December 28, 2013

Slaughter of Innocence

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
"A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead. Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean." 
-- Matthew 2:13-23

It happened on a Friday morning after coffee with cream
and a currant scone and a pat on the dog’s head

And then the news of the massacre and the guns
the children and the blood and Herod’s madness again

Our innocence died long ago, but we keep murdering it
as if it might rise again and mock us in our tantruming

Our young men somewhere after Chutes and Ladders
slide into their soul’s hole and something in them dies

We languish in guiding them through the black muck of life 
and teaching them to weep at their own weakness and death 

until they find strength to live beyond the rage and blame
and embrace every living thing, even themselves, even God

They say when Jesus was born his parents fled in horror
Herod slaughtered thousands of babes like a lost son

Even wild, spinning violence can’t snuff out every wick
One boy escaped to light up the darkness like a shooting star

December 23, 2013

Sympathy for the Emperor at Christmastime

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  All went to their own towns to be registered.  Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
             In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
             "Glory to God in the highest heaven,
            and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
  When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us."  So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;  and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.  But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.  The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. -- Luke 2:1-20

The outbreak of newness was contagious as a song
containment was unmanageable even with
the emperor’s hierarchy and stranglehold of peace

The first case was reported in a barn where
people and domesticated animals share germs
freely and misery and hunger and cold and labor

From there it was thought to spread to a small band
of sheep herders and a rustic village pub where they
drank pints and harmonized, that may have been where

the traveler was infected with the joy virus
and spread it upstate to an unsuspecting pessimist
who took drugs at first to stop the unusual feeling

From there no one is sure how it became global
other than the emperor and all inoculated like him
did their royal best to control and spin the good news

birthed that night, but the more they pressed down
the more it lifted up, the more they schemed
the more the glad spirit frustrated their ways

so that anywhere the ease of God disrupts the disease
of power, hidden births of faith and love and mercy
appear and people sing and someone else catches it

December 21, 2013

Sermon for Blue Christmas

Somewhere, someone is whistling Joy to the World.
            Somewhere, someone is humming We Wish You a Merry Christmas.
            Somewhere, people are shopping for last minute gifts
                        while getting caught up in the giddiness of the hustle and bustle.
            But tonight, we gather on the longest night of the year,
                        to sing quieter tunes
                        and sit in stillness.
            Tonight, as ancient people have done for millennia,
                        we gather as the darkness threatens to overtake the light,
                                    and we wonder:  Will darkness overshadow everything?
                                    Or will light come to renew us and cheer us?
                        We don’t wonder as the ancients did
                                    if the sun will die and fail to return.
                        But we do, like them, gather in the darkness of this long night
                                    to name our own darkness and fear and grief,
                                    and to see the beauty of the light.
            Maybe your loved one has died.
            Maybe your family is a dysfunctional mess.
            Maybe home for you is far away and you’re stuck here.
            Maybe you just get blue at Christmas time,
                        or your struggle with depression is magnified.

When I was growing up,
            my mother made a beautiful thing out of Christmas.
            Plates of candies and cookies covered the dining room table.
            Candlelight filled the house as we welcomed family and friends
                        on Christmas eve to visit and share a glass of something good,
                                    nogged or not.
            But then I would see something else in my mother:
                        A deep river of winter tears,
                                    a sadness at this time of year,
                                    a blue feeling that came over her at Christmas.
                        She could never quite put it into words.
                        It was part sentimental,
part grieving for family and friends who had died,
                                    part longing for days when life wasn’t so hard,
                                    part a sense that the beauty and gift of this life is fleeting,
                                                and even as we enjoy it we feel it slipping away.
                        And apparently I inherited this joyful melancholy of my mother,
                                    because few Christmases go by when I don’t
                                    shed some tears for all those reasons and more.

It’s hard to feel such depth and weight and sadness and blues
            in the time of year when the expectations are so high
                        and the demand for joyfulness is so great.
            This season makes me think of the line
from David Sedaris’ Santa Land Diaries.
            The department store elf talks about having to be so cheery
                        for 12 hours a day and says:
It make’s one’s mouth hurt
to speak with such forced merriment.
But we are here tonight
            because the only road through the darkness into the light
                        the only way to go over the river and through the woods
                        to grandma’s house or where ever we need to be for Christmas
                                    is through the honesty of tears and grief
                                    and the whole complex of feelings we feel
because we are alive and we have depth
and we need to winter as much as we need to summer.
            And we know that honesty about these feelings and this truth,
                        and not a mask of smiles and a fa├žade of cheer,
                                    is the only way to true, deep, profound joy.

Of course, why else was A Charlie Brown Christmas
            so popular and beloved?
            It shocked and touched people 50 years ago with its Christmas blues,
                        in a time when you just didn’t talk about such things.
            Charles Schultz captured it perfectly in the longing of Charlie Brown,
                        and the chromatic jazz music of Vince Guaraldi.
The recent Saturday Night Live character, Jebediah Atkinson,
            an 1860’s newspaper critic,
            gave his harsh review of A Charlie Brown Christmas when he said:
                        I was hoping for joy and wonder.
                        Instead I got a 30 minute Zoloft commercial.

Well friends, we have the gift and authority of Scripture
            on our side tonight, and not just Charles Schultz.
The good news of God comes to those in darkness
            to those who are waiting with just a thread of hope to cling to
            to those who have nearly given up,
            to those who know the tears of things.
Listen to Isaiah’s profound word of good news:
2The people who walked in darkness
                                have seen a great light;
                                those who lived in a land of deep darkness —
                                                on them light has shined.

And who does Jesus reach out to in his treasured words
            when he says:
                28Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest. 
29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls. 
30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
He is speaking to those whose burden in life is felt as heavy
and who bear a hard yoke and need relief.
And in John’s Gospel when it sums up the good news of Christ
it cannot do it without mentioning the darkness:
5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

It is clear throughout Scripture that because God is compassion
            God’s mercy is offered abundantly to those in darkness,
            those in grief, the poor, the sick,
            those who feel hopeless.
And the secret I want to share with you tonight
            that I can’t share with everyone else on Christmas eve:
            Those whose Christmas is blue,
                        those who can’t hold back the winter tears,
                        those who know darkness and grief and pain,
                                    know the depth of the good news of God
                                                in a way those who only sing fa la la la la cannot know.

You people, here tonight,
            this dark night, this is when God’s light shines the brightest
            because we come together in honesty of life’s struggle
                        and still see the light shine.
This is the whole reason that Christmas was placed on December 25 anyway.
            It was timed to coincide with the solstice celebrations
                        when the darkness was at its apex
                                    and the light was most needed,
                                    and shone most beautifully.
            And this light, we say with humble trust and quiet joy,
                        this light is Christ, God’s own self embedded in human life
                                    so that human life could be lifted up to the divine life.

I’d like you to contemplate this preview of Christmas good news:
The mystery of the good news is the depth and length
and breadth of God’s mercy and compassion
for humanity and creation. 
This mystery is summed up in the idea of incarnation –
enfleshment – embodiment. 
It says that divine love and mercy
will not remain distant concepts for us to debate their meaning
and ponder their existence. 
No, instead, God enacts divine love and mercy
in real human, flesh-and-blood living. 
Jesus is the guarantor and gift of this embodiment. 
Our lives are the experience of it by the Spirit’s power.

Hear this on the longest night: 
Incarnation is God moving into our tears and our laughter,
our joy and our sorrow,
our fear and our courage,
our life and our death…
because only in the odd mixture
of these things of light and darkness
do we come to see the meaning of our lives
and the infinite greatness of God’s love and mercy.

So I want you to know:
It’s OK to be blue when everyone else is green and red.
It’s OK to be sad in the midst of excessive merriment.
But also:  It’s OK to be joyful even when we grieve or feel sadness.
It’s OK to let yourself celebrate in hard times.
It’s OK to share moments of laughter
even when we know illness and grief.
            Christ is with us in all of it as God’s own compassion.

This gathering and all gatherings of people in the church
is wrapped and swaddled
in the good news of God in Christ incarnate.
It is a mixture of tears of joy and tears of sorrow,
            tears of laughter and tears of regret,
            tears of grief and tears of new birth.
But when we gather together in such infinite love and mercy,
            which is always a beautiful mystery beyond our comprehension,
                        all we have to offer God anyway
is all these blessed tears.