How Silently, How Silently the Wondrous Gift is Given

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a meditation on Luke 1:5-20 for the second Sunday of Advent

By now, you’ve probably noticed that angels in the Bible have an annoying habit of always saying the same thing. Every time an angel appears, literally out of the blue, the first thing they say is, “Don’t be afraid!”

Which is ridiculous. Because first of all, angels don’t make any noise when they sneak up behind you, so when you turn around and see one inches from your face, you’re bound to jump out of your skin. And second of all, everybody knows that in the Bible, when an angel shows up, it’s because God is about to do something that’s going to knock your life for a loop. And that is a legitimate reason to be afraid.

This is exactly the kind of angel our friend Zechariah encounters today. Not a fluffy, herald angel with flowing blonde hair and a long trumpet. This angel comes without fanfare, a no-nonsense bike-messenger of an angel who gets right to the point: Zechariah, after today, your life will never be the same. 

The interesting thing is that all through these early chapters of the gospel of Luke, which is the only gospel that includes a story about the birth of Jesus—all through this story, we’re going to encounter exactly this kind of angel again and again as we spend some time with a few of the people—remarkably brave people—who play a crucial role in the arrival of the Christ child. Ordinary people who are very surprised, and sometimes very afraid, to hear from an angel that God is going to arrive in the world through their very own human lives. This happens to our friend Zechariah this morning; it happens to Joseph, and it happens to Mary: three human beings who have an unexpected visit from an angel who shows up on their doorstep–kind of like Ed McMahon, except without the giant check. Congratulations, O favored one! You have been selected from among all mortals to play a crucial role in the arrival of Emmanuel—God-with-Us! 

This is not exactly the messenger we hope will show up on our doorstep. Because the message this angel brings is scary. It’s hard to believe. And it’s always a little complicated. 

And yet somehow, these ordinary people—Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, Joseph, and Mary—all these people have something to teach us about the mystery that lies at the center of our faith: the mystery that we embrace together in this season of Advent. Not just the mystery of how it is that the infinite God of all creation is arriving, even now, to be right here in the body of the world with us—although that’s certainly mysterious enough. But that’s not all. These four individuals also have something to tell us about how it is that God’s presence among us, the Christ of God, arrives in and through us—in and through our own ordinary, frail, fallible, human lives. That’s the really wild proposition of Advent. That’s what the humans in this ancient story are here to tell us. Not only that God is arriving, but that God arrives in the world through us.

Which brings us back to our friend Zechariah, who is minding his own business, having an ordinary day at the office, performing his priestly duties in the Temple when an angel appears and says—what else?—“Do not be afraid!” But of course Zechariah is afraid, because he’s no dummy. He’s a priest; he’s read the scriptures. He knows what kind of crazy things happen every time an angel shows up!

But Zechariah is more than afraid. He’s perplexed, as any of us would be. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth have been waiting and hoping their whole lives for a child. They’ve grieved over their childlessness, and they seem to have made peace with the way their lives have turned out. And now, in their very old age, this angel appears to Zechariah and tells him that he and Elizabeth are about to have a son who will teach his people how to prepare the way for the coming of the long-awaited Messiah.

Now that’s a crazy proposition. Who could blame Zechariah for being confused? Who could blame him for asking just one teensy question: “How will I know that this is so?”

And yet, the angel does seems to blame him. Because you asked a dumb question, the angel seems to say, I’m going to strike you dumb for the next nine months. On the surface, that’s what seems to happen this morning: a power-happy angel zaps a human for asking an innocent question. Most often, this is the explanation that the church has offered: Zechariah’s is struck dumb by the angel as punishment for his lack of faith. 

I’ll confess to you that I have never found this explanation to be particularly convincing. God has never seemed to me like this kind of a tyrant: a God who punishes God’s beloved for a tiny bit of doubt—the kind of doubt that any reasonable human being would have. 

I think there is another explanation here. Another meaning behind Zechariah’s nine-month silence. 

I think it’s just possible that Zechariah needs to become silent because, as all the Christian mystics teach us, SILENCE is the doorway through which God is born in us. 

Remember that there are many ways to read a Bible story. We can read it on the literal level, in which case, the moral of this story is: Ask a faithless question and you’ll get punished with silence. That’s one way to read it. But we can also read it on a spiritual level. What is this story saying about the spiritual processes at work in our human lives? In this case, Zechariah’s silence teaches us not so much about punishment, but about the way in which God is born into the world through our willingness to become silent. Silent enough for the Word of God – and this is what we call Jesus, isn’t it: Logos, the Word—silent enough for the Word of God to be heard, and born, in us. 

What the ancient stories teach us, what the mystics of our tradition teach us, is that a spiritual practice of silence is crucial to the birth of God, the gestation of God, if you will, in us. For nine months—a pregnant pause, if you will—for nine pregnant months, Zechariah waits in silence. His wife, Elizabeth, physically carries the child who will pave the way for the Christ. But Zechariah also has a crucial role to play as he becomes the spacious container of holy silence that paves the way for the coming of the Christ. Without silence, our chattering mind—our rational, logical mind—will always crowd out the Word of God that is longing to be born in us.

And so, the season of Advents asks us whether we’re serious about paving the way for God. Are we serious about clearing the way, like John the Baptist, for God to arrive in the word? Take up a practice of silence, the angel says. As far as we know—as far as all the world’s spiritual traditions know—this is a required practice if the birth of the holy is to take place among us. We must take up a spiritual discipline of silence—contemplation, or meditation, we like to call it—we take up a practice of silence in order to quiet the grasping, chattering mind of the ego and allow the mind of God, the mind of Christ, to grow in us.

If we believe, with the great 13th century mystic, Meister Eckhart, that the birth of the Christ 2,000 years ago does us no good if the Christ is not born in us, now, today, then we need a spiritual practice of silence. And if Zechariah is any indication, Advent is a good time to take on that practice. 

The good news is that nine months of total silence is probably more than it takes. Twenty minutes a day, though, seems to be the minimum daily requirement for the practice to take root in us. And I want to suggest that these remaining weeks of Advent are a perfect time to experiment with this practice. We have opportunities right here at First Congregational Church, and many more in the wider community, if you’d like to take up a practice of silence this season. You can join us on Sunday mornings at 9:00 in the lounge to learn about different kinds of contemplative prayer and to share your experience with friends. And, of course, you can start your own day in holy silence, maybe before the sun rises, just listening for what new thing God is offering to do in you and through you for the sake of the world.

That’s the Advent invitation. An invitation to get quiet enough that we can hear the brush of angel wings nearby; quiet enough, spacious enough to become, in our bodies, in our minds, God’s doorway into the world. Quiet enough to welcome the One who is longing, even now, to arrive among us, in holy silence, and in great joy. Amen.

How Silently Advent 2 2019
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Hide and Seek

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A Message for All Ages on the First Sunday of Advent

Did anybody here ever like to play hide and seek? Did you ever find a really, really great hiding place? See if you can remember what it felt like to be hidden in your really great hiding place. Can you remember listening as the counter counted…one…two…three…and you felt so excited because you knew you had the best hiding place of all….and you could still hear the countdown…four…five…six…you know it’s going to take forever for them to find you….seven….eight….nine….and when they do find you, everyone’s going to agree that yours was the best hiding place of all time….ten! Ready or not, here I come!  All of a sudden everything gets very quiet. You can hear footsteps going through the house. Getting closer…and then getting farther away. And then farther away still. And so you wait. And wait. Until you can’t hear any footsteps anymore.

And after a long while, you begin to wonder if anybody is ever going to come and find you. Maybe no one is even looking for you anymore.

I wonder if that ever happened to you. Did anyone ever wait a really long time to be found? 

The Gospel of John tells us that God might know something about this. Here at the beginning of the gospel of John, we read that God might know what it feels like to find a really great hiding place, only to realize that nobody is looking for you. 

A long, long time ago, before the world even began, before anything existed at all, there was an original energy, what the Gospel of John calls an original light. And this light was the source, the creating light-energy of everything. And this original energy is what we call God.

Christian tradition teaches that in the beginning, God longed to be in loving relationship with all of creation, and with us. And so God, this original light-energy, this source of everything, created a universe to be in relationship with! A universe full of planets and stars and oak trees and dogs and grasshoppers and us. And because that enormous light-energy of God is so much bigger than us, even bigger than the planets and stars, our human minds would never be able to take in the whole hugeness of God. And so God hid little bits of God’s inside everything there is. So that when we creatures look around, we can find little bits of God’s self that are just the right size for us creatures to take in and not be completely overwhelmed.

Here’s the way the Gospel of John describes it:

In the beginning was the Word…which is the part of God that lives with us inside the world… and All things came into being through this presence of God in the world. Not one thing in the whole world was ever created without this presence of God filling it.

And that’s how God found the best hide-and-seek hiding place of all time. God hid God’s self in plain sight right here in the body of the world: a little bit of God in every spider, every pine needle, every person, in every animal. God hid everywhere so that God could be with us everywhere, and we would never be alone. It was the best hiding place ever. But there was one problem. As God was waiting in all God’s hiding places, things got very quiet. So quiet that even though God had found the world’s greatest hiding place—which was everywhere!— people of God forgot to go looking for God.

And so, once upon a time, someone came along to teach us how to find God again. This person who was so open to God, so transparent, like a clean window, that the God in him was completely visible!  So that when people looked at him, God didn’t seem to be hiding anymore. When people looked at this person, they could see that God was right there, walking around the world with us. This person’s name was Jesus of Nazareth, because that’s the town where he was born. People came to call him Emmanuel, which means God-with-us. Because when the people saw Jesus, they could see that God is right here, hiding in plain sight. 

Jesus lived a long time ago, at a time when God’s people had forgotten how to look for God hiding in the world. But the same thing happens to us. We forget all the time that God is right here with us. In the body of the world. In the gifts of our lives. And also in the hard times of our lives. And so, every year, we come to this season of Advent. The season in which we remember how to look for God everywhere.

This is the season when we light our Advent candles to help us remember that the light of God is everywhere, even in our darkest times. Our candles help us remember how to see the light of God shining through the darkness.

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s a really good thing that Advent comes around every year. Because I need a lot of practice remembering how to find God everywhere.

One of the very best ways I know of to practice finding God is to get together with your family, or even yourself and your journal, at the end of the day, or the end of the week, and ask each other, or ask yourself, “Where did you meet God today?” Or, “Where did you meet God this week?”

We’re going to practice this together this morning. I invite you pair up with someone sitting nearby you, it might be someone you know or someone you don’t know. And take turns asking each other: “Where did you meet God this week?”

Anybody want to share what you discovered?

This is the invitation of the Advent season. An invitation to bask in the growing light of our candles and to learn to see again the way God longs for us to see—the presence of God-with-us, Emmanuel, in every event, in every person, in every darkness. I invite you to take up this practice during this season, as you gather around your Advent wreath, or as you come into the sacred darkness at the end of every day, I invite you to ask each other or yourself:  “Where did you meet God today?” See if you can do this every day of Advent, so that by the time Christmas arrives, and our candles are blazing, we’ll be ready to greet the One we call the Light of the world, the one who illuminates God’s presence for us, everywhere.

 

In All Circumstances

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a reflection on 1 Thessalonians 5:12-18

Reading the familiar words of the apostle Paul this week, I found myself thinking about a dear friend who has spent a lot of time in the hospital lately. I’ve been thinking about how often I have heard her say Thank you.

Thank you…she says to the nurse who is offering ice chips from a plastic spoon.

Thank you…she says to another nurse, who makes her laugh by filling her in on the People Magazine headlines.

Thank you…to the doctor who tells her she’ll be able to go home in a few days

Thank you…for the chair lift that lets her get up and down the stairs at home.

Thank you. Perhaps the kind of “thank you” that Paul has in mind when he urges the church this morning to “give thanks in all circumstances.” 

It’s important to notice that Paul does not say, “Give thanks FOR all circumstances.” Paul does not urge my friend , or any of us, to give thanks FOR the disease that is taking her life. What Paul urges us to notice is that in every circumstance, particularly those circumstances for which we are not grateful and which we would never choose—still, within these very difficult circumstances, there are blessings that we are invited to fully receive, and for which we can give thanks.

What I suspect Paul is getting at here is a practice of gratefulness that goes deeper, and lasts longer, than the gratitude lists we tend to make in November, the ones that are popping up all over Facebook pages and Twitter feeds and that seem to disappear on December 1st. What Paul is suggesting is that as followers of Jesus, we are called to walk into every circumstance with an open heart. We are called to practice gratefulness not as a seasonal exercise, but as a state of being: a state of unconditional openness toward life itself and toward the Source of our life, no matter what circumstances come our way.

I want to be clear that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with keeping a gratitude list this month. In fact, I’d encourage all of us to try it. But if you’ve ever tried keeping a gratitude journal or list, you may have noticed that the practice falls away after a few weeks; that when November ends, we tend to return to our dissatisfied, less-than-grateful selves, even when everything is going great. I’m guessing we all have friends who are whispering “thank you” from their hospital beds, while we have trouble remembering to write in our gratitude journals at the end of the day. Which might lead us to wonder whether it takes a health crisis, or a great loss, to shake us out of our complacency and make us the grateful people God calls us to be.

I don’t believe it necessarily takes a crisis or a loss. But I do think it takes a spiritual practice that goes a little deeper than a gratitude list. A spiritual practice that requires more focused attention on our part, so that we can more deeply absorb the experience of gratitude and let it transform us.

The Reverend Ernest Campbell, pastor of Riverside Church in New York, once put it this way. He said, “There are only two kinds of people in the world. The kind who are in God’s hands and know it, and the kind who are in God’s hands and don’t.

I’m not so sure there are really just two kinds of people in the world. But I would say that there are two ways of living in the world, and that each of us bounces back and forth between them. Each of us has moments when we know, beyond any doubt, that we are held, always, in the hands of God. And then we forget.

And what I want you to hear this morning is that this is not a moral failing. If our gratitude journals get abandoned in December and our blessings start bouncing off our psyches like water off a duck’s back, it’s not because we don’t want to be grateful, but simply because this is the nature of the human mind. Modern neuroscience now tells us what Paul, along with spiritual teachers of every age, seem to have intuited: that the human brain has a built-in negativity bias. Our brains are wired in such a way that negative experiences sink in deeply and can affect us for many, many years, while positive experiences tend to bounce off. In the words of researcher Rick Hansen, our minds are like Velcro for painful experiences and like Teflon for positive experiences. It’s possible that at one time in our evolutionary history, this was adaptive: it may have helped our ancestors survive. But today, our inability to fully receive and fully absorb our blessings makes it difficult to live in the state of gratitude and joy that is our calling as the people of God.

What we need is a spiritual practice that goes deep enough to rewire our neurological circuitry. Neuropsychologists tell us that with the right kinds of spiritual practice, we can actually retrain our minds and teach ourselves to become the people Paul calls us to be. People who really can give thanks in all circumstances. People who know that at every moment of our lives, we are held, and healed, and loved into being by the very Source of Life. 

You know, and I know, and Paul knows, that there are circumstances we would never choose for ourselves or for the ones we love. Circumstances that, if we’re fortunate, we do not have to walk through alone. Circumstances we get to walk through together, with companions who will lift ice chips to our parched lips and who will make us laugh on the most harrowing of days. And it is the great gift of my life as a pastor to get to walk with you, and to witness you walking with one another, through exactly these circumstances, this year and always. 

This morning, I want to offer you a spiritual practice that can help all of us—givers of care and receivers of care, because we are both, always. It’s a spiritual practice that can help us more deeply receive all the blessings that are falling upon us in every moment. A practice to carry you through this season and beyond.

This particular practice is adapted from the work of Rick Hanson, whom mentioned earlier. He is a neuropsychologist, and he has written some very helpful books, including Hardwiring Happiness and The Buddha’s Brain. I want to invite you this morning to try out the practice he suggests.

If you’re comfortable closing your eyes, it helps to do that.  See if you can remember a positive experience you’ve had. Maybe an experience of physical pleasure, or a beautiful sight you’ve seen, or the feeling of being close to someone you love. It might be a recent experience, or one from the past. See if you can call it to mind now. 

And now, see if you can really notice all the details of this experience. What do you see or hear? What feelings arise in your heart, in your body? 

And now, let yourself feel your own gratitude for this experience. Feel the sensation of gratitude as it fills your body and mind. You might want to visualize this feeling of gratitude and well being as filling your whole body with gentle light…a sense of gratitude and well being that you can fully absorb into every cell of your being…knowing that you can return here anytime you like, and that as you do, the deep experience of gratefulness is healing your mind into a new state of being. 

And as you gently return your attention to this room…I invite you to join me in offering a prayer of thanksgiving, a prayer of gratefulness…

…for the One who carries us through every circumstance…filling us with God’s own unconditional presence and love…that we might pour ourselves out, as blessing, and as healing, this season and always. Amen. 

 

Gift of the Heart

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a reflection on 1 Samuel 1-28 for Ingathering Sunday

This is quite a story we hear this morning. You can dive in anywhere and find yourself immersed in the most fraught aspects of the human condition: power, patriarchy, cruelty, devotion, hope. Stories like this are the way we humans make meaning of our lives. Whether they are told on a movie screen or around a campfire or written down in our sacred texts, stories are the way we humans convey deep truths, spiritual truths, that we can’t communicate in any other way.

This morning, I want to take a close look at this remarkable story about our foremother Hannah. Because in all the Bible,this is one of the stories that speaks most directly to us on this Ingathering Sunday. While certainly other stories we could use to talk about stewardship, it seems to me that this story is particularly suited to help us reflect on the gifts we receive in this beloved community and the gifts we are called to offer in return, in thanksgiving and joy.

As our story opens this morning, we learn that Hannah and her husband make a yearly pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. And despite the fact that they are devout, despite following all the religious customs, still, year after year, Hannah remains childless. I think it would be understandable for anyone in this situation to simply give up hope. But Hannah decides to make a bold move. This year, after eating and drinking with her family, as is the custom, she quietly slips away, all by herself, and goes up to the Temple alone to talk directly to God. No husband to speak for her; no priest mediate between herself and God. Hannah wants a direct conversation with the God she loves. And she sets out to do exactly that.

I suspect that many of us know something about the kind of courage Hannah summons this morning. After so many years, Hannah surely knows, just as we know, that prayers are not always answered in the way we expect. It takes courage to go to the house of God, the house of God’s people, and ask for what your heart, and your soul, really need. This is especially true if, like Hannah, you have been hurt and disappointed in the past. I think it’s important to remember that for many of us in this sanctuary today, it has taken courage to walk into this church, into any church, after years of disappointment, and sometimes after great harm has been done to us and to the ones we love in houses of worship. For others, it takes courage to admit to ourselves that there is something missing from our lives, maybe something we can’t even name yet–something we sense might be found in this place. I wonder if we might confess together that it is vulnerable to name our heart’s deep desires–for ourselves, for our children–and then to show up here on a Sunday morning, just as Hannah does. We show up without any guarantee of success, but with a strong hunch that if we bring our whole selves into safe and sacred space, there’s at least a chance that our hearts might at last be healed, and that our dreams might at last find a home. 

Maybe for you that’s the dream of friends who share your spiritual hunger and thirst. Or maybe you came here longing for your children to be safe in a community that will see them for who they really are and love them unconditionally. Maybe your heart’s desire is for a community that will help you find hope in a broken world, and help you use your own gifts for healing and peace. Maybe you came here with a deep longing to be close to the God who has loved you always…but who sometimes seems much too far away.

Just like Hannah, we too know how much courage it takes to bring our vulnerable hearts to God. We enter this place with breaking, hopeful hearts. And sometimes, right here, we also know what it is to be filled by the miracle of God’s presence and healing and grace. 

This morning, our ancestor Hannah finds the courage to ask for her heart’s desire, and she receives a gift that heals her heart. And then, she does a remarkable thing. She takes the gift itself — the very child she has prayed for — and she offers him back to God. 

Please do not be alarmed. I will not ask you to fill out your pledge card this morning with the promise of your first-born child! Remember, this is a larger-than-life story that is crafted in a dramatic way to illustrate this spiritual truth: the gifts of God are meant to flow through us back into the world. In thanksgiving for the gifts we receive from God, we offer back to God a portion of those gifts. Not because God demands our sacrifice, but because God invites us, always, to let the gifts of abundance and blessing and joy flow through us back into a world that needs those gifts. Hannah, with her courageous, broken-open heart, becomes an open channel by which the gift of new life enters the world. In thanksgiving, she offers that life back to the Temple — to the spiritual community in which she found her heart’s deep healing and hope. And what a remarkable gift that turns out to be. Her child, Samuel, grows up to be a great priest and prophet — and not only for his own people! Jews, Christians, and Muslims all look to Samuel as a great prophet and blessing. Through her receiving and then her giving, Hannah becomes a channel for the blessings of God for generations to come.

I wonder if this morning we, like Hannah, might be called to dedicate a portion of our gifts in order to be a channel for God’s blessing and grace. I want to invite you to take a few minutes in silence to reflect on the gifts you have received and the gifts you might be called to offer back to this beloved community this morning.  In your bulletin, you’ll find a blue paper that you can use, just in case, like me, you find it easier to reflect with a pencil in your hand…

(A time of silent reflection, then sharing aloud…)

Following our foremother Hannah, we dedicate our gifts this morning in thanksgiving and joy. As the offering plates come around, and as Sam sings, I invite you to hold in your heart the gifts you have received in this place — maybe even the gifts you are longing to receive in this place. When the plate comes to you, you are invited to offer your pledge card, your weekly offering, and, if you wish to put in your blue paper, any other beautiful gifts the Spirit is calling you to offer in the year ahead.