Sunday, December 23, 2012

SOME ROUGH LINES AT CHRISTMAS, II


Rough lines, indeed. For the last few years I've challenged myself to write a Christmas sermon in verse (or is that doggerel?). I offer this as my blog Christmas Card, with thanks for your reading. God bless us every one!



Love came down at Christmas... ~Christina Rossetti


What saves Christmas for us from being just
sentiment is that crude barn, and the dust,
and those shepherds – why shepherds? There are no
princes or holy men in Luke’s tale, so

although we have beautified the small scene
and placed our nativity under the green
boughs of our lovely, well-shaped Christmas tree,
the gospel each season calls us to see

a baby, new-born, in a chilly old shed,
away in a manger – no crib for his bed.
Homeless, with rags his first baby clothes;
bleak midwinter, indeed! and nobody knows

where they are. Of course, in history’s view
they’re nowhere. That is to say, lost in the new
geopolitical empire of Rome --
refugees, wandering, looking for home.

Nobody knows – and who cares where they are?
Who wants to find them? Who’d look very far
for this young mother, this father, this son?
Like most homeless folks they are out there alone.

Nobody knows, that is, except the creator of
the universe. This family, held in love
by one another, is held, too in the heart
of God. Though lost in the night – he knows where they are.

But tonight that’s reversed, and God is the one
who in the arms of his mother is held as a son;
who sleeps in a strawbox, with animals round;
the high king of heaven thus here is found

among us: the word became flesh. Please know
that God so loved the world, and this love will show
most deeply if God in the heaven stoops down
to the lowest repute he can own.

It’s not how I’d do it – or you? It would be
more impressive if the whole world would see
a flash of great power, an army of might.
Not an impoverished family in cover of night.

But God, in the end, is not power or might;
he’ll not use the weapons of terror or fright.
In the end, God is love, and that’s all he will be:
A cosmos of love in this baby we see.

In that barn, on that night, in that backwater place,
Love came down at Christmas to show us the face
of God in the strange but familiar guise
of... one of us – in a small baby’s eyes.

And the news is not shouted from a castle’s high gable,
but shepherds are sent from pasture to stable.
Shepherds! And when this poor baby is grown
it’s still to the poorest he’ll make himself known.

The wrong kind of people, society will
think it’s an outrage, but Jesus will still
love and forgive both the low and the high;
he’ll forgive from the cross where they take him to die.

And Mary, who pondered by a small wooden manger,
will ponder again as she sees the sad danger
that her son has grown into, she’ll weep at the loss
of this wonderful boy on a crude wooden cross.

And we’ve beautified that, too -- made crosses of gold.
It’s as though we don’t quite get the story we’re told:
That the creator of everything came down to die,
to take our death upon him, the king standing by --

the King, who thinks that his troubles are gone
with the rabble that followed this rebellious one.
But rebellion does not even begin to describe
what will be unleashed when the stone’s set aside

from a rocky carved tomb on the side of a hill,
and we see that it wasn’t a man they would kill,
but they tried to kill love, and it wouldn’t stay down;
love arose, the same love that early was shown

on that night when the star broke the darkness so deep,
in that place where, exhausted, a young mother did sleep.
Where the wrong kind of people gave birth to a boy
who was God the creator. And all the world’s joy!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

EMMANUEL: THE FIRST HEART TO BREAK


Note: I determined early on that this web journal would not be a depository for my sermons, so this is a first. This is slightly revised from a sermon I preached last Sunday, December 16, in response to the tragedy in Connecticut. The Philippians passage was one of the regularly assigned lectionary texts for the day.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. ~Paul, to the Philippians, 4:4-7 
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The Gospel of John, speaking of Jesus, says, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overpower it." This light is not a supernova or a sunburst, but the tiniest pin-point of light in a sea of darkness. The darkness cannot put it out. That's not to say it isn't trying awfully hard. ~adapted from Douglas John Hall, "Lighten Our Darkness."
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Earlier this week I began to prepare a sermon based on this part of Paul’s letter to the Philippians from our lectionary for today -- a letter he wrote from prison: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” Double rejoicing! And then the tragic events of Friday in Connecticut happened, and my hand moved to toss the sermon – and Paul’s text – into the recycling bin. But I hesitated, and thought, and… we’ll come back to that letter in a moment, but first I want to take a detour, a detour through the path of suffering and sorrow that is found in our scriptures and winds through the heart of our faith.

In a few days we will celebrate Christmas – perhaps a more subdued celebration this year, as we see Mary and Joseph huddle protectively around a little one born into darkness, doubt, and danger. And a few days after that, our calendar will commemorate a day that the church for centuries has called, “The Slaughter of the Innocents.”  A day and title that has a sadly recent familiar sound to it. It is a remembrance of the time when a threatened King Herod arranged for the killing of all boy babies under a certain age. The gospel writer Matthew, quoting Jeremiah, says,

A voice was heard in Ramah
Wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
She refused to be consoled
Because they are no more.

“She refused to be consoled because they are no more.” The scriptures simply do not whitewash or deny the pain of life. Rather they give voice to it. Scripture is not a dispenser of easy answers, it is place of questions – our questions-- a treasury of words, and the Word, to express the expressionless. In fact, so-called “holy scripture” is not holy because of some religious decree or because it’s so beautiful, but because – down through the centuries – it rings true to the human experience. It turns out that life is, in fact, a walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Where have we gotten the idea that our faith teaches “every day in every way things are getting better and better,” or, “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.”?

C.S. Lewis writes that “In every age there have been civilized people, and in every age they have been surrounded by barbarism.” And theologian Douglas John Hall asserts that “the Bible writers will give up on the glory of God before they’ll deny the reality of human suffering.” The central sign of our faith is that in the cross God is with us in our suffering. The cross, from which Jesus, echoing the despair of the unconsoled Rachel, cries, “My God, my God! Why have you abandoned me?” Do you not suppose that there are parents in Connecticut this very morning, who may not even know they are quoting scripture, who are crying out with that same lament? “God, why have you abandoned me?”

Jesus’ questions are our questions; the answer that faith offers does not deny death but takes it on and takes it in and defeats it with love. But there’s no getting around that cross.

Perhaps it is we preachers, or the way we build our Sunday School lessons, that have caused many to adopt the notion that if we simply have enough faith (or enough “religion”) we will prosper and all will go well for us; suffering will be averted. Jesus promises – promises – the opposite: “In this world you will have trouble.” It’s a promise. Paul makes a similar case: “We are afflicted in every way.” Get used to it. We are afflicted in every way, “but not crushed.” And Jesus adds, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.” I would not be in this pulpit this morning if I did not believe both parts of that promise. How does Jesus overcome the world? The cross. The cross on which Jesus is with us in our suffering. From which he laments and forgives. On which he dies. The executioner’s cross – not a valentine heart – is the real sign of love.

When the late William Sloan Coffin lost a young son to another kind of tragedy (death by drowning in an alcohol-related auto accident) he was appalled at the number of his fellow preachers who observed that this must have been God’s will. To which Coffin replied, “I think it was God’s will that my son would have had one or two fewer beers that night!” And he went on to say, “We have to get it out of our heads that God goes around with his hands on the steering wheels of cars or his finger on the triggers of guns. When the waters closed over the top of my son’s car, the first of our hearts to break was God’s.”

God is with us. It’s what “Emmanuel” means. With us. In our suffering. In our despair.

Here is Psalm 88. (In the church service we read it together.) There is something distinctive about it:

O LORD, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
like those forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O LORD;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
But I, O LORD, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O LORD, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dread assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
from all sides they close in on me.
You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;
my companions are in darkness.

What sets this Psalm apart from the other one hundred and forty-nine is this: It is the only psalm that begins in despair and ends in despair and, in the middle – more despair. What the heck is this doing in the Bible?! A number of years ago a friend, another pastor, told me of a time in which he was lost in depression and sorrow – almost paralyzed. He said that he was leafing idly through the Bible, and his eyes landed on this psalm. “There is where my healing began!” he told me. “Here was someone who knew what I was feeling.”

Does this psalm also, perhaps, speak for some in Connecticut? From despair to despair to despair? We pray for the beginning of a deep healing that matches a deep sorrow.

And so we come back to Paul, sitting in that prison cell in Rome, writing to his beloved congregation in Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord….” What restrained my hand from tossing his letter into the recycling bin is that picture – that thought: That Paul – who also sat in darkness and danger in the prison cell that would lead to his murder by a madman; the same threatened, mad emperor who had killed his friend Peter – could write, “Rejoice in  the Lord….” In the Lord.

Rejoice in the Lord – who is with us in our suffering. Who walks with us into a darkness so deep that we cannot see the light. Who leads us to green pastures. Still waters. Peace.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

DADDY, IS THERE REALLY A SANTA CLAUS?

From the time that our kids were little, I determined that I didn't want to mislead them about Santa Claus. Now I also want to be truthful with our grandkids. But I don't want to play the role of the Grinch! So my answer, when the direct question comes, is "There was a real man named St. Nicholas who lived many years ago. He was kind to children and poor people, and over many years his name changed to Santa Claus. Our Santa Claus is a fun way that we remember St. Nicholas at Christmas."

Here's one way to tell the story:




HOW SAINT NICHOLAS BECAME SANTA CLAUS

Saint Nicholas, the legends say,
became our Santa in this way:
while passing by a widow's door
his heart was moved to help the poor.

Her humble hut brought to his mind
the  little shed Joseph did find
on Christmas Eve so long ago,
when Christ was born to Mary. So

he went to church and knelt in prayer
to ask a way that he could care
for widows and for chidren, too;
and as he stood, he spied his shoe!

His shoe?! An idea came to mind:   
"I know just the place to find
a way to do what I will do!
The answer's here inside my shoe!"

He took a stocking from the shelf,
and – all in secret, by himself –
he poured a few gold coins inside,
and said, "I’ll take a Christmas ride!”

No--no reindeer – no, not yet.
Don't rush the story – don't forget
that we're still at the early part.
He rode off in a donkey cart!

They trotted up the village road
and found the widow's small abode.
"Shh, you stay here," said good St. Nick,
"While I go play my little trick."

He tossed the sock as he passed by,
but then his aim went far too high!
(The old saints eyes were old, you see.)
He threw it down the chim-n-ey!

(And ever since, on Christmas Eve,
like all good children, we believe
St. Nicholas with his sock of gold
will find all Christmas chimneys cold!)

The widow thought she heard a sound
and toward her hearth she turned around,
and there upon the ashes cold
she found a stocking full of gold!

In her happiness she knew
exactly what she had to do:
A feast for the whole neighborhood!
(The good saint's deed was doing good!)

And Nicholas kept giving more,
kept finding ways to help the poor.
Stockings, sacks. And sometimes toys
were in his bag for girls and boys.

All this started way down south;
but soon – by song and word-of-mouth –
the story told on desert sands
had found its way to winter lands.

So way up north, in ice and snow,
the donkey – well, he had to go;
he's grazing in the southern sun.
It's reindeer now for St. Nick's run!

And stockings? It's not hard to see
that they're still near the chim-n-ey;
but not down in the fireplace –
the mantle's a much nicer place.

And lips like cherries? Twinkling eyes?
Reindeer flying through the skies?
All that about "The Night Before...?"
The credit goes to Clement Moore.*

But what about old Santa's name?
you said St. Nicholas became
the Santa that we know today.
Has Nick's name changed along the way?

That's easy. Say it two times, fast:
Saint Nicholas, San-ti-calas;
now, two times more, don't stop to pause:
San-ti-calus – Hey! "Santa Claus!"

Some things change, some stay the same.
And Santa Claus by any name
is still the spirit of St. Nick,
still chuckling at his little trick.

And we, with stockings lined up straight
on Christmas Eve can hardly wait.
We go to bed, we wake to see
what Santa brings for you and me.

But there's a lesson we learn, too,
when Santa visits me and you.
It's from a story, long and old:
The widow shared good St. Nick's gold.

Saint Nicholas, the legends say,
became our Santa in this way:
While passing by a widow's door
his heart was moved to help the poor.

                                                                                                    
 © Richard Jorgensen

This  story is based (very loosely!) on legends that grew up around the historical
figure of Nicholas, a bishop who lived in Turkey in the fourth century. Nicholas
was renowned for his good deeds, and was later declared to be “Saint Nicholas.”

*Most of our images and traditions about Santa Claus today come from
the delightful poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” (“’Twas the Night Before
Christmas”) written by The Rev. Clement Moore for his children on Christmas
Eve, 1822.