Monday, December 29, 2008

Inaugural Honors for Rev. Joseph Lowery

In recent weeks there has been much hub-bub over the announcement of President Elect Obama's choice of Pastor Rick Warren to lead the invocation at the January 20th inauguration. And while that controversy continues to rage, little has been said about Obama's choice of Rev. Joseph Lowery to offer the benediction.

Rev. Lowery is an esteemed United Methodist clergyperson who has spent his life struggling for the civil rights of all people. In 1957, Lowery co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Revs Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth and Ralph David Abernathy. Just a few years later he was appointed assistant to the Bishop in Nashville and led efforts to desegregate the local hotels and restaurants. In 1965, he was asked by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to deliver the demands of the Selma to Montgomery march to Governor Wallace and in 1968 as pastor of an Atlanta congregation he led efforts by faith communities to build affordable and low income housing. And, this is just a small sample of the long list of accomplishments on Rev. Lowery's resume!

Over his lifetime, Lowery has been a tireless advocate for the civil rights of all people...including gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. In fact, Rev. Lowery was the first person at Coretta Scott King's funeral to mention her support for the LGBT community, reminding the congregation that King "frowned on homophobia." Although stopping short of advocating for same-sex marriage, Lowery himself has come out in support for the full civil rights of gay and lesbian folks. In a statement to the Southern Voice he said,
"I support civil rights for all citizens and this includes gay and lesbians citizens. I support civil unions and full benefits (visitation, insurance, etc) for partners in same sex relationships...I am strongly opposed to propositions or amendments that put into law any discrimination against citizens because of sexual orientation."
While the anger and disappointment at Warren's selection still stings, I have to wonder what would happen if instead of controversy, all Warren received was silence. Indeed, Lowery himself speculated in an article in the Washington Blade that "By the time Aretha sings, the poem is read, people may have already forgotten what Warren said.”

And that very well may be true.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Plausibility of the Possible

"Hope is believing in the Plausibility of the possible over the necessity of the probable." (Mimonides. 12th century)

The reading from Luke follows the young holy family from the birth we celebrated just a few days ago to the ritual infant dedication at the temple today. Everything seems to be going according to planned. According to Jewish custom, the infant was presented before the assembled crowd, a sacrifice of two turtledoves was made (sound familiar), and the family about to depart. The rite of dedication and purification seemed complete. But just as the young family was about to leave, something unexpected happened.

An elderly man, by the name of Simeon entered the temple and swept the infant Jesus into his arms. Holding Jesus high he recited a poetic, prophetic thanksgiving to the babe, saying, “My eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared of all peoples, a light to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

And as they stood in awe at this revelation, yet another prophet entered, Anna, a woman of great age and tremendous devotion. And she too, like Simeon took the child in arms and offered up a prophecy, naming the child not as Jesus, son of Joseph and Mary, but as the very redemption of Israel.

Now this passage should be familiar to us for we read it just a few months ago at the christening of Endelyn Jean. If you remember, we came to see that this event was not simply a mere cultural or ritual dedication. Rather what happened here was something much more significant…it was a naming and calling forth of Jesus as the person who he would grow to be, as the Messiah, the Chosen One, the Liberator, the Savior of all nations.

While Mary and Joseph had merely come as duty to offer a sacrifice in God’s honor for the birth and life of their firstborn child, now something more was happening. More than just bestowing a given name upon the child, more than being raised as a sacrifice and offering to God, more than an act of devotion or praise, now Jesus was being called into the future, named by strangers as the savior, the messiah. If you remember, we understood this action as was a prophetic calling into being.

This naming was a calling forth of Jesus’ identity, a calling into being of Jesus’ self, and a call into the future of what was to come. Rather than compel the child to do or be something the parents or society desired, the prophetic blessings was a lure into a future not completely known, yet bursting with possibility and potential. Naming Jesus in this way, both Simeon and Anna bestowed upon the child a living hope for the future. Full of expectation and promise, this dedication was more than just a static offering of praise to God, more than an act of reverence for the past, it was participation in the living hope that is God. It was the belief in something more than the tiny infant they saw. It was the hope beyond the frail limbs and the wrinkled skin. It was a dream beyond imagination.

It is ironic that the ones to predict the future are the ones of the past. Imagine for a moment, Simeon and Anna, standing with the tiny babe in their arms. The contrast must have seemed stark…the soft, tender skin of the child embraced by elderly, wrinkled hands, weary and worn by the ages. We are told that after merely holding the infant, Simeon declared that now he can die in peace, for he has seen the salvation that is to come. We might imagine that the old man is overcome so completely by the prophecy, so consumed by the joy that snatching an infant from its mother’s arms seems perfectly acceptable. Perhaps we envision him jumping and dancing, giddy and laughing, or perhaps we see him astonished and transfixed in wonder. Or perhaps the joy is so intense the most he can manage is to stare at the child with tears flowing as he takes in salvation for the first time in his life. Holding the child and believing in the possibility of redemption is all Simeon needs.

Both Simeon and Anna seem to find their greatest hopes and dreams fulfilled in this child, yet we must ask ourselves, what have they really seen, after all? We who read with the advantage of 2000 years of hindsight, understand immediately the significance of proclaiming this child the savior. But, how in the world would Simeon and Anna have had any knowledge of this? John Stendahl reminds us ,

“All they could see was a little child, a powerless, speechless newcomer to the world. Whatever salvation this baby might work is still only a promise and a hope; whatever teaching the child might offer will remain hidden for many years. Nothing has happened yet. Herod still sits on his throne and Caesar governs from afar. The world looks exactly as it did before.”

Simeon and Anna, both well advanced in age would not live to see the fulfillment of their prophecies in Jesus. They would never know if what they proclaimed that day ever came true, yet, they believed nonetheless. There they stood in grateful wonder at the future held so tenderly in their hands. The promise of this child was enough. Despite all signs to the contrary, Simeon and Anna believed. You see they for us today embody hope “as the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable.”

Indeed what was the likelihood of a child from Nazareth being a light to the Gentiles and a savior to the Israelites? Wasn’t the Messiah to be a strong, powerful warrior, who would liberate the Israelites from the political captivity of the imperial powers, who would right the wrongs of the past and replace foreign rule with an unending reign of the House of David? And yet, Simeon and Anna see in this tiny, vulnerable babe, the one who will be both the savior of Israel and a light to the Gentiles, the ones who have oppressed the Israelites for so long. Come to think of it, it’s not a likely scenario at all and yet, Simeon and Anna believed, nonetheless. They believed in the plausibility of the possible and not the necessity of the probable.

Perhaps we might be tempted to take this as one more redaction from the later writers of the gospel, as evidence of their writing in the history they wished to be…and perhaps it is. Yet, the story remains powerful for us. For what more do we have now than Simeon and Anna had then? John Stendahl reminds us that,
“We too are people who have seen something, but not its full unfolding…What we have, in a sense, is hardly more than they had. We have the scriptures that school us in hope and attentiveness. We have stories and covenants and signs. We have moments, or the memory of moments, when the tender compassion of our God has come close enough to see and feel. We have something like the shepherds would have had, recalling all their lives a night of mysterious glory, or like what the magi brought back to their homelands, a vision of a different kind of king and kingdom. Their eyes had seen the glory of Israel, the light for the nations. We have that as well, though for us the world has resumed its accustomed form and, in the light of day, seems largely unsaved and unchanged.”

What does it mean for us to believe in something we have yet to see the fullness of? How can we like Simeon and Anna give ourselves to a promise not yet tangible, one that goes against all our expectations and past experience? What does it mean to let go of the shields and walls we have built to protect us from the pain of disillusionment and disappointment and believe in the goodness we proclaim at Christmas? To believe in the presence of God dwelling with us even in this world that seems at times so cruel, so broken, so bitter?

How can we learn like Anna and Simeon knew that the past does not determine our future…that what was, is never what must be? How do we free ourselves from the tyranny of the probable to embrace the promise of the possible?
Sometimes it takes a little child to teach us, doesn’t it?

James was a fifth grade student who had struggled his entire academic career. The neighborhood schools had labeled him as learning disabled and as a fifth grader who still could not read, that label might have seemed apt. And yet, James had bigger dreams for himself. He would tell his mother his dreams of going to college to study and learn, to become a doctor to help others. Most days his mother would just sigh and smile, “That’s nice, James.” But what chance could her child have of becoming a doctor when he could not yet read?

It was then that James and his mother met Maggie, a friend of mine who was starting a new charter school in the city. Maggie had been canvassing the neighborhood to invite students to enroll for the fall. Door by door, home by home, she talked with children and their families about the possibilities of this new school, a school where standards would be high, the learning rigorous and the results phenomenal. She told tales from other charter schools half way across the country and the success they achieved…95 % perfect attendance, 100% passing standardized tests, 90% of graduates going to college. She wove visions of dedicated teachers, rich resources, and diligent students. Yet the more she talked, the more it seemed the doors closed in her face. This type of school was just not possible. Not here. Not now. Parents and kids alike could not imagine such a place. Uh-uh. Not possible.

And then she knocked on James’ door. From the moment Maggie began speaking, James was entranced. Perhaps, like Simeon on that day long ago, James glimpsed his own future and he believed. James’ mother was not so sure. Why should this school succeed when the dozens of neighborhood schools around it had failed? What would be different this time? But Maggie promised… “It will be different. I promise you that with hard work and dedication, James will not only be able to read by the end of the year, he will be able to pass all the state tests.” Maggie didn’t know James, but she believed in his potential nonetheless. Only after weeks of pleading by James, did his mother finally relent. “You know,” she told Maggie, “I don’t expect any change whatsoever. But, if my boy wants to try this. Well, what can I do?”

And so that fall James enrolled. The child who could barely sit still long enough to eat his supper, the child who had been kicked out of more schools for discipline problems than anyone could imagine, the child who in the fifth grade could not read, became one of the best students Maggie had ever known. He came to school every day an hour early at 7 AM for special tutoring so he could stay in his grade level and stayed every night until 7 PM so he could get help with his homework. He came to school on Saturdays and spent extra time periods working with teachers to stay at grade level and when the standardized test results for the sixth grade came in that year, Maggie called in James and his mother to report the scores. “James, we have received your test scores and I am pleased to tell you that you passed every single section!” Before Maggie could get the words out of her mouth, James’ mother had jumped clear out of her seat and reached across the desk to grab and hug Maggie like she had never been hugged before. Literally, pulling Maggie from her chair, James’ mother exclaimed, “I never thought this was possible!” All the while James sat sill and smiled. He knew it was possible all along.

You see James saw something different in himself, no matter what teachers said, no matter what his past performance told him. And when Maggie came knocking at his door that day, James saw something amazing in her hope of a different type of school. James believed in the plausibility of the possible and not the necessity of the probable.

In James, we see our faith made real and our hope lived out.

This belief in the possible is not just something that we take for our faith lives…it is not a “shut up and believe” kind of message. This is not something we simply apply to how we read scripture or understand our faith tradition. This is about something much greater. It is about a way of being in the world engendered by our experience of the gospel that shapes and forms the whole of our lives. The message of the gospel itself is to believe in the plausibility of the possible over the necessity of the probable, isn’t it? In a world of violence, resentment, disappointment and grief it is no easy task to believe in a different world marked by peace, love, forgiveness, non-violence, and justice….isn’t it? And yet that is what we proclaim each and every week.

The question remains, how do we take our faith statements outside the walls of the church and begin to apply them to every aspect of our lives? How do we allow our optimism and hope, real hope, about the way the world can be to permeate our everyday actions in the world? How do we, like James, begin to see the plausibility of the possible in ourselves and the world, over the necessity of the probable?
This year, how will you live out the Christmas hope in your own lives? To what possibilities will you give yourself? In what dreams will you believe? What actions will you take to make the possible real in the world?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Change Is Afoot: A Sermon by Joy Perkett

Change is afoot. In the passage of Isaiah we heard today, valleys rise up, mountains lower, rough ground levels, grass withers, flowers fade and the breath of God blows by. In this passage, the breath of God blows through the grass to bring comfort to God’s people – in the midst of turmoil, in the midst of new life and old life, the passage assures us that the intimacy of God’s breath & spirit is eternally present. The word for breathe or spirit – they are the same Hebrew word - is also found in Genesis 1:2. In this verse, the breathe of God hovers over the face of the waters of an oceanic deep. In the article “Be This Fish”, Catherine Keller describes the Hebrew sense of the word ‘hovering’ as “a spirit rhythm as in the beating wings of a seabird, the oscilliation of breath, or the ebb and flow of the ocean”. In the beginning, creation was not empty, but rather the breathe God oscillated with the oceanic deep.

Let me share with you my own image of the breath of God:

We stand as sand in dunes and God’s breath the wind. We are caught up in a vital, active force of God’s breath, moved and shaped around. And yet, we do our own shaping. We etch our names on rocks, we dance in the whirlwind of creation and we call the other sand to come and join the dance with us.

We stand as sand in dunes, sometimes thinking we are sure in our formation. And yet the breath of God blows by and again we are caught up in the process of creation. We ask questions, questions upon question. It is our questions that make us more aware of the presence of God in our surroundings. God is here with us, in the process of creation.

The Christian year is similar to this whirlwind of creation. It ebbs and flows, each year catching us up and re-shaping us. Each year it is the breath of God that blows on and reinvigorates us, calling us to join the dance of creation.

Advent is typically thought of as a time of hope, of waiting, of creation not-yet-formed and yet it is intimately tied to the ebb and flow of the Christian calendar. What is Advent without Lent? These are two times of year not typically thought of as compliments. Advent is a time of pending joy, while Lent is a time of pending sadness. Yet can we have one with out the other? Advent calls us to a vision of hope, of the coming Savior and of the coming kin-dom of God that Jesus heralds. Lent, on the other hand, calls us to a time soberly anchored in the reality of the present and of self-critical-ness and self-awareness. Yet I dare to suggest that it is this self-critical-ness and self-awareness of Lent that makes a realistic vision of advent and the coming kin-dom of God possible. It is by being honest, painfully honest perhaps, with ourselves that we are able to carve out a space for God to work in our lives. God’s creative breathe blows by.

Let me share the ebb and flow of “Lent” and “Advent” in my own life. In my college years, I took a class called “Black and White in America” that caused me to be very self-reflective, in the spirit of Lent, on what it meant to have a White racial identity.

Originally, I had grown up “color-blind”, uncritical of race. This class forced me to realize that we do not live in a perfect world and racism still exists today. I realized, in fact, that racism is an institutional system that privileges me as a White person, whether I like it or not. In fact in the book White Like Me, the story of a White ally, the author Tim Wise argues that at some point in their lives all White people have been collaborators. Before this class, I would have argued that I have helped with this cause or that cause or that I have friends of color, so that I could not possibly be a collaborator. Reluctantly, I now must admit that that is not enough. White privilege is such a part of society – manifest in our churches (the most segregated time of the week), in educational opportunities and in growing income gaps – that I cannot claim to not be a part of it. In White Like Me, the author Tim Wise writes that by White people owning their collaboration, they can “regularly see [their] own shortcomings, place them within the larger context of … culture subsidizing those shortcomings, and then commit [themselves] to doing better next time.” Wise writes that “the most dangerous person is the one who refuses to admit that [the person] does in fact contribute to injustice at least as often, if not more so than [the person] truly rebels against it”. For that person, there is nothing that person needs to work on, no point at which the person too is part of the problem and no room for growth.

I was struck deeply when the Pilgrims for Peace came to our congregation and during fellowship we shared our vision of peace. Marla shared an incident of gender identity- based violence, and then asked, “What is it within ourselves that causes that to happen?” Marla did not ask what is it within other people, but within ourselves. Thus, we too must ask what is it within ourselves that allow systems of injustice and of violence to continue in our society. Perhaps even if we are part of the solution, we must also acknowledge we part of the problem – whether it is in our silence, our identifying with the dominant majority, or even because we are not cognizant of the problem.

Yes I have participated in systems of oppression that I haven’t even been aware of! I would dare to suggest so have we all! Yet I come before you, honest and humble, with a searching heart and I enjoin you to the same. Let us come to God and admit the structures of privilege we have in our own lives – whether they be of economics, race, ability, gender identity, etc. I know it is not easy process, but it is honest, it is authentic. Let us move through the self-reflection of Lent, and then let us be fully present in the radical vision of Advent. The Christian years ebb and flow as we continually move through the self reflection of Lent and celebrate the radical vision of Advent, of a baby who will one day challenge systems of oppression and bring hope of God’s kin-dom of love, compassion and equality. God’s breathe blows by.

God’s creative breathe blows by. We are part of the creative process! What a sense of power we should feel! We come with good news – we can all participate in the dance of the creation not-yet-formed. It is for us to etch justice, love and equality on the rocks in the sand dunes. We are a people empower by the Spirit and Breathe of God. As the lady at the Proposition 8 protest said, we will not give up, we will not shut up, we will never go away. God’s love is radical and change is afoot. In the creative process we are both the created and the co-creators and while we must be an active part of the process and we must also carve out space for God to work in our own lives. Only by admitting our faults and our privilege, can we move forward to etch the words of justice, love, inclusion and equality on the rocks. There is something about deeply living, deeply loving, deeply feeling and being present and honest with one’s self that makes us fully alive, swept up in the dance of creation. This sense of reality and authenticity brings us in a grounded way to the radical vision of advent. We are ready to construct new ways of living and of loving. We are ready to construct a new way of being that is radically equal and inclusive! We are ready to celebrate the awesome vision of advent! God’s breathe blows by. Change is a-coming!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Wild Promise of Advent

Each year, the sixth graders from my elementary school went on a “graduation trip “ of sorts. For two nights and three days the older, wiser ones of Clovernook Elementary went to a magical and mystical place called Camp Knickerbock.

My sixth grade year was filled with anticipation for this trip. From the first day of school we were already planning who would sit next to whom on the bus, which cabins we would stay in and what things we would do late at night. And while our imaginations ran wild with possibilities, one thing remained certain. The social hierarchy would follow us to camp.

The cool kids called the back of the bus and filled their cabin with the social elite from our elementary ranks. Those who did not meet the standards, myself included, quickly formed alternative bands to secure a cabin of our own. And then, of course, there were those who year after year found themselves isolated and alone at the bottom of the playground pyramid, those who simply did not dare make plans. For an overnight trip with bullies seemed like nothing but sheer torture.

When we finally left the confines of our urban elementary school for the wilds of Camp Knickerbock, we found that indeed our plans unfolded as we imagined. The lines of cool were drawn just as tightly at camp as they were on the playground every single day. That is except for one night.

Camp Knickerbock had a tradition of nighttime hikes reserved for the last night at camp. That evening, long after the supposed lights out curfew, the counselors came to our cabins and fetched us for an evening adventure in the dark. Although we started off with flashlights, the goal was to darken our lights as we traveled so that we might experience the wilderness as it is…dark, foreboding, promising, exciting. The counselors had split our cabins up so that we were now walking single file cool kids intermingled with nerds, mixed with jocks, and interspersed with preps. We were simultaneously thrilled and anxious. What would it be like in the pitch dark blackness of the forest?

As the lights went out one by one, we had to rely on the person in front and behind us to make our way. Increasingly we became more dependent on one another as we walked farther and farther into the wilderness. And as we journeyed, something magical and mystical did happen. Step by step, we found the social hierarchy began to crumble as our terror and excitement of being in the wilderness rendered us one. If we were to make it out safely, we had to rely on one another…hold each other’s hands, talk to one another: where to step, where to duck.

At long last the final light was extinguished as we circled up in a small clearing surrounded by tall, slender trees pointing us toward the starry sky. As we stood there, each of us in the circle realized something profound had happened. Each of us were a little different for the hike. Somehow, the wilderness had managed to break down our prejudices and preconceptions and allowed us for one brief hour to experience a community bound by common purpose and perhaps even a little admiration for one another. The walls of division had been rendered useless in our common quest to find our way.

The wilderness has a way of doing that, doesn’t it?

There is something about the wild that challenges and confronts all of our preconceptions and prejudices. Out in the vastness of the wild, we find our social conventions useless as we struggle to find our way. It is precisely for this reason that the wilderness has become a potent symbol and site for religious reflection for many different cultures and faith traditions. From the time of the prophets to the time of John through the age of the mystics and right up to our own modern era, the wilderness has always symbolized a place of miracle and divine revelation, of pain and complaint, of hope and visions. To those steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition, wilderness evokes stories of Exodus, of Sinai, of moving through the exile into hope. The wilderness is that place in our faith tradition where we are allowed to dream new possibilities that have been forbidden to us in our former city dwellings. In the wilderness we seek hope and find it.

You see, the wilderness presents us with a liminality…an in-between place of neither here nor there that offers us space to un-make and re-make our communities, norms and lives. The wilderness strips us of social pretense and confronts us with the challenge of being in a place without predetermined boundaries. The wildness of it all, allows us to dream and imagine things thought not possible within the confines of the tightly regulated social hierarchies of civilized space. It is as if the power of nature itself unlocks and unleashes our imaginations, summons different values, evokes new visions, and inspires creative solutions never dreamed before.

It is no coincidence that this week’s reading places John the Baptist in the remote Judean desert. The wilderness is the perfect space to find a prophet pointing to a new way of being, a new way of living and loving. In fact, the wilderness may be the only place where such prophecy becomes plausible. The liminality of the desert offers both John and the followers an opportunity to shed the cynical realism of daily life in exchange for the power of possibility.

Finding wild prophets like John in the wilderness was was nothing new to the ancient Israelites. Popular movements excited by the prospect of change throughout history moved to desert places, gathered armies, conducted retreats, readied themselves for revolution – all kinds of groups, military, religious, prophetic, visionary. The historian Josephus lists many such groups and individuals in the first century of the common era, including John who we read about today.

John’s movement for change though is not a military movement as many of the people expected, but rather is a revolution of the imagination.

John announces change, metanoia, traditionally, “repentance for the forgiveness of sins,”but also understood as a turning around and away from sin, a change of direction, a paradigm shift in mind and in action. Summoning the words of the Prophet Isaiah, John gives us a glimpse of the new vision towards which he demands we look, that vision of peace, justice, hope, love, a vision of shalom here on earth. By quoting Isaiah, which many of the people would have known well, John summons up for them this idea of God’s vision of Shalom on earth and brings new insight to old ideas.

Yet, what John was initiating was not just a new way to look at old ideas, but rather he was demanding new ideas for a new way. This was a drastic change, a paradigm shift. John invited us to see the world in a new way, turning the old order on its head, raising valleys and flattening mountains. It was not that John just wanted to create new paths, he wanted to evoke a new destination, a new hope, a new salvation.

Salvation for John was not otherworldly, remote or inaccessible, salvation was near, at hand, in the here and now as we envision and imagine new ways of being in the world that are governed by peace and justice and as we work toward their full realization on earth as it is in heaven.

John embodied this new way of being in concrete actions that communicated a new message of conversion, forgiveness, inclusivity and simplicity. By offering the people a moment of conversion…an opportunity for metanoia… John gave the people an opportunity to change the way they were living, right there, right then.. John also offered the people a new way of forgiving sins that was inclusive. Far from the ritual rites of the temple, this forgiveness of sins did not depend on one’s wealth, power or status…simply on one’s desire. It was this simplicity that also governed John’s way of being in the world. Donned in camel hair and a leather belt and subsisting on a diet of locusts and honey, John embodied for the people a new way of living that challenged and confronted the lifestyle of the rich and famous. John lived what according to Matthew and Luke Jesus later preached: live simply; consider the flowers, the birds, how they feed. John was pointing the people to a new way that was already incarnate in their midst.

Yet while John lived in the wilderness in which there was amble space and time to dream new visions such as these, we tend to find ourselves confined to the daily grind of our lives. Brimming with busy-ness we can lose sight of that vision to which Isaiah and John have called us. It seems too remote, too idealistic, too impractical, too impossible. Our lives are such that we can easily become worn down by trying to survive in the current order of things that we cannot see or even hope of a different way of being. What are things in your life that make it difficult for you to imagine a new way?

When we find ourselves so immersed and entangled in the busy-ness of our lives, we are called like John, to seek out the wildness of the wilderness where we might begin to imagine God’s new world order!

I would like to tell you that returning from Camp Knickerbocker the change we experienced on that dark night in the forest remained and a social shalom was ushered forth in our midst. But the reality is, that liminal space is hard to maintain amidst life’s pressures. Once back on the urban asphalt playground, the social lines of division appeared again. Yet, something was different. Although we could not bear to sit next to one another at lunch or dare to play together, the geeks and the cools kids, the jocks and the preps, we all looked differently at one another. Somehow, the magic and mystery of Camp Knickerbock remained, if only revealed in sly smiles and locked eyes across the classroom.

In order to keep the dream of new ways alive, we must practice at it, not just one isolated evening in elementary school, but regularly and ritually.

That is exactly why we come together every week here at CWM, as the Church. It is in the Church, in the community of faith, as part of the Body of Christ, that we are empowered to begin not only to imagine new ways of being, but also to begin practicing them, through the forgiveness of sin, commitment to non-violence, acts of mercy and compassion, radical sharing of leadership, power and resources, and unconditional love. This is where we begin to imagine and create change. Unrestrained by the limiting structures of our lives and the oppressive systems in which we live, we become able to begin to participate in God’s vision of peace and justice. We begin to make real the kin-dom on earth. We begin to take part in God’s plan for salvation.

The Church is not about being practical, feasible, or even possible, the Church is about dreaming new visions of how things should be, regardless of whether or not they ever can be. The Church is the place of radical hope and new vision. If we cannot dare to dream of a new world order in the Church, the locus of hope for us as Christians, then where and when will we ever be able to move beyond the tension and strife of the world in which we live to dare to dream of new ways of being, new ways of living and loving??

The time is now! This Advent season, a ritual time of liminality in our Christian calendar when we are called to move to the wilderness places of our lives, to the desert, to the margins, to the edges, to the places where we have the opportunity to begin to think and act differently, where we have the time to contemplate our lives, our values, our choices, where we have the freedom to dream new dreams, and where we have the possibility of making them come true.

The question is how will you take the liminal, wilderness experience of our Church community out into the world this Advent season? How will you embody who we are in here out there? In the next week, look for opportunities, spaces and places where the community we have within these walls might break forth into the community through your actions. What will you do to bring the wildness back to the world?

Sunday, December 07, 2008

An Advent Litany

God of surprises you call us
from the narrowness of our traditions
to new ways of being church,
from the captivities of our culture
to creative witness for justice,
from the smallness of our horizons
to the bigness of your vision.

Clear the way in us, your people, that we
might call others to freedom and renewed faith.

Jesus, wounded healer, you call us
from preoccupation with our own histories
and hurts to daily tasks of peacemaking,
from privilege to pilgrimage,
from insularity to inclusive community.

Clear the way in us, your people, that we
might call others to wholeness and integrity.

Holy, transforming Spirit, you call us
from fear to faithfulness,
from clutter to clarity,
from a desire to control to deeper trust,
from the refusal to love to a readiness to risk.

Clear the way in us, your people, that we
might call others to freedom and renewed faith.

J. Puls, G. Cashmore/cw copied from Rex A E Hunt's liturgies online.

First Sunday of Advent: Hope in the Midst of Despair

On this first Sunday in Advent we begin to look forward to the coming of Christmas. For weeks now the world around us has told us it’s time. Holiday songs play from every intercom; tinsel, ornaments and lights flicker and shine in the aisles of each store. Even our local coffee houses have told us it’s time. Out with the pumpkin spice and in the peppermint! “It’s Christmas time,” shouts the world! And we confess, we too are lured by the glamour of the holidays.

Yet, this week’s readings bring anything but tidings of good news…at least on the surface. Far from images of a silent night, the texts for today are dominated by apocalyptic images of a dramatic coming with cosmic disturbance:

The heavens are torn asunder, mountains quake, fires rage and water boils. The sun darkens and the moon sheds no light, stars fall and the heavens quake.

Cheery and bright, the readings are not! Yet, these readings are essential to our understanding of Advent and yes, even Christmas. These readings help us re-orient our understanding of the reason for the season.

It is important that we understand these texts in their context. Both Isaiah and Mark were writing to beleaguered and oppressed communities: peoples who had experienced great suffering and despair, peoples who had been promised deliverance only to experience disappointment and despair. The reading from Isaiah comes decades after the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile. The author lives with the deep disappointment of all the failed prophecies of a triumphant return offered by those who went before. The people have left Babylon, but the legacy of captivity remains. The hope and optimism of the previous generations were never fully realized.

You see, the return did not go as expected. The journey from Babylon was long and difficult. And then, once they exiles arrived they faced even more daunting challenges of rebuilding their homes, their neighborhoods, their communities, their lives. And all of this was under the oppressive Persian regime who monitored and controlled their every move. Life was hard and the promises of prophets past seemed long gone.

The section which we read is a lament…a prayer offered in despair as people search in vain for the presence of God in their lives. The prophet speaks the longings of the community for the real presence of God among them. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known.”

Having returned home to Jersualem, the people expect for life to be as it was before, but generations have passed and life has moved on without them. The promises of second Isaiah loom empty and the people feel utterly abandoned by their God.

We, too, I think can empathize with the Israelites. We know what it is like to at times feel abandoned by God. We know what is like to feel exiled from the Divine presence…to feel alone, alienated and abandoned. There have been moments in each of lives when we yearn to see just a glimmer of God and are confronted with nothing but what seems like an endless void.

In the movie, The Devil’s Advocate, Satan calls God an absentee landlord, and the image, well at times rings true. What of the promises of comfort, success and triumph we read in scriptures? Do you see evidence of that in the world around us? What of this God who we proclaim to be good…all the time…yet apparently sits enthroned in heaven and watches as the world crumbles under the weight of despair, hopelessness, violence, war, poverty and hate? What of the assertion that all we have to do is pray and God will answer our prayers…has that always been your experience? Sometimes, it makes us wonder.

In high school, I had just begun to attend church. I was new to the idea of Christianity and a little cynical, but I wanted to believe. I really did. Every week our youth group would sing our theology… “The Banner Over Me Is Love,” “Jesus, I Adore You,” and “Seek Ye First.” Do any of you know “Seek Ye First?” The words are from Matthew 6:33 and proclaim that all we have to do is ask God and we will get what we pray for.

It was during this time that a close family friend was diagnosed with cancer. He was 40 years old with five children ranging in age from 2 years to 20 years old. He was like a second father to me as our families had practically grown up together. I was shocked by the news, but convinced that if I just prayed hard enough, he would be alright. “Ask and it shall be given unto you.” I prayed and prayed every night, yet just three short weeks later, Mr. Smith died and I was devastated. How could this have happened? I asked. I knocked. For God’s sake, I begged and pleaded and yet God seemingly did not care. I, like the Israelites, was quick to blame myself. Maybe I hadn’t prayed hard enough. Maybe, I didn’t believe enough. Maybe, God did not love me as I thought. Perhaps, had I known the text, I too would have cried the same words as Isaiah.

Theologian Dan Clendenin says in his article, Drinking Tears by the Bowlful, that this feeling of alienation from God is more common than we think. He writes,

“The disconnect between what we sometimes experience and what we pray for that results from God's apparent silence is a source of understandable anxiety and frustration. Praying to God for mighty acts of deliverance is an entirely human and genuinely Christian response to the pain and suffering of the world, of our neighbors, and of our own lives.”

And it is true. We all need hope in a God who listens and responds. But what Clendenin goes on to point out is that this Christian expectation is tempered by the message of Advent.

“The season of advent that we now enter ads an important qualification. God is not a Cosmic Concierge... Sometimes we must wait. We wait in patience knowing that not every act of God reverberates like a pounding sledge hammer. In Isaiah's metaphor, God does not always split open the heavens. Whereas even Jesus’closest disciples longed to call down fire from heaven and to brandish swords, Jesus compared his coming kingdom to tiny mustard seeds and to the imperceptible but certain fermentation of yeast.”

Of course we want the loud, unmistakable wildness of God’s presence that shakes the very foundation of the world. Of course, we long for real proof that God is as powerful as we hope the Divine to be. Of course, we yearn for a sign that the God we pray to actually cares.

Yet, the wildness for which we long, is not the wildness that Advent offers. Don’t be fooled by the cataclysmic, apocalyptic images of which we read. If we read them as literal signs, we miss the true wildness God has in store for us.

While many interpret this week’s lectionary as a literal depiction of the end times, Mark’s gospel and Isaiah’s lament are meant by the authors as calls to hope to a suffering, oppressed and despairing people. They are reminders of God’s power and presence in the world despite all signs to the contrary. Remember, Mark is also writing to a people disappointed and disillusioned by the failure of what they took to be God’s promise. Jesus was supposed to return in their lifetimes and yet they were growing old and time running short.

For Mark, Jesus’ words are not meant as a literal depiction of times to come, but rather a reminder to watch in expectation of the light to come. William Loader in his commentary on this text from Mark has said,

“The mandate is then not to ignore what is happening in the world, but to think about it, to watch, to live in the light of it and in the light of the hope which is beyond it....Watchful living has less to do with speculation about the end of the world and more to do with carrying out our trust in a way that finally makes the date of the end a matter of irrelevance.”

Watchful, patient living is what we are called to in the season of Advent. For the wildness that God promises comes not in literal cataclysmic acts of Divine power, but rather in the quiet contemplation of the very idea of the kin-dom of God. What is wild about Advent is not that the sun and moon and stars shall fall and the heavens quake, but rather that we proclaim in this season the coming and breaking in of the kin-dom itself. The idea that God is dwelling among us and the kin-dom come is a wild idea…for the Israelites, Greeks and Romans then, and no less for us today.

The wildness of Advent is our claim that peace will reign – in a world of violence? That healing will happen – in a world plagued by the HIV-AIDS epidemic? That the earth shall prosper – in a time of unprecedented environmental degradation? That love will conquer hate – in an era of seemingly increasing prejudice and discrimination? That the rich and the poor shall feast together – in a world of growing disparity? Yes, yes indeed!

Like our faith ancestors, we have a hard time believing God is present without the cataclysmic, cosmic signs. Yet, what is cataclysmic if not the wild promise of the coming kin-dom in a time when all evidence points to the contrary? The very fact that we continue to proclaim the coming kin-dom is wild!

After Mr. Smith died, I didn’t go back to church for a long time. When I finally did, I found that all the anger and sadness and guilt I had kept at bay came flooding over me. I knelt at the altar during communion and pleaded with God for forgiveness and acceptance. I had been bad (for what I did not know), but I desperately wanted to be back in God’s favor. And so I prayed again, long and hard and begged for a sign that God was still present, that I was still loved. And nothing came.

And then, a friend came to the rail and asked me what was wrong and if she could help. I brushed her aside because I was waiting for God. A second friend came, and told me how worried they were about me, how sorry they felt about my deep sadness, how they wished to make it better. And, I again brushed them away, because I was waiting for God. A third friend came, knelt beside me and embraced me. They whispered in my ear, “No matter what has happened, no matter what you think you have done, God loves you and so do I.” And in that moment, I knew God was present. It wasn’t the cataclysmic heaven shaking sign I wanted, but it was just the sign I needed.

What Advent teaches us is a patient waiting and a watchful living that helps us discern not just the coming of the kin-dom, but the kin-dom in our midst. When we learn to discern the signs of the times, we find that no longer are our eyes focused heavenward. Advent teaches us to look all around us for the presence of God, even if not especially, in the most unlikely of places: in a tiny mustard seed, in the embrace of a friend, in an infant lain in a manger. The fact is God is present, we just need to train ourselves to look in the right places.