Monday, December 28, 2015

Fear Nothing

[Sermon from Christmas Eve, 2015; Luke 2:1-20]
You know, there’s a moment we often pass by in this beautiful, lyrical account of Jesus’ birth.  It’s the moment when the scene shifts from Mary and Joseph and the baby, and the spotlight shines on the shepherds instead.  They’re just out there minding their own business, guys working the night shift.  Then suddenly, the darkness turns to day as an angel of the Lord appears before them. 
Now, when we hear the word “angel,” we might picture cutesy cartoons or lovely tree toppers with wings and flowing dresses.  Instead, picture General Norman Schwarzkopf or Colin Powell.  Angels are messengers sent from God, and this one’s leading “a multitude of the heavenly host” (Luke 2:13), which was God’s army – the cosmic legion that fought the forces of evil just as God’s people waged battles with their enemies, military and otherwise.  Face to face with the army of God, no wonder the shepherds were terrified.  And no wonder the first thing out of the angel’s mouth is, “Do not fear” (Luke 2:10).  Do not fear, for the mission this night is peace.
Well, here we are in this beautiful space.  Christmas is all around us, as we gather at home by the fireplace and here before God’s altar.  “Fear” doesn’t seem where our focus should be.  But there it is, in the shepherds’ hearts and on the angel’s lips. The heavenly messenger in Luke’s story knows what he’s flying into, and he’s willing to name it.  When God enters into our reality, God enters into fear.
It was true 2,000 years ago.  God’s people were an oppressed minority in Caesar’s empire, people the emperor cared to count only so he could tax the life out of them.  The Jewish people had no allies.  They didn’t even have a country.  They faced poverty and political terror – not to mention their own religious leaders, who cared more for position and power than “the weightier matters of the law,” like justice and mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23).  Two thousand years ago, God’s people lived in fear.
And 2,000 years later, what do the angels find when they come to visit us and our culture?  As I listen to the voices of friends and talking heads alike, I don’t hear a lot of Christmas love all around us.  What I hear is fear.
So now perhaps you’re thinking, “Uh-oh.  What’s he going to name?  What side will he take?  What’s Fr. John going to tell us we should fear?”  Well, hang on for the answer to that question.  But here’s some of the fear that I sense all around us this Christmas.  Maybe you’ll find yourself somewhere in this litany:  Some fear Donald Trump, and some fear Bernie Sanders.  Some fear the government can’t cooperate to solve a single problem, and some fear the government when it tries to solve a single problem.  Some fear that they’ll never have enough, and some fear that government will take away what they have.  Some fear police officers, and some fear the people they pursue.  Some fear the guns on our streets; and some fear the government will take their guns away.  Some fear Islam, and some fear becoming a nation that excludes.  Some fear that racism and sexism silence voices that have been silenced too long; and some fear that, if they disagree with that statement, their voices aren’t welcome in the conversation. 
That’s a lot of fear. 
And to be honest, I have some fears of my own.  I fear for the Church.  I’m not afraid because of some external threat, not because of some “war on Christmas,” but because of our own hearts – our own sinful hearts.  I’m afraid particularly for churches like ours that try to live into the vision of community that transcends doctrine, the vision of the big tent where all are welcomed and all are formed through interaction with each other, even as we disagree, maybe especially as we disagree.  We navigated those waters fairly well when the doctrine was mostly theological – no need in this church to sign on the dotted line about the nature of God or the efficacy of the sacraments.  Now our challenges of belief are messier:  What does God think about the social and political issues of the day?  How should the Church engage them?  And how do we talk about them as people of faith without walking away from each other?
So, back to the question:  Fr. John, whom or what should we fear? 
Here’s my answer:  Fear nothing.  Fear nothing.  Not even our own sinful hearts.  Because I have some news for you tonight:  We’ve been saved.  That Good News won’t be on any of the TV reports tonight, but it’s true.  We’ve been saved, and from something very specific:  We’ve been saved from our sins.  Matthew’s Gospel makes the connection crystal clear:  In that version of the Christmas story, the angel tells Joseph, “You are to name [the child] Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).  It’s what his holy name means:  Jesus – “he saves.”  He saves his people from the sinful oppression of the Roman Empire and all loveless regimes.  He saves his people day by day from the sinful selfishness of our own hearts.  He saves his Church from our sinful need to be right at someone else’s expense.  Jesus, the savior whose birth we herald this night, has already won the victory.  He has “taken flesh and moved into [our] neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message); he’s stared down Satan and sin and death; he’s taken the worst they can dish out; and he’s redeemed death itself, turning the grave into the gate of eternal life.  The victory’s been won.  That’s why the angels are crying out, “Do not fear!”
So if we’ve been saved from the worst we can imagine, from the power of death itself – then what?  Well, then forget your fear and follow the Savior – all of us, together.  And define “together” as broadly as your heart can muster. 
Those of you who were here in the spring and summer will remember that we had two moments of glimpsing God’s kingdom along with the people of United Missionary Baptist Church this year.  In May, we went to their church at 27th and Campbell for a Wednesday-night service; and in August, they came here for a Sunday-morning Eucharist.  Well, mark your calendar for Sunday, Jan. 17.  That morning, we’ll go to United Missionary Baptist again, with our choir singing and me trying not to put people to sleep from the pulpit.  And yes, we will have worship here at St. Andrew’s that morning, too.
When we go to United Missionary Baptist, I believe with all my heart, we will be sent by Jesus, who will himself be leading us there.  Jesus is the ultimate missionary.  Jesus is God as missionary.  On this holy night, Jesus the missionary enters into the extreme difference of human life, taking on our experience and bringing us together into God’s beloved community.  So we will follow him to United Missionary Baptist as missionaries ourselves, sent into human difference to embody the healing of the Prince of Peace. 
That, I believe, is holy work.  And – not but, but and – it’s every bit as holy, and every bit as necessary, to embody that healing among ourselves – to listen to those we don’t understand, and to heal the fears we perpetuate both by polite silence and by raging rant.  Just as God invites us to come along on Jesus’ mission across the divide of Troost Avenue, God invites us to come along on Jesus’ mission across all divides – in our churches, in our public squares, and in our own hearts.   For as the herald angels tell us, he’s “risen with healing in his wings; light and life to all he brings.”  Listen up, those herald angels sing:  Your Savior has come!  Do not fear! 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Sin in the Stars

Sermon from Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015
Luke 3:7-18
One of the best things about taking an early-morning walk this time of year is the chance to see the stars.  For millennia now, humanity has navigated by the stars.  They’re always there, always reliable, always true.  And we don’t always pay attention to them, or at least I don’t.  But recently on my walks, I’ve received the gift of seeing the stars once again in their stunning brightness, piercing through the nearly-winter sky.
The stars this Advent have reminded me what needs my attention.  It’s sin.  As a Church, we’ve moved away from attending to our sins during Advent, these days preferring the blue of Mary, the blue of expectancy, to the purple of past years.  But Advent used to be a time we thought about sin, almost a mini-Lent.
The readings both last week and this week remind us why.  In Advent, we hear about John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord.  John the Baptist stands in the tradition of Israel’s prophets, voices from the outside reminding God’s people what they already knew, deep down.  Whether it’s Isaiah or Jeremiah, Amos or Hosea, the prophets speak for God – not in the sense of predicting the future, like a fortune teller, but in the sense of holding up a moral compass for people set aside as God’s missionary presence to the world.  That was the call of the people of Israel, to show everyone else what it looks like to live out God’s holiness and love.  That’s our call, too, by the way.
So, John the Baptist tells the crowds, “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Luke 3:4).  The messiah, God’s anointed king, is coming; and the time to get ready is now.  John doesn’t pull any punches, especially in Luke’s telling:  “You brood of vipers,” he says, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (3:7-8) – and don’t you dare rely on belonging to the right group of people as the source of your salvation.  It’s about your own choices, John says.  Repent – turn in a God-ward direction.
The crowds are dumbfounded by his directness.  They stammer, “What then should we do?” (3:10).  It’s not rocket science, John says.  If you have two coats, share with someone who doesn’t.  If you have enough food, share with someone who doesn’t.  Even reviled outsiders come and ask John for the basics of moral living.  He makes it clear:  Tax collectors – don’t gouge people for more than they owe.  Roman soldiers – don’t demand protection money. 
I can’t imagine that people found this very surprising.  Even the tax collectors and soldiers probably knew they shouldn’t extort money from people.  The Jewish people in the crowd certainly knew God’s call to care for the poor – that’s a longstanding message from the Hebrew Scriptures.  John’s offering little here that’s new.  He’s just saying it out loud.
On second thought, maybe there is something new here.  We have to remember the setting:  God’s people in Judea and Galilee were living under the thumb of the Roman Empire.  They were a subjugated people, allowed to practice their religion because the Romans found it convenient but with little other freedom or power.  On the ground, Rome’s reach took the form of oppressive taxation and military occupation.  And the people who did Rome’s bidding weren’t exactly beloved.  Tax collectors and soldiers were hated and feared, and for good reason. 
So, back to the reading:  There they are, tax collectors and soldiers, among the crowd listening to John the Baptist.  John could well have drawn lines between faithful Jews and hated outsiders.  Instead, he turns the tables.  It’s the good guys he threatens with being chopped off at the root and thrown into the fire.  And the hated outsiders?  John welcomes them as simply more people who need to repent.  That seems crazy.  God’s people were afraid of tax collectors and soldiers.  God’s people hated tax collectors and soldiers.  God’s people were sure the tax collectors and soldiers wished them harm.  But John the Baptist doesn’t write off the outsiders.  He recognizes they, too, are God’s creations, different only by being broken in different ways.
I say all this because we still, today, find it easy to hate those whom we fear wish us harm.  And just as troubling, we find it easy to demonize those with whom we disagree, letting our language do violence we’d never sanction otherwise.  John the Baptist’s prophetic witness reminds us of the truth about pointing a finger at anyone, even someone you find reprehensible:  the other fingers always point back at you.
John the Baptist is a bright star in the cold, dark sky.  Those stars following me on my morning walk remind me of the ways I miss God’s mark, which is what “sin” means.  One bright star says to me, “Don’t judge or reject people with whom you disagree.”  Another bright star says, “Take time to love the people around you, not just get work done.”  The brightest star simply says, “Trust God more than yourself.”  I don’t know what sins of yours the stars might be illuminating this Advent, but those are some of mine.
And to each of us, John the Baptist says, “You know the repentance you need.  You know the ways your heart misses the mark instead of finding the heart of God.”  If we each sat here for a few minutes, I’ll bet a few sins might just come to mind.
You know, that’s not a bad idea.  Today, you get the gift of a short homily, but it comes with the price of a little congregational participation.  I invite you to take out one of the blue-and-white cards in front of you and write down a few ways you know you miss the mark.  Names aren’t necessary.  When you’re done, you can either offer the card in the alms basin as a prayer request, or you can fold it up and take it with you for your own prayers at home.  But let’s take a couple of minutes of Advent stillness, and offer to God the chaff of sin you need the Holy Spirit to burn away.