Saturday, December 15, 2007

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow!

I don't like snow.
Especially on Saturdays and Sundays,
when it makes people reluctant to get out and come to worship.
Snow is cold and uncomfortable to walk around in.
And it makes driving a little nerve-wracking, too.

But, somehow, when I look out the window and see those little bitty flecks of white covering the dead grass, and the bushes and the leafless limbs of the trees, I can't help thinking it is just beautiful.

Encouraging Word from our friend in Beit Jala

John Setterlund's newsletter arrived yesterday, and had this encouraging take on recent events in the news.
John is going to be in the US over the holidays, and in Philo at the end of December. If his schedule allows, I'll try to put together a little coffee get together so that those of you who haven't met John (he was Pastor of Philo's Lutheran church for several years, so some of you know him from those days) can meet him.

Bishop Optimistic

Believing in the cup’s being half-full rather than half-empty, the Rev. Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, says he feels the Annapolis peace talks were more successful than anyone expected. Speaking to a group of visitors in our guesthouse, he pointed to some positive results of these talks.
Until now, for example, Israel had never discussed yielding East Jerusalem to the Palestinians; now such a proposal has been published in the newspaper. Previously, negotiations between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights had not been possible, but now this issue is on the table. All sides seem to be taking a more realistic look at a peaceful solution to the Palestinian issues.
This does not mean that the facts “on the ground”, especially the settlements and the Wall, have changed. But it does indicate greater awareness of the problems on all sides, and a sense of urgency in solving them. §

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Speaking of Olive Wood

This was in the paper last night, and it made me very sad:

"The Israeli forces left behind heavy damage to al-Fukhari, a farming community near the southern twon of Khan Younis.
About 75 acres of olive tress and orange groves were uprotted, greenhouses and the outer walls of homes were damaged, and homes were left without power, said ouda Alomar, mayor of the community. Repair crews were trying to restore electricity and reopen roads that were closed with dirt mounds put up by the troops, he said."

These "incursions" into Palestinian land naturally, I think, solidify resistance on the Palestinian side. Violence begets violence and prospects for peace recede into the far distance.

This last month the water company came down my street and dug things up and left a big mess in yards across from the church. I've heard several people express anger and disgust that their yards were dug up. Can you imagine if bulldozers came through Philo or Champaign or through Curtis Orchard and uprooted trees, just to make a political statement? Just to show us that they could? Apologists for Israel say that they have to take defensive actions to protect themselves from attack. Were there snipers in the olive trees?

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Would that you knew the things that make for peace!"

Who said that?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Children's Sermon Revelation

The children of the church really do "lead" me sometimes. This Sunday's children's sermon was one of those times. For the children's sermon I had planned to talk about olive branches as a symbol of peace, and to present two olive wood candle sticks, to sit on our communion table with the olive wood nativity that the church displays every year.

I bought the candlesticks at the meeting of the Israel/Palestine network in Chicago in November. They were made in Palestine, and imported by a "fair trade" organization which helps Palestinian craftspeople make a decent wage in that economically wrecked part of the world.

Now here was my surprise "leading" from the children: The candlesticks were wrapped in an Arabic language newspaper. As I unwrapped the package, I commented on how it looked like one of our newspapers, but "can you read any of it?" And they immediately picked up on the beauty of the Arabic letters. They asked how to read it, "Left to right? Is it backwards? Are these letters like our ABC's? Which one is A?" Etc. So we looked at the paper more closely. It was the sports page, and there was a big picture of some people playing soccer. Now, THAT we could understand. And some of the ads had pictures of families, and children. And we could see that this one was about the same age as one of our kids, etc.

The kids picked up on how the people were like us. Even though we didn't know what the words said, it was a newspaper, just like our newspapers. People like our moms and dads probably read this newspaper, clear across the world from us. That piece of newspaper conveyed so much of how related we are. And the children got a feel for the humanity of people about which we often feel nothing, except perhaps fear. It was a beautiful children's sermon. And the children preached it for me. That's what I love about the Holy Spirit.

Sermon for "Peace" Sunday

Dec. 9, 2007
Isaiah 2: 1-5
Second Sunday in Advent

Our Advent preparations this year take the form of a journey – a trip guided by the prophet Isaiah that will take us through one of the darkest parts of the year and into the light and peace of Christ’s presence – made known to us in the child of Bethlehem, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Last week, Isaiah showed us that the point of origin for our journey is the landmark of a shoot rising out of the root of Jesse – a sign of the miraculous possibility of new life and growth. This week, Isaiah invites us to venture a little farther along the way, and to share a wonderful vision with him. On the right side of the tour bus, Isaiah helpfully points out, you will see the world being drawn to God like a magnet. You will notice God’s word transforming their chaos and violence into order and harmony. Don’t miss the weapons transformation factory, where swords are turned into farm tools and tanks into tractors. You’ll notice, of course, that no one is studying war. They are too busy learning from God and from each other how to walk in the wonderful, peaceful world. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they study war any more. Isaiah’s vision is a vision of peace. World peace.

The journey to Bethlehem leads through a vision of profound peace. Do we dare to go there? This Christmas season, do we have the courage and the faith to dream that dream?

Or would we rather dream of . . . something more real? I’m indebted to PC Ennis, the theologian in residence in an Atlanta Presbyterian church for noticing a commercial. (I wonder how my approach to my job might change if my business card said, “Theologian in Residence”. Hmmmm.) Apparently, I’d watch more TV, since PC saw a commercial that I haven’t seen. The ad begins with a dreamy vision of a sparkling new bicycle. A child’s voice is heard: “Oh, I hope I get a bicycle for Christmas. I hope to get a bicycle for Christmas – and peace on earth, of course, - but I hope I get a bicycle for Christmas.”

Clearly – the way the TV presents things – to dream of a bicycle is to dream of something real. And world peace? That’s just Christmas season window dressing. That’s just a sentiment on Christmas cards. That’s just something we sing about. Briefly, and not with much heart.

Our very great temptation this Advent season is to ignore Isaiah our tour guide, and to look out the left side of the bus, where SALE banners are hanging in store windows and shiny new bikes look so close we can almost touch them. There’s a vision for Advent. Come, O Come pre-Christmas sale.

This year, focusing on that bike is so much easier because it means we don’t have to deal with the horrible sound of bombs falling around the bus, or worry about IEDs in the road head. You know what I mean? We live in a country that is conducting war right now. Killing and being killed. Maiming and being maimed. Suffering, and inflicting suffering. That’s real.

And up against the nightly news and the hourly radio bulletins and the daily newspapers and the weekly magazines, full of the horrors of war - - - against all that we are invited to believe in a vision of peace? Come on!

But you know what? Isaiah says, Yes! Come on! Isaiah is not some na├»ve, wide eyed hippie, sitting in field of flowers, doing banned substances and talking about Peace, Man! Isaiah is a war correspondent. Isaiah is battle tested. This vision of peace and light is embedded in 65 chapters of very realistic account of how, over the generations, people’s turning away from the ways of God have resulted in violence and suffering and death. My Calvin College connection, John Witvliet, calls the Isaiah advent passages “The Pretty Passages” of Isaiah and urges preachers to put them in context for congregations.

This is a book written over a couple of generations of the greatest loss and horror a people can suffer. Invasion. Extradition. Living as aliens. And in between graphic and horrifying accounts of the reality of war, Isaiah insists on communicating this persistent vision of peace.

Why bother? What’s the point? The point, according to Isaiah, is that sometimes in this world, what we believe in is more important journey than what the world tells Us is “real”.

Do you trust the world’s version of what is real? What constitutes ‘The way things are’? Are you a fan of reality TV? What’s real about Road Trip? Or . . . that other one where they pick out 10 fantastic looking 20-somethings who don’t have job or family obligations, set them up in a house worth a million dollars, and watch them fight over who cleans up the kitchen. Is that reality?

Who gets to decide what’s reality? In a recent news article, a White House aide was quoted as saying,
..., "Guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' "That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality."
Got that?
Who determines reality? The biggest, boldest empire? But don’t we all know, in our heart of hearts, how unbelievably UN real it is to think that what is happening in the world right now is going to lead to real peace? Saying that locking people up for years and years with no trial and no access to the evidence against them – that that has something to do with freedom – is that realistic? Who gets to say what is a real threat to world peace? Who gets to say what is real?

In a world where we are so regularly misled and distracted from what is happening - Is it so unrealistic to believe the Bible? Even if the Bible tells us that peace is possible? That there is another way to live on this planet? That swords can be beaten into plowshares and we can study war no more?

Isaiah’s vision isn’t a lie. It’s poetry. But it isn’t a lie. It’s prophetic. But it isn’t a lie.

The point of Advent is “do not dismiss the vision of peace as irrelevant. Do not write off the Biblical proclamation of God’s will for our lives as fantasy. (PC Ennis, again)

The vision of peace to which Isaiah directs our attention cannot be ignored as we journey to Bethlehem. It must be seen, and believed, and entered into, if we wish to arrive at the place where God enters the world - Emmanuel – to be with us.

How do we walk in the light of God’s peaceful vision for us and the world? We start by sharing Isaiah’s vision. We take the first steps toward peace in our own lives and in our own families. And we enter into the larger world, our schools, at sporting events, among the communities, looking to learn what makes for peace. And we question the reality of those who preach fear and threats and force.

We hold onto the promise, even when we are told it’s just a dream, the dream of peace on earth. We do our very best to live out that dream and we wait for the day that God has promised, when the dream finally comes true.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Sunday Sermon - 1st Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10
“Journey in the Spirit”

It is Advent – the time for us to get ready to encounter the Christ anew. Advent is the beginning of the church’s liturgical year, and so it was a time to begin again as a disciple. Historically, Advent, the four weeks before the celebration of Christmas, served as a little Lent for Christians. It was a time for quiet, heart and soul searching, and repentance. Advent hymns were often solemn and sometimes even in a minor key: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” sounds like something medieval monks chanted in darkened cathedrals. “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” - is another soulful Advent standard that this congregation doesn’t know or care to learn.
Of late, say in the last 100 years or so, Advent has become a more joyful, hope filled and expectant time, in which we attempt to remind one another of the amazing gift of God that is “The Reason for the Season” – Jesus Christ.
With post-war prosperity and the economic imperatives of a consumer society, Advent has changed once again. Now, the challenge of Advent is to prepare to receive Christ anew, while at the very same time decorating one’s home, entertaining business clients and personal friends, baking family member’s once a year favorites, buying gifts, attending school and church holiday functions and dealing with appeals from charities every time you go to the mailbox or walk into the supermarket.
I don’t want to give you another task to get done by the time December 25th rolls around. Someone shared another church’s worship folder with me this week. THIS ADVENT – it read in all capital letters: WORSHIP MORE, SPEND LESS, GIVE MORE, LOVE ALL. Wow, I thought. That’s a lot of imperatives to pile on people who, if they are anything like me, are already feeling a little overwhelmed. So, at church this Advent, I won’t be asking you to perform yet another holiday obligation. Instead, I want to invite you to “get away from it all” – to go on a journey - think of it as a guided tour if you like – a journey to Bethlehem. Our tour guide will be the prophet Isaiah. Our destination is the place where Christ was born.

Ann Weems:

In each heart lies a Bethlehem,
An inn where we must ultimately answer
Whether there is room or not.
When we are Bethlehem-bound
We can no longer look the other way
Conveniently not seeing stars
Not hearing angel voices.
We can no longer excuse ourselves by busily
Tending our sheep or our kingdoms.

This Advent let’s go to Bethlehem
And see this thing that the Lord has made known to us.
In the midst of shopping sprees
Let’s ponder in our hearts the Gift of Gifts.
Through the tinsel
Let’s look for the gold of the Christmas Star.
In the excitement and confusion, in the merry chaos,
Let’s listen for the brush of angels’ wings.
This Advent, let’s go to Bethlehem
And find our kneeling places.

We’ll be traveling companions for each other – and we’ll meet some interesting natives along the way. But mostly, we’ll be taking in the sights and sounds and experiencing the wonder of what God has done. Advent isn’t about what we do. It is about God has done, and continues to do – he comes into our world, into our lives, into our messes and our mistakes, and brings divine love.

So where does our journey begin? The journey to Bethlehem begins at the sign of a shoot coming up from the ruined stump of the old Kingdom. The old Davidic dynasty had Israel’s pride and joy and hope for the future. But the majestic oak was rotten at the core. With each generation removed from David, the corruption grew worse, until the Assyrians, and then the Babylonians and then the Romans swept in and loped off branches from the tree until nothing was left but a stump. The life was gone out of it. It was a failure. It was a mistake. And yet, Advent begins with the sign of new, fresh, vibrant life, emerging from the ruined past and promising a new future. What a wonderful promise that is!
For those of us who have stumps of dreams, or ambitions, of plans, or relationships, of careers, or even just the stumps of Christmases past – Christmases in which we were too frazzled or too pressured or too inattentive to meet Christ anew – the sign of new life with which Advent begins is a beautiful gift. God is not one to let our failures or mistakes in the past rule out a beautiful future. He is coming to offer us another chance at Christmas, at love, at life. This is the very first thing our tour guide, Isaiah, wants us to notice as we set off toward Bethlehem. The possibility of new life.

The second thing is that this journey is a chance for us to breathe deeply and freely. The Hebrew for Spirit is the same word – ruah – as breath. So read that verse 2 substituting breath for spirit and it says,
“The breath of the Lord shall rest upon him.
The breath of wisdom and understanding,
The breath of counsel and might,
The breath of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”

What we breathe in and what we breathe out will make a big difference in our journey. How great to know that God offers us an alternative to the polluted atmosphere of commercialism, greed, fear and cynicism that the world seems to exude, even in the midst of the holiday season.

At Christmas we collide with the mystery that God entered our world as an infant. And this verse reminded me of a how a baby’s breath smells. You mothers, if your think, you will remember. Fathers, big sisters and brothers. How would you describe it to those who haven’t held a baby so close that you are breathing in the little puffs? Like a airy, sweet, caramel-y. Like a can of Eagle-Brand sweetened condensed milk, only softer and lighter. Like heaven. Like little puffs of heaven, pure and good.

At the beginning of the Advent journey, stop for just a moment and breathe God’s goodness in.

And then get ready for lots of surprises. The journey is through a land we can barely imagine – where the wolf and the lamb are friends. Where the leopard curls up next to a baby goat. Through a place where hurt and destruction are things of the past. A child fearlessly leads us into the presence of the Almighty God.

This is our destination. And this is where we begin. As poet TS Eliot wrote:
The end
Is where we start from . . . .

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

(Four Quartets)

Let us go to Bethlehem.