Sermon for the Feast of the Nativity

“Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

Nativity Icon

The current blockbuster movie series “The Hunger Games” is set in the fictional nation of Panem, in a dystopian future. Panem is made up of the Capitol and twelve outlying districts, and the Capitol rules the districts with brutal force. Each of the districts suffers under varying degrees of poverty, while the Capitol has an endless abundance. The heroes in the story come from District 12, which is the poorest backwater of them all. One of the things that works really well about the movies is the stark visual juxtaposition between the bright colors and almost cartoonish excess of the Capitol, and the dull gray of the almost crushing poverty in the districts.

If the gospel of Luke were to be set to film, a similar visual technique would work well for the beginning of chapter 2, which is what we heard a few minutes ago. Luke really wants us to notice that the Christmas story, which takes place in the ancient equivalent of District 12, is set against the backdrop of absolute Roman power, the ancient equivalent of the Capitol. A decree goes out from the emperor that sends the impoverished masses scurrying to get back to their ancestral home towns for a census. The powerlessness of the holy family, who can’t even secure a decent place to stay, is cast against the limitless power of Augustus, who only needs to speak a word to make it all happen.

We all know the story, and its power lies largely in its familiar retelling, so I’ll just offer two thoughts tonight about what Luke’s version drives home.

One, the Christmas story reminds us that God is known most fully in the forgotten, broken, and impoverished places in our world, and in our own hearts. Luke’s telling reminds us that if we aren’t looking for Jesus in the lives of people who continue to run for their lives in the war-torn places all around the globe, if we aren’t looking for Jesus in the streets of New York–in those who protest the persistence of racism in America, and those who grieve the death of two police who committed their lives to serving—if we aren’t looking for Jesus in Ferguson, or in the suffering parts of our own city, then we aren’t really following the child whose birth we sing tonight because those are the places he hangs out, and those are the people he hangs out with.

But Jesus doesn’t just show up in the broken places out there, he’s also is born into the most forgotten and impoverished places in our own spirits. While Christmas is a time when the normal frenzy of our lives gets a gentle reprieve, and we get some extended time with those we love best, these days are also a time when the various kinds of grief, and loss, and loneliness we might carry with us can all sting a little more sharply. The fact that Jesus came, helpless and vulnerable and poor, reminds us that God’s heart breaks with ours, and he often draws closest to us in our deepest sadness.

And the second thing Luke’s version of Christmas reminds us of is that Jesus reshapes what it means to be family. The deeply intimate scene of a newborn baby with his parents is quickly blown wide open as an army of angels descend on a band of shepherds and invites them to crash the party. Shepherds were sort of like the ancient equivalent of a biker gang: hard living, probably up to no good, and thoroughly disreputable. These are the very first people God invites to join the holy family. The angels couldn’t be clearer in their message: to you a child is born. To you. Not to his mother and father, not just to the people of his tribe or race or class, not to the people who think or vote or love like him. But to you. The message is clear: because of Jesus, there are no longer any outsiders. Everyone is loved. Everyone is an insider. No one gets to be forgotten or alone. Everyone is family.

That’s the reality we are committing ourselves to if we dare to sing the savior’s birth tonight. We are signing up to be the people who look for God to show up in the poor and unwanted people and places in our world and our own lives. We are the people who are being asked to join God in making all those who are cast off as outsiders beloved insiders. We are the people whose job it is to stand in the midst of a world that is torn a thousand different ways by division and proclaim that poor lives matter, rich lives matter, black lives matter, police lives matter, immigrant lives matter, Christian lives matter, Muslim lives matter, all lives matter deeply to God. A people who would dare to sing tonight is a people who are then sent out to make it so, to unite all God’s beloved children under the banner of the Prince of Peace. Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. May we dare to sing that with our whole lives. Amen.

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

One thing I feel like it’s important for you to know about your pastor is that it would be hard to overstate how much the television show “The Simpsons” has influenced how I understand the world. Like all great satire, the show parodies the most extreme tendencies we all have, and sharply critiques our various hypocrisies, all while maintaining a hopeful vision of humanity, and without being mean-spiritied or cynical.

Contemporary Christians are lampooned in the character of Ned Flanders, who is the Simpson family’s impossibly bright, cheery, good, and honest neighbor. In one episode, when he’s asked about the secret of his youthful spirit and vitality, he says, “clean living, thorough chewing, and a daily dose of vitamin church.” In another episode, we see the shadow side of his cheeriness when we learn just how hard he has worked to repress all of the anger and pain he’s experienced in his life.

The character of Ned Flanders satirizes the widely held perception that Christians are supposed to be happy, nice, clean cut, and well behaved. At some point, being a Christian became respectable, and churches began to give the impression that the Lord we proclaim is tame, well-behaved, saccharine sweet, and primarily concerned with maintaining the status quo.

But that’s not how Jesus was introduced to the world. Jesus’ imminent arrival was announced by John the Baptist, whose wild appearance and even wilder ranting and raving about the kingdom of God more closely resembles the person we cross the street to avoid than the well-groomed televangelist or Ned Flanders.

John the Baptist was wild, and hard to define, and threatening to the status quo. Part of what he preached was that vision of justice and peace and good news for the poor that is described in our reading from Isaiah this morning, and which was not well-received by the respectable folk of his day. He didn’t fit their politics, or preferred economic model, or the religious categories that were supposed to make God understandable. That’s why a delegation from the confused authorities is sent to ask John: “Who are you?” He’s a new type of figure, introducing a new kind of Messiah, and no one quite new how to place him or what to do with him.

The prophet Isaiah announces what both John and Jesus take up:

“the spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. . .”

In a world where suffering is the norm, bringing good news, proclaiming liberty, and binding up the brokenhearted means shaking things up. The collect for today is probably one of my favorite of the church year: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us. . .” The God we worship isn’t the clean cut God of Ned Flanders, the God we worship is the God who is always stirring things up, shaking us out of our complacency, promising us that things can be different: out in the world, and in our own hearts and lives. The savior whose birth we await isn’t a savior of cheerful platitudes, he’s a savior who is announced by John’s wild ranting, and who grabs us by the collar and shakes us into seeing things differently. “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”

So our life as Christians isn’t about keeping up a clean and cheerful appearance, our life as Christians is about stirring up justice, shaking up release for those who are in prisons of oppression or sadness, or poverty, binding up those whose heart is broken from grief and loss.

In the early springtime, little shoots of green start springing up all around, as a signs of the new life that will soon overtake the whole neighborhood. While we yet live in a world where good news and justice continue to be more the exception than the rule, we are called to use our lives to be those little green shoots of new life. We’re called to be wildly ranting about God’s coming kingdom of love and peace just like John the Baptist did so long ago.

One of my favorite pieces of art is the Isenheim altarpiece painted by Matthias Grunewold in the early 16th century at a church in France. The three-panel piece has at the center a picture of Jesus hanging on the cross. It’s a Jesus who knows and has met the very real suffering in the world. It’s not a Ned Flanders Jesus. Another panel depicts John the Baptist, staring straight at the viewer, a eerily elongated finger pointing to Jesus. That’s our life’s purpose and joy: to point to this Jesus wherever we see him at work in the world; this Jesus who comes to us in humility and need, this Jesus who is always stirring up justice, who is always shaking life out of death, who is always shining the light of love to pierce our darkness of sorrow. Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us. Amen.

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

I don’t know anyone who likes to wait. Some people have more patience for it than others, but I can’t think of anyone who actively enjoys waiting. We all have these agitated little habits we engage in when we’re forced to wait. Earlier this week, I was running behind getting our daughter Mari to school, and as I sat in a long line of cars in the construction on Dodge St., I anxiously fiddled with the radio dial, and craned my neck around the cars in front of us, as if I was physically trying to will the traffic to move faster. Or think of how you nervously check your phone when you’re waiting for a call, or keep checking the window when you’re waiting for guests to arrive. Most of us don’t patiently wait, we impatiently wait, and nervously try to bring about the thing we are waiting for.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, which is a season that invites us to enter into a spiritual space of waiting. It’s a time when wait to celebrate Jesus birth in our lives again, and look forward to his final coming at the last day to set the whole world right. The waiting we’re called to do in Advent is the impatient, agitated kind of waiting that strives to bring about the thing we are waiting for.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus is speaking to his disciples about his triumphal return, and urging them to keep awake and be ready. I suspect that most of us have a hard time with these apocalyptic passages in the Bible. Rapture-happy televangelists, and the almost cartoonish depictions of the last things in popular books and movies that often paint a terrifying picture of what will happen to those “left behind” in order to scare us straight before it’s too late have soured these kinds of passages for us. Bumper stickers like “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” satirize passages like these and their interpretations in popular culture.

But actually, Jesus’ words weren’t meant to scare his disciples, they were meant to reassure them. Their lives were already hard, and uncertain, and scary. Their hope was that in Jesus, God was going to right injustices, was going to destroy suffering, was going to give peace and security instead of constant violence and threats of violence. So when Jesus reminds his disciples that he could return at any minute, he is telling them that new life, justice, hope, and peace could show up at any second.

That’s the kind of heightened awareness we’re called to during Advent. We’re called to remember that God’s life, and love, and peace, and healing could break into our lives at any minute. And we’re not just called to be good little boys and girls and sit around patiently waiting for it, but we’re called to wait impatiently, and agitate for that justice, and new life, and hope. We’re called to join the prophet Isaiah as he agitates for God saying, “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down. . .” Craning your neck around the car in front of you to try to move traffic is ridiculous and futile, but it’s exactly the kind of spiritual waiting Jesus calls us to.

That’s why we’re called as Christians to care deeply about what’s happening in Ferguson. It’s why we’re called to listen deeply to the protesters there. Whatever may or may not have happened when Michael Brown was shot, we’re called to listen to their frustration and their anger at the racial divisions and prejudice that are still very real in America. And rather than simply dismiss Ferguson as an unfortunate and isolated case, we’re called to consider how racial, and class, and all forms difference and prejudice play out in our own city, and to agitate for hardened and prejudiced hearts and minds to be changed. That people are divided and set against each other because of how they look, or the language they speak, or where they live is one of the things Christ’s kingdom will set right, and one of the things we’re called to agitate as we impatiently wait now. “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

Our impatient waiting also involves feeding the hungry, caring for the abused, visiting the sick, becoming agents of healing and forgiveness in our offices, in our schools, in our homes.

That’s why grumpy priests like me want to keep us from jumping too quickly into calling this the “Christmas season,” because our lives and our world can be changed when we spend a little time digging into what it means to be waiting for God to come in God’s full power; digging into what it means to be impatiently agitating for justice and mercy in a world where those things continue to be in such short supply.

Over these next weeks, we’re called to wait, but we aren’t called to be patient. How can you become an agitator in your own life? In the words of the famous prayer in our prayer book attributed to St. Francis, we wait by praying to be instruments, agitators, of God’s peace: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.” Pray that you might help to make it so, while you await the full coming of the Savior. Amen.