Sunday, December 6, 2009

Preparations

Sermon, December 6, 2009
by Katie Mulligan

This week's sermon comes as the weather starts to snap cold. We had snow last night. Burlington County does not have a homeless shelter. There are families and indiviuals living in cars and tents and in the woods.
So this week's sermon is a question:
what are we, Tiny Church, going to do about this?

For my audio minded friends, you can find a recording of the service here. I edited out the prayers of the people to protect privacy.

I am meeting this week with some folks to find out more about housing resources, but here's a quick link for now: Housing Programs

[update: an article about youth who are homeless & a church helping to open a shelter in NY: 
Church Aids Expansion of Shelter for Gay Youths]

Love to you all!

[A later reflection: The term "the homeless" or "homeless people" dehumanizes people who are living without homes. I apologize if this caused pain to anyone. I've left it in the text because that's how this was preached.  Also, I regret that I did not speak about the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality with respect to homelessness and poverty.]

First Scripture Reading: Philippians 1:1-11
Second Scripture Reading: Luke 3:1-6

Let us start, shall we, with preparation. This is not my strong point: the careful and meticulous preparation of things, doing things early.  But let us talk of preparations anyway, knowing that I am a hypocrite.  Last week, Ruth shared with us the story of the Annunciation: the announcement by the Angel Gabriel to Mary that she would bear the Christ child into the world.  There were a lot of words that came with that announcement, promises of greatness and great sorrow, and Mary asked a few questions, got her answers and said “yes, I will do this thing you ask of me.”  It was a bold and brazen act, to bring a child into her world in an unmarried state. She risked everything, including her life, to follow the call of God. One might say she was young and impetuous and didn’t know what she was getting herself into. One might also say this was a reason God chose her—because she would say yes, when anyone in their rational mind would say heck no.  But regardless of the reasons a woman chooses to bear a child, once the decision has been made, there are preparations to get into.


We talk this morning about preparations, and John the Baptist is the focus of our second scripture. “Prepare ye the way!” he cries out, “Make his paths straight!”  And it is easy to forget that preparations had been under way for some many years already.  Most of us here have some exposure to children and the preparations necessary for their presence among us.  Some of us have experienced pregnancy and childbirth, others have prepared their homes for adopted little ones who will work their way into our hearts just the same.  And many of us have prepared our hearts and homes for children who were not ours, the children of our siblings or cousins or friends; perhaps even the children of strangers who needed sanctuary. When there are children coming, there are preparations to be made. The Lord Jesus is no exception.  The angel Gabriel did not tell Mary, “Prepare ye the way,” for he did not have to. This is, after all, what parents do when a baby is coming. 

Do you remember what it was like the last time you got your home or car or office ready for children?  A friend of mine recently hosted her 2 year old niece in her student apartment for several days.  Not usually having children around, you can imagine that her preparations were intense. She cleaned, picking up every last thing off the floor and putting it away in a closet or drawer or box. Pencils and pens were tucked up in a desk, so as not to have marks drawn on the walls. Pot handles on the stove were turned inward and knives put away up high. Cleaning chemicals had to be locked away, and my friend made a place for the baby to sleep.  She went to the store and stocked up on baby sorts of foods, although the mother brought her own foods from home, because the child was particular.  She cleared her schedule, making room for her attention to be focused on the child.  And then she called me and asked me to bring over some toys and things that a 2 year old could play with.  The preparations for that few day visit were intense, and they involved at least 3 adults, plus my own two children who picked out the toys.

And so it was for Mary as she began the preparations for the baby Jesus.  These days we have an image of pregnancy as a time of expectation and waiting—she is “expecting” we say, as in she is waiting around for that baby to pop out.  But pregnancy is about more than waiting around for things to happen.  Pregnancy is a time of preparations.  We prepare our bodies (some of it our bodies do instinctively and automatically).  We prepare our homes to receive the baby.  We prepare our hearts to love and care for the child.  A child does not just add a few logistics to one’s already scheduled life. A child is like a grenade dropped into the midst of one’s being, shattering the old life and bringing with it a new one.  No wonder the Word of God became incarnate as a baby, dropping into the life of Mary and Joseph, wrecking all their best laid plans and expectations.   This is the perfect metaphor for the coming of God.

Interestingly, this passage from the Gospel of Luke comes not from the birth narratives of Jesus, but from a later point in time.  This advent passage we read leading up to the birth of Jesus actually comes from when Jesus and his cousin John were both adults—fully grown men, somewhere around the age of 30.  This passage this morning heralds the beginning of Jesus ministry, God calls to John and John calls to the world; a clarion call, crystal clear in the wilderness air: Make way for a King; Make way for the one you have long awaited; Make way for freedom and justice and peace; Make way for the changing of your hearts and lives. For like a baby, like a hand grenade, Jesus comes to shatter the old life and bring in the new.  And like a baby, it’s really not an option; caring for this prophet/Messiah/heavenly King will require change and a setting aside of old habits and ways.

This passage from the lectionary is so short and taken out of context.  Prepare the way for what? How do we prepare?  Why should we prepare?  The passage falls short of its full promise, so hear now the rest of words written in the gospel of Luke.
“John went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,   
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “you brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.  Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”  In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”  He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”  Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?”  He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
This is the fuller sense of this passage. Prepare ye the way, make his paths straight!  Valleys will be filled, mountains will be flattened, hierarchical structures will be equalized, power will be broken, lines of authority shall be re-arranged.  The Lord is coming, John said, to judge with a winnowing fork, throwing out the bad and keeping the good.  Prepare your hearts and minds for the coming of God. Set straight your lives. Share what you have with those who have not. Don’t steal from each other. Don’t abuse your power for your own gain or enjoyment. Go home from this wilderness retreat and know that the Messiah is coming.  Make preparations, because the old life will be shattered and the new life will be different.  This was a word preached to an oppressed people, a word preached against an imperial government.  A word preached against a church gone narrow and strict in its rules. This was a word which cost John his liberty and eventually his life. John preached it anyway, building upon the preparations already laid down by Mary and Joseph and the community that raised the child Jesus.

He built upon the preparations and expectations and longings of a people that had yearned for the coming of a Savior, a Messiah, for hundreds of years.  John’s words came directly from the prophet Isaiah, who prophesied after the people of Israel had been swept away into captivity and exile by the Babylonians, their loss of land and temple painful and fresh in their minds; a loss they had brought upon themselves through unwise and unrighteous living.  “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”  These were the words of the prophet Isaiah, and these were the words of John the Baptist in the wilderness, calling all to preparations, for the Lord was at hand.

This second Sunday of advent we focus on preparations.  Perhaps you are preparing your own home for the holiday onslaught.  Maybe you got your tree this week and put it up, or maybe you are like me and will wait a little longer.  Perhaps you wrote your Christmas cards last month and they are already in the mail with your annual newsletter and family picture attached.  Or perhaps you are like me, and you’re thinking about it, but those letters will go out in the New Year.  Maybe you have finished your Christmas shopping, bustling around on the Friday after Thanksgiving, hitting those holiday sales. Or perhaps you prefer the crush of the stores on Christmas Eve, playing Santa at the last minute, and wrapping late into the night.  Or perhaps for whatever reason, you will spend Christmas alone, and you are preparing your heart and soul for that alone time (perhaps welcome, perhaps not).

In my house growing up, preparations for the coming of relatives meant cleaning. Things picked up and put away, or more likely stuffed into closets.  The china came out and the crystal too.  The silver needed polishing—thank God the pitcher was pewter.  The tablecloth needed ironing after a year of sitting in storage—it was a magnificent red and gold poinsettia cloth (at least in my memory).  And then too the bathrooms needed to be scrubbed.  Perhaps you recognize these tools of bathroom scrubbing: gloves, a sponge, a toilet bowl scrubber, an old toothbrush; chemicals to sterilize and bleach; a bucket for the mop.  This is a time of year when we find ourselves busy with the physical preparations of hospitality.  The women’s group, as you can see, has been busy preparing this sanctuary with advent greens and Christmas tree, the manger scene here.  Ed made sure the floor was professionally waxed.  Prepare ye the way! For the Lord is coming.  As a little baby this time, but with the full impact that a child has on our lives.  Put up those greens and wax the floors; scrub the bathrooms and polish the silver.  For a child is to be born and life will never be the same.

The apostle Paul, from his prison cell, wrote to the Philippians.  They were one of many small Christian communities he had helped to plant.  As I reflect on preparations, I think about hospitality and what that means to us here in this tiny church. The affection between him and the people of Philippi fairly leaps off the page as I read the text:
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now...For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best...
Paul is speaking about hospitality, the love these people have for him and his love for them.  The love of Christ and the love of God, the way that the Spirit overflows our hearts with love for one another.  The way that life and love and food and comfort are shared among a people that loves one another fully and graciously.  Prepare the way, John says.  And do it by loving one another fully, Paul says.
I’ve reflected often these last few months on our tiny church.  I’ve listened to your stories—some you intended to share with me and some that I read between the lines.  Our little church does many scattered acts of charity—food collection, scarf and mitten collections, the giving away of baskets and a little money here and there.  We pray constantly for those who ask—even strangers who leave messages on the voice mail.  This little church of New Covenant has a heart of gold.  And as I listen to the stories of your lives and families, and the stories of helping strangers, I hear a longing to be the heart of the gospel, to share coats and food and company with those who do not have it.  So this advent season, I encourage you to reflect on that longing and how this tiny church might fulfill that call.

Lately the presbytery has been discussing the need for helping those who are homeless.  At our last meeting, we heard from a ministry that is helping to provide better shelter for individuals and families living in a tent city in Camden.  The Burlington Center Mall Ministry told us of folks living in the woods behind the mall.  And of course it is getting cold out—too cold to be living exposed with no roof, no heat, no bed.  Here in Burlington county there are no homeless shelters, and people are housed in hotels.  I heard in the last presbytery meeting that the county used to bus homeless folks to other counties where there were shelters.  The other counties have put a stop to that, and Burlington county now needs to figure out how it will provide for its own.  I wonder how we at this tiny church might be involved in that effort?  Let us prepare this advent season for whatever is coming next and for however we might be involved in that effort. 

This week I received a phone call from an elder at a nearby church.  They are looking for church partners to help with a non-profit organization focused on affordable housing and reaching out to the homeless.  He had several ideas for how we might be involved.  One program is called Bridges of Hope, where a church “adopts” a family to provide support and help as they move from needing assistance to being able to support themselves.  Another project involved shipping containers, converted into homes. He was looking for churches that might be willing to have a shipping container placed on their property, hooked into their electric and sewer lines.  The first thing that came into my mind was “All of our free property is in the front of our property, right along the road. What on earth is Mt. Laurel township going to think about this?  What on earth is my congregation going to think about having a homeless family sitting on our property? We don’t even have sewer, we have a septic tank! We can’t even afford the electric bill we’ve got!  What on earth would we possibly do with another mouth to feed on our property?  These are the questions that came through my mind, and I thought, “We are in need of being in preparation.” Because I know these are not questions only going through my mind.  When I speak of a boxed container on our property, hooked into our lifelines, these questions come up. I’m meeting with him later this week to hear more. 

We don’t have a lot at tiny church—not a lot of people and not a lot of money.  But we have property and a building that is paid for.  We have people with hearts of gold and years of wisdom to share, connections in the community.  Let us prepare this advent for offering those gifts to the community.  Let us be the Philippians to Paul, providing comfort to those imprisoned and without resources.  Let us prepare the way, whether that means scrubbing bathrooms or opening our hearts to strangers.  Reflect on this as we come into the Christmas season: God is coming into the world.  The old ways will be shattered and a new way of life will rise up against the inequalities and injustice of this world.  This is good news for the poor and oppressed and it should be good news for the rich and powerful. For there will be peace on earth, and comfort for the afflicted.  We shall stand shoulder to shoulder with our sisters and brothers, friends and strangers alike, bringing joy and love to one another with hospitality fit for a King.

Let us be part of the shattering of the old ways.  May we have the boldness and daring to set aside our worries about strangers and damage to our property or reputation. May we not worry about what the neighbors will think or how much extra work it will be to care for another family or group of people.  Let us find a way as tiny church to offer our resources to the homeless and the poor.  Let us make the path straight for the coming of the Lord.

2 comments:

  1. When thinking of preparing for the future, I am reminded of a quote attributed to the Imam Ali: “Raise your children differently from the way you were raised, for they are going to live in a different time."

    Of course, I do recognize the value of teaching children the wisdom of the past as well, but I like this quote for reminding me of how much I have seen change within my own lifetime.

    No kids of my own yet, and it seems pretty unlikely that will change as things appear now. I know my parents would be happier if that changed, but the world they grew up in isn't the world I grew up in.

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  2. @Digital Kahuna: I like that a lot. And maybe preparing our children for a world that is different than our own also prepares them for spending time with people whose worlds are different. Beautiful, thank you.

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