Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sermon: "A Christmas Revelation"—Revelation 12

For First Congregational Church, Stamford
“A King is born, but a king is already here; and there is only room for one king.”

Today, we celebrate the birth of the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world.

Most Christmases, we hear a beautiful story of a picturesque scene filled with angels bringing glad tidings, but the Christmas story is told several times in the Bible in varying detail. The story we will hear today is not the beautiful ornaments of Luke, but the story of Christian oppression and Jewish suffering during the first century, Common Era, told in the books of Matthew… and Revelation.

“What was that?” you ask. Christmas in Revelation?
It is a book that requires decoding, so I will help along the way as we read a Christmas story that is not included in the Revised Common Lectionary.
And I hope you also hear a Christmas promise for our congregation at this time.

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart Be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer.

Where were you one year ago?

I was on staff at a large and prosperous church in a denomination that was ill-suited for me. I was Unitarian Universalist.

Although on paper, it would appear to be a good fit:
An all-inclusive church born in Christian liberalism,
It ended up being a very bad fit.
I could not talk about God—the one who I felt had called me to proclaim the Good News to children and youth.
How I ended up Unitarian Universalist is a longer story,
But the part I want you to hear is my exile that followed my eight years in Unitarian Universalism.
I was not sure where God would lead me, but I trusted that God had called me out of that religion back into Christian orthodoxy.
I ended up here a few months later, and I have not been happier professionally… ever.
I needed a time of exile in order to find myself again in a place that I find most welcoming, loving, and appreciative. Thank you for who you are in my life.

Mary and Joseph raise Jesus in a climate of exile, too.

Jesus is born in the midst of conflict
Mary and Joseph become exiles several times in Jesus’ short life:
They travel to Bethlehem, Judea to be counted in a census.
Then they escape to Egypt, because King Herod decreed that all children in and around Bethlehem should be executed.
Then they return to the land of Nazareth, Israel because King Herod died and could no longer kill innocent children.
The entirety of his life, Jesus was exiled from his native Judea, where he would return // only to die.
And let’s not forget that our Savior was born in a feeding trough for animals belonging to transient families.

On Christ the solid rock we stand, yet the life of Jesus seemed to be built on sand—there was little stability, or groundedness, or certitude.

This is the backdrop of the Nativity.


In some ways, it feels like this congregation is experiencing its own exile:
Being uncertain as to where we will worship ten years from now.
And worshipping in an atypical place beginning next Sunday—the chapel instead of the Sanctuary
A move that indicates ecological wisdom as much as financial uncertainties.
We also give our Christmas Offerings to the Saugatuck Congregational Church, which is dis-placed due to a terrible fire that destroyed the main part of the church.
We are moved to act in haste due to these uncertainties and this tragedy.
What a wondrous time for our Church this Christmas!

And so we listen for the Lord, and we sing our Christmas carols precisely because that is what we know how to do.
We listen for the leading of the Spirit,
and we await the moving of the hand of God to sweep through this place,
as God did when the angels announced that John the Baptist and Jesus would be born.
We wait not for a messiah, but we await a messenger to arrive, bringing Good News, announcing peace, Proclaiming news of happiness, and reminding us that God has not forsaken the people of First Congregational Church.

But it would be nice if someone could tell us something definitively.

Hear this:

The Book of Revelations is often looked upon as a prophecy that tells fortunes—like tarot cards or palm readings…
When, in fact, it is a historical document that tells the birth and death of Jesus in language that encodes the Gospel message.
When we read ‘baby’ in Revelations, we should think “Jesus.”
When we read ‘woman clothed with the sun,’ we should think “Mary.”
When we read ‘red dragon,’ we should think “Roman empire.”
It’s like a Mad Libs gone terribly wrong. The Gospel message becomes obscured by the use of some pretty outlandish characters—like dragons and horns and crowns and multi-headed beasts.

Why would a book of the Bible try to encode or conceal the Gospel?

The Books of the New Testament circulated as oral traditions for decades following the death of Jesus.
And because His life and ministry were so politically charged, people might be imprisoned or even executed if they were found with a written form of the Gospel.
Thus, Revelation—that crazy, Mad Libs version of the Gospel— was one of the earliest and most popular Christian writings after the death of Jesus.
While Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were circulated orally,
Revelations was able to circulate as a written manuscript without early Christians receiving such heavy political repercussions.

Christopher C. Rowland writes in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, “The horizon of hope is reaffirmed by revelation, and the historical perspective of salvation supported. But sometimes the form of the revelation is such that / it can produce as much mystification as enlightenment. There is frequently a need for angelic interpretation / of enigmatic dreams and visions.”

So let’s decode that strange passage of Revelations:

The life and even the birth of Jesus were acts of defiance against the Roman Empire.
Revelation tells us how the red dragon—the Roman Empire—stood before the woman who was preparing to give birth to her child.
The dragon waited and waited. Seeking to devour the child—like King Herod had murdered so many children, hoping to execute the one whom the Magi worshipped. /
The woman was crying out in childbearing pains—knowing that she had to flee to Judea, then to Egypt to protect the one sent to us by the Holy Spirit.
And as soon as the child was born, the child was snatched away to Egypt and escaped the mouth of the red dragon.
And the woman was protected by God and out-lived her son, whom Revelation says is to rule all the nations with the most technologically advanced metal available at the time—iron.

The Christmas message of Revelation is this:

When the cards seemed stacked against the Baby who was to rule all nations,
God snatched away the Baby, and it was saved.
The world was saved.
God’s perfect plan of salvation was still carried out, despite the ugliest, most terrible threat imaginable to the ancient mind: a dragon, // the red empire, // Rome.

Is there a dragon in this church?
What are your fears for the church?


This is the message I bring to you, today. God uses exile to save the people of God.
So we have to go into exile.
It’s nobody’s first choice.
Our resources will be preserved another day.
Our uncertainties and feelings of confusion and embarrassment may be a key to our salvation.
We will be inconvenienced.
And it may feel less auspicious a room.
But, by the work of our hands, we are sustaining the gifts of God, for the glory of God, to last in perpetuity.
As God’s workers, we are snatching the baby away from the dragon and saving ourselves.
And our exile will be temporal.
What a gift it may be to our community!

// //

Is there a dragon in your personal life?
What are your fears in your own life that prevent you from moving forward?
Is it something you have to say to someone?
Is it financial crisis?
Is it the loss of a loved one?
Is it an illness?
Are you afraid of growing old or being alone?

Let us hold those things in our hearts, and let us imagine a time when we are able to move beyond this dragon because God snatches us from its mouth.

The Christmas message is one of initial pain and disappointment, but then the message shifts from disappointment to gratitude.
God snatches the baby from the dragon’s mouth!
The life of the baby is spared!
Friends, do you trust that God will spare the baby?
Because he did.
Do you trust that God will spare our church?
Because he can… and is.
Do you trust that God will spare you?
Because he will.

We celebrate, today, the birth and salvation of King Jesus,
And we rejoice in the counter-intuitive message that exile will lead to salvation.

I know it in my life—that God brought me here. And I challenge you to know it in your live, as well.

As we go forth from this Sanctuary, let us remember this Christmas story—of exile and haste, and “sacrifice of all of who we are” to God.

And as we are re-born into our lives, let us remember that counter-intuitive message that exile will lead to salvation.

In our lives, may we bring glory to God’s name.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

Devotional: "Life in Edom"—Psalm 137

1By the rivers of Babylon,
         There we sat down and wept,
         When we remembered Zion.

2Upon the willows in the midst of it
         We hung our harps.
3For there our captors demanded of us songs,
         And our tormentors mirth, 
         “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
4How can we sing the LORD’S song
         In a foreign land?
5If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
         May my right hand forget 
her skill.
6May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
         If I do not remember you,
         If I do not exalt Jerusalem
         Above my chief joy.
7Remember, O LORD, against the sons of Edom
         The day of Jerusalem,
         Who said, “Raze it, raze it
         To its very foundation.”
8O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one,
         How blessed will be the one who repays you
         With the recompense with which you have repaid us.

Sometimes, when we study theology or the Bible, we forget our purpose. Or, God leads us to a place we did not expect: prison, hospital, a bad job. Or, our congregations recognize us for the light contained within, and they do not see the One to whom our ministry points. Sometimes, we find ourselves as the Psalmist, amongst "Edomites." 

So how do we point our congregations to the Source of the light within us? How do we snap out of our worrying and busyness and remember the purposes for which God has called us?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Unvanquished Spirit

Today, I visited an old friend, Walt Whitman. He asks some very poignant questions:

Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves;         5
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do as much as the Soul?
And if the body were not the Soul, what is the Soul?

This entry to "I Sing the Body Electric," which is misunderstood by many (particularly those who avoid reading it because their pastor told them it is sinful), responds to Whitman's contemporaries, such as Queen Victoria and the growing popularity of philosophical materialism. It also points to a false dilemma in Western theology, which Thandeka brought to my attention nearly a decade ago. 

In Part I of her systematic theology sequence, entitled Losing Bodies, Saving Souls, Thandeka exposed the thought undergirding St. Augustine's Confessions. For Augustine (and St. Paul before him), the central problem for humanity is the body. As a frame of reference, Thandeka required several dozen books and articles in psychoanalysis, neuroscience and the emerging division of "the prevention and control of violence" that, together, helped a classroom filled with progressive seminarians understand that St. Augustine (and, yes, St. Paul before him) interpolated his own traumatic life experiences into his understanding of Jesus' teachings. Somehow, Augustine's writings form the theological basis for Western Christian thought--all of it: his guilt over childhood misbehavior, his self-righteousness, his quasi-erotic lust for transcendent spiritual experience, the feeling of emptiness in his soul, his quasi-political allegiance to Christian authorities, and so forth. Augustine's solution is to embrace all of the above in service to the soul, and Christian authorities return the favor by codifying Augustine's doctrine of the vanquished flesh.

Thandeka, as an Emmy award-winning journalist, refuses to speak on behalf of Augustine or the field of Human Sciences, but allows these writings to be read on their own terms. Then expertly, as a theologian, she juxtaposes Augustine's inner turmoil with 20th century writers who disclose the key to resolution. Kathleen Greider's Reckoning with Aggression and Arnold Goldberg's Being of Two Minds (among others) respond to troubled individuals such as Augustine. The entire corpus of theology built upon Augustine's disembodied soul, therefore, must be viewed in light of our patriarch's disordered thinking. 

We already know what happens when clergy teach their adherents to deny their bodies in order to save their souls. The slaughter of American Indian, "Latin" American and Philippine peoples illustrate the devastating consequences of the vertical split in Christian theology (not to mention 9/11). What, however, becomes of bodies that fall victim to misguided clergy who act against the souls of those seen as "other." And what ought to become of such clergy?

The Hebrew Bible reader in me wishes for eternal punishment for such impostors. The post-Augustinian in me, however, reminds me that such reprehensible behavior happens as a result of mental illness. This is not to say that Augustine is the problem. People (and theologies) that rely on the manipulation of the soul or of the body gravitate toward the mentally ill musings of Augustine precisely because he encourages their aggression and psychosis. These clergy need a few things: the support of a good psychiatrist, a survey course in postmodern theology, perhaps a re-reading of "I Sing the Body Electric," and maybe even a congregational vote.

Morality becomes immorality when it denies human body/soul: disembodied souls, or clergy whose fleshly impulses consume every ounce of spirituality surrounding their dying bodies. The Salem Witch Trials could not produce peace, and Pat Robertson's hateful remarks about the people of Haiti and New Orleans did not invite "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." For even demons quote scripture. And what of the clergy who preach without regard to goodness, joy, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control and other humanistic/spiritual virtues (those who molest children or swindle parishioners and colleagues)? Such clergy undermine God's perfect creation and, instead of saving lives, they impose upon everyone they encounter a portion of their own unhappiness and hopelessness. They revert society back to the perfect order (i.e., insidious oppression) that Queen Victoria advanced, and they propagate elitism. Such clergy exemplify Whitman's depictions of predatory elbow-rubbing slave-holders in parlors and lecture-rooms (stanzas VII-VIII). 

Who knew Walt Whitman was both a poet and prophet, other than his readers who have healed their own souls through embodying the Spirit that yet lives!