Tuesday, January 26, 2016

On snowflakes and signposts that testify to His glory . . .

     Ah, the faithful remnant!  I told the 8am folks that I expected the rest of us would be looking at the back of their heads when we gather at the end of the age with our Lord.  They were absolutely nuts coming out in that cold and ice to church.  Some might say that about you all gathered here at 10:30, but at least you gave the sun a bit of time to start working on the roads!
      To that end, I changed my sermon.  Originally, I had intended to focus on Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and the discussion of Christ’s Body and the Church.  Given the discussions involving the wider Communion and wider Church, the timeliness of diocesan convention, and some conversations over the past couple weeks following Sophie’s baptism, such a topic seemed a slam dunk.  But, it dawned on me at 8am that they really didn’t need to hear that sermon.  And I have learned quickly not to preach different sermons at the two services!  I’m a month behind in getting my sermons typed up and posted.  I sure do not need to make my weeks any busier!
     So, as I prayed quickly and fervently this morning about what I should do, a couple faces popped into my mind, as did some scenery.  I’ll trust it was a gift of the Holy Spirit.  In the end, though, you all will have to be the judge.
     I have reminded a number of you, both in private conversations and in public sermons, that it has long been held that our job in the Church as preachers is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  I think I first mentioned that in Advent with respect to John the Baptizer.  John famously called Israel to repent, along with colorful names such as viper broods and others, and yet the Gospel writers noted that John encouraged the people with the Good News.  It is a delicate and difficult balance, so it is not surprising that we tend to get too focused in one area or the other.  I know our wider national church is perceived to be all about comforting everyone, with very little attentiveness to sin and its impact in our lives individually and collectively.  Other churches have a reputation for browbeating their people with their sins and offering very little by way of comfort.  I’m not interested today in accusing or defending or even arguing about perceptions; I simply want you to understand the difficulty involved in preaching a sermon.  More importantly, I hope and pray that if your ears hear people wrestling with the readings or my sermons, with some pronouncing them as comforting and some pronouncing them as afflicting, maybe the Holy Spirit really was among us that day.
     I cannot say for sure what the prompt was today, but I really felt called to give up most of the affliction side.  Maybe the comfortable people stayed home.  Maybe those of you who dragged yourself to church in these conditions did so out of a real hunger to know God’s love.  Maybe I should have focused on Corinthians and the Body with a small group and just bailed, for reasons unknown.  Maybe God sensed you were all artistic folk and budged me to the subject today.  I’m not sure why, but that’s where I am today.
     Turn in your Order of worship to Psalm 19.  Psalm 19 is an incredibly rich psalm.  We could probably spend several hours discussing any number of the themes in the psalm and will when we get to it on Monday morning Bible Study.  The psalm easily divides into three sections.  Verses 1-6, which should bring us back to the creation narrative in Genesis, verses 7-11,which speaks of God’s revelation of His torah to humanity, and verses 12-14, which speaks of the human response to that instruction.  But I found myself drawn to one today: The heavens declare.
      Let’s look at the description of the first six verses.  The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows His handiwork.  It is poetry, so I know it is tough for some of us, but the psalmist is hearkening us back to the creation story.  God created the heavens and the earth, the all that is seen and unseen in our liturgy, from nothing.  We Christians do not believe that forces of nature of gods, like many in the ANE, but we do believe that God created everything to testify to His glory.  Everything.
     Think of this snowfall that we have experienced and that has kept so many of us from church this morning.  Yes, in major cities that lack machinery, snowfall is a major hassle.  But even something that seems like a hassle to us testifies to God’s glory.  I found myself Friday heading over to St. George’s for convention.  All kinds of Adventers asked me if this was reminding me of Iowa.  It truth, it is a very different kind of snow and a heck of a lot more warm, so it more reminds me of March or April in Iowa.  But as I was driving, I could not help but notice how well the snow was sticking to everything.  The trees, the rock clefts, the overhead wires, everything was covered in snow.  There are some green spaces which were simply postcard pretty.  At a time when we lament the deeming dead and dormancy of nature in the season we name winter, God used it for a glorious canvas.  Look at those hills out the windows.  Two days later and everything is still covered in white.  How can you look at it and not appreciate the glory of the snow?
     What else did the snow bring?  I do not yet know where all of you live, but my family and I live pretty close to the interstate.  It is always noisy around here with cars and trucks swooshing by, an occasional horn, tractor trailers pumping air brakes, and the not infrequent sirens of emergency responders.  Listen today.  Yes, there is some background noise, but even two days out the noise is still muffled.  The snow causes many to stay off the roads and acts as a sound breaker for those who brave the roads.  There is a peace, a whisper that descends with the snow that often causes us to marvel.
     One other benefit of that snow, of course, is the Sabbath that was forced on everyone.  I am not sure how many texts, e-mails, Facebook notifications, and phone calls I received from Adventers on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, but there were quite a few.  Delegates could not make it to convention or work and so stayed home on Friday.  Saturday was even a bit worse, causing the diocesan staff to cancel the attempt to hold convention.  It was my first off day in four weeks and, after talking with a number of Adventers, it was the first weekend a number of you have had in some time.  Adventers felt bad about not making it to meetings or to fulfil their responsibilities at church.  Why?  I do not mind doing funerals for believers, they are after all a celebration for us in one sense, but I sure as heck would rather not.  I don’t want us out on those roads, risking the idiots who think they can switch to four wheel drive and drive like they do on a sunny day, or risking those who have proven to me time and time again they cannot drive in the rain.  But the snow not only quieted the world around us, it made us quiet ourselves.  Some of us slept; others of us hunkered down with good books; some enjoyed television or movies; a lot of us just spent time with our families.  The snowfall forced most of us into a Sabbath.  This glorious creation testifies on many levels to the glory of God described in Psalm 19, and it is one simple event in nature!  There are tons of others.
     Perhaps you are one of those who prefers the ocean to the snowfall.  Maybe you best hear God’s voice or nature’s testimony to His glory in the crashing of the waves.  Maybe you are one of those who loves to hike or bike in nature.  You see the rolling hills and the skies, and all the scurrying on or beneath both, as a testimony to His glory and handiwork.  Maybe you are a visual person.  For you the wonderful testimony to His glory is the perfect sunset or the perfect sunrise--you know, the ones with enough volcanic ash in the atmosphere to bring out those incredible hues of pink, blue, orange, and violet.  Maybe you hear God in nature better.  For you the song of the thrush or other bird or the call of particular insects or other animals sings the song that was sung on that first day or on that glory Easter morning.  Maybe you are like the magi and simple marvel at the skies.  For the next four weeks or so, five of our planets (mercury through Saturn) line up in the night sky, making them easy to spot.  Maybe you are one of those who appreciate the pictures sent back by the Hubble telescope.  Last week, several of my Facebook friends shared a picture that purported to be the gates of heaven.  It was a crystalline ice structure a ridiculous distance away from us, but it perplexes scientists just because it is there and causes wonder in some because the structure looks like gates, just like that exploding nova a couple years ago looked like the eye of God.  Whatever it is, there is something or several somethings that speaks to you in creation about the glory of God.  It might be something visual, it might be something heard or silenced, or it might be something touched.  Judging from the nods, you are all thinking of those handiworks now.
     I want you, however, to think of the rest of this part of the message of the psalm.  For all the beauty of the snowfall, what causes it?  Really, it’s just lots and lots and lots of snowflakes, right?  For years I have heard that no two snowflakes are ever identical.  Every time I have seen these discussions about snowflakes, they show these amazing crystalline structures under microscopes, none of which seem identical.  I have had the pleasure of speaking with a couple meteorologists over the years about the phenomenon.  Both shared a similar answer to my question of how we can know this.  On the one hand, we can’t.  How many billions and billions of individual snowflakes fell on the eastern third of the United States this past couple days?  How can we know they were all different?  We can’t.  Nobody is going out there examining them all.  They would all melt before the job was complete.
     On the other hand, think of all the dynamics that go into the formation of a snowflake.  There is water vapor, temperature, wind, barometric pressure, altitude, pollution particles, and time to the ground just to name seven quick factors.  Scientists among us could start naming more.  Adjust any one of those variables just a smidgen, and the formation of the crystal is changed.  Each one of those snowflakes that fell outside of the church were likely formed in an amazing combination of variables.  My guess is, if we had the desire and equipment, they would look different from one another.  After all, what would be the odds of all those variable lining up perfectly again?  Some would be incredible different, but others would be similar.  Why all this discussion about snowflakes?
     What is God’s greatest creation?  What does Scripture teach us, as revealed by the Lord God, is His greatest creation?  For all our love of snowfalls or ocean rumbling or majestic mountains or northern lights, God’s greatest creation is you and me.  Nature may show His handiwork, but you and I and everyone we encounter were fashioned in His image!  And like the billions and billions and billions of snowflakes blanketing the East coast, no two of us are exactly alike.  We are shaped by our families, by our diets, by where we grew up, by our interests, by what we do, by what we learn, by the environments in which we are located, and by what we experience.  Even twins and triplets, who share the same material down to the microscopic level, end up different from one another.  All of those things that shape us, of course, are influenced by sin, but they shape and mold us in ways not unlike the ways the snowflakes are shaped and molded by those natural forces.  And like nature and all creation, you and I have a purpose.  We were fashioned to testify to His glory and to His handiwork!  Our lives are meant to be signposts on the road to salvation for those whom we encounter.  We are called to be like John the Baptizer, pointing the way to the One in whom we glory and whom we praise.  God gave us the torah, as this psalm notes, that we might reveal to the world His holy, saving, merciful grace and rest assuredly in His love and mercy.
      Yes, we get it wrong.  Yes, sin pollutes us like particles pollute snow.  Yes, we fight amongst ourselves; we ignore His instruction to our harm; we turn our backs on Him; we trust in powerless idols; heck, we often trust in our own abilities or strength to fix us or our mistakes.  But in the end, all these fail.  Only the maker of heaven and earth is truly able to fix us.  Only the creator of all that is, seen and unseen, is able to create a clean heart in each one of us.  Only He can remove the stains that we so desperately want excised from ourselves.  And guess what, as the psalm reminds us, one day He will do just that for all His people!  For all who come to Him in faith, He promises complete restoration and redemption.  What hints we get today are merest shadows.  Make no mistake, the transformation in each of us is begun, but it will not be completed until our Lord returns and fashions us again a new body for a new heaven and new earth.
     I do not know all your struggles today.  I can, perhaps, wonder a bit at your sanity for having braved the roads and southern drives to be here this morning.  But given my late urge to change my intended sermon and your obvious hunger for these words today, I do not wonder about our need.  Brothers and sisters, as you head home from worship this morning and begin to reflect on the beauty of the snow around you or of the handiwork of nature that testifies to you of God’s glory, remember this: With the same care and concern and intention with which He fashioned those incredible handiworks that you love, He fashioned you!  And such was His intention and focus that He numbered your hairs.  More amazingly by far, though, when He could have rightly left you and me and the world to rot in ur sin and idolatry, He took the shape of you and me, He took the form of a frail human being, lived and died and was raised in that form in all its gloriousness, that we might know the depth of the love in which He holds each one of us.  Brothers and sisters, you and I are part of His greatest creations, but the best is yet to come.  One day, one glorious day, all those who claim Him as Lord will be recreated in His complete glory, unique as any snowflake, testifying individually and collectively to His love and mercy of all humanity.  That, my friends, is a lesson we need always to remember!  That is the lesson that caused both the psalmist and Mary to sing!



Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What song is in your heart?

     Chances are, you have heard a wonderful rendition of the Magnificat over the course of your life.  It is one of those songs that many non-Christians have heard that have made an imprint on their knowledge of the Christian faith.  Usually, the song is sung by a soprano, reminding us of the voice we like to think young Mary the mother of Jesus likely had.  Why we think her a soprano rather than an alto is a question for another time, but I see the nods.  It is a well-known and well-loved song.  Have you, though, paid close attention to the song?  Have you ever considered how the song should be echoed in our own voices, even if a bit off key?  Have you ever thought that your and my voice ought to be raised in that same song making a joyful noise unto the Lord?
     Luke’s reading today ends with the Magnificat, so it is right that we take a moment this Sunday, when we remember the significance of Mary His mother, and consider her hymn.  Mary, as it turns out, is cousin to Elizabeth.  She heads over to the home village of Elizabeth and Zechariah.  We are not told why she goes there.  I would like to think that maybe she goes to talk to Zechariah about the strange greeting from the strange man she just received.  Who better to speak with unusual events than a priest, especially when the unusual event is that you have just agreed to give birth to God’s Anointed?  Maybe Mary liked Zechariah.  Maybe she felt safe speaking with him about this encounter than she did her own parents or her betrothed.  We just are not told.  Of course, given Zechariah’s muteness, which must have begun working its way around the family, I find it doubtful she went to talk to Zechariah.  I imagine her real target was Elizabeth.  Elizabeth was already dealing with the fallout of strange encounters.  I’m sure she enjoyed the enforced silence of her husband, but I am also equally sure that it made communication a bit more difficult than it needed to be.  To refresh your memories, Zechariah had scoffed at the idea that his wife would conceive the voice of one crying in the wilderness.  For his lack of faith in the message of the angel and of the One who sent the message, Zechariah was muted for the entire pregnancy of his wife!  Whatever the reason that drove Mary to Elizabeth, we have this incredible encounter between these two important, if normal, women.
     Upon Mary entering and greeting Elizabeth, we are told that the baby within her leapt for joy.  To us men, such a description may seem farfetched.  Just how far was he going to leap inside her womb?  How could she tell the difference?  I cannot claim to understand how women can feel what is happening within them, and I have watched my wife go through seven pregnancies and deliveries.  Sometimes, Karen would describe the babies’ actions as stretches or turning over.  At other times, she would complain about a baby’s elbow or foot hitting an organ uncomfortably often or even in a painful jolt.  Sometimes, my wife would laugh at the hiccups of the baby, at least until the little spasms got annoying.  Every now and again, Karen would wonder if the baby within her was having a dance party of some sort within her.  I see the nods and the laughter on ladies’ faces today, and the same stupid look we men tend to get around such things.  Ladies know and we are clueless, right?  But Elizabeth recognizes that the movement of the boy within her is one of excitement and joy.  More importantly to us, she is filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaims that wonderful blessing upon her younger cousin Mary.  Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.  Elizabeth understands the risk that Mary took, perhaps better than anyone.  They share many of the same family members.  They do not seem to live too far apart, so they likely shared some of the same friends.  Mary would be at a big disadvantage in her life relating her tale because of her youth.  The older women would think she was crazy or covering up an affair with someone.  Elizabeth at least has a reputation to which she can point in her own defense, that and a husband who cannot speak.  And she rightly recognizes the some of the potential cost that Mary will bear as a result of accepting the Lord’s invitation.  How will Joseph treat her and the baby?  Will people ever forget her story?  Will the Romans target her if her son grows up to be the military leader for whom they have all longed.  No doubt you can think of other thoughts.
     Mary’s response is amazing, too.  We might be tempted to respond with false modesty (aw, shucks, it’s no big deal), were we in the same place.  Mary simply acknowledges the truth of Elizabeth’s words and, far more importantly, gives us insight as to how we should respond to the knowledge that God is not only real, alive and sustaining us, but that He cares for us and has worked to restore the chasm of sin we created between us and Him.  Her words are well known.  I will not this morning spend much time discussing the nuances of the Magnificat.  I want us, instead, to focus how all of God’s acts, both in the world and in our own lives, ought to cause a Magnificat to spring up in our own hearts.
     In many ways, Mary’s hymn captures the essence of the Gospel that will be told by Luke.  Knowing God in the Jewish culture was considered an honor, and it was treated with a deep sense of respect by those who truly knew and feared Him.  The priests mirrored Moses in that they approached God only by reciting certain prayers and hymns and by stepping in certain places.  Forgetting a prayer, forgetting a line in a hymn, and mis-stepping were considered disrespectful.  Those who have participated in the Bible Study at Advent led by Larry and Tom know this even better.  High priests wore ropes and bells to let the others priests know if they were still alive or to pull them out if they were smited by God for dishonor or blasphemy.  By contrast, we think nothing of taking God’s name in vain.  How many Christian leaders make a mockery of God by ignoring His teachings?  How many Christians make a mockery of His love or His mercy by telling those less fortunate, by example if not word, that they deserve what they have received?  How many people today are quick to eschew the God who revealed Himself in Scripture for the idol they call “my god”?
     Ask many people why they fell away from the Church and you will often hear versions of “they were hypocrites.”  When people complain we are hypocrites, they are not often complaining we are sinners.  No, more often than not, they are complaining that we do not repent when we sin or, worse, we celebrate our sins as if they are acceptable to God.  Knowing God, of course, should cause humility to rise in our hearts.  Instead, familiarity seems almost to breed contempt of or for God in our hearts rather than fear.  It’s crazy.  But it is true.  Jesus warns us elsewhere to fear the one who can destroy our soul, and yet we treat Him as a good luck charm or, if you will pardon the pun, a Hail Mary.  My favorite meme on Facebook this week is the criticism that faith healers only work on television and not in hospitals.  Think about that for a second.  It’s a deep criticism.
     So many of us, though, take the idea that God acted to save us, that God wanted us to know Him for granted that we find ourselves unable to get out of a warm bed occasionally to thank Him.  We find ourselves so unimpressed with what He has done for us and for all humanity that we actively neglect to tell our children, or the next generation, of His saving works.  As a somewhat priestly father of seven (my kids can speak against ontological change!), I can tell you that one drives me the most nuts.  If I had a dime for every I want my child to choose for him/her self when he/she grows up whether to worship God or not?  If I had a dollar for every time I heard a version of that, we’d need no stewardship campaign.  Ever.  Our endowments would be flush with cash.  Think of the hubris such an idea conveys in opposition to Mary’s hymn.  You know what.  I don’t think I want to raise my child to believe that the Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen, wants to be known intimately by my child.  I would rather he/she grope about in the darkness.  We find ourselves so ungrateful for the saving works He has done in the world and in our lives that we cannot be bothered to feed the hungry in His name, to clothe the poor in His name, to put our talents, given by Him, to His use.  We go through life as if He is lucky we choose to give Him any of our valuable time.  We go through life as if He is lucky we chose to worship Him at all, rather than reminding ourselves He owes us nothing.  In this relationship, we are the debtor.  I see the squirms.  I seem to have touched a nerve or maybe, maybe, the Holy Spirit is among us giving us a much needed wedgie?
     Consider our own thoughts and actions and words in light of Mary’s.  Luke will spend much of his book explaining to us, teach us, reminding us that we must take God at His word and that the proper response to His word of salvation and redemption in the world around us and in our lives is amazement and joy.  As faithful Episcopalians, we might say our response is a joyful thanksgiving!  In many ways, Mary’s hymn describes us in worship.  In one sense, her willingness to accept God at His word has incredible potential consequence for her.  She has not slept with her husband or any other man, yet now she is pregnant.  How will Joseph respond?  Her family?  The neighbors?  More importantly, we often speak of God’s faithfulness, mercy, love, justice, and whatever other characteristics as abstract attributes.  But now Mary knows God relationally.  He has asked her to bear His child.  His has come upon her in the power of the Holy Spirit and caused her to become pregnant.  More incredible, He has promised that all that He promised to her ancestors will be fulfilled in her child.  Can you imagine?
     In truth, we all should.  We should all be singing a Magnificat with Mary every day of our lives.  We do not worship an abstract truth or collection of attributes, brothers and sisters.  We worship a God who wishes to be known, who wants us to love Him, who wants nothing less for us than a great Father wants for His children.  Mary’s hymn reflects that incredible understanding.  She starts off by wondering who she is, that God should notice her, but she moves quickly to singing her understanding of that same relationship that was offered to Abram & Sarai, to Jacob & Rachel, Moses, to Hannah, to David, to Solomon, to Elizabeth her cousin, and to countless others, including you and me!  Mary’s hymn of praise testifies to the fact that the she sees God for who He is, and she rejoices that He has been mindful of her!
     Mary’s song, though in the beginning quite personal, is also universal.  Everyone we encounter is noticed by God.  Everyone.  He knows their names; He knows their situations; He knows their hurts, their hopes, and their fears.  And across the chasm He calls to them.  He may send you and me instead of an angel, but He calls them and us all the same.  Put in modern language, He changes the world by transforming our souls and equipping us for ministry in His name.
      Brothers and sisters, how is your heart in your breast this morning?  Did you drag yourself to church only because you had to?  Did you come to church because you were working or because you needed to see some people or because you only wanted to watch the youth put on their presentation?  Or did you come, echoing Mary, praising Him who noticed you, called to you, and promised to redeem you, through the work and person of that baby whose birth we celebrate later this week?  Did you come, a recipient of His tender mercy, led to Him by the Son whom Mary bore, whom Pilate killed, and whom God raised from the dead?  Or did you come merely because you were dragged?  In the end, brothers and sisters, He wants us to know Him fully.  The beginning of the end of His plan of salvation for all of us began with that little girl’s assent to His request.  If He can save the world through the faithful and joyful obedience of a young girl, imagine what He could do through a congregation of believers, a congregation that includes you and me!