Monday, January 26, 2015

January 25 Sermon

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
Jonah 3:1-10
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across.Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
I was talking this week with Alina, our wonderful office manager here at the church, about this morning’s sermon. Alina, as you may know, has a Master of Divinity degree from the great Candler School of Theology, and like many young graduates of seminary, she shared with me that Jonah was her favorite book of the Bible. It’s been some time since I’ve read all of Jonah, which isn’t hard, really. It’s only four chapters. But I had that the book of Jonah is really hilarious. It’s a farce. It’s a ridiculous story.
I mean, here, in a nutshell, is the story of Jonah. Are you ready? Here we go.
God calls Jonah one day and says, go to the city of Ninevah, which has turned evil, and put them on notice. And Jonah, having heard the voice of God, promptly gets up and buys a boat ticket to Tarshish, which is the opposite direction, as if he can outsmart and outrun God. And the storms come and knock the boat about, and all the people on the boat look at Jonah and say, “this is your fault, because you are trying to outsmart God and that doesn’t really work,” and they figure they’d be better off with him off the boat, which makes pretty good sense to me, and they throw him off, and immediately—immediately!—the seas calm and everything goes back to normal and everybody is happy again.
Except Jonah isn’t so happy because not only does he have God after him, but he’s been thrown off a boat in the middle of the sea, and if that’s not enough he gets swallowed by a fish, inside of which he spends three days and three nights, and he literally prays to God about the seaweed he has wrapped around his head. I told you: this is a farce. After three days, the fish spits him out, and Jonah decides not to press his luck, so he goes on to Ninevah and spends three days telling everybody he sees that they’re all going to be destroyed by God. … But when the Ninevites change their tune and repent from their evil ways, the Bible says, God changes God’s mind and decides not to destroy them.
And it is at this point that Jonah decides that the most embarrassing part of this whole story isn’t the part where he prays with seaweed wrapped around his head, but the part where it turns out that he was wrong, or to be more technical, God sort of sold him out. God said, I made up my mind to destroy the city, but I changed my mind, and now Jonah looks like a total loon, like one of those guys on tv who shows up every now and again declaring the end of the world is going to come on such and such a date, only to have dozens of interviews to decline the morning after it doesn’t happen.
And so, because he looks like a crazy person, instead of rejoicing that this city of 120,000 people won’t be destroyed, Jonah goes and pouts. He goes outside the city gates and makes himself a little hut and sits underneath it and pouts, and this all feels very familiar to me because I have a two year old child. And that’s actually the end of the story. The story of Jonah doesn’t really resolve beyond God calling Jonah out for pouting, because of course what Jonah is doing is saying that it is much more important that I not feel like a fool than it is for God to spare a hundred and twenty thousand people. As I said, it’s ridiculous. It is a farce!
But if it is a farce, it is also much closer to modern life than we’d like to admit. We like people to get what we think they deserve, and when they don’t, we pout. We pout. I mean, how much have you heard about Tom Brady’s footballs this week? It’s silly. I’m not saying it is right. I am just saying it doesn’t matter. Here we are pouting about something silly and ignoring the real needs under our noses. I think it is telling that while the culture obsesses about underinflated footballs, we’ll be going outside after church huddle up and pray that human traffickers are intercepted.
As a culture, we really do get so caught up in the idea that people should get what they deserve, we pout so much, that we miss God at work! But there is another dynamic in this passage that we need to pay attention to, for the story Anna read this morning carries within it this strange verse, one of the strangest in all the Bible: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”
God changed God’s mind. If ever there were four words that could shake up the foundation of the church, those would be them. God changed God’s mind. It almost doesn’t make any sense, like it’s a typo or something, but here it is, in the Holy Bible. God changed God’s mind. I’ve heard it was a woman’s prerogative, of course, but I guess it’s God’s prerogative, too. And of course God can do whatever God wants. That’s what makes God God. If you were to come up to me on the street and ask me, what is the definition of God, I’d probably say something like, “the ultimate being, the one who is not bound in any way.” So of course God can do what God wants.
And this makes intellectual sense, of course, but it doesn’t jibe with so much of how we understand God! “Great is thy faithfulness, O God our Father, there is no shadow of turning with thee. Thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not, Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”
It’s a common thread throughout all our hymns, this idea that God doesn’t ever change. We have built so much of our theology on this idea that God doesn’t change, and I get it, I really do get it! My life is so full of change, all the time, faster and faster and faster these days that I need my God to stand still! I need to be able to look back and see God still there, in the same place as always, so that I have a landmark from which to understand my location. I need God to be like the North Star, my point of reference for navigation.
And yet here it is, God changes God’s mind, and you don’t even really need the last two words for it to be revolutionary. The important part is the first two words. God changes. What a revolutionary idea. God changes.
You know what this all reminds me of? It reminds me of being in love. I hope you have had the opportunity to be in love in some point in your life, but it changes you, that kind of love. In fact, unless you are vulnerable, unless you are open to change, it isn’t love at all. You have to be vulnerable to love, to offer up part of yourself, to open yourself to new things, new revelations, new intimacy. This is what it means to love: to share part of yourself with another and open yourself to being shared with. To be open. To be vulnerable.
And this is what God did with the Ninevites. God saw their ways were evil, but they turned around, they repented, they changed their ways, and God was moved. God was moved. What a revolutionary idea, but what a wonderful one, what an incredible thought, that God so loves us that God could be moved by us. Moved.
It makes me wonder why we don’t take our relationships with God more seriously, why we so focus on rules and regulations that we miss out on the richness of God’s love for us. And it makes me wonder, too, about what it means about the nature of God that God changes God’s mind. If God changes God’s mind, if God changes, what does that mean for us? How can we know? How can we know navigate life?
It would be easier, in some ways, if God were static, if this whole thing were just about rules, because at least then we wouldn’t have to worry about this kind of stuff. But I have been thinking a lot about this dynamic this week, as I have tried to make some sense of this particular story in scripture, and I have to tell you, I am giving thanks that God changes. I am grateful. Let me sort of back up for a minute and share why.
It should come as no surprise that the world is changing awfully quickly these days. The internet means we can communicate with people all over the world in an instant. If you aren’t here today, you may be listening to this sermon on our church podcast. The most recent generation is the most diverse in American history. The church, my God, the church, looks much different than it has looked in the past and if it is going to continue to thrive, to be faithful to God’s call, it is going to have to keep changing.
And here’s the thing. You have heard, I think, the quote that the only constant in life is change?  It is a quote that certainly rings true these days but one thing to note is that it was said by Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher who lived in the fifth century BC. This has always been the case. The world has always changed, and perhaps it changes more quickly nowadays, but change is not new. It is not even necessarily bad; not at all! Change means possibility, and possibility is the midwife of the Holy Spirit. Change is the way in which God continues to work in the world, and maybe the work of God looks different than you expected, different than you have experienced before, but this is how God works! God changes, always keeps up with the world, so that we are not worshiping some dusty relic from thousands of years ago. We worship a God who is rooted in history but who is with us now! Who loves us now! Who understands that there are in fact two constants in life: change, and God’s love, and that those two things are not distinct, incompatible features of life but in fact, in many ways, the same feature, for you cannot love without changing. Love requires vulnerability, giving of yourself. And besides, we see throughout scripture that while it is the case that God sometimes changes God’s mind, it is always in the direction of mercy. Always in the direction of grace. Always in the direction of love. And just like God was moved by the repentance of the Ninevites so long ago, so too do we pray God is moved by us, by our repentance, by the ways in which we show love.
Now, it may sound strange to consider the idea that in love, God changes, but I don’t even think that’s as hard as we sometimes pretend it is. Yes, God is sovereign, yes, God is ultimate, but I don’t think we have a problem with thinking about the ways God loves us. We know that God loves us. That’s not really much of a problem. The problem comes in how we respond to God’s love. The problem is that if we were to try to find ourselves in this story, we probably wish we were like the Ninevites who repent and experience God’s grace, but it is more likely that we are like Jonah, who sees firsthand that God’s grace and love is much more powerful than even a decision God has made to destroy the city, and yet all Jonah can do is pout. And I don’t think we’d necessarily say it quite this way, but the implication is clear: how could God do that? How could God show grace to that group of people who I am so certain don’t deserve it? Here I am, Jonah thinks, having done the right things and followed the rules and spent so much time in church that I have worn an indention into the pew the exact size and shape of my rear end, and yet God makes me look like a fool by acting in brand new ways that don’t look like anything I’ve seen before! I mean, this comes straight out of scripture! When God decides to be more merciful than Jonah thinks he should be—and in Jonah’s defense, it is more merciful than God originally says God is going to be—Jonah goes to the desert to sulk and says to God, “at this point, you have made me look like such a fool that it would be better for me to die than to live.”
It is so silly, this idea that Jonah would sulk over the breadth of God’s love, but it is also so real because we aren’t beyond it ourselves! When God shows favor to somebody we don’t like, or when we show up after having lived by the same rules for years and years only to find that God has changed the game, when God changes God’s mind, we’re prone to sulk, to whine, to pout. I’ll just speak for myself; I am, myself, not above this kind of response.
And yet for all of this, for all of this wrestling and confusion and frustration at trying to understand a God who, in the final analysis, operates in a way that is beyond comprehension, for all of this, it is a lie that the only constant in life is change, for there is another constant. The other constant is God’s love. And when we feel like the rug has been ripped out from underneath us, when things change, when what we thought we knew blows away like dust off an old book, that is when God is with us! For we worship a God who understands change, who—we read in scripture—even experiences change.

Look, I’m not saying this is easy stuff. I’m not saying it is easy to live in a world of constant change. I’m just saying that God knows what it is like. God knows and loves. On days when it feels like the old handrails are gone, hold onto that. Hold onto that. In the name of the Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

January 18 Sermon

(To listen to a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

Psalm 139
1Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
3You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
4Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
5You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
13For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
15My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
17How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
18I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

12“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.13“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” 17But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?20For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.
One of the knocks we in the church sometimes get when we are careful to be open-minded and welcoming and not super judgey is that sometimes people say, oh, they don’t actually believe much of anything. So I want to center my remarks this morning on the idea of why we bother being good: why bother being good at all.
Now, I happen to believe this way of being is what Jesus would have us do: I think Jesus would have us welcome everybody and be open-minded and all the rest, but it’s sort of a radical idea, and we sometimes get criticized by people who seem to think that the only way to believe things strongly is to look down on people who disagree with you. It’s the old church lady mentality, you know, that character from Saturday Night Live that Dana Carvey played who thought everything that wasn’t super churchy was necessarily of the devil? Somehow, we seem to sometimes think that we need to differentiate ourselves by talking about what we’re against more than what we’re for.
It is a lot easier, after all, to just say we’re against fornication or greed or gluttony than it is to say, “We’re for lifelong expressions of equality and faithfulness in sexual relationships, and here is how we help people live that out” or “We’re for finding ways to live generously and giving money away freely and here is how we do that” or, maybe the most difficult one for those of us who have been sitting in the church pews for a long time, “We’re for eating only as much as we need and sharing the rest with those who are less fortunate and here is how we go about making sure everybody has enough to eat.”
So instead, we talk about being against this or against that, or, the natural extension, saying that God is against this or against that, and it’s not too far a walk before you have Westboro Baptist Church, that contemptible organization that is neither truly Baptist nor really a church, protesting soldiers funerals, all the while using language so vile on their picket signs, in the so-called name of God, that I won’t even speak it from the pulpit of this church.
That’s a lot of baggage we’re dealing with, you and me. It’s a lot of discoloring of the message of Jesus Christ that we have to deal with, and so sometimes, sometimes in the interest of making sure nobody associates them with that kind of hatefulness, churches do the easy thing and just run the other way, say, oh, it really doesn’t matter what you do. Just love everybody they say, which is fine until you realize that many of these fine folks don’t actually have any idea what loving everybody means beyond voting for their preferred political party and saving the whales and washing your hair in organic tofu or whatever.
I mean, I understand that instinct. I really do. I don’t like being tarred with the hateful dreck that is so often associated with the church of Jesus. The Barna group, a Christian research organization, did a study a few years ago of people outside the church and found that 87%--eighty-seven percent!—of people outside the church think the church is judgmental, 85% think the church is hypocritical, 72% think the church is out of touch with reality, and 70% think the church is insensitive to others. These are real numbers, folks, and if the trends have continued, they’ve only gotten worse since the study was done in 2007. I understand why there’s this real desire to move past any specific teaching of Jesus, anything that might inconvenience us or make us feel like we might need to do something differently in our own lives to become more faithful to the call of God on our lives. Besides the fact that we want to run the other way from these kind of identifiers that sting so strongly, we’d rather not be faced with the idea that there is anything we should do differently! Nobody wants to come to church, after all, and hear a sermon about what they are doing wrong!
Rest assured, I don’t intend to preach a sermon about what we are doing wrong. That’s not why you came and it’s not helpful in any case. But I do want to preach a sermon that points to Jesus, because it is not the case that we all have it all together already, that we’ve all figured it out. It’s not the case that we’re all so composed that we can come together each week and talk about how great we are and how awful everybody else is for not being as great as we are. We have brokenness, and sin, and heartache. The world is full of pain and injustice; the struggle for basic civil rights is ongoing. We don’t have it all together. In short: we come to church and we listen to the sermon and we search scripture because we know that in the final analysis, we’re not capable of saving ourselves. We’re not capable of saving ourselves. Every time we try we find ourselves in the midst of another war, another religious conflict, another intractable political problem that we can’t find our way out of.
The bad news is that we aren’t capable of saving ourselves, but the good news is that we don’t have to, because Jesus Christ has shown us a better way. It is a way of love, and care, and acceptance, and justice, and work.
Christ shows us a better way, but it isn’t just about buying Organic. I wish I could tell you that it doesn’t take much work on your part, because I don’t relish standing up here with no shield from all the potential spitballs, but the fact of the matter is that we learn in scripture that all of the change, all of the justice, all of the civil rights and the love that the world needs starts . . . right here. It starts in the heart. I don’t mean to suggest that Christians have it all together, or that nothing good comes from other religions or from people of no religion at all. I’m just saying that the savior I read about in scripture, Jesus Christ: he is pure love, pure giving, pure unselfishness, and while I don’t have it all together myself, my God, do I want to be like that guy when I grow up.
Now, I haven’t always wanted to be like him. When I was a kid, mostly I was just scared of him. I don’t know if you had this experience, but while I didn’t spend much time in church growing up, on the rare occasion I did find myself in church, I heard things like, “Don’t ever sin because God is watching you,” you know, like God was some sadistic Santa Claus who was always watching to make sure you never screwed up. But that’s not how God works at all. God gives us grace. God forgives us. God accepts us. God loves us. God claims each of us as one of God’s children. But that doesn’t mean that anything that is permissible is beneficial! This is about growing up. It is about being an adult, about recognizing that we ought to live in ways that are good for everybody, that acknowledge everyone’s humanity.
We aren’t good just because there is some arbitrary list of rules that says we ought to be. God is not arbitrary! The ways we have been shown to live are the best ways, because they are the ways of love. And yes, your body is a temple, but so is everybody else’s! You don’t get to claim the higher ground and treat everybody else as a play thing. Each of us—each of us!—is fearfully and wonderfully made. And if you aren’t treating everybody you meet as such you aren’t doing justice to the work of the living God.
Friends, this is what it means to be the church, the Body of Christ. Each of us has a part to play, but what is more, we aren’t whole when we aren’t together. We are connected in mysterious, marvelous ways. It is as the poet John Donne says, no man, no woman is an island, entire of himself, entire of herself. We are connected as God’s people, and what you do when nobody is watching matters! Your private life has public consequences, because we are connected to one another and our relationships matter! You can’t hate people in your head without it eventually coming out your mouth. You cannot disconnect your inner life from your outer life any more than you can disconnect your hard drive from your monitor and expect it to still work.
And yet this is the norm, it seems: this idea that I can think whatever I want, I can be however I want, I can be as resentful in my own mind as I want as long as I speak kindly to strangers or whatever. But that is bogus!
Here’s the thing. Of course we have grace. Of course we acknowledge that none of us has it all together yet. But to use grace, to use the fact that we are all struggling together as an excuse to do whatever you want in your private life is to do exactly what Paul says not to do in this morning’s scripture lesson. This is not to say that following Jesus is about following a long list of rules, but it is to say that not everything is good for you. If it doesn’t build relationship, it isn’t good. When the Pslamist says that each of us is knit together in our mothers’ wombs, he doesn’t mean that you were knit together as a child of God and everything and everybody else is to be a plaything. The Psalmist means that each person is a child of God, and if you aren’t seeing each person as an equal, as somebody on the same plane as you because each person, just like you, is a child of God, you aren’t properly following Jesus! And you can try to trick yourself all you want, but you simply cannot treat people unfairly in business dealings, or live in resentment, or end up trapped in the vice of watching pornography and maintain this understanding that each person is made in the image of God. These kinds of behaviors obliterate the relationships we have as God’s children, beloved by God and equal in God’s sight. They aren’t relationships at all, because in the final analysis, they are all about me and my desires rather than our relationship. And they certainly aren’t about God.
Friends, if we want to be people who change the world, who are faithful, who follow Jesus and speak justice and love everybody, we’ve got to start . . . right . . . here.
Now, here is the good news. This business of personal holiness, of tending to your heart: it may not be easy. But you don’t have to do it alone! This is why we have the church: to care for one another, to help deal with issues of the heart, and I’ve never met anybody who didn’t have issues of the heart. Oh, I’ve met people who thought they had it together, but it just never works. And so the church is here. If you are struggling with something—be it pornography, or addition, or prejudice—if there is something you need help with, come talk. And if you don’t feel comfortable talking to me, that’s fine, we’ll find you somebody. This is who we are. This is the work of the church, to help people through difficult times, to struggle together, to—as some people have said—literally love the hell out of people.
You see, you can’t make a bright line distinction between the work of the heart and the work of the hands. Just like you can’t properly act as an agent of God out in the world without tending to your heart, neither can you sit around talking about how holy you are, how much you just looooove Jesus, without sharing that love such that each person knows he or she is God’s beloved child. I remember once meeting somebody who said that her whole deal, her whole reason for living was to just be passionate about Jesus. She said, I just want people to know that I am passionate about Jesus. The problem is: I don’t think she knew what that meant! I sure didn’t. I don’t think she had any idea what it meant to be passionate about Jesus! I think she just knew what it meant to talk about being passionate about Jesus, and that’s not the same thing, because you can't separate your personal relationship with God from your public living as god's child. You can’t love Jesus without loving other people. There is no social relationship with a personal one. Until you’re ready to make changes in your own heart, bit by bit, doing what John Wesley called going on to perfection, until you’re ready to make those changes, you’re missing out on the riches of a life lived in love, in the shadow of grace.
Maybe you were expecting something different today. It is Martin Luther King weekend, after all, so maybe instead of a sermon about why we bother being good, you were expecting a call to service, a stem-winder about freedom. Freedom demands responsibility and the responsibility of the church is to be agents of Christ's love in our hearts and in the world, because in the final analysis you can't separate your personal relationship with God from your public living as god's child.
 So let me share some words from King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, as he talks about this freedom and this responsibility. There was a time, he says, when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

Friends, we can be that church again. I know we can. This is why we bother being good: not because the life of faith is about following rules, or because we are about earing enough points to get into Heaven. We bother being good because it is a witness to the seriousness with which we take our faith, the deadly seriousness of following Jesus. We bother being good because the ancient evils of prejudice and war and hate persist, and we are called to be more than a thermometer that records the ideas and principles of popular opinion. We bother being good because even in the face of criticism, we believe that we are called to show the world what we are for: the way of love, which is the best way. It is the very best way. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, January 5, 2015

January 4 Sermon

Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Well, what a story. What a story. As the Christmas decorations start to come down, as we start to box up the garland and the ornaments, just when we thought Christmas was over, we’re treated to Epiphany, the celebration of the arrival of the magi. I don’t know if you knew this, but Stacey and I were actually married on Epiphany, so all over Cannon Chapel at the great Candler School of Theology at Emory University, we put up nativity scenes with the wise men, and we hung a beautiful gold and white double-wedding-ring quilt behind the altar in honor of the day.
But beyond the connection to my wedding, or whatever, it really does have all the markers of a great story. First, there’s the magi, sort of astronomers, sort of magicians, whatever they were, and then there’s King Herod, and palace intrigue, and jealousy, and signs in the Heavens, all of it. It’s a great story. But you know why I think the church really loves this story? It’s an epic story, but the real reason I think we love this story is that we want God to give us a sign. I won’t speak for you, but when I have a decision to make, or when I’m trying to figure out how to live faithfully as a Christian out in the real world, I’d kill to have a sign as clear as the one the magi got. So when I hear sermons about, “oh, you know, what dedication those magi had! How hard their travels must have been! How much they must have loved God to get up out of their comfortable chairs and follow!” I sort of roll my eyes a bit, because no, if I saw a star rise in the east and lead me until it stopped over the savior’s house, I’d have it made! How lucky they were to receive such a clear sign, such a clear calling from God, and here the rest of us are trying to figure out how to be faithful without the star, without the sign, without the clarity.
No, I don’t feel sorry for the magi at all. If anything, I feel jealous. I can’t tell you how many times I have prayed for that star! I know that I am not alone in this. How often we wish we could receive a clear sign from God to help us make a decision, or to make us feel God’s presence, or to make us feel God’s love! Forget the star; I would have settled for a lightning bug!
I’m not saying that I’ve never felt God’s presence or like God’s not spoken to me, given me peace when I needed it. Just yesterday, as I considered the loss of my friend and felt what the scripture calls groans too deep for words, I could feel God’s presence, God’s peace. It’s not that I’ve not felt God move in my life. I’m just saying that I wish God would speak less in a whisper and more in a shout, because sometimes that’s what it takes to get my attention.
I got to thinking about signs this past week as we traveled back and forth to Memphis to see family. There’s a lot vying for your attention these days. Maybe that’s why I want a star; there is so much that wants me to think that it is God, that it is the most important thing in the whole world, that when God really does show up, it can be hard to recognize. Maybe it was just the delirium of six hours in the car with a screaming toddler, but I got to wondering just how many signs we passed between Memphis and Atlanta. We saw hotel signs and restaurant billboards and leftover political signs and little hand scrawled yard signs advertising fresh  . . . delicious . . . local . . . Georgia pecans. I probably saw five thousand signs and they all wanted my attention. It’s no wonder we so desperately want a clear sign from God. There’s a lot to drown out.
I think about this when I think about our own sign, our church sign out front. There are a lot of church signs out there! I was talking to somebody the other day about this, and I realized that while almost every church has a sign, very rarely do I actually pay enough attention when passing to even let the message register in my brain. Stacey and I were driving to Toco Hills the other day, just up the road, and since I was the passenger, I decided to try to really pay attention to the number of church signs I passed, figuring there would be two or three, and I quit counting when I got to 30! There are lots of messages out there. This is why we are careful with the message we put out. We are competing with a lot of other messages, so it is important to stand out. And besides, it’s a lot of pressure to be a sign from God!
I mean, it’s hard enough living up to the rich legacy of that sign. One of the first things I heard from a ministry colleague when I got appointed here a year and a half ago was how wonderful the church signs were. She still ribs me to this day because she says that I’ll never be able to top the time somebody quoted Darth Vader from Star Wars and put out on the sign, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”
Just yesterday, Fred Powell was telling me about the time that somebody came by and stole the letters off the sign, so he did his usual gracious thing and went out to the sign and wrote up that while we’d like to have the letters back, we forgive. We forgive. I want you to know that the Nissan dealership across the street was so moved by that message that they offered to buy us a whole new set of letters. There’s your sign.
It is amazing to me about what a witness once church sign can be. You will remember a few weeks ago when somebody had a little fun with us and broke into the sign and switched the letters around to advertise that we were no longer having breakfast with Santa, but rather having breakfast with Satan. I’ve heard more jokes about deviled eggs over the last month than I hope to hear for the rest of my life. But because you all were who you always are and laughed so graciously about it, I want you to know that we have literally had people come to church here because we laughed that off. There’s your sign.
And then there is the sign we have out now, the one that says young, old, rich, poor, gay straight: you are welcome here. I’ve caught some grief for that one, as you might imagine, because I know not everybody is of one mind about the issue of homosexuality. But of course we’re not talking about an issue—we’re talking about people, and we all agree—and I am grateful for this—we all agree that we welcome everybody. We take all comers. This is the message of epiphany: that Christ did not just come to rescue the holier-than-thou. Christ’s message is for everybody. In fact, as the writer Jonathan Merritt says, Christmas reminds us that often pagan wise men know more about God than religious people who are steeped in scripture.
I want you to know that that sign, that message, it sort of happened by accident. I had Alfred put it up one day just because I didn’t have anything else to put up there, and before you know it, I had probably ten phone calls from people calling me crying, crying, thanking me—thanking you, really—for being a church that welcomed people who felt like nobody in all of God’s creation wanted them. I know we could have said “all are welcome,” and in fact, we do sometimes say that, but to a person, the people who have been moved by the sign because they have felt there was no place for them have said that there is something about naming just who it is that is welcome that serves as a sign, literally a sign from God, that points to the birth of Christ, the coming of the one who claims all people as God’s children.
I mean, that’s how you know it’s a sign from God. Not that you happen to find a sale on an outfit you really want, or you get a deal on tickets to Disney world. A true sign from God points beyond itself to the birth of Jesus Christ, not just two thousand years ago, but now, constantly happening. And isn’t this what we’re all looking for? Aren’t we all here looking for Jesus? I mean, I hope that’s why you are here. We’re all looking for Jesus, trying to be faithful, looking for a sign that will point us to God’s truth, and God’s mercy, and God’s grace. We may not be sent a star, but the good news is that I know of a sign stronger than a star, and that’s the sign of God’s people in mission, in action, in prayer and love and hope, reaching out and welcoming new people, loving everybody, caring for one another and sharing the experience of Jesus’s birth with the whole community, so that we don’t sort of take the nativity scene and box it up and charge people to look inside. We share it with everybody. Shoot, we stand on the corner in the cold and the wet and we sing it to people.
And when you put it that way, well, it helps me understand in new ways why the story of the magi is so powerful. It’s not the star. It’s not the star that moves us. It’s the magi themselves. The star isn’t the most powerful sign. The magi are.
I mean, here you have well-to-do men with camels and entourages and the whole nine yards—and enough money to buy expensive gifts fit for a king. These are not fly by night operators. These are the real deal. And they drop everything—everything!—to search for the savior. And when they get there, even upon seeing that he is a child, they remove their hats, they remove their shoes, they bow and they offer these gifts, these extravagant gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. There’s your sign: not just the gifts themselves, but the giving of them.
There’s your sign. The star is important, but it just sets off the chain of events. The star moves the magi who inspired the Gospel writers who teach each of us about Jesus. It is us, friends, who are charged with going out into the world to welcome new people into relationship with Jesus Christ. Yes, sometimes we are the magi, looking for a sign, but I think that even more than that, we’re called to be the star! We are called to be the sign!
This is why we serve in God’s name. This is why we do things like give away the entire Christmas offering: not so that people will know how great we are, but because we are a sign! We are a sign that points to the birth of Christ within the walls of the church and within our own hearts. Like it or not, you are that sign. And if given the choice between advertising the birth of Christ and fresh Georgia pecans, I think you know where I think your loyalty ought to be.
Now, I want to end a little differently. I want you to take some time during the time of reflection, and throughout your week, and think about how it is that you can be a star for others, so that you live in such a way that people know Jesus lives in your heart. I’m not talking about wearing tshirts with Bible verses; those are fine, but without loving action they as much good as leftover signs from last year’s election. I’m talking about really living your faith, walking the walk and talking the talk, so that when people listen to you speak and watch you interact with others, they know there’s something different about you.
And I want to ask the same question about the church. How can we as a church community live such that people know Jesus lives here, such that people know they are invited here so that they may meet Jesus? How can we be a sign?
In your bulletin, you’ll find a blank slip of paper. I’m going to invite you to think about who it is that needs to hear God’s good news, that needs a sign. During the time of reflection, I’m going to invite you to write down somebody—a group of people, a profession, anything—somebody who needs a sign from God that says that they are welcome: that God loves them. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to cycle through a few of these signs every couple of days as a witness—as a sign—to the community that God really does live here. I’ll go ahead and tell you, just so you aren’t shocked, that tomorrow morning, I’m going to have Alfred put up on one side of the sign that prostitutes are welcome here, because after all Jesus was friends with them, so we should be too. And on the other side, I’m going to do something actually, you know, controversial, and have it say that politicians are welcome here, too.

This is who we are called to be, friends. We are called to be a sign. And what a privilege—what a privilege!—to be tasked with welcoming new people into the family. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

December 24 Sermon (Christmas Eve)

Luke 2:1-20
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
The story of Christmas, the real story of Christmas, the one we read in the weeks leading up to this day, the one Hannah read this evening . . . it’s really a story that stands on its own. It doesn’t need embellishment. It doesn’t need flowery language or a rousing sermon to bring it to life, which is a good thing because, like the rest of you, the run-up to Christmas has just about killed me once again this year and I’m not sure I have a rousing sermon in me. But besides all that, you didn’t come to hear a rousing sermon. You came to hear the story. It stands on its own. It’s powerful in its own right, because it is the story of how it is that we came to be the children of God.
This is our story, and it is wonderful, but I don’t know about you so I will just speak for myself here, sometimes it feels like it is just a story. Not always—there are certainly times that God feels as close to me as my own breath—but there are other times, too. Times when God feels distant, when I wonder what the point of all of it is. I hope this is not a shock to you, that sometimes life feels a little hopeless, but you know it as well as I do. North Korean hackers, religious extremists, athletes who beat their wives, violence in the streets of Missouri and New York and Los Angeles and in our own neighborhoods here in Atlanta, heartache and pain and struggle and all the rest of that which comes with being human, not to mention trying to spend the holidays with family without losing your ever-loving mind. I don’t need to tell you that there’s a lot of hopelessness out there. You feel it just like I feel it.
And honestly, it’s that hopelessness that makes this story so moving for me: because I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think what I am about to say is absolutely true: there is nothing the world needs as much as it needs hope. There is nothing in such short supply as hope. And this is the message of Christmas: that God so loved us that God was born in a stable, a barn, among the animals, among the smells of life, simply because god wanted to be with us; because god wanted to save us; because God wanted to give us hope. Hope isn’t a political slogan. It’s not just something to paint on a piece of driftwood and put over the doorpost in the beach house. Hope is real. It is powerful. It is God’s purpose: to love us. To give us hope. TO promise us that the worst thing is never the last thing.
The writer and theologian Frederick Buechner says it this way: Christmas is not just Scrooge waking up the next morning a changed man. It is not just the spirit of giving abroad in the land with a white beard and reindeer. It is not just the most famous birthday of them all and not just the annual reaffirmation of "Peace on Earth" that it is often reduced to so that people of many faiths or no faith can exchange Christmas cards without a qualm. On the contrary, if you do not hear in the message of Christmas something that must strike some as blasphemy and others as sheer fantasy, the chances are you have not heard the message for what it is. Emmanuel is the message in a nutshell, which is Hebrew for "God with us."
God with us. I need to hear this. I need to be reminded of this when everything around me seems hopeless. I need to remember that Christmas isn’t just a story. It’s a reality. It is real. Christmas didn’t just happen. Jesus wasn’t just born and that was it. Christmas happens. Jesus continues to be born in all kinds of places.
I think of those manger times in my own life, when I’ve been sent on a journey and need nothing more than a place to lay my head, let along a place to give birth, only to discover that there is no room at the inn. I think of those times when the only place to go is the manger out back, to bed down in a place that is nothing like what I expected. Have you had any of those times in your life: when you ended up in the kind of place you never thought you’d be, only to be reminded that God isn’t born in the maternity ward, that God doesn’t come when everything is perfect, but when it seems like all hope is lost? I mean, this is the story of Christmas: for Jesus’s homeland was occupied, his people were subjugated, nothing was as it should be. And yet that is where the birth happened.
I think of those manger times when it seemed like I was as far away from God as we are from this story, all of two thousand years, only to discover Christmas was happening right there and then. I remember the funeral I did for a teenager who had overdosed, how I had absolutely no idea what to say to speak life into that situation, and how it was that nothing I said did any good, but how the family took comfort in the words of scripture from Romans 8: that nothing, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. I’m not saying that everything was ok after that. I’m just saying that on what I am sure was the worst day of their lives, they rediscovered hope. Christmas happened that day: not a Hallmark Christmas, but a powerful one.
Or I think about the woman we met in Mozambique, the last woman left of her age in that community, who talked about all she had seen, all the incredible ordeals she’d dealt with: a husband who slept around and infected her with a deadly disease, hunger that nearly killed her more than once, and how she’d found, in entering a relationship with God through her local United Methodist Church, a group of people who so cared for her as a human that they spent millions of dollars—millions!—on public health initiatives, on defeating disease--by doing the very thing we’ll be doing here in a few minutes, as we dedicate our gifts to the Christ child and give half the money to our efforts to completely eradicate malaria. It only takes $10 to save a life. We can do that—we must do that—if we want to create space for Christ to be born, if we want to continue to help people like the woman I met in Mozambique to experience Christmas, to discover hope.
Let me end this way. I want to share the most profound experience of hope I’ve had in quite some time. I don’t always share this kind of personal stuff in sermons, but it’s Christmas.
It wasn’t a year-and-a-half ago that the Bishop sent me to pastor a church in North Decatur, Georgia that had seen some tough times. I don’t want to dwell on that, just like I don’t think it’s helpful to wallow in the bad stuff, but neither do I think it is helpful to pretend that tough things don’t happen. The church had seen some tough times. There were 94 people here my first Sunday, including all the kids, which I am pretty sure consisted of Luke and Hadley Ayers and my daughter Emmaline. I did so well that first Sunday with the 94 people that on my second Sunday, there were 81.
You know, you enter that kind of situation and you don’t know how to respond. You want to have hope, you really do, but unless you live with your head in the clouds, you know it isn’t that easy. Pain is real. Heartache is real.
But it just so happened that God had other plans for this place, and God had other plans from me, because I have to tell you I have learned more about hope from a year and a half with you people than I did in the first 30 years of my life. You have to have hope to trudge forward, to not get stuck in those tough times like a boot in thick mud. You have to have hope to say things like, “you know, I’m not sure about that idea, but let’s try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.” You have to have hope to believe that God is doing a new thing, even when there are so many messages out there arguing that the church is dying, that we should hang it up now, that nobody cares about loving God, about welcoming all kinds of people into God’s house, about serving those who most need us. We’ve seen more than fifty people join the church this year. That’s Christmas, folks. And because of your hope and God’s birth here among us, I find myself more excited about the next years in the life of North Decatur United Methodist Church than anything I’ve ever been involved with. And it is all about hope.

Look. This isn’t just a love letter. I guess it is that, but this Christmas, here’s what I can’t get over. If God, in God’s mischievous way, comes to us at Christmas in a manger, can you imagine what God can do with a church? My God, what wonder lies ahead, what incredible things God has left to do, what hope we have been given, as God has shown up to be born in church of all places. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, December 8, 2014

December 7 Sermon: Spend Less

Isaiah 40:1-11
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
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 Lordshall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord Godcomes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
We are in the second week of the Advent season, which is supposed to be the season of expectation that the church observes in the weeks before our celebration of Jesus’s birth, but it seems that most everybody is already into full-on Christmas. I was reading a blog post the this week from a United Methodist pastor who was in a coffee shop just the other day!, eavesdropping on a spirited conversation among eight people who, to a person, were already sick of Christmas. They said things like:
“I am so glad my kids are finally grown so I don’t have to watch those insipid kiddy shows like Rudolph and Charlie Brown!”
“I hate the crowds, all the garish decorations — and the music.  I will vomit if I hear Bing Crosby or Nat King Cole one more time.”
“It must be hell to be Muslim or Jewish in the United States in December.”
“December!  I saw Christmas decorations up at Halloween!”
Now, this is all interesting to me for two reasons, besides the fact that I happen to like Charlie Brown, thank you very much. As a professional religious person, I’m particularly concerned this time of year about the kinds of things that keep people from experiencing a proper Christmas, and we’re going to spend some time this morning talking about that problem, because it is a real problem. If Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus two thousand years ago in a manger, just as it is about Jesus being born once again in your heart, we’ve missed the forest for the Christmas trees, and in the interest of preparing the way for Jesus’s birth by spending lots of money and being run ragged as we dash between Christmas parties, we’ve all been made miserable.
I mean, this is the time of year that the church ends up being its crankiest. I don’t ever seen church members as stressed out as I do this time of year, and it’s almost a tragedy, really, because this is supposed to be a time to pause, to celebrate, to remember. And we get so busy, so swept up in recreating memories from yesteryear that have been painted so much rosier over the passage of time that it is literally impossible to meet our own expectations, never mind the fact that many of us are also busy attempting to create memories for our children and grandchildren that they won’t be able to recreate down the road, either. And so we all end up disappointed. We get so stuck wondering what is wrong with us that we can’t seem to get to a place where we actually experience Christmas.
But there’s another reason that the conversation about seeing Christmas decorations at Halloween or whatever is interesting to me, and it is that—as you may have heard me say before—I am not immune from the impulse of stretching Christmas as far as it will stretch. In fact, the joke around my house growing up was that it wasn’t Christmas at the Rushings if you weren’t confusing the trick-or-treaters. I love Christmas. I love getting ready for Christmas. I love Christmas decorations and Christmas cookies and Christmas presents and Christmas cookies and Christmas china and Christmas cookies. I hope you will come to the parsonage this Saturday for our Christmas open house, because we’ve decorated the place to the hilt, and there is at least a slight possibility that there will be some Christmas cookies left for you. The preparation is part of the fun. I want to affirm that. I love getting ready for Christmas.
The problem comes when the preparation becomes so much that what you end up doesn’t look like Christmas at all. It doesn’t look like the birth of Christ so much as it looks like the spirit of Christmas threw up all over your living room. At some point, the preparations blind you to what Christmas is, and that’s not to say that the preparations are bad. It’s just to say that if we are not careful, they can distract us from the truth of Christmas, which is that God so loved us that Christ was born in a stable, outside, among animals, laid in a trough to keep warm, that he understood what it meant to be poor and marginalized, that whosoever believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life.
“Prepare the way of the Lord,” says the prophet Isaiah. “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every 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. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
This is what we are preparing for: not the Ghost of Christmas past, but the coming of God into a broken world. The birth of a savior: someone to save us from our rampant sin and our inability to purely love.
I realize that this puts more pressure on the hanging of the garland, the stringing of lights, and that more pressure is the last thing we need in the season. And yet, while the garland is nice, while the tree and the presents and the cookies are nice, they are not what Isaiah is talking about. They are not what John the Baptist is talking about when he says that he has come to be the voice crying out in the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” John the Baptist wasn’t talking about spending your life savings at Walmart when he proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. You might even say that God came to save us from the kinds of things we get obsessed with in this season. Repentance, forgiveness, are about letting things go, the waters of baptism are about washing away, about letting things go, removing obstacles to love, not buying more things, but clearing a path.
I mean, I don’t know if you have ever had the chance to actually, literally clear a path, as in cut brush and make a path, but it’s not easy work. Maybe you remember that the second President Bush used to get flack for going out to blaze trails and clear brush when he needed to clear his mind, but never from me—it’s good, mind-clearing work! There is something about clearing a path that helps to clear your mind: something about cutting through the brush and plants and trees to make a path. And maybe this sounds weird to you, but when I am having a rough day in the office, I usually look out the window and daydream about clearing brush.
I think it is significant that John the Baptist didn’t talk about buying anything to get ready for Jesus. He didn’t talk about decorating or anything like that. He talked about clearing the way, cutting a path, literally removing things that stood between humanity and the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Here we are spending and spending and spending, going into debt in order to somehow honor the birth of Jesus, and in this season as we participate in the Advent Conspiracy, as we attempt to spend less, what we are told to do in scripture is to clear, to remove, to pluck. (…)
All of this reminds me of one of my favorite early church fathers, who we know as the Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. That’s not on the test, so don’t worry about writing his name down, but we call him the Pseudo-Dionysius because back in the late fifth century when he was doing his writing, he used the pen name of Dionysius the Areopagite, a character in the book of Acts who was converted by the apostle Paul five hundred years prior. So he’s not actually the Dionysius. He’s the Pseudo-Dionysius. Sort of like a cover band.
And the Pseudo-Dionysius talks about the ways in which we know God, and I don’t want to get too philosophical here, but I think maybe this might be helpful. Specifically, he talks about the via negativa, the negative way we know God, and here is what he means.
Every time we talk about who God is, we use human language, and this is good, because it just so happens this is the only language we have. And so we talk about how God is loving, and just, and merciful, and powerful, and all the rest. These are good things. But at some point, our language not being strong enough to contain God’s attributes, we actually distract ourselves from the nature of God’s being.
So think of it this way. Picture a clock with God at the top, at 12, and as we go along, hour by hour, we add another word describing God. So we talk about God as Father, and that gets us to 1 o clock, and we talk about God as omnipotent, and that gets us to 2, and God as gracious to get us to 3, and so on until we get to six o clock, and suddenly even though God is at the top, we’ve actually ended up at the bottom, at 6, which is as far away from 12 as you can possibly get.
You see, in the interest of putting language to the nature of God, we’ve actually in some sense gotten further away from who God is, because even though we can say God is good, God’s goodness is much larger than our finite human understanding of that term. We may talk about God as Father, but there are ways in which God acts as mother, as well. So these are good things, but because our language, what we say, doesn’t do justice to the wideness of God’s mercy and power and grace, we’re in some ways actually getting further away from God the more we say.
This is where the Pseudo-Dionysius and the via negativa, the negative way, come in. What he says, in essence, is that as you continue to go around the clock, you pluck up words and remove them, because they don’t do justice to who God is. Just like we tack words onto God in order to describe God, so to ought we remove the words sometimes and acknowledge that they are insufficient.
And so as you go along the clock face, to seven, and eight, and nine, you pluck words. You say, all right, perhaps God is Father in some ways, but that limits God’s power in others so I’m going to pull up that word. Perhaps God is omnipotent, but God doesn’t intervene all the time, so I’m going to pull up that word. It doesn’t mean God isn’t those things; it just means that the way in which God is those things is larger than the words we use to talk about them. And as you get to ten and eleven you keep pulling words until you have once again reached the top of the clock face, and, there being no words left, you simply sit in silent awe of the God who, in the final analysis is beyond description.
I don’t know if any of this makes sense, and even if it does, if it resonates. Maybe I’m just drawn to this sort of theology because I come across situations so often in ministry that are just absolutely beyond words. I mean, what do you say about the death of a child that will speak meaning into that moment? There is nothing to do but be silent, to wallow in the horrible reverence of such a tragedy. It helps me understand the poet who said that the only proper response to the death of a child is to roll over and play dead. And yet tragedy isn’t the only reason for this kind of silence. I mean, what do you say in response to such a generous gift like the church has received this week? There is nothing to say that will do justice to that kind of generosity. Only grateful silence.
I don’t know if any of this resonates with you. Maybe I’m just drawn to it because as a preacher, as a professional religious person, it feels like I’m completely out of words as I consider the ongoing racial issues we’ve seen boil over in recent days. I talked about this pretty extensively in last Sunday’s sermon, but when I watch a black man choked to death on camera for selling loose cigarettes, choked to death on camera, and then watch the white police officer who killed him not even face trial, I don’t have words. I saw that Matt Miofsky, pastor of the Gathering United Methodist Church in St. Louis and a person familiar to many of you, said on Twitter this week that “As a person who peddles words for a living, I am running out of them.” Perhaps this is the proper response, for sometimes words get in the way. Sometimes we get in the way.
And perhaps this is what John the Baptist was doing when he went into the wilderness to blaze a trail, to cut a path for the in-breaking of Jesus Christ. Perhaps this is what the prophet Isaiah meant when he says to prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight in the desert a highway for our God, to level the ground and make the rough places plain. You cannot do this important work of clearing until you are willing to set down your expectations, to spend less, to stop getting drawn up into the hype machine that is the Official 2014 Christmas Shopping Season. You cannot prepare a way until you are ready to remove some of those things that seem like they are helping you celebrate, but which, in actuality, are flimsy attempts to fill a void in your heart, for that kind of void is only properly filled by God.
Look. I’m about to sit down, but don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that buying presents is bad. We’ve bought too much for our kid this Christmas just like everybody. But I am asking this. At what point are we buying and buying and buying because we are scared of that silence? At what point are we working until there are decorations on the decorations, just so we don’t have to sit in wonder, in awe of the fact that God became human in order to save us from our sin? At what point are we just trying to distract ourselves from our inadequacies, our sin in the first place?
Or, put another way, don’t you think that by spending less this Christmas, you might actually be celebrating a Christmas much more like Jesus would want us to celebrate?

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