IncarnATE 1.0

Empty wishlist for Santa Claus laid on a wooden table
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2017

Mary, did you know?

No, really, Mary: did you know?

Maybe a better question would be, “Mary, what did you know, and when did you know it?”

I mean, really: dare we think that Mary could have possibly imagined thinking about Jesus the way we think about Jesus?

When you think about thinking about Jesus this time of year,  you likely think of donkeys and camels and angels blowing horns.  

Have you spent much time thinking about how you think about Jesus?

Please notice: I’m not asking if you think about Jesus. I’m asking if you ever think about how you think about Jesus. Because this 4th Sunday of Advent,which also happens to be Christmas Eve, is a really good time to think about how you think about Jesus.

But asking you to think about how you think about Jesus might get you defensive, so, instead, I’ll tell you a couple of stories. The first one I got from sunday school or confirmation literature at least 20 years ago. The second story is still going on today.

The first story starts with the challenge of explaining the incarnation to a child (or youth – I can’t remember which).  In case you’re not very churched, or just not in the mood, I’ll also give you a heads up on incarnation.

Incarnation is a big word that describes someone who lives in the United States. We love our automobiles. The average American spends 101 minutes per day driving. This means we are an “in car nation.”

Dad Joke for the morning.

Incarnation is actually a word to describe or explain what happened in Jesus/birth. Jesus was, according to Christian understanding, God in human flesh. “Incarnation” is another way to say “in human flesh.”

Sounds way more theological, too, doesn’t it?

So, the first story is this. A person was sitting  at her front window, looking out at the falling snow. In her driveway, she saw a bird. A tiny dove, that she imagined must be feeling awfully cold.

“I wonder if birds enjoy watching the snow fall the way I do,” she thought.

Realizing that snow falling is beautiful – perhaps especially from the warmth of one’s bay window, she suddenly began to wonder if, maybe, the bird was cold. Too cold?

What could she do to help?  If she went outside, no matter how slowly and carefully, the bird would fly off. Maybe if she went around through the kitchen and opened the garage door from inside, then the bird might not get scared away.

But how could she be sure the bird would recognize the safety and relative warmth of the garage?

Then it struck her. If she could become a bird, she could fly out there, and land alongside that little bird, and share the good news of the warmth of the garage.

If she could become a bird, the bird could better understand her efforts to communicate.

We aren’t birds, and God isn’t a person sitting by a window watching snow fall, but I think you get the picture.

Jesus came to us – emmanuel, God with us, God as one of us, to better communicate with us and live among us and show us with more depth than we could have grasped before, the good news of God’s love for us.

Most of us get that aspect of incarnation, I think.

Which brings me to the second story. This one is about a guy named Mark. Well, it’s about me and a guy named Mark.

God’s been on me lately about the incarnation. Trying to help me understand it in a deeper way.

And when I say “God’s been on me,” I don’t mean in a nagging or mean or bullying way. One consequence of trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday is that God gives you opportunities to put your life where your mouth is.

I can talk a good game about incarnation. But can I live it?

I met Mark a couple months ago. Like many other people, he found our church office looking for help.

Unlike when those other people find our church office, I was really the only one there to help.

I kinda went Peter and John on him. You know, from Acts 3:

Peter and John went to pray, and the met a lame man on the way. He sheld out his palm and asked for some alms, and this is what Peter did say: “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I you: In the name of Jesus Christ of nazareth rise up and walk.”

That’s how I learned the song in youth group, anyway.

So, I told Mark, after listening to a little of his story, that I didn’t have any money, which was kinda true (I rarely have cash on me).

I was a bit thankful he wasn’t lame, because I’m not sure I would have had the courage to dare to tell him to rise up and walk.

But then this is where God and incarnation kick in.

As I said, I’ve never been in such a situation where I was finding church offices in bank buildings because I needed help. So I don’t know how I would present the story. My story.

I’m pretty sure I would tell it in a way that would elicit help. If I need money, or food, or clothing, or shelter, and I think you have these, or the resources to help me get these, then I’m going to tell the story in a way that will, hopefully, get you to want to help me.

But, I don’t know about you, I’m usually a little leery of people telling that kind of story.

I’m one of these, “can we cut to the chase – where you tell me what you want, I tell you ‘no,’ or ‘I’m sorry,’ depending on your presentation, and we move on?”

I get to remain here. Holding all these resources – a pocket full of credit cards,  a house on which I am up-to-date, and even a little ahead, on the payments. I’ve got family who could, if I needed, who have, when I needed, come to the rescue when I had made poor decisions or just wasn’t quite able to make things work on my own. I’ve got a church family – dozens, maybe hundreds of people I could approach, if I needed, to help out in a bind.

Not to toot my own horn, but in this comparison, I’m like a king with a crown and he is subject to my benevolence

Or, to put it differently, I might as well be telling Mark that I’m the girl sitting in the bay window and he’s the bird out in the snow.

Wouldn’t it be kind of me to find a way to help him?!

Wouldn’t I be such an awesome person?! I could really make Mark think I’m an awesome person, too.

But it’s going to cost me. I have to open my Hearts.

Here’s the tricky part of the incarnation: I don’t really want Mark to think I’m an awesome person. I want Mark to believe the things I tell him about Jesus are true.

And I’m going to have a hard time convincing him of that as long as I stay up here, in the place where I’m the one who helps him. If I help him now, he can come back to me again. As long as he knows that how he gets help. He comes to me, and I am the help dispenser.

When I think about how I think about Jesus, I have to admit: sometimes I think about Jesus as the help dispenser.

But that’s not how Jesus came to us. If I want to be part of Mark meeting and knowing Jesus, I have to give up being the help dispenser or the Jesus dispenser and be a friend.

I am going to have to give up my place, my privilege,  my easy access to resources, my presumption that I can or should help him, and be a friend.

God didn’t send the angel Gabriel to a young woman to say, “God would like you to be the help dispenser dispenser.” Mary was more than just the baby mama!

God, through Gabriel, invited Mary into an awesome partnership that would offer us the presence of God in human form.

And this isn’t just God the almighty poured into a human shell; no; this God incarnate came just as he would live – humbly, powerless, at the mercy of others.

This is how God comes to us. It’s God saying “I can’t get close enough.”

This is how Christmas Eve invites us to think about thinking about Jesus.

This is what Mary knew!

 

How will you remember?

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Six years ago today, we checked Eliza into Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children. It was the beginning of what would end up being an almost 7 month process of correcting the dysplasia in her left hip.

The hospital was wonderful; we still have annual follow-up appointments as she grows.

If we didn’t have these annual follow-ups, and if she didn’t have the scar, I don’t think Eliza would even know she had been through two procedures, one surgery, and 24 weeks in a spica cast.

It is up to Rachel and I to remember it for her. We want to help her remember it well!  We have awesome stories about how we got to Texas Scottish Rite Hospital, which include a chance encounter with a good friend of mine from more than 20 years before.

We all are who we are because others have done some remembering for us. Sometimes for the good, sometimes not.

I read someplace a few years ago, a recommendation to spend money on travel rather than things. The article argued that even trips that leave a lot to be desired end up being “improved” by memory as the years pass. I have found this to be true in my own life, but I also know people who seem to remember things as worse than they could possibly have been.

How will you remember?  Some of what you remember may have a great affect on how you live, and even on the lives of others.

Thanksgiving is Good News

t is gn.jpgThere’s this funny thing about being United Methodist in the 21st century. Do you remember 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon? The pop culture version of our connected world. Back in the 50s (pretty soon we’re going to have to say “1950s”, someone did a study of how many connections it would take to link a person randomly picked from a phone book in one city to another person randomly licked from a phone book in another city. 6 was all it took.

And the big takeaway from that is really, “when was the last time you used a phone book?”

Anyway, the funny thing about being a United Methodist in the 21st century is that number is, I’d say, 3 or 4 at the most.

We are more connected than ever as a society, and United Methodists even moreso!

Geoff and I went to highschool together. We were also in UMYF and Boy Scouts together. Then we went off to school – me to Southwestern and him to A&M.

I saw him once after that – he happened to be passing near Wilmore, Ky., when I was in seminary there, so we had a visit. In the late 80s. Next time I heard from Geoff was following 9-11. He had been at the pentagon when the plane hit it. He was safe.

Then, another decade or so, now we’re connected on social media. You know how that goes, a flurry of interaction, then pleasantries, then back into regular life.

Then Geoff messages me. He’s retired Navy, settled in Georgia. I said we had been in scouts together. Well, the message was that his son’s troop had sent a team to Philmont scout ranch in northern NM, and one of the kids had sickle cell anemia, which doesn’t react well with high altitudes. So that boy, half a continent from home and family, had been rushed to a hospital in Albuquerque.

Did I know someone who could check on him?

Why, yes; my mind went quickly to several United Methodist clergy friends in Albuquerque. And also, as it happens, to my mother in law. A deeply committed, lifelong United Methodist, and certified Spiritual Director.

Donna Berry, Rachel’s mother, my mother-in-law, visited the scout in the hospital.

Thank God for connections and connectedness!  Thank God for opportunities to do small things with great love for people you haven’t seen in 2 decades and for people you never have and never will meet!

I have no doubt you have some similar story; We live in such a connected world that if we simply pay attention, we cannot help but be awestruck at the way God can work in us and through us to bless and encourage and comfort others.

And, of course, we cannot help but be awestruck at the way God works in others to bless and encourage and comfort us.

But this is 2017. Almost 2018. We travel without a thought. Few of us have lived here all our lives, and those who have have likely visited lots of other places. And met many other people.

So, nearly 2,000 years ago, Paul was quite a traveller, but he didn’t have social media. To be fair, he did, but his social media was letters and couriers.

At this point, Paul has never been to Rome. He has travelled much of the empire, and he has planted churches.

He has travelled to Jerusalem – headquarters – to argue for accepting the gentiles into a faith that started entirely Jewish. His argument won the day, we learned last week, against those who said new gentiles Jesus-followers had to obey the law of Moses. “They and we are saved the same way; by the grace of Jesus.”

So, now, in the opening chapter of Paul’s letter to Christians in Rome, why does he thank God for the Romans? He hadn’t been there. He didn’t know them.

As you know if you have spent any time in this letter to the Romans, Paul has some things he wants to teach them. He is committed to helping them clear up some misunderstandings.

But before correcting them, or even beginning to teach them, he gives thanks for them.

Do we give thanks for people we have never met? Do we give thanks for people we feel obligated to teach, to correct and direct and educate?

Today, we do. If we want the gospel to be good news for us, we do. If we want the Gospel to be good news for others through us, we do. We give thanks!

Our willingness to give thanks helps make the gospel good news.

And let me be clear, because giving thanks too easily degenerates into listing the stuff or benefits we have.

Giving thanks is not just being able to list stuff – as though our relationship with God, or our mental or spiritual health rises and falls with what we have.

In another of Paul’s letter, Philippians, he thanks for Philippians for their support:

10 I was very glad in the Lord because now at last you have shown concern for me again. (Of course you were always concerned but had no way to show it.)

Then he expands upon his thankfulness:

11 I’m not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. 12 I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. 13 I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength. 14 Still, you have done well to share my distress.

Paul isn’t grateful simply for the collection the Philippians have taken up and sent on. He is grateful for the connection with them; the encouragement he received from knowing them and spending time with them.

He is, in fact, thankful whether in need or having more than enough, whether hungry or full, whether having plenty or being poor.

Is that how thankfulness works?

Yes. Yes it is.

If we can learn to, and practice, being thankful and expressing thankfulness, no matter our situation, thankfulness works on our behalf.

Learning to be thankful people makes us better people. Learning to be thankful people brings us closer to God.

Did you catch what Paul said here? He is responsible to Jews and Greeks, to the wise and the foolish.

It’s like Paul has really, truly learned to be thankful in everything. He may or may not know that he’ll end up in Rome because, after his arrest, he appeals to Caesar to get his trial moved there.

This is the man who wrote “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” He has learned how to rejoice in the Lord always.

He has learned the power of giving thanks.

Like Tina Kennedy. Tina’s story comes from Christian Smith’s The Paradox of Generosity. Tina lives on welfare, having suffered a spinal injury in childbirth, and so lost her job as a cosmetologist. After giving birth to one of her children, the child’s father left her for another woman, one of her good friends. She recalls that time as a particularly dark chapter in life. It was not easy, but she did find a way to move past the pain and forgive her boyfriend, her good female friend, and the doctors responsible for her injury. Instead of letting bitterness take root, she remains thankful for what she has. “I had to regroup, regroup, re-evaluate things, where you put your priorities and things of life. But overall, TIna says, I’m blessed, and that’s why I keep my strength. I have life to be thankful for, you know?” Even though she could easily be overwhelmed by her health, financial, and romantic setbacks, she still generously reaches out to other people, by providing aid to extended family members and volunteering much of her time to local schools.

Smith tells us that “It is difficult to be angry, resentful, depressed, or fearful when one is showing selfless love toward another person. Such loving acts neutralize negative emotions that stimulate physiological responses known to adversely affect immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular functions.”

Learning to live thanksgiving isn’t just good for your physical body; It’s also good for your soul.

Learning to live thankfully, developing an attitude of gratitude, is good for body and soul – and thus, also – for the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is the Church!

Learning to live thankfully is good for the church!

Paul began this section giving thanks for people he’d never met. He closes this section with these words – right after he mentions his responsibility to jews and Greeks, wise and foolish, he says:

That’s why I’m ready to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. God’s righteousness is being revealed in the gospel, from faithfulness for faith, as it is written, The righteous person will live by faith.

He’s ready! Ready to preach the Gospel. The Gospel which is, by the way, God’s own power for salvation!

That’s some good news! The Good news of Jesus Christ, which is good news for all of us, is God’s power for salvation – for everyone!

And God’s righteousness, God’s goodness, is revealed in the gospel: that people are to live by faith.

Part of living by faith is learning to live thankfully. Give thanks this week. May this week be a step for you in the direction of living thankfully year around.

When we learn to live thankfully year around, it is good for our bodies, and our souls, and our church.

Give thanks with a grateful heart. Give thanks to the Holy One….

 

 

 

Loving Las Vegas

A hand reaching out of a puddle in the forest.I’ve never been to Vegas, but after the mass shooting there last night, they’ve been on my mind and heart this morning. Enough that I posted this to Facebook this morning:

Praying for #LasVegas, and for a country that can seemingly agree on nothing except that we should pray.
Maybe that’s the best place to start.

Of course, sharing such a sentiment gets “likes” and positive comments.

And, then I read this post from my friend Jared Slack:

the fact there we’re all secretly hoping Stephen Paddock (Vegas shooter) is a by-product of our political/religious rivals is the problem.

After that bounced around in me for a while, I realized a potential shortcoming of my post.

I left it too easy for us to end up just praying for the other. Sure, “others” like victims, victim’s families, friends, residents of Las Vegas, the shooter and his family, friends, etc.

But if all we all agree to do is pray like that, for the other, whoever the other might be, I think we give in to remaining caught in this tragic cycle of simply agreeing to pray.

What if we moved a step further?

What if we invited God, in our prayers, to help us see the steps we, ourselves, can make beyond the impasse of only agreeing that we can and should pray?

If we remain in our place, disagreeing with so many others about so much, and only willing to agree to pray, I believe we find ourselves in the place of the Pharisee in this story from Luke 18

Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

I hereby commit to continuing to pray for Las Vegas, victims, victim’s families and friends, Stephen Paddock, his family and loved ones.

I further commit to finding, meeting, interacting, and listening to some of the “others.” for whom I am praying. Let’s call this reaching out.

When I reach out, the place for me to reach out from is the recognition that something or some things about me and the way I view and move in the world might be part of the problem.

I am reaching out not only to help, but for help.

2017 version of Community Bathrooms

community bath 1 (2).jpgIn 1982, I made a conscious decision to move away from a dorm with semi-private bathrooms to a dorm with community bathrooms on each floor.

And I never looked back.  Ok; the bathroom set up wasn’t the reason I chose the other dorm (It helped they had installed air-conditioning over the summer).

Community was different in dorms with community baths.  Not in a creepy way, but in a way that comes sui generis from sharing tiolet, shower, shaving, washing space with a larger number of people.

We had challenges from time to time. I don’t actually remember having my stuff stolen while I was in the shower, but it may have happened. I also don’t remember stealing anyone else’s stuff while they showered. That may have happened, too.

But what I do remember happening was the shared vulnerability of such common spaces had the effect of each of us treating one another with at least a modicum of respect.

So, as a few of us chatted over coffee this morning, and remembered the days of community-bathroomed dorms, someone said, “I bet they don’t have those any more.”

Oh, but we do.

I don’t know if colleges do, but I contend that social media is the community bathroom of 2017. Except that, not realizing it, many of us have not yet learned to treat others with the modicum of respect deserved when an eclectic and random (you might have chosen your roommate, but you didn’t chose who got to live on the floor)

It took us some time to adapt to sharing the space of the community bathroom.

But not as long as you’ve been on social media!

Yes, Caesar, whatever you say, Caesar

veterans-dayWithin limits, of course.

If you know me at all, you can imagine how confused I was to hear this yesterday at our church’s Veteran’s Day Luncheon:

Note the order here: the nation was telling the churches to celebrate this day.

I reacted, but controlled it. Someone else had the floor. This gave me time to figure my response.

The State doesn’t tell the church what to do!  How dare they? Who do they think they are. The wheels of thought spun inside me, measured by the knowledge that I was surrounded by people, many of whom had served in war, and at least some of whom don’t have exactly the same ecclesiology I do.

As the speaker concluded, she shared that this description of the history of Veteran’s Day came from The United Methodist Church.

My thoughts took an abrupt turn, but not full 180.

Promoting and enduring peace and honoring those who offered themselves to the cause of freedom and justice were certainly worthy values that I could encourage, even lead, my church to uphold.

I’m still nonconstantinian, but I have realized that maybe there is more left to render to Caesar than I thought before yesterday.