Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Waiting for Dawn

I don't often post sermons here, but today I am posting this one, preached last Sunday. I wept for Aleppo today, as the city is back in government control, as people pray for a way out, as innocent people are dying. I say again, I have no doubt that we are sitting the shadow of death.

The text for Sunday was Luke 1:67-80, the Benedictus.

I have no doubt that we’re sitting in the shadow of death.

This week, a man walked into Community Christian Church in Tempe, shouting about the gay pride flag hanging from their belltower. He threatened to pay picketers to come to the church, and spread rumors about pedophiles in their church. He said he felt empowered to stop and say something because Trump is the president elect and he knew most people agreed with him. For those of you who don’t know, our church exists because of Community Christian Church.

I have no doubt that we’re sitting in the shadow of death.

Last Sunday, a woman I went to college with was murdered by her husband, who then committed suicide. They left a 10 year old, 5 year old and 3 year old behind. The two youngest of the three girls were later found alone in their home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio by the aunt who called 911. Hours later, the bodies of their parents were found on an access road to a park near their home. No one knows for sure why it happened. Unlike most of these stories, there was no history of violence in the family.

I have no doubt that we’re sitting in the shadow of death.

I spoke with a woman this week who was looking for a place to give snuggly baby clothes and toys in honor of her nephew, who died during birth. Her sister has requested that their friends and family honor and mourn Jacob in this way, by giving items appropriate for the age he would be had he lived. Last year, Jacob’s mother, Martha, stopped to give Christmas clothes and toys appropriate for a 3 month old to a charity when a young woman with an infant came in, asking for clothes and toys. They’d just entered transitional housing. Martha was sure she saw a glimpse of the Christ child.

I have no doubt we’re sitting in the shadow of death.

Undoubtedly, this imagery of the shadow of death began with the idea of Sheol, the place of the dead where everyone went, regardless of how their life went. Like the Greek Hades, it was a shadowy place, never day nor night, just as it was neither good nor bad. Sheol, for ancient Israelites, was at the end of the waters at the edge of the world, held back by gates. Shadows literally came with death. We, who I’d guess have as many thoughts on the afterlife as people in the room, and maybe more, definitely don’t think about a shadowy place at the end of the world, though there have been a couple scifi movies who put it at the end of the universe. And still, I can say: I have no doubt we’re sitting in the shadow of death.

My family is waiting for a woman who has been part of our family in some way for over thirty years to die. Her story, including the cancer that is slowly killing her, is a story of alcohol and drug abuse, of imprisoned partners, of prostitution and jail time. It’s also why I say she’s part of our family in some way because those ways have been varied in those thirty years. Both of her sons have nearly died in the last year from drug-related illnesses. Their livelihood was based in drug trafficking, so the money has dried up as well. The foster system failed them, too, removing and returning them to her multiple times in their childhood, but never getting them somewhere that allowed them to leave their mother’s habits behind. 

I have no doubt we’re sitting in the shadow of death.

And as I tell these stories I’m struck by their sheer rawness, and difficulty, and impoliteness. These aren’t things we talk about often, or together, or publicly. These are the things we keep quiet and hope they never happen again, knowing they probably will. As I drive down the road with “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” coming from the radio, the song seems wildly out of place in some way, not just because nothing here looks like Currier & Ives.

We often read from the prophet Isaiah during Advent. Today, I remind you of the call of Isaiah 64, “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

There’s a fabulous, raw Advent devotional you can check out, with the #rendtheheavens, drawing from this prayer from Isaiah, this prayer for something else, for divine intervention here and now.

Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
So that the mountains would quake at your presence—
As when fire kindles brushwood
And the fire causes water to boil—
To make known your name to your adversaries,
So that the nations might tremble at your presence!

Tear open the heavens and come down! Or as Zechariah puts it: save us from this shadow of death.

It is why we celebrate Advent before Christmas, after all, hoping that God will tear the heavens open and come down among us. It’s why we first name the brokenness that means we need a Savior, rather than jumping ahead to something far more pleasing, like an infant in a manger.

And here, I am grateful for the wisdom and goodness of God, who did not opt to give us exactly what we wanted. Instead, we get these words from Zechariah, upon the birth of his son, John, a prophet before Jesus:
You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High,
                  for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
You will tell his people how to be saved
                   through the forgiveness of their sins.
Because of our God’s deep compassion,
 the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
                    to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
                    and in the shadow of death,
                  to guide us on the path of peace.”

We get the promise of the dawn from heaven breaking upon us, the dayspring that makes it into many of our hymns. The shadow of death is chased away, yes, but not in a violent ripping open to end what is happening now. That’s a solution of brokenness, after all. That’s like mom coming in thanks to the screams in the bedroom where kids were playing and no one being happy once it’s over. God’s solution is one of wholeness: a dawn from heaven, which promises something new rather than destruction.

It’s a reminder that God creates, not destroys. And God creates for us, out of deep compassion for us.

We’re promised the opposite of tearing open the heavens, coming down, and everything trembling at the power of God: peace, shalom, wholeness

It’s hard to know exactly what those words mean. We know they point away from violence, and addiction, death and loss. We know they point toward love. We know they heal what is broken, replace what is shattered. We need the Christ child to help us understand more fully. Remaking the world in our own image tends to make things worse, not better. We rend the heavens; God sends the dawn of a new way of being.

Now, as we sit in the shadow of death, waiting for the dawn, the coming of Christ, we carry with us this deepest hope and trust: the shadow of death does not prevail.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Christmas Gifts

My church is doing Advent cards this year from SALT project, instead of a traditional Advent calendar. Today's challenge, "Find a little--or a big!--way to be generous today: hold the door open for someone, pay for someone's coffee, do a stranger a simple favor."

I confess, it didn't change my plans for today. It did make me think differently about one of my plans: stopping by the local community center. It's not one of the city run community centers, but a nonprofit. Its services are things like reading classes for kid and helping people get on SNAP and WIC. Today, I was dropping off peanut butter from my church and gifts for Christmas from my partner, Matt, and me.

We collect the peanut butter once a month, so I most always have some small stash to drop off. Today, it was around fifty pounds of peanut butter, which will be used to stock emergency food boxes for families. The gifts are a tradition Matt and I started the first year we were dating. Our gift to each other is limited to an ornament, spending $20 or less. Instead, we spend money on a family without resources to give gifts to their kids.

As we're shopping, I'm aware that, in some ways, this is a selfish choice. It's really fun to shop for Christmas presents for kids. We're shopping because a parent or caregiver isn't able to shop. We get to decide what it is best for the kids. We feel good about it when it's all done. It's also something most people would think of as an act of generosity.

This year, we dropped off a bag near filled with a set of books, a toy, an outfit, and a pair of shoes for each child in the family. The center is trying to get some consistency across gifts, so there were fewer things than in years past. I still think the kids will have a decent Christmas even if their mom can't come up with any other gifts. When I tucked the gift receipts into a Christmas card for her, I debated whether or not to sign our names. I ended up not. "Abby and Matt" wouldn't reveal much, but I felt better with her not knowing, letting her imagine who else cared about her kids.

I think about that nudge to be generous in some way today, and it feels weird. In part, at least, it's because generosity seems to always imply money. I like that the creators include things having nothing to do with money. Apparently, I look like I know where I'm going, so people often ask me for directions when I'm walking places; I'd never counted that as generous.

For me, what many would also call generosity is better called faithfulness. I think of generosity as giving extravagantly. My resources don't allow me to do that. Instead, I give regularly, faithfully, and rarely impulsively--at least when it comes to money. Even this Christmas gift adventure was part of how I was taught that.

As a child, when my family was barely making ends meet, we bought gifts for the children most in need in our school. If I remember correctly, grandparents and an aunt and uncle participated, too. Likely, they bore the bulk of the financial burden. This was before angel trees existed. In a rural community, people know. As children, we were included in picking out gifts for our classmates, including many conversations about how we should never, ever mention this at school. Gifts were dropped off at homes, quietly, along with food for the holidays. One year, a boy in my class brought the Beetlejuice house shoes I had chosen for him to school to show off. He had no problem telling everyone where they came from, which I told my mother as soon as I got home.

In a season when there is pressure to buy, and maybe buy some more, and then pick up something for that person you forgot, we would do well to turn to our faithfulness rather than a fleeting desire to be generous. What have we chosen to do with our resources? What are we investing in beyond ourselves? Which of our hopes for the world are we fulfilling with what we have to offer?