Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Holding on for Dear Life

When I go to see my grandbaby Nicholas, I give his parents a date night so they can spend some time alone together while I stay home and babysit. (It’s quite a sacrifice on my part.) What they may not realize is that this isn’t really about them. It’s about ME. They think it’s their date night, but that’s really just a ruse to get them out of the way for MY date night with Nick.

Well, on my last date night with three-month-old Nick, he was fussing about going to sleep, as usual. I held him and rocked him singing my go-to lullaby for the babies in my life, “Silent Night.” When I got to, “…sleep in heavenly peace”, he was doing just that. So I stopped singing and studied the sweet angel sleeping in my arms. Filled with love to overflowing, I couldn’t contain it all, and that love spilled out through my eyes and ran down my cheeks.

Suddenly, Nick’s eyes popped open and he gave me a huge smile from ear to ear. Well, that just made the tears flow all the more. Then, I saw him taking a closer look at me and, for some reason, the sight of Nana with tears tickled him and he let out one of those delight-filled baby belly laughs. Which, of course made me laugh. And then Nick laughed back at me. Which made me laugh. And Nick laughed back at me again. And then he closed his eyes and resumed sleeping in heavenly peace. 

Oh, my! The two of us shared an incredible moment of joy. He won’t remember it, but I will, for the rest of my life. Sometimes these days when life seems to be getting the best of me, I’ll stop and think of that moment of joy with Nick and I can’t help but smile. (If you’ve seen me randomly smiling lately and you’ve wondered -- what’s up with that?-- now you know.)

Joy is such a gift for us, isn’t it? It’s not the same thing as happiness. Happiness is fleeting, it comes and goes depending on the circumstances of our lives. But joy runs deep. Joy abides within us. Joy pulls us through turmoil and trouble, struggle and sorrow.

Christmas joy comes to us every year when the earth is dark and cold, just when we need it the most. We fix our eyes on a baby in a cradle, surrounded by cows and sheep. His adoring parents watch his every breath. On a starry night, he is greeted by shepherds and angels. What could be more joyful than this holy moment filled with promise?

And yet, if we know how the rest of the story goes, we also know that this child’s story isn’t all sweetness and light.

A couple years ago, Clarkie’s dads noticed that he was distraught over the birth of Jesus at Christmas. Clarkie is a tender-hearted child and he couldn’t bear the thought of it. “Why is Jesus going to be born again? Then they’re just going to kill him all over again!” It was too much for him and he was in tears. Clarkie was right. Beneath the radiant joy, shadows of sorrow are lurking.

As I hold my new grandson in my arms, I try to imagine all that he will experience in his life. Maybe he’ll be smart, or athletic, or funny. He may grow up to have a little boy of his own. He may be successful or famous. But I know that his life will also be like any other life and it will include pain, and heartbreak, and death. I can’t bring myself to think of it for more than a millisecond.

But life does include sorrow, as well as joy. And that’s exactly why Christmas joy is so important.

Have you ever seen one of those old cowboy movies where they’re out on a cattle drive and the cowboy leads the way only to discover that he’s stepped into quicksand? He thought everything was fine and all of a sudden he’s sinking fast.

Have you ever felt like that in your life? Like you’re going along fine and then all of a sudden it feels like you’re sinking? You’re going down and there doesn’t seem to be any way out. Things are desperate. They may even feel hopeless.

Well, in the old cowboy movies, they always throw the one who is sinking a rope. The cowboy grabs hold of that rope and hangs on for dear life as he’s pulled to safety. That’s what joy is for us. When we’re sinking in quicksand, it’s a rope for us to grab onto and hold on for dear life.

Thank God for the gift of joy that comes to us at Christmas. It’s a joy that we can hang onto all the way through the cross. For the story of salvation is bookended with joy, isn’t it? At the end of our worship service on Christmas Eve, Ron played the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The last time we heard it at Holy Trinity was when he played it at Easter. There is joy in the manger that carries us through the pain and sorrow of the cross and brings us at the last to the joy of the empty tomb.

Joy is God’s gift to us at Christmas. Grab onto it, and hold on for dear life!

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Truth about Lies

Preached at Holy Trinity on December 7, 2014.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…” That’s how Mark begins his gospel. For the first people who read these words, it packed a wallop. That word for good news was typically used when the Empire announced its decrees. And the label Son of God was reserved for Caesar. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” was a gutsy statement. And it told the readers of the earliest gospel in our Bible that this is the story of someone who didn’t live by the rules of the Empire. He didn’t go with the flow and fit into his culture. He lived his own way in the world, which was God’s way.

There is no story of the birth of a baby in Mark. Instead, Mark’s gospel account begins with John the Baptist. He links John to the prophet Elijah, the one whose return would be a sign that the Messiah is about to make an entrance.

John is aligned with the Old Testament prophets. So, in order to get John, we need to get Old Testament prophets. From our modern usage of the word prophet, we often think of them as fortune-tellers. But that’s actually not what prophets do in the Bible. Prophets don’t predict the future, they analyze the present for the sake of moving toward a different future. In other words, they say, Folks, this is what you’re doing. And if you keep doing it, here’s what you can expect. There are consequences for the way you’re living. If you want a different future, you need to make some adjustments to your present. So, the most important thing the prophet does is tell it like it is. Prophets are truth-tellers. Of course, that’s why prophets don’t get invited to a lot of parties. I mean, really, who wants to be around someone who’s telling you the truth all the time?

Have you heard about all the controversy that’s been going on regarding the curriculum of Advanced Placement history classes taught in high school? In these AP classes, students are encouraged to take a critical approach to US history. So there is no white-washing of the truth. Yes, our country has accomplished some amazing things and we can all be proud of that. But our forebearers were flawed. Our country’s motives haven’t always been pure. And there are those who are so offended by the very thought of it that they’re convinced exposing students to this curriculum threatens to destroy America. But isn’t it only destroying the lies about America?

This past week, the most destructive lie in our nation’s history has been smacking us in the face. And if we don’t recognize the truth about ourselves, things are only going to get worse. The fact is, we pride ourselves on being a nation where all are created equal, but we have never operated that way. Our nation was founded by an elite class that owned land. Land that produced wealth for them on the backs of slaves. All people may have been created equal by God, but they were not treated equally by other people. And that hasn’t changed. The racism that created slavery lives on, despite the fact that we would like to believe otherwise. It’s something that is always boiling beneath the surface in our country, waiting to blow.

I have a white friend who is totally baffled by all the anger over the grand jury decision in Ferguson. Her point is that the grand jury did their job. The evidence presented wasn’t enough to bring the police officer to trial. Those are the facts and it makes no sense to see how angry people have become over this. She thinks this is all about one court case. The way I see it, she just doesn’t get it. The court cases in Ferguson, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Cleveland have become flashpoints. Never mind whether the decisions in those cases were justified or not. That’s not really the point. The point is, people in this country are angry. Racism is pervasive and it’s real. It’s been with our nation from its birth and we’ve never dealt with it, so it’s not going to go away. That’s the truth.

The black people I know can tell you all about it if you ask them. (They might tell you even if you don’t.) But most of the white people I know don’t see racism as a major problem. What they see as a problem is the way black people have been acting. But racism is not a problem for them. I suspect that’s because it seems to be working for them. And now I need to stop talking about them and start talking about us, because I’m as white as they come. And with my white status come certain privileges. As a white mother with a white son, I have never worried about my son being denied any opportunity because of the color of his skin. I have never worried about my son being arrested for something he didn’t do. I have never worried about my son being shot in the street. I certainly have never worried about my son being killed by a police officer.

So, am I a racist? I’m a liberal who grew up in the 60s. I have marched with the NAACP. I pastor a church where all are welcome. I have dear friends who are black. I voted for Obama… both times. Surely, I’m not a racist!

Have you ever noticed how quick we white folk are to say, I’m not a racist? Well, I want you to know the truth about me. I am a racist. It took me a long time to realize that and then even longer to admit it, but it’s true. I grew up in the upper Midwest where racism was more subtle than it was in the South. And that’s what made it dangerous. I knew it wasn’t nice to use the N word. I was polite to the black students in my classes and liked to believe that I treated them just like everybody else. But I didn’t. They weren’t welcome at my table in the school cafeteria. I would never have considered dating one of them. They lived in a different part of town. They had their world and I had mine.

I am convinced that it’s pert near impossible for a white person growing up in this country not to be affected by racism on some level. It’s in our wiring. The only way we can deal with it is by admitting that we have a problem and then entering into the recovery process. We can never say, “I’m not a racist any more” in much the same way that an alcoholic can never say “I’m not an alcoholic anymore.” When it’s in your wiring, it’s always who you are. There are no former alcoholics, only recovering alcoholics. There are no former racists, only recovering racists. Nothing is going to change until we can be honest about the lies that we carry around inside us.

Now, this truth about lies doesn’t only apply to racism. There are a lot of other lies we use to prop ourselves up, lies that keep us from the authentic lives we were created to live. But racism has been in our face this week. And it happens to be the second week of Advent when we’re focused on the message of John the Baptist, calling us to prepare the way of the Lord through repentance. So it seems pretty clear to me that, as God’s people, on this day, we are being called to confront the truth about race for us. I hope you will spend some time doing that if you haven’t already.

“John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness…” The wilderness. A wild place. A lawless place. A place where the going is difficult, but anything is possible. “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” It wasn’t baptism the way we practice it today in the church. It was a baptism of cleansing, of washing the old life away, so you could begin again. That’s where repentance takes us. It means to change the direction of our lives. To be headed one way and then realize, Wait a minute, I’m going the wrong way. So we turn around and begin again, headed a new way. The key to repentance is that turning point, when we realize we’re going the wrong way. That can only happen when we’re honest with ourselves. We can live a lie and continue the way we’ve always gone. But in the end, we probably aren’t going to be real happy with where that way takes us. Or we can face the truth. We can repent.

And that’s how we prepare the way of the Lord. That’s how we open ourselves to follow the Jesus Way in the world. It’s the way of one who didn’t live by the rules of the Empire. He didn’t go with the flow and fit into his culture. He didn’t prop himself up with lies, but lived authentically before God.

May the Jesus Way be our way.