Happy Christmas 2014

Merry Christmas!

It’s my Christmas day tradition to post this Isaiah passage (which is a reading for Christmas Eve worship every year), Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” (the world’s best – and most challenging – Christmas song), and a lighter second song that changes each year. You’re welcome. 😉

Isaiah 9:2-7:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined…For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.

No, not “all the boots of the tramping warriors” or “all the garments rolled in blood” have been burned as fuel just yet. But I do believe there will be a day when both the weapons and the uniforms of war will be obsolete. I think that’s why I like “Happy Christmas” so much: it simultaneously acknowledges the reality of evil in the world and reminds us, with Isaiah, to hope for – and actively strive for – a better future. A war-less future.

Yes, our sisters and brothers in Israel/Palestine, Nigeria, Mexico, South Sudan, Afghanistan, and so many other places, know all too well that war isn’t over. The Prince of Peace wants all wars to end. To worship the babe born in Bethlehem means facing reality, means seeking to end war. But following God in the way of Jesus also means we don’t believe in hopeless! It means we’ve got some work to do.

(Trigger warning: some images involves children, many are difficult to watch.)

Still, childlike joy is also an important part of Christmas. This song has got to be the weirdest I’ve heard in a long time. But that’s what makes it so awesome. Go ahead, just try to refrain from singing it constantly; I bet you can’t! I know I can’t stop singing/mumbling it, much to the delight, and disgust, of my family.

Merry Christmas from the Buerstetta’s to all who celebrate! Happy Thursday to all who don’t! 

It’s not all bad

This has been a tough week:

  • Ongoing war and atrocities in Iraq and Gaza.
  • Robin Williams’ suicide
  • Shooting death of Mike Brown and all that followed (and continues to follow) in Ferguson, MO.

Death, racism, oppression, violence, pain and despair are not hard to find. I’m going to talk about all of that as honestly as I can in my sermon on Sunday.

But ours is a God of hope and love and grace and life. Those things may be harder to find – especially in a week like this one – but they are just as real. At the risk of self-indulgence, I offer this Post by Woodridge United Methodist Church (some of which can be seen below) as one example of the life of God at work in the world (H/T Patti Cash). The Northern Illinois Food Bank does terrific work and we’re proud to play a small part in making their work happen this week.

How about you…where have you found hope and life this week?

Woodridge UMC youth and leaders served at the Northern Illinois Food Bank in Geneva, IL today. Together they packed 2100 pounds of potatoes and 789.6 pounds of “Meals In The Bag”. Today their “MITB” job was minestrone soup, packing each bag with 9 cans, I box pasta, 1 bag dried beans, and instructions. 4 bags goes into each box and they packed up 21 boxes. In total, this group packed up 2,408 meals for hungry people in Northern Illinois! #itsallrighthere #youth #helpie

The Gospel According to Thor #sermon

You might think that putting up a sermon is the easiest kind of post. I mean, really, the content is already created, how hard could it be? Yet, somehow, it never ends up being that easy for me. Once again, here it is Thursday and I’m just now posting my sermon from this past Sunday (January 26). Which still beats the many times I didn’t post my sermon at all.

I’m sure this pathetic pattern is largely due to me being an inept blogger. But my particular process of sermon preparation plays a role as well.* I think a sermon is, first and foremost, an oral/auditory event. So I hope to add the audio soon. In the meantime, here are the notes I used as I spoke. Below I mention some of Julie Clawson’s writing; additionally, her 7-21 talk at Christianity 21 also informed my thoughts here.

Let me know what you think.

photo credit Colleen Erbach
photo credit Colleen Erbach

“The Gospel According to Thor”

Isaiah 9:1-4 & Matt. 4:12-23

Realms collide as the only son of God comes to earth, offering displays of power, bringing his light into places of darkness, saving the world. I am, of course, talking about…Thor!

Why Thor? A quick search on Amazon of “Gospel according to,” yields 39,647 results. I am not making that up. Results include:

Pop culture icons: Dr. Seuss, Sopranos, Simpsons, JRR Tolkein, Peanuts, Shakespeare, Harry Potter, Disney, Star Wars, Hunger Games

Other bible stories: Job, Daniel, Jonah, Isaiah, and, my favorite, The Other Mary.

Even some, er, really creative ones: Coco Chanel, The Beatles, Jazz, Waffle House, Hoyle, Elvis, Patti Labelle, and Starbucks – which I’m pretty sure is, treat others the way you want to be treated…unless they say ‘ex-presso’ instead of ‘espresso.’ Then you are to mock them mercilessly.

So really, why not Thor??

Still, I’ll forgive you if you’re a little skeptical.

Heck, my own son – who has become a bit of a comic book geek himself (not sure how that happened) – even thinks it’s crazy.

“Hey Josh, look at this cool picture we’re using in church this week!”

“Why?”

“Whaddya mean ‘why’?? Isn’t that awesome?!?”

“You should’ve used Captain America; he’s cooler.”

“What! How do you figure?”

“His shield can stop Thor’s hammer.”

While Joshua hasn’t seen it yet, in The Avengers movie we have the video evidence that he is correct.

So why Thor? He’s become a fascinating and complex character. His stories are almost all about hope overcoming fear. And aren’t those the kinds of stories we need right now?

A recent story arc had him pondering the very nature of gods, had him questioning his own existence, had him flying all over the multiverse teaching people to pray.

When his not flying around the multiverse or smiting frost giants, what does Thor do? The answer might surprise you.

There’s this book, a filler of sorts, an issue between story arcs. But this stand alone issue continues a theme from the beginning of Thor: Thor always returns to Midgard. (That’s earth to the uninitiated.) If the tech will work, I’ll show you what Thor does on earth:

[I showed a few panels from Thor: God of Thunder #12]

-Thor drinks with friends. Ok, maybe not too surprising; he is a Viking god after all. Though I seem to recall another story about a son of God who made sure a party he was at didn’t run out of good drink…

-Thor visits a friend on death row and brings him his last meal.

-Thor brings food to seemingly orphaned children.

-Thor entrusts nuns with the seeds of an extinct orchid.

-Thor sits and talks with the proverbial wise man at the top of a mountain.

-Thor drinks with wounded soldiers; brings rain to dry land; scatters a crowd that claims “God hates you”; and hangs out with some fishermen.

-like a good celebrity, Thor responds to video invitation to attend a ball

-Thor grieves with a former girlfriend who is dying of cancer.

-Finally, far ahead in the future, Thor returns to Midgard…no matter how much it pains him.

Thor learns from and is inspired by his interactions with people on earth. The son of the highest god belongs on earth.

So what is the gospel according to Thor? Seems like it is “bring light and life into dark and dying places.”

“I could use a good saving the world story,” said Jane Foster as she was dying of breast cancer.

We need stories that inspire us; stories that remind us that hope doesn’t die; stories that remind us that fear, intimidation, injustice, oppression, and even death – as ubiquitous and implacable as they may seem – do. Not. Have. The. Last. Word.

As Julie Clawson writes, “We need as a culture to see that if we are creative and brave enough sometimes the biggest and baddest dragons can be defeated. Only story could do that for us.

Julie also points us to this quote from author Gerard Jones:

For young people to develop selves that serve them well in life, they need modeling, mentoring, guidance, communication, and limitations. But they also need to fantasize, and play, and lose themselves in stories. That’s how they reorganize the world into forms they can manipulate. That’s how they explore and take some control over their own thoughts and emotions. That’s how they kill their monsters.

Or consider this from CS Lewis:

“Since it is likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”

Stories within stories within stories.

In Matthew, Jesus has gone through the water via his baptism, has been sent by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted, and is about to, in chapter 5, go up on a mountain (of sorts) to offer his fresh take on God’s law.

Through the water –> into the wilderness —> up the mountain… remind you of anything??

Matthew references Isaiah. Isaiah references Judges and the story of Gideon. And really, what is the book of Judges if not tales of superheroes? Men and women who display immense courage, who overcome their fear and their people’s fear, to defeat an enemy.

Gideon’s story is one of Israel’s deliverance from oppression – and all such stories of deliverance are references to the Exodus, when God delivered the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt.

So we’ve come full circle once again, from Jesus back to the Exodus, God’s great deliverance of God’s people.

Stories within stories within stories.

There is a shadow side to superhero stories: apathy. If we are so wrapped up and addicted to the need for a super power to save us – whether religion, technology, or political platform – we might never live the courageous path the stories inspire us to take.

(paraphrased from Kester Brown: “We need also to let go of our hope that some other superpower—whether religion, technology or a political formulation—will bring eternal peace and equilibrium.” and Julie Clawson)

God continues to delivery us from oppression and misery. God does that by continually calling us to live lives of grace and peace and hope. God loves us and call us to live lives of love.

Do you know that? I mean really know that in the very center of your self? That at the core of your identity you are God’s beloved child? No matter who you are or who you aren’t; no matter who your parents are or who they aren’t; no matter what you’ve done or what you’ve left undone…you are God’s beloved child. Do you know that?

Well the story isn’t over. Because you are also called by God. You are called by God to be God’s agents in the world – this world, our world, God’s world.

One biblical commentator wrote, “God designates human agents whom God empowers and authorizes in the public process of history. Such human agents turn the public reality of politics and economics toward the will of God.”

You are called by God to be agents in the world fighting, what are our vows?, “fighting evil and oppression in whatever form they present themselves.”

Frankly, there’s plenty of evil to go around. Not to go all “We didn’t start the fire on you”, but we know the big evils:

-1 Billion w/o clean safe water

-800 million hungry

-27 million trapped in slavery

-1 in 5 women sexually assaulted

-climate already 50 parts per million above sustainability

There’s plenty of actual, real evil to go around. We can’t afford to waste time making up pretend evils, like fighting about which particular consenting adults are allowed to get married.

And we’re acting on those evils. Sometimes indirectly through our UM connectional system: clean water projects, rebuilding after the Haiti earthquake, UMW demonstrating in Chicago to fight the sex trafficking that accompanies every Super Bowl.

Sometimes very directly: your generosity in Nov & Dec resulted in over $1000 donated to West Suburban Community Pantry. That will allow the Pantry to buy 3 tons of food!

But if those evils I mentioned strike you as too universal, here are some closer to home:

-We have heroin deaths on the rise in DuPage & Will counties.

-we have drug addiction ravaging young people – though not just young people

-I learned this week that 52% of children in Woodridge schools receive free or reduced lunch.

-There are children in our schools in Woodridge who are homeless. Children whose only meals each day are the free breakfast and lunch provided by the school.

How will we address those? Maybe we start with just one. Maybe we need to partner with the Woodridge Resource Center, see how we can go to them with offers of help. Maybe we can help provide meals for children in the summer months when school meals aren’t available. I don’t know but I’m convinced you do know. God is at work in and with and through and even in spite of, you and me and us.

What story will your life write? What story will we write together, as the people of God called Woodridge UMC?

I say let’s make it a story of ordinary people who dared to respond to God’s call and do extraordinary things! I say we overcome fear and evil with stories and faithful actions of hope! Amen?

————–

*I almost never write a manuscript (that’s preacher-ese for writing out each word of the sermon); instead I use a hybrid style. By which I mean I use a combination of outline, fully-written sections, and, er, inspiration. I always have a thesis so that I know where I’m going with the message. I usually write out the opening and the conclusion and just outline the middle. I find I think about the message all week long, almost constantly playing it in my head, revising it and playing it again. For whatever reasons, I ended up writing almost all of this one. Go figure.

Mourning, and yet…

It has been rough week. It’s been a week of mourning. It has been a week of mourning with Miriam, all the Cabanas family and friends, and our congregation over Ernie’s sudden death. Just a few days ago Miriam and Ernie hugged me on their way out of church after our worship service, all smiles and energy. They are one of the sweetest, most affectionate couples I’ve ever known. I can’t help but be lifted up and encouraged by the love they share and the manner in which they share it. I will greatly miss Ernie’s hopeful smile and jubilant approach toward life. It has been a week of mourning with the nation over yet another mass shooting, this time at the Washington Navy Yard in D.C. Mourning our society’s lack of good understanding of – and care for – those who suffer from mental illness. Mourning our inability – as a nation, as a congregation, even as individuals – to even so much as have a conversation about the role guns play in our society and in these deaths that keep mounting up. It has been a week of mourning with the region over yet another shooting in a Chicago park. No deaths reported, but 13 people were injured, including a 3 year old boy shot in the jaw who is in critical condition. Enough! How will we as individuals, as families, as a congregation respond to this scourge in our streets? When will enough people, enough children, be shot to make us stand up and say, Enough! Our fascination with guns is literally killing us! It has been a week of mourning for the continued and continuing assassination of the character of those in our midst who need help. Who, despite all their efforts, can’t feed their children or themselves. They are not “lazy” or “greedy” or “desiring dependency”. They are people. People like me. People like you. They just happen to be people who need a little help putting food on their table. The honest truth is we all need help sometimes and we all need each other. We’re all dependent upon the work, the blood, the sweat of others. Yet we demonize hungry and poor people for being hungry and poor. Even more baffling, yesterday the U.S. House of Representatives, voted 217-210 to cut SNAP by $39 billion over the next ten years, thereby declaring they want even more people – nearly 4 million more people – to be hungry and they want 210,000 children to be without school lunches. As Rev. David Beckmann says, picking on the poorest among us is unacceptable, especially for a country that prides itself on a strong moral grounding. It has been a rough week. It has been a week of mourning. I am angry and I am sad. And yet… And yet, I love and strive to serve the God who declares that spite and hate and violence and despair and even death do not have the last word in the world. Rather that last word belongs to God as revealed in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, and that word is grace. That word is love. That word is life. And it is offered to all. And yet, I serve a congregation at which this past Sunday our Lead Pastor, the Rev. Dr. James Galbreath, declared from the pulpit as the sermon that Woodridge UMC’s altar is for all. All three of our congregation’s clergy are united in this: Pastor Jim, Deacon Beth, and me. All three of us have signed the Altar for All statement “committing to fulfill our vow to ministry by marrying or blessing couples regardless of their sexual orientation or gender expression.” And this gives me hope in the midst of my sadness and anger. Further, we presented our position in what I believe was an honest and faithful way – from a pastoral standpoint rather than a dogmatic one and acknowledging that not every member of our church agrees with us. We are open for conversation.  And that gives me hope in the midst of sadness and anger. You can sign the Altar for All statement too. There is provision for clergy and laity. Or you can continue to be in conversation with us about this.  And this gives me hope in the midst of sadness and anger. I am convinced that God as revealed in Jesus is the God of “and yet…” So that’s where I want to be too; in the midst of the “and yet…”

 

Responding to evil with a hope and a prayer

How often this week have you heard someone say, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of ______”? Boston, Iraq, Texas, Iran, Illinois…there’s no shortage of people dealing with violence, disaster, pain, and tragedy. There never is.

Has the “thoughts and prayers” sentiment gone the way of “how are you”? Tossed off with little intent; a perfunctory response to bad news? I know I’m guilty of that sometimes.

I aim to change that today. Now.

Here then is an actual prayer for actual people in actual need from The UMC‘s fantastic General Board of Discipleship. As the best prayers often are, this is meant to be said in community.

We come together hoping for healing and rest.

Healing can be hard when the world seems harsh and cruel.

We come seeking peace after the blast, even among the shrapnel of images imbedded in our collective minds.

Peace can be hard when the world roars in chaos and pain.

We come to a God who knows what it is to have nails in flesh and bone. We come to a God who knows our pain.

We come to you, O God, because you know how to change death into life and chaos into beauty. Anoint this hour with your peace as we worship in your name.

Sometimes the evil in the world isn’t as noisy and news-worthy as a bomb. Sometimes it is persistent, pervasive, assumed to simply be part of the way the world is. But no one should be hungry. We can and should and must act to end hunger. Bread for the World can help us do that. So next week, April 28, we will again take up an Offering of Letters asking President Obama and our Senators (Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin) to protect programs that help hungry and poor people.

More from Bread: How is this year’s Offering of Letters different than in the past? The 2013 Offering of Letters includes signing a petition to the president as well as writing letters to Congress. Now is the time for a bold, unified plan to end hunger in the United States and abroad. If you haven’t done so already, take a moment now and sign the petition. You can also download copies of the petition and invite friends to sign it and mail it to us.

Join us at Woodridge UMC on April 28 to learn more, to sign the petition, and to write letters.

Just make it through the night

Our son recently turned 7 years old. He’s in first grade.

It’s been a rough week.

Oh, not for him nor his little sister. They’re fine and are excited for Christmas.

But the unspeakable horror of the Newtown shooting hit Joann and me very hard.  (Though, obviously, our sadness is in no way comparable to those families directly affected.) We cried, we seethed, we cried, we hugged our kids, we cried, we prayed, and we cried some more.

Lots of people have written and said lots words in the week since the shooting. Some of it asinine and reprehensible (looking at you Dobson, Hukabee, and Westboro “Baptist” “Church.” And now you too, NRA. All of you miserable fucks make me scream obscenities and break things.). Some of it beautiful and inspiring. As usual, Fred Clark at Slacktivist has a terrific links round up.

I haven’t really been able to craft much that is coherent beyond this: We love and worship and strive to serve the God of hope. I trust in God’s promise to be present for those who mourn. I hear God calling me (and us) to mourn with them. I trust and pray that God’s light will continue to shine even in the deepest darkness.

Since I seem to have no words for the grief, the anger, and, yes, even the glimmer of hope that I feel on this longest of nights, I will let music from my favorite band speak for me. After all, isn’t that what art is for?

Make it through this night and light will shine just a wee bit longer tomorrow.

Peace be with you all.