Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Shepherd's story

Living in a culture far removed both in time and distance from that in which Jesus was born, we are unfamiliar with life in biblical times and it is easy for us to accept without question the traditional romanticized images that have come down to us about the events surrounding the birth of the Messiah and persons who appear in the Gospel accounts. Our lack of knowledge can leave us vulnerable to all manner of alternative and bizarre teaching. For example, in the magazine of a mainline Christian denomination a couple of years ago, a writer stated that he knew Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem who were descended from shepherds to whom the angels appeared!

Although some of Israel’s greatest men – including Jacob, Moses, David and the prophet Amos – were shepherds, in the great collections of rabbinic law the Mishnah and the Talmud, shepherding was a despised profession. According to the Mishnah, “A man should not teach his son to be an ass-driver, or a camel driver, or a hairdresser, or a sailor, or a shepherd, or a shopkeeper, for their craft is the craft of robbers.”
Because many shepherds were hirelings and the flocks they tended were not their own, it was easy for them to steal wool, milk and goats and blame the loss on bandits. Therefore there is a passage that forbids buying wool, milk or goats from shepherds. A Jewish commentary on Psalm 23:2 says: “There is no more disreputable occupation than that of a shepherd”.
A biblical shepherd’s life was independent, responsible and – in view of the threat from wild beasts and robbers – dangerous. Although some sheep owners looked after their flock themselves, the job was usually was done by hired shepherds, who often did not justify the confidence placed in them, Also, shepherds couldn’t help but tread in sheep excrement and touch dead animals which, according to the book of Leviticus, placed them in a permanent state of ritual impurity and ceremonial defilement. Because of that, shepherds were excluded from the temple and the synagogues.

Bethlehem “Which Literally means the House of Bread “had a long association with shepherds and the grazing of sheep. The patriarch Jacob pastured his flocks there almost 2,000 years before the birth of Jesus, and Genesis records that when Jacob’s wife Rachel died, she “was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). And Jacob set a pillar on her grave, which is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day. Then Israel journeyed and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.”
The “tower of Eder”, Migdal Eder, means “tower of the flock” and was a watch-tower built for the protection of flocks against robbers or wild beasts. The Mishnah tells us that the flocks for the temple sacrifices were pastured there: Quote, “Of the herds, in the space between Jerusalem and ‘the tower of the flock’ and on both sides, the males are for burnt-offerings, the female for peace-offerings.

These sheep that the shepherds were watching were destined for Temple-sacrifices. The same Mishnaic passage also tells us that these flocks lay out all the year round, since they are spoken of as in the fields thirty days before the Passover -- that is, in the month of February, when in Palestine the average rainfall is nearly at its greatest.
The "lambing season" for sheep is in February in Palestine. Could it be that Jesus, being the "lamb of the world" was born at exactly the same time the literal lambs were born. If so then Jesus was born when the lambs were born and he died when the Passover lamb was slaughtered
So, Bethlehem, “House of Bread” became the birthplace of the “bread of life” (John 6:35) and the Lamb of God was born within a couple of miles of the place in which the sacrificial lambs for the temple were pastured.

The Shepherds lived most of the year outside, away from the townspeople Flocks were kept outside in this way from February to November, They were constantly with their sheep, since the sheep were vulnerable to all kinds of trouble. The shepherds made sure that the sheep were safe from wandering off and injuring themselves, as well as dangers from thieves and wolves.

So I want you to imagine for a moment what it might have been like on that night in the fields. It is cold; perhaps it had even rained earlier so you are damp and dirty. It is one of those uncomfortable nights. The skies have since cleared and you are with you companions watching over the sheep.
One minute you are talking quietly in the blackness of the winter sky. The next moment the hillside is ablaze with light and booming with the sound of an angel's voice.
An angel of the Lord appears to you, and the glory of the Lord Shines all around you.
This appearance isn’t at a distance, but upfront and personal. It is very sudden, you jump for it is unexpected and it is something even beyond your human comprehension that you are witnessing. You and your companions are so scared you can’t move and can hardly breathe.
The brightness is more than just mega-candlepower. It is Blinding and confusing. In this case the glory shines around the whole area and the result is absolute terror.
The angel moves first to calm your fears....
The angel says; 'do not be afraid.’
Needless to say this voice is not comforting at all for it is not spoken aloud but is heard from within, it is hard to comprehend how you are understanding this for it is coming to you from all around you and yet in you as well, in your heart and in your mind.
The Angel says to you again “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.'"
The message the angel brings is very good news that results in joy. But this isn’t simple happiness this joy is overwhelming, it is filled with the Glory of the Angels, their voices and the news that the Messiah is born, this is the greatest joy you have ever experienced!
Notice how broad is the angel's message. It's not for just the pious or the Jew, but "for all the people." What wonderful news for those who are estranged from God and struggling under oppression! The baby is not just born to Mary and Joseph. The Angels has said that the baby is born "to you" -- to the shepherd, to the one who is shunned, forced to live outside of society, the one who it has been said: “There is no more disreputable occupation.” A simple shepherd.
After the angel's startling declaration, the heavens reveal a huge crowd of angelic beings:
"Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
'Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to all on whom God’s favor rests.” (2:13-14)
Imagine you are just getting use to the idea of the one voice and suddenly all of heaven appears to you singing God’s praises and proclaiming salvation for all of humanity. The joy and the panic arising in you are almost too much to bear, you actually forget to breath for a while.
How would you know that the angel's message is true?
"This will be a sign to you:, said the Angels You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." (2:12)
The sign consists of two elements. The baby is:
1. Wrapped in cloths, and
2. Lying in a manger.
The phrase "wrapped in swaddling clothes” there were perhaps several newborns in Bethlehem wrapped up in this manner that evening.
However, the second sign was that the newborn would be found in a manger -- that was unique! This would indicate the location in some kind of stable -- a Second Century legend indicates that this was in a cave.
Now the scripture tells us the Angels leave them and return to heaven. Suddenly the night is calm, clear and cold again. As a Shepherd you have a responsibility to the sheep yet you just had the most amazing experience. So you talk it over with your fellow Shepherds and decide to “go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So you start searching stable to stable, looking to find a baby in a feeding trough.
As you search the city, a place you are not very welcome in, you get nervous, you begin to doubt what you have seen, and perhaps it was some sort of dream. Knowing you are so marginalized why would this news would have come to you? Then you see it, a manger with a new born babe and couple there just so happy to have a healthy baby.
Then it hits you all over again everything you just saw, you heard and felt, coming to you, one of the outcast of society, it is too much, you fall to your knees overwhelmed at the whole night. Once you are able to gain you composure you retell all you have seen and heard then you go and tell others as well.
For it is written that "They made known what had been told them about this child." The angel's announcement of "a savior, Christ the Lord" is spread throughout the area, resulting in amazement in the hearers.
Yet you still have a responsibility you must return to the fields. It is still cold and damp. But you can barely notice it. You return giving praise to God for your life and the gift that has been granted to you. There is nothing in the world that can take your experience of this night away from you and it will carry you for the rest of your days.
Please pray with me
Blessed creator, what an amazing night the shepherds had! To, be chosen as the first of the marginalized, to have a glimpse of your heavenly glory, to hear a mighty Chorus of praise, to see the Messiah-Child, to listen to the angel recite the glorious title -- Savior, Messiah-Lord. Thank you for letting us hear the story again. Write it large and indelibly in our hearts that we might be fervent Good News tellers, too. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Do Not Fear Dying, Fear not having Lived

Today we celebrate dia de los muertos – the day of the dead which coincides with all souls day. These Holidays have their origins as far back as ancient Egypt where they believed the spirits of the dead returned each fall to visit the living and they welcomed these spirits with lights and food. These traditions spread to Rome and eventually found their way into Christianity. The day of the dead, officially named All Souls Day in the Catholic Church, is celebrated on November 2, the day after All Saints Day. Although not recognizable as such in its current hyper commercial incarnation, Halloween – a time of visitation by the dead -- is part of this tradition.
Of course at the center of this tradition lies the dark and gloomy figure of death. Why should we invite this fearful figure into our midst, which we would rather not get to know? Why make Death more distinct and palpable? The poet Rainer Maria Rilke described the task of the poet this way: “to confirm confidence toward death out of the deepest delights and glories of life; to make death, who never was a stranger, more distinct and palpable again as the silent knowing participant in everything alive.” This is an invitation to befriend death to become familiar with the transition from this world to the next which is part of life and not to be feared.
In not so distance a time we lived with our elderly and our infirmed. They were in our homes and it was the younger people’s responsibility to care and look after their elders and or infirmed. When one passed the family was all around the person, offering prayers and mourning. The woman would then gather wash and dress the body for viewing. People from the community friends and loved ones would come to the home to pay their respects to the dead and the living. They would bring food to be shared and often drink as well. They would reminisce about the person’s life and have a good time all the while the body was in the living room.
Death was a common and expected experience. Nowadays death is often removed from us. It occurs in hospitals and or nursing homes. Yet when given the choice most people state they would like to die at home with loved ones around. We, as a society, have made death something to fear, to only whisper about. We often find ourselves at a loss of words. Many of us do not even like to walk into hospitals or nursing homes or even mortuaries for they remind us not of those we lost , but our own mortality.
Yet it is a fact of life and it is a part of life. It is the ultimate goal of life. I had a professor who would say “I hate to tell you this but it is not a matter of if you die but when.” You know for some young people that is a hard thing to hear. When you are in your mid twenties you are still of the mind set you are going to live forever. Well guess what . . . you are. Just not the way you feel you will.
The Day of the Dead is a creative response to one of the most important questions in human life: what does my death mean? This is a question born of fear -- our fear of the ultimate unknown. What brings this fear, of course, is our experience of the deaths of those who populate our lives. Each of us wants to know not only what one’s own death means but also what meaning to make of the deaths of those others. We ask these questions from many different vantage points in relation to death – young or old, healthy or sick, working with death in our jobs or rarely seeing it, but no matter. Questions about death are something we all have in common.
The theologian, James Carse, tells the story of one family’s answer to these questions. He met them at a lakeside vacation retreat. They said they were attending a group meeting with a channeler of communications with the dead – that they did this regularly to be connected to a family member who had died, and who had been the central figure in the life of the family. They spoke of the missing member in the present tense, as if he might show up at the lake later in the afternoon to take a dip with them. Carse happened to ask them how long they had been doing the channeling with the one who died. Twenty-nine years, came the calm answer.
He was stunned by this distance, but for this family, their missing relative was as present to them as Carse’s nine-year-old child was to him --. He described the family this way: “These were people who had sought to have death taken away – and death was taken away. Death was now but one event in an unbroken cycle of events, and therefore no longer death. Death no more ended anything in their lives than a leap from the diving board ended the swimmers’ play. Life and death had merged into a timeless whole that nothing could disturb. I could not help feeling that when they got what they asked for, it was not death that ended; it was their lives that had ended. I could not know them where they lived. I could only look on with an indulgent smile. I sat next to them that afternoon – but twenty-nine years away. “
This family that Carse describes had not mourned. Had experienced no loss, no separation, no sadness. They were stuck, Stuck in the death of a family member for 29 years, never moving on, never letting go, never healing. There is a process that one must move through in order to remain healthy and sane. Dr. Kubler-Ross was the first to put the stages of grief into a context. The progression of grief is:[2]
1. Denial – "I feel fine."; "This can't be happening, not to me."
Denial is usually only a temporary defense for the individual. This feeling is generally replaced with heightened awareness of positions and individuals that will be left behind after death.
2. Anger – "Why me? It's not fair!"; "How can this happen to me?"; "Who is to blame?"
Once in the second stage, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of anger, the person is very difficult to care for due to misplaced feelings of rage and envy. Any individual that symbolizes life or energy is subject to projected resentment and jealousy.
3. Bargaining – "Just let me live to see my children graduate."; "I'll do anything for a few more years."; "I will give my life savings if..."
The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay death. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Psychologically, the individual is saying, "I understand I will die, but if I could just have more time..."
4. Depression – "I'm so sad, why bother with anything?"; "I'm going to die... What's the point?"; "I miss my loved one, why go on?"
During the fourth stage, the dying person begins to understand the certainty of death. Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and grieving. This process allows the dying person to disconnect oneself from things of love and affection. It is not recommended to attempt to cheer up an individual who is in this stage. It is an important time for grieving that must be processed.
5. Acceptance – "It's going to be okay."; "I can't fight it, I may as well prepare for it."
In this last stage, the individual begins to come to terms with his mortality or that of his loved one.
One moves back and forth jumping through these stages at various times it is not a simple progression but a process never the less. It is interesting to note that toward the end of her own life Dr. Ross stated there should be another stage. Frustration when one is ready to go but remains living.
These stages of grief apply to any and all kinds of loss whether it be for the family home due to a catastrophe, loss of a pet or the ending of a friendship one moves through these stages in one way or another for they are all a form of death. Which brings us back to the question: To ask what our death means is to ask what it would be like to live life as if there were always an ultimate deadline on the horizon – because in fact there is.
We would treat time as precious and the perishable commodity called being alive as something of great value. Our experience of mortality thus focuses our attention on the question of the value of our lives. We want to know, do our lives make a difference? Do they matter? What we long to know is not whether they matter just for the fleeting few moments – historically speaking – that we are onstage. But rather, do they matter in a way that is lasting. This is a question not only about what is valuable, but more importantly, about how our lives become valuable. If having a life that matters means having a life that is valuable, where do we get the value? Certainly part of the answer is that we create it from within ourselves.
Yet the greatest value came more than 2000 years ago. There is a song that is a favorite of mine it tells the story of as a child one enjoyed imaginary friends and walking and playing with them but as the man got older he had lost his way. The song of “Christopher Robin” by Kenny logins, in which the lyrics say help me if you can I need to get back to the house at pooh corner by 1. But I've wandered much further today than I should and I can't seem to find my way back to the Woods.”
I like this song for it reminds us that we must have that child like wonder. The child like wonder to believe in the words of today’s Gospel. When Christ says I am the bread of life that is a direct reference to the covenant of the last supper. Christ stated I live because of the creator so whoever eats this bread will live because of me. That is the Value of our lives. So valuable that Christ allows us to participate in life through him and the creator with the spirit.
Christ is our way back to the woods. We have to shed all disbelief and often what we do believe to get back to the message of Christ’s salvation through the table and through our lives.
It is Jesus’ assurance that there is new life a new covenant to be given by him through his resurrection. It is through his resurrection this promise is fulfilled! This covenant so strongly made in the love and the life that he poured out that it snapped time.
Hear me, Time itself was changed. .the laws of physics broken for each time . . . wherever, whenever we enact this simple meal of bread and fruit of the vine, we are there. We are there and Christ is here renewing that covenant.
We have to put away our adult hood; we have to put away our skepticism we have to get back that childhood awe and amazement and take on a simple belief. Jesus loved us so much that he made a promise in a small upper room. He willingly handed himself over to the roman guards and allowed himself to suffer and die only to rise again on the third day.
They say the earth shook, the curtain in the temple rent, the light was so bright that when the stone was rolled away the guards fled in fear.
Time snapped and the promise made at a simple meal 3 nights before now became alive and transcendent in the ressurection! It carries on constantly day in and day out around the world; the love that was promised is promised again manifested and made real. It is the value of our lives and our transition. For through the Bread of life, through Jesus the Christ one day we transition from this life of faith into a life of knowing.
Do not doubt it. It is really a simple thing to believe. In Mathew 18:3 it says we must become childlike. That simple faith, that simple way of believing must become true in us again. Santa, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, yes even Winnie the Pooh; we rationalize and outgrow these tales. But I tell you the tale of the last supper the redemption of the cross and the resurrection we cannot afford to outgrow. We need to believe in a love so great that it can fill us sustain us and carry us through any adversity, any disappointment and the heart ache of loss of loved ones.
Today day we celebrate all souls day, the day of the dead, all saints day. We honor those who have honored us with their lives. By living with the Christed one we are called to live life to the fullest for when we transition from this life to the next we will be prepared to know love and life in the fullest of the covenant of the bread of life that is Jesus the Christ.
Listen to this poem and pray with me;
I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed goes to the next as blossom and that which came to me as blossom goes on as fruit.

Let this poem be a candle that your soul holds out to you, requesting that you find a way to remember what it is to live a life with passion, on purpose. There is only enough light to take the journey step by step, but that is all any of us really needs.

When you have the courage to shape your life from the essence of who you are, and who God is in you, through you, you ignite, becoming truly alive, alive in the Love and Life of Christ.
I pray these words today find their way to your heart and comfort your soul, amen.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sunday service - I am Back


I hope you all will take advantage to take a look at our sunday services now being streamed. I attempted to emmbed it but blogger didn't like that so here is a link instead. I now serve as the pastor of congregational care and spiritual life. I am currently in the process of getting my certificate in spiritual direction. I have been accepted in the Graduate Theological foundation to do a research based PhD.

I am amazed and astounded by the heartfelt response to the young people who have committed suicide in the recent weeks. Again I encourtage everyone to reach out, to let it be known there are options, call the trevor project, call an adult, go to a teacher call an mcc even if it is from clear across the country. call me! We will work this out, get you support and help to make it better!