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Archive for December, 2014

Light’s Arrival: Are We Ready?

Luke 2:1-20, John 1:6-10

Each year, at this time, we read this story. But unlike the other rituals and traditions of the Christmas season like putting up trees and decorating them; making cookies or cakes; caroling; hanging up stockings; exchanging gifts—this story, as a tradition, is still full of surprises. The reason is that we think we know the story, but we really don’t. And the more you read it and ask questions and explore it—the more you will come to that conclusion.

Don’t be fooled. This story is still full of surprises.

For example, did you know that Mary and Joseph didn’t really stay overnight in a barn because a mean innkeeper said there wasn’t any room. Actually, Luke’s Gospel, written in Greek, says they stayed in a kataluma. This is the upper room of a house. It’s the guest room where your cousins from Florida stay when they come for the holidays. In Mary and Joseph’s case, the guest room was already taken. So they had to stay in the “other” room, which typically was the place where animals spent the night. Remember that animals and humans stayed in the same buildings. During the day this room was living space and so it was cleaned up to be used by the resident family. kataluma

So Jesus [Jeshua, Joshua] was born in someone’s home. We don’t know who, but someone showed them hospitality. Was it family? Friends? The story doesn’t say.

Another surprise. All those important and influential people of the time, to whom you would think that the birth of an important person would be announced or foretold, were clueless.

Instead, Jesus’ birth is announced to shepherds.

The shepherd profession was not one that people chose. Shepherds were low-income folk who worked for others. They didn’t own land or lots of property. They were not popular in the community nor invited to the important dinner parties. They were shepherds, working in the field.

And yet, they are the ones who get the good news first.

And angels tell them.

But another surprise: angels, in Luke’s case, are not winged humans with halos glowing over their heads and the sound of organ music playing when they open their mouths.

In Luke, angels are messengers. They tell the story of what’s going down.

When they appear to the shepherds, the shepherds are afraid, because they are bathed in light. They can’t see clearly. They are terrified and paralyzed.

Even though the messengers say that it’s good news and all this light is a good thing.

But it’s still terrifying. Luke uses the word mega.

It’s mega-terrifying!

 fear

What’s so terrifying?

This good news—this evangelion that the messengers say is for all people.
You see, a historical surprise is that evangelion was a phrase said about the Emperor Caesar when he won a battle. Evangelion! Good news! Hail Caesar!
But in this case, the evangelion, the good news, is not for rulers or winners of battles, or the rich or powerful.

It’s for lowly shepherds, and it’s for all people.

And after the angels leave and take the R5 train to heaven, the shepherds become the messengers.

Yep, surprise!

They go to Bethlehem right away to check out what God has revealed to them.
Then they share the good news.
And then they return to their life, but with joy and a new perspective, a new wisdom.

The people who hear the shepherds’ message are stirred by their words.
That didn’t happen before…

And even Mary [called Miriam] is stirred. She needs some alone time. She needs to take it all in and process it.

I think we would be wise to do the same.

This light that freaked out the shepherds and pretty much toppled the status quo of who was important and who was not; the light that stunned Mary; the light that spread through the poor, the forgotten, the unheralded, the oppressed, and the pushed down.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, which came into the world.

Are we really ready for THAT light?

Are we ready to open our homes and lives to it, to offer a room or a space where this light can live? We’ll have to make room, I think. We’ll have to get rid of some clutter in order to offer such hospitality. We may need to clean up. And most importantly, we will need to open our doors to let the light in.

And are we ready for unexpected messengers to bring light into our lives?

We will have to be open-minded. We’ll need to stop judging people and start accepting them as they are. We’ll need to stop idolizing the rich and powerful and famous so we can stop to hear the good news from shepherds, and neighbors, and children; and from Ricardo, the landscaper; from Olivia, who is studying for her GED and taking care of her two kids; from Rick who is between construction jobs and living out of his van; from Denise, who lost her son to drug violence and volunteers at the halfway house; and from Melissa, battling an addiction still, but giving her time to encourage others that their lives matter.

Are we ready for this light?

I realize every year that the story surprises me and that I don’t really know it.

So may you be frightened, even freaked out by this light.
May it cause you to pause and look deeply within yourself.
May the light fill you with joy, but also with wisdom.
May it open your mind and ears to hear others—no matter their lot in life.

And may you recognize not just today, but every day, that this light only shines if there is a place in you where it can live.

Welcome the light.

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Inner Peace and a Path

Isaiah 40:4-8, Psalm 85: 8, 10, 11, 13  

This time of year, a second candle is lit and people speak an elusive word:

 Peace.

 PeaceUnfortunately, I’m not sure we are all that honest about this word.

Do we really believe in peace?

I mean, it certainly doesn’t seem like we believe in it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be fighting wars and starting new ones. We wouldn’t have tons of weapons; we wouldn’t separate communities of people from each other–if we really believed in peace. We wouldn’t be shouting or posting racial slurs; we wouldn’t be apathetic about building bridges across lines of difference.

So I would like to go in a different direction, taking another path, this Advent season. What if the prophetic passages of Isaiah, the Psalms, and the NT Gospels didn’t really talk about peace the way we think they did?

What if real and honest peace is not about lighting candles and singing songs and observing a holiday season and religious traditions, just like we do every year? What if peace isn’t even about most of the things associated with Christmas?

Now before you start throwing things at me, allow me to explain.

The typical “Advent” scripture passages [and also the typical Christmas Eve passages] talk about peace, but not as an absence of conflict, a nice, warm feeling, or comfort.

Take Isaiah 40, for example. The prophet Isaiah speaks of a path of preparation. Something new is about to happen, something that will change everything, and the way for God needs to be prepared. The highways and byways are metaphors of the spiritual pathways in people that need to be ready to receive such a change.

path

Isaiah the prophet tries to convince people that beyond all the destruction and loss in the world there is comfort and recovery. The earth itself will proclaim God’s reign of healing and transformation.

And then there are Psalms like Psalm 85 that echoes the Isaiah proclamation of healing and change. People [and whole nations] are forgiven and justice becomes healing. People are transformed and become free and joyful, and they commune with God.

And finally, in the Gospels, what does John the Baptizer do? He quotes Isaiah [and so does Jesus], and tells people to “turn around” to change, and he tells them to prepare the way for God.

But…none of this change, justice, and peace happens without real, honest human change on an individual basis.

People are exhorted to look deeply and honestly at themselves.

They are challenged to deal with the fears, the anxieties, the prejudices, and the apathy within themselves.
And they are encouraged that if they commit to that path, they will find something within themselves.

A highway.
A vessel.
A space where the divine can live and act.

And the encountering of peace…inside ourselves.
Inner peace.

Of course, it’s impossible to define what inner peace is, because it is and will be different for every person.
But, the path to inner peace is less relative.

Not just in Christian or other religious traditions and scriptures is this true, but in real life it’s true.

Inner peace is about accepting yourself.

But how do people discover acceptance?

Usually the first, and the hardest step, is in recognizing that the past is just…the past. Letting go of the past is critical, because the past is something that we cannot change.

And then it is in recognizing that the future is not here yet. We cannot turn the hands on a clock to make a day skip forward. We cannot turn the pages of a calendar to move ahead to future months.

Peace/Wholeness within yourself comes when you realize that the past and the future are not yours to hold in your hands.

Instead, the one thing you do hold in your hands is the here and now.

If you live firmly in the moment and then move fluidly from moment to moment, life seems to have a rhythm.
You will spend more time actually living, and you will see and experience the here and now in an honest and healthy way. You’ll spend less time regretting or dwelling on the past and less time worrying about the future.

And in the embracing of the here and now you actually embrace yourself.
You realize that you are alive. You are present.
Right now.

One particular theologian and philosopher who doesn’t exactly get mainstream love, and who certainly wouldn’t be on most people’s Christmas list, is one Paul Tillich.

tillichTillich looked at the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament Gospels with an alternative lens. He saw in the scripture stories a particular dynamic in what many Biblical scholars call Kairos time—in other words, when the divine breaks into the moment-by-moment existences of human beings.

In Tillich’s work, The Courage to be, he states:

…the reality of God’s moment by moment coming – the Kairos of this very moment – calls us to be self-aware and mindful and to be people who already live “on earth as it is in heaven.”[1]

But in order to live on this earth as we expect things are in heaven, we will need to have the courage to look at ourselves. We will need to honestly accept who we are—in spite of all that happens around us that might seek to distract us from such a pursuit.

It’s common for us to look out at the world and to become apathetic, depressed, and overwhelmed by all the suffering, injustices, violence, and pain.

It would be easy to just do things as we’ve always done them and to neglect looking intently inside ourselves.
But this is the path of Advent, the path of waiting, the path of real change.

For when we look deeply at ourselves and learn to accept ourselves as we are, we start to see others differently.

We even participate in that Kairos time—that intersection of the divine and us.

But don’t think that finding inner peace is just some isolated act for each individual. It’s more than that. Because when you commit to the path of accepting yourself, you participate in the divine act of God affirming all the good creation, all the beauty of the animals, and the plants, and the humans.

And you become aware of justice and the need to participate in it.
And peace is more than a dove or a word or an idea.
Peace is real because it lives in you.

[1] The Courage to Be. By Paul Tillich. Second Edition. New Haven, Yale University, 2000 (1st ed. 1952).

What Would You Do with a Bag of Money?

Matthew 25:14-30

Let’s keep it simple. This Matthew parable is often talked about in Christian circles, but very rarely understood. So let’s keep it simple:

What would you do with a bag of money?

Does that sound like a weird question to be asking?
Actually, it isn’t all that strange.
I’m sure at one point you have been asked this hypothetical question:

What would you do if you had a million dollars?
It’s a fun question to answer; it’s like a game.
What would you do with a million dollars?

Dr.-Evil-One-Million-Dollars

Of course, a million dollars gets our attention and also is an amount that 99% of the people in the world will never see. So we know that when we answer such a question we are just imagining a fantasy that will never actually happen.

But this Matthew parable is not asking us what we would do with a million dollars. It’s not a hypothetical, fantasy-type question. This parable story is a follow-up to the other parables and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

The lead-in is: Here is the story of a man going on a long trip. He called together his servants and entrusted all his material wealth to them while he was gone.

One person gets five bags of money.
Another gets three.
The last person gets one.

Each bag of money, in this case, was equivalent to a whole year’s salary.
So the master has given away eight years’ worth of salary.

The first two people invest and put the money to use; they double it.
The third person buries his money in the ground and gets nothing.
Then the master returns.

The first two who double their money celebrate, are joyful, and are entrusted with more.
The third person is full anxiety, fear, and sadness and is left empty.

Like I said, let’s keep it simple. Let’s avoid jumping to common conclusions and status quo interpretations.

Let’s not make the master God or Jesus without blinking. Let’s not change the Greek word in the story to the English word talent. The master gives away his material possessions. The reason we get confused is because our English word talent [that means skill or gift] was derived from the Greek language. But in Greek, talent is an amount of money. So let’s keep the original meaning; this is about material wealth.

A man entrusted three people with a fortune.
Two of them did something with what they were given; one did not.
As a consequence, two people ended up joyful and fulfilled.
The other ended up sad, fearful, and empty.

Another thing to keep in mind.

The story right before this one is the parable of the 10 bridesmaids and the business with the oil. Just like in this story, a person goes away and people have to wait; in the meantime they are supposed to do something with what they have. The bridesmaids had oil; the servants has bags of money.

The parable of the bags of money is a sequel to the parable of the bridesmaids with oil.
And the parable that follows in Matthew is the well-known one about the king of the least of these, which says:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Keeping this context in mind will truly help us understand.
In all of these Matthew stories, people are entrusted with doing something in an in-between time. Bridesmaids wait for a groom to return; servants wait for their master; a community waits for its king.

How they live during that waiting—in that in-between time—makes all the difference.

In this story about bags of money, notice that only the third servant thinks that the master is cruel; he’s the only one with fear; he refuses to take a risk. It seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Also keep in mind that none of the three servants know what the others get. There is no envy or jealousy. Each person is given something to work with. They all have a choice.

They can choose to see what they have been given as generosity.
They can choose to take a risk and to put their resources to work.
They can choose to be out in the open.

This is not about judgment—who is better or worse, who is left out or let in, or who gets more and who gets less.

This is about how we see what we’ve given as individuals in this life and what we do with it.

If you imagine God as some keeper of rules who rewards and punishes people, well, then you will most likely live in fear and take very few risks. Religion will be nothing more than a legalistic dogma or doctrine full of cosmic causes and effects. Whatever you feel you have–you will bury it in the ground and keep it to yourself. You will pay way too much attention to other people and what they have; you will think that everyone has it better than you do; and you will feel pretty empty. Anything bad that happens in life you will blame God for it. If anything good happens to others, you will assume that God is favoring them and not you.

But I hope that is not the choice you will make.

Instead, I hope that you will consider a more compassionate choice for yourself. What if God is inherently compassionate, full of grace and mercy, and anxious to love you? What if this God has given you enough to live and to love and to share this with others?

Don’t get me wrong—I am not downplaying those in this world who do not have enough to eat, are homeless, or who live in unsafe conditions. I am not saying that they will “be fine” if they just change their attitude. People who are in those type of desperate and awful situations are there because they have been pushed there. Everything we do on this planet affects others. Jesus, even so long ago, recognized this and that is what the king of the least of these parable is about. We are supposed to take risks with what we have been given; we are called to put our resources to use; we are entrusted with resources so that we can help others who are truly in need.

So friends, as individuals, I challenge you to recognize what you have been given. I challenge you to take risks. I encourage you to see mercy and grace before you see judgment and rules.

And in the midst of the Advent season of waiting, an in-between time, let’s not look at all that is happening in the world and choose to bury what we have in the ground. Let’s not ignore the cries of oppressed, the mothers and fathers mourning the loss of their child shot dead, the families torn apart by someone else’s war, the forgotten, marginalized, the lonely.

We should not fear losing what has been given to us.

Let’s not bury it in the ground or keep it to ourselves. Let’s take risks and spread generosity and justice and mercy, because we have confidence in our God who loves us and entrusts us with what we need to do good in this world.

Respond with confidence, joy, enthusiasm, generosity, honesty, and love!

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