Advent Stories: Sermon for December 7, 2014

Mark 1:1-8
1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;

1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”

1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Advent2

I don’t watch a lot of movies. I really have never been good at sitting still long enough. But there is one exception: Christmas movies. Right now there is a stack of them next to our TV: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Elf, Christmas Vacation…the list goes on. And each December I probably spend more time than the rest of the year combined watching movies.

I’ve found that the same is true for others too. There’s something so special about the Christmas stories we grew up with, and even the ones we’ve come to know as adults, that they become a part of the way we celebrate the holidays.

But as much as I love them, there’s a catch…and that’s that I don’t think all of our favorite Christmas stories are really Christmas stories at all.

I’ll come back to that. But first, we have this story from Scripture about another character: John the Baptist. It’s traditional that on the second Sunday of Advent churches read about John, and about how he lived out in the wilderness where he ate locusts and wild honey, and wore camel’s hair, and shouted at people to “prepare the way of the Lord”.

So, you know, really Christmasy. He doesn’t sound like he was a lot of fun to be around. Actually, he sounds a little more like the Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge. And yet, this is in many ways exactly the text we need to read this time of the year.

Because Advent is about preparation. It is about, as John puts it, preparing the way of the Lord and making the Lord’s paths straight. And John doesn’t mean literal paths by that. He doesn’t want us to build sidewalks or pave roads. He wants us to do something much harder.

John is telling us to clear the way for God to come into our hearts and into our lives. “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make the path straight.” In other words, get ready. Make some room for God.

That can be hard to imagine during the midst of the busy run-up to Christmas. We all have things to do this time of year. Presents to buy, cookies to bake, decorations to put up, cards to send. We may be busier than ever. And now John, this guy with his camel hair, wants us to add one more thing to the list. And that’s pretty easy for him to say. His shopping list consists of only two things: locusts and honey.

But, what if he’s right? What if you and I are being asked to prepare the way of the Lord? And what if it’s not just something to do on top of everything else we do to get ready for Christmas? What if it’s the point of this whole season and nothing else really matters?

Part of how we prepare the way of the Lord in this Advent season is by reflecting on the four traditional themes of the season. Last week was “hope”. And today is “peace”. But this story about John the Baptist, this guy who is sort of out there raving in the wilderness, at first glance might not sound like it has much to do with peace at all, so you might be wondering, “why do churches read about him this week”?

I think the answer to that has to do with how we understand what “peace” means. So, how would you define peace? It is the absence of war? In one sense, yes. And I would love for us to learn how to live without war. This world has too many wars, including ones being fought right now. This year, as I’m thinking about what peace means, I’m also thinking about a friend of mine who is deployed to Afghanistan right now. And as he spends this Christmas away from his family, I’m thinking about a world in which he would never have had to go.

I believe that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, wants that kind of peace for the world. But I don’t believe peace stops there. Because peace means more than not just firing a weapon, or raising a fist. And Jesus himself showed that.

Because the child we wait for this season, the one who would be called the Prince of Peace, is also the guy who grew up to angrily flip over tables in the Temple. He didn’t believe in the kind of false peace that comes only in the absence of armed conflict. And that’s because he wanted more from us than peace without justice.

And so when Jesus walked into the Temple and saw a system of money changing and usury that manipulated the faith of people and exploited the poor, he literally turned the tables on it. And in doing so, he taught us all that real peace cannot come when some are being oppressed. Real peace only comes when every child of God is treated justly.

So, already peace is a tall order: the absence of violence, and the absence of injustice. But, what if there’s even more to it?

There is a song you may have heard: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” There’s also that prayer from St. Francis that we recited at the beginning of our service: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

What if we got absolutely serious about that? What if we decided that we ourselves were going to be the place where peace starts. And, even harder, what if we committed to creating peace within our own selves?

There’s a word that I’ve come to associate with inner peace: serenity. Reinhold Niebuhr, the well-known UCC minister and theologian, even wrote a prayer about it that you probably know: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Serenity does not mean that everything is perfect. It does not mean that things are even good or comfortable. It simply means that in the midst of everything, we have a sense of peace. And for those of us who are Christians, that means a sense of connection with our God, and with Christ, the Prince of Peace.

In that way, reading about John the Baptist on this Sunday of peace is maybe not so strange after all. Because what John is asking us to do is to get ready for God. John is saying prepare your heart, and mind for Christ’s coming. Unclutter the path that God will take, remove the obstacles you have placed there, and open yourself up to the peace that only Christ can bring.

Prepare the way of the Lord, because that’s how you find peace in yourself. And if you don’t have that peace, how can you ever except to bring it to others?

And that’s important because so much of what John the Baptist was doing out there in the wilderness was witnessing to the one who was to come. John knew he was not Christ. He knew something bigger than him was coming. Just like you and I are not Christ, but we witness to what we believe by the way we live our lives. And in Advent we prepare ourselves for the work of witnessing to God’s hope, and peace, and joy, and love, that we are asked to do all year. We prepare the way of the Lord inside of us, that we may prepare the way of the Lord in a world that so desperately needs all of those things that only Christ can bring.

And so, here’s where I want to go back to those Christmas movies and specials I talked about at the beginning. Remember how I said they weren’t really Christmas stories? I say that not because they are not Christmas-themed, but because most of them are really Advent stories. And that’s because most of them are about someone who learns to prepare the way of the Lord in their heart by making a change.

Even when everything is coming down around George Bailey, he learns to see the world through grateful eyes. Ebenezer Scrooge sees the truth about himself, becomes a compassionate and kind soul, and changes his miserly ways. Charlie Brown hears Linus recite the Christmas story, and he learns what Christmas is all about. And even the Grinch hears the Whos down in Whoville singing despite the fact he stole Christmas, and his heart grows three sizes that day.

Those are their Advent stories. Each has an Advent that prepares them for Christmas. And each arrives at Christmas day different than they were when the season of Advent started. They are, in some way, transformed. And transformation is what Advent is all about.

So what is your Advent story? How are you going to be transformed this year? How are you going to prepare and make straight the way of the Lord?

You don’t have to be visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. You don’t have to have to go to Whoville. You don’t even have to have Charlie Brown’s sad little Christmas tree. All you have to do is this: open your heart, and make a little space for the Prince of Peace. Prepare the way of the Lord, and the Lord will show you the rest. Amen.

The Worst Case Scenario: A Sermon on Hell, and Other Choices – September 30, 2012

Mark 9:38-50
9:38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

9:39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.

9:40 Whoever is not against us is for us.

9:41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

9:42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.

9:43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.

9:45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.

9:47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,

9:48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

9:49 “For everyone will be salted with fire.

9:50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Growing up, I was terrified by the thought that I might go to hell. I didn’t grow up in a household that talked about hell, or believed in a God who would angrily send us all there, but none-the-less it was all around me. Kids at school who went to more fundamentalist churches wore t-shirts that said things like “hell is hot”. Billboards on the side of the road asked me where I wanted to spend eternity. And one time in elementary school, on the playground, one of the kids I was playing with told us that if we had ever told even one single lie, we were going to hell.

I reacted the way any kid might have. I laid in bed, night after night, convinced I was damned. It wasn’t the last time. For a long time I felt stuck between my understanding of God as a kind, compassionate, loving parent and God as a ruthless judge who would damn us all. In the worst times, I didn’t want to get closer to God. I wanted to keep a safe, respectful distance. God, or at least the God I heard the voices around me talking about, was a truly frightening tyrant.

I’ve had a long spiritual journey from that place. I believe now in God’s goodness and love and compassion. I don’t believe in a God who is any more willing than any other parent to see God’s children parish. I believe God is good. But when I read texts like today’s, some of those same, scary feelings come back to me.

Jesus is talking to his disciples and he’s using a lot of “if…then” statements. Specifically, he’s saying “if you do this, then it would be better if you just did this.” And they’re terrifying. If you do anything to stand in the path of a child, it would be better if you put a stone around your neck and threw yourself into the sea. If your hands cause you to sin, cut them off. If your feet cause you to sin, cut them off. If you sin because of something you see, pluck out your eye. Because, Jesus says, it is better for your to be drowned, and limbless, and without sight than to go to hell for all eternity.

See…terrifying. And also, maybe it makes you feel a little hopeless. It sounds like Jesus is telling us that we are better off dead, or at least significantly maimed, then we are living a life in which we sin. If we take this text literally, we might even think that it’s worth giving up completely. I’m never going to win, we might say. I’m never going to be perfect. So, if I’m going to go down in flames, I might as well have fun, right?

I’ve talked to a lot of folks who have come to that conclusion. Feeling like they had to choose between being perfect or being human. The stakes have seemed so high, and the odds so impossible, that the best way to deal with the impossible situation is to try your best to ignore it, or try to forget about all of this stuff altogether.

I think that’s why I meet so many folks who are interested in coming back to church, but who are worried about what they might find. They’ve given up on trying to be perfect, and they’ve lived their lives. Sometimes the road has been smooth, and sometimes it has been rocky. But in every case, they’ve found that ignoring, or walking away from, a relationship with the spiritual has left something in their life to be desired.

So what do they, and what do you, find when this text is read? What do you do with a text that talks about hell and how hopeless it is for us all, when at the same time you come to this church because at some level you believe that God is good, and that there is hope for you and for the world? How do you have a relationship with God, and also believe that you are created to be good?

Is there another way to read the text? One that is true to the relationship that we all have with God? What if we understood hell as something different? And what if we came to understand our voyage there as something we undertake ourselves, and not something God dooms us to?

I grew up hearing that hell was a physical place, a lake of fire and pain and no hope. And there are certainly some Christians who believe that. But there are other interpretations too. Throughout the history of Christianity, hell has more commonly been understood not as a physical place, but as a state of being. Hell is a state of separation from God. Hell is a place where there is no hope, because God is not there. And I would add, because we do our best to keep God out.

The good news is that we are not good at keeping God out. Eventually God finds a way in, and God opens our heart again. And, though we tend to think of hell in terms of what comes after this life, I think that some of us go through hell on earth. And I think God can save us from that hell on this side of eternal life as well. I’ve seen too much evidence of God’s saving grace in my own life, and in yours as well, to not believe in God’s absolute ability to save us from the hells on earth that we choose.

But I also believe that we don’t have to choose those hells. When Jesus was talking about those choices we make it sounds like we are choosing between destroying ourselves or going to hell. It sounds like the right answer is to destroy ourselves in order to avoid hell. But, really, Jesus is talking about turning away from the things that would keep us from God, and, quite contrary to choosing death, choosing life.

That’s the good news. God is calling us to life. But the bad news is this. It won’t be easy. Because some of the choices we might be called to make, might feel as painful as cutting off our own arms.

What do some of those choices look like? Well, they’ll look different for all of us. But what are the things that are keeping you separated from God? What are the things that tear you away from your relationship with the divine? What are the things that demand your energy and anxiety and resources, and lead you to a place of disconnection?

Addiction? Prejudice? Anger? Self-righteousness? All good candidates.

Or maybe it’s things themselves that are separating you from God? I’ve been reading lately about how as a country our possessions are increasing, while our generosity and giving are decreasing.  We feel so stretched that donations to charities have fallen precipitously, even while during the same time period as we have seen an increase in people buying, hoarding even, more stuff. Non-profits are failing, but the self-storage industry is booming because we have run out of space in our homes, and in our garages. The more we have, the safer we believe we will be. The better we will feel. But we rarely find that it works that way.

And we are teaching our children to be like us. One statistic I read said that kids in the US and Canada, a small fraction of children worldwide, own 40% of the toys in the world. And that’s not about the kids. That’s about the parents. That’s about us and what we are teaching by our own example. And we could very well be helping them to create their own hells on earth.

But what if there were a better way? What if we turned away from the distractions, the mill stones we tie around our own necks, and instead chose life? What if we turned away from the things that distract us from our relationship with God, and instead choose God? What if we found that the door out of hell had been opened long ago, and that God was waiting for us to walk out of it and into new life?

The good news is God has already chosen us. The door has been opened by God’s grace. And our only job now is to be grateful, and to love God. It’s really that simple.

I’ll close with this. One of the prayers that means the most to me is one that truly emphasizes the simplicity of the spiritual life that God calls us to. It is one that has been adopted by many who have been through their own personal hells on earth. And it’s one that all of us can relate to, because it lays out the truth of what it means to live in a complex, complicated, and sometimes painful world with faith in God’s grace.

It is said that it was written not far from here, in Heath, Massachusetts, by a minister from our own tradition. You may know the first three lines, but there are more, and they are just as good. And they tell us how we can escape hell, and choose life: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that You will make all things right, if I surrender to Your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.