The incarnation is important to me. It’s when God was willing to become vulnerable in order to better connect with us. Artists through the ages and in every culture have tried to connect us to that moment. Inspired by their work, the music of Alfred Burt and Dave Grusin and by the poetry of George Starbuck, I offer this:
Some Children See Him – an exploration of the incarnation in art.

And this poem by George Starbuck

Sonnet in the Shape of a Potted Christmas Tree
O glitter-torn!
Let the wild wind erect
bonbonbonanzas; junipers affect
frostyfreeze turbans; iciclestuff adorn
all cuckolded creation in a madcap crown of horn!
It’s a new day; no scapegrace of a sect
tidying up the ashtrays playing Daughter-in-Law Elect;
bells! bibelots! popsicle cigars! shatter the glassware! a son born
while ox and ass and infant lie
together as poor creatures will
and tears of her exertion still
cling in the spent girl’s eye
and a great firework in the sky
drifts to the western hill.

Speed bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward, the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.

Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,
Thunderclaps rend the air;
Baffled our foes stand on the shore,
Follow they will not dare.

It’s not your garden variety ear worm, this romantic poet’s telling of the end of the Jacobite Rising.  And it’s not exactly the kind of music that normally gets stuck in my head.  But today, as I make my way through the foggy Oakland morning, I hear it sung in Jeff Byers’ grief-raw tenor as he stood to offer a public tribute to his beloved (and mine, and ours) Pamela McLucas Byers.

Jeff sang and we remembered her love for poetry, her passion for Scottish literature, and her self-accompanying soundtrack of continual humming.  And today, I can’t get it out of my head. I cannot.

It occurs to me that it’s because this isn’t just another song loved by her poet’s heart. It’s a sign and symbol of the the way Pam lived.  And while it might be a stretch to connect bloody highland battles with such a gentle spirit, it strikes me that it is a musical version of what Pam experienced as she worked tirelessly for the full inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer people in the Presbyterian Church.

In this song, my ears hear Pam’s patient ferocity, even as she faithfully spoke her hopes for peace into the onslaught of howling winds threatening the precious unity of the church.  My eyes see her determined focus on the horizon of God’s dawning of justice, even as she stood on an ever-eroding shore with crashing waves of resistance to change breaking at her feet.  And here at the end, my heart feels the reverberation of the thunderclaps that destroyed barriers to ministry and burst open the doors of the sanctuary so all God’s children can celebrate and be celebrated as they marry.

Many have watched in confusion and awe as God’s rambunctious and creative Spirit moved. But not Pam. She was never confounded, never uncertain, never afraid.   She dared to believe and to hold hope for those who couldn’t. She dared it when few would follow and many would judge.  She dared it when all seemed lost. And in the end, at the end of her warrior’s life, she saw freedom and justice becoming a reality in the church she loved so much.

I will never hear this song again without thinking of Pamela McLucas Byers.  I will love it and I will hate it because I don’t want her bonnie boat to speed away.  None of us wanted that.  We wanted Pam to be able to rest awhile in victory and then return to these shores, ready to lead us in another battle for freedom and justice and unity.  But there it is. We are left on the shore, baffled with grief, hoping we can dare to follow her even when she’s not here to lead. And singing her home to God.

Though the waves leap, soft shall ye sleep,
Ocean’s a royal bed;
Rocked in the deep, Flora will keep
Watch by your weary head.

Speed bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward, the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.

A sermon preached on 11/9/14 based on Joshua 24.

This year we celebrate 100 years of ministry at 27th and Broadway. And as I’ve been thinking about our history, some other milestones have come to my attention:

  • 100 years ago, safety glass, traffic cones and the Panama Canal all had their inauguration – and the War to End All Wars  – World War 1 – began.
  • 75 years ago, The first TV broadcasts happened which included the first televised baseball game between the Cincinnati Reds and the then Brooklyn Dodgers – and Germany invaded Poland signaling the beginning of World War 2.
  • 50 years ago, the Beatles first set foot on American soil and “ahem” the first swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated was published – and the Gulf of Tomkin incident provoked legislation which escalated our involvement in Viet Nam.
  • 25 years ago today, the Berlin Wall fell – and the massacre at Tienamen Square happened.
  • 10 years ago, Facebook was launched and the first same-sex marriage was performed in Massachussetts – and the CIA released a report stating that there had been no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

It’s important that we recognize turning points in our history – the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful.  We need to celebrate achievements and grieve losses.  Even the most cursory recitation of history helps us remember who we are and how we’ve come to be this way.  We need to pay attention to history, but we can’t live there.

This morning, we catch up with the Israelites at a crucial moment – a moment of great triumph.  After generations of slavery, after crying out to God, after voicing their pain and suffering for what seemed like an eternity, their generations-long struggle in Egypt and in the wilderness is drawing to a close.  The years of frustration and grief, marked by slavery, hunger, internal discord and battle are ending as they begin the process of settling down in the promised land.

They are ready to relax by the home fire, maybe do a little gardening, enjoy their families.  They were glad for an end to war and a more balanced approach toward their new neighbors.  They were ready for better times.  Their hearts and minds were focused on the potential and promise this new land held – a chance for prosperity, peace, and renewal.  It was time to rest in the blessings of their chosenness.

Then the voice of Joshua interrupts their euphoria:

Listen up! You’ve lived in the wilderness for a long time.  Time and time again, God delivered you.  And now you’re about to live in a land that God gave you– a land where somebody else did the back-breaking work to prepare it.  You’re moving into cities you did not build.  You are eating from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.  This whole thing has been a gift to you.  Don’t ever forget this.

This might seem harsh and demanding, but Joshua was no fool.  He knew how this people had struggled to meet even the most basic obligations of the covenant.  He was with them as they struggled in the wilderness. He heard their yearning to return to their well-fed days in Egypt.  Joshua saw them struggle with their faithfulness to God as they hedged their bets and offered a little Baal worship just to make sure.  He was also painfully aware of how the people struggled with leadership – first latching on to Moses, then at the first sign of confusion, turning to Aaron.  At times, especially when responsibilities, land, and booty were being divvied up, they even killed each other in their quest for power and position.

So Joshua reminded them yet again that in spite of all that struggling, in spite of their somewhat less than faithful commitment, God had remained steadfast.  And now that they have found themselves on the verge of having it all – the promised land, the continuing promise of God’s ongoing blessing and the promise of an expansive, glory-filled future – Joshua wanted them to know what would be expected of them:

Serve the Lord with every ounce of your being.  Throw away anything that comes between you and God.  Choose this day whom you will serve.  Choose each and every day whom you will serve.

Centuries later, another Joshua would speak to another band of chose people.  (His name was actually Yeshua – Jesus.)  His followers were multiplying exponentially.  His rock star magnetism drew thousands.  A word of mouth campaign went viral and spread from town to town, celebrating his ability to heal, to preach, to renew hope for a brighter future.

Renewal and revitalization was really happening.  The lame were walking, the blind could see, the sick were healed.  Storms were calmed, the hungry were fed, the powers of oppression found that not only were they unable to match the rhetoric, they were no match for the depth of compassion, the strength of commitment of this bright young man.  Those were heady days!

It’s into this euphoria that Jesus speaks:

Listen, together we can do some amazing things.  But you need to know what it’s going to cost.  Don’t expect to rest.

Don’t think you can use family, age, job or any other obligation as an excuse to step back from this work.  And above all, don’t listen to those who will tell you that now that I’m here, everything’s gonna be all right.  Serve the Lord with every ounce of your being.  Throw away anything that comes between you and God.  Choose this day whom you will serve.  Choose each and every day whom you will serve.

We stand in a long line of chosen people who had to choose.

This week there has been an election.  While we can see some signs of hope, symbols of a turning – at least here in Oakland, this election also serves as a wake-up call – shaking us out of our euphoria to face the hard reality that there is still so much work to be done.

And it is overwhelming.

Who among us doesn’t feel the daily schizophrenic tug at our psyches as we try to balance the demands of family with the demands of our jobs, our creditors, our community. We all have mortgages or rents due, car payments, kids that outgrow shoes three times a year, college tuition, ailing elderly parents and grocery bills that grow at an inversely proportional rate to the number of bags it takes to get the groceries home.

It is into this reality that Jesus tells us that we can no longer claim our lifestyle as a discipleship-exemption loophole. “Bad timing” is no excuse for turning a deaf ear to God’s call.

It is into this reality that Joshua says:  Choose this day whom you will serve.

Like the Israelites, like the hundreds of followers of Jesus, our call is to live each and every day as God’s people.  This is not a glory road, but it is a road that leads to glory.  This is not a peaceful way, but it is the way that leads to peace.  This is not a path where justice comes easy, it’s not a movement that ends with the election of a particular leader or the passing of a particular proposition. This is a movement with one requirement – that each and every day, before we take one step, in the good, the bad, the uglyand the beautiful we choose whom we will serve and then get down to doing the work of serving.