Advent Poemily (Homily of Poems)

Isaiah 2:1-5

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!

1.

Ain’t gonna study war no more
The line from the negro spiritual
comes from Isaiah two, verse four.
It’s this week’s lectionary reading.
It reminds me
how scripture braids through our culture,
quotes from passages, memorized lines
relayed at various moments of a human life,
sayings sourced in sacred texts ancient, never old:
We cannot escape the strands of the Bible
woven into a culture merely three-hundred years old.

2.

I sing in my mind and then with my mouth
the song by Don Henley, which Bruce Hornsby
co-wrote and played keyboards on.

“O Beautiful for Spacious skies,
now those skies are threatening.
They’re beating ploughshares into swords
for this tired old man we elected king.”

3.

 “Beat your swords into ploughshares,”
that is the godly command Isaiah spoke.
We’ve heard it before.
We’ve ignored it for so long it hurts.
Wars have never ended.
Ours continue and will it seems.

May what we ignore still be remembered,
recalled, recited, read by our lips.
May it sink into our heart and reach our hands.
One day, I still believe, memory
will resurrect in us a new faith that walks a path.
a new faith that makes real once transcendent hope,
that makes actual what is merely a dream,
merely words spoken, or sung, or sermonized.


Psalm 122

I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
Our feet are standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem.

Jerusalem—built as a city
that is bound firmly together.
To it the tribes go up,
the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
For there the thrones for judgment were set up,
the thrones of the house of David.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.


Jerusalem –
a microcosm of our sacred spaces.
Jerusalem –
where we go
to be close to what ultimately is,
to what is true for us when all else is not.
Jerusalem -
this place
breathing with memory,
the wood-floors creaking with every step they’ve embraced,
the windows rattling stories of souls come, gone, still here.
There is peace within these walls,
a peace that passed all understanding,
a peace that says no one goes it alone,
a peace that sings all will be well, all will belong.
Peace is within you
for there is peace within the walls of time,
passed down, passed around,
a Communion ever going round,
a Common meal of hunger fed and thirst quenched.
Peace is within you for God seeks your good and finds it.


Romans 13:11-14

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.


Wake
Woken
One awake
Buddha - the Woken One - lives.
Salvation nearer than sleep,
nearer than night’s middle.
Day-dawning remakes us,
remolds us with light armored by no darkness.
Sobriety is a day folded into only the sun,
no clouds of escape, no fog of fear, no rain of regret.
Sobriety is dressing in the morning,
putting on clothes anointed
with a fresh-wash and Spring-air drying.
No provision of what is fading,
no provision of what fades or forgets.
Only the provision of a gentle wind inspiriting daily revival.


John 14:1-6

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, I am truth and life. No one comes to the Father except through me.


Jesus, a Loved one guiding us Home. Jesus, the Exemplar of Love, the way to the Father. 

This connection strikes me right to the heart. Jesus in John 14 is talking about the end of life and the beginning of new life. He is talking as our Comforter on the journey into new life. Knowing comfort means knowing a Comforter. Knowing the Way means knowing a Way-shower. He is like a lantern afloat on water guiding the spirits of our loved-ones home to the other side. A midwife carrying the spirit from death to new-life in the process of dying.

Jesus our Way-Shower to new life. He comes to those on the journey of death. He joins them, comforts them, and provides them peace, sometimes with His presence alone or sometimes through the presence of loved-ones – mother, father, close sibling, long lost friend – already with Him.

John 14 comforts and soothes Christians on their walk home to the Heaven of Love. It reminds them of Jesus’ coming to accompany on the sojourn home. It reminds them they are not alone, that the loved-ones coming to hold their hands are a gift of God, as is Jesus, the Teacher of Light.


Lastly, as all mourn the loss of a beloved member of our community, Ward Johnson, I share these words:

Community is courageous. To be part of a community means risking loss. Those you share in community with, those you come to know and respect and love as sibling in God's kingdom, they do not live forever on this earth. They grow old, get sick, and die, and those in the community have to care for them, tend to them, and then bury and memorialize them. To be part of community means becoming part of a sacred covenant to care for one another in good times and in bad, amid gains and amid loss, enduring joys, concerns, and sorrows. Yes, community takes courage. But it also means you come to know at the deepest level that you are not alone, that you do not walk alone, that fellow sojourners join you in the most vital moments on your individual journey. It also means that the community you were part of and touched contains a part of you even after you pass. That community carries you forth, carries your memory, your stories, your faith, your presence forward. Community in this way allows individuals to live-on in the collective gathering of the Beloved Community and the stories the gathering tells.

Humility & the Humiliated

READING: Luke 19:1-10

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-figtree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 


Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”


REFLECTION

Last week, I talked a lot about the spiritual characteristic of humility and how it is the first fundamental for the faithful approaching the world. I expressed that humility is a spiritual practice where we empty ourselves in the service of others.

But there is a question that arises here. And it is one that I’ve been thinking a lot about. What about those who feel continually humiliated by circumstances, by the structure of society, by the predicament of their life? What about those people whose self already feels so empty, who serve so much they have nothing left? What about those among us give and give and give without stopping to refuel or receive?

First, I begin with those who feel humiliated by life from the get-go, who feel stomped on, forgotten about, and even despised. How can you ask someone perennially humiliated to embrace humility?

In Jesus’ time, there was a group of people that were synonymous with the word pariah. They were called “tax collectors.” In fact, to call someone a tax-collector was the equivalent of a euphemism. It was kind of like calling someone who isn’t a politician, “a politician.” It is not exactly a complement.

Tax-collectors were Jewish people who worked for Rome collecting taxes and giving it to Rome. In the process, to get by, they skimmed money off the top. Tax-collectors were the kings of the humiliated in society.

In the Gospels, they are given a special place in the hierarchy of sinners. A common phrase is "the tax collectors and the sinners." The tax collectors were seen as worse than sinners. They were seen as the hands of the devil, as traitors. They were demonized more than any other group.

So it is amazing if and of itself that Jesus chooses to call Matthew, a tax collector, as one of his disciples.

In Matthew 9:9-12 we read:

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”


Jesus calling a tax-collector to be one of twelve disciples shows us Jesus sought to include all, beginning with those humiliated by reality on the ground, by a system that ignores them and rejects them. Jesus is saying this is a new teaching, a new religious faith, a new world order, one that includes at the top the despised, the demonized and the humiliated.

We also learn this from Jesus calling Matthew as his disciple: a changed life, a transformed life is not necessarily a prerequisite for Jesus. For the humiliated among us, the despised and demonized among us, Jesus includes them, accepts them in order to bring about a changed life, in order to bring about transformation in them and in society. Jesus reaches out, says follow me, and creates a relationship with the person who follows. Out of this, a changed life happens. Jesus asks Matthew to join the gang and begins walking and talking with him. As a result of Jesus reaching out and including Matthew, as a result of relationship, Matthew's heart is transformed and the Commonwealth of God gets a one more brick in its building.

Jesus requires humility, that is clear. For those already made humble by the power structure, for people like tax collectors and prostitutes, the requirement of humility is naturally met. Jesus then requires relationship, he requires walking in the way of love in relationship and community. Transformation overflows from that.

Now, for those proud, powerful, and wealthy, for those who don’t know what it feels like or who have forgotten what it feels like to be humiliated, for those who do the humiliating and humiliate others, things are a bit different.

A heart of humility needs to be shown in them.

We see this in the story of Zacchaeus we just read. Matthew is akin to your basic IRS agent, your basic low-level IRS grunt who has to do the dirty work of making phone calls and facing hostile people being audited and being asked to send in their check. Matthew was humiliated daily. Zacchaeus was akin to the Director of the IRS. He was the chief, and was lucky enough to be above it all.

We often read about Zacchaeus being small in stature and it prompts sympathy in us. "Poor guy, he is so small he has to climb a tree to see Jesus." But prompting sympathy is not the point of the story or of Zacchaeus being small. He is small in stature but large in status. Zacchaeus is rich and powerful. And he got large in status through the small and treacherous task of being chief henchman for the oppressor.

He climbs the tree not just to see but to be inconspicuous, to hide. He is too proud and powerful to be seen pushing through the crowd and getting right up front, right before Jesus. The people know who the chief of the tax collectors is. He’s easily recognized. He’d be seen, found out, discovered by being up front. So he instead climbs a tree.

Humility is missing in other words.

So Jesus humbles him right then and there. He points him out sitting in that tree. It’s as if Jesus is saying, "Chief of tax collectors sitting in a tree, H-I-D-I-N-G." Then Jesus heightens the embarrassment. "I, a lowly carpenter cum spiritual teacher from a small, know-nothing town, am going to come make a house call to your beautiful house in the suburbs tonight.

This is completely in line with what Jesus says and does elsewhere. To the Rich man, Jesus said if you want to follow me, first sell your possessions and give the money to the poor. In other words, show you are humble enough to follow and be transformed. Jesus says to the Rich man, it is hard for a Rich man to enter the kingdom heaven, as hard as a camel entering the eye of a pin-needle.

Humility comes first. If it’s there already, then you are good, you can follow. If it’s not, then it needs to be.

Humility leads to followship and fellowship and then to Transformation: that is the order of things for Jesus.


Okay, so there are those who feel continually humiliated by life. Then you have those who live lives of wealth, status, and pride. But what about those in the middle? What about those who live relatively good lives. They work really hard but do not know wealth or status or pride?

Well, humility is still required. Humility in this case comes in the form of empathy and compassion where we seek to feel the pain of the other and seek to help.

Now, I want to explain this a little further. Often, when we talk about humility, the concern arises of taking humility too far? If we put others first all the time and forget about ourselves and forget about caring for ourselves, this can be dangerous. I think this is a legitimate concern. I think of my mother who had 6 children and worked so hard giving of herself, she was always on the verge of burning out. Self-care is important.

But we must be clear, self-care is an example of humility. It amounts to being humble enough to admit I need help, that I can’t keep doing it all. It is being humble enough to say I need to stop and receive care instead of giving it. I need to go to a massage therapist. I need to go to Yoga and learn Yoga from a teacher. I need to take a break and get tea with a friend. I need to take a walk in the woods. I need to pray and meditate where I regularly seek God’s help and stop doing, doing, doing, and just be with God.

The exemplar of humility for Jesus is children. Children are the chiefs of humility. And children innately know they need help, they can’t do it all, they need to receive care, they need others, namely their parents.

In other words, humility is not self-punishment, it is not masochism. We are to be humble enough to love neighbor as ourselves. We need to love ourselves in order to love others. It is just that the love of ourselves should not be far and above our love of others. If I love myself so much that I ignore other’s pain and hurt and needs, I am getting into the realm of selfishness and pride. And that is a dangerous place to be.


I want to close by acknowledging the pain and hurt some are feeling in the wake of the election. Some are happy about the results. Others are not happy. Maybe most here are not happy. In fact, “not happy” underestimates the degree of sadness and upset. Distraught is perhaps a better word.

One of the most significant duties and purposes of any church community is to provide sanctuary and comfort for the distraught. So I want to first say to those who are indeed distraught, I offer you words of comfort and hope. You may be worried. You may be scared. You may be hurting. But know that here, you are not alone. Even if there are some who may not feel the same emotions or who may feel the opposite to some degree, as a church community we are called to rise above our individual differences and pains and seek to be present with the distraught and the hurting whether these emotions result from the death of a loved-one, the reality of illness, or the result of an election.

The church community is special in this way. We all come from different places, we are each different in myriad ways. We don’t all share the same experiences or the same politics or theologies. However, here we are joining together, worshiping together, praying together, looking together to something beyond just ourselves. We share in each other’s pain and hurt even if it is not our particular own.

And for me, our church community has so much to teach and offer in this regard. SO let us continue in the work of building the Beloved Community. Let us do it together. And let us in turn teach our society what is most vital - love, compassion, mindfulness, community, etc.

Political Diversity & Jesus' Non-Negotiables


We live in such a polarized society. It has only gotten worse this election season. Or it has merely been highlighted more, I am not sure. But it seems things have gotten so bad that we’ve taken political persuasion and have given it essential, almost religious importance and meaning. In other words, it has gotten so bad that for many people, if someone holds to a different political philosophy, they are wrong in the eyes of God. For some Democrats, for example, it is a sin to be a Republican, it seems. And vice versa. For some Republicans, it is a sin to be a Democrat. In fact, we have proof of this. In a San Diego church, a church bulletin included a flyer that said, “It is a mortal sin to vote Democrat… Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell.” Now, if Democrats went to church, you might find a similar thing the other way.

As much as I am of a political persuasion, and I will not, I will never share with you which from this pulpit, I am not egotistical enough to believe my political philosophy equals essential truth and thus has all the answers. No, as much as the political animal in me would like to say otherwise, it is not a sin to be a Republican. Or a Democrat, or a Libertarian or a Green.

That said, as a Christian or a Unitarian-Universalist, there are I believe some non-negotiables when it comes to how we live our lives and construct society around us. There are certain things that Jesus demanded his followers pursue and seek to make real. Jesus had a vision of the way things ought to be. Certainly, we might disagree about how we get there, but Jesus made it clear that we must get there. He also made it clear what the there looks like. He called that “there,” that realm we are called to make real, the Commonwealth of God. (I should note that this term Commonwealth of God is a better translation, a closer translation, of the term we know as “the kingdom of God.” Theologian John Cobb points this out in his recent book.)

I wanted to discuss some of Jesus’ non-negotiables as we come to the end of this sinfully horrible political season. What kind of society should we all want? What does the Commonwealth of God look like? If you answer either one of these questions and you answer the other.

I begin my answer with a verse that I’ve been mentioning a lot of late. It’s a verse I’ve been thinking a lot about and meditating on. It comes from Micah 6:8. It is a verse Jesus knew, for sure. We see it lived-out in his life.
That verse goes like this:

“The LORD has made it clear to you, mortal, what is good and what is required of you— to act with justice, to love compassion, and to walk humbly with your God.”

I encourage you this week to use this verse as a daily meditation. It helps me to get through.

What is required of us as individuals is certainly true of a society. The goal of the Commonwealth of God is a society that is just, compassionate, and humble. These things – justice, compassion, and humility – these are the seeds of the Commonwealth of God.

Now, Jesus, as I mentioned, knew this verse. Jesus famously offered up another “what is required of you” statement. In fact, it neatly sings in harmony with Micah 6:8. I am referring to Jesus’ famous greatest commandments. They come to us in Matthew 22. Let me read from this passage:

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
      37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” 


The Pharisee, a religious lawyer, pretty much asks Jesus what is the basic requirement when trying to live a good life as a faithful Jew? Jesus offers the greatest commandments, the two that are vital for the good life, the two that all the world’s religious faith’s hang on.

This passage gives us an order of things. It gives us a 1 then a 2. Love God is number 1. Love Neighbors is number 2. Loving Neighbor naturally arises from Loving God. This nice little order of things helps us read Micah 6:8 and give an order of things, it helps us know what happens first, justice, compassion, or humility?

Using Jesus’ first commandment, to love God, as our guide, we see that walking humbly with God is number 1. To love means to walk with or to move with, doesn’t it? To love means to know humility, where I let go of selfishness and me-firstness for the sake of the other. Humility born from walking with God, born from walking Love itself, this is the foundation upon which justice and compassion are constructed.

So Humility is the cornerstone of the Commonwealth of God. What does this mean? What does it look like?

Humility means a life of emptying ourselves, avoiding the temptation of inflating our egos. Humility means seeing that no one is less or more human than you are and that others should all be treated as you'd like to be treated.

Humility starts with the acknowledgment I am not alone in this thing called life. As Don Henley and Stevie Wonder sing, “In case you haven't noticed there are lots of other people here, too.”

There are other people all around us. There is also the Holy Other often called God. There is as well the natural world around us needing care and compassion. Placing our finite selves within the infinite scheme of things, seeing ourselves as a small part of a vastly expansive whole, seeing ourselves as one creature in Creative-Spirit God’s universe of creatures, this is at the heart of humility.

We don’t often hear it said, but a just and compassionate society must be, first and foremost, humble. The commonwealth of God, a just and compassionate society, begins with humility, with seeing our singular selves as part of a common self, a community of selves. The word Common-wealth says it all. Individual autonomy and self-sufficiency are important, but the goal is common-wealth, shared-wealth, shared-prosperity. To get to that goal requires humility, a practice of putting others and the Holy Other first.

Jesus points to the Commonwealth of God being first and foremost humble when he points to children. For Jesus, children are the model not only of faith but children are a model of what it means to be a citizen in the Commonwealth of God. If you want to know what it means to be a citizen in God’s commonwealth, look at children. The gospel of Luke shows us this.

Luke 18:

15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 


What do children teach us about humility? Children teach us that part of humility includes admitting I can't do it all, I need a nurturing, I need some help, I need to let others care for me and let myself receive this care. Emptying self sometimes means being selfish enough to know that I need a lot of help and care sometimes. This is the kind of humility children teach us. Receiving God's care, other's care and practicing self-care as much possible is what children do naturally.

Then in Luke 22, during the Last Supper which we will commemorate a little later, Jesus teaches us some more:

24 A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. 25 Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26 But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

Children are the perfect exemplars of humility, Jesus tells us in his teaching.

The children are not just our perfect model, they are, they must be, the perfect measure of how a just and compassionate society. The commonwealth of God is marked first and foremost by children who are safe, secure, nourished and cared for. The Commonwealth of god places children at the center. If just one child is malnourished, neglected, poor, then the commonwealth of god remains simply a dream yet to be realized.

A just, compassionate, and humble society places children at the forefront and says if one child goes hungry while another goes overfed, when one child goes neglected while another is overprotected, when one child lives in an environment marked by poverty and emptiness and another marked by wealth and opportunity, then that society is missing the mark and sinning against God and humanity.

The non-negotiables in a politically diverse society, the sacred aim we should all have, are justice, compassion and humility, and the measure of these things is the welfare of our children. Children are the sacred measure of a nation’s status. 

Let me clear as I can as I close: Whether you are a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian, Green, or independent, we should all want all of our children to be safe, secure, well-fed and hopeful. We should all want children living lives liberated from worry and strife, hunger and poverty, liberated to be happy. Making this a reality should be our guiding principle. With this as our only guiding principle, we are freed to try different things and see what works and doesn’t work. With this as our only guiding principle, we are free enough to be honest and say when something isn’t working. The welfare – the thriving of our children, the happiness our children – should be our guiding principle. 

And a tenacious, radical pragmatism should be our practice in realizing a just, compassionate, and humble society. Whatever gets us there should be our motto.