Monday, December 29, 2008

Holy Child, Holy Humanity

A sermon by Rev. Angela Yarber | First Sunday after Christmas Day | December 28, 2008

Text: Luke 2: 22-40

I’d like to begin my sermon today with a question—a big, deep, existential, theological question. I’m sure it’s a question many of you are also asking, a question that grips us to our core this time of year. The question is: Should I take down my Christmas tree today or wait until New Years Day? Why not sometime in between, you may wonder? Well, you see, I have company coming in town tomorrow and they leave on New Years Day. So the question is: Do I leave the 7 feet of artificial glory, bejeweled in far too many ballerina ornaments up for them to enjoy, too…or do I take it down, thus leaving more room for my guests in my tiny apartment, after coming home from church today? And if I take it down today, should I also take down all the other remnants of Christmas decor: holiday hand-towels, Christmas photos and candles, stockings? These are tough decisions that should not be taken lightly.

Christmas day was only 3 days ago. The gifts have been unwrapped, leftovers are in the refrigerator, family has traveled back home, and that tree still lingers in the living room, waiting to be taken down, undecorated, recycled or stored. All that remains is you in your home amidst the crumpled wrapping paper, pine needs on the carpet in need of vacuuming, and overwhelmingly fulfilled expectation and longing. The period of waiting—Advent—is over, the prophecy fulfilled and fulfilling. The twelve days of Christmas indeed. It’s only day three. The carols are no longer playing on the radio and we’re busy making our plans for New Year’s Eve. What’s a preacher to say on the Sunday following Christmas? It is the first Sunday in the Christmas season, after all. I must say that I flipped through every book of sermons I have and not one, not one, offered a sermon for the Sunday following Christmas (not that I would have preached someone else’s sermon…I was just looking for ideas). There were plenty of sermons to read during Advent or Christmas mass or Epiphany, but the Sunday following Christmas, the first Sunday of the Christmas season—I don’t think so.

So, let’s switch gears for a moment—to the birth of a newborn baby; that is why we celebrate Christmas, after all. The baby was born, the mother has left the hospital, or manger as it were, the parents, midwives, or nurses have wrapped the baby in swaddling cloths. Photos were taken on everyone’s camera phones. Grandparents and friends have visited. The baby showers have been thrown. The baby was brought gifts: teddy bears, frankincense, balloons, myrrh, blankets, and gold. The newborn now sleeps peacefully in a carefully prepared nursery under a baby mobile of smiling clowns that spins and plays a lullaby…or under a blanket of stars in the night sky depending on the context, I suppose. Friends and family have brought the hopeful and overwhelmed new parents casseroles, food, extra diapers, and lots of hugs. And now they’ve headed home and the parents and the new born baby are the only ones left amidst the leftovers, unwrapped gifts, and overwhelmingly fulfilled expectation and longing. And then what happens? What happens—mothers, parents—after the birth of a new baby? After the celebration? After the grandparents have visited? After everyone has oogled and awed over this newborn bundle of joy that is now crying and sleeping and pooping and eating and smiling and cuddling in your tired arms? I’m not a parent, so you tell me. What happens?

My mother told me this is when you help another begin the journey of life, when you “raise your kids.” On Christmas, I spent the day with my family at my grandfather’s farm in Newnan, GA. And my one cousin was there with her baby, Brayden. He was born less than a month after a grandmother passed in April. And I asked my cousin, whose birth I witnessed, this very question, “what happens after the birth?” She told me she’s still trying to figure that out. And I wonder: Is this when reality sets in? When parents begin to ask: how am I going to balance my job with my baby? How am I going to get any sleep? What have I gotten myself into? How can something so beautiful and tiny make so much noise and so much stink? We’re still trying to figure that out.

What happens After we’ve celebrated…

How are we going to eat all these leftovers in the refrigerator? Who can we give all these fruitcakes to? Shall we brave the stores and return our unwanted gifts now? Can I lose these extra pounds I gained from eating so many holiday goodies? Have I remembered to send everyone a thank you card? Who’s going to climb up on the roof and take down all those lights?

Reality sets in. The period of waiting is over. Gestation has ceased. The prophecy has been fulfilled. Hope has been realized. We’ve had the party. We’ve sung the songs. We’ve eaten the food. We’ve ooood and awed. Now what?

The Gospel of Luke, which I read earlier, offers us some words of wisdom for what to do after this period of eager expectation. Let me tell what I hear from Luke and offer my stretching interpretation. Luke tells us:

“Every first born son will be designated as holy for the Lord.”
“My eyes have seen your salvation,” Simeon proclaims.
“The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom”
And also from Galations, which Jodie read earlier:
“You are a child and also an heir through God.”

These are the words and phrases that stand out to me. And I might add:
Every child is designated as holy for the Lord. When we look into the eyes of a child, into the eyes of another person, we can see our salvation. It is our responsibility to help all children, all people, grow and become strong and filled with wisdom. You are God’s child and heir. All humanity, each person, is God’s child and heir and deserves to be treated as such. Whether this person is black or white or Asian or Latina, has a college degree or not, is heterosexual or homosexual, speaks the same language you do, is rich or poor or somewhere in between, each person is just as much a child of God as you and I, just as much a child of God as the little baby whose birth we celebrate at this time each year. Look into the eyes of humanity and behold the face of God; witness the birth of Christ in the miracle of birth that is each little baby.

On Christmas morning, not only was a holy child born, but humanity was made holy. We celebrate the birth of the son of God. True. But we also celebrate the way in which each person is a child of God. God becomes incarnate, not only in the little baby Jesus, but in all humanity, actualizing divinity in flesh. Look into the eyes of another and see your salvation. Love a child and see Christ in his or her eyes. As the stunning musical Les Mis declares, “To truly love another is to see the face of God.”

And I say all these things—these abstract concepts of love and compassion—following the celebration of Christmas, the celebration of Christ’s birth, God with us, Emmanuel. And as I say all these things and speak of the virtues of loving humanity and treating all people as children of God, I cannot help but think of another celebration on the calendar, though not on the “liturgical” year that we follow in the church. And that is the celebration of New Years. And with New Years comes New Year’s resolutions. I wonder how many of us will vow to the classic, “eat healthier and exercise more.” A few years ago, I decided that my unfulfilled New Year’s resolutions made me feel unnecessarily guilty when I “fell short.” So, rather than making a resolution to “run every day” or “give up my beloved chocolate,” I decided to make a positive and fun resolution. I resolved to go to the beach at least 10 separate times in 2006 because going to the beach makes me really happy. Fortunately, 2006 also hosted my move to California, thus making my beach visits more readily available. I digress…

So, perhaps it is with the virtues of love and compassion that we should enter the New Year. Sure, go ahead and resolve to eat healthier, exercise more, quit smoking, save money. Those are all fine and good. But perhaps also, as we enter 2009 as individuals and as a community, we can resolve to see each person we meet as a child of God and no less. We can resolve to treat each and every person as one who is just as valuable as the little baby that we celebrate at Christmas.

And this resolution, this call to “see salvation” in the eyes of another can and must be applied in praxis. It’s good to love others in our hearts and minds, but how can we help others grow and become strong and filled with wisdom if this love is not accompanied by action? How can we grow and become strong and filled with wisdom without action? I’m sure our social-justice oriented congregation has plenty of suggestions for how to put this love into action. ROM (Reaching Out Ministries) may recommend feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, fighting for affordable healthcare for all people. Some of our youth and children may suggest standing up for that kid at school who everyone else makes fun of or who sits alone at lunch. While there is an array of ways to approach this idea of love in action, I’ll simply mention some practical things I’m working on that often go overlooked. For example: Think before you shop or buy. Where does that food come from? Who is making it? Where is it being made or grown? Are the people making it and growing it paid a living wage? Where do those clothes come from that you wear? And I don’t mean Target or Old Navy. I mean: who makes it? What are their working conditions? Are those working conditions just and fair? Advocate for equal rites for all people. Who is allowed to legally marry, vote, receive healthcare, buy a home, receive an education and who is not allowed to do these things? Is this fair? What are you going to do about?

If seeing salvation involves looking in the eyes of another, then we cannot see if our eyes are shut to the injustices that surround us.

So, those leftovers may remain and the tree may still be decorated and you may be a little overwhelmed at this fragile bud of humanity now resting in your arms, but salvation is actualized in your very being. I’m looking into your eyes and seeing the face of God.
My eyes have seen salvation, not just in the Christ child, but in each of you. Go and do likewise. Amen.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Shouts of Joy

A sermon by Greg Ledbetter | December 14, 2008 | Third Sunday in Advent

Text: Psalm 126

I'd like to invite you to get out your Bibles … did anyone bring their own Bible to worship this morning? … Carrie? No? No-one? (in fact, some 5 or 6 folk were actually packin' Bibles—better than I'd guessed.--GHL) … Hmmm … OK, the Bibles are the red books in front of you … that's a Bible … OK, let see if we can find the psalms … they're in the Old Testament … the Hebrew scriptures ... let's find Psalm 126 which Rick read earlier.

Oh, we haven't done this in a very long time. For generations, Baptists have been known as "people of the book". Let's not be strangers to this book.

I want to draw your attention to the first half of this beautiful psalm. One of the better guesses is that this psalm was spoken aloud as the faithful made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Like the last word in the second line, there is an almost dreamy feel to this first half of the psalm. Perhaps we could read it aloud together:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
'The Lord has done great things for them.'
3The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.

Let's take note that the first half of this psalm is all dreamy joy … it's all festivity and happiness. These joyous cries of pilgrims became, in time, liturgical words of celebration that got repeated many times within the worship of the Temple … of ancient Israel. In worship, it was important to recount the mighty acts of God … to tell of God's goodness and faithfulness … to recall the times when God tore open the heavens and came down, answering the cry we heard from Isaiah in the first week of Advent. These recollections of God's presence and God's power were important acts of worship. This was nourishment for the faith of the worshipping people. This was how the people of God bound and re-bound themselves to God's own being: by reminding themselves that God had been good to them … that God had been faithful to them … that the living God had acted on their behalf.

We see this elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures. In the midst the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5, the children of Israel are reminded:

Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm;

And so the people sang and prayed aloud: When GOD restored the fortunes of Zion. They recognized that this was not their own doing, their own wiliness and skill and strength. GOD had acted and the people rejoiced.

There are such things as "gilded memories" … memories with a rosy glow … of good times … better times … you know it's interesting that many people look back at the most difficult times of the depression with a surprising warmth. It's not simply that they have selectively remembered this time—though some of that occurs. Sprinkled among the harsh memories are quite a number of legitimately good ones. There really were some upsides to that very down time … some blessings and benefits among the economic wreckage. Families drew closer, the littlest things could become luxuries, far less in life was taken for granted. And when the depression ended … it was as though a time of exile was over.

The real sharp ones here will remember Franklin Delano Roosevelt's campaign song in his successful bid for the presidency in 1932—not that any of us here were of a voting age yet, though Sue Smith and Bea Lewis were. FDR's campaign song was a song written just as the stock markets failed and the economy was tanking and entering a tail-spin that would last for a decade. Many fortunes were lost and socialites and stockbrokers could be found in soup lines. But just as this was beginning, a couple of musicians teamed up to create a bouncy, optimistic song that went:

So long sad times
Go long bad times
We are rid of you at last

Howdy gay times
Cloudy gray times
You are now a thing of the past

Happy days are here again
The skies above are clear again
So let's sing a song of cheer again
Happy days are here again

Think of the famous photos you've seen of wars ending—particularly World War II … sailors grabbing kisses from flag-waving bystanders, people dancing in the streets … in one voice, people sang songs like: "Happy Days are Here Again". (Following worship, Stu Harris shared with me that while searching an ancient wreck (c.e. 350) in the Mediterranean Sea, they found a Roman coin with Constantine's image on it and an inscription that read: "Happy days are here again." True story.)

Think of the passage of Civil Rights Act … or the granting of women's suffrage … the signing of peace treaties or anything that signaled the end of a period of decline or decay or oppression or suffering—in these times we do well to sing: "Happy days are here again …" and we come close to understanding the genuine, unfettered JOY of Psalm 126. And in times such as these, as people of faith, we do well to sing with the psalmist and the worshippers in the Temple and with the people returning from long, painful exile: "When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were our mouths filled with laughter … the Lord has done great things for us."

That's the first half of Psalm 126 … this song of pilgrim joy, the song of returning exiles. But let's take a look at the first line of the second half of the psalm.

4Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.

5That phrase in the middle of Psalm 126 that helps us "locate" the psalmist—or at least helps us locate the one who put the finishing touches on this psalm as we now have it. The first half of the psalm is clearly an expression of unfettered JOY. But now, the second half that's meant to be of a piece with the first starts with: "Restore our fortunes, O Lord …". Listen carefully to those words. Something has changed.

I'm sure you've seen this with people … with friends and acquaintances … a subtle, but unmistakable change in demeanor that lets you know that former good fortunes have changed. "How're doing?" "Oh … not bad." And that gap between "Oh" and "not bad" opens up in you, if you're paying attention, an awareness of some shift in the person before you. "Are things OK?" "They're … alright." And you want to say: "Yeah, but things were GREAT not so long ago …"

The first lines of the psalm speak of God having restored the fortunes of Zion … and now the psalmist is in that somewhat difficult and awkward place of needing that restoration once more. Things have changed. Fortunes have changed. There's a new problem, a new challenge, another exile, another threat, another gloomy prospect on the horizon. Times have gone bad again and the frustration is setting in.

The happy days are gone … again … the clouds of doubt and frustration have returned, blotting out the sun, and threatening the hope and the faith of the people.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.

Hopefully most of us know well the wonderful Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof. It first hit Broadway in 1964, but has had a number of revivals over the years. The story is about a simple man and his family living in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 1900's. They are Jews living in a small village under the control of the Russian Czar. They live every moment of their lives deeply aware of how insignificant their lives are to those in power. We don't have to injure our brains to think of others who fit this sad statement.

Tevye and his family and fellow villagers are Jews of the "diaspora" … or "the dispersion." The Jewish diaspora occurred when the Temple and Jerusalem were destroyed some 40 years after Jesus' death and Jews scattered across the earth seeking a place to live and practice their faith in peace. It's not hard for us to make the translation here: This is a new exile … the people taken away from their land and their Temple and barely clinging to their traditions in new, unfamiliar and often inhospitable places.

And now we are in Anatevka … it's a shtetl … that's a Yiddish word for a village largely made up of Jews. The residents of that place know not to get too settled in this or any place. They never knew when the Czar would wake up one morning and decide that the Jews under his watch were getting too settled … and move them along somewhere. It was this sad fact that made Tevye explain that "this is why we always wear our hats." They never knew when the next step of their never-ending journey of exile would begin or where it would take them. And while this sermon is NOT about the challenges in the Middle East, we do gain some sense of the significance and importance of ending their exile … their diaspora … and "coming home" to the land they believed was promised to them. Never mind, of course, that in so doing a new diaspora was begun among the land's other non-Jewish occupants.

Fiddler on the Roof takes its name from a painting by Marc Chagall that shows a fiddler merrily fiddling away on a roof in a snowy little village. Chagall was, like Tevye, a Russian Jew living in diaspora. And the village in his painting could have been the shtetl, Anatevka. Chagall included a fiddler in a number of his paintings of Eastern European Jewish life, because the fiddler was a well-known metaphor for survival: survival through tradition and joyfulness, amidst lives of uncertainty and imbalance. You can imagine how precarious it would be to try and fiddle while standing atop a steep, slippery roof. Such was the bitter-sweet, twinkling-eyed humor of those in exile.

Perhaps in our times of exile … our times of feeling and being scattered and blown about … we could use a fiddler on the roof. I believe Marion's available for any kind of occasion—though good luck getting her on your roof. Like Tevye and his villagers, like the too-often exiled people of Israel, and like the psalmist who knew both the past deliverance of old exiles and present pain of new exiles, we need reminders of God's abiding presence that can help us survive in times of trial … times of fragmentation … the lean times of mind, body and soul. And we need more than chirpy little songs like "Happy Days are Here Again", though I'm quite certain that at times it has been sung with an almost sacred joy.

The psalmist ends the psalm with an agricultural vision … a vision of farming … the scattering of seed upon the land in the age-old hope that the seed will bear fruit and insure the survival of those who depend on it. But what funny farmers … these are farmers who are so uncertain of their prospects … so unconvinced of the success of their efforts and the hope of survival … that they carry out their seeds to the field … weeping. They till the earth and set the seed in a state of agony and grief. Their tears water the soil where the seeds have been planted. And they return home with heavy hearts certain that this effort will be their last.

Such is the feeling of those in exile … ANY exile … the sense of hopelessness and despair--even the natural rhythms of nature seem depressed to the point of failure. "O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down" cries Isaiah. "How long, O Lord, how long?" sighs the prophet.

I have dear, but embattled friends who live among us all … but who feel as though they live in an exile of a fashion … who feel not fully at home except perhaps when AT home … friends who long to NOT live in exile within their society … their culture … within their church. They long to live without any particular distinction except for the ways that they are unique like we are all unique. And when these friends find one another, and romance blossoms as it will between two beloved people, they'd like to be … married … just like normal folks … because they ARE normal folks … like you … like me … like us ALL. And though a brief, 6 month window of normalcy opened for them … sadly, at the end of that time … "the people spoke" … "the will of the people was made clear" … and the window slammed shut. And the exile of a fasion that briefly ended began again. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. How long, O Lord, how long?

How do we weather these times? … these times of exile that can come upon any of us at nearly any time? Through the words of the psalmist, we are invited to root our hope in God in our memories of God's faithfulness. We're given this wonderful image of weeping farmers who return to their fields for the time that should've been a season of joyous and grateful harvest … and what to their wondering eyes should appear? Fields that are mature and ripe and full and ready for harvesting. 'How could this be? We'd given up hope. We were sure that we'd been forgotten. We were sure this was our last act.' And instead, with fiddle music swelling up all around them, they sprint back to the village with their arms full of sheaves of wheat … rich, ripe wonderful wheat … their arms full of that which will save them … their arms full of this gracious reminder of God's eternal, everlasting, abundant care and provision that is meant for ALL.

Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall return with SHOUTS of JOY bearing their sheaves. These are the ones who, in spite of their pain, in spite of their exile, in spite of their memories of past losses, harbor also memories of God's great faithfulness and with these sacred memories ablaze in their hearts, like a Yule log in a fireplace, continue to act in great trust in God … and their trust in God is not in vain.

I received an e-mail this week. This e-mail tells of one great soul who has the faith of a psalmist … the faith of an Isaiah … the faith of young Mary, the mother of Jesus. This is a great soul who has within her deepest places, her inner "holy of holies" the memories of God's great goodness and faithfulness that sustain her against her pain and her losses—and this pain and these losses have been great. I speak again of my cousin Connie. Nearly a year now since her mentally ill son killed her husband and nearly killed Connie. As you might guess, it's been a long exile of a year that saw her finally getting to visit her son, now committed for life to a psychiatric hospital. And where now for Connie? Well … apparently south.

Connie does mission work in Guatemala … serving among the very poor … and this zany cousin of mine, with a whimsy that even her painful exile could not kill, decided to pack some Bellingham, Washington snow all the way to Guatemala so her friends … her Guatemalan family and loved ones, could have a white Christmas.

She writes in her e-mail:

Hola donde Guatemala (¿see me using my great Espanol skills?), (apparently bad "Spanglish" runs in my family),

I just want everyone to know that it is impossible to take snow Guatemala......but....With God, everything is possible! Snowmen were made today in David's home, and he was hit in the shoulder by a snowball!! No one in his family had ever seen snow, or dry ice. A tiny bit of the dry ice was left (David almost touched it with a wet finger!) so we had a fog show on the floor (this made the tiny niƱo cry). The snow in the tub directly under the dry ice was so cold and hard that it couldn't be removed (it will probably be just right by tonight or tomorrow) but the tub by the vent was just right
I'm having a great time and I love you all!
Connie (the abominable snow sponsor)

Connie says: "With God, everything is possible." And I think she would know. This is, in a phrase, the message of the psalmist to us this day in whatever exile we find ourselves or face: "Take hope … for with God … everything is possible."

This affirmation I'm about to share was not written by Connie … or the psalmist … or my long-suffering friends. But it could have been. It's an Advent affirmation of faith for those who wonder and wait:

When the cold white ice of winter grips me,

when the white shimmering heat of summer melts me,

and I doubt that anything can survive

the extreme of this world's harshness,

I still believe.

Somewhere in the depths of my soul,

despite the evidence, I believe.

I believe that the ruins of life can be rebuilt.

I believe that the tears I shed will water seeds of joy deeply buried.

I believe that the green shoots of God's justice will bear fruit.

I believe that the light that enlightens the world

will pierce the winter's longest night

and eclipse the sun's brightest moments.

I believe that in all circumstances the Light

radiates hope and joy, peace and love,

so that even at my lowest points

I can see.

Even in the palest light of faith,

I can find my way through the shadows.

And for that I give thanks.

(source unknown)


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Advent & Butoh

A meditation by Angela Yarber | December 7, 2008 | Second Sunday in Advent

Text: Isaiah 40:1-11

“Comfort, O Comfort my people,” the prophet Isaiah declares. During the season of Advent we wait for the fulfillment of prophecy. In eager expectation we wait for comfort. We prepare for the coming of light.

Last week, during my semi-regular ride to the BART station with the Durans, Karen mentioned that I looked rather serious during worship. And I shared with her the likely reasons why. Each year I help in planning Advent, the themes, this year the stars glimmering in the darkness of the night sky, the light growing brighter each week. And one would think that I would remember the primary role of darkness during the season of Advent. But without fail, year after year, on the first Sunday of Advent I’m always struck by the role of darkness in this season of preparation. The darkness of the womb. The darkness of a winter night’s sky. The darkness of only one or two Advent candles to light the way.

So, I suppose that last Sunday, these notions of darkness were ruminating in my mind during worship. And over the past week, the role of darkness in Advent, the world, and dance have intersected in way that can only be divinely coincidental. Allow me to explain.

As many of you know, I’m working on a PhD in Art and Religion and right now I’m in what’s called “the comprehensive examination phase.” And only 2 weeks ago I took my 4 hour closed book exam. 4 hours, 2 questions, a tiny room, and a computer. And my questions dealt with the role of Buddhist aesthetics in butoh dance. And I’m sure you’re all thinking, “what on earth does Buddhist aesthetics and butoh dance have to do with Advent?!” And that’s precisely what I want to tell you.

Butoh is a dance that developed out of the chaos and turmoil of post-WWII Japan. After Hiroshima, when Tokyo lay in ruins, when the entire country has been turned upside down and is involved in a rapid process of Westernization because of the American Occupation, artists responded. Tatsumi Hijikata, who is regarded as the architect of butoh, and Kazuo Ohno, who is regarded as the soul of butoh, believed that the forms of classical dance in Japan could not respond to the suffering and darkness that surrounded them. So, instead of releveing up in ethereal ballet or dancing in the pristine noh or kabuki dances of classical Japan, Hijikata and Ohno gnarled their fingers and toes, dropped the center of gravity, and reveled in an earth-bound squat; they created butoh, which appropriately means “the dance of utter darkness.” Butoh was awarded this name after Hijikata’s first performance in 1959 when a Japanese dance critic said that the movement looked like an obscure image within the womb.

Ironically, Kazuo Ohno, who is still alive and dancing at age 102, and is a committed Baptist, likens the dancing stage to the mother’s womb. He believes that dance is only valid in so much as it is spiritual and that dancing is a way for our bodies to unite with their original source: the darkness of the womb.

So, last week, as I sat seriously in worship, I pondered these interesting connections, I thought about how butoh came into my life 2 ½ years ago and how the thought of its darkness and gnarled movements didn’t interest me at first. As a “sacred” dancer, I’ve always reveled in the “light,” the joy of Christ. But my time with butoh has been a lot like my time in Advent. It has taught me that the darkness is not a scary place to be…and if it is, then that’s ok. Life, like faith, isn’t always sunshine and pretty roses. Advent isn’t about sunshine and pretty roses and neither is butoh.

And spending time in the darkness of Advent, or in my case the darkness of butoh, teaches us how to appreciate even the smallest of light. It also teaches that there is a time for darkness in our lives. Hijikata and Ohno remind me, ironically today on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, that we live in a world where suffering abounds. And leaping around with a smile on my face is not an adequate response to this suffering. Butoh dancers revel in this darkness… not in a self-loathing way, but in a manner similar to Advent. You cannot appreciate the birth of light in the world without first spending time in darkness, without first gestating in the womb. And as butoh philosophy contends, the purpose of the dance is to move in and swallow the darkness. So, revel with me in the darkness of Advent, in the darkness of the night sky, in the preparation for birth, birth which brings us a little light of peace, a little comfort.

Messengers of Hope

A sermon by Greg Ledbetter | Preached on December 7, 2008 at Shell Ridge Community Church | Second Sunday in Advent, Year B

Sermon Text: Isaiah 40:1-11

I gathered with a dozen or so of my American Baptist colleagues in ministry this week. We had come together to talk about the unique challenges of being a senior or solo pastor of a congregation. As you might imagine, every kind of ministry has its own particular realities and demands and we had gathered to look for ways to be more supportive of one another in our ministry.

We began our time together with a period of informal worship. I led a few songs of the Advent season and then we entered a time of reflection and study of this morning's text from Isaiah—the first eleven verses of the 40th chapter. Most of us gathered there would be preaching on that text in a few days, as I am now. We approached the text through the practice of lectio divina … it is a sacred reading that combines multiple readings and periods of reflection. For most preachers, it's what they do every time they prepare to preach. It is a practice that we have engaged in on a number of occasions here at Shell Ridge.

During a silent reading and out loud readings in two different voices, we looked for words and phrases and ideas to emerge for us, to speak to us, to invite us into their meaning and their world, or to minister to us. And then in a time of reflection following the readings, I asked those gathered to reflect aloud on which word spoke most particularly to them in their particular lives and needs.

And not surprisingly, as with any gathering, different parts of the passage spoke to different people. Some felt touched by the tender words of comfort that open the passage. Others were struck by the "geography of grace" in which balance is restored on earth: mountains brought low, low places lifted up, uneven places made smooth. Some of these preachers were drawn to the words of the prophet that seem uniquely suited for those in their calling: "Cry out … get you up to a high mountain, herald of good tidings, lift up your voice with strength." One pastor, drawn to the words: "the grass withers, the flower fades" said: "I am reminded of one of the constants of my ministry: I am surrounded by beloved people who move from vitality to frailty to death." We all gave a deep, knowing sigh at those words.

I then asked these pastors to reflect on a word that seemed particularly apt for their congregation. And again there were comments about tender words of comfort needed … or words of challenge for which their people were ready. One pastor took note of the phrase: "Here is your God", putting special emphasis on the word "HERE" … wanting to draw his parishioners' attention away from the shrines of their lesser gods and back to the God for whom Isaiah spoke.

And we here, we all of us could have a similarly fruitful and helpful sacred conversation over this texts—over all of the texts this morning. What words in Isaiah or the Psalm or the opening gospel reading or the words from II Peter caught at you … snagged your eye or caught at your ear? In many ways, every time every pastor seeks to preach, it is in part with a certain degree of wonderment at what particular word might stand out for you … trying to see the text through your eyes, your needs, your sensibilities, your yearning.

When I read this morning's passage from Isaiah, it's hard for me to get beyond the opening phrase: "Comfort, O comfort my people … speak tenderly … the penalty is paid … the suffering is soon to be over." And I know the heartbreak and the struggle that so many who hear these words spoken this morning have had to face in their lifetime … may be facing now. I have to read those words and then stop … and collect my emotions. It's not a bad thing to let your emotions mingle with the emotions of the text. This is a part of the sacred reading of lectio divina.

I know that these words were first spoken to a people who'd borne the pain of exile and separation for a number of generations. The wound that had inflicted by their exile had never healed, the ache had never subsided. And in the midst of their exile, they had done a pretty good job of beating themselves up—for surely, they reasoned, God's absence and this exile are signs of our failings … somewhere, somehow. And now a pastoral soul, speaking in the tradition of the first prophet Isaiah, speaks this gentle, healing word. If there were any failings, it is, nonetheless, God who is now taking the initiative to restore you … to restore your hope and your joy, to restore you as a people. This morning's passage ends with one of the most beautiful passages in scripture:

God will feed God's flock like a shepherd;
God will gather the lambs in God's arms,
and carry them in God's bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

We know that we are in a season of the year that seems to have a knack for exposing the hair-line cracks in our souls. Things that we bear up under more capably during the sunny days of summer can nearly wipe us out in December. I wrote in my column this month about the challenges of living "under pressure", and in a moment of mutual ministry, one of you noted reading that column and wondered if I'd … like to borrow some Prozac. I'm still mulling the offer. How does that song go? "I only human …"? I've heard pastors and people alike say: "I'm looking forward to the end of the holidays." I've heard myself utter those words.

And you know one tragic thing about saying this is noting that the word "Holiday" is a contraction of the words: "Holy Day". These are to be Holy Days for us … days where the sacred and the divine are present to us in ways that bring comfort and healing and wholeness to our lives.

And you wonder why we preachers and pastors grumble about the great American commercial enterprise to whose altar we are beckoned with every flip of the TV channel and every turn of the newspaper page. It's hard to be chained and enslaved to the commercially fueled expectations of this season and ALSO be laid open to the great, holy wonder of incarnation and birth and re-birth. These are two masters that are hard to serve simultaneously.

There are those among us … perhaps many among us … who long to recover … rediscover the holy in the holidays. We don't wish for this season to simply become one we're glad to be through with, but one that we have been deeply blessed to have gone through.

And I think that the second passage in this morning's reading from Isaiah offers us some hope here. These are the words that each of the four gospel writers chose to include as being essential to the coming of Christ … the incarnating and birthing of God's love into human form in our world … in our midst. These are the words that we heard Elliot intone this morning in the Baptist's Cry.

A voice cries out:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken."

One of my colleagues said of this passage: "Balance is restored" … and another called it Isaiah's "Geography of Grace". And he was right. The prophet is using visual image of the leveling re-sculpting of the surface of the earth to speak of the leveling and the re-sculpting that must occur within our human ordering, our society, before the glory of God will be revealed. And wouldn't you know that this is a part of the "sin" that Israel looks back upon and calculates into the penalty that their exile has become for them. Then as now, the rich got richer, the poor got poorer … the mountains grew taller and overshadowed completely the deepening valleys where the suffering of so many grew more and more distant. Isaiah cries out: "Let's bring those mountains DOWN … let's lift those valleys UP … when we have succeeded in more nearly leveling the playing field, then … only then will the way be smooth enough for the Lord to come … then, and only then will the glory of the Lord be revealed.

In regard to this leveling of the playing field, someone once wrote: "I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written,
'The one who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have too little.'

So who do you think wrote those words? Marx? Or maybe it's something Obama said that drew accusations of socialism? Would you believe Paul? The Apostle? It is Paul, writing in his second letter to the Corinthians. Our model, Paul said, is Jesus himself: 9For you know grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.

So we're preparing the way for THAT Jesus … the one who leveled the playing field with his own life … his own decisions … his own commitments even, unto death.

And we have to admit that it's a pretty big field that needs leveling. I don't know if Isaiah knew just how big and complicated this whole human family would become. "Every valley shall be exalted …" sounds pretty good when you sing it in the Messiah, but where do you and I fit into the real world practice of this?

Well … a place to start is to go to where Jesus got his start. A local synagogue. It's a place where you'll hear Isaiah read on a pretty regular basis. It's also a place where we happen to have linked our lives with the lives of the good folk at Congregation B'nai Tikvah. Together we are seeking to repair one of the breaches in the social net of compassion and care around us. You have to drive up a pretty steep hill to get to B'nai Tikvah, but that steep drive up helps you come down a bit from whatever mountain of prosperity you or I currently dwell on. As it happens to be true with surmounting other problems like homophobia, getting close in, having face to face contact, getting to know the names and the stories of these valley-dwelling friends and neighbors, offering ourselves and our substance … these are some of the many ways that we can help battle homelessness … and poverty … and the very natural despair that comes with these things. Did we not hear that despair given voice last night? And these are some of the many ways that we can battle the many other kinds of mountain and valley realities that surround us.

Let us be assured of the deep truth of these words: None are saved … until all are saved.

If, the prophet tells us, if you and I help to lower the high places—whatever and wherever they may be, and if you help lift up the low places—whatever and wherever they may be, you will help hasten the time when ALL people shall get to see the glory of God TOGETHER … a Holy Day and a Holiday for one and for all.

The preparing of the way for the incarnation of love is a gift for all people and for all earth.


Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Where Are You, God?

A Sermon by Greg Ledbetter Preached at Shell Ridge Community Church on November 30, 2008 | First Sunday in Advent, Year B

Texts: Isaiah 64:1-7 and Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

Where WERE you? How many times does any child hear these demanding parental words in the course of growing up? Showing up at the back door, hours after you were expected, and being met by one parent or both, hands on hips demanding: "Where WERE you?" And how often did you, as I know I did, answer like a being with its brain removed … "I don't know."

With cell phones becoming ever more ubiquitous, it's getting harder and harder for kids to hide … harder and harder to come up with an excuse for being unreachable. "I know you know I was trying to reach you …" the hands on hip parent will now insist.

Of course the reverse can be true as well … the child trying to reach the parent … sure that the parent sees who is calling … needing the parent for cash or a ride or permission to do something … and nothing at the other end but a cheery, "Hi, you've reached my cell phone …". Where are you? Where ARE you? No matter how flaky we might be as kids, we want our parents to be reliably accessible … reachable … findable.

Even this kid, today, can get a little annoyed when he tries to reach his parents who should be home knitting or playing solitaire only to realize that they're out for their almost daily walk to the 24 Hour Fitness gym where they work out.

Cell phones are only one of many ways that we effortlessly connect with each other … find each other … keep track of each other. Slowly and subtly, but very surely, we have an increasing expectation, as modern beings, that the other will always be there for us when we need them. And how frustrating to "reach out" to touch someone, as the old phone company slogan went, only to find them persistently beyond your reach … beyond your touch … beyond your … control.

We moderns ought to relate very easily to the anxiety in the voices of the Prophet and the Psalmist this morning … voices that cry, not into a ringing cell phone … but into the night, into the bleakness of time, into the troubles of existence … a cry of longing and need for the heavenly parent: "Where ARE you?" … "Why won't you answer me when I call out for you?" Where ARE you?

These are the first, almost heartbreaking, words of the Advent season … of this new year on our liturgical calendar. Where ARE you? While hordes trample down the doors of retailers on Black Friday in search of … who knows what, we gather just days later to join in our search for God. Where ARE you? While dizzying arrays of lights spring up on the roofs and lawns of homes throughout our neighborhoods, we gather to note the lack of noticeable light, the darkness of the sky. Where ARE you? While radio stations crank up their 24 hour Christmas music extravaganzas, we huddle around to sing in plaintive tones: "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" … "Watcher, tell us of the night" … Where ARE you?

If your every appetite is not sated by an over-abundance of stuff … and if your eyes are not blinded by the dazzling lights of the season … and if your ears are not shredded by a thousand renditions of Rudolph … then you may still have enough sensitivity to the world within and the world beyond to name the need of these worlds for a wise and just and loving being … a need for God and a need for God's presence and God's justice and God's mercy … and, blessed be and whaddya know … God is safely within your sight … your grasp … in the imagination of your heart and soul … and then the next abominable terrorist act, such as the recent awfulness in Mumbai, that bewilders the mind and curdles the blood … an act that hints at the human malevolence that is too much in evidence in this world that God loves and we have every right to add our anxious cry to the cry of the Prophet and the Psalmist: "GOD, where ARE you?".

Advent … especially early Advent … is one of two "nights" of our liturgical year. The other is Holy Week, especially Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Holy Week. These are the dark times on our liturgical calendar … times when darkness grapples with the light … when light fades and seems to disappear. We have likely heard many times the season of Advent put into the context of the old primal fear that was triggered by the shortening days, diminishing daylight and the sun's shortening arc across the sky. The ancient mind wondered fearfully: What if the sun simply ceases to rise? Is that all there is? Whether we're speaking of the sun in the sky or the light and warmth of love and compassion … Advent names our anxiety that the sun of goodness however we name it and however it manifests itself might be on the wane … might cease to rise altogether. "GOD, where ARE you?".

It seems to me that early Advent is the time for us to wrestle with any divine abandonment issues we might have … abandonment … fear of abandonment … this is heavy stuff … really. Something I read recently said:

Abandonment is among one of our most primal fears. To be abandoned as a child is to die. A child cannot survive without the nurturing of adults -- depending on our individual histories, that fear remains within us to some degree. As adults, if we are abandoned by someone to whom we look for love and support, childhood fear of abandonment is triggered. The result is an activation of the childhood fear which, coupled with the present threat of abandonment, can generate intense fear and panic. Our ability to reason rationally may be so affected that all we experience is the terror of the abandonment. When we feel abandoned, we can feel panic over suddenly being alone, together with a feeling of rejection.

The terror of abandonment … is it too much to say that we hear this being expressed in the cry of the prophet and in the cry of the psalmist? And is too much to say that this is, in part, what we feel in life's "Where are you, God?" moments. Amidst difficult diagnoses, difficult headlines, difficult losses, difficult times of all kinds … we may wish to join the prophet and join the psalmist in naming our fear of abandonment. And no amount of shopping or light-hanging or carol singing can take away from us our need to confront this fear.

Now don't forget, everything you are hearing this morning is being said by someone who loves to shop, loves Christmas lights, and loves the guilty pleasure of Christmas carols in August. But I am also aware of the many ways we resist and avoid the depth of the dark waters into which the words of this morning's readings invite us. "Keep near the surface, stay where it's light" … that seems to be the natural instinct we're too often tempted to follow. But the texts this morning, and the season of Advent itself, invite us to swim away from the shore and lower ourselves into the dark depths.

You may have read recently of the growing concern over the lack of night and the loss of darkness as a result of the growing prevalence of light pollution. The cover story of this month's National Geographic is titled: "The End of Night: Why We Need Darkness". You know, I think this about the third time in four sermons that I've made reference to something written National Geographic. I swear they're writing the magazine with my sermon writing strictly in mind. The article: "The End of Night: Why We Need Darkness" notes that many people who live in or near cities have begun to take the glowing, nearly starless night skies for granted. It says that light pollution not only throws off natural human rhythms of waking and sleeping, but also has a number of measurable negative effects on animal populations.

Who knew you could have too much light? But we remember from our junior high science lessons about photosynthesis that plants need the darkness as much they need light in order to make food and grow. Light-loving plants need darkness to be healthy. Advent is here to remind us that we light-loving beings need darkness, as well.

It might help us to name the various ways we experience darkness … we've alluded to the darkness of difficulty … matters of … health … world affairs … inner struggles of the soul. These are inescapable realities … inseparable from the lives we live. The darkness can also be thought of as the other side of our "sunny side of the street" faith … the side of our faith that is willing to honestly struggle with difficult things … and willing, like Isaiah and the Psalmist, to incorporate these struggles into our prayer life and into our worshipping life. We know that neuroses, in large part, are a result of avoiding struggles. If we "religiously" avoid these struggles, our faith in God can be become neurotic and imbalanced. If we avoid these struggles, it becomes ever harder to imagine that God is in these struggles in any meaningful way. If we avoid these struggles long enough, "Where are you, God" will be transformed from a cry of longing on our lips into a deep ache of absence … the absence of God.

In the language of our faith that we use for prayer and worship, we could learn a lot from the Psalmists and the Prophets … the honesty of expression and the depth of feeling … the willingness to express strong emotion … the various levels of intimacy of all kinds with God. Following the lead of these ancient souls, we are invited to take off the kid gloves … we're urged not to wash our prayer hands with prayer hand sanitizer … not to parse and refine your words too carefully … but to step meekly or boldly before the throne of grace and to address God as the deepest needs of our hearts would dictate.

Of course, wise souls would remind us all that not even words are always necessary in these times. With our mouths closed, but with the ears of our heart and the eyes of our soul wide open … in time, the darkness will teach us … will reveal new things to us … will reveal God to us. In the darkness, we can be strengthened and we can grow.

If we're going to accept an invitation into the dark depths … we would do well to remember that it is from the darkness of the womb that we were each and every one of us born. The darkness is a place of gentle growth and preparation for birth … and re-birth.

Amidst some of the unavoidable pollution of this season, I invite you to find times and spaces for stepping away from the blare and crush of Christmas … away from the forced "lightness" of the season … and entering into the darkness of your own lives and the world in which you live … confronting your fears of abandonment and whatever ways you might perceive the absence of God … and perhaps only then and only there, in that unfamiliar darkness can you and can we all sense and see glimmers that we could not see and sense before … glimmers of goodness … glimmers of hope … glimmers of love … glimmers of God.

And if you choose to break the silence with your words, and you cry out: "Where ARE you, GOD? Where ARE you? Where ARE you?" Linger in the silence that comes again after your words until you hear in the darkness the still voice of divine silence that says: "Here I am … here I am … here I am."