Sunday, December 18, 2016

When Angels Visit by Hafidha Saadiqah (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;* and he named him Jesus.

Matthew 1:18-25

            Have you ever seen an angel, or had a vision?  I think I had a vision.  It happened this way.  Two days before I had the vision I could hardly finish my workout on the treadmill.  I gave up and went home, gathered my strength and everything seemed to be fine.  The next day, Friday, it took me 10 minutes to make it up the 13 stairs to my bedroom.  As I was dressing, I broke out in a cold sweat, became lightheaded, and felt as if I was dying.  Again, I rallied.  I got my youngest to school and took my sister to run an errand.  Arriving at work at 1pm, I started to feel the same, maybe worse than I did earlier in the morning.  I eventually made it to the doctor’s office, who told me that I would be “staying as a guest in the hospital for awhile.”  X-rays showed two fist-sized blood clots, one in each lung.  I was told that I was lucky to be alive. 

         After about 2 days on Heparin I started to understand what the doctor meant, how close I was to dying. Thank God for blood thinners!  So, as I settled in for a second week in the hospital – and 5 roommates later – I had my back to the door and was staring out the window.  I wasn’t asleep, and I wasn’t anxious about anything, and I wasn’t on any other drug.  Then I saw my dad.  He came through the door of my room.  Dressed in his usual jet black suit with crisp white oxford shirt and blue necktie.  But, he had such a worried look on his face.  It was the first time I had ever seen his face that way.  I saw him as clearly as I am seeing you.  He said nothing, but walked towards me.  I began to panic.  And instantly he moved backwards with his hands up and went away.  I guess the reason why I was afraid was that my brother and sisters and I had buried him two months prior.  I’ve never had an experience like this before, and I haven’t had one since.

         My experience was not like how Matthew writes about Joseph’s.  No, do this, or don’t do that.  It didn’t involve anyone else except my dad and me.  And, there was not a big revelation, no “This was the interpretation of the vision of your dad.”  But, what I’ve come to understand these 13 years later is that the space between life and death is very thin.  I don’t think we see the space because we are, for good or ill, products of the Enlightenment; we are so wedded to the rational, what can be explained by microscopes, test tubes, and longitudinal studies.  And, thanks to John Calvin and all of the theologians of the 16th century for excising any and all things that lent themselves to mystery and sacred symbolism and practice in giving us Protestant Christianity.

         When angels visit, as they did to Joseph and Zacharias and Mary they challenge our understanding of, not only time and space, but also faithfulness, righteousness, and openness to God looks like.  And when angels visit they invite us to risk being unsafe, being seen as credible, and be led by God in ways that we can’t even imagine. I think that’s what the Joseph story is all about. Both Joseph and Mary were vulnerable, and risked being excluded from their families and Jewish society in order to follow through on the word of an angel, a messenger from God.  The word from God was to trust God’s promises of presence, of being the one who would bear them up, of being the one to make a way for them when what they were being asked to do all seemed implausible. Like Joseph and Mary and the shepherds and all of the others in the Hebrew scriptures who witnessed the call of God through an angel, a vision, a voice:
-the boy Samuel in the temple who hears a voice calling out to him
-Daniel and his companions in the lion’s den. There’s a vision in the middle of them, spewing fire
-Balaam’s donkey – Balaam goes to speak to God’s people, and the donkey won’t behave. Balaam finally kicks the donkey, who then speaks, “There’s an angel there!”

So, too, are we called by that same God to follow and trust.  The voice, the vision asks us to give all of our heart to a way of being in this world that goes against the grain and privileges of mercy and grace, of courageous patience and forthrightness to speak up and speak out about what God is doing.

         To speak about seeing angels and hearing voices and having visions is very dangerous in our world when one out of every five Americans is living with some level of mental illness, and often lack of care and funds.  But, if our confidence rests in a God who is always in pursuit of us, who promises to never leave us nor forsake us, who has led us this far along our way in life, who speaks still…then why not an angel?  Why not a star?  Why not lumbering shepherds?  Why not diviners?  Why not the weakness of a baby?  Ours is a God who can speak to and through broken and troubled minds and hearts.

         When angels visit we are not always aware of their presence.  And sometimes their message is lost on us.  But, God is faithful, and will not leave us to flounder in chaos and confusion.  God’s voice can open our deaf ears.  God’s power can open our blinded eyes.  God’s power can break up our stony hearts.  God’s power can change our stubborn minds.  That’s good news, and it’s frightening at the same time for us who have been anticipating the Christmas event.  God’s presence coming among us, indeed, already among us, meets and works with us where we are – in our common ordinary lives, using common ordinary things and people to do uncommon, not ordinary things. 

         To the extent that you can discern it, when an angel visits, and if it is showing you and asking you to dare and go deeper in the life of the Spirit of God, be obedient and do it.  It may seem like it’s not real and we can explain it away. But, don’t write it off. That’s the call to the new creation we’ve been waiting for.  That’s the mystery of the incarnation – God with us in all of life.  Amen.


Sunday, December 4, 2016

Real Religion by Hafidha Saadiqah (with an assist by Karen Shepler)


Matthew 3:1-12  (3b, 9, 11)

3b  Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

9   Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’, for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham. 

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.   

            I, and many of my colleagues in pulpits across the nation today have a lot of nerve to be speaking from this text.  It’s one of those passages that reminds a lot of people why they don’t like clergy folk in the first place; judgmental know-it-alls.  Well we might be.  Nevertheless, we press on.  Our sermon titles will be different, but what the text suggests is pretty much the same: the texture, depth, and tenor of our Christianity as a movement of people:  that’s what matters.  The point of Christianity, our Christian lives, is to open up to God - God’s joy, God’s peace, God’s purposes.  For us and all people.  And the point of churches like ours is to help us understand that learning, praying, and acting is how we open up to God.  And I am persuaded that this irritating text points exactly to that: that church is a learning and praying and acting body. 

         But first, to talk about a “real religion” suggests that there is a “fake religion”, or a “pretend religion, and, that there is a pure, untainted religion out in the world somewhere.  The trouble with the idea of a “real religion” lies in who’s doing the judging, what’s their criteria, and, why in the world does this matter anyway.  There are millions of Christians around the world, coming from cultures older than our own, practicing Christianity in a variety of ways; in ways that may seem strange to us.  And to top it off, within all these communities there are millions and millions of Christian experiences.  So, who’s to say which experience is authentic, more real, the correct one, the one that Jesus taught?  John the Baptist says so. 

         John the Baptist, that larger than life gospel figure stomps into our lives this Advent season as loudly and obnoxiously as he does every Advent season.  This larger than life man tells us, “Repent!  Repent!”  He pisses off the Temple priests and lawyers and scribes in Judea by claiming that being linked to God via Abraham was not enough to be considered a righteous person and gain entrance into God's heaven.  John said that deeds, works of righteousness, being in right relationship with others in matters of justice as well as piety was what God really desired.  He gets himself killed by the Romans, maybe with the help of the Temple elites, by baptizing people who came to hear him preach of a “new way” to be in harmony with God; the coming of Messiah.  This went contrary to, and undercut, the position and voice of the Temple. People were listening to him instead of them.

         The way that the gospel writer Matthew remembers it, John the Baptizer does not mince words drawing a distinction between true followers of God and the pretend ones.  John refers to them as stones and then the true children; the repentant and the un-repentant; the wheat and the chaff; the living and the dead.  Talk about a man who is no shrinking violet.  He said it as he saw it.  For John the matter is settled:  you are either ready and worthy of the kingdom of heaven or you are not.  You will either get in or you will not.  The only way to be sure is if your profession and your behavior match up.  He says: Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Bear fruit worthy of your own baptism.  Remember your baptismal vows.  Baptism is essential to the Christian life.  It is our touchstone, the seal of our initiation into the family of the God of Jesus Christ.  But, it is only the beginning.  Our faith needs to be worked out in the joy and the laughter of life as well as and particularly in the rough and tumble of everyday life.  John lifts up the imagery of a tree, a branch that produces a blossom.  That’s the quintessential way we know that the tree is alive - it bears fruit.  And the same is true for us.  We need to bear fruit.  I ask myself, what kind of fruit am I bearing.  How am I growing from one season to the next?  How am I moving from one season to the next?  And I ask you what kind of fruit are you bearing?  Is there anything about us that suggests that we are alive and producing not only the fruit of the spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control - but also the fruit that specifically looks and tastes and smells like mercy, grace, welcome, support, healing, advocacy, and justice?  Are we producing that?  I think we are.  Sometimes we can’t see it but others remind us.

         I do not, cannot, and won’t ever presume to set in judgment on anyone’s faith and religious life.  It’s all I can do to keep myself facing forward and on track with the Spirit of God.   But, as far as I can tell, for this moment we have together, the gospel writers recalled Jesus’ ministry as real religion because it was not sectioned off from his everyday life an the everyday lives of those around him.  It has to be the same for us.  Real religion for Jesus and for us has to be about two things.  First, it has to deepen and mature.  It can’t stop at the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer.  It has to go beyond church membership.  It has to reach for substantive learning and being.  It surpasses a craving for happiness that prizes our self-preservation at the expense of others.  It has to be more than craving for happiness.

         The second thing that real religion must be about is pushing against the narrative of scarcity: not enough security, not enough purity, and not enough resources.  Real religion rejects the mantra that we are being invaded and we must close ourselves off from the world.  Instead real relition welcomes the stranger, the refugee, the disenfranchised.  Real religion rejects the doctrine of polluting bodies; that difference in language, religion, skin color, nationality, sexuality, and gender and politics are threat to "our" existence.  Real religion realizes that God and the life of the world are infinitely more complicated than the narrow boxes and ideologies we have been conditioned to believe are fixed and unchangeable. Real religion pushes back from that.  Real religion works to dismantle policies that impoverish the many for the enrichment of a few.  Who around us needs to be gathered up in our arms and led to know that there is more to life?

         Real religion is about transformation, not self-preservation.  As generations of Christians before us who saw the world of their day as being on the brink of disaster and ripe for God to step in and intervene, we most certainly could do the same.  We could hide our heads in the collective cultural sands of our time, even do just enough for the Kin-Dom of God just to make ourselves feel good that we've done something.  We could be a church within two denominations focused on our own needs and desires.  Or, we could go for broke.  Go for the real.  Cultivate the soil in which we stand and open ourselves up to God and God’s purposes so that God will produce in us fruit worthy of our calling as one’s who have been water washed and Spirit-born.

         In this Advent season, this post-election season, particularly as times are stressful - many of us would like to point to a time when life was not so complicated, full of voices and perspectives that differ from and challenge our beliefs.  As frustrating and tempting as it may be to find comfort and security in an earlier time, regardless of the search, there is always the need to be clear about the thing one is seeking to preserve.  Searching for that which is worth or worthy of preserving…is the point of faith and religion.  As much as we are waiting on Jesus, to return to earth, to return to us again everyday of our lives  - sharpening our vision, inspiring our imagination, enlightening our understanding of the scriptures, maturing our prayer life, strengthening our resolve - the God of Jesus of Nazareth is waiting on us to be available, to be shaped, to be filled, to be used - to live into a “real religion” that is as audacious and infectious as John the Baptizer’s.  We are being called to open up to God and what God is doing. Are you willing?  How are you preparing?