Friday, December 30, 2016

Christmas Eve 2016 - Virtual Reality and the Beauty of Real Life

One of the recent advances in technology is virtual reality.  You can now buy a headset to turn your smartphone into a virtual reality screen.  The Playstation 4 is advertising games that are designed for the virtual reality medium.  For now, you strap on the headset to block out the real world, so you can be totally immersed in the virtual world.  The technology recognizes where you are looking, so that as you turn around, the field of vision changes, so the bad guys can come from behind you, from the side and up above.  

I think that is pretty amazing, so much more immersive than the Super Mario Brothers I played when I was a teenager.  There was no illusion of reality.  You might get lost in the challenge to defeating the boss in each level, but there was no question that you were in the real world, that your Mom could stand between you and the screen and simply break all concentration that you had, any connection to the game. 

Science fiction has long played with future scenarios that blend the real world and a virtual one.  Total Recall involved implanting false memories of vacations and adventures in your head, so real that you would swear you had actually experienced them.  Star Trek had the holodeck, where players could escape to any virtual setting they desired.  Perhaps most famous are the Matrix movies where all of humanity was kept in a virtual world and only a few could access the real world, but the real world was so bad and depressing that one of characters was willing to sell out all his friends just to forget the real world and go back into the virtual one. 

In all of these stories is the theme that the virtual world is better, more entertaining, more exciting.  It makes sense in the gaming world, because once the game starts, you immediately have a purpose and a mission.  You have to get from one place to another or blow this thing up or get that object at all costs.  This is far more interesting than the real world where you have to do your taxes, brush your teeth and walk 10000 steps to nowhere every day.

In some ways religion plays into this as well.  For most of Christian history, heaven was the virtual reality the church promised and proclaimed, because for much of Christian history, life was not pretty for many people.  The real world was dirty and difficult.  War wiped out millions.  Plagues wiped out millions.  Diseases like cholera wiped out millions.  Farming without the help of modern machines broke the body down at a young age, especially as one started doing hard labor as a child.  And the solace that the church could offer was heaven.  If you can get through this lifetime without doing anything terrible, you will get to be in heaven where everything is perfect.

The emphasis on this message that made sense in its time.  Heaven was used as both carrot and stick, encouraging people to good behavior and forcing them be part of the church (because if you don’t go to church, you can’t go to heaven.) 

Certainly eternal life is part of the promise of the good news.  But tonight, this Christmas Eve, we are invited to consider that there is more to the story than heaven, there is more to eternal life than life after death.  If that were it, there is no need for this evening, this story.  There is no need for angels or shepherds, a baby in a manger and a no vacancy sign.  There is no need for Jesus if this life is just a temporary home, a testing ground, a place from which to escape.  I believe that the nativity story is one that draws our attention to this time, this place and this life.  The Christmas story is about God making this life into a piece of eternal life.  Because eternal doesn’t just mean from now until forever.  It means always and always.  It means right now and back then and over there and until forever.  Eternal life is the journey as much as the destination.

Christmas celebrates Jesus coming down and saying, “Come follow me.  Come walk with me.”  When we are walking with Jesus, we are already walking in eternal life.

But, you may counter, the world is not perfect.  There are hungry people and people who are afraid and people who get sick and not just serious illnesses but really irritating illnesses that do nothing but stuff up your nose and take you out of circulation for a few days.  What about mosquitos?  Not just the ones with disease, but the ones that suck your blood and leave you with nothing but an itchy bump.  What about poison ivy?  That’s just misery for touching the wrong plant.  Not only are there car accidents but there is Boston traffic and there are Boston drivers.  And what about all the stuff I have to get done?   What about my job and saving for retirement?  What about all the errands that won’t take care of themselves?  How is all this part of eternal life?

The child in the manger is there in the manger precisely because this life matters, this reality matters.  Jesus is born into our reality this night not to draw you away from this life but to experience it with you.  The child in the manger is there to transform this life, your life, into eternal life.

The child in the manger is going to grow up and look at you and love you and say, “Walk with me.”  Walk with me through sick days and traffic and worry.  Walk with me through mosquitos and poison ivy (maybe walk around the poison ivy).  Walk with me through your job and your retirement and through that moment when you breathe your final breath.  Walk with me and approach other people with love and kindness.  Walk with me and learn to be content with what you have and who you are and where you are (even in Boston traffic).  Walk with me and be a person of peace and hope and joy.  When we are walking with Jesus, we are already walking in eternal life.

Virtual reality is not better than the real world.  This world is already fascinating.  Every breath gives us the possibility of a new start, a new change, a new direction.  Every person gives us the opportunity to love and be loved.  The child in the manger says, “Pay attention to this life because it is beautiful; it is already a gift.”

The child in the manger alerts us to the possibility that we are already in the midst of eternal life.

December 18, 2016 - 4th Sunday in Advent

I have been talking for the past three weeks about the importance of the incarnation within the Lutheran tradition.  You can argue that the incarnation is simply a part of the broader Christian tradition.  We all celebrate Christmas in some way, the story of Emmanuel, God with us.  Acknowledging the humanness of Jesus is part of the historic Christian litmus test.  If you proclaim Jesus as something other than fully human and fully divine, you end up in one of several camps of heresy.
                But while other Christian traditions have focused more on the wonder of the resurrection and ascension, how he conquered death and left the building and are waiting for him to come back to take us with him, Luther and the Lutherans that followed were much more affected by the incarnation, marveling at the idea that Jesus is among us as one of us, marveling that this God among us suffered and died on the cross, not seeing the Christian life as working toward an escape plan for humanity, but rather God doubling down on this reality, this humanity.
                This has led to a strong emphasis on service, a belief that the Christian life is fundamentally about caring for others.  As the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote while he was imprisoned by the Nazi government, “The Church is only the Church when it exists for others.”   Luther talked several times about the Christian call to be Christ to and for one another.  This was coupled with the idea that when we serve others we are serving Christ himself.  “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.”
                For Luther, this life of service was a natural outgrowth of the grace of God in Jesus.  We have received the gift of life that we didn’t earn, that we couldn’t expect, that we can’t deserve.  The natural response was loving service, worshiping God and serving those in need.  For Luther, if faith did not inspire such works, it was time to consider the depth of one’s faith.
                The good news about this is it has led to some wonderful and inspired service around the world.  Through the Lutheran World Hunger Appeal we are feeding people, helping people around the world achieve independence and stability.  Through the Lutheran Disaster Response we have helped many people in crisis and have a reputation for staying on the ground, connecting to local partners, not leaving until there is stability.  In the United States, Lutherans have been involved in senior care and housing, orphan care and adoption, resettling refugees, local hunger programs, urban housing renewal, urban farming and gardening in food deserts not to mention all of the smaller projects that congregations do like our own stress kits and hospital pillows.
                Those of you who are reading Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking will note that this past week he made a distinction between wishful thinking and hopeful thinking.  Many times I hear wishful thinking expressed in the life of the church.  Wishful thinking is when we treat God like a genie, praying that God would reach down from heaven and break the rules.  It assumes that we are either trying to persuade God with the strength and numbers of our prayers, or proving our worthiness by the faithfulness of praying daily for the difficult or the impossible.  And there are times when this kind of prayer is all that is available, when we turn toward God at our wit’s end and say, “Into your hands…”
                But most of the time we should not be in wishful mode but hopeful mode.  Wishful mode waits for God to act.  A hopeful mode and hopeful life is different.  Hope lives toward the goal, lives toward the change.  Hope is based on the God who is not far away but has been and is among us in Jesus.  It is wishful living that simply prays for an end to world hunger.  It is hopeful living that prays and buys extra food to donate to the food pantry or prays and offers bread to the needy or prays and puts on a free meal for all.  It is wishful thinking that prays for peace.  It is hopeful thinking that seeks to be reconciled with our enemies, that stands or sits in nonviolent protest, that actively seeks to do actions of kindness and love.  And as always I give the Lutheran disclaimer, we do not do such things in order to earn God’s respect or appease God’s anger or prove our faith to God.  We do such things because God has already acted, because God has been among us as one of us.  In Jesus, God has given us a reason to hope.
                The bad news about this is that as one of my colleagues put it that in our current culture, “We are serving ourselves to death.”  It takes a lot of time, talent, money, planning and energy to serve people in a faithful and respectful way.  When that is where your efforts go, you may not pay as much attention to your buildings and programs (and that may be a faithful thing.)  Historically, for the Lutheran tradition, when we have talked about evangelism, it hasn’t been about growing churches (we assumed, perhaps mistakenly, that the churches would take care of themselves); it has been about caring for others.  Our focus in evangelizing has been making sure that people are fed and clothed and housed.  I think this may be why we struggle with the concept of evangelism as sharing faith or inviting people to church.  That just hasn’t been our definition or experience.  I think about a few years ago when we were hosting the Overnights for Hospitality and would have several women who were experiencing homelessness staying in the fellowship hall.  And we had a reputation of being a place where the meal was carefully prepared, the atmosphere was of an informal dinner party where, if you didn’t know the people, you wouldn’t necessarily know who was serving and who was being served..  The women were not just fed but also respected.  Even though it may not have put one more bottom in a pew on Sunday morning, that was superb evangelism that was happening.  Certainly it is something to work on, we should be able to talk about how our faith inspires the work and invite people into that work and worship.  But we should also be a voice saying that a life lived in service is a life that lives the gospel.  As trends toward wishful thinking and wishful praying and wishful living have grown more popular, we should be a voice inviting people to think, pray and live in hope. 

                Because that is the nature of the gospel, that is what the nativity is all about, hope.  We are not wishing for God to do something.  We live hopefully because God has done something.  As we consider the baby Jesus in the manger, we are looking at hope, a hope that can send us out to work toward peace, to work toward justice, to work toward an end to poverty, to work toward respect for all people, to work toward joy, to work toward the gospel.  Wishful thinking says God hasn’t done enough.  Hopeful thinking praises a God who has given all we need in Jesus and sends us out to live the good news.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

December 11, 2016 - 3rd Sunday of Advent - Incarnation 3

When I watch a game, I tend to notice the good plays on both sides, because I have respect for the work of athletes.  Good plays don’t come out of nowhere.  That “nothing but net” three-point shot, that perfect spiral with a one-handed catch in the N Zone, that goal in the top-right corner, that paint-scraping pass on the outside lane, that finishing kick at the end of a marathon, that kind of moment comes from years of dedication, years of air-balls and wobbly throws and hitting the wall both literally and figuratively.  And as spectators, we take all those successes and failures, injuries and recoveries, pre-dawn runs and late night weight training and boil them down to one question.  Did they win the game?  All the moments that make up a game get boiled down to “Who won?”
                A regulation soccer game is ninety minutes, plus a little stoppage time, but you can watch the highlights of most games in one or two.  Most soccer games are 88 or 89 minutes of anticipation with a couple of minutes that stand out.  The soundtrack of most soccer games is a mix of various team chants with a song of anticipation, “Oh, oh, oh…darn.”  And now and again, the announcer gets to cry out in joy for a goal.
                The great mistake of organized religion, and I think Christianity is one of the worst offenders, is making faith about the end of the game, that is making it all about heaven, winning eternal life.  Because a couple of things happen.  First, we spend time trying to figure out if we can control who gets to win and who loses, we put all sorts of pressure on ourselves about whether we are good enough to win and we form communities based on winners and losers, giving the message that only winners are welcome here.  Second, we opt out of the game itself.  Since by grace I have already won, I no longer need to play.  Whenever you hear Christians treating the environment as a temporary resource that doesn’t matter because, after all, we’re going to heaven anyway, that’s a cop out of the game.  Whenever communities get so wrapped up in personal devotion that they ignore what is going on outside of them, that’s a cop out as well.  Whenever, and this is what I see among mainline churches, faith becomes compartmentalized, a cross-shaped pendant among other beads on a necklace that represents our lives when faith should be the chain that keeps all the beads together, that is a cop out of the game.
                In talking about the incarnation, one of the things I have said is that, Jesus coming among us as one of us, gives greater purpose and importance to this life, this moment right now.  And what is that greater purpose?  We may all answer that differently depending on which part of the gospel we are reading.  The purpose seems to be expressed in a collection of values and vision:  love, abundant life, hope, joy, peace.  One theme that occurs again and again is that of freedom.  We heard a bit about that in our gospel lesson this morning.  John the Baptist sits in prison, wondering if he has wasted his life, wondering if Jesus is the real Messiah, the one he proclaimed, the one he waited for, the one Israel waited for.  And Jesus tells the messengers to tell John what they see.  “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  This isn’t just about a celebration of the miraculous; this is about people being given freedom.  These are images that go back to the prophet Isaiah who used similar language to describe Israel set free from the power of the Babylonian empire.  “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”  Jesus wants John and all of us to know that in Jesus God is setting the world free.  It is important to note that in the first century, things like blindness and deafness, premature death and poverty were seen as the result of somebody’s (either the person or a parent or an ancestor) sin.  So when Jesus comes on the scene healing and raising and bringing  good news, it’s all part of freedom from sin, from the guilt of our mistakes, from the whispered voices of our failures reminding us that we will fail again, freedom from the shame that tells us that if someone knew that real me, they would hate me.
            Jesus sets us free not to pull us out of the game, but so that we can play the game with joy, so that the game of life itself becomes heaven for us.  That’s the whole point of the nativity and incarnation, Jesus comes to enter the game with us, to change it for us, to turn it from a job on which our life depends into a game played with love and joy.
            You could say that Jesus comes to change our status from professional to amateur.  Professional players are those whose livelihoods depend on their ability to play.  Amateurs are those who play for love, without pressure, without worry of failure.  Amateurs can fail and yet win because it really is about the joy of playing more than the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.
            You know how you feel which you watch the sunset at Chappequoit beach?  You know how you feel when you have helped someone out of tight space?  You how you feel when you feel loved or love someone else?  Do you remember how you felt when you had your first crush?  Do you remember how you felt when you learned to ride a bike?  Do you remember how it feels to drink a simple glass of water when you are really thirsty?  That is the joy of the game.  Jesus sets us free so we can enjoy living.  That does not mean it will always be fun.  Sometimes life will be painful and sometimes stressful and sometimes sad, but even in those moments that can be an underlying and abiding joy, a sense of peace found in the love of God that is always present even in the midst of the deepest losses.
            But there is another part of this game, one that we sometimes forget because we have a tendency to turn in ourselves, to say, “I am so thankful that Jesus has set me free.”  I think what Jesus shows us in the incarnation is that to be fully human is to be free, but we only live out that humanity when we seek to set others free.  The true joy of living is found in allowing others to be free, to also be free from shame and guilt, from the fear of failure, to be free from arbitrary judgments and the crushing weight of poverty.  This is the divine direction in which Christ sends us, eternal life is being set free to set others free.

            Eternal life is not winning the game; it is playing the game.  Jesus entered the game to play alongside us, not so that we could win, but to show us that the winning is in the playing and the playing is in the winning.  So get in the game people.  You have been set free to get in the game.  You have been set free to set others free.  Get in the game.

December 4, 2016 - 2nd Sunday in Advent - Incarnation Part 2

There was a time in the life of the church when none of you would have been welcome.   You would have walked in the door and eventually someone would have asked you how you were connected to Judaism.  Because that was where the church began, with a Jewish Messiah born to Jewish parents in a village in Israel.  His first disciples were all Jewish and although he had a few interactions with Gentiles, non-Jewish people, they are exceptions in the narrative.  Perhaps the most memorable is at the end of the passion story when a Roman soldier, witnessing his death, recognizes that there is something important about this man, saying, “Truly this man was son of God.”
                But to my knowledge most of you are Gentiles and members of the earliest church would say that you do not belong.  This has always been the challenge of the incarnation.  We assume that Jesus’ physical appearance or lineage is the standard for what it means to be human.  In the early church, it was Jews saying that because Jesus was Jewish, everyone who follows him should be Jewish too, obedient to the law especially the physical law around circumcision.  The twelve apostles took it for granted that the extent of the ministry was Israel and the gospel was for the children of Israel.  It was Paul who expanded the vision, who told them that Christ was bigger, that to be human was more than a matter of lineage.  The gospel is expansive and open to all.
                Unfortunately, the Gentiles pulled a great reversal and forgot the Jewishness of Jesus, portraying him as a European character, to the point that far too often within Christian history, we have treated the Jewish people as less than human, as threat, as scapegoat.  We labeled the genetic ancestors of Jesus as Christ-killers and felt justified in the exclusion.
                Also in our history, we have focused on the maleness of Jesus which has led to some sad understandings of what it means to be human, with one gender labeled as superior, truly human.  After all, Jesus was male so doesn’t that make male the ideal gender?  And doesn’t that make women inferior in some way?  Even Paul gets tripped up in his vision here, in one passage saying that in Christ there is no longer male or female and in another commanding that women be silent in the assembly, heads covered in humility.  It took almost 1900 years before people started taking the role of women in leadership seriously in any expression of the church, suggesting that a woman could preach to a congregation as pastor.  It took Lutherans an extra 70 years to think that a woman could stand in the place of Christ at the communion table. 
                  This is where a literal reading of scripture can trip us up.  I am going to talk about Lutheranism and scripture later on this year but will say that, at its core, the Lutheran tradition finds value in the Bible in the way that it witnesses to the Word (with a capital “W”) that is Christ and God’s grace in Christ.  The Bible is inspired by God, but it is also a reflection of a specific place and time, an assemblage of very human authors with very human assumptions and predispositions.  It was written by people who thought the Earth was the center of the universe and the stars were little points of light in the sky.  It was written by people who didn’t know that the American continents existed.  It was written by people who had a pretty hazy idea about how bodies worked, what the brain did, what the blood did and where babies come from.  We read good news that has been filtered through 1st century (and older) minds.  New knowledge should inform our reading, new knowledge about anatomy, about psychology, about the planets and universe, new knowledge that has been researched and studied, examined and cultivated, should challenge us to reexamine our reading, not frighten us away from the knowledge itself.
                When I approach the Bible, I look for broad themes rather than hidden messages.  I hear themes of love and life, welcome and acceptance, forgiveness and promise, themes that overshadow the stories about tribalism, exclusion, judgementalism and violence that we have to admit are part of the biblical story.  Those of you with a more literalistic upbringing might accuse me of picking and choosing scripture.  I assure you that you are picking and choosing just as much as me.  Every time you eat a ham sandwich or cook a meal on Saturday or, just for women, come to church without a hat, you are saying that one part of scripture has more weight than another and some words can be ignored.
                Coming back to the incarnation, I do not believe that Jesus was seeking to exclude anyone by coming to us a male Jew.  In fact I think that he was trying to show that everyone is included even those who are commonly ignored.  He does not come in the guise of a powerful and wise person.  He doesn’t come as the next Roman emperor or even the next political king of Israel.  He comes as one of the least, implying that if God can be found in a manger in a backwater town, God can be where you are right now.  If the Messiah comes to earth as a nobody, then God is opening the kingdom to all the nobodies.  If this divine nobody is fully human then all of the nobodies are fully human.
                And once you start to consider that everyone is truly human from those on top to those way at the bottom, you might have to deal with some difficult conclusions.  All the people that you want to reject and ignore and hate are fully human, are included in what it means to be human, are part of what Jesus came to redeem, are included in the love and loving nature of God.   Muslims are fully human.  Refugees are fully human.  Jews are fully human.  Donald Trump is fully human.  Hillary Clinton is fully human. Terrorists (I didn’t say this would easy) are fully human.   Addicts are fully human.  Beggars are fully human.   CEOs are fully human.  Native Americans are fully human.  African Americans are fully human.  Neo-Nazis  (really, I didn’t say it would be easy) are fully human.  Homosexuals are fully human.  Transsexuals are fully human.   And you are fully human.
                You can be fully human and foolish.  You can be fully human and misguided and wrong.  You can be fully human and set that humanity aside to do something terrible and yet in the eyes of God you are still part of the humanity for which Jesus came.  So this is the challenge of the incarnation because our impulse is to reject the people we don’t like and keep them at arm’s length, surrounding ourselves with people who make us comfortable with shared heritage or shared ideas or a shared cultural taste.
                Jesus comes to us fully divine and fully human but as a human that very few us would aspire to be.   What I mean is that while early Christian Jews focused on Christ’s Jewishness and the Christian priesthood focused on his maleness, only a handful of Christians have ever really focused on his poverty and powerlessness as a model (people like Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa).  Nobody in our culture says to a child, “I hope you grow up to be a peasant just like Jesus.”  Yet the message of the incarnation is to challenge us to look for Christ where we don’t expect to find him. 
                I suggest that the message of the incarnation is that Christ can be found wherever we don’t want him to be and that challenges us to look and love where we don’t want to look and love.  Because if you don’t want Jesus to be at a Trump rally, that’s exactly where you will find him.  If you don’t want Jesus to be at a Black Lives Matter protest, Jesus will be standing there holding a sign.  If you don’t want Jesus to be in a mosque, you will find him on a prayer mat.  If you don’t want Jesus to be among the poor, he is sleeping near a steam vent.   And it may be that Jesus is to be found at some of these places weeping, but nevertheless he is there where we don’t want to find him, because Jesus is not fully human for the sake of a few people who are the right kind of human.

                Jesus is fully human for the sake of all humanity: the good, the bad, the embarrassing, the wonderful, the strange (and we are all strange to somebody).  This peasant God from Galilee is fully human so that we can find the full humanity of all people, to look at and love all people as he has looked at and loved each one of you.  There was a time in the life of the church when none of you would have been  welcome and there are people whom each one of us would rather not welcome, but the fully human and fully divine one, the peasant God from Galilee, offers a welcome to all.