Monday, December 31, 2007

Goodness Born with a Gasp & Cry

A sermon by Greg Ledbetter preached on the First Sunday after Christmas Day, Year A
December 30, 2007.

Sermon Texts: Isaiah 63:7-9; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23
Somewhere in our old boxes of things we have photos and even 8mm videotapes of Christmases past. You know the kinds of photos and videos I’m talking about … everyone in their pajamas … wrapping paper everywhere … the kids looking joyous and energized and the adults rumpled and tired and looking as though a good shot of espresso would help. On-camera, there are usually lots of smiles, plenty of Christmasy show and enthusiasm … items being held up and displayed for whoever it is that will be viewing these visual archives years hence. Off-camera, it can be a different story. The actors in the photos and videos turn down the wattage of their smiles … best behavior is set aside for whatever fits the reality and the moment. Off-camera, the knee-deep wrappings are being carted off to the recycling bin—or carefully folded for re-use as in the home of my childhood. Off-camera, one can begin to assess this day of days … this long-awaited time. Were everyone’s hopes and dreams realized? … the gifts the children begged for? … the family harmony and togetherness that mom or dad prayed for? Did two millennia of singing about “peace on earth and good will among men and women” bring the ancient dream any closer to fruition?

The lead-up to Christmas gets us pretty well-acquainted with the on-camera details of the story of Jesus’ birth as the writers of the gospels of Luke and Matthew describe and/or imagine them. Shepherds … singing angels … mangers … grouchy inn-keepers … stars in the sky and odd-looking and sounding foreigners who follow them.

Perhaps it’s the off-camera realities that hit the holy family so swiftly, so soon after the birth that keep the gospels of John and Mark from caring about trying to describe the cozy scene at all. The un-coziness of the historical realities of the time intrude so quickly that it is only the luxury of later times that allows painters and poets and composers to imaginatively fill in the details that the gospel writers failed to provide.

Christmas Eve, as we drove home, as you likely did also, we drove by many homes that were beautifully lit and decorated. Christmas lights and decorations area like the winter equivalent of summer fireworks displays—it’s nearly impossible to be unmoved by evening the simplest of them. Gorgeous symbolism of the light that is entering the world, the light that is fragile and beautiful. If you’re a true Christmas light observer, you also take note of the outdoor Christmas decorating trends. For years, big, fat energy-sucking colored light bulbs were all we had, and so that’s what we hung on our homes each year. Some families, like Jan’s, went all-out and cut out plywood and painted versions of Santa and the Reindeer … or painted plywood nativity scenes. Then came the mini-bulbs … first in strings … then the strings started blinking and racing around … then came the strings of icicle mini-lights in white or rainbow colored versions. The latest fad in Christmas lawn decorations are these inflatable plastic and nylon snow-globes and back-lit figures. I’m sure you’ve seen them. Perhaps you’ve even seen the inflatable Santa on an inflatable motorcycle. Perhaps, like me, you wonder if this trend in Christmas decorating will last. And what will come next.

On Christmas day, we took a drive and I noted as we drove through the same neighborhoods through which we’d driven the night before that what had been these tightly inflated, lighted displays were now just sloppy piles of wet nylon and plastic in the yards. Such a depressing contrast with the night before.

You may have heard us speak of “ChristmasTIDE” … this is another way of referring to season of Christmas that extends from Christmas Day to Epiphany. These are the “Twelve Days of Christmas." By that reckoning, this is day six. As with the word “-tide” in Christmastide, there are almost tidal qualities to these days … possibly a heightened awareness of the ebb and flow in our lives and in the world around us. The light that is seeking birth in a back and forth struggle with that which would put it out. The same Christmas evening that we drove back home among the now re-inflated yard decor brought news of a tiger attack at the venerable San Francisco zoo. Two days later as Lura was leaving the office, she paused at my door and said, “Oh, and you did hear about the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, didn’t you?”

All around us … before and after the joyous season … all around us … before and after the holy birth … the light that is seeking birth is locked in a back and forth struggle with that which would put it out. Goodness that seeks to be born with a gasp and a cry … always fighting the odds … always fighting an uphill battle. Hope in a deadlock struggle with fear. Joy going to the mat with terror.

When I was eight years old, my family and I joined my grandparents from the Central Valley on a summertime trip to San Francisco. One of my memories of that visit was reaffirming the great truth of Mark Twain’s observation that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. We went as a family to Candlestick Park and watched the Giants squeak out a win over the “Bums” … the hated Los Angeles Dodgers. Willie Mays was in center field and Juan Marichal was on the mound. We may have frozen our buns off in the cheap seats, but all was right with the world on that night at Candlestick. The next day we paid a visit to the San Francisco zoo. The father-in-law of my dad’s associate pastor was one of the zookeepers and so I had the kind of access to the zoo that other kids could only dream about. We got to go IN the cages. In particular, I remember getting to go in the ring-tailed lemur cages and feeding these wonderfully exotic mammals. We also got to go amongst the llamas with arms full of hay while they plucked at the hay and our hair and our clothing. It was a dream day at the zoo. It was a day that has become gilded in my memory, a golden day that has made a visit to the zoo a kind of comfy walk down memory lane.

And then the Christmas Day tiger attacks which were awful enough in themselves—this horrific reminder of the danger of sentimentalizing these gorgeous, but lethal beasts of the wild. I have these awful images of the two surviving brothers running back to the zoo cafĂ© and wondering where in the dark the dangerous beauty was. Would that it had been the lemurs and llamas that had escaped their confinement.

Let me say again: All around us … before and after the joyous season … all around us … before and after the holy birth … the light that is seeking birth is locked in a back and forth struggle with that which would put it out. Goodness that seeks to be born with a gasp and a cry … always fighting the odds … always fighting an uphill battle. Hope in a deadlock struggle with fear. Joy going to the mat with terror.

This is Matthew’s message to us this morning. That the birth of THE child and perhaps the birth of every child is delight mingled with danger. Danger and delight. We’ll recall that this morning’s text follows immediately upon the heels of the visit of the magi whom Matthew describes as wise men from the East. Our singing of the “We Three Kings from Orient Are” may dull us from remembering that Herod the Great sought to manipulate the magi. Herod attempted to trick the magi into leading him and his soldiers to the place of Jesus’ birth so that they could destroy the threatening goodness of God that had been born.

After the visit of the magi, Herod gets wind that it is he that has been tricked … and he is furious. Herod goes into a murderous rage that results in a vast blanket of death being cast over the region where Jesus was expected to have been born. We may remember that the first attempt on Benazir Bhutto’s life killed 140 of her followers. Then and now, such is the tragic cost of being too near perceived greatness. The Roman historian, Josephus, makes no mention of Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents”, but we know from the simplest reading of history that tyrants and despots put no value whatsoever on human life when it comes to maintaining their power and pursuing their ends.

All through the ages
the wise men and sages
have said there are dirty deeds that
simply must be done.

To keep society growin'
and the benefits flowin'
there's a simply necessity
of hurting someone.

It takes strength and agility,
takin' responsibility,
it's the core of what leadership's
really about.

When the red blood starts comin'
just think of it as plumbin' --
if you've got a problem you must
flush it out.
Apparently this is the thinking in Pakistan and in far too many other devastated places and times on this planet.

The foregoing is a song written by Harry Chapin that comes from the delightful and dangerous musical, Cotton Patch Gospel. The song is Herod’s song and later in the song, it is sung against the backdrop of Rachel’s lament from Isaiah whom we heard quoted by Matthew this morning.

'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.'
Chapin’s song continues:

Rockabye sweet angel, momma is here,

Hushabye sweet baby, there’s nothing to fear.

Close your eyes sweet darling, all through the night.

Momma will hold you tight, ‘til the morning light.

Momma will hold you tight, ‘til the morning light.

All around us … before and after the joyous season … before and after the holy birth … the light that is seeking birth is locked in a struggle with that which would put it out. Goodness that seeks to be born with a gasp and a cry fighting an uphill battle. Hope and joy in a struggle with terror and fear.

How do we emerge from this “joyous season of the holy birth” with its tigers and Herods and Bin Ladens—to say nothing of partly deflated Christmas hopes and family dustups—with our hope intact, with our resolve to continue giving birth in ourselves to the goodness of God?

For Matthew, it is that the same God who haunts our world with visions of Shalom, will habitate our dreams with visions of God’s protective grace. You may remember that Joseph really only gets a good part in the drama of Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s gospel. In this morning’s reading, Joseph plays a key role in protecting his little family from the wrath of Herod. Three times God appears to Joseph in his dreams and three times Joseph heeds God’s message of protective grace assuring that baby Jesus would live to be baptized by John in the river Jordan and live out the adult life that the world has never forgotten. Whether dreaming while sleeping or waking, God’s grace is ALWAYS with us and always WITHIN us.

In recounting the “gracious deeds” and “praiseworthy acts”, Isaiah said that is was in their time of distress that God became their savior:

It was no messenger or angel
but God’s presence that saved them;
in God’s love and pity God redeemed them;
God lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Not to get too maudlin, but Isaiah’s words can’t help but remind one of the “Footsteps in the Sand” poem that is stuck on the sides of so many refrigerators. In the poem, the deepened single set of footprints serve as an indication of the times when it was God’s strength alone that carried the struggler.

The author of Hebrews tells us that God’s servant, through whom we have received back our lives, was perfected by his struggles … his sufferings. The baby born to Mary and Joseph was no hermetically sealed seed of humanity protected against the “scuffing up” the rest of us have to endure, but one who was like us “in every respect”. “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered,” the author of Hebrews preaches to us, “he is able to help those who are being tested.”

So here at year’s end and mid-Christmas is where we are and what we have:

  • A suffering savior who knows well our suffering.
  • Carried safely in God’s arms as one would carry a child.
  • Waking and sleeping dreams of God’s protective grace.

It may not be a Currier and Ives engraving with which we’re left with this day, this sixth day of Christmas, but I pray it is enough to lead you into a new year and a new day in your life with hope and resolve … a new year and a new day in your life where the goodness of God’s great love and mercy will be given birth, gasping and crying and thrust into your arms and your being to care for, come what may.


Saturday, December 22, 2007

No One Left Behind

A sermon by Greg Ledbetter preached on the Third Sunday of Advent, Year A
December 16, 2007

It was well over a year ago that I began to wonder if quilts had anything to say to the season of Advent. Around the time I began my ministry here, I picked up a beautiful little book by Berkeley resident, artist and writer, Sue Bender. I also note, looking at the back cover, that I bought it at “Whole Earth Access” in Berkeley which tells you how long ago it was. Sue Bender’s book is entitled “Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish”. At its simplest, the book describes how an encounter with an Amish quilt in a Long Island men’s clothing store, of all places, led her on a major journey of discovery and self-discovery.

Bender’s journey was a meandering one that led her, ultimately to a sojourn with two Amish families, “visits during which Bender enters a world without television, telephone, electric light, or refrigerators; a world where clutter and hurry are replaced with inner quiet and calm ritual; a world where a sunny kitchen ‘glows’ and ‘no distinction is made between the sacred and the everyday.”

The book itself is a wonder: simply written, gently paced, full of truthful insights about living our lives more honestly and authentically. The book is to the mind and spirit what a good cup of tea is to the stomach and the soul. I thought of the book because I am forever seeking antidotes to the hyper-kinetic energies of the Christmas season. Christmas in the stores and on the streets seems always to be urging you to “hurry up, hurry up, catch up, stay up.” It is partly a desire for self-preservation that makes me resist those hastening energies. But it is also the counter-weight of the season of Advent which, for me, is the most beautiful and gently solemn of the liturgical seasons. Advent invites us to slow down, step aside, watch, wait & pay very close attention. Where I and we need to be careful is to remember that in the end, Advent is not a season of “self-help”, but a time of sharpening our awareness of God’s great activities of goodness & hope that are not only glimmers on the horizon, but are already at work among us.

So … Advent and Sue Bender’s book “Plain and Simple” and Quilts … what’s the connection? It is that Amish quilts and quilting serve as the thematic thread with which Bender stitches together her thoughts. Bender describes her own life as a crazy quilt—and to that I can relate. But the book more nearly resembles the Amish quilts that first inspired her: thoughtful, subdued, carefully patterned. She writes:

Twenty years ago I walked into Latham's Men's Store in Sag Harbor, New York, and saw old quilts used as a background for men's tweeds. I had never seen quilts like that. Odd color combinations. Deep saturated solid colors: purple, mauve, green, brown, magenta, electric blue, red. Simple geometric forms: squares, diamonds, rectangles. A patina of use emanated from them. They spoke directly to me. They knew something. They went straight to my heart.

It was the quilt of her thoughts in her book that spoke to me and made me think that perhaps quilts and quilting had much to say to us in the beginning of our liturgical, worshipping life together. And, in fact, as we have seen in our Fall stewardship campaign where our theme was “Quilted Together in Community and Common Ministry”, quilts and quilting are richly symbolic and suggestive and have lent themselves marvelously to the thematic flow of this season.

If you have stepped outside in recent days, you’ll know that there is a new chill to the air that the ever-shortening days and lengthening nights have brought. We are now only five days away from the winter solstice on December 21st, but winter’s chill is only starting. Looking at the thermometer and the trees being whipped by a frigid wind the other day, I remarked to Jan they were conditions sure to deepen the misery of anyone who was already homeless. And homelessness is only one of many ways that human beings can feel naked and exposed.

Maybe you’ll remember that amazing poetic cry from the pen of William Shakespeare put on the lips of King Lear who says:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?

When King Lear bellows into a storm about the “poor naked wretches”, it is not just the tumultuous weather on the heath to which he is referring. It is the whole stormy human condition with all its threats and endangerments, the indignities and humiliations, the losses and injuries and defeats. It is the cancer ward and the lethal danger of inner city streets … it’s the darkness of depression and every damnable war ever fought … it is the accidents that befall us and enormity of nature’s wrath that can undo and unglue us. “Oh the weather outside is frightful …” and inside it can often be no better and it’s sometimes all we can manage to huddle for a bit of warmth and commiseration.

On Friday, I stood and spoke in front of about a hundred people in a beautiful jeweled box of a building in San Francisco. All in that place were there because in the past year they had lost a loved one. That’s a lot of loss all gathered into one place. For the second year running, I had been asked by the Neptune Society of San Francisco to lead a service of remembrance for those whom they had served in the previous year. And there were a lot of tears that flowed in that place and in that hour—including my own. And in that time and place, we who were strangers to one another, were not only bound together in common grief, but served in an odd way as a comforting blanket warding off the chill of our losses.

Looking around the Neptune Society columbarium, it’s clear that we’re not the only ones who are thinking of quilts this year. Surrounding the mourners in a “clothy” and comforting embrace were four enormous panels of the national AIDS quilt. In between songs by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus—some of whose former members were memorialized on the quilts, I led us on a path that tried to lead from loss to hope. And though I did not speak of it—it was not yet the time, I had a conscious end in mind, a conscious vision toward which I tried to direct us. As I had mentioned in our own service two weeks ago, I alluded to the stages of grief as described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. I read the words of poetry written by Peter McWilliams that were evoked by Kubler-Ross’ descriptions. Kubler-Ross’ stages end with “acceptance”, the sense that the griever has healed enough to feel ready to face whatever comes next. But McWilliam’s poetry adds a stage past acceptance, and that is “HOPE”. That was last week’s advent theme and candle you’ll recall. McWilliams says of HOPE:

And through all the tears
and the sadness
and the pain
comes the one thought
that can make me
internally smile again:
I have

Speaking to the mourners in the columbarium, I said that if one stays faithful to the path of healing, that past hope there may be even one stage more: JOY. That what begins in denial, anger, bargaining and depression can end in acceptance, hope and JOY.

And the vision I had in mind was based in this morning’s words from Isaiah 35. Isaiah’s vision is so bright, so sparkling, so joyous that they did not feel like quite the right words to speak to feelings so raw. But my hope and prayer is that the time of remembrance contained hints and glimpses of that vision so that when ready, those mourners would seek the vision and its fulfillment—in their lives and, perhaps ultimately, in the world around them.

And my hope and prayer is that our observance of Advent, though muted and solemn, will contains seeds of hope and joy that when planted faithfully in the chilled winter soil of our souls and our world will, in the warmth of spring, give rise to new seedlings of hope and joy and fruitfulness.

Such is the power of Isaiah’s joyful vision that it was to Israel in exile in their loop'd and window'd raggedness like a warm coat, a good meal, a soft bed covered with a thick quilt. If words could be food, nourishing and warm, Isaiah’s joyful vision of the coming of God that brought life to the wilderness and health to the people gave the people in exile new hope and new strength—hope and strength for the journey home they would soon be taking.

Isaiah 35:1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
'Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.'

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Part of the incredible beauty of Isaiah’s vision is that no one has to wonder if the “good news” of the vision includes them. “What about me?” In Isaiah’s vision, when God comes to save, NO ONE GETS LEFT BEHIND. The weak and strong, the able and the challenged, the fearful and the confident—all shall partake in the God’s enactment of healing and homecoming.

Homecoming … Restoration … Healing … Joy … for ALL PEOPLE. Kindling a passion for these things is our Advent work … our Advent duty. Choosing to live by Isaiah’s vision is where Advent leads and guides us. Allowing our imaginations to grow ever more inclusive and ever more restorative and ever more equitable is a part of shaping our minds and hearts of faith in the Advent time of watching and preparing.

It’s a glorious vision AND … it’s a HIGH VISION. It’s a high vision in that it sets the bar to a lofty height of what everyone ought to have a right to expect in life and in this world. Once you hear this and others of Isaiah’s visions, you’re not to be faulted if you think to yourself—or even say out loud—this is the way it should always be … this is the way it should be for ALL people.

This week the general secretary of our American Baptist churches, Roy Medley, sent out an e-mail drawing our attention to an Op-Ed piece written by Jimmy Carter that appeared in last Monday’s Washington Post. Carter suggests, in his editorial, that certain amendments are critically needed to the 1933 Farm Bill so as to correct some horrific imbalances and injustices that affect small farmers with such dire consequences both at home and abroad. I sense hints of Isaiah’s vision in Carter’s words.

Isaiah’s vision has to do with justice and fairness and equitable distribution … it has to do with an end to oppression and violence and politics of fear … it has to do with a place at the table for all that no one has to earn--that all deserve by simply existing … it has to do with a time where all our human energies, joined with divine wisdom, come together to create all the healing and hope that is possible for those afflicted with mysterious and debilitating illness.

How are we choosing to live by Isaiah’s vision? In Advent, we are invited to wait and watch for God’s patient activity of homecoming, restoration, healing and joy on behalf of all people—and then to encourage and join that activity with all our hearts, minds and souls. The coming of God signals a time when NONE WILL BE LEFT BEHIND.

Just now I am thinking of a former member of Shell Ridge, Andrea Allmon. When I first met Andrea, she had been worshipping for two years or so in a Presbyterian church, hoping against hope that she would be accepted just as she was. Then came “the sermon” … the pronouncement from the pulpit bashing the love that dare not speak its name … and with the pronouncement, Andrea knew that she was not fully welcome and her heart and her hopes sank. The next week she found herself at Shell Ridge, though we hadn’t yet taken our new name. And after worship she pinned me down about having a cup of coffee, and by the way she asked for that time, I knew it wasn’t the coffee she was most interested in. If you remember Andrea, you know she can cut right to the chase. “I’m gay!” she said. “Will you and the people at the church accept me or reject me?”

How are we choosing to live by Isaiah’s vision? The full vision and not just the parts we can live with. I told Andrea that I would accept her and that many in the church would accept her, but that I could not speak for all. In time we accepted Andrea into our membership—and in time, there was a small exodus, sadly, of a fashion of church friends who lived by different visions.

About a year ago, a small minister’s support group to which I belong traveled to the new DeYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park. Our group is not only a place of mutual support, but we are also gathered by our common interest in the art of worship. And it’s hard to discuss the art of worship without ultimately coming ‘round to art itself. There was a rather singular kind of artwork on display at the museum that we had gone to see. On display were some 70 of the quilts of Gee’s Bend, last weeks featured quilts. And if you remember last week’s bulletin cover, you’ll remember that Gee’s Bends are quite different than the extreme mathematical precision of today’s Amish quilts. Gee’s Bend quilts are pieced together from whatever is lying around … nothing … NOTHING goes to waste. And it seems to me that this is one of the implicit messages of quilting: “No scrap is unusable … there is a place for each and for all.” It’s Isaiah’s vision all over again.

Whether we are lobbying congress to make laws that are fair and equitable for all … or … if we are making our way to dark and difficult places seeking to breathe a new word of hope and healing … or … if we are simply creating a new place at the table for one whose simple existence makes them worthy—we are choosing to live by Isaiah’s vision which is coming to pass in small, but noteworthy ways.

Those who lived in the time of Jesus saw in him, unmistakable signs of the flowering of Isaiah’s vision. And as always, Jesus’ claims for himself were modest … understated. One of this morning’s lections that we did not read this morning, tells of John the Baptist, the one who was to prepare the way, wondering from afar about this Jesus … and the stories that were coming to him. Matthew’s gospel says:

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘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 offence at me.’

If we are and if others are choosing to live by Isaiah’s vision, what will the world around us hear and what will they see? If they hear and see what the disciples of John could see so plainly in the work and ministry of Jesus, then you and I might not fault them if, with no irony at all intended, they begin to whistle or sing: “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.”

Advent, as I hope you can see, is not a bland lead-in to Christmas, but a robust time of preparing and visioning and, ultimately, acting. If we can ever speak about “Christmas faith” as some do, then it will be a Christmas faith rooted and grounded in the faith and the visions of Advent. The faith and visions of Advent have always been rooted and grounded in the expansive and hopeful visions of Isaiah. And more than one latter day Isaiah has reached back to the old prophet when seeking strength for current challenges.

On December 10, 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr., a 35 year old African American--and American Baptist!--preacher, was awarded the Alfred Nobel Peace Prize in Stockholm, Sweden. Near the end of King’s acceptance speech, he spoke of the faith that moved him that was rooted in Isaiah’s vision of a world at peace with justice. King said:

This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.

Isaiah couldn’t have said it better himself.