Friday, December 28, 2007

Home (and) Movies

So my London friends are always teasing me for recognizing location shots on TV and in movies. Most of you know that I grew up in Burbank, and that a lot of the entertainment industry is based here (I'm there as I write this). So many popular shows, even if they pretend to be based in New York or Chicago or some other such place, are actually taped on stages that are just a long walk from my house. Last summer my son-in-law, who works at Warner Bros., took me on a great tour of the sets for ER, Gilmore Girls, Friends and a bunch of other shows. In that 12 days after Julie and Ian went ahead to LA for Christmas, I watched a handful of movies by myself in London. It was uncanny how many used the streets of Burbank for location shooting. I was watching the psychological thriller, Memento, one day, and one shot passed right by the Winchell's Donut Shop near my home that I used to visit, er, rather frequently.

So why rehash all of this right now?

On the flight to LA on Christmas Day I enjoyed my usual binge of movies--five altogether, with an episode of 30 Rock as a chaser. Ocean's Thirteen was good; Run Fatboy Run was bordering on great; Shoot 'Em Up set a new body count record but was clever anyway; The Darjeeling Limited was strange and wise all at the same time (the whole movie was written to point to one scene near the end where three dysfunctional brothers threw their father's luggage [read: baggage] off a train).

But the kicker was an average English romantic dramedy (there's a dreadful word) called Someone Else. Why reserve special place for an average movie? Because the entire film was shot in my neighborhood in London. Haverstock Hill, Belsize Park, Chalk Farm and Primrose Hill were all clearly visible throughout the movie. The streets of my little corner of London looked beautiful, even on the tiny airplane screen. Every little recognizable thing made me smile.

I suppose we all have things that have identified 'home' for us. Family homes, schools we attended, sports teams we've supported and the like. For me, alongside all of those things, it's always been that my neighborhood was in the movies. How strange and fun all at once, then, to see my new hometown, 5500 miles away from where I grew up, appear on the the screen as the background for a movie. If God is trying to get me to see North London as my home, even for a season, how creative to do it through the movies that I talk about so often.

Christmas in Southern California is great--I'm having a great time with my family and friends and the places I love to see. But I'm also looking forward to getting back to London next week. Who knows, maybe I can get some work as an extra...

Monday, December 24, 2007

News Flash

We had a great Christmas Eve service at the American Church. Lots of new people and more of our church family than I expected. Beautiful music and a great spirit--people hung around and chatted afterward even though there was no coffee hour. Kate (the assistant minister) and I were a little blue through the day, but the service got us both in the Christmas spirit (thanks for the Arsenal kit, KO). The lovely Barlow family had me over for dinner--roast duck with noodles, Brussels sprouts, and a French dessert soaked in brandy. What a treat to be with them! (Thanks for sharing, all of you.)

I'm packing now, and a member of our church is taking me to the airport in the morning (thanks, Jane). Next stop: LAX, baby!

Merry Christmas!

Hopes and Fears

Luke 1:46-55

And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers.”

We continue our Advent Series of looking at the great themes of the Christmas season. We’ve spent time on Love and Peace, and today we’re going to look at Hope.

I suppose it’s sort of lazy to start a sermon with a dictionary definition, but here’s what Webster’s has to say about the word, hope: Hope is desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfilment.

Our text today is a prophecy in the form of a song. Mary sings this as the story of her role in the birth of the Messiah unfolds.

Biblical prophecy is a complicated thing, but for us today we should know that it can have different functions for the reader. Sometimes it’s predictive—it tells of something that’s going to happen in the future. That’s the way we use the word ‘prophecy’ today. Sometimes it speaks to a specific issue in the present, as when the Old Testament prophets talked about injustices in Israel. And at other times it declares the ideal for what the present should be like—these prophecies talk about the world in its perfect state, as God intended for it to be.

Mary’s song has all three of these.

What’s going on in this song of Mary?

‘All generations will call me blessed.’ Church traditions have argued about this for centuries. What does it mean for Mary to be blessed in some special way? Certainly she deserves some exalted status for being the mother of the Messiah, but that doesn’t make her some form of Deity. It’s important, though, to remember Mary’s faithfulness and humility as we celebrate Christmas. It’s an important part of the story.

‘God’s mercy extends from generation to generation.’ This wasn’t just a first century event. The eyewitnesses make it pretty clear that whatever happened in Bethlehem was for all people at all times.

‘Filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty.’ This is the ideal for what the world should be like. Hungry people should have enough to eat—that’s part of our call as Christians. You’ve heard me say it before: God doesn’t intend for a single person to starve—there’s enough food for every single person, every child of God. The problem isn’t production, the problem is distribution. Moving to the next phrase, the ‘rich’ aren’t sent away just because they’re rich, but because they’ve wrapped up their hope and security in money and possessions, and they become deaf to the good news of Christmas.

This song is about the meaning of Christmas—what it means to the world for a savior to come. We talk and read and sing so much about Bethlehem, about the baby Jesus, about the trappings of that first Christmas night—whether those details are actually in the Bible story or not. We devote so much time and space in our Christmas services to remembering the details—do we spend enough time thinking about what it all meant?

Richard Mouw is the president of Fuller Seminary. He tells the story of being in a mall a few days before Christmas, doing some last-minute shopping, and hearing ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ piped in above the noise of the crowds. When it got to the line: ‘the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,’ it stopped him short.

His reaction was to say: Really? The hopes and fears of all these people are met somehow in the baby Jesus?

I’ve been shopping this year, too. Have you seen the faces of the people you’re shopping with? So many people look miserable.

They really look afraid—afraid that they won’t find the gift they’re looking for—afraid they won’t be able to afford it if they do find it—afraid that this Christmas might be as vaguely disappointing as so many others have been.

The other night Andy McGuffie and I were walking to a restaurant nearby, and we saw a couple dressed up for Christmas—we heard them arguing loudly near a pub down the street. There a lot of profanities involved, which I won’t quote for you today, but at one point the guy turned to his girlfriend and said: ‘How can you call me negative? I’m not negative at all—I’m not!’

Andy and I both wanted to say that, in point of fact, the more times you try to negate something, the more likely it is that someone close to you will assume that you’re negative.

What are we trying to negate—what are we trying to deny this Christmas? How about our hopes and fears?

We deny our fears so that people will think we’re strong and brave and indestructible.

We deny our hopes so that we can’t be wounded—so that no one can disappoint us.

‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight?’ What does that mean?

‘All the years’: We heard Mary sing that God’s mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation. The gift of a savior wasn’t just for the fist century—it wasn’t just for the Jews—the offer of that mercy wasn’t limited to anyone or any time. ‘His mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation.’ This is not an exclusive party we’re celebrating this week. It’s a free offer, an open invitation to a place that will never run out of room, a welcome to a gathering where each one of us can feel at home—freely accepted and loved and known. Not bad, eh?

How does that happen? It happens because our hopes and fears ‘Are met in thee tonight’ The parts of our lives that drain us and harden us and make us fearful and hopeless—all of those parts of our lives are met—they’re encountered and satisfied by the baby Messiah, lying in a manger, coming to be a gift of love and hope and sacrifice for the world.

Remember the dictionary definition of hope? Hope is ‘desire accompanied by expectation of, or belief in, fulfillment.’

Our hope is found in God’s love and sovereignty over his creation, and in how he exercised that love and sovereignty through the birth and life and death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.
As we gather in our homes and parties—with friends and family members—this is what we celebrate: Our hopes and fears are met—they’re fulfilled—in the one we have come to know and worship, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Christmas Feast

Today we had our annual staff lunch to celebrate Christmas together. There are six of us who work at the church: Kate O, who oversees the children and youth ministries and helps me with pastoral care, Tony Baldwin who leads the choir and plays the organ, Miranda Macdonald who manages the office, and Monty Strikes who runs Latchcourt Ltd., the room rental business here at the church. We all work together to make this place run, and I'm grateful for their skill and good humor.

So...we thought for a long time about where to go for our special lunch. A few of our favorites were already booked up, and so I went to my local Italian place and proposed an idea.

Gianni and Daniela Palermo have a restaurant near the church called The Fitzrovia, which is the name for our neighborhood. It's a small place--just about 5-6 tables--but it's good food and not expensive. They also do a morning special with a pastry and cappuccino for a pound, which is a steal. Anyway, over the last year I've gotten to know Gianni and Daniela pretty well. She just finished a theology degree at King's College London, and we've had lots of good conversations about faith and church and living in London. The have two kids, named Giovanni and Gina, who also work at the restaurant every once in a while.

I went to Gianni a few weeks ago and asked him for a special favor. I told him that I wanted to bring the staff in to eat, but that we didn't want to order off the menu. I asked him to make a Christmas meal for us, and you wouldn't believe what he did.

Now brace yourself, because this is going to make you very hungry.

It's been cold and clear here in London, so we came in with a bit of a chill and sat down at the table that was reserved for us. First thing out was some garlic bread, almost too hot to hold. They make it on pizza crust, and it tastes just like something my Grandma D'Elia used to make: with olive oil, chopped garlic and oregano on top, crispy from the oven. Next we had little decorative tureens of celery soup, which was delicious. It was perfect for the cold day--the soup was really good.

When that was cleared away they brought a different sort of dish--soft crepe-like pancakes stuffed with ricotta and spinach. The spices were perfect: some sage, some parsley, and a little garlic.

Next up was the main course (I know, I know, this was a LOT of food). Gianni and his daughter brought out bowls of polenta (a traditional Italian corn meal dish), with a veal stew to ladle over it. This stew was amazing: peppers, fresh tomatoes, mushrooms and chunks of veal you could cut with the side of a fork. It was delicious--the combination of meat stew and polenta was new to me, but I'm already scheming to have it again. It was one of the best dishes I've ever had.

We were stuffed at this point. We all had a little more than we should have eaten, but no one wanted to let any of it go to waste. We were lamenting how full we were when Gianni brought out the dessert.

Each of us got a large piece of pannetone, smothered in a cream/sugar/rum sauce that was out of this world. We soldiered on, and almost all of us ate the entire dish. We topped it off with espresso, and then sat around feeling contented and a little overfed. It was a great lunch, and a very kind and special gesture from my local Italian friend.

I don't know if he'll check this posting, but I want to say publicly: Thank you, Gianni, for the wonderful Christmas feast. We won't forget what you did for us today!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Of a Peace

Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace to all people,
On whom his favor rests.

Hiroo Onuda was a lieutenant in the Japanese army during WWII. In 1944 he was sent on a secret mission to one of the Philippine Islands. His orders were to conduct guerrilla attacks on Allied troops, those orders ended with this command:

‘You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand. It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we'll come back for you. Until then, so long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him. You may have to live on coconuts. If that's the case, live on coconuts! Under no circumstances are you [to] give up your life voluntarily.’

Onuda took his orders so seriously that after a long period of silence, when he finally emerged from the jungle, he was still prepared to fight. --- The problem was that it was 1972. The war had been over for 27 years. Lt. Onudo had been living in the jungle, preparing to fight and die, in a constant state of war for almost 30 years.

No one had ever told him that the war was over.
No one had ever told him that there was peace.

In our text this morning the angels came to the shepherds in the fields and told them:

Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace to all people,
On whom his favor rests.

That’s the good news of Christmas. Peace to all people. But if that’s true, then why does the world seem to be completely buried in conflict?

We could spend the rest of the morning talking about all the places where peace doesn’t exist, but that would only tell a part of the story. The peace that the angels promised is more than just the end of war—it was more than just warm fuzzy love for everyone—it was more than just the absence of conflict and strife.

The peace promised by the angels is the shalom peace of the Old Testament, the perfect peace that existed in creation before we got our hands on it and broke God’s peace into a million little pieces.

Shalom has a definition that is as challenging to us as it is beautiful. God’s shalom is one of those words that doesn’t translate well into English, because it means about 20 different things. God’s shalom—God’s peace, is:

-Contentment in relationships with God and each other
-Harmony with neighbor and nature
-Wholeness in all things

When God called Israel to be his people, it was for a purpose. They had a job to do because of their special status. God called his people not to bask in their privileged place as the chosen nation, but to be a blessing to all the nations. That’s quite a job description. They were called to be the presence and image of God to people who hadn’t heard his name yet. They were called to be instruments of his peace in a world full of conflict.

A few weeks ago leaders from Israel and the Palestinian Authority met to try and chart a course toward peaceful coexistence between them and the world. Each leader took the microphone and began by listing the injustices and crimes inflicted on them by the other side. But each of them also acknowledged that the only way forward was to set those grievances aside and move ahead—they proposed a wary sort of forgiveness between their people—they offered to give up their rights to revenge and retribution.

So many of the commentators that evening yawned and rolled their eyes. They said it was just a president trying to create a legacy—they said they’d heard it all before—they said it would never work.

The Christmas season gives me a special opportunity to say things like this: Those are all lame excuses for not being supportive of the peace process, for not being agents of peace whenever and wherever it tries to live and breathe and thrive. It may take 5-10-or maybe 20 more initiatives like this one before a group of leaders and the people who follow them are brave enough to give peace a chance. No matter how many tries it takes, though, we’re called to be supportive of each one.

When Thomas Edison and his team invented the lightbulb, it was the result of years of failed attempts—more than 50 of them—to get a filament to hold current long enough to provide light without breaking, and now that light is still all around us.

It’s not the failed attempts at peace that we remember, it’s those rare moments where we get it right and peace takes hold in the hearts of leaders and followers. When that light takes over from the darkness and changes things forever.

That’s what we celebrate at Christmas.

Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace to all people,
On whom his favor rests.

When the angels shared this good news they were giving us our marching orders. They were helping us understand what it means to be a blessing to all the nations. I don’t always dust off my Greek dictionary from seminary—most of the time it just sits on my shelf. But it’s important for us today to remember that the word for ‘angel’ in the Bible is the root of our word, ‘messenger.’ The angels came as messengers from God, and call us to be the same.

If there is anything we’re supposed to do because of Christmas—any challenge to us as we exchange gifts and decorate our houses and prepare meals—if there are any commands for us to follow because Jesus the Messiah came to us, it’s this:

We have to tell people that peace has come.

We have to tell people that the point of this holiday is that God has offered to repair the Shalom we broke, and that that offer has come in the form of the baby Jesus. We have to find the people still in the jungle—even here in London—we have to find the people hiding and preparing for conflict and let them know that the Prince of Peace has come, and that he wants them back. We have to tell people that the one who had the grievance against us, even Christ himself, has given us a remedy that extends as far as the curse is found.

That’s the gift to each one of us this Christmas, and to more still who haven’t heard this good news.

Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace to all people,
On whom his favor rests.

Go tell someone that good news this Christmas. You never know—this time it might just work.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

An evening to remember...

OK, so it's Thursday afternoon here in London. It's a cold, beautiful day outside--clear skies and in the mid-30s (there's still frost on the ground). I'm sitting in our house, a little bummed out because Julie and Ian just left for California for a Christmas break. I'll be joining them--I fly out on Christmas Day--but for now I'm alone in our house for the next 12 days, and it's not much fun. counter my general state of mopiness I'm going to tell you about the evening out I had with Julie last night. It was pretty darn cool.

First, we went to the Christmas program at Ian's school, which was actually held in the very posh hotel a few blocks away (I saw Gwen Stefani there once...). Ian was great, although we could hardly see him behind the gargantuan girl standing in front of him. After the concert we got home in a hurry to meet our angelic sitter, Niki Barlow.

Why the rush? Because we'd been invited to a Christmas cocktail party at the home of the US ambassador, Robert Tuttle. It was an inconvenient night to go out, with Julie needing to get ready for her flight, but she was a trooper and looked STUNNING in her dress.

Winfield House is the official residence of the ambassador. We'd been there before for an Easter Egg Hunt earlier in the year, but this was the first party we'd been invited to. It was great--here's a picture of the house.

One of the first celebs we saw was David Frost, the British interviewer and generally smart guy. He said hello to me for no apparent reason, which earned him an extra portion of points.

As we moved from room to room I found myself facing a large, friendly-looking clergyman. Whew, I thought, another out-of-place minister who might want to stop for a chat. I introduced myself and we started talking about ministry, about the differences in UK and US churches, and the role of the Anglican Church in this country. I suppose I should have picked up the clue when he mentioned his cathedral, but I let it go and we kept chatting. Julie was having a nice talk with his wife, which I was half-listening to as well. As we wrapped up our chats he gave me his card. "His" cathedral was St. Paul's Cathedral, and he turned out to be the Bishop of London, John Carew Chartres, 3rd ranking leader in the Church of England. When I saw that I mentioned, just in passing, of course, that I had preached a few weeks ago at his cathedral, and that I thought it was very nice. He laughed and we started talking again. It was a pleasure to meet him.

In the main room, just as we came in, we saw our favorite journalist--and one of our favorite women in the world--Christiane Amanpour. She was with her husband, who I actually saw first. He's James Rubin, and he was assistant secretary of state in the Clinton Administration. She was talking to some people when we noticed her, and we decided to make a circuit through the party before coming back, and by the time we did she'd gone. That was one disappointment in a night that was otherwise fantastic.

The real buzz in the room came when Baroness Margaret Thatcher came in. She was a bit swarmed at first, but in a lull Julie and I went up and introduced ourselves. She shook our hands and asked what we were doing in London, and we had brief chat about the American Church. It was a nice capper to a truly amazing evening.

Julie and I have turned a major corner over the past few months. We always felt called here to serve the American Church and the community around us, but we haven't always felt, well, glad about it. That's changing. London is a daunting, thrilling, challenging and dazzling place to live. We still plan to come back to California--don't worry about that--but it is a special blessing from God for us to freely love this place while we're here. One of many Christmas gifts we've received already this year.

Monday, December 10, 2007

For the Love of Advent

John 3:16

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

Is there a more familiar passage in the Bible? It’s everywhere—on greeting cards and t-shirts and key chains and on big yellow banners at sporting events. We quote this passage a lot, which is great. It sums up so much of what we believe and hope. Some people have said that if you had to reduce the entire Bible down to one verse, this one would be it. They’re not far off. But when we think of this verse we tend to focus on the payoff in the passage more than the rest. If we believe, says the text, we’ll have eternal life in heaven. That’s great—that’s part of the good news of being a Christian in a nutshell. But today, as we look ahead to Christmas next week, I want to spend some time on the first part of the passage, the part that talks about why God did what he did in sending his Son to us. Listen to the words again: ‘For God so loved the world…’ Isn’t that amazing?

Now at the risk of sounding like Bill Clinton here, it’s important to spend a minute on just what the meaning of ‘so’ is. There’s two ways we can hear those words: First, we can just bask in the good news that God loves us so much, that the ‘so’ is about quantity. Nothing wrong with that—who here doesn’t need a reminder of the hugeness of God’s love for us? It’s so easy to forget, and yet it’s the foundation of everything that matters to us. God loves us SO much.

But there’s a second way to understand that sentence. It can also be heard to mean that God loves us just so—that he loves us like this. That’s the way I think of it, especially at Christmastime. ‘For God so loved the world.’ You can also say it this way: Here’s how God loves us—here’s how he does it, how it actually works. God loved the world in this way, he sent us his Son. Merry Christmas.

Now about our passage. John’s gospel is different in style from the other three stories of Jesus in the New Testament, but the point is exactly the same: to present the story of Jesus and invite people to believe in him. This is the ‘good news’ of the Bible, and that’s what gospel means—good news. John’s gospel emphasizes two themes in his telling of Jesus’ story: believing and loving. All through the book John talks about believing and loving as the true marks of a disciple of Jesus Christ—we believe and love because we have been loved by God first. That’s what’s happening in our passage today.

And that’s where we get back to the part of our passage that talks about how God loves us—what he did to show us the extent of that love. This is where people who have been churchified over a long period of time start to talk about the Incarnation. It’s funny, the literal definition of incarnation is ‘to turn something into meat.’ God is a spirit, but for a brief time, completely for our benefit, and purely because he loves us, God took on the form of a human—flesh and bone like us. Now, we throw those words around a lot in church, but how often do we think about what an amazing, generous gift that was. The God of the universe took on all the limitations and boundaries and pain and dangers of being a human being. He took on a body when he didn’t have to. Some writers have called this ‘the great condescension’. It’s not condescension in the way we use the term—God wasn’t being condescending as we say it. It literally means that he descended to be with us—that he came to our level.

God sent his son here so that through his life we could all live the lives he intended for us in the first place. Like a life-giving transplant, God in human form made it possible for us to live, even though it cost him his life.

Ahmed Khatib was a 12-year-old Palestinian boy who was accidentally shot and killed by Israeli soldiers in the town of Jenin in the West Bank. He would have become just another tragic statistic if it hadn’t been for a decision made by his parents after his death. Ahmed’s father had seen his own brother die waiting for a liver transplant, and so he and his wife decided immediately that their son should be an organ donor. But there was a catch—the only hospitals performing transplant surgeries were Israeli hospitals. Still, the Khatib family decided to allow the doctors to do their work and three Israeli girls had life-saving transplant surgeries, receiving Ahmed’s lungs, his heart and his liver. One parent didn’t find out who the donor was until the surgery was underway. He was stunned. All he could say was that it was a remarkable gift—such a gesture of love. Another parent wanted to invite Ahmed’s parents to a celebration. He said: “I want to thank him and his family. I would like for them to think that my daughter is their daughter.”

Just as Jesus gave up all of the prerogatives and privileges of being God in order to save us, this Palestinian family gave up everything—their anger at the Israelis, their frustration at how they’ve been treated by everyone in the Middle East, their right to withhold what was theirs from people who were their enemies—they gave up all of those things to offer a gift of life to people they didn’t even know. Whatever you think about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people, we can’t help but be amazed, and even a little in awe at how this one family, in the middle of a terrible tragedy, made peace with their neighbors, by giving up their son.

That’s what we’re celebrating on Christmas. It’s God making it possible for us to live. It’s God transplanting his son into our lives so that we can be forgiven, so we can be the people he made us to be, so that we can live with him forever. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.”

So what do we do? How do we live the Christmas story in a way that honors and reflects what it really means? I said before that there are two themes that drive the gospel of John: believing and loving. Both of those represent the foundation of what our life of faith is supposed to be like.

First, we’re called to Believe: We have to believe, even when it seems impossible, that this Christ-child we celebrate really did bring the good news of forgiveness and salvation. It’s such an amazing story—who would make up something like this? The message of the baby in a manger is that God loves his creation so much that no expense was too great for him to reach out and find us, even when we hide from him. That’s really the basic message of the Christian faith: God made us to be with him, but our sin drives us into hiding. Through Christ we’re offered a way back to him, if we believe.

We also have to Love: this one has two parts.

First, we have to allow ourselves to be loved. This one is so hard. My preaching professor, who my son is named for, used to tell a story in class that helped us understand what it means to be loved by God. Ian’s daughter was given a rag doll when she was 3 or 4 years old, and it became her favorite toy—she couldn’t bear to be away from it for any length of time—she slept with it and traveled with it and played with it. Over the years the doll became worn and dirty—after a while it really looked awful. But what my professor came to understand was that the doll’s value wasn’t based on what its parts were worth, it was based on how much his young daughter loved it. The doll had enormous worth to that little girl, because it was loved. When we can begin to see our value through the eyes of the God who loves us, then we can grasp what happened at the first Christmas.

But it’s not just about receiving love. The call to each of us is to find meaningful ways to show love to others. Think back on our text: the love that God models for us is a kind of love that makes sacrifices—that gives up things even when we’re entitled to them. It’s the sort of love that drives action—to provide comfort, to speak the truth, to meet needs. In our culture that spends so much time talking about the happiness we’re entitled to, this kind of love is truly radical—revolutionary, and life-changing. Later on in this gospel John quotes Jesus again when he says: A new commandment I give you: Love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

Just to close. Mo Leverett is a minister to urban youth in New Orleans, and a singer-songwriter too. In one of his songs he says this: “I believe in the love of God, it is an orphan’s wildest dream.” Think about that. If there’s a message of Christmas that we don’t think about enough, it’s that God’s love for us draws us into a new family, a family of people who know they need a savior, one based not on our blood, but on his. I can’t forget the words of that Israeli father, inviting the Palestinian family to join his party, because his daughter’s life had been saved through their sacrifice. “My daughter is their daughter,” he said. When we accept the love of God in our lives we are invited to a new party—a new family rooted in the life and work of Jesus Christ—a new way of living our lives.

If you have been in this faith for a while, take this message with you and make it a part of your Christmas celebration. As you drive around looking at lights and banners and nativity scenes, remember that the foundation for Christmas is God’s unmeasurable love for us, love that gave up so much for our benefit. If you’re new here or if you’re not sure about what all this means, let me invite you to take a chance today. This life of faith that we talk about here is messy and hard and confusing sometimes, but it’s the life God meant for us to live, full of meaning and service and challenge. Don’t leave today without talking with someone.

But either way, hear Christ’s words for us one last time: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”


Sunday, December 02, 2007

An Advent Sermon

Lk. 15:11-32

Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.
"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
"When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' So he got up and went to his father. "But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
"The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
"But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.
"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'
"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'
" 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' "

This is clearly a family with issues. In my training for doing work in planned giving we would hear horror stories about families that had been torn apart by poor estate planning or conflict between heirs. My manual for estate planning is called ‘Love, Money and Control’, which should tell you a little about how things can go. Inheritance issues can tear a family apart.

What going on in this story?

It was normal in the ancient world, just as it is now, for a parent to pass their accumulated wealth on to their children. But usually that happened after the parents had died. The younger son wants his sooner, which was a lot like wishing his father was dead already.

The son takes what the father had gathered and turned it into cash—the most liquid of assets. He blows it in wasteful living. Ever seen the TV show ‘Cribs’? It’s the young person’s version of ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’. The waste on that show is conspicuous and offensive—that’s what the younger son did with his money. He wasted it on things that he didn’t need and ended up with nothing. When he runs out of money and times get bad, he works with pigs and envies their food. This would have been so shocking to Jesus’ listeners. We all know that eating pork isn’t exactly Kosher, but it’s even worse to work with pigs. The idea of envying what a pig might eat was too many bridges too far for Jesus’ listeners.

And so the son ‘came to his senses’—he didn’t repent, but coming to our senses is usually one of the steps before we repent. He decides to go home and ask his father if he can be one of his servants—he can’t be the son anymore—he spent that privilege when he left. The servants eat well, so he decides to go back and work for his father. The son works out a speech with three parts: ‘I have sinned’, ‘I’m not worthy’, ‘treat me like a slave’. It’s not exactly ‘I’m sorry’—it’s not a real gesture of repentance. Besides, we’ve already seen that his primary motivation is to get some of that good food the servants get to eat.

When the father sees his son coming home, he breaks two major rules of his culture. First, he doesn’t let his son come all the way back and say he’s sorry—he goes out to meet him, which would have been shocking to the listeners. But even the way he went out to his son would have offended most people back then. Dignified men were not supposed to run—ever. ‘A proud man makes slow steps’ was a common saying back then. A wealthy man in the 1st century also would have been wearing long robes, meaning that in order to run he would have had to hike up his robe and expose his legs. In other words, the father spared nothing—not his position, not his image, not even his dignity—the father spared nothing to prove to his son that he loved him and welcomed him home.

When the father reaches the son he hugs him and kisses him and doesn’t let him give his little self-serving speech. When the son finally does start talking, his father won’t even let him finish—he never gets to the part about becoming one of the servants. Instead the father throws a party and gives him some nice clothes to wear—his best robe.

This story isn’t complete without the reaction of the older brother, the ‘good son’. He’s angry at his father for being generous to the younger son, even after he behaved so badly. He’s really angry that he never got a party of his own, even though he followed all the rules. Most people interpret the older brother as a symbol of the Pharisees—people who followed all the rules and then resented Jesus for spending time with—for having parties with—sinners. In the end the older brother is just as abusive to the father as the younger guy was. The younger brother wanted the estate so he could spend it now, and the older brother wanted it preserved so he could spend it later. Neither of them cared about the father—not about his position, not about his hard work, not about his feelings, not about how much he loved his family. They were both disrespectful, and yet they both received grace.

The real star of this story is the father who loves his two sons no matter what—no matter how little they understand or value that love. It’s the father who steals this show and drives home the point about who God is and how God loves. It’s the father who forgives both of his sons even before they can repent. This really isn’t the parable of the Prodigal Son at all. It’s the parable of the Father Who Loved More Than We Could Ever Imagine.

So what do we learn from this parable?

As we’ve said many times over this past year, between the Sermon on the Mount and the Psalms and now the parables of Jesus. The point of the life of discipleship is never about following the rules and getting your reward. It’s also not about checking to make sure God deals with all of us in the same way. We have to be careful that we aren’t so moralistic about our relationship to God that we lose our sense of imagination about how he might deal with someone else. It’s too easy to list the things we don’t do, and assume that God’s grace is limited to people with the same list. That’s the path to frustration and envy and cynicism—none of which help as we try to grow in our lives of discipleship.

Second, and related to that, this parable reminds us that God’s grace is about his character and not ours. The two sons never even had a chance to say the right thing out loud. The father knew their hearts and loved them how he wanted to love them—rather than how they deserved to be loved. God’s love for us isn’t about us—we receive it, but we don’t earn it. That should be a comfort to all of us—God loves us because that’s who he is.

Finally. Most importantly, as we begin our season of Advent, we have this amazing reminder of a Father in heaven who doesn’t wait for us to figure out a way back to him. That we have a Father in heaven who sees us from a long way off, who catches a glimpse of us turning toward him and is thrilled. That we have a Father in heaven who comes running to us, and when he gets to us shows us love so lavishly that we can’t even get our prepared speeches out of our mouths. As we celebrate the coming of Christ to the world, we have to see it as God, running toward us, throwing away his right to be heavenly and mysterious and remote. Running toward us so that we can know how much he loves us. Running toward us so we can be his children again. That’s the message of Christmas—that’s what we celebrate through gifts and meals and good feelings—that’s why we worship and serve and follow and repent.

When someone asks you what Christmas is all about, or if you’ve come here wondering about that yourself, here’s the answer: Despite all the different ways we’ve managed to create inheritance issues between ourselves and God—While we were still a long way off, the Father saw us and was filled with compassion for us. That’s why the father ran to the son in our parable. That’s why his son runs to us—once in history and every year since as we celebrate the Advent season. While we were still a long way off, God ran to us. That’s why we’re here.

And that’s why we come to the Table. Communion is a symbolic feast—like the real one the father made for his wayward son. We’re all wayward children, and yet we still get invited to the party. We’ve all messed with our inheritance, and yet God gives us something better than we could ever imagine. Anyone and everyone who is on that journey, or even just wants to be on that journey, is welcome to this Table.

Welcome to Advent. Amen.