Saturday, December 28, 2013

Dream World, Real World

Matthew 2:13-23
Christmas 1 (A)
December 29, 2013
William G. Carter

Now after they (the magi) had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.

When I was a seminary student, my home pastor invited me to preach on the Sunday after Christmas. I opened up the Bible and discovered why. The shepherds have returned to their fields. The angel choir has flown back to heaven. The wise men have gone home by another way. Now we have a story right out of our own headlines.

Somewhere today it is reported that people in positions of power are heartless, that children are lost, the cruelty trumps charity, that life is cheap. It’s not what we want to hear on the fifth day of Christmas; we prefer to sing of five golden rings. But this is the Real World, we are told. It is heartless, cruel, and cheap.

The news outlets barely let us celebrate Christmas before they released disturbing details about the Sandy Hook shootings, and all the innocents slaughtered up there. Yesterday 1.3 million innocent people and their children lost their unemployment benefits. You have stories of your own, I'm sure.

Then there are massacres like this Bible story which never make it into the secular history books. The Gospel of Matthew reports the fury of Herod because it is provoked by the birth of Jesus. The infant king is born, the established king is furious. All of it confirms what the prophet Jeremiah knew centuries before: this old world is full of wailing and weeping. The Real World is no friend of children.

How fortunate that Joseph should be warned in time! Like his Old Testament namesake, Joseph is a dreamer. That is how God gets through to him. Sometimes after dark, when his eyes are shut and his defenses are down, a wise Voice speaks to him. The first time he heard it, the Voice said, “Take Mary as your wife and the child as your own.” Now the Voice comes again to say, “Take the child and his mother and get out of town.” He gets them up and they go.

We do not know why the Voice does not speak to all the other parents whose children were in danger. That question does not get answered by this story. Neither do we know why the Voice does not haunt Herod and get him to stop. By all accounts, Herod was a nightmare of king who probably had some nightmares of his own. We know from earlier in this story, he was afraid. And when people act out of fear, their judgment is clouded, they do short-sighted things, and other people get hurt.

The stories about him are nasty. Herod married to a woman named Doris. She produced a son, but when he fell in love with his niece and decided to marry her, he got rid of Doris and their son. It went downhill from there. In all, he married ten different women, and eliminated a few of them. Those women bore children who plotted against their father and were suspicious of one another, so Herod got rid of at least three of them. Back in Rome, Caesar Augustus was heard to joke, “It would be better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”

This is the Real World, we are told. When Herod feels his throne wobble, he does whatever he thinks it will take to stabilize it. When a few foreigners from the East come looking for a new king, old Herod decides he won’t take any chances. In fear, in paranoia, he will do whatever he can to preserve his own power. People get hurt.

It’s the children, the most vulnerable, who suffer the greatest. This world is not friendly to children. Even when they are born into privilege, the world is not friendly to them. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t go into shopping malls around Christmas: I hate what the season can do to kids. The most beautiful season of the year has a dark side.

I remember seeing a little girl have a melt-down in a store a few days after the holiday. It got so bad that her mother grabbed her by the hair and said, “I told you that you can’t have another toy. You got a pile of toys on Christmas. I’m here for me, and I should have locked you in the car.” “But Mommy,” screamed the little girl, “I want something more.”  There I was, looking to cash in a gift card, thinking long and hard about what it is that the Real World does to our children.

But today’s scripture text reminds us that there is something more than that. Apart from all our maneuverings, apart from all our power plays, there is another Voice, another script, another world. Call it the Dream World, because Joseph encounters it in his dreams. When Joseph falls asleep, he hears of deep concern for himself and his family. In a Real World of contempt, there is care and protection in the Dream World.

Later on, far off in Egypt, the Voice speaks again: back in Israel, Herod is gone, the threat is over. Bring the child home. In the Dream World, there is wider perspective and deeper knowledge. Beyond a local circumstance, there is a grand plan. It’s curious to note that Joseph does not get the whole picture, but only enough to get through the night and take care of his family. But somewhere in his spirit, he knows there is something about the Dream World that is more real than the Real World.

Christmas offers an annual reminder for us. The story is chock full of supernatural moments in the middle of the mundane. A pregnant girl has her birth interpreted by angels and old people who hang around the temple. Mary and Joseph are required by law to take Caesar’s census, and it takes them the ancestral city of the king; that’s part of the hidden plan. Shepherds are minding their own business at night when suddenly interrupted by angels. In the thick of the Real World as we know it, there is deeper wisdom and an elusive holiness.

I think that’s why so many people like Christmas: it points to something larger, to something grander, to a plan perpetually unfolding yet moving somewhere. Above all the distress we assign to the “Real World,” to the way things normally work, there are glimpses of God’s fingerprints and echoes of angel song. Then just as suddenly, it’s back to business as usual, back to dog-eat-dog, back to daily work and weekly ritual.

So before this Christmas totally recedes, I want to stop and pause and ask, “How has God gotten through to you?” Is there any way that God’s Dream World has invaded your Real World? Is there a moment when you were lifted up, or opened up, and heaven touched down on your patch of earth?

For me, it came Christmas morning. Fortunately in our house, as our kids get older, the morning starts later. I am glad for that, although I confess some impatience when there are some packages in front of me waiting to be opened. We were ready to rip off the wrapping paper, but then my wife had this idea. “Before we get caught up in the rest of the day,” she said, “I want to remind us why we are doing all this.” Then she began to read the Christmas story: “In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” Suddenly the greed in my soul was interrupted by gratitude. Such a simple thing she did, such a holy interruption.

Sometimes when we realize that heaven has come down here, it disturbs and disrupts in the best of ways, and we affirm that we cannot go about our bad habits as we did before. Ebenezer Scrooge wakes up with his life intact, but three ghosts have made him a different man.

Or there is that poem by T.S. Eliot, getting into the head of one of the three wise men. He says:

Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death. (The Journey of the Magi)

Do you hear what he is saying? He wants to move from the Real World into God’s Dream World. He has had this Heavenly Disturbance where he is no longer content with the ways of kings like Herod.

So the Light of Christmas can be translated into our ethics. If we are sufficiently disturbed by cruelty, we can work to overcome it. If we are awakened by beauty, we can make more of it through our God-given creativity. God sends Christmas to interrupt the so-called Real World with something far more real. There is an unseen dominion of God which Jesus comes to reveal. Making God’s dreams real will be his life’s work. It continues to be his resurrection work. And for those of us awakened by grace, it is given to us by God to be our work.

At Dave Brubeck’s memorial service last May, his wife Iola read a poem about the Dream World that God desires. It’s a poem that guided Dave in his work, just as it guided Dave and his wife in their family life. Here is the poem by Langston Hughes:
I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom's way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind -
Of such I dream, my world!  ("I Dream a World")

You know what I want to do when I hear that poem? I want to make sure that all children are loved and protected.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Chasing After Mystery

Luke 2:1-20      
Christmas Eve 2013

Peter Steinke, the religious consultant, tells about going to a Sunday evening service at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. There are about five hundred people who attend the Episcopalian service of Compline. A large number of them are teenagers and young adults. Peter said, “At first glance, you think they’re coming because it’s a cheap date; but something else is going on.”

The night he was there, he sat next to a young woman in her late twenties. She had streaks of orange in her hair and one pierced ear with a pendant dangling down from it. At one point, Peter was sitting while everybody else stood up, so she whispered, “We stand for the Apostles’ Creed.” He thanked her and stood, while she stared silently into the dark shadows.

As the service concluded, he asked, “Do you come often to this service?” “Yes,” she replied, “I come as often as I can.” They chatted as they moved toward the door. Then she paused, looked at him, and blurted, “I don’t give two bits about religion. Weird, I guess.” Peter said, “So why do you come?” And she said, “I’m looking for something more in my life.” She was looking for some measure of mystery, something bigger than herself.[1]

I reflect on that tonight. As we hear the Christmas story, I cannot imagine being interrupted by angels. If I were a shepherd, watching over the flock and scanning the dark shadows for wolves, I can’t imagine an army of angels suddenly appearing to shout and sing. A birth announcement is exciting when it comes, especially the birth of the Child who will rescue us somehow, some day.

But two small details make me ponder Christmas as something more than a child’s birth.

First, whatever the shepherds saw and heard terrified them. In the old English version of the story, they were “sore afraid.” There is a dotted line between terror and joy, it seems. When we encounter the living God, or one of God’s angels, we are jolted out of complacency, shaken out of boredom. We don’t know what to think. . . . We want to flee, we want to stay.

That is what can happen in a true-blue spiritual experience. Like my mother, describing the mysterious moment as a child when she stumbled upon her grandmother, praying for her by name. “She was aglow in the moonlight as she communed with the Lord,” Mom says. She adds, “I had no right to be there, but I was physically too stunned to leave.”

Or Loula, our tour guide across the country of Greece. As we traversed the shore by bus, we pointed across the misty bay to Mount Athos, considered the Holy Mountain of the Greek Orthodox Church. What happens there? Loula went pale. “I have known pilgrims who go to Mount Athos. They come back changed because they have seen God.”

Can you recall such a moment? A moment when you were surprised and changed by God? Take a moment to reflect and remember. … My moment came two weeks ago. I stepped outside of my house. The snow crunched under my feet, a light blue moon dominated the sky. It hit me: what a beautiful world that God has created! And Christmas tells us, God loves it – loves us all. The Mystery and the message stunned me.

The Mystery in Christmas is the same Mystery at the heart of all things. In the words of the poet Rumi, it is a “fierce courtesy.” It is a holiness that welcomes and frightens us in the same moment. Or in the words of a Christian hymn, “it is grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” The non-religious shepherds taste it. They fear it – and they want it.

Second, whatever the shepherds saw and heard pushed them into further exploration. Immediately, the storyteller says they went to see this for themselves. Immediately they went. The story doesn’t say anything about all their sheep. The story does not say that they woke up the sheep, rounded up the sheep, or herded the sheep into town. No, nothing at all is said of the sheep. It’s enough to make me think that most of those shepherds left the sheep behind, perhaps with a junior shepherd, while the rest of them went with great haste to see this great thing.

Like that crazy story Jesus tells, of the shepherd who left behind the flock in the wilderness while he went searching for the one lost sheep. That’s risky behavior, in a sense, risky love to go after the one who remains out of sight. Or in this case, it is risky curiosity to leave the settled flock and search for the Christ child.

If you are feeling a hunger to make Christmas real once again, or want somehow to keep Christmas throughout the year, let me speak to that curiosity. It is a holy gift to want to go deeper, to dig beneath the organizational structures and the religious claptrap, and to experience the heart of it all. If you are longing for the Real Thing, and not merely the plastic and tinsel, then set about your search, and do not settle until you see the face of God.

I think of some medieval Christmas paintings that I have seen, particularly of Mary and her infant child. Mary has the face of a young, innocent woman. The baby Jesus, however, has the face of an older, wiser God. The Child who is born among us is timeless. The Eternal One is found among a family and its animals. The miracle is not that this happens, but that we see it. For the moment, the blinders fall from our eyes and we discover the Eternal One is right here.

Maybe it’s a quick flash or a brief revelation. Maybe it’s a fearful moment when our illusions of isolation and sufficiency are punctured. Maybe it is the lingering sense that we really are not alone, that God-is-with-us, that beneath every moment there is a holy Presence, an unfathomable Mystery where God takes on flesh. We can have the assurance that life does not rise or fall entirely on our own efforts, but on the fearsome kindness at the center of all things.

That’s my Christmas prayer for you: to be interrupted by Something greater than yourself, to know in your bones that we have been visited by the God who has then never left us alone. I pray for you to be consumed by the Light and Life of Jesus, to live in the great certainty that the whole world is loved, and to know that your life continues in the presence of angels.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Peter L. Steinke, A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope (Washington, DC: Alban Institute, 2010) 13.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Child Will Change Us

Isaiah 7:10-16
Advent 4
December 22, 2013
William G. Carter

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, ‘Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’ But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’ 

Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.’

When my first child was on the way, I remember a lot of knowing glances. A number of childbearing veterans knew I was scheduled to be a rookie parent. The inevitable comment went like this: “Oh, how your life is going to change!”

It was unsettling. The people who said this were usually smirking, as if they knew a secret that I did not yet know. Perhaps there was a conspiracy among those who had survived the maternity room; at the time, I was not certain.

I had a hunch what it might mean. There was an elementary school librarian of my acquaintance. She knew all the books that a child might enjoy. As I got to know her, however, it became clear that she never had an actual child in her home. She and her husband lived in an immaculate house. They had white carpeting. The white enamel doorframes showed no chocolate fingerprints. All their possessions were put away and everything was neat. Obviously they had no kids.

I realize there might be tidy parents out there, too, but beneath the surface, there is a Herculean struggle to bring order out of chaos. The birthing class at a local hospital offered a packet of magazines, gifts, and special offers. I recall one article in that packet. The writer lamented how a parent spends so many energy trying to socialize a child, teaching him or her about what is acceptable in public: cover your mouth when you cough, keep your fingers out of your nostrils, don’t hit anybody ever even if you think they deserve it.

Meanwhile, while you try to make your kid socially acceptable, it has the opposite effect on you. You stand in the conference room to make a presentation, stick your hand in the pocket of your blue blazer, and discover there the baggie of mildewed Cheerios. Having kids will change you.

The trick is to not let it show. Isn’t that right? In previous eras, the father would go out to slay the brontosaurus while Mama would stay home to raise the kids. Child-rearing was considered mothers’ work, while the fathers stepped out to put on a professional face for the world. That could explain why a lot of adult children had distant relationships with their fathers. Mother did the hard work of staying close, while Papa brought home the bacon and attempted to appear unchanged by having a daughter or son.

That wasn’t always the case, of course. One of the most moving scenes of last’s year film on Abraham Lincoln was the moment when the President cuddled with his grieving son. Honest Abe had an affectionate relationship with children. He was tender with them. Clearly his children cracked open his heart. He could have deep compassion for the people he governed because he had great love for his four sons. Children can change us.

Now, you wouldn’t know that by listening to old King Ahaz of Judah. He had a lot of trouble on his hands. The surrounding empires were rattling their swords and making all kinds of threats. The prophet Isaiah said, “Put your trust in God. The God of Israel will save you.” King Ahaz nodded cynically and said, “Uh, right.”

“Really,” said the prophet. “Ask God for a sign, ask God for anything.” Ahaz said, “I’m not going to bother God.” You see, he is a cagey politician. What he is saying is, “I don’t plan to revise my foreign policy around my country’s faith.” No, what he wants are more weapons, more chariots, more soldiers, more strength.

So God speaks again through the prophet. The Holy One clears his throat and says, “OK, I’m going to give you that sign, even though you didn’t want it. Ready, get set, look: a young maiden is going to become pregnant and have a baby. The baby’s name is God-with-us.” That is, Emmanuel.

And ever since, Ahaz and his ilk have scratched their heads and said, “Really? A baby? Baby Emmanuel? What kind of holy sign is that?” They are talking world domination, or at least secure borders and the removal of military threats. Instead they are promised a baby. A baby! What kind of help can you get from a baby?

If you are the king, I suppose that is a very practical question. Most global leaders speak only to the adults, and treat the children as photo ops. If you are trying to run the world, or at least your small part of it, the presence of a baby would be disruptive. A child might interrupt the chiefs of staff with lollipop fingers and relevant questions. To say the least, if God chooses to say to the king, “The child will be a sign for you,” that is enough to make anybody ponder the universe in their hearts. What kind of God gives a baby?

So when the writer of the Gospel of Matthew wants to tell the Christmas story, it’s clear why he picks that old Bible verse. He is not concerned about the context. He wishes to go right for the punch line: “Look, the young maiden shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” In case you don’t know Hebrew, Matthew tells what Emmanuel means: “God is with us.” And he reinforces the surprise of it all by changing the word “maiden” to “virgin.”

Matthew is not concerned about the history. He wants to deal with the surprise. God is sending a baby. The baby is God’s gift to the human race, God’s assurance that the human race has a future. The kings like Ahaz will come and go. People like us will hear their names centuries later and not know much about them. But whenever a new baby comes along, we stop and make funny faces, tickle their feet, and start acting like little kids ourselves. These children, they change us.

On Friday night, my extended family gathered for an evening of gift-giving and good food. My niece Laura is pregnant, the first in her generation with a baby on the way. Her little boy is due in April, and I hope to be able to snap a photo of the baby, her mother, my sister (the grandmother), my mother (the great-grandmother), and my grandmother (the great-great grandmother). If we can pull that off, it’s going to be a biblical genealogy on a digital picture.

As I got ready to leave town and come back here, I offered my mom to pick up a few videotapes from my brother’s house. They are old family movies, and since they are on video tapes, it’s time to save them on a DVD before DVDs go out of style. I offered to do that.

Well, it’s a treasure trove. There are home movies of my twenty-two year old grandmother sitting in my grandfather’s lap and both of them falling out a lawn chair. There’s a clip of my mother making pouty faces when she is two years old. There’s footage of my brother when he was twenty-one and still had a mullet. And there are clips of niece Laura, the future mother, when she was only a year old. It is a span of over seventy-five years.

I was overwhelmed; have you ever reflected on how much our families contribute to the human race? How impoverished we would have been if the children had not come from God. Simply by existing, our family, just like your family, has changed the world.

The children and grandchildren among us are a sign from God for the anxious rulers of the world. Sometimes I think we ought to focus entirely on these kids. Rather than a bunch of old people planning stuffy moments for other old people, what if we threw all our energy into God’s next generation? What if we gave it all for the children, and left behind for them a world worth living in, a climate where their generations will flourish, clean soil and sustainable economies and plenty of resources for all to share? What if we taught them to read, made sure they were fed, and ensured that they will always be safe? God’s gift of the child could totally rewire public policy.

It’s not what King Ahaz was looking for, but this is what God gives as a sign: the child.

And this wasn’t what Joseph was looking for, either. At least, not yet. When the young carpenter discovers Mary is pregnant, he tosses and turns at night. Not now, he says to himself. Not the embarrassment for her, not the humiliation for me. Not the chatter of the wives at the town well. Not the smirk and whispers from the old men. This cannot be happening. I must find a way to escape it. There must be a way to let her go.

That’s when God comes to him, speaking through the voice of an angel. Don’t be afraid, said the Lord, for the child comes from me. He will be the One to rescue you from your worst impulses. He is the One you will call Yeshua – Savior. He will change you . . . and he will change the world.

This is the story that gathers us today, the story that unfolds in the birth of Jesus. It is a story that takes flesh, not as a theoretical idea, but in the birth of a little boy. The young maiden does bear the child. He comes to change our lives. Because there is nothing better equipped to change any grumpy, self-contained, isolated life than the birth of a child. A baby has that kind of power.

It can happen. We know it can happen. For the baby of Mary and Joseph is how God comes into the world and stays with us. Emmanuel, this Child, the Christ.

 (c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The People You Meet on God's Highway

Isaiah 35:1-10
Advent 3
December 15, 2013
William G. Carter

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Isaiah continues to share his Advent dreams. Throughout the thick collection of poems and prophetic visions that bear his name, there are extraordinary texts that speak of what God is going to do. They hold out hope before us, like a Christmas cookie on a stick to keep us moving forward, pressing on toward the future that God prepares.

This famous poem from chapter 35 is widely known for its vision of nature. The wilderness will be glad, the dry desert will blossom. Streams of water will break forth in arid land. The area we call the Holy Land is largely desert. The land receives an average of twenty-one inches of rain each year, seventy-five percent of it during the four months from November to February. Blossoms do not come often and gushing springs are extremely rare.

The prophet dreams of water as a gift of God, causing the dry landscape to flourish and rejoice. He must have been thrilled on Friday, when a freak snow storm dumped a foot of white powder in Jerusalem. They rarely get any snow at all. I’m going to guess that they were rejoicing!

But what I noticed on this time through the poem is how well populated it is. Isaiah dreams of a road, a Holy Highway he calls it. On the road, there are all kinds of people. They are moving toward God’s House on Mount Zion. All of them are singing songs of comfort and joy.

I paused to listen to the lyrics. “Rejoice, rejoice, believers, and let your lights appear!” “Good Christian friends rejoice, with heart and soul and voice, give ye heed to what we say.” “People, look east, the time is near of the crowning of the year.” It is clear to me that something is at work in these Advent People. They have every reason to be weak and feeble and afraid. But instead they are strong and firm and courageous. Today I want to pay attention to them and discover what we can learn.

A good friend named Dennis was traveling just the other day. He writes about going downstairs to the hotel lobby, ready to put his suitcase in the car. He saw a woman walking a dog, and they stopped to chat. Her dog was a rescue, and Dennis shared that his dog, back upstairs in hotel room, was blind and deaf. He put his things in the car, and then returned inside to grab some breakfast. The lady was also there.

They chatted again. Where are you traveling? She was going to Charleston, he to Myrtle Beach. All of a sudden, he says, she starts pouring out her life story: a difficult divorce, a daughter who had attempted to take her own life, a bout with cancer. Dennis just listened. “I wasn’t in any hurry,” he said, “and she certainly needed to talk. So I listened.” He offered her a basic human courtesy.

When she finished her tale and took a breath, she looked at him to say thanks. “I want to give you a hug just for listening,” she said. He said, “Merry Christmas. God’s peace to you.” That was it. They got in their cars and went separate directions, in some sense, however, traveling the same highway. My friend wrote, “You never know what lies beneath the surface of the strangers we meet each day. Everybody has a story. Everybody needs God’s peace.” My friend Dennis – he’s an Advent Person.

Isaiah dreams of these people. As they travel toward home, they stand tall. They walk deliberately. They are not afraid to listen to somebody’s painful story, and they know there is great strength available from God.

I heard a story on the radio about veterans with “bad paper.” That is, some of the soldiers who served for our country were discharged quickly for getting into trouble. They avoided a court martial. Sadly many have been denied veterans’ benefits, including help for the post-traumatic stress that may have gotten them into trouble in the first place. Now some are homeless, or they can’t get the medication they need.

But there is a woman named Sharon in Hampton Roads, Virginia. She works for an organization that steps into the gap. It can be overwhelming, she says, because there are a hundred thousand such veterans in the past decade alone. But every one of them needs some help. So Sharon helps to provide transitional housing, job education, counseling, and medical assistance for former soldiers who can’t get any other help. She is an Advent Person, declaring, “Be strong, do not fear.”

There is a certain quality to Advent people, a particular look on their faces, a clear observation about their demeanor. Simply put, they know they are heading toward home, moving toward God. They do not settle for the way things are, but strain forward to what God wants them to be. They are on the road, they are pressing forward, and along the way, they are changed.

Sometimes it can appear on the surface to be a small change. A man was telling me about cleaning out his closet. He didn't realize how many sweaters he had and how many of them did not fit anymore. Too many Christmas cookies, I think. Well, he put them in a bag and brought them by the church to donate to the local shelter. But it was late, and the church door was locked, so he decided to just drop them off at the shelter when he went next into the city.

As he took his bundle into the shelter, he was stunned by how many people were there. "I never saw all that need, but now my eyes are opened. I have to do more for the people who are cold." He was blind, but now can see. He is an Advent Person, moving toward home.

Isaiah’s dream is well populated. He describes not a solitary spiritual experience but rather a communal description of the power of God at work in those who are moving toward home. There is a constructive difference in their lives. God's Spirit heals those who are most marginalized: the sightless, the deaf, the lame, the speechless, and the hopeless. Something happens in them as they move toward home. They are healed in the deepest of ways.

John the Baptist should have known about this. He knew Isaiah’s dream, he preached Isaiah’s hope. But he found himself in prison and slipped into apparent despair. It seems he had called out King Herod for sleeping around, and it got him an extended vacation in Herod’s dungeon. As he languishes in his prison cell, he hears about Jesus, and he wonders out loud, “Is this what a Messiah is supposed to be doing? Jesus, are you the one we're waiting for, or should we look for somebody else?”

Jesus doesn't swoop down from the sky like Superman and rescue him from the prison cell. That’s not what this Messiah does. Instead he calls attention to what can be seen: the sightless are seeing, the stone-deaf are listening, and those with aching hearts and broken joints are dancing. Can you see this, John? If so, you join them on their journey toward home.

What we are talking about today is a spiritual skill, the skill of holy perception. It is the skill of seeing God at work when the rest of the world sees only gloom and despair. Like any other skill, it must be developed and sharpened. The proud and the self-sufficient might miss it entirely, as they slip down the hill on their toboggan and chide those who can’t keep up.

But for those who discover God’s grace and healing even as they limp or as they hobble, they will be the first to declare how God comes to rescue and restore. Specifically in the person of Jesus, God slips in quietly to make holy things happen.

So let me tell you about Jimmy Greene. A year ago yesterday, a young man with guns got into the Sandy Hook School in Connecticut, and he killed Jimmy’s six-year-old daughter Ana Grace in her first grade classroom. She was a pretty girl with curls in her hair and a toothy smile. She loved to dance, preferring it to walking. Her favorite color was purple, Advent purple. The gunman ended her life, along with twenty-five others. Jimmy and his wife Nelba were stunned. This sort of thing is never supposed to happen, and the fact that it goes on, and keeps going on, is a terrible indictment of our destructive and broken human race.

But let me tell you about Jimmy Greene. He is a saxophonist, and plays all over the world with people like Harry Connick Jr.  He and his wife made the decision shortly after the shooting that they were going to get through it, and they were going to get through it together. They were going to focus on the joy that they had with her, until the days returned when they felt joy again.

The day before her death, for instance, Ana Grace knocked over the family Christmas crèche. The Baby Jesus was still shattered in pieces on the floor when the six-year-old got home from Sandy Hook School. Rather than yell or make a fuss, mom and dad scooped up Ana Grace and her brother, took them out to dinner, took pictures of one another on Dad’s phone, and ordered a second helping of dessert. Those memories, said her mom, are “what give me comfort and joy.”

Here is the motto of Jimmy Greene and his family: Love Wins. As people of Christian faith, that’s how they agree on how they will get through the tragedy, by affirming love wins. That’s how Jimmy and his wife have agreed that their greatest aim in life is to raise Ana Grace’s brother so that he will be able to love and receive love from others.

Oh, I haven’t told you the name of Ana Grace’s brother. It’s Isaiah.

Here is the family request marking the anniversary of their daughter’s death:

“When your kids get off the bus tomorrow, blast the music and invite them to dance with you. If you can’t dance, wiggle a toe. Sing while you dance, especially if you sing out of tune. Your children may be embarrassed or wonder what’s going on. They may even ask you to stop. That means you’re doing a good job! Just keep going. Then give them lots of cuddles replete with ‘I love yous’ for no other reason than because you can.”

A family loses a dear child, and how do they respond? By declaring as loudly as they can, love wins. God’s love will always win.

For this is the Advent promise of the Lord: “The ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The One We Want

Isaiah 11:1-10
Advent 2
December 8, 2013
William G. Carter

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples;
the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Earlier this week, I came across an article on the internet. It might have appeared on a tabloid newspaper at the checkout counter, or a glossy magazine dedicated to the glitzy and newly famous. The headline said it all: Can You Pick Out These Stars Without Their Makeup?

Ever see something like that? Lady Gaga without makeup looks like the college kid down the street with bushy eyebrows. Jennifer Love Hewitt reminds me of my sister’s senior high candid shot. The British actress Emma Thompson looks ordinary and pleasant, as if you would see her in the potato chip aisle of the supermarket. I wouldn’t have recognized Jennifer Lopez if the caption didn’t declare it was her. And the Kardashian sisters? Well, they don’t look anything like the people who play them on Reality TV.

It gives me an idea for reflecting on Isaiah’s old poem. Could you pick out the Messiah without make-up? I mean, he’s the One we want, the One that we are waiting for. We have our hopes and dreams, all of us. We sing the Advent songs – “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” or “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” Today we overhear John the Baptist preaching to the snakes and the scorpions in the desert, declaring, “The One who is coming is greater than me.” But will we recognize the Messiah without the makeup?

That’s the benefit of this grand old text from Isaiah. It helps us to see beneath the shallow surface of outer appearances, to perceive what’s really there. And there may be a few surprises along the way.

Just consider how the description begins: “A shoot will come out of an old dead stump.” Not something that we see every day! When a tree is cut down, it stays down. The stump is merely a reminder of what was once there.
Once it was a tall, glorious tree, expansive in its branches. Now it has been reduced to merely a stump.

This stump has a name: Jesse, as in the father of King David. David was the great and glorious king of Israel, Israel’s fondest memory He was the sign and symbol of the glory days, when everything was flourishing, or at least we thought it was… but David is now cut down, cut off, leaving only a stump. Israel knows this. After David, they had four hundred years of really uneven kings, most of them bad. That was followed by forty years of national embarrassment from the Babylonians, and after that, another five hundred years of various despots, crackpots, and marauders running over their country. David’s memory was an old dead stump.

But now there is a green shoot emerging from that dark chunk of wood. New life happens, where the old life had supposedly been finished.

Kind of reminds me of my old friend, whose name was also David. He and his wife had two kids, a son and daughter. They talked it over and decided they were done with kids. No more. David went in to have a small surgical procedure so that they would have no more children. They were finished. A couple years later, his wife had a stomach ache that wouldn’t go away. It got so bad that she went to the doctor. He ran through some tests, came back, sat down, and said, “You’re going to have twins.” When the twins graduated from high school five years ago, David and his wife were the oldest parents in the crowd. They were older than some of the grandparents in the room.

A small sign of what Isaiah sees in the Messiah: he will come in the fullness of life, when everybody says there is no more life. Take that for whatever it means: a child born of David when all thought the line was finished, or a man raised from the grave when all thought it was over. Isaiah is a poet, so he refuses to spell it out. He sees a grey stump, cold and withered…with a green shoot of new life stirred by the generosity of God. This is how the Messiah shows up.

There’s something else Isaiah tells us. This Messiah will be seen by those who are concerned for the poor and the mistreated. He will never appear on one of those TV shows that focus on the rich and famous. Neither will he devote any time to glamour or inflated press releases. No, he cares first and foremost about the people that the fast-paced world rejects.

I like how Eugene Peterson translates the text: “He will judge the needy by what is right, render decisions on earth’s poor with justice… A mere breath from his lips will topple the wicked. Each morning he’ll pull on sturdy work clothes and boots, and build righteousness and faithfulness in the land.” (The Message) This is the Messiah, and the nature of his work. It turns the values of our world upside down.

It was curious to hear news leak out of the Vatican. Apparently Pope Frances is not hiding away in his palace every night. Did you hear this? Word is, many nights he takes off his official robes, dresses down, and slips out the side door to spend time with the poor folks in Rome. He takes them food and sits down with them as they eat. It’s a habit he began when he served the church in Buenos Aires. And it’s the kind of thing that the followers of the Messiah will continue to do.

So when the Holy Father gives a speech about how the rest of the world is too obsessed with greed and materialism, this is where he is speaking from. A few weeks ago, he gave the boot to German church leaders who lived in luxury at the expense of their people, and I can only imagine that he makes a few people in the rich Vatican City a little nervous. Yet he points to the Messiah when he says, “To live charitably means not looking out for our own interests, but carrying the burdens of the weakest and poorest among us.”  

The prophet Isaiah declares this is what the Messiah does: he shows the care of God to those who have nobody else to care for them. He does not look upon outside appearances; he looks upon their need. And all of us have deep needs, even if we spent a lot of time covering them with makeup or wrapping them in bows and colorful paper. It doesn’t matter if we have a lot or if we have a little. All of us have a point of great need.

Oscar Romero, the church’s martyr whom we heard from last Sunday, had these words to say in the season of Advent. Let them sink in past your defenses.

“No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God – for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.”

This rings true with what Isaiah sees. The Messiah go to those who are poor in spirit, to those in greatest need, and to those who, even if they have a lot, still recognize their own needs. Who are they? You know who they are.

  • The father who doesn’t know if his daughter will make it home at Christmas, or the daughter who doesn’t know if the father will take her in.
  • The young mother who can’t afford necessities in her kitchen because she wants to get her kids something for Christmas, or the old woman who has outlived all friends.
  • The couple who live under the same roof but they do all they can to avoid speaking to each other.
  • The young alcoholic who can’t keep a job.
  • The divorcee who lost her smile.
  • The widower who is terribly lonely.
  • The 58-year-old man who hasn’t told his boss about the most recent diagnosis.
The Messiah comes for all of us, if we are honest.

And when he comes, there is a third truth that the prophet reveals, a third way to see what the world will not readily recognize. When the Messiah comes, life will be fully reconciled. The predator will lose interest in destroying the prey. The chronic victim will be strong enough to give up always being the victim. There will be no more destruction, of any kind, under any circumstances. Poisonous serpents have no bite. Little children are perpetually safe.

This is how the Messiah will rule over all things. Nobody gets their own way; what they get is the Messiah, and his way. No more seething animosity. No more lingering hurts that we perpetuate. No more whining or resentment. No more division of the house. No more advantages over others. No more sorting by external appearances, for God looks upon the heart, and God’s great dream is that all the critters that God has made will get along with one another.

Imagine this: the wolf and the lamb, reconciled.
The cow and the bear graze in the grass side by side.
The innocent child is at peace with the wily old serpent.
All things held together by the grace at the heart of the universe.

I don’t know what you want for Christmas, but I’ll bet it is something like this. These are the blessings we are promised, Holy Dreams implanted in the human soul, to say nothing of goals that we continue to strive for.

New life, in all the astonishment of a previously dead end.
Deep concern and action for those most weak and vulnerable.
All life reconciled and held together in the Messiah’s peace.  

Yes, that’s what I want. How about you? That’s what all of us want right now. Come, Messiah, come.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.