Sunday, December 18, 2011

How Can This Be?

Sermon from December 18, 2011
(Advent 4 – Year B)
Luke 1: 26-38
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

How can this be?
How can this be - that an NFL quarterback with average statistics can end up winning football games?
How can this be - that a quarterback can generate conversations on ESPN about the Christian faith?
How can this be - that Tim Tebow squeaks out last minute wins for the Denver Broncos?

These are the questions that are being asked whenever I hear Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow being discussed.
The conversation makes me want to tune in to see if Tebow will accomplish another Sunday afternoon miracle and to see if he will bow his knee to his Savior in the endzone.
When I hear the buzz about Tim Tebow, the question soon follows:
How can this be?

And when I hear the buzz about the Virgin Mary, the same question soon follows:
How can this be?

In Luke’s Gospel, the very first words out of Mary’s mouth are the question:
“How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
And the angel Gabriel responds to her:
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
And the power of the Most High will overshadow you;
Therefore the child to be born will be holy;
He will be called Son of God.”

This is the story of the Annunciation.
This is the story where the angel Gabriel is sent by God to a town called Nazareth to a virgin whose name was Mary.
We are not told if Mary is any different than any other Jewish teenaged girl.
All we are told is that an angel was sent by God with an incredible announcement.
The announcement is that she would become pregnant, pregnant without any intimate relations with a man.
And the very first words out of Mary’s mouth are:
“How can this be?”

This incredible story of the Annunciation is the opening story in our Christmas narrative.
This incredible story can be a stumbling block to some who recite the Nicene Creed on Sundays, to those who have difficulty believing the virgin birth of Jesus.
For others, the incredible story has become so commonplace that we don’t pay attention to the scandal of the gospel, the scandal that makes us ask:
How can this be?

In Auckland, New Zealand, an Anglican church has generated quite a scandal with their new billboard.
St. Matthew-in-the-City Anglican Church has put up a billboard that has the style and look of a very classical painting of the Virgin Mary, as if it was painted a hundred years ago.
In the painting, Mary is gently swathed in blue and green and red robes.
In the painting, Mary’s left hand is over her mouth, as if she is in shock.
And in Mary’s right hand is a stick, the stick of a home pregnancy test, indicating a positive result.

I am glad that an Anglican church, just like St. Alban’s, is focusing our attention on the incredible response of Mary to the good news of God.
Yet there has been some negative reaction to the billboard in New Zealand.
Some critics are saying that Mary shouldn’t look shocked because she assented to the will of God.
Some are saying that the depiction of Mary with a home pregnancy test stick is distasteful.

Yet the billboard of Mary with a look of shock on her face and the pregnancy test in her hand highlights that Mary’s very first response to God’s miracle was to ask:
“How can this be?”

Yet God’s miracles are not just for Christians.
Our Jewish sisters and brothers will be celebrating one of the many miracles of God beginning this Tuesday, celebrating the incredible story of Hanukkah.

About 165 years before the birth of Jesus, the Jews had recaptured their beloved Temple from Greek and Syrian forces.
In the process of cleaning up the Temple so they could worship the one true God again, the Jews re-lit the lights in the Temple.
However, the Jews only had enough oil to keep the candles lit for one day.
Yet night after night, for 8 nights, the candles stayed lit, until new oil arrived.
Night after night, the Jews witnessed a miracle of God.
Night after night, for 8 nights, the Jews responded:
How can this be?

The more I travel through this life, the more I see that there are two very different ways that we can approach life.
First, we can see our life as rational, ordered, predictable events, events that we can manage and control.
Yet the other way we can see our life is to be open to the irrational, the mysterious, the incredible, events that we can never manage or control.
We can approach life from a human point of view - only taking into consideration the possible.
Or we can approach life from God’s point of view - taking into consideration the impossible.
For we worship a God of mystery, a God of the incredible, a God of the impossible.

Last Wednesday, I received an email that Bishop Claude Payne had just had hip replacement surgery at Scott & White in Temple.
Now Claude Payne was the seventh Bishop of Texas, who retired in 2003.
At St. Alban’s, we were blessed to have Bishop Payne with us for confirmation last May.

Bishop Payne became the Bishop of Texas in 1995.
At that time, I was a busy CPA in Houston, with no reason to ever know a bishop.

Then, in 2000, my first face-to-face encounter with Bishop Payne was when Susan and I appeared in his office, seeking his approval to send me to seminary.
While waiting in the bishop’s office, I can remember feeling like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, with my knees shaking and my palms sweating.
Yet over the years, Claude Payne has become my friend.

And last Wednesday, I drove down to Temple to visit Bishop Payne in the hospital.
He was doing well after his surgery and I had a nice conversation with him and with Barbara.
Then I asked if I could pray for him.
I held his hand and he grabbed onto mine.
And I was humbled to say prayers of healing for the retired Bishop of Texas.

As I walked out of the bishop’s hospital room and reflected on my life, I asked myself the question:
How can this be?

How can this be that God has twisted and turned my life in such a way that I could have never asked for or imagined?
For when we view life as an impossible mystery, then the first words out of our mouth are:
How can this be?

No matter what religion people follow, life is incredible and mysterious.
Yet what is particular about Christianity is that we believe that God is with us in the flesh.
We believe that God is born in us.
We believe that the question “how can this be?” is fleshed out in the Son of God, born of a woman, a woman with one hand over her mouth in shock and with the other hand holding a home pregnancy test.
We believe in an impossible mystery.

How can this be - that Tim Tebow wins football games?
How can this be - that Hanukkah lights burn without any oil?
How can this be - that a virgin has a positive pregnancy test?
I don’t know.

Yet I do know that God is with us.
I do know that Jesus has been born in me.
I do know that the power of the Most High has overshadowed me.

And in response to God’s incredible mystery, the first words out of my mouth are:
How can this be?


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Secret is Out

It is hard, especially for children, to keep a Christmas secret for long. I can remember when our son, Scott, was a toddler. I was giving him a bath one December evening. I had asked what he had done that day. He burst out: “I went Christmas shopping with Mommy. We bought socks for Daddy --- but it’s a secret!”

Sometimes a secret is so hard to keep; it’s difficult to keep our lips sealed. But the time has come, with the advent of Jesus Christ, that our secret is now out!

Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans: “The revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages is now disclosed.”

Jesus is not a mystery that is to be kept secret, with our lips sealed. Jesus is a revelation, an opening up of God’s heart, that propels us to open up our hearts and lips and mouths as well. As the wreaths and the garlands and the tree go up in our church after 10:00 AM worship today, the secret will be out of the box.

Some people will say: “My faith is private.” Yet the revelation of the mystery of Jesus is not a secret; it is not private; it is to be disclosed. Our faith in Christ is personal, yet never private.

We worship a God from whom no secrets are hid. For Jesus Christ is not a secret (nor are socks for Daddy!)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

John the Pointer

Sermon from December 11, 2011
(Advent 3 – Year B)
John 1: 6-8, 19-28
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

Learning how to be a preacher can be a scary thing.
In learning how to be a preacher at the Virginia Theological Seminary, the introductory course in preaching is a scary class called Homiletics 101.
At one end of the classroom is a pulpit, the pulpit in which students preach their very first sermon.
At the other end of the classroom is a video camera, where seminary student’s first sermons are taped, to be critiqued and graded by the professor.
And fellow students sit in rows of chairs, facing the pulpit, becoming the very first highly critical congregation for baby preachers.

Of course, there are many techniques to learn in preaching.
But one of the tips that I was given by my homiletics professors is not to point with one finger.
For when a preacher gets out his or her index finger and points, the congregation can feel as if they are being scolded or judged.
Instead of pointing with one finger, my preaching professors suggested that if we wanted to make such a gesture, to use the whole hand, which is less judgmental and less accusatory.

Most people do not like to have a bony finger pointing into their chest, accusing them.
Most people do not like to have their preacher pointing in their direction, convicting them.
Yet preachers - and all Christians - are sent by God to point, to point to Jesus Christ.

In the Gospel of John, we hear about a man named John, a man sent by God to point to Jesus.
This John and the writer of the Gospel of John are two different people.
Yet the writer of the Gospel of John says this about the other John:

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

In the Gospel of John, this man sent from God, whose name was John, is not referred to in this Gospel as John the Baptist.
Yet this man named John is same man as John the Baptist.
This man named John is not only John the Baptist.
This man is also “John the Pointer.”

For there was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
This John came as a pointer, to point to the light.
He himself was not the light, but he came to point to the light.
For the true light who has come into the world is Jesus Christ.
And John the Pointer, also known as John the Baptist, wants us to make sure that we are truly pointing our index finger to Jesus.

In this season of Advent, in this season of preparation for the feast of Christmas, it seems that everyone is pointing at someone or something.
Some people are pointing to the struggling economy, asking us to buy more things to boost up a shaky economy that depends heavily on the success of retailers in December.
Others are pointing to “put Christ back in Christmas” – yet they don’t give us a compelling vision of who this Christ really is.
Others are pointing to the Republican primaries and the 2012 election, looking for the next presidential Messiah.
Others are pointing to the Tea Party movement or the Occupy movement - telling us how these populist movements are either compatible or incompatible with Christianity.

My facebook newsfeed, especially in December, seems to be filled with people who are all pointing with their index finger at someone or something that will save us from a whole host of ills and complaints.
During December, we are quick to point our finger at the economy, at politics, at families - and even point our finger at what is wrong with the way we celebrate Christmas itself - looking for something to save us from our current world.

But there was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
This John came as a pointer, to point to the light.
He himself was not the light, but he came to point to the light.
For the true light who has come into the world is Jesus.
And we are to point to Jesus Christ.

Preaching professors might advise against pointing the index finger at a congregation - because pointing can make people in the pews feel uncomfortable.
Yet in all four of the Gospels, John the Baptist, John the Pointer, makes people uncomfortable.
And it is my belief that when we are truly pointing to Jesus, then we will make people uncomfortable.

Last Thursday night, Susan and I decided to stop by Wal-Mart on Hewitt Drive to pick up a few strands of Christmas lights that we needed to complete the lighting of our Christmas tree.
Of course, we also made a few impulse purchases, picking up a 12-pack of Diet Coke and finding a new kind of coffee cake that we wanted to try and choosing a new plush toy for our dog, because our precious dog truly does deserve an early Christmas present.

In the checkout line at Wal-Mart, we were assisted by a cashier who felt it was necessary to point out and comment on each of the items in our shopping cart.
The cashier was slow and seemed to have a slight mental disability.
His pointed comments about each of our purchases made me uncomfortable.
He made a point to complain about having to work the late shift all this week, which also made me uncomfortable.
I was secretly hoping that he would just hurry up - so that we could get the heck out of there.

Yet as we were pushing our shopping cart out of Wal-Mart, Susan said to me:
“I am glad we had that nice conversation with that cashier.
So many people are looking for a job these days and I am glad that he has a job and was so personal and friendly, taking the time to make conversation with us.”

I felt like crawling under a rock – because I realized that my wife had just pointed to Jesus, while I was so busy pointing to my own selfish concerns.
Like John the Baptist, like John the Pointer, when we are truly pointing to Jesus, we are uncomfortable.
We are uncomfortable because Jesus comes to us, each and every day, in the people who are the last and the least.

In my experience, we are pointing to Jesus when we are truly concerned about the poor, by making a difference - not just by giving lip service to the poor.
We are pointing to Jesus when we point out injustice, when we point out inequality, when we point out that the true light that comes into the world shines a beam on love and justice and a fair living wage and adequate health care and other subjects that make us uncomfortable.

You see, I don’t care if people say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” at Dillard’s.
Yet I do care if we are using our index finger to point to Jesus, by pointing to the people that Jesus cares about the most.
For Jesus cares the most about the poor and the lonely and the unemployed and the uninsured.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
This John was not the light, but he came to point to the light.
For the true light has come into the world.
And we are to point to Jesus Christ.

For I don’t care what my preaching professors said.

{pointing to a person in the congregation}
It’s okay - to point.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Grownup Jesus

On Christmas Eve in 2007, I preached a sermon titled: “Ricky Bobby and Grownup Jesus.” I give thanks that some of you, even now, still remember and refer to that sermon. That Christmas sermon cast an image of Ricky Bobby from the movie Talladega Nights. In the sermon, I recalled a scene from the film where Ricky Bobby begins a dinner table prayer by invoking “Dear Lord Baby Jesus.” Ricky then insists that he likes the Christmas Jesus best, as opposed to grownup Jesus.

I suppose that the sermon from Christmas 2007 became memorable, not just for its humor, but because you know how close it comes to a theological point that is near and dear to me. The challenge to worship the grownup Jesus at Christmas, rather than just the baby Jesus, rings very true to my own theology of what is so important about Christmas. In my own spiritual life, I have received power from celebrating Christmas as the Feast of the Grownup Jesus, the Feast of the Incarnation.

In the Episcopal/Anglican tradition, Christmas is the Feast of the Incarnation. One of the most beautiful Christmas services is Lessons & Carols sung at King’s College in Cambridge, England (tune into NPR on the radio or on-line on Christmas Eve morning for a real treat). At the conclusion of that worship service, the sonorous and soaring blessing begins:
May Christ, who by his Incarnation gathered into one things earthly and heavenly…

It is the Incarnation of Jesus Christ that has made a huge difference in my life. It is baby Jesus and teenaged Jesus and baptized Jesus and crucified and resurrected Jesus who gathers into one things earthly and heavenly. It is Jesus, all grown up and mature, who calls me to an abundant and mature life, as Jesus challenges me to love my neighbor, to give a cup of cold water to the least of these, to sell everything and follow him, to take up my cross.

I want you to know that the most powerful moment for me every Christmas Eve is when I kneel in front of the altar, in our darkened church, to sing Silent Night. My gaze goes up to the altar, overflowing with poinsettias that are only lit by flickering candles. Then my eyes do not go to a manger, but my gaze goes up to a majestic wooden cross, the cross where grownup Jesus died for me out of love.

The manger is not the enduring symbol of the Christian life. The enduring symbol of Christianity is the cross. The cross is the ultimate moment of Incarnation, when Christ gathers into one things earthly and heavenly.

This Christmas, I invite you to move beyond the manger, beyond the baby Jesus. Turn your eyes upon grownup Jesus. He is asking you to follow him, asking you to die with him, asking you to rise to new life with him.

This Christmas, worship Jesus, the Incarnation of God, the ultimate grownup.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Comfort Food

Sermon from December 4, 2011
(Advent 2 – Year B)
Isaiah 40: 1-11
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

Comfort, O comfort my people.
And speak tenderly to Jerusalem.

Comfort is the message that the Prophet Isaiah cries out to the Hebrew people.
Many years before, the Hebrew people had watched their beloved temple be destroyed in their homeland in Jerusalem.
The Hebrew people were then exiled into Babylon, into a country far away across the desert.

Years later, in 539 BC, Cyrus the Great of Persia defeated the Babylonians.
And Cyrus issued an “emancipation proclamation” for the Hebrew people who had been exiled in Babylon.
The Hebrew people were now free, free to be transported back home to Jerusalem.

Then onto the stage comes the Prophet Isaiah, proclaiming:
“Comfort, O comfort my people.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem
And cry out to her that her long exile is now over!”

The very first words of Isaiah to his exiled people are words of comfort.
The very first action to homesick people is to speak tenderly, with morsels of words that transport us home.
The very first action to homesick people is to offer comfort food.

When I was a very young child, my mother began to make apple cakes.
At first, my mom made an occasional apple cake in a large Bundt pan.
However, as she began to receive more requests for an apple cake, she divided the recipe and baked up smaller apple cakes that would fit into foil loaf pans.

Every December when I was in elementary school, my mom would begin to bake up batch after batch of these apple cakes.
The holiday kitchen in our home in December was like a fragrant factory, slicing up tart apples and stirring up batter and baking up goodness with cinnamon and spice.
Each of my teachers received an apple cake for Christmas, loving wrapped in tin foil and tied with a plaid ribbon.
Each of our neighbors received an apple cake that my brother and I would hand deliver.
Yet at least one apple cake was always reserved and not gifted to someone else.
We ate this reserved apple cake on Christmas Eve, late at night after the late Christmas Eve worship service.

As I got older, the list of recipients for my mother’s apple cake changed.
When I was a student at UT, several cakes were mailed to my dorm, to be eaten in huge bites by me and my friends as we took study breaks from preparing for finals.

Eventually, my mom grew weary of all the December baking.
Yet still, even to this day, she does bake at least one apple cake each year.
And I reserve one of these cakes for Christmas Eve, for when I come home from church at around one o’clock in the morning.
In the post-worship glow of that wonderful, late Christmas Eve service, I tear open the foil that is wrapped around that cake.
I get a knife out of the drawer and I cut a big hunk off to savor.
Sitting next to the Christmas tree, I eat this comfort food, the comfort of this morsel of spices and apples.
And this comfort food takes my mind back to the kitchen of my childhood.
This comfort food transports me back to my homeland.

For comfort food speaks tenderly to our souls, taking us back to a time and a place where we are warm and safe and loved.
Comfort food transports us to a place of love.

The very first words of Isaiah to his exiled people are words of comfort.
The very first action to homesick people is to speak tenderly, with morsels of words that transport us home.
The very first action to homesick people is to offer comfort food.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks tenderly to us, saying:
“I am the Bread of Life.”
Jesus speaks tenderly, with words of comfort, that he is the bread of life, the bread gives life to the world.
Jesus speaks tenderly, reminding us that he is the comfort food that transports us home.

My wife, Susan, was raised in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.
Whenever our family would travel back to Kentucky to visit my in-laws, we always went to church at Margaret Hank Memorial Cumberland Presbyterian Church.
Our sons, even as little boys, would go to church with us.

On one Sunday when we were visiting, our oldest son, Scott, must have been about 4 or 5 years old.
And at church that Sunday, we packed toys and games to keep our little son busy during the worship service.
We all participated in the Presbyterian call to worship.
We sang the hymns.
We listened to the sermon.
At the very end of the worship service, the minister pronounced a word of dismissal and folks began to file out of their pews.
Realizing that worship was over, Scott looked up and shouted out at the top of his lungs:
“That’s it?!
We didn’t even get to eat!”

In the worship of the Episcopal Church, we do get to eat the bread of heaven every Sunday, comfort food that reminds us of home.
We are given a morsel of the bread of life and a sip of the cup of salvation - as we hear Jesus calling us home from the exile of our sins and shortcomings.
We hear these words of comfort:
“Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you.
And feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”

And through the comfort food of the bread and wine of the Eucharist, we are transported home.
We might not be transported to our childhood home with a kitchen filled with the aroma of Christmas baking.
Yet in the communion of bread and wine, we are transported home to Jerusalem.
In the Eucharistic feast, we are transported to a place of joy and comfort and love.

For as one of our beautiful hymns sings:
“And oh, what transport of delight,
From thy pure chalice floweth!”

My brothers and sisters, we will receive our comfort food today around God’s table.
Yet the food we receive is to strengthen us to leave this place and to give comfort food to others.
Like Isaiah, we are to offer morsels of words to speak tenderly to others, transporting all of us to a place of love.

In this hectic season, comfort others, inviting them to return home.
Bake up a batch of comfort food - by speaking tenderly and by saying things such as:

“I am listening to you.”
“I think you were in line ahead of me.”
“It has been a while since I said this, but I love you.”

Comfort, O comfort God’s people.
Speak tenderly to God’s homesick people, with words that transport us to love.
Eat the comfort food of the bread of life, the transport of delight to our joyful home.

Comfort, O comfort my people.
O tidings of comfort – and joy.