Friday, January 1, 2010

“It’s a Wonderful Light - It’s a Wonderful Story”

Family Sunday/Scripture Prep: We’re about to hear a very ancient & wonderful story about the light of a star. You’ve heard it before, so try to hear it again as though for the first time. Consider what the spirit may be saying to you in your life right now. Read the Gospel of Mark Chapter 1: verses 1-12.

This is the best time of year for stories. One Christmas story involved a special star light. A small group of Persian priests had been following a celestial light to locate the spot where a new spiritual leader was to be born.

They traveled from afar in a dark time of year and were not disappointed. Unfortunately they lost their way a bit and checked in with King Herod who had other intentions for the child if it could be found. When Herod learned the wise men were not returning, he went into a murderous rage and had all the infants killed in Bethlehem.

When the wise men got back on track, the star led them to a lowly stable in Bethlehem. There they found the new Prince of Peace born in a manger where animals were fed. They worshiped him and offered him precious gifts. Since these men were not Jewish they represent the first time that gentiles worshipped Jesus as a divinity. That is where our faith heritage begins and that is the meaning of Epiphany.

Now imagine the same story but from a different perspective. Imagine with me the man Jesus. What would he have thought about a baby born in a stable, or visits from wise men? Did his mother recount these tales?

Imagine Jesus at age 30 fully human with human tastes and desires but not yet realizing his full divinity. Jesus leaves his home and wanders by foot for some time until he reaches Bethlehem, where his parents tell him he was born. He arrives late and it’s getting dark; yet he’s surprised by the size of the crowd. He wanders around seeking shelter and is drawn to a cave-like area in a remote part of town. There is a stir in the barn yard and there is a stench. The stable area is hewn out of rough rock and offers little comfort for people or animals.

He is drawn further still toward a lonely stable back in the shelter of the rocks and senses the stirring of animals. This is not a friendly place, not a place for creature comfort. Only those rejected by society would take shelter here. He hears a rustling inside the stable itself and is drawn further in. There is a light glow now that guides his steps. As he steps into the manger area itself, instead of donkey-food in the manger, there’s a small bundle of life being tended to by a woman and a man.

As he stops and stares, he is reminded of the story his mother may have told him many times of his own birth. Surely this can not be right that an infant would be born into the world amidst such slop and squalor. Even as Jesus is touched by the new life before him, he is also indignant at the injustice of a system that would allow for such a precious event to be played out in such a despairing place. He nods to the parents and withdraws.

As he does so he remembers another story his mother has told him about the three special men who had come to visit after his birth. They were priests from Persia who had tracked him by the stars and had come to pay their respects. His mother still kept the precious gifts that they had tendered. No kings on a night like this with such a chill in the air. Yet the memory of the stories lay close about him as though it was being re-enacted.

Every year we re-enact in plays or at least in our imaginings, the birth of Jesus and the visit of the kings. Jesus was Jewish and lived among the Jews most of his life. Yet even his birth heralds his mission for a larger circle than just Judaism. The Persian Kings that came to visit Jesus and to worship him as king represent the wider world to which Jesus came with his message of the heavenly kingdom of love and justice.

Today is Epiphany. And what is that? It is “Three Kings,” but more literally, Epiphany is God breaking into the world. To be more specific about Epiphany, here’s a reading from the Book of Daniel – Lillian Daniel, page 23 from "This Odd & Wondrous Calling:

"Epiphany is that day in the church calendar that comes twelve days after Christmas - the day, it is said, when the Wise Men visited the baby Jesus and immediately recognized him as the Messiah. (When children ask me to explain the word epiphany, I describe it as a light bulb, a sudden recognition, or an “a-ha!” moment.) [Listen to what the spirit is saying to the church]!

Let’s return to our imaginings of Jesus. As Jesus begins to wander, several days pass. He stays mostly to the outskirts of town only visiting the markets for the food he needs, bedding down in some fairly rough spots. Finally he comes upon the Jordan River and hears its waters rushing in the distance. He’s reminded of the day he came to see John – of the push and pull of the crowd as they rushed to get into place. John preached: “repent for the Kingdom is at hand.” Hearing that filled Jesus with a warm urge – to get about the work that he had been envisioning but first he must make things right.

. . . . .He joined the line to see his cousin and when he got to the front, John exclaimed that Jesus should be baptizing him, but Jesus replied that John should baptize him that all things may be right. As John did so the clouds seemed to open and a voice declared “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” And the spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove. This is one of only two places in the New Testament where the three persons of the trinity are gathered in one spot – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The other time is the Transfiguration – but that is another story.

Epiphany was originally the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the visit of the Magi and also the celebration of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus was born for all people. The visit of the Magi is meant specifically as a manifestation of God’s presence to the Gentiles – that is the non-Jews.
Epiphany is a pregnant word.

It is also called Theophany by Eastern Christians. So epiphany with a small “e” is usually a sudden manifestation or perception of the essence of something.
Epiphany comes from the ancient Greek words for “appearance.” I’m going to lock in on the word appearance. Today we celebrate the appearance of God in human form in the person of Jesus Christ. Western Christians commemorate the visitation of the Magi to the baby Jesus; Eastern Christians commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. In both traditions, the essence of the feast is the same: the appearance of Christ to the world (as an infant or in the Jordan).

Where is there epiphany, or the appearance of God breaking into our world? Where is the “good news” struggling to be born in our lives, to sing a new song and be a light to others?

The story of Jesus’ birth, the magi visit, and the baptism are as old as the Bible. Yet it’s a wonderful story.

May it be manifested as yours in a new way this year. May your new year be a new chapter in your life …filled with light…filled with epiphany…filled with a “breaking in” of the God of Light into your days.

May the God of love and peace, born in a stable, visited by Magi, & baptized by his cousin, say of you what his father said of him: “This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” Amen.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"Just War"

Question: Is there such a thing as a 'just war'? In his Nobel speech, was President Obama right to speak in these theological terms about war? He also stated that 'no holy war can ever be a just war.' Do you agree or disagree?

It is interesting that the December 11th Wall Street Journal headlined “Obama Defends ‘Just War’ as Oslo,” but never addressed what a just war was. The war in Afghanistan is a just war in that it is a war of last resort, waged by a legitimate authority, to redress the wrong suffered in the United States on September 11, 2001. There is a reasonable chance of success to re-establish peace, and the violence inflicted is proportional to the injury suffered. Also, the weapons used in this war discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. This war effort is not a crusade or “holy war,” blinded by jingo-ism or nationalism. The preceding is not true in black-and-white terms, but after President Obama’s speech, we should be willing to trust the information in front of him and the decision he felt obliged to make.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

White House Also A Home

Christmas decorations at the White House include a crèche in the East Room (despite reports that White House social secretary Desirée Rogers suggested that the Obamas were planning a "non-religious Christmas.") Should the White House, whose residents serve all Americans, display a crèche or a menorah or any strictly religious symbols during the holidays?

White House Also A Home
The residents of the White House should feel free to use any tasteful expression of the season that is meaningful to them. They might also want to consider other symbols of major religions represented in the United States. I do not consider the President and his family to be employees of America just because they reside in the White House. The White House is a very important symbol to the American people, but it is also home at present to the President, his wife and two daughters. We are blessed to have them there. I hope their Christmas season is truly joy-filled despite the excessive hustle and bustle that surrounds them even on a “normal” day.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Swiss Minaret Ban: A Wrong Step in the Right Direction

Swiss Minaret Ban: A Wrong Step in the Right Direction

The L.A. Times reported (12/1/09) that by a “national referendum, [the Swiss voted] …with 57.5% of the vote, to ban the construction of new minarets across Switzerland. The ban is wrong and mean-spirited. However, in that it could lead to increased interfaith dialogue, the ban could be a step in the right direction – and can be reversed.

The Swiss can look at other western countries, such as the U.S., to see that despite religious tensions, minarets are legal and beautiful. Their ban speaks volumes about the status of religious expression and understanding in Switzerland.

At this difficult time, it will be important that Swiss Muslims practice tolerance, and intensify efforts to communicate with, and thus educate, their detractors. Humans are threatened by what they don’t know. The Swiss are threatened by the increasing presence of Islam in their country. It seems that Muslims have kept a low profile there. Now is the time for Muslims to speak out in communities – especially in the workplace, where Muslim individuals are known and respected for the work they do. That respect can be transferred to their religion if Muslims would speak appropriately of their faith such as at lunch or on work breaks.

Christian religious leaders in Geneva and elsewhere in Switzerland must lead efforts to increase communication with their Muslim sisters and brothers. Muslim leaders must be sure not to proselytize as they reach into Swiss communities to forge bonds of unity. The vote was taken but the ban is not the end of the story. Hopefully the Christian and Muslin communities in Switzerland can work together for better future relations, as well as an increased presence of beautiful Islamic architecture.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

U.S. Catholic Bishops Stand Up?

U.S. Catholic bishops are defending their direct involvement in congressional deliberations over health-care reform, saying that church leaders have a duty to raise moral concerns on any issue, including abortion rights and health care for the poor. Do you agree? What role should religious leaders have -- or not have -- in government policymaking?

U.S. Catholic Bishops Stand Up in Health-Care Debate?

U.S. Catholic bishops are not alone in their involvement with the health-care reform debate. Many religious leaders, particularly on the right have gotten involved specifically because of the issue of abortion. Interestingly, the conservative proposal I heard gave certain instances where abortion would be acceptable in the health-care package. One of them was in the case of rape. Rape is a horrible, violent crime with terrible repercussions. I wish to be sensitive to that. Yet, is not the child conceived in rape as viable as any little one in an average abortion situation? Isn’t there life present in both cases? So why would the right argue that a woman’s feelings matter in the case of rape, but not in other tough situations? Why is it okay to end the new life in the rape situation, but not in other cases? Tough questions!

It is important that the Catholic bishops be involved. They represent millions of Catholics in the United States and should make their voice heard. In doing so, they should not limit their voice to the section on abortion. It would equally be sinful if they defeated the abortion piece, just to see the entire health care bill defeated. If the bishops are going to put their toes in the water, they must swim the health-care debate out with the rest of us. In the end, the biggest crime is that 40 million people in this country are not covered by health insurance. That must be remedied. Those of us on the left are not exonerated. We must also contact our senators to see that some form of health-care passes before Christmas.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sabboth Sermon (11/15/09)

The choir sang “Steady My Tremblin’ Soul…Steady My Tremblin’ Soul.” We all have people and events in our lives that get our souls a-“tremblin’.” If the question is “How do we calm or steady our trembling souls?” The answer is “Sabbath.”

An example of Sabboth is the hour of worship you’re experiencing right now. You’re not working and not at home. You get to experience inspiring words and music and to re-center on what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

When it comes to Sabboth, both Islam & Judaism have a head start on Christianity. They are both religions structured around practices, whereas Christianity is defined around a set of beliefs. Today we look at the practice of Sabbath as a life enhancing building block for your day & your week.

Please settle in. Take a good breath, and relax any tension you may feel in your jaw or shoulders. Stay with me now on this Sabbath journey.
It’s easy to get frazzled from life’s busy-ness. For anyone who commutes or simply intersects with other humans in an intense way, there’s the reality of stress.

So what is a Sabbath? Sabbath is an effective antidote to stress & is different for different people. It can be a place, an oasis, an amount of time – possibly a not being somewhere such as not looking for work or not being at work. It can be “an hour of worship, or it can be a whole day. Ancient writings tell us to remember to “Keep holy the Sabbath.” Yet Jesus tells us that the “Sabbath was made for people” & not the other way around. In Genesis we are reminded that even God rested on the 7th day.

Our dog Buddy is 15 which means in people years, he’s about 75. Buddy has two gears. One is prance – that’s when he gets his twice daily walk outside. He moves with the grace of a dog half his age. Buddy’s other gear is when he’s on the love seat, on his back, with his feet up in the air, snoring. For Buddy, that’s Sabbath. Would you not love to be able to sleep like Buddy…or like the children or grandchildren in your life?

While many adults dash around, young ones are usually still able to sleep very soundly and sometimes in weird positions. They have not accumulated the baggage & concerns of life. They benefit from the built-in sleep capacity that animals display when they’re not on predator alert. Adults are able to re-develop habits and patterns of rest. How do we do this? Jesus says come to me all who are weary and I will give you rest. Notice the emphasis on rest.

Ask yourself: “Is there any Sabbath time in my life right now?” Any down time? Is there any consistent period of time that is not intruded on…which allows you to rest, recuperate? Maybe it’s bowling time, if you’re an extrovert. Maybe its naps, if you’re an introvert.

Our body & mind together are an exceedingly precious bio-computer which requires downtime. Emerson says that “what lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” Does that give you even a glimpse of the treasure that you are?

Jesus honored the Sabbath. How about you? “Are you on occasion getting away from the familiar and taking some extended time off?”

Why is Sabbath Needed? We all have problems in our lives – challenging clients, bosses, partners, children, finances, and so on. What allows us to re-create ourselves so we can continually face and effectively deal with the challenges in our lives? Jesus had problems too. Our gospel today reports that one problem Jesus had was with regional religious authorities. He saw their temple system as corrupt. The religious leaders had turned a house of worship into a den of thieves. Temple was to be refreshment for God’s people to ponder and worship the God that loved them so much he had delivered them from bondage and the wilderness.

Today’s gospel shows Jesus was furious and proclaimed no stone would be left upon stone of the temple. Jesus made it clear that no temple was needed to go to God. When he died, the temple curtain was torn in two indicating that no inter-mediary was needed between people & God.

Jesus had real human emotions like we do. And emotions need to be vented or acted upon, or we become like a house furnace stuck on the “on” position. We’re bound to overheat. In our gospel today, Jesus was over-heating. He was angry at the religious system; and this type of emotion needs to be expended for us to relax well.
As any good parent knows, Jesus needed a time out – and he was wise enough to take it. He headed for his favorite places to rest - the Mount of Olives. Of the eight verses in today’s gospel, only half a line is given to the Mont of Olives rest stop for Jesus – a moment of Sabboth.
This points to how pivotal even a small amount of Sabbath time can be – just like a mustard seed, just a little bit of Sabbath time can season or refresh the entire day.

Some background may explain why a brief Sabbath rest allowed Jesus to move from his position of anger to the centered position he held when he gave guidance to his disciples about events to come.

The Mount of Olives is a mountain ridge in east Jerusalem almost 3,000 feet high. It’s named for olive groves that once covered its slopes. The Mount of Olives is where King David fled from his son Absalom. As David went up the Mount of Olives, he wept. This is ironic for this same Mount of Olives is the location where Jesus wept over Jerusalem lamenting that the Jews had not accepted the prophets. What was it about the Mount of Olives that David and Jesus wept there? Perhaps being in the beauty of that natural place, both men w/heavy responsibilities were able to unburden themselves.

Matthew tells us that Jesus spent time on the Mount teaching and prophesying to his disciples. He’d return there each day to rest. Sadly enough, the Mount of Olives is where Jesus prayed on the night of his betrayal, for at the foot of the Mount is the Garden of Gethsemane.

This Mount was a sacred, Sabbath spot for Jesus. Going there allowed him to regain his energy and perspective. The same is true of our Sabbath time. Taking such a time-out daily can give us energy and perspective for the entire day.

If you want to pray in “world-class” company, there’s no more powerful role model than Jesus. He communed constantly with his heavenly father – and drew away to nature when the press of people became overwhelming. Jesus’ prayer book is what Christians call the Old Testament.

Here’s a basic prayer method you may find useful. It utilizes the Hebrew Scripture. It’s what I used to do on my train commutes into the loop. There are 31 Proverbs & many more Psalms. I kept a copy of the 1st 31 Psalms & the 31 Proverbs with me as well as small slips of paper. If today’s the 15th & I’m on the morning train, I read & meditate on the 15th Proverb & the 15th Psalm. I then jot down the key points I want to remember on a slip of paper & keep that paper in my shirt pocket. I discretely refer to the slip of paper as needed during the day.
The lectionary psalm for today is Psalm 16. We read earlier that it proclaims that in God’s presence is a “fullness of joy, in [God’s] right hand are pleasures evermore.” This can mean that if we take time to rest & re-new, even the smallest actions in our day can be a “fullness of joy” – a pleasure, when energy and perspective are restored.

When Sally Srok Friedes married her husband she agreed to convert to Judaism. Her book “The New Jew” is the story of that conversion. In it Sally says the following about Sabbath: “Sabbath is about play, rest and relaxation. The laws of Judaism encourage people to take a stroll, sing, attend lectures, read, & make love. It is a time to gather with friends & family without distractions & superficialities like shopping, errands & obligations.” What a marvelous definition of Sabbath.

What’s in the Sabbath for us? Hopefully you will take from these words a better view of yourself and the treasure within which is worth protecting by getting the rest you need. The commandment says “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath.” Why? Because it was made for you.

Remember to schedule “down” time. A good nap, curling up with a book, a jog, a drive, time with friends & even 15 minutes of daily prayer or meditation – all these can work wonders. The goal is to try to find some Sabbath time in our day, in our week & in the seasons of our lives.

For the last 14 years of my marriage, my main Sabbath has been the 3-4 days at Thanksgiving when we travel 100 miles south to farm country. That’s where Julie’s parents live. In those few days, there’s no regular routine. There are naps in abundance & good home-cooked food. There is card playing & other sorts of merriment. For me this is my annual Sabbath and I look forward to it all year.
I wish you…a good Sabbath…today…this week & this Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Real "Social Security"

The Washington Post: Congress is expected to expand federal hate crimes laws to add "sexual orientation" to a list that already includes "race, color, religion or national origin." Is this necessary? Should there be special laws against crimes motivated by intolerance, bigotry and hatred? Isn't a crime a crime?

Real Social Security: To have real social security, all individuals must feel safe and secure. For this to be, Congress must expand federal hate crimes laws to include sexual orientation. People can’t feel secure if their sexuality is threatened.

The United States legal system is a system of fences that protect what we value. Because sexuality is a sacred part of person-hood, it is worth protecting. We must guarantee the safety of individuals who are now persecuted because of their sexual orientation.

The extension of federal hate crimes law is a necessary disincentive for those who would criminalize people due to sexual orientation. Many of those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-gender, or queer, have been victimized. This is an issue that must come out of the closet, and be discussed. Yet, because sexual orientation has social taboos connected with it, it has not benefited fully from public discussion.

When the U.S. law and justice system takes a position in favor of protecting sexual orientation it will show the value we place on life and identity. Our deepest identity includes our sexuality and should be protected from harassment. Congress must extend federal hate crimes laws to sexual orientation. Only then will we be a step closer to real social security.