Friday, December 27, 2013

The Nativity

Luke 2:1-20, Christmas Eve A, December 24, 2013

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

            Rachel Held Evans is a popular Christian blogger. Recently, she wrote a post about how difficult it is to find the perfect nativity set. She wonders, “How hard can it be to find a handmade, fair-trade, biblically-accurate, ethnically-realistic, reasonably-priced, child-safe nativity scene?” She concludes, pretty hard, actually. After looking on the internet, I agree with her.

Handmade fair-trade nativity scenes are available, but they usually depict other cultures’ interpretations of the nativity. 

Some nativity scenes disregard the biblical story and leave out important characters, like the wise men or shepherds. 

American and European nativities completely disregard the ethnicity of the holy family. 

Jesus is often blue-eyed and blond, 

yet for some reason one of the wise men is often black.

Many nativities are reasonably priced, but some are not. 

Child-safe nativities are a great way to teach the Christmas story to kids, but they fail miserably in other categories.

Rachel’s quest for the perfect nativity scene ended in failure. 

In the comments on her post, nobody had the perfect solution. Some didn’t care that Jesus is often blond-haired and blue-eyed. Others suggested that Rachel keep a collection of nativities. The sum of the whole may equal what she was looking for.

Why, I wonder, does no nativity scene seem to work just right? What is missing from those figurines? Let’s look at each character to find out. Well, maybe not the wise men. They don’t come until Epiphany on January 6th anyway.

Let’s start with the animals. How could they go wrong with animals? Well, some cultures put their own animals in the nativity, so there’s that.

We know that the shepherds probably had their sheep nearby, although I doubt they brought their whole flock in town!

Because Jesus was born in a stable, barn animals were certainly there. That explains the donkeys and oxen, but what about camels? Maybe the wise men brought those. What gets me every time is that the animals are almost never scaled correctly. 

Look at that tiny camel!

Next, let’s look at the shepherds. The shepherds were out in the fields keeping their sheep together. They probably had been in the fields for some days, so they were quite dirty.

Pigpen should have played the shepherd, not Linus!

In fact, shepherds were held in very low regard in society. They had their sheep feed on others’ private property, so most landowners despised them.

Shepherds in nativity scenes never look degraded or scorned. They are always so clean and beautiful.

 Often, one is holding a lamb in his arms. When we don’t see the shepherds as homeless, conniving social scum, we forget how wondrous God was to announce our Savior’s birth to them first. The angels didn’t appear to the rich and powerful; the angels appeared to the lowest of the low.

 God sent the angels to them because God loves these least among men. And the angels’ message was so extraordinary that the shepherds had to see Jesus for themselves. I doubt that they stopped along the way to wash their faces.

Next, let’s talk about those angels.

 We don’t know much about these heavenly folk, so maybe they were in white robes and had white, downy wings. Or maybe they didn’t. Angel in Greek, ἄγγελος, really just means “messenger.” These angels are messengers of God. Surely they didn’t look ordinary, but maybe they didn’t look extraordinary either.

The heavenly host is another story.

We have domesticated the term “host” to mean “a lot,” but a host is an army. Can you imagine an army of angels appearing out of nowhere to praise God? Most nativity sets don’t come with an army of angels.

And the one angel that they do have of course is floating over the manger scene. Many angels appear in the Christmas narratives; they appear to Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men. Yet none of these messengers appear in the barn where Jesus was born. Maybe the nativity set needs a field to stage the scene of an army of angels coming to shepherds and their entire flocks.

Now that we have covered all of the secondary characters, let’s move onto the holy family. First, Joseph.

We know from first century culture that Joseph most likely was considerably older than Mary, but some nativity sets take it too far.

Joseph was probably in his thirties, not his eighties!

Next, Mary.

 We know that Mary was a young mother, probably in her early teens. Many nativity sets show her kneeling by the manger in her demure blue. For just having given birth, she looks really good! 

She doesn’t have any baby weight, nor does she look exhausted, sweaty, or completely worn out. Mothers have told me that it is absurd that Mary would be on her knees right after giving birth. I will have to take their word for it.

Finally, we come to eight pound six ounce newborn infant Jesus.

Jesus who isn’t to scale in many representations.

Jesus was not born half-grown! Jesus was wrapped in bands of cloth to keep his arms and legs straight, so only his head should be visible. He was put in a manger, the feeding trough, which I doubt was as clean as this hay.

We have seen that nativities are woefully inadequate. 

They can barely represent the characters involved, let alone be able to express the emotions of the event. 

When you look at a nativity set, do you feel that “The hopes and fears of all the years are met” in Jesus? The fear turned into joy, the danger turned into peace, the despair turned into hope. Jesus does all of this for us, and for the world.

Nativities show the baby Jesus, but they cannot express how he is fully God and fully human. They cannot show the magnitude of this event, of how this world is changed forever in that one tiny child. No visual representation can do that.

Which is why we are here. We come to worship Jesus, to hear his story anew. Together with our families and friends we light our candles and sing our praises of his birth. In this place, God comes among us - in the word, in the song, and in the breaking of the bread. In these moments, God changes us. God empowers us to overcome whatever is stopping us from sharing the good news.
In our fear, God says, "Be not afraid."
In our grief, God says, "I am with you."
In our despair, God says, "I will give you salvation."
Our God found in Jesus loves us in these profound ways. Jesus gives us all of the joy, peace, and hope that we can ever need. Empowered by God, we like the shepherds can go out and spread the good news of Christ's birth to all who will hear. For all of who Jesus is and will be is found in his first moments on this earth - as that little baby squirming and crying in a trough of dirty hay. Amen.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Joseph enacts God's plan

Matthew 1:18-25, Advent 4 A, December 22, 2013

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

When I was 23, I adopted my dog Kavod. This was when I was serving as an intern at Lakeside Lutheran in North Carolina. Kavod and I quickly learned to love and trust each other, but we started off on rocky ground. I certainly have loved dogs all my life, but I had never been the sole caretaker of a pet before.

When I was ready to adopt, I drove out of the countryside to visit the pet store where all the foster dogs were being shown. I was quite nervous. I didn’t know what would happen, even though I was determined to come home with a dog.

Thankfully, the adoption process was fairly smooth. I liked the feist named Jenny, although the foster mom’s southern twang made her name sound like “Ginny.” The pup was just about as nervous as I was. She was quite confused as well. On our hour and a half long drive back to my apartment, the tension was thick. She was my dog now, and the accident that she made in the car was now mine to clean up.

I gave her food just like her foster mom told me to, a mixture of dry and wet food, but my little one would not eat. When I finally gave up, I sat on the couch. My Kavod sat at the other end of the couch, as far from me as she could be. She was very unsure who I was and why she wasn’t with her foster mom. I asked myself, 

“What have I done? 
"Can I really be responsible for this little one?”

These questions continue to ring in my head from time to time, although very rarely now. Kavod now cuddles as close as she can when we are on the couch. This is one of the many ways that she shows her love for me. 

I am no longer insecure about my role as pet owner, yet I wonder, was Joseph ever so afraid of being a father? Did he ever feel insecure? Did his role as adopted father change how he treated Jesus?

Although we know very little about Joseph, today’s gospel sheds some light. His story begins at his engagement. Joseph is a distant relation to King David, but in those days that didn’t mean much. His father Jacob arranged for him to wed a young woman named Mary. When their fathers finalized the engagement, the marriage was legal.

Joseph and Mary did not live together during their engagement, and they certainly didn’t have sex, yet they were in a legally binding relationship. Their yearlong engagement gave their families time to prepare for their life together. When their families were ready, then they would have the wedding ceremony, move into their new home, and begin their life together.

During this time of being legally but not literally married, Mary had a visit from the Holy Spirit that left her pregnant. I wonder what that conversation might have sounded like. Mary could have said, “Joseph, I have some news for you. You may want to sit down. I saw a vision today. I believe that an angel appeared to me, sharing word that I would have a son. Joseph, I am pregnant. The Holy Spirit impregnated me.”

How would Joseph have reacted? Would he have looked at his betrothed and said, 

“What have you done? 
Are you ready to be responsible for a little one?” 

Joseph could have made a scene, but he chose not to. He had the legal right to leave her – alone and pregnant. But he didn’t. Joseph was a righteous man. He did not feel comfortable staying with her, but he didn’t want to embarrass her either. So he planned to quietly annul their marriage.

Before Joseph could act on his plan, an angel of the Lord appeared to him. This angel would not let Joseph change God’s plans, and he encouraged Joseph to continue his marriage to Mary. The angel said, “Joseph, you are the descendant of King David, the greatest king to ever rule over Israel.

“Do not be afraid to keep Mary as your wife, because she has not committed adultery. The Spirit of the Lord has descended upon her, causing her to be with child. She will bear this son to full term. You will name him Jesus, and as his name implies, God will work through him to save all people from their uncontrollable disobedience to God.

“In your time at the Temple, you have heard the prophet Isaiah proclaim in scripture, ‘Look, the young woman is with child, and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel’ which means ‘God with us.’” Having shared his message, the angel left Joseph.

Joseph awoke from his vision. I wonder if he asked himself, 

“What has God done? 
Can God really be responsible for this little one?” 

After processing all that the angel had said, Joseph decided to go ahead with it all – with the marriage, with raising this little boy, with following God’s plan.

Joseph arranged to hold the wedding ceremony ahead of schedule – before Mary was visibly pregnant. They lived together as Mary’s belly grew bigger and bigger. They were in Bethlehem when Mary’s time came to give birth.

Joseph held this little baby and looked lovingly into his child’s eyes. He named him Jesus just as the angel told him to do. In that moment, in that calm before the storm of being father to an infant, Joseph proclaimed to any who would hear, “I finally understand all that God has done. I am ready to be responsible for this precious little one.”

Raising a child, like handling any responsibility, comes with times of confidence and times of insecurity. In scripture, we see that Joseph was insecure about remaining with Mary. I doubt that any first time father truly knows what he is doing, yet he makes it work.

On the other hand, I think that God always knew what the plan was. God knew exactly what He was doing when God sent Jesus to live among us. Even as a small, innocent child, Jesus was and is our Savior. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is ever present in our lives, bearing us through the best and worst that we experience.

By living on this earth, by experiencing what it means to be a human, Jesus is our greatest advocate in heaven. We have new, eternal life in him because he came to earth to be among us. This Jesus is the greatest gift that God has ever given to us. In Jesus, God says to us, 
“I have done this for you all. 
I am responsible for the little one in the cattle stall.” 


Monday, December 16, 2013

Unconditional Love

Luke 1:46b-55, Advent 3 A, December 15, 2013

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

I recently listened to the NPR program This American Life. The episode was appropriately named, “Unconditional Love,” and one segment was called, “Love is a Battlefield.” The reporter told the story of a mother who helped her adopted son overcome his attachment disorder. In many ways, this mother’s love for her son is like God’s love for us.

Heidi and Rick Solomon were fairly ordinary Jewish Americans before Daniel came into their life. When they were ready to have children, they decided to adopt. During the process, they saw a picture of Daniel in an adoption catalogue. For some reason, this picture among the hundred other orphans pictured stood out to them.

So, they flew to Romania to take Daniel home. They saw the terrible condition in which Daniel had lived his first seven and a half years. Daniel shared a crib with another boy even though he hadn’t been a baby for such a long time. There were a hundred or more orphans in one room, all sharing cribs. These children had no education, no playtime, or any other interaction. They were forced to stay in their cribs except to eat and use the bathroom.

Daniel seemed happy at first, but the years of isolation and neglect had taken its toll. For his first six months in America, Daniel was ok. He certainly had his fair share of tantrums, but they always led to progress. Heidi and Rick enjoyed teaching Daniel English and about American culture.

Then March came and brought his eighth birthday. Then Daniel had an existential crisis. He didn’t know what a birthday was or why he had never had one before. This was the first time that he considered that he had another set of parents that had given him up. In fact, it took him a long time to comprehend the difference between biological and adoptive parents. Daniel blamed Heidi and Rick for the terrible life that he had in Romania. Even after he knew it wasn’t their fault, his anger remained.

Anger is an understatement. Daniel was filled with rage. He was destructive, punching holes in the walls of his bedroom. All of his furniture had to be taken away, leaving him with just a mattress. All of the specialists who tried to help him left the house injured and bleeding. Heidi called the cops regularly when she was afraid of Daniel’s vicious outbursts. She even hired a guard for her house – a bodyguard to protect her against her eight-year-old son.

For some time, there seemed to be no way out. Their family and all their doctors encouraged them to institutionalize Daniel. Rick even considered leaving Heidi, but Heidi could not give up on Daniel. She knew that there must be a way. She loved Daniel even when he threatened her life.

They lived like this for two years. Daniel was shuffled between doctors and psychiatrists, none of them providing a viable solution. Then, when Daniel was ten, he was diagnosed with attachment disorder. He was unable to connect with others, unable to form relationships or feel empathy. Daniel had no conscience, meaning that he could hurt others without feeling guilt. Daniel was dangerous, and the possible therapy was highly controversial.

When Daniel was a baby, he never made a connection with a mother. He was never cuddled; no adult stared lovingly into his eyes. He never felt loved. The intensive therapy recreated this. For eight weeks, Heidi always stayed within three feet of Daniel.

They did everything together, repeating simple tasks until Daniel did it properly. They had to make a lot of eye contact, with each task and every time they talked. Daniel couldn’t ask for anything. Like a baby, Daniel had to trust that Heidi would provide for his every need. Instead of having time outs, Daniel’s “punishment” for misbehaving was “time-ins”: extended periods of hugging and cuddling.

As expected, Daniel did not like this treatment. He resisted it as much as he could. For the first three weeks, he regressed. Then something clicked. He finally understood that this crazy hugging-eye contact making-always around woman loved him. He finally, after ten years, discovered what love is.

Life wasn’t perfect after that therapy. Daniel still acted out, but he wasn’t dangerous anymore. In May of 2006, he was given a special award at his synagogue and was able to give a speech. He took this opportunity to express his gratitude to his parents for never giving up on him.

At the end of the interview, the reporter asked Heidi, “Do you think you are loved by Daniel?” Heidi responded, “I don’t think he wants to hurt me. I don’t worry about that at all.” That may not sound like love, but it is. Heidi is pragmatic, realistic, and brave. Not every parent could have performed that therapy for such a difficult, detached child. Creating a bond of love like this is not for the softhearted.

Heidi and Daniel’s story powerfully parallels God’s story with us. In Mary’s Magnificat that we used as a psalm today, Mary boldly proclaims God’s role in human history. Many of these descriptions don’t sound like love. God has scattered the proud of heart and brought down the mighty rulers from their thrones. God has sent the rich away empty and shown His strength to the generations. God has done all of this to foreigners, yet God has also done this to God’s own people. God has done this out of love because:

Sometimes love looks like taking all your bedroom furniture away except a mattress so you don’t cause damage to your room or to yourself.

Sometimes love is hugging you and never letting go even when all you want is to be alone.

Sometimes love is forcing you to do something simple like passing a notebook over and over again until you do it kindly – with eye contact.

Sometimes the greatest love is tough love because that is really what we need.

When Gabriel told Mary that she would bear God’s son who would save the world, she knew that this wouldn’t be an easy ride. She knew that her God of mercy also was a powerful God able to overturn the strongest rulers. Mary didn’t know exactly what raising Jesus would be like, but she did know that she was up for the challenge.

This God that we worship is not just full of soft, cuddly kindness. God’s love for us is often shown in tough ways. God’s love is that kick in the butt to move forward when we don’t think we can take another step. God’s love for us may seem like intensive therapy sometimes, yet we come out of the experience truly feeling what love is. 

Love is not bubbly hearts. Love is moving forward. Forward to the manger on the way to the cross. Amen.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Stump of Jesse

Isaiah, Advent 2 A, December 8, 2013

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

In our first lesson this morning, we heard about the stump of Jesse. Jesse’s lineage created the Davidic monarchy, but it was put to an end after only a few short generations. The bloodline of Jesse had stopped ruling over Israel with no hope of a return, just like a tree that had been cut down. The tree was gone, but the stump remained.

That tree that was cut down must have been burned. Burning leaves and wood is a fairly regular thing here in our somewhat rural part of Iowa. Each burn pile leaves a patch of ashes in the street or a dead circle in the grass. In the easement behind my backyard, there is a small black mound of dead soil where the previous owners had a burn pile. During the year that I have lived there, nothing has grown on that spot.

Physically burning dead foliage is an obvious image for a tree cut down, yet there are other metaphorical stumps in our lives. In her blog Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh describes her depression. She writes, “[As a child,] I remember being endlessly entertained by the adventures of my toys

… But as I grew older, it became harder and harder to access that expansive imaginary space that made my toys fun. I remember looking at them and feeling sort of frustrated and confused that things weren't the same. 
“I played out all the same story lines that had been fun before, but the meaning had disappeared. Horse's Big Space Adventure transformed into holding a plastic horse in the air, hoping it would somehow be enjoyable for me. Prehistoric Crazy-Bus Death Ride was just smashing a toy bus full of dinosaurs into the wall while feeling sort of bored and unfulfilled.  I could no longer connect to my toys in a way that allowed me to participate in the experience.
“Depression feels almost exactly like that, except about everything.”

Depression is everywhere and among us. For some, depression is a surge of emotions, of sadness or anger. For others, depression is like what Allie Brosh feels, an emptiness that can never be filled. She can’t feel emotions, and because of it she can’t connect with anyone around her.

When the pain of depression impacts not just individuals but a culture, the playgrounds at school get dangerous. What may be the most powerful image of a stump in our society is the painful bullying that happens to children of all ages. With texting and social media, children have so many more opportunities to say hurtful things. These words of hate become burned into the eyes of the most innocent of children. From grade school to high school, children are suffering. No place is safe for youth these days.

In the time when Isaiah wrote of the stump of Jesse, the people of Israel were in a bit of their own depression. They had been bullied by generations of foreigners. They had been exiled from their own land, sent to Babylon while their Temple was being destroyed. Even when the Persians finally allowed them to go back to their own land, they never again had a king from the line of David. They were at a point of total despair, and they were desperate for someone to come from the genetic line of David to save them.

So, Isaiah wrote this prophecy that a shoot would grow from the stump of Jesse. New life will come out of this old piece of wood. And this bit of new life, this shoot, will have the spirit of the Lord with him. This one will be fair, honest, and peaceful. All of the people who fight as individuals, groups, and nations will one day find common ground. Isaiah gives the people hope that someday, God will do this. When God does, it will be glorious.

Even in our own lives, we can find a bit of hope sprouting out of what was thought dead. In time, a burn pile can start to grow grass again. Even the burn pile on my land is starting to show signs of life. It may never be the beautiful patch of grass that it was, yet it can become something new.

Even a depressed person can find a way out – or at least a way better. Allie Brosh writes, “I was crying on the kitchen floor for no reason. As was common practice during bouts of floor-crying, I was staring straight ahead at nothing in particular and feeling sort of weird about myself. Then, through the film of tears and nothingness, I spotted a tiny, shriveled piece of corn under the refrigerator. 
“I don't claim to know why this happened, but when I saw the piece of corn, something snapped. And then that thing twisted through a few permutations of logic that I don't understand, and produced the most confusing bout of uncontrollable, debilitating laughter that I have ever experienced. 
“My brain had apparently been storing every unfelt scrap of happiness from the last nineteen months, and it had impulsively decided to unleash all of it at once in what would appear to be an act of vengeance. 
“That piece of corn is the funniest thing I have ever seen, and I cannot explain to anyone why it's funny. I don't even know why…The way the corn was sitting on the floor... it was so alone... and it was just sitting there!”

Allie isn’t fully out of her depression. As she explains it, she is working at 60%, and that is enough for her, for now. Allie’s medication helps her to function in society.

And out of the terrors of children bullying each other comes the Buddy Bench. Christian Bucks, a second grader from York, Pennsylvania, came up with the idea for this bench for the recess playground. During an all-school assembly, Christian presented his idea to his classmates. He said, “If you are feeling lonely and don’t have anything to do, you go to the Buddy Bench. The idea is that someone will come and ask if you want to play or talk.”
By sitting on this bench, children are bravely publicly admitting that they are lonely. Then other children can take that opportunity to welcome them into their circle of friends. This Buddy Bench is a way to facilitate what should already be happening on the playground. By providing children the opportunity to invite others to play, they can rise above bullying to share their beautiful innocent souls with each other.
When Isaiah talked about the stump of Jesse, he didn’t say that a full tree would sprout. He said that a shoot would come out, a small bit of green growing out of the long-dead stump. Jesus was this sprout. He was a small bit of hope wrapped in a little baby. He didn’t look like a king, yet he was one. He is one.

A bit of grass growing out of a burn pile, or a piece of corn under the fridge, or a bench near a playground can all be these little sprouts of hope for people. God works through these ordinary events to give us hope. Whether the future looks bleak or fantastic, God is there, shining light on what we might not have seen. During this season of Advent, we await Jesus’ coming when all hope is fulfilled. Amen.