Saturday, December 16, 2006

Compassion: Advent 3C sermon

The first time I saw the movie, “The Matrix,” was New Year’s Eve 1999, as we headed into the new millennium. I was struck by the power of this story and its ability to convey a modern day version of salvation and the Messiah. Granted I was less impressed with its use of high powered machine guns despite the fact that those being shot were not real humans but figures playing parts in a computer generated matrix.

The plot is based on the premise that world is no longer real but has been taken over by a form of artificial intelligence, machines. These machines were once human made but eventually became self-sufficient and dominant. took After a long war the artificial intelligence took over the world. An entire species has been spawned by what was once one machine and they have created an alternate reality based on a computer generated world. Having lost the war humans are now born and bred to be the life source, the batteries for the machines. Humans are confined to a weird cocoon kind of space where their energy is tapped for the machines. To keep the human brains occupied the machine has created a computer generated virtual reality; the people think they are living real lives because of the images in their brains, but in reality they are contained and unconscious, their life energy tapped to support the network of artificial intelligence.

Living outside the realm of this matrix, the computer generated virtual reality, is a band of renegade humans who survived the war. These itinerant people see the matrix and have become adept at maneuvering in and out of that virtual reality in an effort to over come the artificial intelligence. These humans believe they are waiting for The One, a human with special powers, who will be the one to overcome the machines. Morpheus, the leader of this band of renegades has seen The One, whose name is Neo (or one spelled backward), and the movie opens with their early attempts to contact this human through the web of the matrix.

The Matrix is in many ways a modern version of the Christian story of the Incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. Morpheus is a character much like John the Baptist, because he sees and knows who the one is, the one who is greater than he, the one who is the Messiah. And Neo, over time, comes to realize that he is the One. Eventually he dies and then is resurrected with new divine like powers that enable him to see through the machines, they are no longer able to have power over him. And so begins the journey of rescuing human kind from the bondage of the matrix.

Thematically this third Sunday of Advent offers us many different images. First we have this image of John the Baptist. In this reading John conveys some powerful ideas of what he thinks is going on: John knows that he is not The One, he knows who The One is and that this One is more powerful than he. But John anticipates that The One is going to come with a force of power that will destroy all those who do not see and follow The One. John speaks of wrath, fire, and repentance, which much like what happens in the Matrix. And he anticipates that The One who is coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.

And it’s true that in some rare images of Jesus in our Scripture we see him using this kind of force and anger, such as when he overturns the tables of the money changers in the Temple.

But the primary images we have of Jesus from our scripture are of one who loves everyone with deep compassion. Jesus, as The One, sees through humans to their true nature and loves with the kind of love that God offers, a love that welcomes everyone exactly as they are.

We hear John describing Jesus as carrying a winnowing fork with which he will clear out the chaff. Many Christians have interpreted this as a judgmental process whereby the good people are separated from bad people. And while God may one day impose some kind of judgment on humanity, the real problem is that over time humans have taken on this role, humans have assumed the process of judgment, determining on behalf of God, who is good and who is bad.

We see examples of humans judging others all around us, and I don’t mean our legal system. Our legal system is a process intended to keep civil order and maintain civilized societies. The judgment I speak of is seen in the way we humans engage in conflict such as the genocide in Sudan or even the potential for schism in our own denomination as we argue over who has the “right” sense of orthodoxy, of “right” belief. We humans have a tendency to walk a fine line between following our faith and acting like God.

So, perhaps a more helpful way to hear this reading is to see ourselves in that process of winnowing: to see that each human being has aspects of ourselves that can be winnowed away. Each of us has aspects of ourselves that can be worked on and made more whole. None of us is worthy in and of ourselves to ever judge another; each of us can only look at ourselves and ponder how we can be better human beings. Better to ourselves, better to our neighbors, and better in our relationship with God.

This perspective opens the door to the other themes that the Church brings to us on this third Sunday of Advent. As you may notice this is the day we light the pink candle, and you may wonder why we have one pink candle.

This is the Sunday we remember Mary, the mother of Jesus. The pink candle stands for her and for her act of compassion, her willingness to hear God and to take on the call that God gave her, the call to bring forth into the world, The One.

Ultimately the theme for this Sunday is compassion, becoming better people through compassion for self and others. The compassion of God that sought out humanity with a deep desire to be One with us. The compassion of God who loves us so deeply that God comes to us in our lives, in the faces and actions of people who care for us. In the faces and actions of people who challenge us to see ourselves as we are. In the faces and actions of people who reach out to others with compassion. God’s compassion lives in the images we have of Mary, the mother of Jesus – images of both vulnerability and great strength as she took on the challenge to birth God into this world. God’s compassion lives in John the Baptist who calls people to look carefully at their lives and prepare a place for God to come. God’s compassion lives of course in the life of Jesus who shows us the way to love one another with humility not judgment.

On this third Sunday of Advent we are called to make a place in our lives, in our hearts, in our beings, for the love of God to reside. A place where God can come to us in a new way. We are called to take the time to prepare this place in our beings, through prayer, through worship, through our relationships with one another. And when the place in us is ready, God will come.

God coming to us is a journey, not something that happens just once. God comes to us anew over and over as we make a place for God in our lives. Advent is a season that reminds us to take the time to make room for God, to find a way to quiet our lives and invite God in, over and over. And each time we do this God will come again and our wounds will be healed, our hope restored, and our lives made whole again.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Make straight the paths, Advent 2C

One of the opening scenes from the movie, “Life or Something Like It,” shows Lanie Kerrigan, played by Angelina Jolie, on her way to work. Every day she passed by a street prophet who stood on a crate, arms in the air, his back arched and head held high while he prophesied, “I see and I say,” proclaimed Jack the street prophet.

One day Lanie, a driven journalist engaged to a football player with the Seattle Seahawks, stopped by the prophet and threw a few coins his basket. She was up for a promotion and really wanted this new job.

Jack the street prophet responded to her coins by telling her that the Seahawks would beat the Broncos 16-13, the next day it would hail in Seattle (a town of mild and temperate weather) and then on the third day she, Lanie, would die.

Of course this kind of prophesy disturbed Lanie. On the other hand she also tried to dismiss it as rubbish.

Still the prophet’s words weighed on her. She found herself examining her life: her comfortable but extremely superficial life focused on money, good looks, and career success.

On the day predicted, the Seahawks beat the broncos 16-13, and Lanie’s world was shaken to the core. She broke up with her fiancĂ©, disturbed by the lack of depth in their relationship and values.

She found herself hanging out with the camera man who worked with her, getting to know this down to earth guy and his committed relationship to his son, even though he was divorced from the boy’s mother.

The next day it hailed in Seattle.

That same day she was offered the job in New York, a real career move from an affiliate station to the head of the network, a position interviewing the most glamorous people in the world. She was to fly out that afternoon and begin her work the next day. On that first day at the job, her dream come true job, she completely blew an interview, refusing to adhere to the strict guidelines of questions for the guest, causing the guest to cry on air, and causing Lanie to be fired.

Lanie realized that she wanted to do work of real substance and meaning, not just the superficial stuff. She left the station content with what she had done, only to walk out on the street and be shot by a random shooter going after some gang member.

Rushed to the hospital Lanie experienced herself dying, and then through the miracle of modern medicine, science, and surgery, as well as the care and love of her camera man, she was revived, survived the surgery and lived. She lived to start a whole new life, transformed in her being by the words of that street prophet.

In some ways Jack the street prophet is similar to the prophets we meet in scripture, like John the Baptist in our Gospel reading this morning. However it’s important to note that the prophets in the bible don’t actually do much predicting of the future, that’s our take on what we think prophesy means.

In the bible these prophets are actually speaking about present times, they are bringing a word of God to God’s people. Like Jack, the biblical prophets are calling people to take a good look at their lives and how they are living in relationship to God, in relationship to themselves, and in relationship to other people. They speak a radical kind of truth that people want to dismiss as ridiculous or incredulous. Sometimes they deliver a word of rebuke, at other times a word of social, political, economic, or religious analysis, and often times a word of hope and encouragement. They ultimately speak a redemptive word, for "prophets don't joke." These prophets are the ones crying out in the wilderness, calling us to prepare the way of the Lord.
We may or may not have prophets in our world and lives today. Not every generation has a prophet from God. That doesn’t mean we don’t need one, it may only mean that God hasn’t found the voice through whom to speak. But whether or not we have a prophet in our lives God still calls us to prepare the way, make straight the paths.

To reflect on this we might begin by wondering what paths in our world need to be made straight? Think of these paths metaphorically: paths that lead to peace, to love, to social justice, versus paths that lead to war, destruction, and the break down of relationships in our personal lives and in the global world.

What valleys, areas that are forgotten or ignored, like perhaps the genocide in the Sudan or the starvation of millions of orphans in Africa whose parents have died from AIDS, what of these valleys do we need to fill in, to work toward caring for these abandoned souls of the world?
What mountains and hills of political abuse, of collusion between nations for power, money, or oil, need to be laid low in order that the real needs of the world can be meet? We need to educate ourselves to understand, as best as possible, the nuances in global politics and to work for a balancing of power and money. We need to strive to move the massive accumulation of wealth which is harbored in only one percent of the worlds population, to move this wealth into more balanced proportions. Clearly some of the wealthy people around the world are actively engaging in this: Bill and Melissa Gates, Warren Buffet, even Angelina Jolie. We too can participate in this, even as we do it on a small, perhaps local scale through buying Bishops Blend coffee or supporting Dorothy Brown and her daughter Shanika with groceries, supplementing the abysmal support our government offers those on disability.

True, at St. Hilary’s we are small community. But we strive to do some powerful work in this world, and our efforts are making a difference. We have enabled Dorothy to stay in this area long enough to get her daughter through high school, Shanika will graduate in June.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

December Deep Freeze

Here in the Chicago land area we are knee deep in snow with temperatures in the teens...and it is only early December. Given that I am recovering from this infection and have PICC line in my arm I am disinclined to walk outside (at not much more than from car to building), for fear of slipping and harming the line. So, I hibernate inside. I ride my exercise bike and do chores around the house and take naps. I look outside and appreciate the beauty of the snow and I look at my still undecorated Christmas tree. I'm not sure how or when I will get to any Christmas shopping since I only have a few hours in between IV antibiotic treatments...maybe I need to hurry up and shop on line...and my poor dogs are going a little nutty being cooped up with only brief trips outside (they too know its cold and aren't thrilled, frozen paws and all)...

So Advent this year is all about being quiet and staying indoors. Its about waiting, waiting for the PICC line to come out (maybe Christmas Day?) and to be free of the antibiotic that is both healing my body and filling me with toxins (eat lots of yogurt and kefir). And its about entering a little deeper into some job searches, with a phone interview tonight and paper work due to two other places this week. Three job possibilities all swarming around during this time, while also moving ahead with the church I currently serve, getting them on board with a direction for the future.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Friday Five

1) Do you observe Advent in your church? Yes, observing Advent is a big deal in my church because I love it. We change all the vestments to a deep blue (dark night) and use no flowers. In order to enhance the idea of simplicity we put away our silver and use blue ceramic chalices, paten, and cruets. And we hang a large Advent wreath with three blue and one pink candle.

2) How about at home?When our kids were young we observed Advent at home with the lighting of an Advent wreath and some prayers at dinner time, plus we used an Advent calendar to mark the days until Christmas. This year, because I have been very ill with an infection (and hospitalized for 11 days) I feel that I have been in Advent for three weeks already...dark, anticipation, waiting...and now I mark my days around the doses of IV antibiotic I have to give myself 4 times daily. I have decided to ritualize these IV treatments with music (usually Mozart Sonatas) and praying the daily office. Also three of the four times I give these treatments it is dark outside, enhancing the sense of true Advent.

3) Do you have a favorite Advent text or hymn? O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

4) Why is one of the candles in the Advent wreath pink? (You may tell the truth, but I'll like your answer better if it's funny.) Although I use the pink candle I really don't get why? Mostly I just like the color, it breaks up the monotony of blue...but also it adds a little sense of the feminine in all blue season...a sense of new life emerging.

5) What's the funniest/kitschiest Advent calendar you've ever seen? I don't know, I don't pay much attention to them anymore...

Also, let me just add, it soooooo good to feel well enough to play again. I'm back and slowly healing.

Resting on the Spiritual Porch

I have a good friend who is always late for everything. Whenever my friend and I schedule a date to get together I plan to arrive 15 minute...