Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas Eve Meditation

The Christmas Narrative by John August Swanson
The story is so familiar- Mary, Joseph, the baby in the manger, the angels and the shepherds. The story is the same each year. But each Christmas, we hear the story with new ears, for we have never heard it as we are right now. Perhaps this year you have a new job or are welcoming a new member of the family. Maybe it’s the first year without a loved one or a sibling has moved away or the first Christmas that you’re not all together as a family. The story though remains the same, even as we have different ears to hear it.

A Skagit Sunrise by a Seattle photographer
Whatever the circumstances you find yourself in this year, Mary still wraps the baby in swaddling clothes and lays him in the manger and the angels come with a message of peace on earth and goodwill to all, and Jesus, the light of the world, is born. As Isaiah proclaimed:

2 The people who walked in darkness
   have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
   on them light has shined. 

Think of the past year. What is the darkness you have dwelt in this year? Is it grief? Is it fear or self-doubt, loneliness or isolation? All the darkness we have known cannot overcome the light of Jesus, who comes with hope and light and healing for all. Some of us may look back on this year and see darkness, others of us look back on the year and will be filled with gratitude for abundant blessings. Whether your heart is breaking or whether it is breaking open with a flood of love and joy, we all stand together at the manger.

Stained glass window at Boe Chapel, St. Olaf College
Whatever we may be feeling tonight, the good news remains the same- to all of us, in every place and time, Jesus comes to light our way and to dwell with us.  The birth of the baby does not solve all the problems in our families, nor will it cause all wars to cease. But somehow, the Prince of Peace comes with a glimmer of light into our dark world, a sign that God stands with us through all things, bringing hope to the world.
The light of Jesus shone first from that stable but the light of the good news of God’s presence with us has been passed like a torch from Bethlehem 2,000 years ago to us tonight. Each time the love of God is shared, whenever mercy and grace and peace prevail, the light spreads and multiplies. So tonight, if your soul is weary because you have been walking in darkness, I say to you, on you light has shined. And tonight, if you are filled with joy, may the light of Christ shine through you.

With the angels and the shepherds, may we all proclaim the good news of Jesus’ birth, and with it, peace on earth and goodwill to all.  Amen.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Waiting with Mary

Painting in the church of El Sitio, Suchitoto, El Salvador
Advent 4C, December 20, 2015
Luke 1:39-56
39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
Image result for candlelight christmas eve
Christmas is almost here- we’re down to less than a week. In preparing for our Christmas Eve worship, I’ve been talking with lots of you. For some of us, Christmas Eve traditions include gathering here for worship- some at 5, some at 10. Others of us will be far away, worshipping at other churches with family or friends. And others of us will be gathered with relatives for a Christmas gathering.
In all the conversations, I’ve noticed that there’s a deep joy in seeing loved ones and deep sadness when loved ones won’t be there. This is true all the time, but on Christmas Eve, that most special night, we want all our loved ones nearby, and we feel the joys and sorrows most keenly.
Image result for empty dinner tableOne mom who is happy that her children are coming home, but she’ll miss the one who won’t be there. There’s a widower who loves the sacredness of candlelight worship but can’t bring himself to come on Christmas Eve because it makes him remember his beloved wife. There are families with a sibling who just can’t or won’t show up. Some of us are that sibling who won’t be home. Whatever the circumstances, even if you are with all your loved ones and everyone is healthy, Christmas, like any day, is a mix of joy and sorrow.

See, the Holy Spirit will sprinkle magic peace dust everywhere!
Could we expect anything different from a story that begins with an unwed pregnant teenager? Somehow, we seem to think that the Advent promises of joy, peace, hope, and love will be fulfilled in the arrival of the Baby Jesus- and magically, all will be well. Jesus is born, now there will be peace on earth and goodwill to all. Mourning and crying will be no more, the lion and the lamb will lay down together, all is calm and bright. Oh, and the kids will stop squabbling, too.

Maybe it’s because the beautiful vision of that baby Jesus gives us amnesia about what comes just before that birth and then after, or maybe it’s because we are so desperate for that healing and peace that God promises in Jesus, but in the story, even though there is a little pause where people get the message and have great joy, peace is not often found.

Surrounding that little baby in the manger is a world of chaos: there’s the rocky engagement of Mary and Joseph, the journey to Bethlehem when Mary was big and pregnant, and the birth in less than ideal circumstances. To top it off, there’s a crazy king who feels threatened so he plots to kill a baby before he’s even born.
So if you are thinking of Christmas and realizing that it’s not going to be perfect? Welcome to the club. Yet even in the midst of the chaos, in all the plans gone wrong, in all the less than ideal, the baby is still born, the savior still comes. The angels still proclaim “Peace on earth, goodwill to all.” And Mary still ponders it all in her heart. But all that is yet to come. For now, we listen as Mary and Elizabeth greet each other, two women in less than ideal circumstances, yet filled with joy.

The Visitation, from the stained glass windows at Taize, France
As for us, we are called to rejoice in God’s faithfulness with Mary. We wait with the shepherds for the angels’ call. We wait with the Wise Men, watching the skies for signs of God’s guidance.  With Mary and Elizabeth, we wait for salvation and healing, we wait for joy, knowing that our journey to Christmas will not be easy or perfect, our hearts and feet will ache, and we will not always be joyful- nevertheless, wherever we may be on Christmas Eve, Immanuel will come, God with us. For out of Bethlehem of Ephrathah, the littlest of the clans, the dusty backwater town, a king will be born, birthed by an unwed teenager who was probably scared and uncertain and anything but ready. But the Babe is coming anyway. With Mary, let’s wait with expectant hope for the Prince of Peace. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Christian with Muslim Neighbors

Update: This week in Lynnwood, our bishop, the Rev. Kirby Unti, participated in an interfaith dialogue called "Love in a Time of Fear". Between 350-400 people attended. You can watch the full video here. I had to turn my audio up to understand the speakers.

Image result for love your neighbor as yourselfMatthew 22:34-40
 When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

Where one might find Seattleites on a Sunday, image from
A couple weeks ago, a friend from Seattle dropped by with her husband and son. In the course of the conversation, the topic of diverse neighborhoods came up. Rebecca and her family are not affiliated with any religion. She and her family are not an anomaly. Most of my friends from my years of being a Seattleite are not church-goers or religious in any way. They would often text me with invites to go out for Sunday brunch, to have dimsum, or forget that I would have to bow out early from Saturday night festivities, even though they knew that I am a pastor. Their spiritual yearnings were fulfilled by yoga classes, dinners with friends, TED talks, and volunteering with community non-profits like the food bank or the homeless shelter. They are good people, just not churchy people or Christians. But in Seattle, my church youth group took field trips to other places of worship, where their classmates were members: to the Sikh gudwara, the Jewish synagogue, the Hindu temple, the Muslim mosque. Even though most people in Seattle are not affiliated with a religious faith, there are many different faith traditions represented in the city. 

Image result for fishing the skagit
A religious experience for some of my neighbors (and me!)
Seeing Rebecca reminded me that when I moved to Skagit county about 3 years ago, I was surprised by the number of people I met who were involved in church. Sure, there are a lot of people who are home watching the Seahawks when they play at 10 on a Sunday morning. And yes, there are lots of people who are out fishing or hiking or camping when the weather is fine. But most of the people I know are connected in some way to a Christian church. 

As for religious diversity, we have very few non-Christian religions represented in our county. There are no mosques. If you're Jewish, the closest synagogue is in Bellingham. That means that the Orthodox Jews don't live here (because you have to be able to walk to your synagogue on Shabbat). I don't know of a Buddhist temple, and while there are many Sikh farmers and truck drivers in the area, I believe they drive to Bellingham also to go to their Gudwara. 

What does this mean for Skagitonians? It means that we are susceptible to whatever half-truths are said about people of other faiths. Right now, that is particularly true about what we hear about Muslims. 

Image result for pickled herring in wine sauce
Pickled herring- loved by some but not all
If someone said to you, "I heard that all Skagitonians are either Norwegian or Dutch, they love herring so much that their Costco can't keep it stocked, and their families have all been there since the 1880's", you would shake your head, sit them down, and help them get their stories straight. Some of that information is true- for some of us. But it's not universally true. You would have stories to back you up. You would know someone whose family is Hispanic, but they were born and raised in Burlington. You would know someone else whose family came from Russia or the Ukraine or Vietnam. You might know someone whose family predates all the immigrants and who belongs to the Swinomish or Skagit Native American tribes. 

You would be able to refute half-truths and untruths because you know and love your neighbor.

My professor, Shayk Yassir Chadly, and his wife Khadijah
But how many of us know Muslims? Or, if we do know Muslims, do our Muslim neighbors feel safe in identifying themselves?

I have Muslim friends, especially from my years of living and working in Berkeley, California and from my neighborhood in Seattle.

 I took a class in seminary on Islam, and it was taught by an imam, a leader of a mosque. 

My buddy Sohrob.
I had Muslim co-workers when we were interfaith chaplains at a hospital. We would respectfully serve anyone of any faith, helping the patient and their family to connect to their religious tradition or beliefs in a difficult time. 

I have traveled in Turkey, where Muslim women taught me how to wear a hijab (comfortable and warm in the windy weather of January). 

Idris Mosque in N Seattle
I know Muslims who have worked for peace for decades, including the mosque in Northgate in Seattle that hosts a barbecue every August for the whole neighborhood. They're really nice folks, and they are a blessing to their neighborhood. 

Yes, there are some people who say they are Muslim who have committed acts of terror. 
There are also people who say they are Christian who have also committed acts of terror. 

Islam does not mean terrorist, just as Christian does not mean terrorist.  

We are a diverse nation. As a Christian, I hear Jesus giving me the commandment to love God and to love my neighbors- all of them, including those of no faith and those of faiths other than mine. 

So I say this: Peace be with you. Or as they say at the mosque: Salaam aleikum- may peace be upon you. 

Sunday, December 06, 2015

How Long, O Lord?

Advent 2C, December 5, 2015
Image result for a voice cries out in the wildernessLuke 3:1-6 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Image result for to do list
Today is the second Sunday of Advent. We all have lists of things that need to be done, things we have forgotten to do. It can be rather overwhelming. If you’re the person who has everything done, don’t tell me. I’m right in the thick of it, too. It’s going to be an uphill slog to get everything done before December 24th. With the long to-do list, I’m looking forward to Christmas, and especially to the reminder that the Prince of Peace is coming into the world. It’s been a long week, and really it’s been a long month. The attacks in Paris, the shooting in San Bernardino, the fear that danger could be lurking anywhere- it makes me cry out, “How long, O Lord?” How long until we see the day of your salvation, the promised day of peace? I am hardly the first to say this, nor am I the only one to say it now. Instead, I’m joining a big choir of people who have called out to God to come and save us.

Image result for refiner's fire
Back in the days of the prophets, people wondered why God was taking so long to send the messiah. What was the hold up? Was it that God didn’t care anymore? Was it that the people were too sinful? Could they pray harder, do more, offer better sacrifices, or maybe they were offering good sacrifices but not doing it the right way? But the word of the Lord that came through Malachi was this: yes, people were sinful and needed to be cleaned and purified. But God would be the one who would scrub them clean and bring them together like fuller’s soap. God would be the refiner, taking out the dross and leaving the gold. Like the fuller’s soap, the refiner’s fire would not be exactly comfortable. It wouldn’t be easy, but the good news was that God would be the one who would be in charge.

Hundreds of years later around the time of Jesus, people were again crying out for a messiah- one to bring peace and to rule in justice. There were lots of different opinions on what needed to be done so that God would send a messiah. The Pharisees were convinced that everyone needed to follow the rules before God would send the messiah. Talk about an impossible task that would never get accomplished.

Yet the gospel of Luke tells us that the time did come, and in the story we heard today, the preparation for the messiah wasn’t getting everyone to behave. Instead, John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It was a washing away of the past and the beginning of a new direction, to let go of old mistakes.

John’s baptisms reminded Luke of one of those old prophets-Isaiah. Isaiah had proclaimed, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” and described a major public works project of making the royal highway.

Here’s the funny thing about that royal highway. Who would want every mountain to be low and every valley to be filled in? Don’t we love living where there are mountains and valleys? But think if your transportation were your own feet or a donkey or horse if you were very lucky or rich. You might want a highway that made the rougher places level.

Ancient kingdoms had royal highways that led out in spokes from the capital city so it was easy to stay in connection with the king. It would make it easier to get to the king if the highway were smooth and level. It would also be easier for the king to come to the people, to come to their side to lead them when war threatened, to mediate when there were conflicts internally, to bring aid after a disaster.

We call Jesus our prince of peace, our king of righteousness, and we are connected to Jesus through prayer, through baptism, through communion. Jesus made the royal highway of the way of the cross, smoothing out all barriers that keep us from him, so that all flesh shall see the salvation of our God. When everything seems impossible, when we cry out “How long, O Lord,” let us remember that we don’t have to wait. Jesus has already promised to be with us, “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus stands with us, bringing light and love and hope and peace. A light shines in the darkness, and however dark or long our road may be, the darkness does not overcome that beacon of hope. Thanks be to God.