A Blessing for the End of the Year

Standard

The poetry of John O’Donohue has long held the serendipitous capacity to speak to me with the right 51wdthjonnlwords at the right time. His collection of poems in To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008) has accompanied me most recently through the summer I spent as a hospital chaplain intern and now as a pastoral intern (vicar) during my penultimate year of seminary. O’Donohue’s poems are at once full of a clarity and a vagueness that lend themselves to devotional and contemplative practices.

While he does have two poems most appropriate for this turning of the year (“At the End of the Year” and “A Blessing for the New Year”), I want to share another that I think equally, if not surpassingly, offers me, and I hope you, wisdom in this interim between ending and beginning.

Blessed be the longing that brought you here
And quickens your soul with wonder.

May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
That disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.

May you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
To discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.

May the forms of your belonging–in love, creativity, and friendship–
Be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.

May the one you long for long for you.

May your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.

May a secret Providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.

May your mind inhabit your life with the sureness with which your body inhabits the world.

May your heart never be haunted by ghost-structures of old damage.

May you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.

May you know the urgency with which God longs for you.

– John O’Donohue, “For Longing” (35-36)

With blessings for graceful endings and hopeful beginnings this new year that fulfill your deepest longings, and as always,

Peace be yours,

Josh

Advertisements

In the Beginning: A Homily, in Verse, for the Nativity of Our Lord

Standard

Preacher’s note: This is a sermon for which you’ll want to listen along, as there are audio elements not included in the manuscript.


Augustana Lutheran Church
25 December 2016 + Nativity of Our Lord (Christmas Day)
John 1.1-14



In the beginning—
no, before the beginning—
before the beginning
when God sat alone
in the murky abyss and the cosmic swirl:
There was
nothing.

Then in the beginning—
at the very beginning:
Let there be light!
Let there be sun
and moon and stars!
Let there be waters and fish,
and sky and birds,
and dry land and every creeping thing that creeps upon the ground!

Then at the beginning:
Let us create humankind in our image.
So in the image of God
God created them.
Male and female
and intersex and transgender
and gender non-binary
God created them.

And it was all very good.


Shootings
and protests
and war
and bombs
and deadly attacks.

Paradise lost.

Did God really say…?
The woman gave it to me…
The serpent tricked me…
Am I my brother’s keeper?

Creation undone,
and a promised flood
to destroy the world
that God had made.

Still: a promised Messiah
that would one day be born.

Still: violence and bloodshed
and oppression
and injustice
and neglect of the poor.

How long, O Lord?
…was the psalmist’s cry.

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest…
…was the prophet’s call.

Let justice roll down!
Let justice roll down!
Let justice roll down!


In the beginning—
indeed, before the beginning,
during the beginning,
and for all time—
was the Word,
with God,
is God.

In the beginning
was the Word,
the spark of life
that brought all things
into being:
Let there be light!

Light which no darkness can overcome.
Ever.

Praise the one who breaks the darkness!

The reign of God has come near!

Praise the one who frees the prisoners!
Praise the one who preached the gospel!
Praise the one who drove out demons!
Praise the one who brings cool water!

Praise the one who breaks the darkness!

Praise the one who birthed creation—
creation restoring,
creation renewing.

Praise the one true love incarnate:
The Word became flesh
and lived among us.

The Word became flesh,
became human,
became vulnerable,
became subject to pain
and stress
and grief
and emotional overload:

The Word lived among us,
the promise of a new chapter,
a new beginning,
the inevitability of dawn,
and the guarantee
to be with us, always, in the meantime.

A Sermon about How Immanuel Has Nothing (and everything) to Do with Jesus

Standard

Lord of Love Lutheran Church
18 December 2016 + Fourth Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7.10-16; Matthew 1.18-25



Our first gospel text of Advent brought us a cheery end-of-the-world wake-up call, filled with images of rapture and thieves and catastrophic floods. Then we met the homely locust-eating, camel hair-wearing, name-calling John the Baptist and his brash message of repentance in the wilderness — only to find him in a prison cell just a week later, doubting the certainty of his own message about the coming Messiah.

And so here we are today: angels, Joseph, Mary, Immanuel. Finally! Something that sounds familiar and straightforward and, well, Christmasy.

Ah, but not so fast. A careful reading of our gospel text should sound quite familiar…because we just read it…twice. Did you catch it? The angel in Matthew quotes Isaiah. And that quote has nothing to do with Jesus. (Yep, that warm, fuzzy feeling of familiarity and straightforwardness was too good to be true.)

The Lord spoke to Ahaz… Who’s Ahaz? Ahaz was king of Judah in Isaiah’s time. So: The Lord spoke to Ahaz… Wait, Judah? Yes, the southern part of the formerly unified nation of Israel, which broke into two after Solomon’s death. You know, it’s probably easier just to explain this all at once.

In Isaiah’s time, the split kingdoms of Judah and Israel were essentially at war. Israel’s king was scheming with the king of an allied nation to overthrown Ahaz and replace him with someone they liked and that would support them. Understandably this makes Ahaz uneasy, so God sends Isaiah to tell him God’s got his back.

But Ahaz doesn’t believe it. So Isaiah comes back with God’s second offer: Pick a sign, any sign, and God will do it to prove that everything will be fine. Still, Ahaz refuses, so God breaks down and picks one for him: The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

A child. A sign of hope. It’s as good as a fairytale, a happily-ever-after ending. By the time the child is old enough to eat solid foods, the text says, the two kings whom Ahaz fears will be no more and Jerusalem will be safe.

But the sign of hope has a twist, just one verse after we stopped reading: God will bring upon Judah the king of Assyria — a vague suggestion of bad news intermingled with the good. While one threat of invasion would soon vanish, another was not far behind.

How then can this child be a sign of hope, if his coming means good news and bad?

A friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook this past week. It’s an artist’s depiction of Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old Syrian boy made famous earlier this year by a journalist’s simple photograph. It’s not hard to find online, but it is hard to look at: Sitting in the back of an ambulance, after being rescued from a damaged building by medical workers, his face and clothes caked in soot and blood, staring out with a look of horror and grief.

In a way, that image came to represent the humanitarian crisis around Syria’s long civil war, which has left half a million people dead and displaced countless others. It seems a far cry from a sign of hope.

15400999_358259831217760_2490590789024000947_n

“Omran, Angels Are Here” by Judith Mehr

The image my friend posted, however, depicts Omran, seated in his ambulance chair, but surrounded by three angels. Which reminds me of another famous image: an icon of the Trinity, with each of the three persons represented by an angel. In the icon, they’re seated around a table. In the other image, they’re seated, in similar posture, around Omran, comforting him. When you look at the two images side-by-side, it’s clear that the artist of the latter had the former in mind — conceiving of those angels as God’s very presence with Omran in the midst of the devastation he had witnessed.

9892e8dfbf186a00f3d7b4f1e1167631

“The Trinity” (icon) by Andrei Rublev (15th century)

I think this is where we might see some semblance of clarity in an otherwise ambiguous sign of a child that leaves us both hopeful and uncertain. The young woman is with child…and shall name him Immanuel. God-with-us. It’s what God was trying to say to Ahaz all along — not necessarily that everything would work in his favor, but that no matter what happens, God would stick with him and his people.

That’s the sure promise that gives us hope: God (is) with us. Immanuel. Isaiah’s prophecy reminds us of the enduring truth of God’s faithfulness to God’s people, and that promise calls us to trust in God even when the situation seems hopeless, or the details are uncertain, or God’s presence seems really hard to find.

In the Jewish tradition of the seder meal every Passover, this point is made abundantly clear in the Dayenu, a prayer that is sung immediately following the retelling of the Exodus story. “Dayenu” translates as something like “it would have been enough,” as the prayer begins:

If God had taken us out from Egypt, without delivering judgments against the Egyptian people, dayenu, it would have been enough.

If God had delivered judgments against the Egyptian people, without vanquishing their gods, dayenu, it would have been enough.

The litany goes on, tracing the Exodus story of liberation, and building example upon example of God’s faithfulness to act on behalf of God’s people. As one book of the seder liturgy summarizes, “With how many layers of goodness has God blessed us?” Or to put it another way: How many examples of God’s abiding presence has God shown us? Enough, and more.

The promise of Immanuel is not a one-time occurrence confined to the Christmas story or a political crisis in ancient Judah, although it certainly does manifest itself in specific times and places. It was the sign given to Ahaz in the midst of his fear, and it was the same sign that resurfaced in Joseph’s dream and angelic reassurance in the midst of a personal crisis that threatened his relationship and even the very life of his soon-to-be wife.

Immanuel is a profound, eternal truth of God’s promise to meet us where we are and to be with us, always.

A Blue Christmas Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

Standard

Lutheran Campus Ministry / Creighton University
11 December 2016 + Third Sunday of Advent
Matthew 11.2-11; Isaiah 35.1-10



He had been so sure, so confident, so certain.

He proclaimed a bold message of repentance and the dawning of the messianic age: Repent! For the reign of heaven has come near! One who is more powerful than is coming! Here is the Lamb of God!

He baptized the crowds in droves. He was sought out by all and attracted an impressive following.

He was prophetic, firmly rooted in the social justice tradition of Israel’s prophets before him. He took risks and called out the hypocrisy of the religious elite.

And what did it get him? Prison. Next stop: execution. Desperate for some vindication that he hadn’t gotten it all wrong, he sends his disciples to Jesus: Are you… the one… who is to come? Or… are we to… wait… for another? You can hear the undertones of regret, the disappointment, the dashed hope, the confusion.

A Blue Christmas, indeed.

On a day when many churches will light a pink candle, representing joy, on the Advent wreath, and when outside our churches we’ve been inundated for weeks with nonstop reminders of a joyous Noël, such a scene from Matthew’s gospel seems out of step.

Maybe, though, it’s the Christmas season that’s out of step. After all, it’s still Advent, a season marked by waiting, by yearning, by hopeful expectation, by a promise yet to be fulfilled.

I suspect that many of us might identify more with the dismayed and disenchanted John the Baptist in a prison cell than the manufactured cheerfulness of a Hallmark holiday movie.

This time of year on a college campus, the anxiety and stress of final exams and papers is palpable — only matched in intensity for some with the thought of going home for the holidays, when “family” conjures up images of discord, conflict, and estrangement. Or if you’re anything like I was: a freshman at the end of your first semester wondering if your degree program is right for you, or a senior at the opposite end of the spectrum wondering what life will bring after a suddenly much-less-distant graduation.

Still for others, it’s the death or illness of a loved one, or strained or broken relationships, that color the holiday blue.

In a way, John the Baptist—revered as a saint on our liturgical calendar—gives us permission to observe a Blue Christmas. His despair and his questioning remind us that doubt is not the opposite of faith but is itself a very real part of the life of faith. John offers us an example of faith that makes room for doubt, for grief, for questioning, for not having it all together—and says that’s okay!

Christian Wiman, a poet and author who grew up in the Christianity of West Texas, was diagnosed with a rare, incurable form of blood cancer in his late 30s. In the wake of his diagnosis, he wrote candidly about his struggle with faith: “Faith is not some hard, unchanging thing you cling to through the vicissitudes of life. Those who try to make into this are destined to become brittle, shatterable creatures.” [1]

In other words: There’s no point in pretending. There’s no point in pretending everything is okay when it’s not. And there’s certainly no point in questioning one’s own faith, or self-worth, because of it.

Blue Christmas, dear people, is oftentimes more faithful to the season than the opposite.

It’s no accident the color of Advent is blue, the color of the night sky just before dawn. As Diana Butler Bass writes, “Blue holds the promise that the sun will rise, and that even after the bleakest, coldest, longest night, the light will break forth, as the new day arrives. Blue may be the color of sadness, but blue is also the color of hope.” [2]

That’s not meant to be some grand answer for we who find ourselves “blue,” but it is meant to be hope — and hope is much better than a definitive answer. Hope is the product of memory and imagination.

Hope is the central message of Isaiah’s vision. With imagery of wilderness and desert, journey and liberation, this is meant to be deliberately evocative of the exodus,  the way out of slavery in Egypt and into freedom, pointing an exiled people to their collective memory of God’s past faithfulness to give hope for the future.

That hope is rooted in memory, but it also begs to be recast, reimagined, for a new reality. Even as Israel was once delivered from slavery, here they imagine a new future free from exile. And even as Jesus has already come in history, we still sing for Emmanuel to “come, o come” because we still live with real pain and real problems.

Jesus’s answer to John’s pleading questions is intentionally open-ended: What do you hear? What do you see? The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear. Images evocative of Isaiah, of God’s action in the past, of a yearning for God’s continued action. Hope, rooted in memory, fueled by imagination.

Still, in the mire and in the muck, it’s easy to imagine one type of Messiah, as John might have, a victorious conquerer who would make everything right again. But what we get is something much more profound, as Christian Wiman again reminds us:

If Christianity is going to mean anything at all for us now, then the humanity of God cannot be a half measure. He can’t float over the chaos of pain and particles in which we’re mired, and we can’t think of him gliding among our ancestors like some shiny, sinless superhero…

No, God is given over to matter, the ultimate Uncertainty Principle… what a relief to befriend contingency, to meet God right here in the havoc of chance, to feel enduring love like a stroke of pure luck. [3]

The Messiah for whom we wait, the promised one for whom we yearn, the long-expected one for whom we hope, is Emmanuel, God-with-us, indeed one of us, struggles and all, who holds us and reminds us that through it all, we are not alone.


[1] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 17.

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/25/forget-red-and-green-make-it-a-blue-holiday-instead/?utm_term=.ca7ed04709a2

[3] Wiman, 17.

Church Interrupted! A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Standard

Augustana Lutheran Church
27 November 2016 + First Sunday of Advent
Matthew 24.36-44; Romans 13.11-14



Doomsday.
The end is near.
The rapture is coming.

Don’t worry. I haven’t gone rogue or joined an end-of-the-world ultra-fundamentalist cult. But you have to admit there is a certain fascination many people have with some version or another of what they think “the second coming” will look like. And they’ve dreamed up some pretty bizarre scenarios.

In 1806, for example, a domesticated hen in Leeds, England, began laying eggs on which was written “Christ is coming”… until it was discovered that the hen’s owner had been inscribing the eggs and, um, reinserting them into the bird.

More recently, American radio evangelist Harold Camping calculated that the end would come on May 21, 2011, and when that date came and went, revised it to October 21. Oh, and all this after four previous miscalculated dates seventeen years earlier. If at first you don’t succeed…

Of course, none of these predictions has ever come true, but at least for me, there is still a certain fear there. What if they’re right this time?

The thing about fear is…

Oh, I just hate that noise! If my phone alarm spoke New Testament, it might sound something like, “It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”

Now what was I saying? Oh yeah, the thing about fear is that it almost always comes as an interruption.

My phone alarm is an interruption every morning — albeit an interruption that I can control with a tap of the snooze button, exactly two times, for exactly nine minutes each, for just a touch of extra sleep before waking up for good shortly after the coffee maker’s own timer has gone off and brewed just enough coffee for my first cup. (Don’t think I don’t have this timed out perfectly.)

Unlike my alarm, however, fear is an interruption that can rarely, if ever, be controlled. It’s what makes end-times predictions so scary for many, a fascination that Hollywood has capitalized on with apocalyptic blockbusters.

Our gospel text for this First Sunday of Advent could nearly be one of them. An earth-destroying flood that sweeps everyone away. A sudden rapture. A violent home invasion. And did Jesus say something about an unknown day and hour?!

Not exactly “Joy to the World”… If this isn’t a text that conjures up fear for its listeners, I don’t know what is.

But another thing about fear is that it is also a wake-up call.

Two years ago this past Thursday, I was standing outside of Chicago Police headquarters with at least a couple hundred others. Together, we were waiting to hear the grand jury announcement that would decide whether or not Officer Darren Wilson would be indicted in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, earlier that summer.

As soon as the announcement was made, the crowd began marching, peacefully but defiantly, from the south side precinct all the way to Chicago’s Loop downtown.

It was a call to action, spurred by a fear about what it means to be a person of color in this country that the supermajority of us in this room will never experience.

Ferguson inarguably become a watershed moment in the modern civil rights movement. Unfortunately, moments like it have only become more the norm than the exception, as hate crimes against marginalized and oppressed communities seem to have surged in recent years.

Ferguson was a wake-up call, but every hate crime against a person of color, or someone who is transgender, or a queer person, or someone who happens to be Muslim, needs to be a wake-up call.

In the midst of a national election that has left many in those communities feeling shocked, angry, and scared, we the church have the opportunity, not to cower under the grip of crippling fear, but to face that fear and do those things that the church has always done when it’s at its best.

In a gospel text of frightful images, Jesus calls his disciples to an attitude of wakefulness and watchfulness, but these things are not idle behaviors.

In Advent, yes, we wait and we watch for the coming of the Messiah — and we know that’s going to happen, and indeed has already happened. But we are also urged to be about the work of the reign of God that that Messiah has ushered in. What would it look like if we upped our game in living out what it says on the back of our Augustana t-shirts: “grace, justice, and faith in action”?

Paul reminds us what that means in Romans. “Besides this…” our reading begins. This: “Love one another,” he writes just verses earlier. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

And: “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public,” writes Cornel West.

We don’t have to do it all — no one expects that of us, least of all God. Indeed we cannot do it all. But there is a certain ethic at stake in these apocalyptic texts that urges us to action.

The point is not to be preoccupied with the future — not rushing to Christmas during Advent, not making bizarre claims about the second coming so we know when exactly we need to be on our best behavior when Jesus shows up. The point is to be concerned with the present moment. There are real fears in the world, held by real people, that demand real action.

Yet I believe beyond believing that life can spring from death… words we will sing shortly in our hymn of the day.

Life can and life does and life did and life will always spring from death. Wait for it, watch for it, and work for it.