Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Navigating the World (Matthew 2:1-12)

Years back in The Christian Century, religious commentator Rodney Clapp whimsically recounts his experiences with a Tom-Tom GPS unit. Global positioning systems (GPS) can be a travel aide for long car trips and the directionally challenged. Like all technology, the GPS units can create complication while designed for ease of use. Clapp tells how the Tom-Tom GPS is capable of leading him right to his destination as surely as the GPS “got [him] lost in a tangle of new lanes and one-way streets in harborside Miami. And for a long, amusing stretch of rural Texas, it pictured [him] rocketing at 80 miles per hour through rivers and across wheat fields parallel to the highway on which [he] was actually traveling.”

For his amusement, Clapp reprogrammed his GPS to speak with the voice of British comedian John Cleese. When making a turn, Cleese instructs, “At the next exit, bear right, beaver left”. Upon arrival Cleese says, “You have now arrived at your destination and are on your own—I will not carry your bags”.

Rodney Clapp writes, “Even as we jet over oceans and view live TV transmissions from the other side of the world, we are more parochial than the ancients in one way. We have lost the sky.” Clapp notes how the US Navy no longer teaches celestial navigation, or sailing by the stars. We twenty-first century folks have precision technology to figure our bearings, though in the process, Clapp fears “we have lost our attention to the sky”. In his essay, Clapp recalls how the sky was so integral to generations past. He notes various stories about the constellations told by ancient Greeks, medieval Europeans, and Native Americans. The stars engaged the human imagination in ways Clapp feels is dissipating as GPS units keep our gaze on latitude and mileage, rather than searching out the Little Dipper for directions as well as wonder.

Clapp wonders, “Could the Magi have located the Christ child with modern navigational technology?” In one sense, yes, they could have programmed their GPS to guide them from somewhere in Persia, where it was presumed they traveled, to Bethlehem, provided they knew that was where they would wind up at journey’s end. The GPS could have told them which way to ride their camels, even where to find a decent inn while on layover in Jerusalem. The GPS could even insult them in the voice of John Cleese: “At the next exit, you will arrive at your destination—the Prince of Peace, the Messiah, God Incarnate, yea, verily, the only begotten son of Almighty God. And, please bear in mind—I will NOT carry your myrrh.”

In answering Clapp’s question, the gospel writer Matthew responds a polite “no”. The Magi made their travels as a sort of religious pilgrimage. They did not know where this star would take them, only that their readings of astrological signs and portents suggested royalty was about to be born. Such a worldview sounds a bit archaic to us, the stuff of legends, which speaks to Clapp’s observation. In today’s world, Matthew’s readers presume a world where precision navigation is the norm, and the Magi’s trip might strike a twenty-first century reader as a wild goose chase.

The story of the Magi asks us to think about the ways we see the world. One person can see a star and look away with indifference. Another person can write poetry. See Robert Frost’s poem “Take Something Like a Star”, wherein the poet beholds a star and starts trying to understand the star, eventually chastened to reverence by the star’s ability simply to be

“Say something!” the poet demands. The celestial response is terse and enigmatic. “And it says, ‘I burn.’” Thus, the poet rails,

Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.

The poet soon realizes there is something more to be learned from a star than he first thought possible. He writes of the star:

It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
to carry praise or blame too far,
we may take something like a star
to stay our minds on and be staid.

Matthew’s gospel makes it clear this is a devotional journey. The Magi model the reverence due the Christ child, providing a subtle counterpoint to Herod’s paranoid jealousies. The wise men travel from a far distance, while Herod prowls his throne room. The Magi are outsiders to the religious worldview of first century Judaism, yet they, not the people, and certainly not their king, are the ones paying homage. The Magi arrive to pay their respect, whereas Herod uses the full might of his court to reign death down upon countless innocents, as he fears the Magi’s word that competition has been born somewhere in his territories. While Herod sees nothing good has come of this, the Magi fall on their knees and as the King James Version puts it, “pay him homage”.

The Magi see above the petty world of Herod the mysterious hand of God at work in the world. To travel so far and to carry such extravagant gifts is not an act of checking out the competition. The Magi did not subscribe to local religious customs themselves, but they knew an event of great significance was unfolding. As part of Matthew’s gospel, their presence in the narrative reminds that even the outsider or those persons society deems contrary can see something new is at hand.

When the Magi find themselves at their long-awaited destination, they celebrate the little child. Most folks would find it puzzling, such a journey to find greatness ends with a wee boy in a backwater town. The magi started out upon their journey searching for a king. They found the current demagogue in Jerusalem, a bully whose moodiness kept an entire city on edge. Others might wonder why the Magi opted to risk Herod’s wrath by failing to report back as requested and heading home. In the graceful words of the King James Version, a vision prompts them “to go home by another way”.

This story of the Magi’s long, strange journey offers a redemptive word. We are journeyers along the path of life. In our daily lives, we navigate all manner of terrain, some not even remotely geographical. We navigate our identity as persons of means (some, much, and not much), as persons who live in this country and may or may not see the global privilege U.S. citizens enjoy at the expense of other countries. We are people who live on varying footings with those around us, as no one enjoys a completely level playing field in society. Our gender, racial/ethnic or social identities cause us to find doors open or closed to us on a regular basis. Some people help us get where our dreams hope to go. Other people take pleasure in hindering us. We travel miles to achieve things in our lives that others simply find right at the taking at their first opportunity. Add to this mix our journey of faith, and it gets even more complex. Faith complicates things as our religious values often ask us to take detours or roads less traveled (a little homage to Frost there). Sometimes, our beliefs embolden us to go places off the map. Like the Magi, our faith can prompt us to go home by another way.

The gospel itself welcomes the earnest outsider like the Magi reeking of frankincense or another one with an aching back from lugging a chest of gold. The gospel welcomes an earnest mother who says “yes” to God, despite the public shaming sure to follow. The carpenter Joseph who dreams like his namesake in Genesis and likewise follows those dreams with due reverence. The gospel helps us see where the truth lies in the world: that riddle called Jesus. A baby who sleeps, eats, learns to crawl then toddle, who all the while is God incarnate.

For the first time, we see a pathway unfolding before us, one not on any map produced by Rand-McNally or calculated by GPS. Whether swaddled in the manger, spinning a parable before the multitudes, eating and drinking with his beloved at table, Jesus offers a new pathway through this world, a new map for how we are to live in this world and treat one another. In hearing these narratives, we learn to see with new eyes. We see the futility of those who have worldly power as well as the magnificent vulnerability of God found in Christ Jesus.

Some might call it a wild goose chase.

Others might say that we have found our bearings, heading for home.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Advent 4: The Guy Off in the Corner (Matthew 1:18-25)

Where does Joseph fit into the Nativity story?
          It should have been different.  By “different”, actually it should have been the predictable way.  This way, well….it was not the most commendable of stories to get around town.  A young virgin finds herself in a family way, and well, people start talking about all manner of things.   “Virgin birth” is most decidedly NOT among the suggestions.  Instead, it’s a bit of a scandal, a whisper campaign about to get underway.  It is improper, inappropriate, and most importantly, difficult to explain away.
            I wonder about Joseph.  He’s been around town for years, yet right now, he feels as if under friendly fire.  He’s the subject of curious stares, hostile looks, and the occasional salacious and conspiratorial wink.  He does not return any of these jibes or criticisms.  Instead, he holds his head high.
             So, is he a proud man or a fool trying desperately to save the remaining shred of dignity and decorum he has left?

             The Bible is rife with stories of rogues and scoundrels.  Jacob, the trickster, occupies much of Genesis, getting in and out of trouble with as much talent for getting out of it as he does getting into it.    Abraham, the great patriarch, is a complex figure.  Read the whole Abrahamic cycle of stories and you’ll find a guy that might look good in a Sunday school quarterly but really is not that out of place with the great flawed figures of other literary works.   The list could go on, but we need to keep our "G" rating for the Sunday morning worship service.

             Among this checkered history of the people of God and the reality God still used these people, despite their failings and flaws, Joseph really is a dull figure.  He does not have any great faults or failings.  In fact, he’s an astonishingly graceful character, not wanting any fuss and more important, any harm to come to this young woman now on the cusp of public shunning.
             Joseph wants to do the right thing.  He’ll likely take heat for it.  The conservatives in the community will be likely disparaging him around the clock as if a hapless politician in a modern cable news channel’s crosshairs.  He’s going to lose face, but he has decided quietly in his own way that it’s all right.

               Yet alas, we tend to forget Joseph in the manager scene.

               When I worked for Cokesbury (back in its long gone brick and mortar days), we would assemble several Nativity sets for display (and hopefully purchase) to show our customers. We tried our best to offer a variety of Nativity sets from around the world, each beautiful in their own way, the product of hard working artisans getting a better deal through a Fair Trade cooperative.
            I remember well the great debate the store staff had over one such Nativity set from overseas.  We unboxed the set and realized that each piece was hand carved stone,  and not one piece had a great deal of detailing.  Thus, was this lump of stone a shepherd or a king?   Poor Joseph, though, was the hardest to identify.  He had no staff in hand or crown on his head.   Instead, Joseph was deemed to be the only piece that did not seem to have any other purpose than to be “the odd man out” in the Nativity of roughly fashioned angels, sheep, shepherds, kings, and animals.

            It can be an odd situation in life:  being the honorable type that still goes without notice.   The little guy tends to be lost in the shuffle, the guy who just does the right thing year round because that’s the way he’s wired.  There’s no desire for attention or credit.  No, that type just quietly makes sure that the good is taken care, regardless of the time or season.

          Garrison Keillor celebrates that type of person in his ongoing stories of life in small town Minnesota.  The typical Minnesotan in Keillor’s stories tends toward a near allergic reaction to pride, attention, or notice.   The “look at me” tendency of our human nature appears to be replaced by the raspy voice of an old Lutheran waving off the cheers with a word of “Ah, shucks, guys, it was nuthin’, don’t ya know” and then he passes you the plate of lutefisk.

            The story of the birth of Jesus could have ended before it started, primarily in the shunning of Mary, or worse, the type of punishment common in the day’s culture, which again, once described, goes beyond the “G” rating we tend to classify “Bible stories” under.

            Yet it is Joseph and Mary alike who say “yes” to the call of God to bring into the world the Christ child.   Despite the rigors of pregnancy and childrearing, despite the tenuous navigation of a culture’s purity understandings, this couple works through a difficult situation.  The old spiritual sings, “Mary had a baby”, and the gospel writer responds, “And Joseph and Mary raised him right!”
            At this point in the Advent season, you know Christmas is just around the corner.  Perhaps you just got around to putting up your tree.  Others may be so busy that they do not realize that Christmas is just next week.  (And retail stores are standing by in hopes you will come by and buy them out of everything!)
            For pastors, the Fourth Sunday of Advent can seem the less important item on the "To Do" list with all of the other Christmas festivities to help plan and lead.  I remember spending more time figuring out how to wrangle unruly kids for a Christmas pageant than I did for a sermon one year.  Bringing peace to the Middle East may be easier than dealing with a six year old shepherd ready to use his staff over the head of a wise man.
             I remember sitting in my pastor's office, trying to figure things out, and there sitting in a chair was the Fourth Sunday of Advent.  She looked rather calm, just sitting there and grinned at me real big.  
           I could not understand why the Fourth Sunday of Advent looked so serene and pleased with itself.  “Why are you so happy?  Don’t you see that I’m in the middle of a great big week?  I have a sermon to preach, and yet there's countless other things taking up my attention right now. Can’t you tell I need help?”
            Advent 4 just laughed.  “Did you look at the Matthew reading yet?”
            “No, I’m too busy.  Got to get things done.”
            “Well, make sure you read that passage,” this Sunday said. "You'll thank me." Then, it went back to reading its magazine.

            Later, I sat down during a quiet moment in the office and pulled out a Bible.  I found the passage for Matthew, and I could see why the Fourth Sunday of Advent looked so serene.
            There, in the midst of a story about life seeming to go haywire, off the map, or getting dreadfully difficult, the angel of the Lord appears.  In the midst of the seeming chaos and turmoil, the angel tells what this baby ought to be called.
            “Call him Emmanuel, or that is, God with us.”

            God with us….In the midst of life, in the midst of trying times and challenge, in the midst of mourning a loss that we likely bear for what is best described as a season, the faith we try our best to keep revolves around this radical assumption that God humbly(!) dwells with us.

           God with us….Nothing, not a thing about human life is exempt or beneath the Christ.  Indeed, Jesus knows the fullness of being human just as surely as he was divine.  Jesus does not check out early or take the easy path around pain and suffering.  Jesus even dies.   Talk about God with us!
            The story we tell of Jesus is shaped by the pattern of life, death, and resurrection.  We might forget that story’s full “arc” (i.e. to understand Jesus is to understand that he does not ever check out of life experience).  Preacher Fred Craddock has quipped, most of us, when we think of life and death, we hope that when our time comes, we can call in sick (Sorry, we’re not coming in today!) or take an incomplete on the test.

            I suspicion if there’s any good connection between the gospel reading and the harried pace of this week, with its mourning and its scrambling to get everything “just right” in time, it is this assurance that God is with us, no matter what might befall or bedevil.  After all, Jesus did not exempt himself from the fullness of life.  He lived, he cried, he got angry, he hungered, he mourned, he dreamed, he spoke out, he loved his family and friends.

            I know that we tend to look at a child and say (sometimes with delight, and sometimes with disdain), “Yep, he’s just like his mother”, or “Yep, she reminds me of her daddy”.  I know poor Joseph does not get much credit (after all, he only appears around Christmas, then just disappears from the gospels after the first chapters).  I think, though, that there’s something of Joseph in Jesus, not that it would be DNA.  Instead, we see a bit of that dreamer, who always sought out how to do the right thing, how to open his heart and mind to God’s good intent, with trust, obedience, and a whole lot of concern that he managed to do the right thing.

            In the midst of the Advent season, nearing the Christmas Eve celebrations, in the midst of family gatherings, in the midst of times of mourning, loneliness, or hardship (cause the holidays do not exempt us from such experiences), we are a people in search of what it means to live life well, or at least how to get through today or this week.

            And the fourth Sunday of Advent, perhaps overshadowed by the holiday rush and the rush to get things done, just politely reminds us:  “Don’t forget:  What you are feeling now is not lost on God.  In fact, God decided to get down in the trenches with us.

           When the angel says, ‘call him Emmanuel’, the angel meant just that.”

Friday, December 9, 2016

Advent 3: Singing the (Advent) Blues (Matthew 11:2-11)

A recent Broadway play begins with its first scene depicting a conversation between an old man and a young woman.  The young woman is applying to be the caretaker for the man's aging and very difficult wife.  Interestingly, the old man appears only in the opening scene.  For the rest of the three hour drama told in three acts, the old man does not appear again. Why that happens would be giving away much of the plot that is about to unfold.  Suffice it to say, despite the brevity of his appearance on the stage, the old man sets the tone for the play about to unfold.

Likewise, John the Baptist appears at the beginning of the text, the wild eyed and boisterous herald of the Messiah.  It is great fun to read these texts, as John electrifies the Gospel early on.  When he roars about “broods of vipers” or growls about the unrepentant being tossed aside, he leaves the audience wide awake.  He sets the tone, and then Jesus begins to take center stage.

            Today’s gospel is somewhere in the middle of the gospel.  Jesus is spinning parables, performing healings, and his ministry gaining notoriety.  Then the gospel writer brings the lights up on a side stage, a little set with a chair and a small wash basin.  Slumped in the chair, the figure is the image of defeat.  As the lights come up, you realize it is John the Baptist, though not as you remembered him from earlier.

The firebrand John the Baptist sits now in jail, the prophetic spark seems near extinguished.  He spoke a powerful word; he baptized the multitudes, even baptized Jesus himself.  Yet, here he is, the forerunner, nearing the end of the race.

            Look closely at this once charismatic figure.  Is there a tin cup in his hand, that type you can clink on the bars and yell for the guard to remember to feed you?  No, John seems to be the model prisoner, a model one if you are the warden, who wants to keep his charges in line.  John makes very little conversation.  He sits there in his cell and just seems to be waiting.  Not much to look forward about.  The ink has dried on what shall come to pass.  The king has ordered his death.  What more is there to say?

From time to time, his disciples appear, trying to bring a bit of food, some fresh water.  They try their best to bring something even more nourishing:  words of encouragement.  They offer these words of support, yet John sits there impassively, that distant look on his face.

There’s grimness to that look, yet it is with us, more often than we care to admit.  It settles into our minds, which is worse than some illness that lingers in the body.  The mind works on just a few points, not willing to see beyond the dull future that seems unstoppable in playing out.  Impassive is the best description of the look as well as its effect:  nothing good shall come my way.
I find this passage an odd choice for the “third” Sunday of Advent.  This is the day we light the “pink” candle.  Two purples and then the pink candle means we’re almost in the home stretch. 

The reason the Advent candles are three purple and one pink goes back to the tradition when Latin was the predominate language of the Church.  On this particular Sunday, the service would begin with the words:  "Rejoice (gaudete) in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice."  In the midst of Advent’s call to a penitential frame of mind and devotion, the Church would give itself time to celebrate anticipatory joy.  The “rose” candle, as it is more formally known, is a beacon in the midst of Advent’s more downbeat practices, calling the people to ready themselves for the coming season of joy.

So why does John appear today, off in jail and away from the giddy crowds watching Jesus in the midst of his ministry with his parables and healings and sly ways of infuriating his religious opponents?  Why should we hear something so dreadful: a prophet broken, feeling discredited, off in the lonely place, awaiting a certain fate?  This is not a joyful image.  The only words John seems able to muster are ones formed by his discouragement:  “Jesus, are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”   I imagine we’ve all had that moment where God seems so distant, or that moment when God seems so detached, or that moment when God seems so absent.  John’s question comes out of a place of searing honesty.  Is there really a point to this?  Belief is easy when life is lively, but when pain, suffering, marginalization or death loom, the believer is tested in ways that crumble the quick and easy answers and the questions pile up.

The response Jesus sends back is not the most expected.  “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
In this response, Jesus offers a glimpse of the gospel being brought to bear on the world.  It is not the conventional answer hoped for in certain understandings of the Messiah’s coming prevalent in the day.  People thought the Messiah would bring about a political and military upheaval which would restore Israel.  Even after his resurrection, Jesus contends with his disciples’ hope for something great to happen.  Instead of dominance and power, Jesus gives them the call to go out in his name and share his word.

Now here in Matthew 11, we get a foretaste of what this gospel story is about.  We learn that God has indeed come, and the Messiah is about the work of God.  The ways that the story plays out might not have perfect endings as we would want for ourselves, yet in the end, the gospel story points to an ending that shall surpass the old story of “life and death”.   The gospel plays out in a world well acquainted with the jailhouse blues, yet the Resurrection beckons with a different song, soaring above our longings and our loathing, and our angst in life and our cries in the night.

Two stories of belief in the midst of remarkably difficult circumstances give witness to this faith:

Gardner Taylor, long considered the dean of African American preachers, recalls the difficult days he spent with the family of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr.  In late June 1974, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta was in the midst of worship when gunshots rang out.  A gunman aimed for King, yet it was Mrs. King, the church organist, who was killed in the gunfire.

As Gardner Taylor and other colleagues came from around the nation to support the King family, Taylor recalls the way the Ebenezer Church members pulled together with its singing hymns of faith, led by the choir who had been in the midst of the tragedy just a few days before.  The church resonated with hymns of faith, sung in full knowledge of their loss, yet giving testimony to the beliefs that helped them make sense out of yet another tragedy in their congregation’s life.  That same week, Taylor was a visitor to the King family home.  He recalls:

Midst the tall Georgia pines, in the King family home, touched with the strange stillness of death, I
sat with Martin Luther King, Sr., on Tuesday evening.  He bit his lips and said, “They killed Martin, [my other son] A.D. is dead, and now they’ve killed Bunch [his wife’s nickname]. “  He stopped awhile.  Then he said, clutching my hand, “A.D.’s third son came to me the other day, and he said is going to preach [or, that is called to ministry].”  Then he looked at me and said, “They won’t be able to kill us off.”  (Gardner Taylor, Fifty Years of Timeless Treasures, Words of Gardner Taylor, vol. VI, Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2002).

            Even though one chapter seems to come to a close, the Christian faith affirms there is more to the story.   Belief can be shaken, souls can be troubled, yet in the midst of life when it comes crashing down, the gospel claims life’s heartache is not the last word.  Our lives will have an unfinished quality to them (i.e. we will still know failure and loss, pain and suffering), yet our trust in the greater framework of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection offers a hope far more resilient than we might lead ourselves to believe.

            Another story of hope and joy in the midst of tragedy comes in the writings of Dietrich Bonheoffer, a German theologian.  Branded an enemy of the state for his writings and his efforts in a plot to assassinate Hitler, Bonheoffer spent the last years of his life as a political prisoner of the Nazis, executed just days before Allied forces liberated the camp.
            In the midst of his imprisonment, Bonheoffer wrote prodigiously, keeping up with his theological writings and his correspondence with friends and family.  A collection of his letters and papers from this period of his life continues to attract new generations of readers.   These writings are particularly powerful, given Bonheoffer wrote in the midst of a prison sentence with full knowledge that his time was not long for the world.

The editor of new critical edition of this body of “prison” writings observes that Bonheoffer wrote during his time of imprisonment with “concern [for] a future of a humanity beset by oppressions, violence, and war; his desire was that the next generation would inherit not only a more faithful and relevant church but also a more humane and just world” (John W. de Gruchy, “Theology for Dark Times: Rereading Letters and Papers”, Christian Century, October 19, 2010, p. 33).

During his incarceration, Bonheoffer was asked to write prayers for his fellow prisoners to use during the holiday season.  One of these prayers is particularly powerful:

Lord Jesus Christ, you were poor and miserable, imprisoned and abandoned as I am.  You know all human need, you remain wth me when no human being stands by me, you do not forget and you seek me, you want me to recognize you and turn back to you.  Lord, I hear your call and I follow.  Help me!

(Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer Works, Vo. VIII.  (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010, 195).