Sunday, February 5, 2017

AN ELEPHANT NAMED ISAIAH

A number of years ago, a good friend—a layman—said to me, “When something big happens in our country, or the world, I expect to hear a word about it from my pastor.” I have been goaded by this straightforward request ever since. My friend was not asking for “politics from the pulpit,” but for the wisdom and counsel of his faith, his church, the scriptures—as they come together in the pastor’s call to “preach the gospel.” I say, “goaded,” because sometimes I’d rather avoid making any reference to whatever calamity or social upheaval is creating headlines, especially if I know that 51% of my parishioners would feel one way about it, and 49% would feel the other. (I want everybody to like me.) I’d rather find a passage that will let me preach on Sweet Jesus and leave it at that. Like the preacher who, on the Sunday following 9/11, said nothing about the attack because “it wasn’t in the lectionary.” (Talk about an “Elephant in the Room!”)

The lectionary: For many church bodies, this is an agreed-upon rotation of scripture texts used in worship. It’s not “church law”—there isn’t anything binding about it—it’s simply a practical way for a worshiping community to cover a good portion of the biblical message in a three-year cycle.

In the midst of our current national upheaval?... crisis?... unpleasantness?... I am again goaded by my friend’s expectation. What’s more, the lectionary itself this week gives me little wiggle room. This Sunday, my church bulletin, like the bulletins in thousands of congregations in the United States and around the world, will include, in its regular place in the cycle, these words from the 58th chapter of Isaiah. (This is God speaking):

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day…
 You fast only to quarrel and to fight
  and to strike with a wicked fist…
Is not this the fast that I choose:
  to loose the bonds of injustice,
  to undo the thongs of the yoke,
 to let the oppressed go free,
  and to break every yoke?
 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
  and bring the homeless poor into your house;
 when you see the naked, to cover them,
  and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

And it goes on (three times this long)—an unusually long lectionary passage. I’m tempted to simply read it and let it stand as the sermon. In any event, when I climb into the pulpit, I will not seek to convince the good folks in my parish concerning one politician or another. I will do my best to shut up and let Isaiah speak. I am not a biblical literalist; or, I should say, I am a pick-and-choose literalist like everyone else. But—literal or figurative—this reading doles out some marching orders for what it means to live out a Christian faith in these times. I find it as improbable to read this passage in worship while ignoring headlines about a fear-based policy of shutting out the immigrant, as it was for that hapless minister to get through a whole hour of worship on Sunday, September 16, 2001, without referring to the attacks of September 11.

Whatever Christians mean by "holy scripture," we certainly mean that Isaiah speaks to us down through the ages. Unless, that is, we want to say--as I once heard a self-proclaimed biblical literalist say to a similar passage--"That applied to them; it doesn't apply to us." It does apply to us. Isaiah speaks. What's more, as Scholars tell us, the very same biblical “prophets of doom” are also “prophets of hope,” and Isaiah is “Exhibit A.”  The lectionary passage for this Sunday concludes:

If you remove the yoke from among you…
 if you offer your food to the hungry
  and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
 then your light shall rise in the darkness
  and your gloom be like the noonday….
  you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
 you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
  the restorer of streets to live in.

Jesus’ itinerant family were among Isaiah’s “homeless poor”—given shelter in a barn. They became refugees fleeing a genocidal tyrant. The book of Exodus reminds us, “Do not mistreat or oppress a refugee, for you were refugees in Egypt.” We all came from someplace else. To America. Our new president, who has, surprisingly, appealed to a sizeable number of Christians, seems to know little and care less about the good news of their Gospel and its concern for the poor. I do not question or judge the core of their faith, but I do question their Bible-reading. They have had to be “pick-and-choose” readers of the Bible, ignoring the overwhelming number of biblical passages about justice for the poor, the outcast, the widow, and the immigrant. Passages represented in this Sunday’s lectionary.
Isaiah?

I’m a coward. I don’t want to preach on any of this. But I’d better. Otherwise, the Elephant in the room will be Isaiah.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

JOSEPH'S CAROL

When the Matthew Christmas story comes around in the rotation--as it did last Sunday--I see it as an opportunity, in my sermon, to give Joseph his due. However, my country church was cancelled last Sunday because of 24 degrees below zero (not counting wind chill). So I'll preach it here, and offer it as my blog Christmas card.

Scripture: Romans 1:1—7, Matthew 1:18—25
The full text of the carols cited in this sermon are printed at the end.

"St. Joseph the Worker and Christ"
(I love this image, but was Joseph
really an "old man?")
Matthew's nativity account is, we might say, Joseph's story, in the same way that the more familiar Christmas gospel in Luke is Mary's story.

It’s good to be reminded of Joseph’s part in Jesus’ life, because he often seems to disappear into the background. (Some scholars speculate that perhaps Joseph died at an early age, and thus gets little mention in the unfolding story of Jesus' life.) I was standing near a manger scene recently, and I overheard one person say to another, “Is that Joseph... or is it one of the shepherds?” Joseph perhaps could be excused for saying, in the words of the comedian, “I don’t get no respect.”

Yet--alongside of our devotional admiration for Mary--it is completely appropriate for us to give Joseph his proper place in Jesus' family. Both Matthew, in his genealogy of Jesus, and St. Paul, in the companion reading from Romans (see above), emphasize that Jesus is descended from David through Joseph’s line. It is Joseph who adopts Jesus as his own. (As an adoptive father, I'm here to attest that that bond of love is exactly the same as the bond of biology.) It is through Joseph that Jesus gets his identity as the son of the carpenter. It is Joseph who names the boy "Jesus," and who is told by the angel of another name: "Emmanuel." In the way that we give affectionate nicknames to our little ones, I like to think that, when Jesus was a child, perhaps Joseph used his angel-given name--Emmanuel--and called him occasionally and lovingly by a nickname, "Manny." Little Manny--Little Emmanuel. "See, little Manny, here's how daddy smooths a piece of wood...."

In Matthew's story, we see a man who is kind, brave, and faithful both to God and to his fiancĂ©e – even when she appears to be in a very difficult situation. So Joseph doesn’t deserve to be the man in the shadows that our traditions have cast him as: confused for a shepherd, or (and why is this?) often thought of as on old man.


Mary was most likely fifteen or sixteen years old, a common marriage age for a young woman of that time and place; Joseph was perhaps twenty, certainly not much older than that. But in one of our ancient carols, the “Cherry Tree Carol,” we sing

When Joseph was an old man, an old man was he,
He married Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galillee….

Now, there is one part of this old carol that I like--a verse that I find very true-to-life. When Mary asks Joseph to pick some cherries from the tree for her, he replies, “Let the father of your baby pick cherries for thee!”

In that brief line we see Joseph – no less faithful or loving – giving in to just a moment of exasperation. This is quite a miraculous idea, after all--the story of how Mary came to be with child. So perhaps it is understandable that Joseph should express just a bit of wide-eyed skepticism: “Let the father of your baby pick cherries for thee.”

We have the same human interplay between Mary and Joseph – put a little more tenderly – in another carol. Here the scene is on the road to Bethlehem. Night, darkness, walking along together. First, Joseph speaks:

Mary, the night is dark, you’re getting weary;
I thought we’d reach Bethlehem long before now.
I know a little inn – the keeper’s a friend of mine –
he’ll find a bed for you somewhere, somehow.
... Mary, of course I will stay with you always,
though your “angel’s message” I don’t understand.
Now, while we’re looking for light in the darkness,
I’ll hold the candle and you hold my hand.

Then Mary speaks, with just a bit of affectionate chiding, and with gratitude to this good man:

Joseph, the message is our little baby,
and you are the angel who guides us tonight
over this rocky road, under this starry sky –
Look at that one that is shining so bright!
Joseph, what keeps you so true to your promise,
when this isn’t anything like you had planned?
Could it be love? Do you feel love around us?
You hold the candle and I’ll hold your hand.

The great Christmas truth of incarnation – that God has come to us as a person – takes place in the heart of a family: Mother, baby, and father. We do not diminish our devotion to Jesus as Son of God when we acknowledge, as the Bible does, that Joseph is Jesus’ dad.

In his poem "Joseph's Lullaby," Ronald Klug offers a meditation on what Joseph might have been thinking there in the stable as Mary sleeps, exhausted, and he gently rocks the manger box that he has transformed into a cradle for his son, little Emmanuel. Little Manny. His little Jesus.

Sleep now, little one.
I will watch while you and your mother sleep.
I wish I could do more.
This straw is not good enough for you.
Back in Nazareth I'll make a proper bed for you
of seasoned wood, smooth, strong, well-pegged,
A bed fit for a carpenter's son.
Just wait till we get back to Nazareth.
I'll teach you everything I know.
You'll learn to choose the cedarwood, eucalyptus and fir.
You'll learn to use the drawshave, ax and saw.
Your arms will grow strong, your hands rough--like these.
You will bear the pungent smell of new wood
and wear shavings and sawdust in your hair.
You'll be a man whose life centers on hammer and nails and wood.
But for now, sleep, little Jesus, sleep.

“Joseph’s Lullaby,” by Ronald Klug, 
from “Poetry for the Soul,”
Moorings Publishers, Nashville, 1995
_______________________________________________________
Carols

MARY, THE NIGHT IS DARK

Joseph
Mary, the night is dark, you’re getting weary;
I thought we’d find Bethlehem long before now.
I know a little inn – the keeper’s a friend of mine –
He’ll find a bed for you somewhere, somehow.
Mary, of course I will stay with you always,
Though your “angel’s message” I don’t understand.
Now, while we’re looking for light in the darkness,
I’ll hold the candle and you hold my hand.

Mary   
Joseph, the message is our little baby,
And you are the angel that guides us tonight
Over this rocky road, under this starry sky –
Look at that one that is shining so bright!
Joseph, what keeps you so true to your promise,
When this isn’t anything like you had planned?
Could it be love? Do you feel love around us?
You hold the candle and I’ll hold your hand.

Shepherd boy & father

Father, I’m frightened; the whole sky was glowing!
The nighttime was brighter than sunshine at noon.
The sound of a thousand wings – something was happening,
And now it’s so dark – just that star and the moon.
Father, you fell to your knees in that brightness.
“Yes, till the angel’s song told me to stand!
Now let us go find that Bethlehem stable;
I’ll hold the candle and you hold my hand.”

People 
Dear baby Jesus, we follow the shepherds –
Follow a star to the place where you sleep.
Mary and Joseph rest; you sleep in gentleness –
A little light shining in shadows so deep.
Jesus, you’ve been the light from the beginning –
And, in these days when night covers the land,
You are the Word that we hear in the darkness:
“I’ll hold the candle and you hold my hand.”

Richard Jorgensen © 2002


THE CHERRY TREE CAROL 
a traditional English carol, very old

When Joseph was an old man,
An old man was he,
He married Virgin Mary
The Queen of Galilee.

Joseph and Mary walked
Through an orchard good,
There were cherries and berries,
As red as any blood.

Then Mary spoke to Joseph
So meek and so mild:
"Joseph, gather me some cherries,
For I am with child."

Then Joseph grew in anger,
In anger grew he,
"Let the father of thy baby
Gather cherries for thee!

Then Jesus spoke a few words,
A few words spoke he:
"Let my mother have some cherries,
Bow low down, cherry tree."

The cherry tree bowed low down,
Bowed low down to the ground,
And Mary gathered cherries
While Joseph stood around.

Then Joseph took Mary
All on his right knee,
"My Lord, what have I done?
Have mercy on me."

As Joseph was a-walking
He heard an angel sing,
"Tonight shall be the birth time
Of Christ our Heav'nly King."

"He neither shall be born
In house nor in hall,
Nor in the place of Paradise,
But in an ox's stall."

"He neither shall be clothed
In purple nor in cloth,
But in the bare white linen
That useth babies all."

"He neither shall be rocked
In silver nor in gold,
But in a wooden manger
That rests upon the mold."

As Joseph was a-walking
And an angel did sing,
And Mary's child at midnight
Was born to be our King.

Then be ye glad ye people
This night of all the year,
And light ye up your candles
For his star it shineth clear.



IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER
Christina Rosetti
(revised with a verse for Joseph)


In the bleak midwinter,
frosty wind made moan,   
earth stood hard as iron,
water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow,
snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter,
long ago.

Joseph found a shelter,
made a bed of straw,
laid down Mary gently,
knelt by her in awe
that he’d be the father
of this baby boy –
Emmanuel, God with us,
and the whole world’s joy!

What can I give him,
poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man,
I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him
give my heart.

Monday, May 9, 2016

MOTHER MARY, MOTHER MONICA, MOTHER VI: A PERIPATETIC MEDITATION ON MOTHER'S' DAY

As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.... ~ God, in Isaiah 66:13
Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety. ~Mary, to twelve-year-old Jesus, upon finding him in the temple after a three-day search in the city. Luke 2:48*
In January of 2002, I was traveling back to Minnesota from South Dakota, where I had attended a winter pastors’ retreat at Outlaw Ranch, in Custer. I had also visited my mother—who was living in Custer, near my brother Bob and sister Betty—and had extended my stay for a few days longer than planned when it was decided that Mom would go into Rapid City hospital for surgery to remove a recently discovered cancer. She had entered the hospital with a sense of optimism, but an even stronger sense of assurance that all was in God’s hands, and that she was prepared for whatever the outcome of the surgery might be. The morning after surgery, while she was still in a very groggy recovery, I said a prayer for her, kissed her on the forehead, and said good-by, leaving her in the loving care of my brother and sister – expecting that I’d travel back in a few weeks to visit her in her recuperation.

Now I was heading east, across the open prairies of South Dakota, the landscape of my childhood, and—once I had crossed east of the river—the particular landscape I remembered from my early years in Pierre and Huron, before we moved west. When I’m traveling alone, I like to get off I-90 and take the smaller highways. This time I was driving highway 34, and listening to an audio book, “The Confessions of St. Augustine.” Augustine was a bishop in Carthage, North Africa—an outpost of the Roman Empire—in the fourth century A.D. As the narrator made mention of Carthage, I passed a road sign that said “Carthage, eleven miles,” and I remembered that this was one of the small South Dakota towns in which my dad had served as teacher, principal and coach in the first years of their marriage, before the war—before I was born.

On impulse – and because of the strange connection with St. Augustine’s Carthage – I turned toward Carthage, South Dakota, and a few minutes later drove into this very small town. On Main Street, I asked directions to the school from an elderly woman who said she remembered Mr. Jorgensen, but that she would have been too young to have had him as a teacher. I found the school building – boarded up but still standing, and I went up and touched my hand to the brick.
This was the town where Mom and Dad were living when the war broke out, and I recalled how Mom had said they lived in a small apartment in a house across the street from the school; it occurred to me that this was probably where they heard the Pearl Harbor broadcast. I studied the neighborhood, trying to guess which house had been theirs. Then I continued east; South Dakota highway 34 became Minnesota Highway 30, and in a few hours I was in Faribault.

When I walked in the door, Caryl told me that Bob had called to report that the biopsy after Mom’s surgery had revealed an unexpectedly large spread of cancer. In the middle of the night he called to tell us that Mom had died. We wept, we missed her, we miss her still, but we quietly rejoiced that her journey of suffering was over, and her life with her Lord – and Dad – was brand new.
~

Depiction,  in stained glass, of Monica and her son, Augustine.
St. Augustine – Aurelius Augustinus – was a wild, headstrong young man, full of pride. An extremely intelligent wise guy who used his smarts to get good grades,  good jobs, and girls. (He once prayed, “Lord, grant me chastity, but not yet!”) And he used his knowledge of philosophy to argue the impossibility of Christianity. After his conversion to Christ, Augustine became a bishop of the church in the stormy time of the end of the Roman Empire. His story – which is sometimes considered the first autobiography in western literature – is his own confession of what started out as a wayward and wasted life. (Augustine became one of the foundational theologians of the early church; over a thousand years later his writings influenced a young priest named Martin Luther.) I recommend the book, or the audio book (especially if you’re driving across South Dakota!). You may agree that it is a Christian devotional classic. But, on this Mothers' Day, I ponder and reflect on just one element of his story:  His mother prayed for him.

Augustine’s mother Monica was a devout Christian married to a non-believing husband. Proving that some things never change, Augustine writes that his father spent beyond his means to get his son into the finest schools to fulfill Dad’s own ambition, but that he had no interest in nurturing his son’s relationship with God.** 

Of his mother, he writes that “she never ceased to pray for me.” Monica prayed for seventeen years from the beginning of his adulthood before Augustine became a Christian. She used to go to priests and beg them for prayers, until some would try to avoid her or send her away. One priest encouraged her by saying: “A son who is the object of so many tears will not be lost.” Augustine’s mother was for him – in the word’s of St. Paul – “a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your heart.” After her death, Augustine said, “She called me a devoted son, But what common measure is there between the respect with which I treated her, and the service she did to me? She made it her business to win me for Christ by preaching him to me through her way of life.”

I was surprised that I identified with Augustine – not because my life is that of a saint, and not because my youth was like his (I wasn’t half as wild or interesting) – but because our mothers prayed for us. As I look back, for all I know – even though my life has not been one of great drama or rebellion – perhaps my mother prayed me into faith. Certainly it’s true of myself, as I once heard a well-known preacher say when he began his keynote address to an auditorium full of people at a national church convention, “I’m here today because my parents made me come.” A friend of mine says that upon the death of his own mother, his first thought was, “Oh, now who’s going to pray for me?” I know what he means.

An enduring memory of my childhood is the muffled sound I heard after I‘d gone to bed – after mom or dad had said prayers with me – I knew it was the sound of mom and dad having their own nightly devotions.

In her funeral pre-arrangements, my mother had requested that my two preacher brothers-in-law and I wear our clergy collars at the funeral. We told her pastor that this was her wish – that we weren’t trying to intimidate him, sitting in the front pew in our collars. Of course this was a matter of old-fashioned parental pride for Mom – but it’s also an indication that she was a person of the church. At the funeral, the pastor shared a recent anecdote: My brother had brought Mom to Christmas services in what he thought was plenty of time, but which necessitated that they sit in the very back. As mom looked around, she lightly scolded Bob, “I’ve never sat this far back in church in my life!” (And, speaking of my brother – a gifted carpenter and home-builder, and the only one of us guys at the funeral without a clergy collar – we’ve always told Bob that he’s the holiest of us all, since our Lord Jesus was a carpenter!)

What was the prayer of Monica, Augustine’s mother? What was my mother’s prayer? What is your prayer for your children, or your friend’s prayer for you?  It is this: It is St. Paul’s prayer in Philippians: “I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Although perhaps not in those exact words, that is the prayer of a parent for a child, of a brother or sister for a wandering brother or sister, of a friend for a prodigal friend. It is a prayer I have shared more than once with a parent in my office, weeping for her child, “I am sure that he who began a good work in your beloved child will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Parents, brothers, sisters, spouses, friends: pray that prayer. Claim the promises of God; say to God “God, I know that, for Jesus sake, you will bring your good work to completion for my son, my daughter, my husband, my wife, my friend.” Like Mother Monica – take it to the Lord in prayer.

At the very genesis and heart of the gospel's story is the ordinary wonder that our Lord Jesus had a mom. We honor Mary not as a plaster saint, but as the mother of this kid. We know that being the mother of a headstrong twelve-year-old Jesus was a trial. And we know – although most of us don’t know – about the broken heart of a mother at the foot of the cross. Our creed is not only that Jesus is our Lord, but that he is Mary’s boy. Because she loved him enough to say, on that frantic day among the crowds,  “Where have you been! Don’t you know your father and I have been worried sick!” Like my mom would have said when I was twelve. Like your mom would have.

Mother Mary, Mother Monica, Mother Vi; your mother – or someone who is mother to you—are gifts of God to us, to set us on the path. It is perhaps, after all, not just sentimentalism to say that God couldn’t be everywhere, so He invented mothers.

And God himself says to us: “Like a mother comforts her child – so I will comfort you.”

Not a bad comparison. 
  
_______________________________________________________________________________________
*The story of Jesus' separation from his parents as he sits with the elders in the temple (Luke 2:41-51) is the only account of Jesus' childhood in all of the gospels (apart from the infancy narratives). It is usually lifted up as a pious example of the divine boy's spiritual acuity and promise. As a father and grandfather, I find much more comfort in reading it as an account of a somewhat mouthy pre-teen whose parents don't understand him.

**Monica eventually prayed her husband into the faith, too. Quite a woman!