Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Storm Child

“…his own people did not accept him.”   — John 1:11

I have come to the conclusion that I like the idea of a White Christmas better than the reality of a White Christmas.  I don’t like driving in snow, and I don’t like shoveling it, and I don’t like walking across it once it’s turned into compacted ice day after day.  We’ve had a couple storms this December, and we’re slated to have another next weekend.  And when the storms come in, I don’t know about you, but all I want to do is stay home and ride out the storm with hot chocolate and a blanket.  I think that desire to go home is built into all of us. 

It’s even built into my smart phone.  All I have to say is, “OK, Google now!  Go home!”  And wherever I am it will pop up a map and navigation to lead me home.

Dorothy, in the Wizard of Oz, found out there was no place like home. Of course it took her 1 hour and 52 minutes, a really cranky witch, and a committee of flying monkeys to teach her, but she learned it.

Have you seen some of those Military homecoming videos on the evening news or on YouTube?  I think the ones I love best the ones where the dad or mom has been away in Afghanistan, and they surprise their kids at a school assembly.  I guess those are my favorites because I used to be a schoolteacher, and I would’ve loved to have been part of something like that.  But what if that mom or dad comes out and no one recognizes them.  What if no child bursts into tears and runs into their arms?  What if, instead of a welcome, the returning soldier was met with both indifference and in some cases outright hostility.

How unspeakably sad that would be.  How lonely.  How empty.  That emptiness is exactly what John tells us Jesus experienced.  Jesus was not recognized when he came home. 
     "He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him."                                                         — John 1:10, 11
 Of all people who should have been prepared to recognize the Messiah, it should’ve been his own nation.  Israel gloried in the commandments and ordinances and prophecies of their Scriptures.  Not only had their own Scriptures prepared them for Jesus’ homecoming, his cousin John the Baptist had tried to get them ready ahead of time to welcome Jesus — he told them Jesus was on his way home.  But if Jesus was expecting a warm welcome, he was sadly disappointed.

I wonder why so many folks were not able to welcome Jesus.  Maybe they felt unprepared, like they hadn't had a chance to clean up and present their best face.  A lot of people are afraid to welcome Jesus home today because they feel like they’re just not good enough.  It’s almost like they think they have to impress him or offer a spotlessly clean house and a perfectly tidy soul, before Jesus wants to be home with them.  And they forget his words, “Come unto me all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  (Matthew 11:28)  The only requirement for being safe at home with Jesus is being worn out from trying to handle everything yourself.

Sometimes, like the Jews of his day, we’re expecting a different Jesus to come home.  The Jews of Jesus’ day expected someone a bit more like the Lone Ranger who would ride into town on a white horse and shoot up the bad guys, the Romans.  And when he did come home talking about a spiritual reawakening, urging them to peace as opposed to violence, teaching them to love their neighbor, whoever that neighbor is… it made them mad.

Sometimes we want a Jesus to show up who isn’t quite so radical in his views about caring for the poor.  And we’d rather he not harp on how we shouldn’t be so materialistic especially so close to Christmas.  And couldn’t he be a little more supportive when instead of pursuing peace, we decide our first resort is to go for our guns?  We want a Jesus who agrees with our politics, our priorities, and our spending habits.  And when the real Jesus knocks on the door and challenges us to rethink some of these things, we don’t recognize him.  Sometimes we get mad, and we say, “I think you got the wrong house.”

Some folks are just too caught up in the busyness of their day-to-day lives to recognize just how much they need the new life that Jesus came to offer.  Sometimes, after a hectic day, they pause late at night when the kids are in bed, and the house is finally quiet.  And for just a few moments, they recognize there has to be more to life than just going to work, coming home exhausted, catching a few hours’ sleep, and then doing it all over again.  But then they get caught right back up in the rat race, and never find time to welcome Jesus home. 

But this isn’t the Gospel — The Good News. The Good News is found in verse 12:  “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”  The Good News is Jesus knew his children were longing for home, and he was determined that through the storms of this life they would have a home with him.

Garrison Keillor well-known for his stories from Lake Wobegon tells a story about what he called his "storm-home":

The principal of his school, Mr. Detman, fearful of a winter blizzard during the school day, assigned each student from the outlying county a "storm-home" in town, near the school. If a blizzard struck during school hours, each child was to go to their storm-home. Here is how Keillor told the story through his boyhood eyes: 
     Mine was the Kloeckles’, an old couple who lived in a little green cottage by the lake . . . . It looked like the home of the kindly old couple that the children lost in the forest suddenly come upon in a clearing and know they are lucky to be in a story with a happy ending . . .
     I imagined the Kloeckles had personally chosen me as their storm child because they liked me. "Him" they had told Mr. Detman. "In the event of a blizzard, we want that boy! The skinny one with the thick glasses."
     No blizzard came during the school hours that year. All the snow storms were convenient evening or weekend ones, and I never got to stay with the Kloeckles, but they were often in my thoughts and they grew large in my imagination.
     My Storm Home.
     Blizzards aren’t the only storms and not the worst by any means. I could imagine worse things. If the worst should come, I could go to the Kloeckles and knock on their door. "Hello," I’d say. "I’m your storm child."
     "Oh, I know," she’d say. "I was wondering when you’d come. Oh, it’s good to see you. How would you like a hot chocolate and an oatmeal cookie?"
     We’d sit at the table. "Looks like this storm is going to last awhile." (She’d say.)
     "Terrible storm. They say it’s going to get worse before it stops. I just pray for anyone who’s out in this."
     "But we’re so glad to have you. I can’t tell you. Carl! Come down and see who’s here."
     "Is it the storm child?"
     "Yes. Himself, in the flesh!"
Although he was not welcome home, Jesus knew how important home was.  So he became our storm-home and our strength.  And you… you are God’s storm-child.  Like that kindly couple who picked Garrison Keillor out to be their storm-child, our God, has chosen you. You are the beloved.  And when the storms of this life get to be too much, you have a place where you are always welcome... a home near the warm heart of God.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Joseph’s Lullaby

“ angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…’”            — Matthew 1
 A little over a week ago, the kids got their parts for the Christmas Pageant.  One little girl, about seven years old, came back to her mother, and her mother asked what part she got.  The little girl very seriously replied, “Head Angel,” and then victoriously pumped both her hands up in the air and said, “Whut! Whut!” 

Ninja Shepherds
Of course, the most coveted role is that of Mary, but there are a number of other choice roles.  Being a shepherd is cool among the boys.  You get to dress kind of raggedy, and you get to walk with those shepherds crooks which both make you feel a little bit like a bishop, and yet should the need arise… you could be a ninja.  That is, of course, one of the greatest challenges of Christmas pageants — keeping the shepherds from going ninja.  It’s great if you get to be one of the three Kings.  You get to dress up like royalty and carry rich gifts for the baby Jesus.

Even some of the minor roles are pretty exciting: Getting to go about on all fours and baa like sheep, getting to be Mary’s faithful donkey, or even one of the cows.  In more extravagant productions, a role as one of the three camels of the Magi might be available — now that’s a role that carries automatic prestige.

Poor Joseph!
But there’s one role in the Christmas pageant no one seems to be vying for… the part of Joseph.  Is there any worse role in a Christmas pageant than that of Joseph?  Joseph usually only gets to stand there.  Sometimes he’s the unlucky guy who gets to knock on the door of the inn only to find out there’s no room. 

Of the four Gospel writers, only Luke and Matthew have birth narratives.  Whereas Luke's story (Luke 1:5-2:20) focuses on Mary, Joseph is the main character in Matthew's account.  So, once every three years in our lectionary we take out Joseph, dust him off, and he gets to take center stage.

And after reading this account, we have to say Jesus' human dad was incredible!  Can you imagine Joseph’s emotions just in one night we read about in the gospel today?  He's gone from excitement about his pending marriage, to what had to be a feeling of betrayal by his virgin bride and her father, to a hard decision to end the farce engagement quietly.

It sounds like Joseph loved Mary.  Bare justice according to the Old Law would have been to shame her publicly.  But his regard for the law was balanced by a sense of compassion that exemplified the higher values of the Kingdom that would one day be proclaimed by his son.  Grace was at work in Joseph’s situation. In the midst of his grief, his inner turmoil and probably his sleepless night, he must have finally dozed off, and God sent an angel.

Now in our society, angels are seeing as kind of fluffy things… kind little cherubs you glue to your dashboard or put on Christmas trees.  But Scripture gives us another picture — especially of announcing angels.  In an article entitled, “The Truth About Angels in the Bible” Candida Moss writes: 
     " ... The Angel Gabriel, best supporting actor of modern nativity plays, is less serene when he announces the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah. 
     When Zechariah protests that he’s getting on a bit, Gabriel replies ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words … you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’ 
If you meet an angel,
you should probably run.
     That’s how he delivers the good news. As the poet Rilke wrote, ‘Every angel is terror.’... If you’re looking for spiritual assistance then you should call a saint. If you meet an angel you should probably run.”    — The Daily Beast (8/15/13)
 But as Joseph wrestled in his sleep, not knowing whether to follow his heart and take Mary to be his wife, or to give in to his crushed honor, and divorce her, an angel came — maybe it was Gabriel again who had also appeared first to Mary and Zechariah — and gave him the strength to follow his heart.  And with Joseph's acceptance of Mary as his wife, he becomes Jesus’ adopted father, and makes him legally of the tribe of David.  Though most of Joseph’s life goes unmentioned in the Gospels, he carried out an astonishingly important task: He accepted and raised the son of God. 

Joseph reminds us of how important dads are, but specifically dads who are vulnerable.  Men are often taught to be tough and invincible, but look at Joseph. Look at how vulnerable he made himself.  He opened himself up to the ridicule of his family and society.  He took the word of an angel who came to him in a dream.  How incredibly vulnerable Joseph was!  But also, how incredibly courageous!  You know, that’s what it takes to be courageous — the ability to be vulnerable.

Think about any act of courage in your life or in the lives of others, and you will see that each of these acts required a person to be incredibly vulnerable.  And we hate to be vulnerable.  We want to appear competent and able to handle anything.  Isn’t it funny that when we meet someone new, the first thing we are looking for in another is that human vulnerability?  It tells me that you will understand me.  But at the same time vulnerability is the very last thing we want others to see in us.

When you have a child, I think it is the most vulnerable can ever be.  That little person has complete access to your heart.  More of us dads need to be like Joseph… vulnerable… courageous.

We don’t hear much about Joseph after the nativity stories, but there’s a lesson in that too.  By raising Jesus, Joseph did a lot of meaningful things without any fanfare.  Joseph surely deserves a lot of our respect, for without his gifts of hospitality, acceptance, and love, the story of Christmas would have no beginning.  And with these gifts, Joseph is a model for all who are called by God to serve in supportive roles.

At the beginning of this gospel Joseph was trapped as many of us sometimes are between what appeared to be two equally bad choices: making a big scene about Mary and publicly shaming her or ending the marriage contract privately.  But because Joseph was the man he was — vulnerable, courageous, open to God— he was able to find the third way.  What surprises me about Joseph is that he shifts from "binary thinking" to considering a third option: to take Mary as his wife.

I wonder how often we are caught in a two-sided ethical dilemma when God actually has a third way in mind that has not occurred to us.  So many people nowadays have the tendency to think in terms of either–or.  Sadly, it often takes the form of being the kind of person who says, “It’s my way or the highway.”  Even if we are not that arrogant, we sometimes get stuck in the same kind of thinking in our own lives: “I’ll either win or lose… I’ll get this great job I want, or I’ll give up… I’ll lose fifty pounds this year, or just forget about it.”  Joseph allowed himself to be vulnerable enough to relinquish his own plan for his life so he could respond to the spiritual reality that was unfolding in the midst of this human drama.  Perhaps if we could unclench our fists around our plans… God could find a third way for us.  It’s scary being vulnerable like Joseph, but it’s also the basis all great acts of courage. 

We are so grateful that, just like Mary, Joseph said, “Yes,” to the angel.  There have been songs written about Mary singing a lullaby to Jesus, like all mothers do to their sleeping babies.  But a more recent poet, Ron Klug imagined another lullaby one that Joseph sang long after Mary and the child fell asleep that silent Christmas night...

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. 
— Ron Klug,"Joseph's Lullaby," Decision, December 1973. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Nelson Mandela and The Rifleman

     When I was asked to speak at an interfaith service for Nelson Mandela last week, my first thought was, “What in the world could a white guy raised in a lower middle class family in Sparks, Nevada possibly have to say about this great man that could not be said better by others?

     But then I remembered Chuck Connors in the TV show The Rifleman…

     When I was a kid, he was my hero.  And I… I was going to grow up to be a cowboy.  Funny how life doesn’t always turn out like we expect.  But because I looked up to Chuck Connors when I was a kid — because he was my hero — I did everything I could to be like him.  I had a cap gun I kept in a side holster, and I learned to ride horses… got pretty good at it too!

     We all grow up, and we get new heroes.  For many of us, Nelson Mandela was one.  If someone is your hero… if you look up to him… you try to be like him.  But being like Nelson Mandela isn’t as easy as buying a cap gun and learning to ride a horse.  So many other folks have talked about different aspects of his life, so I’ll just focus on one… what he thought about poverty.

     Mandela said, “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.  While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”

     There have been a lot of people eulogizing Nelson Mandela.  But if he’s really your hero — in this one area — it’s going to change the way you feel about the poor in your heart.
     It’s going to change the way you speak about and to the poor.
     It’s going to change the way you see your own finances as not all belonging to you.
     It’s going to change the programs you support in this country and the world.
     And… it may change the people you vote for.

     With Nelson Mandela gone, a great light has been extinguished in our world.  But we can all be like him in our own small way.  It’s not as easy as becoming a cowboy, but it will change the world.