calling us to make a choice, bidding us to do God’s will.
So we dare to journey on, led by faith through ways untrod,
Till we come at last like John – to behold the Lamb of God.”

So, back to the fireplace mantle, where the shepherds, the angel of the Lord, the kings, the animals, and even Mary and Joseph gather around this little wailing child, a newborn in a corn crib, born so lowly yet as Christians confess, is very God of very God.  I wonder if we should start adding a figure to the nativity set, one of a prophet.  Perhaps John the Baptist would suffice.  He probably would be the one character a bit sheepish to be getting so much attention.  (The sheep would be sheepish, no matter what they thought of being there with the shepherds.)  I imagine old John perhaps peering around the corner of the stable, that glint in his eyes perhaps softened a bit in the way old “hard as nails” men tend to be when seeing a newborn child.  He stands there, trying not to draw much attention to himself, yet he points one long, bony finger to the Christ child.

Indeed, the prophet would be just as welcome in the midst of this manger scene. Kings seek him, humble shepherds proclaim him, and the prophet adds to the joyful proclamation,
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.