Saturday, December 25, 2010

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly

My Dear Friends in Christ

Grace and Peace to you in God our Father and his Son, or Lord Jesus Christ whose birthday we remember in the midst of this liturgy. We come together to celebrate the birth of the Messiah, the Great King of Kings and Lord of Lords celebrated in the first reading. The Prophet Isaiah said of him that he would be called, “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” Each of these terms is chosen to represent a specific element of leadership. The Messiah must be Wonder-Counselor to be able to make the best decisions for his people. He must be God-Hero to ensure that he is the strongest and most able to reign. He must be Father-Forever as one who cares for his people and looks out for what is in their best interest. And, lastly, he must be Prince of Peace to make sure that the peace is kept among his people from without and within. Each of these traits describes the ideal leader. And, yet, so few of them apply to most of our leaders.

One of my favorite historical figures is Abraham Lincoln. His mere election as President was enough to split this country in two. If you were to look into his life, you would discover that he lost more elections than he won. When he put together a cabinet of advisers, he was so na├»ve that he actually hired all his competitors, all the people who lost to him in the primary, and expected that they would put aside any differences they had to serve the country. Sometimes he was justified in this belief but often he was not. He was incredibly patient with his generals, arguably too patient with men who believed they could retake lost territory by playing a defensive game. And, yet, despite being far from a “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace”, Lincoln is remembered as one of the best presidents in American history by almost everyone.

Today we celebrate the birth of the long-awaited Messiah who, in some ways, shares more with Lincoln than you might expect. Jesus was not born in a castle and raised on the finest foods. He was born among animals, seemingly in shame. It’s interesting to note that, despite being back in his home town, there’s no mention of visits from other family members to Jesus’ nativity. They may have come and paid their respects but they may also have been avoiding this man whose wife was having a child who was clearly not conceived in wedlock. Instead, the people who come and pay their respects are the shepherds, men often were considered necessary but religiously unclean because they dealt with the blood of animals at the animal’s birth and death. They are the ones informed by the Angels of the birth of Jesus and who are privileged to hear the angelic chorus sing “Glory to God in the Highest and on earth, peace to his people.

It’s amazing how we tend to only expect great things from those who are born into great wealth and great power and how that always seems to disappoint us when those people have affairs, financial malfeasance, and other sordid activities. And, yet, over and over again, to paraphrase the song of Mary, God casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. Part of what I find so encouraging about living here in the United States is how we seem to exalt when this happens. On the one hand, we have incredibly greedy people who seem intent on not sharing their gifts with those around them, the scrooges if you will. But, on the other hand, there are people who will take a homeless African-American kid into their family and help raise him. There are those of you who won’t even hesitate to help a a sick neighbor in getting the crops out of the field. And, in the last month, I’ve felt privileged to see some of you reach out to those who are truly struggling with bills and food to try to lift them up. In some ways, when we do this, we are standing beside the Angels heeding the call they received to give respect and honor to a simple infant wrapped in swaddling clothes who is truly “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” May the peace of the Christ-child guide you in all your decisions.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Ask for a sign from the Lord

My Dear Friends in Christ

Grace and Peace to you in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ in the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. Have you ever been disappointed by God? Ever asked for something from God and not gotten what you want? A few years ago, I was riding with a good priest friend of mine named Fr. Bob Davies. Fr. Davies has, since then, passed away but he used to accompany me four times a year to the Twin Cities to watch plays with some other priests. One time, we were talking about budgeting frustrations that he was having with his two rural parishes. Now, to understand why this next comment is so shocking, you have to understand something about Fr. Davies history. Prior to becoming a priest, he was involved in local and national politics. If you travel to Hampton and mention his name, they will probably remember him best as the county recorder. He was a whiz with numbers and budgets. He was one of the guys that Senator Harkin relied on to work behind the scenes on his finances and make sure he wasn’t overspending. So, as we were driving along Interstate 35 close to where it intersects with interstate 90, you can imagine how surprised I was to hear him say that he thought parishes take budgets too seriously. This is man who, prior to priesthood, dedicated his life to being the guy who said to politicians that they can’t spend something because it would go over budget. But, according to Bob, by being so strict about staying in budget, they missed out on the possibility that God may be calling us to do something more. At the time, I was just a new Associate Pastor but it still struck me and continues to strike me the more I think about it.

Today’s first reading and gospel are a definite exercise in point, counter point. In other words, two people are presented with similar situations and end up with complete different solutions. Both Ahaz and Joseph have to make a life or death decision. Ahaz is in charge of Judah which is situated between two countries that wanted to wage war with two countries on his southern border. Ahaz thinks that he can remain neutral but one of the southern countries is Israel, a sister Judaic country. He has to know that he’s going to get drug into this war somehow, even if he isn’t sure whose side he should be on. Joseph, on the other hand, isn’t dealing with war but with a personal life or death situation. To be engaged at the time of Jesus was a serious commitment. If someone were to have relations with another person, it would result in their death. Yet, since the marriage hasn’t happened, the couple is not allowed to have relations. In both cases, God approaches the men even before they ask. God seems willing to allow Ahaz to keep Judah neutral and will even protect him if he asks. God tells Joseph to marry Mary quickly and protect her from shame. This is where the two stories both diverge and interlock. Joseph does as the Angel tells him and sets up for us what we will celebrate at the end of this week. Ahaz, on the other hand, basically says he’ll deal with things his own way and won’t ask God for help, despite the fact that God told him to do so. You can’t tempt a God who is telling him to ask for help. Since Ahaz refuses to ask God for help, God tells him that he will be replaced by someone who will. As Christians, we believe that this child is the Christ, the one whose earthly father did what the Angel wanted.

We live in a very cynical, pragmatic world. So often, when we need help there is a temptation to believe that we either do it ourselves or it won’t get done. Yet, as believers, we are challenged especially by today’s readings. Miracles do in fact happen. Not everything is so predictable that we can write the story even before it happens. Sure, we need budgets and auditors to make sure that we don’t go off the handle. And, as your pastor, I do my best to make sure that we live within our budget. But, that will never stop me from dreaming for a miracle. Please don’t stop dreaming for that miracle cure or that problem resolved. For, soon we will remember the greatest miracle of all time: the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.