Christmas is About Change December 25, 2011 Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin Sunshine Cathedral MCC As we gather this Christmas day, my guess is that we are all probably somewhat familiar with this portion of our gospel reading found in Luke. We may have studied it, read it or heard various version of this story plucked […]
Christmas is About Change
December 25, 2011
Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin
Sunshine Cathedral MCC
As we gather this Christmas day, my guess is that we are all probably somewhat familiar with this portion of our gospel reading found in Luke. We may have studied it, read it or heard various version of this story plucked from different places, but nevertheless I’m guessing it is somewhat familiar to us; certainly the experience of Christmas is not new to us.
Each year at this time we remember the story about simple shepherds in the field watching over their flocks by night and when suddenly, with a sky full of stars, there comes an angel with a heavenly host proclaiming good news for all of humanity. The shepherds go and follow the directions of the angel and they find Mary and Joseph and a baby, to be named Jesus, lying on some straw in a feeding trough, surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells that one would normally find in a barn. Jesus is swaddled in what were probably feeding bags left over after the animals were fed. Still, the story is about a unique family who are occupying a barn.
We have seen this story often; we see it designed this time of the year on our greeting cards, in pictures that we see on television. A resemblance of the Nativity is setup in front of various houses of worship, homes, and just about everywhere. Each Xmas, we see what is portrayed as this wonderful, warm, loving image, of a family, homeless, occupying a barn.
And yet, Christmas is a reminder of warm and wonderful family traditions and memories of images that we treasure and hold dear, that we wrap around ourselves every Christmas. It keeps us warm in the winter. (Or maybe here in South Florida, it keeps us cool.) It makes us feel comforted and hopeful. It brings us back to childhood and days gone by, every Christmas, year after year after year. Good or bad and yet we see a reminder of a family, that is homeless, a not yet wed woman, occupying a barn.
But even though when we look at it carefully we see a family in difficult circumstances, what we usually bring to mind is memories from our own Christmases that have brought us joy. Christmas, for even the hardest skeptic, often becomes an occasion for sentiment.
We don’t want to ever stop hearing the Xmas narrative this time of the year, there is something familiar to the story even though it is a long, past distant story that has been handed down from generation to generation. We never want to stop seeing that image of a baby in the manger. We want to feel that Christmas feeling again and again and again and again. We become so nostalgic for it. It is so comforting to us. We never ever, ever, want our image of Christmas to change. And yet, we are faced with the reality that this scene offers us each and every year a poor family taking shelter in a stable to deliver a baby out of wedlock. We want the sanitized version from the Hallmark cards, but we also know that in reality, Jesus began life under very difficult circumstances.
And, then, somewhere along the way we hear a familiar sound, maybe a choir singing, maybe the tune to one of our favorite holiday songs. And that tune reminds us of the irony of our faith that on this day of celebration, we so much want nothing to change. We want It’s A Wonderful Life, Hallmark cards, family dinners, carols that offer a world view we can no longer hold, and a story that is gentle and pretty, without reminders of the harsh realities. We don’t want that to change, but as thinking people, as we continue to grow, the old images can’t always have the same meaning for us. The truth is, when we stop and think about it, we are honoring the greatest moment of change in human history. We are, in fact, celebrating a moment in time when the Presence of God, Divine Light and Energy, yet again combines, enters into history and nothing is ever the same again.
The event that took place in this story represents the ultimate Incarnation which means change. When the Allness that we call God molds Itself into finite form, change has taken place. The nativity is a story of change. It represents the presence of God coming into our time and into our space and into our lives and into our comfort zones and shaking things up and making them be recreated in a new way and challenging us to embrace change and to be active in doing something even to the point of being co-creators with God in our community and agents of change to the world around us.
Upon close examination of this story we discover that even the shepherds are changed. OF course they are changed, they saw angels for heaven sake, I know I would either be changed or in need of changing. The angels are changed, the message of good news is changed, the inn keeper changed by allowing someone to rest in his barn, the animals are dislocated, Mary is changed as her body brings forth another body into the world. Joseph is changed, the whole barnyard experience is changed and we are forever changed as we contemplate this story of changes.
In recent months we have all seen various “occupy” movements around the country. In this story of change, we see hope and courage occupying Rome. Rome is an occupying force in the Jewish homeland, and in this story, a Jewish family occupies Rome by allowing divine hope to be born in the midst of oppression.
Occupy movements today are calling for social justice, economic justice, inclusion, fairness…they are standing up for people who need medical coverage, employment, opportunity, equality. That is, surely what God wants for all of God’s people. In a system of haves and have nots, Jesus’ family is among the have nots, and in that family God is made known. the story of Jesus’ birth shows us that God is concerned for those who struggle, who have been denied equality and dignity, who do not yet have an equal share in the abundance of our world. the nativity says that God is aware of and concerned for the least of these, and therefore, we should also be aware of and concerned for them.
Christmas is a celebration year after year after year that no year is ever the same and that our lives are never the same and that every year we are, in fact, older and, hopefully, wiser but in any case we are changing Change is the one constant in the universe. Even our understanding of and relationship with God is, hopefully, changing, growing, and open to newness.
Change is not something that we as Christians should fear. Change is the nature of life. It is the nature of the church. It is the nature of Christmas.
We must not take our sentimentality for a Christmas season and extend it over the other 364 days of a year to try and build walls of supposed tradition to hold back the change of our creative God. We should not be fearful when the things that we do in the church and the things that the church does in the world around it suddenly seem to be different.
We must not fear the new but be active agents of bringing the new as God brings the new into the world every day, every week, every month, every year, and, yes, every Christmas. When we allow Christmas to occupy us, we are forever changed.
So what do I suggest that you do on this Christmas Day? What do I suggest that you do to celebrate this wonderful moment of change in your life? I suggest that you wrap up in Christmas and allow the good news of this day to occupy you. That you once again enjoy those visions of angels and shepherds and the manger and the baby in the straw and the animals and Mary and Joseph and let those familiar images take you to new places and new spiritual experiences.
Let the Christmas story of God’s incarnation in Jesus help us trust that God is also incarnating in us.
God, through us, can create more change in our world. As we embrace change, change that creates justice and peace and healing and hope, God is glorified and our world is blessed.
Do you hear the angel choirs announcing miraculous changes? Are you ready to be the change that God wants to accomplish in the world?
May the Spirit of Xmas occupy us and renew our passion.
Christmas Love is mine today.
Christmas Peace is mine today.
Christmas Joy is mine today.
I am God’s best gift.
And I am blessed.
“ The only real blind person at Christmas-time is the one who has not Christmas in their heart.”
The Least, the Lowly, & the Love of God Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Advent 4, 2011 Of course, as we get closer and closer to Christmas, we tend to focus more and more on love. Now, we all have affection for our pets, our friends, some of us are even very fond of our possessions. […]
The Least, the Lowly, & the Love of God
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Advent 4, 2011
Of course, as we get closer and closer to Christmas, we tend to focus more and more on love. Now, we all have affection for our pets, our friends, some of us are even very fond of our possessions. But love, the kind of love we feel drawn to during the holiday season, is something more. The love that that fills the air, and hopefully our hearts, isn’t just fondness or affection or appreciation; the love that saturates the carols of the season, the stories, the rituals and traditions is a genuine caring about others, a real sense that all people have sacred value, an honest desire to give more than to receive, to move beyond selfish desires and manipulating tactics to a real experience of sharing goodwill and wishing peace and prosperity for all people. The Christmas kind of love calls us to replace greed with caring deeds. Christmas love makes us especially mindful of those who aren’t powerful, popular, or often given much respect. In fact, there is a song of the season that puts me very much in mind of caring about those whom others might not care much about:
I want a hippopotamus for xmas, Only a hippopotamus will do
Don’t want a doll, no dinky tinker to, I want a hippopotamus to play with enjoy
I want a hippopotamus for xmas, I don’t think santa claus will mind do you?
He won’t have to use the dirty chimney flue, Just bring him through the front door that’s the easy thing to do
I can see me now on xmas morning creeping down the stairs
Oh what joy and what surprise when I open up my eyes and see a hippo hero standing there
I want a hippopotamus for Xmas, Only a hippopotamus will do
No crocodiles or rhinoceroses, I only like hippopotamuses
And hippopotamuses like me too
Mother says a hippo would eat me up but then Teacher says a hippo is a vegetarian
There’s lots of room for him in our two car garage
I’ll feed him there and wash him there and give him his massage
I can see me now on Xmas morning creeping down the stairs
Oh what joy and what surprise when I open up my eyes and see a hippo hero standing there
I want a hippopotamus for xmas, Only a hippopotamus will do
No crocodiles or rhinoceroseses, I only like hippopotamuseses
And hippopotamuses like me too!
(written by John Rox and originally performed by Gayla Peevey)
In 1953, 10 year old Gayla Peevey recorded John Rox’s novelty song, I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas and by year’s end, that song was number 24 on the Billboard charts.
But more than a fun song from almost 60 years ago, the Hippo song shows how love is supposed to work. The child wants to share love with something that most people would find unlovable. The child wants to wash and feed and massage and care for and play with the misunderstood and mostly unappreciated hippopotamus. Seeing good where others have overlooked it and sharing love with those who have too often been unloved is a perfect message for this special time of year.
Loving the unloved, reaching out to the disenfranchised, affirming the marginalized is the Good News, or gospel of Jesus Christ. That good news is offered to us today in the reading we heard from the first chapter of Luke.
Before we examine Luke’s imaginative telling of Mary’s discovery of her pregnancy, I think it’s important to recall an older story.
Remember, the scriptures that we hold dear were written by Jewish authors for Jewish communities. To not link our so-called New Testament to Judaic history and literature is to grossly misunderstand the texts themselves.
There is an ancient deutero-canonical text about a woman named Judith. Most Protestants, with the possible exception of Anglicans, are probably not familiar with Judith; but Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians will find the story of Judith in their bibles. Judith would have also been in the Septuagint, the bible Jesus and his earliest followers would have known.
The book of Judith may be the very first historical novel. The bible is full of dramas, poetry, songs, mythologies, parables, speeches, and other creative, imaginative artistic expression. It is the artistic imagination that gives us talking snakes and donkeys, flaming tongues floating in the air, water being magically changed into wine, Jonah taking up residence for half a week inside a fish, and other stories that if taken literally become ridiculous, but if taken allegorically become rich and empowering and life-giving. And Judith, as a fictional novel based on history while not being limited to the facts of history, is part of that wonderful creative tradition of our scriptures.
In the story, Judith is a widow. As a woman and widow, she would have had very little status in her patriarchal world. And yet, this husbandless woman is the hero of the tale. Judith believes that trusting the God of her ancestors and serving that God with courage and sacrifice is the best way to help her people. And her faith gives her great courage and she risks her own life to help save the lives of her people.
Eventually, Judith confronts an enemy general and even beheads him! But before she enters into an undercover operation that ends with her holding her enemy’s detached head in her hands, Judith prays this prayer:
Let a woman’s strength break their pride. Your power does not depend on the size and strength of an army. You are a God who cares for the humble and helps the oppressed…You minister to those who have lost hope…
When Luke is writing his story about Mary’s encounter with an angel, I wonder if he had Judith in mind. He would have known the story, and I honestly believe that his story about Mary was shaped in part by the story of Judith.
Luke now casts Mary as the voiceless person who finds her voice.
Luke now casts Mary as the oppressed person who finds divine strength.
Luke now casts Mary as the powerless person who finds empowerment within her own spiritual experience.
Luke now casts Mary as the one who stands up to injustice against all odds.
Mary is Luke’s new Judith, the example of God showing favor to the forgotten, and offering empowerment to the powerless.
And so Luke imagines Jesus’ conception. He is one of only two New Testament writers to do so. As writers in antiquity frequently did, Luke imagines the hero’s conception being miraculous. Augustus Caesar, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Alexander the Great, Hercules, and others all were said to have miraculous, even divine conceptions. That bit of the story isn’t unique…it would be stranger if Luke hadn’t attributed some kind of cosmic significance to his hero’s conception.
No, what is surprising and earth-shattering about the way Luke imagines Jesus’ beginnings is that it all happens in the most unlikely, ignominious of circumstances. An illiterate, peasant girl is visited by an angel of God. God comes to her! God seeks her out!
Not the powerful, the wealthy, the priestly, or even a man, but an unmarried, pregnant peasant girl is the one who has the profound experience of the divine. She is visited by God’s angel and told that she will have a child who will be much greater than his circumstances would suggest possible. Mary, of all people is called “favored one”.
Mary…not a man…Mary…not a scholar…Mary…not someone who was rich or powerful…Mary…living in an occupied country, not a citizen of the occupying power…Mary, a girl who is pregnant and whose child’s paternity is in question…MARY, of all people, is favored and her child, of all children, will be called God’s child. Caesar is called a divine son…that’s not surprising. But Mary’s son, a nobody, can also be called a divine child. Now that is shocking, subversive, and possibly unprecedented.
Oh those who are unkind about transgender people, those who are mean-spirited in their dealings with gay and lesbian people, those who fight so bitterly to keep women away from pulpit and altar, or sometimes from any leadership position in church or society, those who don’t care about health care for all people, who are unconcerned about poverty or peace, who forget that spirituality at its best is about justice and not just-us, those who pretend greed, and xenophobia, and sexism, and hatred are actually religious values, those who cling to their own privilege rather than standing up against oppression…those who forget to recognize the dignity of the so-called least of these have not paid careful enough attention to the story of Mary, lowly, nobody, unmarried, knocked up Mary, who was approached by God’s own angel and who raised a child who would be called God’s own.
The dispossessed, the so-called down-trodden, the poor, the sick, those who are denied marriage equality, those who are trivialized or diminished or insulted or ignored because they are women or because they are same-gender loving…those are the people that the Gospel calls “favored”…those are the people who are called children of God in our scriptures.
Mary is the favored one. All Marys remain the favored ones.
Do you feel like a Mary? Do you feel like a hippopotamus? Do you feel unworthy of love? Well today’s gospels is for you, because Divine love leaves no one out.
And this is the good news! Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2011
I am blessed and highly favored.
Just as I am, I am loved.
Divine Love leaves no one out!
“See what kind of love God has given us, that we should be called children of God…” 1 John 3.1
Whatever Happened to Joy? Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Advent 3, 2011 Dr. Seuss’s Grinch, as we all know, was bitter, mean, selfish, and utterly antagonistic to everyone who sought joy in their lives. But as the people of Whooville clung tenaciously to the power of joy, even in the midst of loss and disappointment, they […]
Whatever Happened to Joy?
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Advent 3, 2011
Dr. Seuss’s Grinch, as we all know, was bitter, mean, selfish, and utterly antagonistic to everyone who sought joy in their lives. But as the people of Whooville clung tenaciously to the power of joy, even in the midst of loss and disappointment, they actually helped the Grinch discover that he was capable of experiencing joy himself, and indeed, even he deserved the experience of joy. Their joy changed his life and the joy was multiplied.
We begin worship each week at Sunshine Cathedral by affirming, “Sunshine Cathedral is a different kind of church where the past is past and the future has infinite possibilities.” By releasing the past to the past and being open to new possibilities, we are making room for the experience of joy in our lives.
We are committed to the possibility of joy here in much greater measure than in most churches. We laugh a lot. We sing a lot. We applaud a lot. We even dance now and then. We hug a lot. We use a lot of visual stimulation. We share food together. We have lots of concerts and drag shows and film showings and cocktail parties. We seem to have in our DNA a need to affirm the possibility of joy and a longing to make joy available to more and more people. And more and more, joy is much needed in our world.
In a world where education and health care are considered privileges rather than rights, where hatred is disguised as religion, and where bullying leaves our youth so despondent and hopeless that they actually harm themselves, a celebration of life is needed.
An affirmation of the sacred value of all people is needed.
A place where joy is not merely allowed but earnestly and endlessly sought after is needed!
And here we are, declaring week after week that the past is past and the future has INFINITE possibilities, and that includes the possibility of outrageous joy!
Religion for many of us was many things, but not often joyful.
It was boring. It was scary. It was shaming.
It filled us with fear or hatred or self-loathing or prejudice or a legalism that led us to believe that religion was little more than a list of dos and don’ts (mostly don’ts).
But joy…that isn’t what we traditionally associated with religion, and that’s too bad.
You see, joy is named specifically dozens of times in scripture.
Life isn’t always fun, it isn’t always easy, but it can be joyful…that is at least the affirmation of our sacred texts. For example:
The psalmist prayed over and over for a deep and shared experience of joy, saying:
“Let all who take refuge in God be glad; let them always sing for joy!” (Ps. 5.11);
“God makes known to us the path of life and fills us with joy…” (Ps. 16.11);
“…weeping may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning!” (Ps. 30.5);
and “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy” (Ps. 126.5).
The prophets proclaimed the spiritual power of joy in their writings:
“Divine joy is our strength!” (Nehemiah 8.10);
“Burst into songs of joy together, even in if you lie in ruins…for God is comforting the people.” (Isaiah 52.9);
“…God will turn sorrow into gladness and give comfort and joy instead of misery.” (Jeremiah 31.13);
A famous sermon attributed to Jesus begins with a list of beatitudes, or blessings, that is, promises of joy. Jesus says that joy is available to the poor, the bereaved, the lowly, the marginalized, and not only to those who find themselves in difficult situations, but to those who work to improve the human condition, those who work for justice and peace. (Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5).
And the Apostle Paul even preached a message of joy, praying “May the God of hope fill you with all joy” (Romans 15.13) and assuring the Galatian Church that joy was nothing less than a spiritual fruit (Galatians 5.22).
If joy is a spiritual fruit, one wonders why the orchards of religion seem to experience a perpetual famine.
Instead of lifting up the human family with the hope of joy, religion too often tells us that we are innately depraved.
Instead of offering joy freely, religion too often offers the heavy burden of guilt and shame.
Instead of saying joy is a gift abundantly available to every soul, religion too often hinders joy by codifying, institutionalizing, and defending sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, colonization, economic inequity, and blood-shed.
For joy to be such an oft repeated topic in scripture, isn’t it odd that those of us who claim to revere those scriptures have so little joy in our own lives and contribute so little joy to the world?
But don’t get depressed. You know there has to be good news, and there is!
We are here doing something new at Sunshine Cathedral; or least we are doing something new for religion.
We have really good worship here at Sunshine Cathedral, but what makes it so good is that it isn’t a tribute to ancient history. We blend a variety of traditions and insert contemporary elements as well. Videos, secular and sacred music, theatre lighting, and multiple instruments all work together to create an experience of great joy.
We offer challenging, enriching religious education courses and more and more people are discovering there is joy in learning and in moving beyond the assumptions of the past.
And some of our greatest points of entry for people into the life of Sunshine Cathedral are events that are offered for the pure fun they provide. Whenever we gather together to laugh at a comic, to enjoy a concert, to cheer our favorite gender-norm defying drag performers, to watch a movie, to share a meal, to play at a picnic, or to transform the campus into a casino…we are inviting the spirit of joy to fill our hearts, to uplift our souls, and to remind us that just as we are we are all people of sacred value. Whenever we come together to share joy, we are honoring the spirit of life and we are releasing healing energy into the life-stream of humanity.
Without offering even a hint of an apology I will wear Easter bonnets and boas, leather and feathers, I will break out into the Charleston, sing show tunes, show videos, and even channel the personalities of my favorite dead divas all to show this community and the world that there is nothing more spiritual than the experience of joy and we are our best selves when we are summoning and sharing the power of joy. And joy is ours when we dare to love ourselves, when we dare to care for others, when we celebrate life with enthusiasm, when we are generous, when we engage in work that helps and heals and even saves lives, and when we say in all our wonderful diversity we are, just as we are, the children of God, filled with the spirit of God, and we are part of God’s good creation.
Let Sunshine Cathedral be an orchard of joy and let this orchard bear MUCH fruit!
Winston Churchill said, “If you are going through hell, keep going!” I love the 12 Step maxim that religion is for people who are afraid of hell, but spirituality is for people who have already been there. At Sunshine Cathedral we aren’t selling fire insurance for the next life, we are offering the power of joy in this life…and I believe that once we embrace and embody joy, we will never in all of eternity give it up. We’re a little religious, and a lot spiritual, but mostly, we are a progressive, positive, and practical community that dares to share the power of joy.
We are here to replace fear with cheer, hate with hope, self-doubt with self-esteem, condemnation with celebration. We are here to experience and share the power of joy. The poet Louise Bogan said it so brilliantly: “I cannot believe that the inscrutable universe turns on an axis of suffering; surely the strange beauty of the world must somewhere rest on pure joy!”
And Mother Teresa made the case powerfully and simply by stating, “Joy is prayer!” Joy is prayer. If you don’t think you can pray, let me assure you can. Every time you summon hope, you are praying. Every time you offer kindness, you are praying. Every time you speak out and stand up for equality and justice, you are praying. Every time you express gratitude, you are praying. And every time you allow yourself to experience unfettered joy, you are praying. Joy isn’t a luxury or a petty indulgence, it is the world changing, life altering power of prayer!
In our Isaiah reading this morning, Isaiah says that he has been immersed in the spirit of life to help others experience the best of life…to experience joy. St. Paul said in the second reading, Rejoice, that is, find and express joy always! And in the gospel reading, John the Baptizer joyously affirmed that he was part of something larger…he wasn’t the longed for messiah or the prophet Elijah returned, but he was part of the messianic mission and the prophetic purpose to immerse people in lives of hope that could lead to an experience of joy – joy that circumstances could never take away.
Physician Sir Wilfred Grenfell said, “Real joy comes not from ease or riches or from the praise of others, but from doing something worthwhile.” That’s what we’re doing at Sunshine Cathedral. We’re doing something worthwhile, and by doing so, we are experiencing and sharing joy each and every day. Be part of the joy. Invite others to join you. Joy is our divine inheritance and we’ve got plenty to share. This is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2011
Joy is my inheritance.
Joy is my prayer.
Joy is the power of my life.
I affirm, embrace, and share joy today.
Offering: “There are those who give with joy, and joy is their reward.” Kahlil Gibran
“Too much of a good thing is wonderful!” Mae West
The Path to Peace Rev. Elder Dr. Nancy Wilson, Presiding Elder/Moderator, MCC Preached at Sunshine Cathedral 2nd Sunday of Advent: December 4, 2011 Good morning! Wonderful to be at Sunshine Cathedral MCC – thank you, Pastor Durrell, for your kind invitation, and for this tradition of inviting me to be with you in Advent! Thank […]
The Path to Peace
Rev. Elder Dr. Nancy Wilson, Presiding Elder/Moderator, MCC
Preached at Sunshine Cathedral
2nd Sunday of Advent: December 4, 2011
Good morning! Wonderful to be at Sunshine Cathedral MCC – thank you, Pastor Durrell, for your kind invitation, and for this tradition of inviting me to be with you in Advent! Thank you for being the amazing MCC congregation you are! Thank you for your support for MCC, and our ministry worldwide. I am so grateful for your contributions, Durrell, and leadership in the weekly lectionary study that nurtures so many MCC pastors; and Robert – for our leadership on our Governing Board, and in our global justice work
Let us pray.
Today is the Second Sunday in Advent, and we focus on peace. “Peace” is a word like “love” that covers an impossible territory for one word. It is the word we use for an inner sense of harmony or well-being, a negotiated settlement between warring parties, and everything in-between. Peace is something that seems totally elusive, an impossible dream to those like children in Somalia; and peace is something I can feel simply by taking four really deep breaths.
In one of our readings today, Isaiah, Israel’s amazing poet/prophet, preaches comfort and hope, and offers an image of the way to peace for the people of God – people who have struggled and suffered. . .Isaiah’s people have been through it all, oppression and despair and longing for liberation! They have known success and failure – a sense of God’s presence, and a feeling of being abandoned by God. . .
In our 43 years as a movement and denomination, we know about struggle, about tragedy and triumph, about twists and turns in the journey. We know about defeat and victory. Sunshine Cathedral. . .this may be your 40th Advent together, and you know about the ups and downs of being a community of faith here in South Florida. . .
Today, Mark’s gospel begins with John the Baptists’ call for spiritual renovation. As we prepare for the coming Nativity, for God’s incarnation among us, as one of us, in Jesus Christ, we are called to plunge into the waters of baptism. We are invited to a cleansing, healing surrender to the mystery of connection to God and God’s people. . .
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to offer baptism to a group of mostly MCC folks in the Jordan River – and they are not kidding when they said it is chilly and cold!! It was the coldest water I ever felt – we were at this very touristy place, all a little corny, with music blaring. . . church groups gathering by the edge . . . .the river was rushing so hard we had to hold on to railings – so cold, I not only thought my legs would freeze off, but my eyeballs too. . . but, as soon as people started coming in, one by one, to be baptized, we transcended that cold, with tears, and trembling, and surrender . . . John the Baptist knew that sometime we need to be shocked into surrender, into allowing God to be God for us, and for our people! I can’t read the story of John the Baptist without feeling the shock of that cold, rushing water, and the memory of people surrendering to God then and there. . .
Back to the prophet. . . .I love Isaiah’s describes the challenges of a pathway to peace, that is a metaphor for our lives our spiritual journey:
“Every valley shall be lifted . . .” The spiritual writer Iyanla Vanzant talks about “value in the valley” – all of us experience valleys, some deeper than others, in our journeys, as individuals and as community. Her point is that our low point can be our turning point. . . Today, globally, we are in an economic valley, a time of terrible uncertainty, when the poor and middle class are feeling pain and despair. Where economic disparity and injustice is causing upheaval all over the world. . . It is time for us to prepare, and to watch the ways in which God will use us to lift that valley of despair! Now is the time for us to remember we are not defined by our income, or our bank account, or our assets. . . we are defined by our embodiment of God’s purpose of love and redemption. . .
MCC born in a valley of despair — a 28 year old man who thought that being gay was the end of his world – But, God, spoke to him in his valley, and lifted him – and gave him a peace he never imagined!! And, because he surrendered, and allowed his valley to be lifted, the lives of millions have been changed forever! ($3.12)
God’s love in Jesus Christ transformed that valley! If you ever think that that message of peace is old. . .In June I visited the LGBT Center in Beijing, and was invited to speak. They have a small room, smaller than your social hall – the only dedicated space in all of mainland China for lgbt people! Christians are a small minority in China, and very, very conservative. About 50 people gathered to hear me speak, the week before they had had a film festival that had been raided by the police. . . but they are so hungry to connect to lgbt people around the world. A young man, Christian, but alienated from God and his church and parents, so full of anger, talked about how he could no longer believe in God. . .
Sailed down the Yangtse River, with 250 lesbians. . .rainbow flag. . .All over China, people, who were hungry for hope, wanting to come out of the closet, amazed to meet us.
God is lifting valley’s all over the world . . .Every day, someone is discovering help and friendship and grace in a valley. . .Every Sunday, someone walks into an MCC somewhere, or tunes in online, who thought they were alone in their valley! We are participating with God in lifting valleys all over this world, today. . .How many valley’s have been lifted here, in nearly 40 years at Sunshine Cathedral MCC. . .?
Not only does God lift the valley, but the Spirit declares that “the mountains shall be made low. . .” sometimes, it seems like we face one mountain after another. . Do you ever feel like that? Pastor Durrell? That we solve one problem, and there are others coming right behind. . .
A few weeks ago, my partner Paula and I decided to get our house painted. . .looked great! The young man painting our house then we discovered there was a problem with our roof, and then, with the chimney, and then, that looks great now, but it makes this look shabby – there is always something!
Sometimes it seems like there is just one mountain after another to be faced.
Just as God can lift the valleys of despair, God can level off the hills and mountains . . .
Sometimes the challenges are overwhelming, the needs overwhelming. . .
It can threaten our peace. . .
Learn to surrender!
To simply put one foot in front of the other, to breathe as we go. The work of God is never finished, but, sometimes we have to stop and see how far we have come, look back, partway up that mountain, and see the valleys below, and be amazed at how far we have come!! Have you ever done that, have you done that here, recently – really stopped, and looked at where you have come from? Talking with my mother in the trip here, “did you ever think you would live to see the kind of change and progress you have seen?” – no! and sometimes I need to remember that, and rejoice, and not just look at the looming mountains ahead. . .
And, along that mountain path, God will make “Uneven places level . . .” Inequality is that “uneven place” for me, the disturber of peace – we live in a world of injustice, where the poor are demonized by our politicians, where children with AIDS are still excluded from schools, where lgbt people struggle for basic human rights all over the world today. Creating justice is one of the ways to make peace. This weekend, in The Philippines, a very Catholic country, MCC in the Philippines is marching for lgbt and marriage equality – MCC is the only religious voice standing for equality, and calling a country to a new day of openness and freedom. Today, Jesus is with our Jamaican brothers and sisters who still suffer violence and are “hated to death,” as they stand for justice and hope.
And, there are the “rough places, that God is making plain. . .” There are still so many rough places, within us, among us, and in the world. Today, brothers and sister in Uganda meet in secret places, gather for prayer and work to defeat the “kill bill” that would authorize the death penalty for those suspected of being LGBT or even supporting LGBT people. MCC and our Global Justice Institute are there with them. I think of all the upheaval in the middle east, those who are this day risking their lives in rough places. Places where historic cultural clashes, divisions and hatred still thrive.
Imagine being an lgbt person in Syria, or Egypt , Libya or Gaza today. . .
And there are rough personal places. I meant that earlier about taking four really deep breaths – how do we make room for that in our frantically paced lives? What could change if you had compassion on yourself at least once a day, and took four really deep breaths before you reacted to something, or faced the next crisis or problem? Taking four really deep breaths does not take much time, no money, and no talent. At some level, doing that can be as shocking as the cold, cleansing waters of the Jordan. Most of us are carrying so much “stuff” that is not ours to carry . . .what if we really allowed God to smooth our rough places and stopped trying to do it all ourselves?
The world needs to be called again, to the classic meaning of repentance, which is “to turn” from the politics, practices, religious biases that cause hatred and division. John the Baptist preached a repentance that was rooted in the spiritual practice of forgiveness – Frederick Bruechner says that forgiveness entails, “the freedom again to be at peace inside our own skins and to be glad in each other’s presence.” Learning to forgive ourselves and each other, to accept God’s forgiveness, is a pathway to peace. Sometimes, churches struggle the hardest with forgiveness – such a terrible irony! It ought to be second nature for us to be able to forgive ourselves and each other in Jesus’ name. Especially for those of us who have experienced rejection. How can we let go, be at peace in our own skins and glad in each other’s presence?
Thank you, Sunshine Cathedral, for attempting to model and be that kind of place, that kind of community. Thank you for striving to be “found at peace,” even while we are waiting for God’s glory to be revealed, for valleys to be lifted, mountains brought low, uneven places leveled and the rough places made smooth. . .Peace takes practice.
Today, I bless you, Sunshine Cathedral MCC, as you offer the possibility of peace to this community, a peace that is shocking and comforting, that helps us surrender to God’s amazing grace and love. I bless you with the peace of Christ, that passes all understanding … may you be baptized into that peace this season. Amen.