Stumbling towards the Kingdom

I need to start with a confession: I have really been struggling with my faith in humanity lately. I have been struggling to trust authorities. I have been struggling not to lash out and blindly rage against the machine. I have been struggling against making categorical judgments for or against different groups of people. I have been struggling with an increasing sense of unrest about what exists in my own heart and about what is going on around our communities and nation.

I wholly appreciate those of you who are willing to share in conversation with me, and ESPECIALLY those who do not necessarily agree with my interpretations of what is going on in our country. Those of you in the church who have engaged in conversations with me around race and injustice have kept me grounded and constantly remind me of my absolute need for relationships with people who may hold a rather different world view than me. I’m really glad that we can be friends and worship together and that you trust me to be one of your pastors.

What I write below is a reflection of my own personal struggle to find Christ in the middle of the violence, the anger, and the fear that is gripping our country. The struggle will continue long after the writing of this.

As I look around our country and the world today, and I see continued systemic injustice around race, a prevalent victim-blaming rape culture, exploitation of hard-working people at the hands of corporate greed, violence occurring in the name of God, warfare, and all the other pains and violences that exist, my unrest grows and I can’t suppress it. I shouldn’t suppress it. But my unrest turns to anger, and my anger turns to despair, and all too quickly, I feel overwhelmed by the immensity of the brokenness of things. And I know that in all of this, I, in no way, can truly comprehend what it is like for the majority of people who suffer at the hands of the powerful.

As I think about all of these things and I struggle not to let despair make itself at home, I am trying to grasp at what Christmas really means.

In preparing for Christmas, I’ve started trying to teach a song by Chris Rice called “Welcome to our World” to the kids in Children’s Church. A couple of the verses keep sticking in my mind: “Tears are falling, hearts are breaking. How we need to hear from God. You’ve been promised, we’ve been waiting…. Bring your peace into our violence…. Breathe our air and walk our sod.”

Oh, how we need to hear from God today. How we need to hear from God in our country. How we need to hear from God in our legislatures, in our law enforcement agencies, in our wealthy suburbs, in our neighborhood streets, in our public housing, in our military, in our schools, in our hearts. How we need to have Christ’s peace invade our violence, our hatred, our blame, and our fear! How we need Christ to breathe our air and walk with us, especially when a another child of God cries out, “I cant’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!”

Right now, we are in the season of Advent; a season of waiting. We wait to celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas. So often it is filled with waiting to celebrate with food and time off from school or work, and presents, lots of presents! But as I stumble through Advent this year, I am waiting for something different: for the kingdom of God, which is justice and peace.

Sometimes it seems like the kingdom is an impossible dream, a myth, a fantasy world. We are so far away. When I read the prophets of the Old Testament and I see proclamations of Israel’s and Judah’s repeated offenses, I often think, “how can they be so foolish to repeat the same sins over and over again?” But when I look again, I see that we are no different today. When God condemns Israel and Judah, much of the time it is over the oppression of the marginalized. Today, as things go, we are quite accomplished at systemically oppressing the vulnerable, even if we, as individuals believe that we don’t harbor any prejudiced views towards another person or people group. In my personal Scripture reading these last several weeks, I have been spending my time reading Amos, who speaks for God, condemning the abuses of the powerful. Hear these words from chapter 2:

“Thus says the Lord, ‘For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals– they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way….'” Amos 2:6-7a

In our state, in our country, and in our world, we see the abuses of the vulnerable that occur at the hands of the powerful. It happens in places like Ferguson and Staten Island. It happens on campuses like UVA. It happens in the coal fields of West Virginia. It happens in the slums of Mexico City. It happens around the world and in our own backyard.

As we approach Christmas, we need a word of hope, that things will not always be as they are now. We need a word that communicates the power to transform and be transformed. We need the Word, Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, to reach down into our reeking trash heap of violence and fear and turn it into something fertile and life-giving. And the Lord knows that we need Jesus because I surely have no idea how to do that.

This is what Christmas is about. It is about celebrating that God, in Christ, brings his peace into our violence, and breathes our air and walks our sod. It is about a brown-skinned baby born to unmarried parents on a dirty floor in practically the middle of nowhere, as far as the ancient world was concerned. It’s about a God who decided to walk in the world just as it is, as messed up and as broken as it is with people who, probably more often than not, could really not care any less about God or God’s kingdom. Christmas is about recognizing that we have God with us, and that God will never ever leave us or leave us alone. It is about God taking on the hurts and the oppression of the vulnerable.

The Old Testament lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary for this coming Sunday is from Isaiah:

“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.” Isaiah 61:1-3

Jesus quotes this very passage when he is asked by John the Baptist’s disciples if he is, in fact, the Messiah. Jesus proclaimed his mission. He proclaimed why he came to walk with us. He lived as one of us, and then, at the hands of the law, he was unfairly tried, beaten, and hung on a cross, where he ultimately died because he couldn’t breathe. This is the meaning of Christmas. As we wait to celebrate the birth of Christ, may Christ be born in our hearts, and may his reason for breathing become our reason for breathing. Until we make our whole life about making Jesus’ mission our own, we will continue to hear the voices of the marginalized cry out, “I can’t breathe!”

12.23.09 Sermon: “That’s the power of God?”

Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Luke 2:1-20

Faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap the tallest buildings in a single bound! Through sheer power he brings down the corrupt and rescues those in danger! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Superman! Since Superman made his first debut in comics in 1938, he has become a cultural icon of superpower. He has been the subject of movies, of TV shows, video games, and of countless comics. He is an idealized depiction of superhuman powers, which probably most of us have secret fantasies about possessing. As individuals, this is the sort of power we probably wish we could have.

And then there are those other images of power in our society: the patriarch or matriarch of a large family, the wealthy CEO, the movie and sports stars who have people at the beck and call, the strength of our government and the military force of our country. For our culture, power indicates a sense of control and authority over others, to have a certain amount of clout. To have this kind of power can be pretty enticing, and in fact, isn’t this what the American dream is all about? Raising ourselves up by our bootstraps through the ranks of society so we can inch our way towards the top. This is power by the world’s definition. This is just the sort of power that we all seek: the power of security, the power of having a place in the world, the power of having some sort of control over our own lives, and we all go after it to varying degrees. Seeking this kind of power isn’t always a bad thing.

We often talk about the mighty acts and the power of God. The Old Testament is filled with great events in which God intervenes. A few of the biggies: the flood, the Exodus from Egypt, the conquering of the Promised Land. Those are all pretty major things, with what I think could be considered pretty flashy shows of power. But the greatest show of God’s power is in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ. Yet, when we look at the person of Jesus Christ, in whom the full power of God dwelt, we see something very different from the world’s definition of power, or even the way God often worked in the Old Testament. In fact, what we see at Christmas is the complete weakness and the vulnerability of an infant. What we see at Christmas is God emptying God’s self out to become a human being, and paradoxically, it is in that emptying out that we find the power of God.

The continually surprising thing about God is that God always seems to act in a way that is the opposite of what we are expecting, in ways that seem counter-intuitive to us. As Israel waited for the Messiah, many were expecting a political revolutionary, a strong military leader who could defeat the greater forces of empire that were marginalizing them. They were looking for someone with worldly strength. And why shouldn’t they? What they thought they needed was someone who could liberate them from their current political, economic, and social circumstances. As they watched and waited, looking for a sign that this Messiah had come to establish a new order, they missed it because they were looking for the wrong thing. How could it possibly occur to them that God’s power would be manifested in a baby born to a couple of nobodies in a small town in a smelly barnyard?

This is the nature of God’s power in Jesus Christ: to work in the most unexpected of ways. Tonight, we are celebrating Christmas (even if it is a early) and at Christmas, we look to the incarnation: to God coming in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. One of the most popular of Christmas decorations is the nativity scene, often depicting a serene image of Joseph and Mary with the baby Jesus, surrounded by animals and the three wise men. Usually we look at it and think, oh, that is nice. But if we stop to think about what that scene is representing, the word “nice” doesn’t really cut it.

In this scene, we see the first picture of the incarnation. Jesus as a baby, completely dependent upon his parents’ care. Jesus as a baby, who can’t even hold his own head up, who can’t even feed himself. Jesus as a baby. God making himself as one who becomes completely dependent upon human beings to care for him. That is true vulnerability. That the God of the universe should condescend in that way is mind-boggling.

Oh well, we can say, he wasn’t a baby forever. He grew up to be a self-sufficient man. He performed miracles that exhibited God’s power. These things are true. All of his miracles acted as a testimony to his identity so that the world might understand who he was. But it was not in these miracles that the fullness of God’s power dwelt. Instead, it was in his vulnerability as he accepted his fate at the hands of the world’s violence on the cross. As the famous Christ hymn of Philippians 2 says, “he humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.” God, in Christ, became human in every way. He not only lived as one of us, but died as one of us. This is the miracle of the incarnation. God became one of us, with all of our weaknesses, frailties and temptations. And he did not become a powerful human being, as defined by the world. God didn’t come as an earthly prince seated at the top of worldly political structures. Instead, he was born in a barnyard in tiny Nazareth, to an unmarried teenage mother, as part of largely marginalized people group, on the edges of the Roman Empire. In the eyes of the world, he was a complete nobody. Even during his own lifetime, he only traveled a small distance, and a limited number of people had even heard of him. He didn’t come, taking the world by storm. But he did come.

The power of God is not a power that takes control, or that overthrows by force. The power of God is the self-sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, putting himself at he mercy of the world. It is the uttering of the words, “not my will, but your will be done.” At the hands of the violence and the power-grabbing of the world, Jesus did not fight back against it, but instead allowed it to overtake him. Is that the power of God? How can it be? On the cross the world’s power met God’s power. And the world appeared to win. But we know that it did not. We can focus on the resurrection, and say that ultimately that reflects God’s true power, to conquer death. And it does. But we cannot ignore or quickly pass by the incarnation of Christ to get to the resurrection. Who Christ was on earth, how he lived and died reveals to us the nature of God: who God is, what God does, and above all, the greatest defining characteristic we can know about God. That God is most fully revealed as a self-giving love.

As we celebrate the Incarnation this Christmas season, what we are really celebrating is that God his given himself to us fully in the person of Jesus Christ. As the theologian Karl Rahner said of the incarnation, “There is no longer any abyss between God and the world.” In becoming a human being, God entered into the world to be with us in a new way forever, and God revealed his own power which ultimately contrasts with the power of the world.

We look at people like Superman, with his extraordinary strength and speed, wishing for superpowers like him. And then we look at Christ, who offered the greatest superpower of all: that of self-giving love. Superman may save a few people, but Jesus Christ has come to save the world through the most unlikely of means. He gives himself. He gives himself not only through his death on the cross, but also through his continual presence with us. As one who knows what it means to be human in every way, he understands us, he empathizes with us. In the person of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit to remain with us forever, God offers himself to us over and over again, never leaving us or forsaking us, and tonight, as we share the Holy meal at the Communion table, Christ again gives himself to us in a unique way. When we share in communion, in the gifts of the bread and the cup, Christ is present in them. We don’t simply remember what God has done for us in the past, it is not just a memorial. Instead, as we receive from the bread and cup, Christ is with us in that act, nourishing us, renewing us, simply being with us, feeding us spiritually with his own body and his own blood. In this communal act of worship, we come to the table to meet the living Christ, who gives himself so freely to us, and who gives us the bread and the cup so that we might be able to touch him, taste him, to recognize his presence in a more tangible way. The celebration of communion is a gift that God gives to us that not only reminds us that once Jesus Christ walked the earth with us, but that he is here with us now, giving himself to us.

As we approach the communion table tonight, may we recognize God’s gift in Jesus Christ, who is with us. It is almost Christmas, where we mark the incarnation, of God entering into the world in a new way. As we celebrate the gift of Christ’s presence with us, may we also be transformed into people more like Christ as we learn what it means to both receive and offer his self-giving love. For that is the power of God.