Sunday, December 10, 2017


Spiritual guides nowadays tell us to live in the present moment;
         but each moment contains both memory and anticipation.
Each moment is a thin slice of time
set between a past and a future.
What happened yesterday shapes today’s experience;
Our past can be a blessing or a curse.
It’s hard not to get stuck in memories.
Good memories capture us in nostalgia,
         longing for a past that can never be recovered
                  precisely because it is the past.
We refuse to move on into the future because we know
         it could never be as good as the good old days.

Bad memories capture us in despair.
We identify with our old wounds.
I am the one who suffered this or suffered that.
There is a sticky quality to old wounds
         that traps us like flypaper.

The power of the past over the present depends
         entirely on what we think of the future.
We live each moment with an expectation.
The natural human condition is to be expectant,
         to scan the horizon.
We are all always watching for something.
But we rarely watch neutrally.
We watch with preformed expectations.
We live in dread or hope, faith or fear.

Nothing is more fundamental to our way of being in the world
                  than our attitude toward the future.
God uses prophesy is put a thumb on the s scale
In favor of hope.
God breaks up the stony soil of pessimism
         with the plow of a promise.

Judah had endured a long, hard time.
For decades, they had been in exile,
         writing songs of lament.
         By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
                  as we remembered Zion.
Before they were vanquished by Babylon,
         Judah was occupied by Assyria.
Before that they had been a vassal state of Egypt.
Before that they had been besieged by Aram.
No living Jew could remember peace and prosperity.

Their plight raises a question for us:
         is it possible to hope for something we cannot remember?
Is it possible to anticipate something
we have not experienced yet?

I often ask churches, “what are you hoping for?”
Is it possible to hope for something we cannot remember?
For humans, probably not.
But with God all things are possible.
Judah could not even remember happiness,
         but God spoke to his prophet, Isaiah, saying,

         Comfort, O comfort my people . . ..
          Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her
                  that she has served her term
                  that her penalty is paid.

Can you hear God saying that to you?
Can you see the old habitual sorrows of your life
         as a time of exile, and hear God say
         You have served your term; it’s over?

The Jewish exiles had lost a lot – the temple, homes, families.
We all lose what is dear to us.
Then we live in the loss; abide in the sorrow.
Isaiah acknowledges the loss, but then reminds us
          there is something we have not lost and can never lose.
He writes,

All people are grass . . ..
          The grass withers, the flower fades;
         but the word of our God will stand forever.

The word of our God that stands forever is good news.
It is gospel. The Bible says:
         Get up to a high mountain O Zion,
                  herald of good tidings.
         Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem,
                  herald of good tidings.

Herald of good tidings.
Can you imagine not only hearing God’s promise
         that you will be peaceful and at ease,
         that you will be happy
          but can you imagine that you not only hear
that good news for yourself;
         but that you are, this day, appointed as God’s messenger
                  to tell God’s good news to other people.

Whatever your identity has been up to now,
         you have a new one – herald of good tidings
 tidings beyond anything we have experienced
This good news is beyond the capacity of human language
                  to express directly.

So, Isaiah uses metaphors:
         Say to the cities of Judah, here is your God . . ..
         He will feed his flock like a shepherd.
         He will carry the lambs in his arms
                  and carry them in his bosom
                  and gently lead the mother sheep.

Can you imagine living in expectation
         of a serene joy that you have never felt before?
If you can, then you will experience right now
         a hope you have never felt before.
Even in the midst of the trials and hardships of today,
         you will carry in your heart a warm ember of consolation
                  already glowing.
The quality of this present moment will be transformed by hope.
I invite you each to hear this promise for you personally.
It’s from another prophet speaking in a hard, dark time.
Jeremiah delivered this message from God:
         I know the plans I have for you;
          plans to prosper you and not harm you,
          plans to give you a hope and a future.

God promises to do a new thing in you,
         to make Christ more real to you.
Jesus is going to play a larger part in each of your days
than ever before.

I invite you to hear that promise also for this congregation.
In Christian spirituality, the transformation of the individual
         and the transformation of the community
are intimately connected.
You cannot change without changing those around you
         and if this congregation changes it will change you.

So, I invite you to imagine,
         that Trinity will matter to you in a larger way;
         and that this congregation will do in Reno
                  what no congregation has done before
–that this congregation will become a center of spiritual renewal;
         that you will be a herald of good tidings
                  for the lost children on our streets,
                  the faltering schools of our community,
                  a herald of good tidings for social transformation,   
                           for art, culture, and justice in the public square.

If you live in that hope, you will invest in it.
You will prepare the way for your own transformation
         though disciplines of prayer, study, and service.
You will, at the same time, prepare for the transformation
of this congregation.
You will support it now with your labor, your money,
and your prayers.

You are on the brink of becoming something new
         – not just a gathering place for mutual support
                  but a herald of good tidings for all people.
With this promise, comes a challenge
         – to invest the labor, the money, and the prayer
                  to make room for miracle.

The Lord said to those who were to receive his promise.
         In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.
                  Make straight in the desert – this desert
                           --a highway for our God.
          Every valley shall be lifted up . . .
         Then the glory of the Lord shall appear
                  and all the people shall see it together

                  for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Sunday, December 3, 2017


On this first Sunday of the Christian year,
         I want to make a plug for the liturgical year.
I recommend the liturgical year because I believe in it,
         but I know most people do not.
Most of us think Christianity is one particular mood,
         one experience, one idea that we think all the time.

For example, some say we are an Easter people
so we should use the liturgy for Easter every Sunday.
The special tension this time of year is that on the secular Hallmark Calendar
         it’s already the Christmas Season;
         but on the Christian calendar,
it’s Advent, which has a darker feel
to go with the short days of December.

The father of American psychology, William James, said back in 1902
         that some folks try to stay optimistic all the time.
But that positive thinking religion shuts down a huge part of their experience.
Constant smiling strains the face.
It doesn’t come to grips with reality.
It’s too shallow a pool of grownups.
James said that Buddhism and Christianity
are the most psychologically effective religions
precisely because we make room for the bad stuff.
Our faith is willing to look at the whole picture.

That’s where the Christian year comes in.
We can’t see the whole picture at once.
We can’t feel everything at once.
The Christian year makes a time for all our feelings,
         moods, and dispositions.

Sometimes we really feel God’s Presence.
We celebrate that experience in Christmas.
Those 12 days are all about God with us.

But, if we’re honest, we have to admit
         sometimes God doesn’t feel so real to us.
Sometimes God seems pretty far off, even imaginary,
         while we’re here in the mix and muddle of life.
That’s ok because if we always felt God’s Presence,
         we wouldn’t know what it is to long for God,
         to hunger and thirst for God.
Advent is the season of longing.

“Oh that you would tear open the heavens
         and come down.”
Isaiah’s prayer is poignant, painful in its longing,
         ardent in its desire.
“Oh that” is an expression like “if only”
         – but so much stronger.
Isaiah wants God now.
We need God now.

That is the Advent prayer.
In Advent, we face our experience of God’s absence.
“Oh that” is a cry of raw desire.

Who is this God Isaiah longs for
         and what do we hope God will do?
Since the 7th Century, in December, the Church has sung
         the O Antiphons of Advent.
They invite God to come and be with us.
Each Antiphon uses a different name for God.
to express a different thing we are missing.

The first of these ancient prayers is,
is O Wisdom of our God on high.
The world can be so senseless, so inept, so cockeyed,
         we need some Wisdom in the conversation.

The second ancient Advent prayer is
O Leader of the House of Israel, give us the law.
The world is lawless sometimes.
It gets pretty dog eat dog, everyone out for himself.
We need a taste of morality, a little attention to right and wrong.

The third prayer, is O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people.
This world can be a loveless place.
We have more people hating each other right out loud these days
         than I remember in my lifetime.
We could use some divine love flowing in the stream of humanity.

Fourth, in Advent we pray,
O Key of David opening the gates,
         come and free the prisoners of darkness.
Do you ever feel stuck in your life,
         trapped in a memory, a grudge, or a situation?
We need a liberator to open the gates so we can move on.

Fifth, O Radiant Dawn come and shine on those who dwell in darkness
         and the shadow of death.
Anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote a classic book, The Denial of Death.
He argued powerfully that we unconsciously organize our lives
to avoid admitting our mortality.
Paul Simon wrote,
         So Ill continue to continue to pretend
         My life will never end . . . .
We are too busy running from death to really live.
We need a Radiant Dawn to scatter the shadows
         of death and its denial.

Sixth, O King of Nations come and save humankind
         whom you made from the dust.
Save means to make whole, to put together what has broken apart.
The nations, races, and even genders break apart
         and set us against one another.
We need a spiritual King to remind us we are all one dust.

Finally, we pray, O Emmanuel come and be with us.
Life gets lonely -- even in a crowd.
We need God to enfold us, know us completely,
         and befriend us so we can feel that we belong.

Those are seven ways the Church has expressed
         what humankind is missing
         and who God is for us.

But I’m going to ask you a personal question,
         maybe the most personal question.
What do you want?
What is the hole in your life?
What’s missing for you?

It may not be something that sounds spiritual or religious.
You may not think it has anything to do with God.
But let me tell you something about human desire.
Our hands down greatest theologian was St. Augustine.

He said, we all have one basic desire.
We are all born with a God-shaped hole in our hearts.
Our fundamental desire is for God.

But that holy desire is refracted like white light into a rainbow.
It comes to us in the form of many different smaller desires.
But – now this is St. Augustine talking – if you follow any desire,
         no matter how mundane, shallow, or materialistic – any desire
         to its source, what you find is God.

So, I ask again, what do you want?
What do you really, truly – just between you and me
in the confessional booth– want?
Don’t judge yourself for wanting something for yourself.
Don’t judge your desire as not being holy enough.
Tell yourself the truth. Admit what you want.

 Now I’m going to give you two spiritual prescriptions for Advent.
First, spend some quiet time by yourself, search your heart,
--use a journal if it helps --
         and find the answer to that question.
Again, don’t polish it up.
Admit your honest desire.
You are making your grown up Christmas list.

Second, pray for it.
Don’t hide your desire behind just praying for others.
Don’t be ashamed to admit what you want.
If it’s a bad idea, God won’t do it just because you told him to.

 You aren’t the boss and prayer isn’t magic.
What will happen if you tell God the truth
         is you and God will get a whole lot closer to each other.

The Ancient Greeks and the even more Ancient Egyptians
taught that the beginning of wisdom is to know yourself.
That takes enough courage to be honest.
God has given us that much courage.
You can do it.

Advent is the time to get to know yourself
         and tell a bit of truth – just in the privacy of prayer.
It’s the season to get real with God.

Then watch what happens next.