Sunday, December 28, 2014

“Above Average” (Luke 2:22-40)

All of us who are parents have fallen into the trap.  It is one of the fallacies of parenthood.  It is that belief that when our children are born that they are among the most perfect and above average human beings to ever be born.  We have all fallen into that trap.  Unfortunately as they grow older those illusions quickly disappear and reality sets in . . . our children are no different than any other children.  They can’t be . . . the odds are against it.

Science has created what they call the “bell curve”.  On this “bell curve” there are three categories in which people are placed . . . “average”, “above average”, and “below average”.  Seventy-five percent of the people are in the “average” category . . . twelve-and-a-half percent are in the “above average” and “below average” categories . . . those categories are some pretty rarified designations.  Most of us, despite our ego, are firmly entrenched in the “average” category, and since the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree . . . so are our children.

That is the fallacy that gets destroyed as our children grow . . . they are pretty much like all the other children . . . they are pretty average.  But, hey!  That doesn’t mean we love them any less . . . that doesn’t mean that we don’t brag on them . . . that we don’t exaggerate.  We do, after all . . . they are our children and in our eyes they are “above average” no matter what the world or the “bell curve” tells us.  But the fact is, we know that they are average . . . they are just like everyone else.

Still it does not stop us from imagining and dreaming for our children.

I imagine that is why Garrison Keillor’s stories of the little town of Lake Wobegon are so popular on the radio show, Prairie Home Companion.  It is “the little town that time forgot, and the decades cannot improve”.  The town we all grew up in or wish we had grown up in.  In his stories we find our hearts and minds staunchly entrenched in the “myth” of those “good ol’ days” when life was simpler and easier to understand.  Lake Wobegon is that rarefied place in our hearts where everything and everyone seems to be in that top twelve-and-a-half percent of “above average”.  Even Garrison Keillor acknowledges that in the closing words of his monologue each week when he signs off with these words: “Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

“Above average” . . . isn’t that what we wish for all our children?

From the candlelight of Christmas Eve in which we gathered around the manger in that little stable in Bethlehem, the Christmas story moves quickly.  It is now eight days after the birth.  The time has come for Mary and Joseph to take their first-born son to the temple to be purified and sanctified . . . a blessing of the child.  I imagine, like all new parents, that this is a time of great anxiety and excitement for the couple as they approach the temple . . . it is almost a sort of affirmation of the fact that they are now parents and now the adventure begins.  And, I imagine that in their minds and hearts that they keep looking down at that little bundle of perfection and see an “above average” child . . . the most perfect child ever born. 

Ironic as it is . . . and, despite all of the fanfare surrounding the birth . . . I think that Mary and Joseph are no different than any other parents at the birth of a child.  I think that they are scared to death at the prospect of what they have just gotten themselves into . . . parenthood.  They are as clueless as any other parents who walked out of the hospital and forgot to get that mythical parenting manual that doesn’t exist.  I think they are just hoping for the best for their child and themselves . . . God did not give them a “blue print” of how to raise this child despite all the hullabaloo surrounding him.  They are just bringing their child to be blessed so that they can get on with the rest of their lives.

The irony is that despite this idea of their child being perfect . . . being “above average” . . . deep down they do not think of him as being any different than any other baby.  Because of that, I think, they are amazed at the reaction their child gets as they enter into the temple.  First there is an old guy, Simeon, who rants and raves about their child.  He had spent his whole life in waiting . . . waiting for God to reveal the salvation of the people . . . and, he could not die until it was revealed to him.  It was revealed to him in the baby, Jesus.  So, he rants and raves to Mary, Joseph, and anyone who will listen that this is the salvation of the people . . . the Christ.

Then there is another . . . an old lady . . . a fixture in the temple . . . Anna.  Anna is a prophetess—one who sees into the future.  She, too, comes up to the couple with their child and starts making over them.  She proclaims, again to the couple and anyone who would listen, that this is the “one”.  She gives “thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”   

As Mac Davis used to sing: “Oh, Lord, it is hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.”  Mary and Joseph were probably have a difficult time keeping the parental pride down to a minimum hearing all the acclamation about their kid . . . dashing their reality against the rocks and throwing their dreams to the forefront . . . maybe this kid was something extra-special after all.  Maybe this kid really was “above average”.  Maybe they had better fasten their seat belts for the ride . . . maybe, just maybe, everyone better fasten their seat belts.

As those cosmic tumblers aligned on that Christmas Eve to reveal the “gift” of God’s grace and love . . . to reveal the doorway to the kingdom . . . the world was called into the presence of something quite spectacular and special . . . something that was “above average”.  This “blessing ritual” we have read about has now taken it out of the heavenly realm and placed it smack dab into the reality of the world . . . put it out there for the people to see . . . this is no “average” child, this is the Christ.  It is one thing to have the heavenly realm proclaim it, but it is quite another to have the common people recognize and join in with the angelic choir.  If there were any doubts they are blown out of the water with the events that take place at the temple.

And, so, we are warned.  This is no “average” child that we are dealing with . . . this is the real McCoy . . . this is the Christ . . . the coming salvation for all . . . the restoration and establishment of the Kingdom of God . . . this is an “above average” child that we are in the presence of.  This kid is way off the “bell curve”.

And, like Simeon and Anna . . . like Mary and Joseph . . . all we can do is stand in awe at the “gift” that we have been privilege to receive.  It is a “gift” of grace and love.  It is a gift of salvation.  Like those in our reading this morning, we stand in the presence of this wondrous gift . . . we stand at the doorway of the adventure . . . we stand in the opportunity of realizing that we, too, have the ability to come into intimate relationship with God and one another to create our own perfect community . . . our own little heavenly Lake Wobegon.  All we have to do is to embrace the gift and live it through our lives on a daily basis.

That is all that we can do.  Mary and Joseph did not have, nor were they given a “game plan” in how they were to raise this “”above average” child.  All they could go and do was to embrace their child and raise him the best that they could . . . to live with him daily and to discover, just like the rest of us, the beauty of life in the presence of God.  They accepted their child . . . their “above average” child . . . and, loved him for the “gift” that he was.  We have been called to do likewise.  Each and every day we have been called to accept and love the “gift”.

And, they must have done okay.  Our reading tells us: “And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.”  He changed the world . . . he changed us.  Let us receive the “gift” and allow it to move us . . . move us to that rarefied domain of “above average” . . . “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”  Let us move into the Kingdom of God.  Amen.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

“Living the Impossible” (Luke 1:26-38)

At one time it was thought impossible to sail around the world . . . in 1519 Ferdinand Magellan did the impossible.

For centuries people thought that it was impossible for humans to fly . . . on December 17th, 1903 the Wright brothers—Orville and Wilbur—flew the first successful airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

On April 12th, 1961 the Soviet Union put the first human being into space despite the fact that most people believed that it would be impossible to ever put a human in space.

History is filled with examples of the impossible becoming possible.  If a person were to sit down and talk to an individual in their nineties or at the century mark it would be amazing the stories of change that they could tell.  From the transportation of walking by foot or traveling by horse to automobiles, airplanes, and train . . . these people would tell you of the impossible becoming possible.  Communication . . . from simple paper and stamps delivered by air or train . . . to cell phones that all allow instantaneous communication from practically any place on the planet . . . who would have ever believed.  I think any person who has witnessed the transition of life in the past hundred years would speak of amazement in the amount of impossibilities that became realities. 

We should never assume that anything is impossible.  History and life prove us wrong.  Nothing is impossible.

Ask Mary.

Mary was a young woman who was engaged to be married when an angel of God appeared to her.  The angel told her that she would soon be pregnant.  The news shocked her . . . it was impossible . . . impossible because she had never been with a man and even she understood that it took two to tango.  So, how in the world she be pregnant?  “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

Well, inquiring minds want to know . . . how can this be?  It is impossible.  Yet the angel assures her that it will happen and not only will it happen, but that the child will be the Son of God.  Then the angel assures Mary, “For nothing is impossible with God.”

And, so, it came to be.  Mary believed and the story was set into motion.  A child would be born . . . a miraculous birth that would stun the world in its simplicity and its power . . . a birth that would change the world and its people forever.  Out of the impossible the possible was manifested . . . and, who would have ever thought that it was possible in the first place?

“For nothing is impossible with God.”

So why do we still not believe?  Why do we not trust God?

History and life have proven us wrong time after time when it comes to the impossible being achieved . . . just consider the span of your own lifetime and all the changes you never thought would happen.  Where there is belief there is always the possibility . . . ask Mary and she would tell you . . . with God all things are possible.

You have to believe.  Belief is the key . . . the key to change . . . the key of achieving the impossible.  Mary believed and the world was changed forever. 

As the followers of Jesus we are living the impossible.  We are striving for an impossible dream . . . a kingdom of peace and love and harmony . . . a kingdom in which all people love and respect one another for who God created them to be . . . a place where there is no war . . . a place where all are for one in helping one another become all that God created them to be . . . the Kingdom of God.

As the followers of Jesus we strive to live our lives in such a way that we are not only the reflection of our Lord and Savior, but that we become an extension of his love and grace.  Again, an impossibility in the minds of many, but one that we believe.

We are living the impossible in our day and age.  The heralds have proclaimed that the faith is dying . . . that the “church” is on its way out . . . and, that no one believes.  Yet, here we are . . . grasping and clinging onto hope and belief.  Hope and belief that what this blessed event started so long ago is still possible . . . that God’s Kingdom will come . . . that we can achieve the impossible.  All because we believe.

But, it is hard to believe when we are confronted with the impossible.  Hard to believe when no one else wants to believe with us.  Wasn’t that the first reaction of Mary?  Didn’t she find it difficult to believe?  Are these not her own words: “How will this be?”

With words of encouragement the angel told her to believe.  Believe and God will take care of the rest.  The Holy Spirit will be the guide . . . will be the support . . . to make the impossible possible.

Years ago I was heard a speaker talk about being invited to a church to share about the virgin birth story . . . of which she did eloquently.  Despite her beautiful words and definite belief in the virgin birth, there were many there who continued to not believe.  After the presentation there was a time for coffee, conversation, and networking among those gathered.  Many lined up to argue and debate with the presenter.  There was one young man—a teenager—who waited patiently until he had the opportunity to address the speaker.

When he shared with those gathered around the speaker that he believed in the virgin birth he was confronted by some who were listening.  They wanted to know how a smart young man like him could ever believe in such a story . . . such an impossible story.  His answer?  He stated that he did not know whether or not the story happened the way that it did, but that because it was such a beautiful story he had to believe that it happened.  He believed and thus it was so.

To change the impossible to the possible one has to believe.  Through belief all things are possible . . . especially with God.

As the followers of Jesus we must believe.  We must believe or we are wasting our time making this Advent journey to that little town of Bethlehem.  We must believe or our mere existence as the followers of Jesus is a sham and waste of our time and energy.  We must believe if we are to ever accomplish that which others say is impossible.  We must believe.

Sometimes the best encouragement does not come from some mystical experience, but from life itself.  One of the most powerful and lyrical statements of the power of belief in overcoming the impossible comes from the musical, The Man of Mancha . . . the story of a dreamer seeking the impossible.  The main character is Don Quixote who is a dreamer . . . a dreamer seeking to change the world.  It is in the song, The Impossible Dream, that speaks of the power of believing.  He speaks to us as the followers of Jesus in this time of living the impossible:

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell
For a heavenly cause

And I know if I'll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I'm laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star

Remember what the angel told Mary?  “For nothing is impossible with God.”  Believe.  Amen.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

“What Is a Glorious Life?”

There seems to be a few more people standing in lines these days in the stores—and a few more items in their cart.  In honor of the December shopping spirit I’d like to share some humor with you this morning:

The checkout line at the hardware store was getting longer and longer as the clerk labored to get the new cash register to cooperate.

At one point she wailed "Oh no, NOW what do I do? It just rang up sixty-four thousand, five hundred d seventy four dollars in sales tax on a ten-dollar sale!"

Suprisingly, the customers in front of me didn't seem too upset by the delay.

Some even chuckled sympathetically. It wasn't until I got near the front of the line that I saw the neatly hand-lettered sign in front of the register: WE ARE CURRENTLY DOING BATTLE WITH OUR NEW COMPUTER FOR CONTROL OF THE STORE---WE APPRECIATE YOUR PATIENCE.

As I approach the check-out lanes in both the department stores and grocery stores during the holiday season, I give myself a little pep talk about belonging to our God who is “slow to anger and abounding in mercy.”  After all, waiting is an “Advent” attitude! “Just breathe,” I say to myself as I count the number of people in line in front of me, “and smile.” 
Just in case smiling is a challenge, I grab the People magazine or the National Enquirer and laugh at all of the ridiculous reporting on the movie and television stars.  That’s my “how to survive Christmas shopping” tip of the day.  Read the tabloids and enter their world.  Their stories are so painful!   Angelina Jolie is finally leaving Brad Pitt (who is really a drunk and a slob), recently wed George Clooney and his wife bicker at night; Robert Wagoner, husband of drowning victim Natalie Wood, is “hiding something,” and actor Tom Hanks is fighting for his son.  Next week someone will be too thin, too heavy, so handsome, so rich, or so vain.

However, I am not the same person reading the junk in the magazines that I once was.  When I was young I clung to the pictures of the lovely Hollywood stars.  They set the standard for beauty and for life.  I practically killed myself trying to be that thin.  And I practically killed myself trying to be that successful or at least talented enough to notice—which I interpreted to mean important.  Is that some of YOUR story?  However as I thumbed through the magazines THIS year, I felt a little prayer rise from my heart.  “Bless these dear people,” my heart said, “Whose lives are terribly troubled.  They deserve more than to be fodder for the magazines.”  After all, the rich and famous struggle with the same things we do:  time and money management, self esteem, faith and values, fear and addiction, to name but a few.  So I said a prayer for them, and I said a prayer for myself.  A vibrant life rich in the essentials is very hard won—and is impossible WITHOUT God.  This isn’t a criticism or judgment aimed at persons who aren’t religious—this is an invitation to EVERYONE, religious or not, to return to the source of their life (GOD) and embrace all that God has to offer. 

I am reminded of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, or more aptly named the Parable of the lost and why spiritual author Henri J. Nouwen selected a picture of the Prodigal Son to represent what the gospel meant to him.  In the story a man has two sons, one who leaves, rather rudely; another who stays, rather smugly.  Both sons represent the two ways we abandon God—we simply flat out walk away and indulge our senses, or we indulge our pride and become self-righteous  (to be self-righteous is to give ourselves credit for our goodness and not God.)  Either way we’re lost; quite unhappy.  The people around us don’t like us, either. The only way to be found is to find our way home—to reunite with the loving Father who isn’t put off by our recklessness or our inability to correctly size up the situation.

Now, to come home TO ME means to surrender to God—to make time for listening prayer and for bringing honor to the least of these—and to spend less time with the world’s toys and tantrums.   What does surrendering to God mean to you?

This is the message Paul delivers in his letter to the church at Ephesus.  Jesus embodies God’s glorious life as it was meant to be lived by US. What do we observe in Jesus’ life?  We observe a compassionate life, a communal life, and a courageous life.

What does it mean to be compassionate?  Several years ago I attended a retreat led by Tony D’Souza, a Jesuit priest and clinical psychologist.  D’Souza pointed out that Jesus that Jesus didn’t compare people, he simply enjoyed them.  “Compassion,” D’Souza noted, “Is where Jesus was firmly planted, and compassion is LOVE (I care just as much about your spiritual growth as I do my own) plus UNDERSTANDING (connecting with the basic needs of another without interpreting or conveying criticism, blame, or demands.)    People have more things in common than we do that are different.  When we give each other the chance to tell our story—when we become good listeners—we discover that the fear that stems from human uniqueness subsides.  We don’t have enemies, we simply have friends we haven’t met yet.  Gene Knudsen Hoffman, an international peacemaker, writes:  “An enemy is one whose story we have not heard.”  
Jesus wasn’t interested in focusing on people’s misdeeds.  His energy wasn’t focused on people’s past.  Jesus’ energy was focused on their potential.  Where they could GO with God’s direction.  So Jesus listened; listened to their story.  If we listened to one another this morning, what might be some of the things all of us in this room would list that we need?  (share)  Did the sanctuary become a little warmer – and the human spirit more hopeful?   

What does it mean to be communal?  For Paul, to be communal is to be family.  “God had everyone in mind before you and I walked this earth,” writes Paul.  Who among us has the right to say to anyone, “God hears me, but not you?”  Paul writes that we are all adopted into God’s family not through any means of our own, but through Christ.  Who among us has the right to say to anyone, “You must have slipped past Jesus on the way into the world?”  We can’t.  To embrace our life with God is also to acknowledge the same joy and hope for our neighbor.  Upon closer inspection what we understand is that God’s Spirit is at work in everyone—and not just a few.  So we don’t have to fix people. We’re all on the same journey! We simply have to ask each other, “How are you and God getting along?”  The more we are willing to answer that question, the stronger the human family becomes.  This is a very important  role of the church—to return us to the primary relationship---with God.

What does it mean to be courageous?  For Paul, the crucifixion of Jesus speaks to the heart of the matter:  striving for the holiness of all things.  In verse 10 we hear, “(God) set it all out before us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything…”  Jesus simply couldn’t sleep or eat until everyone understood that it’s all God and its all good:  women and children, Jews and Gentiles, people and planet, lepers and lost sheep. We belong to a God who demands that we treat everyone and everything with the upmost love and respect.  Like Jesus, we are to do the work of restoring honor to all of creation. 

As you and I well know, there are a lot of voices out there telling us what it takes to live a glorious life---People magazine, the National Enquirer, even the New Yorker----we are here because we chose Jesus’ voice.  We celebrate our living God’s invitation to experience glory as achieved through:

Compassion—love plus understanding

Community—we, not me

Courage—striving for the holiness of all things

Have you noticed that the older you get, the more beautiful God’s way with life becomes?

Let us pray:  Oh God, we have to live for something more than just ourselves.  Amen. 

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener at Central Christian Church in Billings, Montana on December 7, 2014.)