Sunday, December 27, 2009

Grounded in God

"Grounded In God"

Broadway Presbyterian Church, New York City

texts: 1 Sam 2:18-26
Luke 2:41-51
Colossians 3:12-18 (see below).

The story about Jesus getting lost in the temple is one that only the gospel of Luke tells… no other gospel has anything between the birth story and jesus’ appearance as an adult at the Jordan river. None of the other three gospels even seem to care about Jesus’ life as a child, an adolescent, an adult – nothing until he came to be baptized and begin his public years. But Luke gives us a few extra stories, both around Jesus’ birth and around his earliest years. Curiously, we find that MOST of them are in or around the temple in Jerusalem: there is this scene of the 12-year old Jesus getting lost in the temple, earlier there’s the story of his presentation as an infant, when the prophets Anna and Simeon meet him in the temple and bless him, and the whole gospel starts in the temple, with Gabriel appearing to Zechariah who would be the father of John the Baptist. For Luke the story of Jesus was centered around the temple in Jerusalem. On the human scale, Jesus has important conversations and confrontations there, but on a deeper level we also see the curtain in the temple torn in two when Jesus dies, symbolically transforming the relationship between God and humanity. And Luke’s gospel ends differently too. Whereas other gospels talk about the fearfulness after the resurrection, and how the disciples would gather in locked rooms, Luke says that after Jesus’ ascension, the disciples quite openly go back to Jerusalem and that they “were continually in the temple blessing God.” The temple is not just an important location for things to happen; it is the narrative anchor for Luke’s plotline, the fixed point -- around which -- the story of Jesus Christ turns and weaves and unfolds. In this way Luke roots the new story of Jesus in the old traditions of the Jewish people.

Now you may also know that there are certain other Christmas stories found only in Luke. Gabriel also comes to Mary only in Luke’s story, and Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is only found in Luke. And if you look closely at Mary’s song, “my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” you will find that it is patterned exactly on another song sung by the mother of a miraculous child… by Samuel’s mother. Her name was Hannah, and she was barren until she prayed for a child and her prayer was answered. And in return she promised to devote her child to God. This is how the little boy Samuel came to be serving in the tent of meeting with the priest Eli.

So Mary sings a song on the pattern of Hannah’s song... Therefore. Literarily. Mary is connected back to Hannah; and Jesus is therefore connected back to Samuel.

This is important because, well, we just read two seemingly disconnected and irrelevant accounts of little boys growing up, and other than that “they’re both in the Bible,” we really should figure out why the two stories come as a package deal. Looking closely we find that it’s because Luke connected them for us. He writes this in for us as plain as can be. If you listen closely you will hear almost the same words in both stories. Samuel, it says, “continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the LORD and with the people.” And Jesus, Luke writes, “increased in wisdom and in stature, and in divine and human favor.”

So with just a few words Luke has painted a picture of the boy Jesus, in the pattern of the boy Samuel. He has rooted the new story in the old story.

Now in most aspects Jesus’ and Samuel’s lives were probably not that similar. Samuel was steeped in the prayers and sacrifices and vigils that priests did, he must have known the prayers backwards and forwards. He was near the altar and the ark and all the holy things 24/7. The most famous story of him being called by God takes place when he is lying down at night inside the tent of meeting… he hears a voice in the middle of the night, and it’s God calling to him.

Jesus may not have spent all day and all night by the altar saying prayers. Most days he probably spent much more time learning a trade from Joseph than hanging out with the priests… so he was probably not familiar with the sacrifices and the service of the temple. He knew the Scriptures, somehow... we can only guess how he learned so much, whether someone taught him, or whether he just understood it right off the bat. But however it happened, Jesus was able to plug right in. He just clicked into place in the temple debates, as easily as someone like Samuel who had been there all their life long.

From a young age both of these precocious boys were rooted in the Scriptures. They were able to speak firmly and seriously about things of God. I hope that you take time to listen to your own children who we have here; they seriously do have an understanding to impart to you, not just because they have that cuteness of simplicity, but because God blesses them with understanding as well, especially when they are grounded in Scriptures.

It’s a wonderful thing to be grounded like that. I myself was very securely rooted here, as many of you know who saw me grow up in this church. I knew it was my church. There were days, when we were working on something with the Thesbyterians, when I spent more hours at church than anywhere else but in bed asleep. This was home to me. And I commend that to you all. When we baptize our children into the community we commit to raising them in the faith; giving them a place in God’s house and letting them know it is theirs too; giving them something important to do here; and also encouraging them to be familiar and fluent in the scriptures, in the stories of our faith.

I commend it to adults as well. Build it for yourself. Anchor yourself with constancy and commitment to this place, to our holy Scriptures, and to the people of God. Commitment is not just good for the congregation; it’s good for you. We all need a solid foundation to stand on.
But I know at times that this is not enough. I can tell you, and tell you, and tell you until I am blue in the face that we all need to be anchored; and sometimes life rips up our anchors.

My first real story of having my anchor uprooted was when I was a camp counselor. I went to Presbyterian camp as a kid, down in Virginia, and I felt I was living in God’s house itself, out under the trees and the night stars, singing, playing, and worshipping God with cool teenage counselors who inspired me. I held onto that; my life’s ambition, for a while, was to be a good camp counselor when I grew up. I did everything I could to prepare myself for the task, and my first summer as a counselor was excellent. But the next summer the hard times were harder and the support was less supportive, and I burnt out. Suddenly the rug was torn out from under me; there was no more magic in the night stars, no more happy campers, and I learned the horrible news that the camp site itself would be sold the next year. My castle had been destroyed. What of my ambition to be a professional camp counselor – forever? I had nothing to hold onto for the next summer, or the next, or the future.

Sometimes our anchors are torn out from under us; sometimes we need to let go of our anchors and look for others. I met a teenage girl on Amtrak last week who was traveling alone for the first time and really wanted to talk... She started out by telling me about her dysfunctional family, and the way they fight every Christmas. She is the youngest by many years and never gets to really be herself… she remembers her Uncle, whom she calls Scrooge, looking at her as a child who wanted to play with him, and asking the adults – what is she doing?? Why is this kid trying to climb me like a tree?? And she told me her memories of saying “I love you” to her family members, and getting an “okay, Maggie” as the answer. She does not cherish this family anchor at all. But this year there has been a change; Uncle “Scrooge” married a nice woman with young kids, and they invited Maggie to come spend Christmas with them. She saved up her money for the ticket, and she was finally on her way. She was completely agitated by excitement and wonder… what was it going to be like? Was he going to be Uncle Scrooge still, or would he love her for who she is? Would she get to play with the new little kids? Would he have a Christmas present for her? What is his new wife like? This young, hopeful girl was just completely open and vulnerable, uprooted from one anchor, looking everywhere for the next thing to hang onto, an anchor to hold fast, a family to call “home” for a while.

Sometimes we are forcibly uprooted against our will, and sometimes we uproot ourselves for good reason. Our situations can become so unbearable that we rightly have to separate ourselves and go out looking for a new home. No matter why and where we uproot, it is hard to live without an anchor. Our culture these days is particularly rootless, but it is not unique to us. The Bible stories testify that for as long as there have been homes, there have been people leaving home. And the search for a new home, for something to hold onto, is as old as the human race.

So in this season, whether we are as grounded as the little children who know God’s house is their home, or whether we are as uprooted as Maggie on the train, searching for a new family home, I want to encourage us all to take in an internal anchor. Too many of our external anchors get taken away from us; we need to find something to hold onto that will not leave or forsake us.

Hear these words from our final lectionary passage, Colossians: beginning@ ch3 vs12

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

I encourage us all – you and me both – to take these words to heart:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.

I am going to uproot myself from the pulpit and the script and the position of implicit power that i have by being up here – and for the rest of the sermon I just want to focus on those words:

let the word of Christ dwell in you richly

Now “dwell...” “Dwell” is one of those old church-words that no one uses in conversation anymore but it is really a very beautiful word. It can mean to linger, or spend time on something, but the primary meaning here is to actually live somewhere, as one lives in a house; to inhabit, to take up residence within.

Let the word dwell in you richly, not in fits and spurts, not in bits and pieces, not “only-when-i-feel-like-it,” not in momentary quiet times and then being abandoned when the clamor of the day comes by. A great temptation in the age of Twitter is to take God’s grace in bite-size chunks. Our attention span is shortening every day. When I was a child we watched Sesame St, which became a very controversial show because everything was in one-minute or two-minute sections, and we learned to have a short attention span – it’s just been getting worse since then, 140 characters is the length of a single Tweet. So this is how we treat one another...

We pray until we feel a little relief, get in quick touch with God, and then we quit. Why would we do any different? This is how we’re used to treating one another– a brief encounter, and then we’re looking at something else. We are easily distractible. And this is how we treat ourselves, and it’s how we treat God.

Let the word dwell in you fully.. not in bits and pieces, but in its fullness.

So instead of darting from thing to thing let the word LINGER in you; let it STAY. Not to leave, not to be pushed aside by anything else. Let the stories and poems and prayers of the Bible become your internal anchor, making of your hearts a temple and a sanctuary and a home.

Now in terms of letting the word really Stay in our hearts... I have to say at this time that I am almost done with Christmas... and one of my best friends, Luke, always gets on my case for that. Christmas is TWELVE DAYS LONG, he always says. They start 12/25 and go until 1/5. So are you going to miss out on eleven of the 12 days of xmas? But hey... i mean, we pastors and seminarians and elders and other serious church-people spend so much time in preparation... by the time we’ve survived the season – greened the sanctuary, done the advent calendar thing, reflected for four weeks of advent, practiced our choir songs, prepared our Scripture reading for Xmas eve, lit all the candles, done the light show, not to even MENTION the gifts and cards and Christmas dinner and FAMILY – i shouldn’t speak for others, but for me, by the time boxing day rolls around, i am so done. If you remind me of baby Jesus in the manger I will probably snap something sarcastic back at you.

And that’s where the word “richly” catches me. Let the Christmas story dwell in us RICHLY? Let it dwell in us FULLY? Can we do that? Can we keep our attention on it even when we’ve just been overwhelmed? Can we clear out the clutter and make room for Christ? Can we keep repeating the story of Christ’s incarnation, so it doesn’t go by in one quick blaze of glory, can we let it move from our lips to our heads to our hearts as we quietly remind ourselves of what really happened 2000 years ago? Can we let it move from our hearts to our hands and feet, putting it into action, following in Christ’s footsteps?

By God’s grace I pray that we can... because it is not by our own power that Christ takes up residence within us. We don’t have to DO it, we just allow it to happen. I think that Christ is longing to become flesh again – but not in a baby this time; this time, within you and me, in our lives, in our hearts, and our hands, and our feet.

So make the time... make the space... invite Christ to live in you, inhabit you, STAY in you, and not to leave when distractions call. This is better than any external anchor we could ever have. This is holding fast to something that will never leave us; and it allows us to grow in maturity, as Jesus did, as the little boy Samuel did; we grow in wisdom, in God’s favor.

Take a moment now to think of how you might be able to do this. Maybe pick the verse or song that has meant the most to you this Christmas, that really touched your heart, and plan to read it or sing it every day until the 12 days of Christmas have FULLY been celebrated. Maybe take an action you feel God is calling you to do, and make it a prayer – a living prayer. How has the Word spoken to you this Christmas? How can you speak that Word, enact that Word, become that Word?

I invite you to take a moment to think about that. Grab a little pencil in the pew and write yourself a note. How can you let the word dwell in you?


Word of Christ

Living Word of Christ

Dwell within us fully

Find in us a home

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