Monday, December 27, 2010

Lectionary Notes for Epiphany Sunday, Year ABC

Readings for Epiphany Sunday, 1/2/11:

Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

Isaiah 60:1-6:
  • On Epiphany Sunday, we use many light/dark images which correspond to good/bad, and sometimes, unfortunately, white/black. Make sure to double check your language for overtones that may be perceived as racist or convey a message that you don't intend!
  • "Lift up your eyes and look around." Sometimes things that we need/want/pray for/hope for are right in front of us, we just fail to see them because we are not looking. During seminary, I had the chance to travel to Ghana, West Africa, and walk across high-suspended canopy bridges in Kakum National Park. I had to remind myself to stop, breathe, and look around at the rainforest that I was crossing high above!
  • This passage is addressed to Israel, as the people have been permitted by the Persian King Darius to return to the Holy City Jerusalem. This is a homecoming story, an image of a big party thrown for Israel's return to itself.

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14:
  • Judgment and Justice - To me the word justice is so powerful because of its double meanings. We want to bring criminals to justice, to make sure they get what they deserve in terms of punishment, but we want to bring the oppressed justice, to make sure they get what they deserve: equality, shelter, food, health, etc. I'm reminded of the Newsboys song with the lyrics, "When you get what you don't deserve, it's a real good thing . . . when you don't get what you deserve, it's a real good thing."
  • This psalm is written as a sort of call for blessings on a king, perhaps at the beginning of his reign/coronation/special ceremony. In my NRSV translation, some of the phrases sound quite demanding of God. "Give the king your justice, O God." Are we willing to demand of God so boldly when we have wants/needs? When is or isn't this appropriate?

Ephesians 3:1-12:
  • "This is the reason": Paul has been writing in the previous chapter about how both the circumcised and the uncircumcised are now one in Christ, who has broken down the dividing wall. This is the purpose of Paul's ministry, to bring the Good News to the Gentiles.
  • "Although I am the very least of all the saints." When I was younger, before I came to better terms with my good friend Paul, these statements of self-debasing always irritated me to no end! :)
  • "Mystery", from the Greek musterion, a secret thing or secret rite. Not so much in a 'whodunnit' sense, but in an awe and intrigue sense.

Matthew 2:1-12:
  • Matthew emphasizes the importance of this event because the visit of the Magi (the Latin term) symbolizes recognition from non-Jewish figures of prominence who recognize the kingship of baby Jesus.
  • Note that there is no mention of 3 Kings. A lot of common thought about the wise men is something of Bible mythology, such as their number, their names (traditionally Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior), and their royal status. Of course, the wise men would not have arrived at the birth of the Christ child, as depicted in nativity scenes, but well after the birth, hence Herod's decision to kill male babies of two and under, to make sure the job was done.
  • What makes this story of the wise men the day of Epiphany? Writes Dennis Bratcher in this article, "The Wise Men or Magi who brought gifts to the infant Jesus were the first Gentiles to acknowledge Jesus as "King" and so were the first to "show" or "reveal" Jesus to a wider world as the incarnate Christ."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lectionary Notes for Christmas Day, Year ABC

Readings for Christmas Sunday, 12/25/10:
Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12), John 1:1-14
Isaiah 52:7-10:
  • "beautiful feet" - I've known this verse, though not where to find it in the Bible, since I was in a summer-camp production of "Sandi Patti and the Friendship Company" in junior high, where "Beautiful Feet" was one of the songs. Lyrics here. Beautiful feet - what a great image! Are your feet beautiful? What message do your feet carry from place to place? Do you bring peace with your feet? Salvation?
  • Isaiah speaks of the joy of Israel returning back home after exile to Babylon. When have you experienced your most joyful homecoming? When have you been away from home and not wanted to be away from home? Homesick? Without a home?
  • According to Chris Haslam, the reference to "God's arm" is a reference to God's power. Sort of envisioning a God-flexing-muscles picture.
Psalm 98:
  • Oof - watch out - there's "God's arm" again, twice on one Sunday!
  • "Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy." Great imagery. How would you create this image?
  • This is a psalm of joy and thankfulness for God's action in someone's life, in the life of a whole people. How do you celebrate as an individual? As a community? Do we celebrate as nations? A world? How do we express our joy in God? Through worship? Action?
Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12):
  • Hebrews talks of Jesus as the reflection of God's glory. I think we are also reflections of God's glory, if we let ourselves be, let God makes us into these reflections. This is what it means to be created in God's image, isn't it?
  • "exact imprint of God's very being" - This makes fingerprints come to mind, or plaster casts of babies' feet.
  • The argument here seems to be: Jesus is better than angels. Was this a question in the early church? Chris Haslam says it was (sort of), actually.
  • think this passage from Hebrews may be the only non-gospel place that refers to Jesus' birth in the scriptures. But Hebrews' description sounds more like Revelation and less like Luke 2!
John 1:1-14:
  • This is John's take on a birth narrative. No shepherds, no angels, no Mary and Joseph, no manger. This is how John describes Jesus' coming into the world. The language is rich in metaphor, and though it lacks the characters of the traditional nativity, the point is still communicated without a doubt: 'And the word became flesh and lived among us'.
  • This is one of my favorite passages in the Greek New Testament, not only because of the easy, repetitive vocabulary :) but also because it is poetic and lyrical through the simple, repetitive structure. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
  • Passages like this from John provide the strongest basest for our Trinitarian Christian Creeds. Jesus was "in the beginning with God."
  • I think we are all, like John the Baptist, meant to testify, or witness, to the light. How do you do it? Witnessing means telling what you know about something, like at a trial. What do you know about the light that is Christ? 

Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Advent, " Redefining Christmas: Recreate"

Sermon 12/19/10, Matthew 1:18-25

Redefining Christmas: Recreate

            Sometimes when we get what we want, we don’t know what to do with it after all. Sometimes Advent can seem like a long time, when you’re at the beginning of it, reading those strange world-catastrophe texts a few days after Thanksgiving. But then, what seems like just a few hours later really, we’re at the fourth Sunday of Advent, and in our text today from Matthew Jesus is born, and maybe we wonder a little: now what do we do with this? I know for me, at least, I found it a little easier to preach about those other strange texts, less familiar texts, than I find it to preach about a text so much more familiar and seemingly simple.
Let's look at our passage. The text we read from Matthew is notable because here, it is really Joseph's story, not Jesus' or Mary's. Poor Mary, the mother of the Christ Child, hardly gets a mention from Matthew. This passage is about how Joseph handled everything that was happening to him. Joseph and Mary are engaged. But before their marriage, before they are living together, someone it is discovered that Mary is pregnant. We don't know how this information was known - we just knew that Joseph knew she was pregnant and knew that he was not the father of the child. Having a child outside of a marriage in those days wasn't just frowned upon. It was a criminal act, and it was punishable, punishable by death to one or both persons involved. Joseph, having made a covenant to wed Mary, could have brought charges of adultery against her, for which she would have faced death by stoning. But Joseph, a 'righteous man', chooses instead to quietly break off the covenant to be wed before it is too late. But, we read, "just as he had resolved to do this," a messenger from God appears to Joseph and tells him that the child Mary bears is from the Holy Spirit. The messenger tells him not to be afraid, but to wed Mary as planned. This child, the messenger says, is one who will save the people from their sins. Joseph did as the messenger commanded. We don't hear of any arguments he put forward, or hard time he gave Mary, or questions he wanted answered. He wed Mary as promised, and she bore a child, and they named him Jesus.
It is hard for us today to realize the precariousness of Jesus’ birth and the whole Christmas story. We think of the birth of Jesus as such a sweet thing – at least that’s my gut instinct. So sweet – a baby being born! The baby Jesus, asleep on the hay. But everything about childbirth in those days was risky. In the best of situations, giving birth was a risky thing. And in Mary and Joseph’s situation: there are some life and death circumstances at play. Today perhaps we don't find this story as shocking - a man finds his fiancĂ©e pregnant, and he knows that he is not the father. So he wants to remedy the situation by quietly divorcing her, something that was necessary even to break an engagement. In today's world, such a thing might still be disliked or looked down on by some, but it certainly is not something punishable by death. But in Joseph's day, it was of critical importance. Children and lineage and family lines and sons being born - this was important, critical stuff, issues that meant survival and success. Joseph had the facts in front of him - Mary was pregnant and he was not the father. He dreamed of God's messenger telling him it would be alright. But if I took everything I dreamed at face value, I'd be in big trouble!
But Joseph seems satisfied that he has heard God speaking to him, and he knows what he must do. He must risk it. No doubt he loved Mary already - he must risk trusting her and trusting God even though he felt betrayed and confused. He must risk believing what the visions of his dreams told him - that this baby would be the Messiah. He must risk the ridicule he would face when others would inevitably get wind of what was happening. So much that he must do. And for what? Our gospels rarely speak of Joseph after this. He is not the parent that Jesus relates to, the father he depends on - Jesus calls God his Abba – it is God that Jesus speaks of as his parent. Mary plays a bigger role in Jesus' ministry and life, at least. But Joseph disappears from the scene. Such a big risk, and no seeming rewards, no benefits for himself, no glory, fame only in Church Christmas pageants. Why would he do it? For love of Mary? No - he loved Mary, but he would have divorced her if he could. No, I can only deduce that it is Joseph’s faithfulness that helps him act so selflessly. Because of his love for God, and God's love for him, Joseph is willing to put himself in last place, disregard any action that would be in his own best interest. Jesus is not even yet born, the child he will raise, but already Joseph is embodying what Jesus will teach – putting himself last, letting himself be humbled, being servant of all. God's love seems to make us do the craziest things sometimes. Only with God's love and Joseph’s in response, woven through this story, does Joseph's behavior make any sense.
Joseph, following God, is able to do what I think is one of the hardest things of all – and that’s to get out of the way, let the story be, really, about everyone but him. Many of us would say we don’t like being the center of attention. I’m a pretty introverted person, even though I have a very public vocation, and I can tell you I generally try not to draw attention to myself. But, if we are all honest with ourselves, when it comes to making decisions, we’re usually going to protect ourselves, make choices that are ok with us, take actions that are for our own benefit. It’s very hard for us to move ourselves to the sidelines, to make choices that are risky, will cause us pain or harm. To act selflessly – unfortunately, we sometimes limit that impulse for only those whom we love most dearly – our family, maybe our best friends. Joseph acts selflessly for the sake of an unborn child that is not his. But more simply, he acts selflessly because God asks him to.
Christmas, despite our best intentions, often turns into a selfish rather than a selfless time. We don’t mean to be, but somehow we get so worried about making sure things go just right, making sure we can get just the right gift, making sure things are perfect, or at least the best they can be. And sometimes in the quest for the special Christmas, we forget to get out of the way, move to the side, so that the focus can be where it belongs – a child named Jesus is born. Christmas is just a few days away. But there’s plenty of time, always time, to act a little more like Joseph.
“Joseph . . . did as the angel of the Lord commanded him . . .and he named [the child] Jesus.” Amen.  

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sermon for Third Sunday of Advent, "Reveal"

Sermon 12/12/10
Matthew 11:2-11

Redefining Christmas: Reveal

            Have you ever had your expectations completely shattered? Have you ever been totally off base in your expectations about something? Well, I guess I can answer that for you. Of course you have. We all have, I’m sure, in our many experiences had a time when what we expected, and what we got, were two completely different things. A trivial example: In seminary I took my United Methodist history, doctrine, and polity classes online. My seminary was big into embracing technology, and taking the class online was convenient. (I have to also tell you it involved a lot more work than some of my traditional classes!) Anyway, the professor was a professor who was based right on Drew’s campus. I’d just never seen him before. He worked mostly with Doctor of Ministry students, and I was a Master of Divinity student. His office wasn’t in the main seminary building. And I’d just never seen him before. So as I was taking this online class, I only had a picture in my head of what Dr. Savage might look like. And then, one day, there he was, right in front of me. And he was absolutely nothing like I'd pictured at all. He was a different age, height, had a different style, voice. He was nothing like what I expected, and I had a very hard time reconciling my mental picture with the actual.
            Sometimes the different between our expectation and reality is more significant though. I’ve occasionally met with folks in my ministry who are surprised to discover that I’m the pastor. This was particularly true in my first parish. In my first two appointments, I was the first clergy woman to ever serve that church. But I found it wasn’t being a woman that threw people for a loop – it was my age. When I started in Oneida, I was just 24. My office was the first one you would reach in the church. It had a sign over it: Pastor’s Study. It had one desk in the office, and one person at the desk: me. And yet, still, people would come in, look in the office, look at me, and say, “Is the pastor in?” I wish I could capture in pictures the look of surprise on the faces when I responded, “that’s me!” And yet, I found myself doing the same thing: when I was attending a conference on social justice ministries, I attended a workshop with the executive director of one of the organizations. To my surprise, she was very young. I could feel my surprise and wonder. I had to remind myself: isn’t that the very reaction I get all the time? When it comes to people meeting or shattering our expectations, we have to work very hard at not judging books by their covers, lest we miss the important message someone has to reveal to us.
Today our gospel text again focuses on John the Baptist, although we skip ahead a bit, farther into the gospel of Matthew, and at issue is expectations. Are they being shattered? Fulfilled? Both? John is in prison – he was put there for criticizing King Herod Antipas for his adultery – Herod married his brother’s wife – causing both Herod and new wife Herodias to divorce – Herod from his wife, Herodias from Herod’s own brother – Herod Phillip. Today such an action might be considered questionable but legal. In Herod’s day it was both immoral and against Jewish law. John the Baptist spoke out and spoke the truth, as was his custom, and it landed him in jail.
While he’s there, he sends some of his followers – yes, John had followers of his own – he sends some of them to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John, who has risked so much, and will ultimately give his own life in order to stand for the truth, to preach the message of repentance and forgiveness – he wants to make very sure the person he’s put it on the line for is the person he thinks. Jesus and John may be cousins, but they’ve travelled in very different words, Jesus always among the crowds, and John in the wilderness, in a place set apart. Their approaches are so very different, and by now, by this point in Matthew’s gospel, it should be apparent to John that the one he described in our text last week as wielding a winnowing fork, like an ax lying at the root of the trees – well, this Jesus is very different than John expected. He must be sure. Is Jesus the one?
Jesus tells them to return to John and tell him what they’ve seen: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus is paraphrasing words from the prophet Isaiah, words that he read from the scroll at the beginning of his preaching ministry. They’re words that indicate that Jesus sees himself fulfilling Isaiah’s vision. And they say to John: what does the evidence tell you? What do you see? You see the results – the good fruit perhaps – and that should tell you who I am.
As John’s disciples leave, Jesus turns to question the crowd, now turning the conversation to who John is, what John’s identity means. Jesus wants to know what the people were hoping to see when they went out to see John. A spectacle? A sham? The real thing – a prophet? Yes, Jesus says, a prophet, and more than a prophet. One announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God. Our passage closes with someone confusing words – Jesus says that even though John is the greatest of those born of women, yet still the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John. How can that be? Well, it seems that Jesus is trying to draw a line – to show that while John was announcing the kingdom – actually being part of this kingdom of God that’s at hand – that’s the best thing of all.
Is Jesus what John expected? Is John the messenger that the crowds expected? Does Jesus act in our lives as we’ve expected? Perhaps you’ve heard this little joke, this fable of sorts. A person was trapped in their house after a flood, waiting for help. He prayed and prayed for God to rescue him. He had faith God would hear his prayer. The water started to rise in his house. His neighbor urged him to leave and offered him a ride to safety. The man yelled back, “I am waiting for God to save me.” The neighbor drove off in his pick-up truck. The man continued to pray. As the water began rising in his house, he had to climb up to the roof. A boat came by with some people heading for safe ground. They yelled at the man to grab a rope they were ready to throw and take him to safety. He told them that he was waiting for God to save him. They shook their heads and moved on. The man continued to pray, believing with all his heart that he would be saved by God. The flood waters continued to rise. A helicopter flew by and a voice came over a loudspeaker offering to lower a ladder and take him off the roof. The man waved the helicopter away, shouting back that he was waiting for God to save him. The helicopter left. The flooding water came over the roof and caught him up and swept him away. He drowned. When he reached heaven and asked, “God, why did you not save me? I believed in you with all my heart. Why did you let me drown?” God replied, “I sent you a pick-up truck, a boat and a helicopter and you refused all of them. What else could I possibly do for you?”
Can we hear God’s voice if God doesn’t call us exactly the way we expected? The season of Advent is about longing, waiting, but I think it also about what is revealed to us – the things that we discover that shatter our expectations in the best of ways. God is so much more than we expect. But there’s more to it than that. If Jesus is different than we expect, if God shatters our expectations, it is so that we can be different than we expect of ourselves too. That’s what John preached about. That’s what Jesus taught about and longed for – for the people – for us – to be different than the low expectations we set for ourselves. Actually, throughout the New Testament, the writers of the epistles talk about what and who we really are in God being revealed. Paul says, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” And in 1 John we find words often part of funeral liturgies: Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him.” That’s exactly what I think Advent is, as we move into the blessings of Christmas – Jesus is revealed – and as it turns out, we are in fact revealed to be like him, made in God’s image, imitators of Christ. At least, we can set that as our aim, our purpose, our hope.
In the unexpected, God is revealed to us. Examine your life. In what situations is God showing up in unexpected ways? In what people can you catch glimpses of God revealed where you weren’t even looking? How can you be more than you expected of yourself, as the changing power of God’s love is at work in you? Sometimes things aren’t as we expect. And thank God for that. Amen.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent, "Redefining Christmas: Repent"

Sermon 12/5/10
Matthew 3:1-12, Romans 15:4-13

Redefining Christmas: Repent

            As you might know, a small group of us are currently enjoying a Bible study called, “Christmas from the Backside,” written by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Kalas takes different themes: Christmas, Easter, Parables, Old Testament Stories, etc., and tries to help the reader look at them from new points of view. His first chapter in our study was called, “The Scandal of Christmas.” Kalas says that although the idea of the tiny baby in the manger is a lovely idea, Christmas really begins with a scandal that we don’t like to own up to. Christmas only happens, we only needed, and need Christmas, he says, because of the scandal, and the scandal is that we’re sinners. He argues that we try to think of sin as things that other people do – sin as drugs or crime or adultery or addictions – things that other people do, but in reality sin is being disobeying God. When we disobey God, we sin. We might try to give it a softer name – like, “we’ve made mistakes.” But we’re sinners. We sin. “When we live below our best potential,” he says, “when we’re mediocre when we ought to be fine, cheap when we ought to be noble, shoddy when we should be upright – this is sin. When we’re anything less than godly, it’s because we’re involved in this scandal called sin.”
            So we’re caught up in this scandal of sin, and that puts us in need of Christmas, because we need saving. We need a Savior. Our Advent hymns reflect that – the meaning of Christmas that we long for – think of our opening hymn today – Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus. In it we sing, “From our sins and fears, release us. Let us find our rest in thee.” Whether we realize it or not, the longing of Advent, the waiting with anticipation – we wait for someone that can free us from the mess of sin we find ourselves in.
            With that preamble, maybe John the Baptist in the wilderness starts to make more sense as an Advent text. John the Baptist definitely seems to stir up scandal. He’s a dramatic figure, causing a scene, not one to go unnoticed. And he’s ready to talk about the scandal of sin. John arrives on the scene preaching the same gospel that Jesus will preach: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” although Jesus will preach it with a very different tone. People were coming out into the desert to hear John, and they were being baptized by him, a symbolic act showing that they were confessing their sins and changing their lives. But when the Pharisees and Sadducees came to John, he had no welcome words for them, perhaps suspecting that they were there to check up on him and test him as they would so often with Jesus. “You brood of vipers,” John exclaims, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Still, John calls them to repent too: “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he says. In other words: Are you confessing your sinfulness? Has your life changed? Show me. He tells them they won’t be safe just because they are Jews by birth – they have to bear their own fruit from good living, and can’t rely on their ancestors, or anything external. Repentance has to come from within. John goes on to describe what it is like with the messiah just about to arrive. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees,” John says, “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. [The messiah’s] winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and . . . the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” John leaves us challenged: what kind of fruit are our lives bearing? When Jesus does come, does begin his own preaching ministry, his calls for repentance carry a perhaps more compassionate tone than John’s. But I feel like we need John’s voice too, his sense of extreme urgency. John wants us to act and act now. Has your life changed? Show me.
If the scandal of Christmas is that we’re sinners, in need of saving, then the work of Advent is repentance, so that when Christmas comes, we have the fruit of our changed hearts to offer to the Christ child. We’ve talked before about the meaning of repentance – remember? It means, literally, to change your mind. Not just change your mind, say, about what you wanted to have for lunch today, but to change your mind, change your mind so that you’re going not in the wrong direction, but in God’s direction. That’s what John asks. For repentance.
The Pharisees and Sadducees show up to see John the Baptist too – even they come to be baptized. But John has harsher words for them. Because they want the newness of baptism, the forgiveness of baptism, the fresh start of baptism, without the work of repentance. John says to them, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, We have Abraham as our ancestor.” In other words, it seems, they’re trying to count themselves in on the shirttails of their ancestors, trying to take credit for the faithful living done by those before them. But one tree can’t bear fruit for another. Each one is accountable for their own good fruit. Each one has to choose repentance – or not, and let the good fruit – or otherwise, tell the story of the choices.
This week my home will go through a bit of a transformation. I wouldn’t say I’m a terribly messy person, but if you’ve seen my office, you get an idea of what my home is like. I tend to have piles of things here and there. Clutter. And sadly, at home, I don’t have a Bill Jacques that comes in and cleans up after me. So this week, I will spend a lot of time cleaning, getting ready for Open House next Sunday. I’ll spend a lot of time preparing – shopping, baking, decorating. And a lot of time doing things like dusting and mopping and vacuuming and other unpleasant things. You don’t expect to have a party without preparing. Getting ready. Cleaning up before. And then cleaning up after. All my preparation isn’t required – I could let you all show up at my house next week and see what happened. But you’d all have to help clear off space at the table. And there might not be enough chairs for everyone. And if you could only eat food that was already in my cupboards, you’d be in big trouble, unless you really love cereal as much as I do. It just doesn’t make sense not to prepare for something I know is coming. Especially when my preparations will make the party the joy I know it can be.
Advent is a time to prepare our hearts. We know what’s coming – who is coming. Why wouldn’t we prepare? This season is filled Christmas classics on TV. You probably have a favorite. My favorite is an 80s classic – Santa Clause, the Movie. Anybody remember that one? It starred Dudley Moore as an elf that gets caught up in mass producing toys? Anyone? Anyway, you should take a look at some of the Christmas specials this year, even, maybe especially ones aimed at children. They’re remarkably on task in telling the story of repentance. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a perfect example – the Grinch finally realizes, well, his sinfulness, repents, takes his life in a new direction, has his heart grow bigger and bigger, and shows the fruit of his repentance in his actions – he reconciles himself with the community, makes repayment for his wrongdoing, and showers others with his newly-found love.
If these children’s shows and stories can figure out repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation, why do we have such a hard time with it? I wonder if, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, we just get stuck right at the start, trying to find a way around repentance, trying to find a way that doesn’t have us admitting the scandal – we’re sinners, as bad as the rest. We need Christmas, because we need saving.
The good news is Christmas is coming. Not even three weeks away. Prepare. Prepare the way of Lord. Make the paths straight. Bear fruit worthy of repentance, for the kingdom of God is coming near. Amen.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Sermon for First Sunday of Advent, Year A, "Redefining Christmas: Reawaken"

Sermon 11/28/10
Matthew 24:36-44, Romans 13:11-14

Redefining Christmas: Reawaken

            It doesn’t take long to learn about me that I am *not* a morning person. My family have always been night owls, through and through. So you might be surprised to learn that I was up quite early the day after Thanksgiving. No, I wasn’t off to the Black Friday sales, even though I told you I used to love doing just that. No, I was getting snow tires on my car, and the folks there had recommended coming early if I didn’t want to wait for hours. Apparently auto repair is also a popular day-after-Thanksgiving activity. I decided to bring my laptop with me to the tire place, so I could at least get some work done on my sermon while I was there. I noticed with comfort that I wasn’t the only person who appeared to be half-asleep and yawning in the little waiting room. And I couldn’t help but notice the repeating theme in our texts for today as I sat there: Keep awake, keep awake, keep awake. In our short reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans we hear, “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.” In our gospel text from Matthew, we hear Jesus saying, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you must also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Keep awake. Keep awake. Keep awake.
            A couple of experiences come to my mind. When I was a senior in high-school, my pastor encouraged and my church supported me in attending an event called Exploration, a conference for United Methodist young people considering ordained ministry. Just before I was meant to leave for Dallas, I developed kidney stones, and had to have surgery. I was only a couple days into my recovery when I made the trip – it was too late to cancel my attendance without losing all the money my church had graciously put forward for my trip. So I went, and I was heavily medicated. I can tell you that on the one hand, it was the most relaxed I’ve ever felt on an airplane, but on the other hand, I slept through most of the event. I remember trying with all my might not to fall asleep, only to realize that I’d already nodded off. Fortunately I got to go to the event again two years later, and actually be awake for it, but my first time around, I didn’t exactly get a lot of meaningful content out of my time.
            Another time, when I was serving in Oneida – I was just telling someone about this – I had been camping in Ithaca with some of my seminary friends for a little reunion of sorts. I had gotten zero sleep our last night of camping. I just couldn’t fall asleep. And then I had a two hour drive back to Oneida. You all know I don’t mind long drives – I’ve driven 15 hours in a day by myself before, no problem. But I was just exhausted. And suddenly, I realized that my eyes had been closed – I was falling asleep at the wheel. I immediately pulled over and took a nap in my car – I haven’t been that scared in a while, realizing what could have happened. Since then, I never push myself to drive if I feel too tired – I always make sure I pull over and rest if I’m reaching my limit. Keep awake! Keep awake, or else you will miss all the important content and meaning. Keep awake, or else your life could literally be in jeopardy.
As I mentioned last week, today is a new year for us – the beginning of a new church year. A fresh start on our calendar, as we begin the journey of Advent. And yet, our gospel lesson doesn’t exactly fill us with the fresh hope of a new year, with all its promise and potential. And it doesn’t feel very Christmas-y, does it, or even very Advent-y? In fact, the scriptures that are like this, that seem to be about the ‘end times’ tend to fill people with a sense of dread and anxiety about the future. Is that what we’re supposed to feel at the beginning of Advent? But instead, we have a text that seems to fit with our gospel lesson two weeks ago, the one about the earthquakes and famines. Instead of a text from the beginning of Matthew, where the stories about Jesus’ birth are, we find ourselves again close to the very end of the gospel, in fact just before Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, his trial, and his crucifixion.. For the full two chapters before where we pick up today, Jesus has been talking in heavy, serious tones. He starts by denouncing the scribes and Pharisees, saying “woe to you, scribes and Pharisees,” calling them hypocrites and blind guides. Then he laments over Jerusalem, wondering why people will not hear his words, why they will not accept the comfort he wants to bring. And then Jesus begins speaking privately to his disciples. He tells them that many people will try to lead them astray, that nation will rise up against nation. He tells them they will face persecution, torture, and death. He warns against great suffering, and false messiahs.
And after all this, we come to the passage for today, which continues in the same tone. Jesus begins by saying that no one knows the day or the hour when the things he speaks of will unfold – not even he knows – only God. He paints a picture that compares the arrival of the Son of Man to the days of Noah, where people were eating and drinking and living life right up until the floods came. This is what the coming of the Son of Man will be like – two in a field, one taken and one left. Jesus says that if a homeowner knew when in the night a thief was coming, the owner would stay awake and not let the home be broken into. So, “keep awake therefore,” Jesus warns, “for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming . . . you . . . must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Why do such passages cause us anxiety? Worry? Fear? I think, first, there’s the unknown that confronts us. We don’t know what will happen, ever, really, and this passage makes it clear that we’re not going to know what happens. And we’re not going to be in control of what happens. I think for most of us, not being in control is at least unsettling. I know I struggle with that! But more than that, I think we react with anxiety to the ‘unexpected’ quality of what Jesus describes. He talks about needing to keep awake, reminding us of how caught off-guard people were by the flood in Noah’s time. He says that they were just going about their lives, eating and drinking, and were totally unaware of what was about to unfold. When it comes to thinking about endings, the end always seems to come too soon. We often remark that we wish we had more time, in so many of life’s situations. More time for what? In part, I think that we wish we had more time to do what we know we should have been doing all along. We always think we’ll have more time to get around to doing what is truly most important to us, what we’re truly meant to be doing, time that we’ve spent doing nothing, time that we’ve wasted or misused. But Jesus’ words fill us with a sense that there is no time to waste, because anytime could be our end time. So we’re stressed and fearful because if we’re honest with ourselves, we know we put off for some other time not only a lot of what God asks us to do right now, but a lot of what we ourselves wish we were doing.
We live in a strange place as Christians – somewhere between wanting God to come into our lives and wanting God to stay far away, at least far enough away to leave us alone. This idea of keeping always awake – well, that seems exhausting to me at first read. But I don’t think that Jesus means we have to live in a state of constant vigilance, propping open our figurative drooping eyes. Instead, I think that Jesus’ words are a call for us to not sleep through life. Remember the examples from my own life that I shared with you? I slept through a conference and missed all the content. I was there, but I might as well have stayed home. I hear in Jesus’ words a warning against being technically present in our own lives, but missing all the content, because we’re not really awake.
Wake up people! Jesus is coming. Amen. 

Sermon for Thanksgiving Eve, Year C

Sermon 11/24/10
Thanksgiving Eve
John 6:25-35

            Are any of you fans of Black Friday shopping? Will any of you be standing in line at 4am, waiting for stores to open to catch some deals? I don’t mind confessing that I actually really enjoy buying gifts for people. I like doing my Christmas shopping. Now, maybe I don’t love crowds and parking lots that are full and people that become rude and angry in the name of spreading Christmas cheer. But I like getting gifts that I know my friends and family will love. And I’ll admit, that when I was younger, before I became a total night owl, when I actually still got up pretty early on a regular basis, one of my dear friends and I used to hit the Black Friday sales every year. We’d go out for an extremely early breakfast, and then hit our favorite stores. And we had a great time doing it.
            These days, though, I’m sure I won’t even make it out of my house before the special sales are over on Friday! But I still enjoy checking out the ads beforehand, seeing what the best deals are. Isn’t it interesting how stores try to motivate you to come and shop? If you buy a $25 gift card for someone else, you also get $5 bonus gift card for yourself! Purchase this, and you’ll also get a free ornament! We like to know we’re getting a little something extra in life, don’t we? We’re motivated by a sense of a bargain, a deal. We love the free gifts, the bonus items that companies or business will give away just to motivate us to choose their product or service over others. Banks, for example, compete by offering joining gifts - $75 free dollars for opening an account, or a free tote bag. Department stores will give you a special holiday teddy bear if you spend a certain amount on shopping. There’s just something about feeling like we’re getting something extra, getting a bargain, getting something for nothing, that we love, that motivates us to take the deal. In seminary even, I was part of a new organization on campus, and we were really trying to get people interested in coming to our meetings. Usually the only good time to get people to come to meetings was during lunch, but we didn’t seem to be drawing much interest. We decided that we would use our organization’s budget, then, to offer free lunch. Soon, we had a regular, steady attendance. The free lunch seemed to be the trick to motivating people to attend. What motivates you? What inspires you to act when you otherwise might not? Perhaps we’d like to think that we are motivated or inspired by some noble ideals or sense of duty or purpose. And I’m sure sometimes we are. But our human nature seems to result in us often being motivated in much more self-interested ways.
            The crowds in our gospel lesson today seem also to be motivated by the prospects of getting a little something extra. Sure, they would follow Jesus around, and listen to his teachings and preaching, but there was always the prospect of getting a little something extra. Perhaps a healing – a cure for an ailment. Immediately before tonight’s passage in John’s gospel, Jesus even fed the crowds – 5000 had enough to eat because of Jesus, with baskets left over. Apparently, this new bonus prize of getting a good meal from Jesus was a motivating factor – they crowds get into boats and go to Capernaum to find Jesus and the disciples who had provided them with such a meal. When they get to the other side of the sea and locate Jesus, they seem a bit interested in pinning down his plans and schedule. “Rabbi,” they ask, “when did you come here?”
            Jesus calls their heightened interested in his movements for what it is – self-motivated interest. He says to the crowds, “very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” He challenges them, pushes them. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Jesus wants them to understand that he has something better, deeper, more completely filling than any meal they could get.
But the people misunderstand – they want to know how they can do such miracles too, like a miraculous feeding. “What must we do to perform the works of God?” They want to know what they have to put in – the terms of the agreement perhaps – what must they do to get the reward again, the bonus. They want Jesus to explain the details. He answers that the work of God is to believe in the one sent. The people still don’t understand what Jesus is saying. “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?” If Jesus insists on them believing in him, and won’t teach them how to do his tricks, perhaps they can get him to do another sign, and get something more out of him before they are willing to believe him, commit. And perhaps trying to tempt Jesus into a bit of miracle-performing competition, they remind him that with Moses in the wilderness their ancestors got daily manna from heaven. Can Jesus top that? It reminds me a bit of the commercials on TV that promise borrowers that you can have banks competing over who gets to give you a loan. The crowds, it seems, are trying to work out a similar deal. What is Jesus gonna give them to claim status as their savior? How much is he willing to work for it?
        Jesus quickly puts things in perspective, reminding them that it wasn’t Moses who provided the manna, but God who gives true bread from heaven. And this true bread isn’t just a tasty meal – the true bread from heaven gives life to the world. Ah, finally, and offer the crowd is ready to accept. “Sir,” they say, “give us this bread.” And finally, Jesus lays it out for them – “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believe in me will never be thirsty.” If that’s the offer on the table, who needs a free tote bag on top of all that?
        Jesus continues to talk with them about this bread, later in the chapter, but here we can see the confusion of the crowds so clearly in their pattern of question after question. They seem to be looking for the best deal they can get, and when Jesus offers them the very best, they seem to be looking for loopholes, wondering what exactly the fine print will bind them to, not wanting to agree to anything where they have to give what they don’t want, or where they get less than they came for. We certainly can relate to this attitude, this approach, in the marketplace. As consumers, we are careful, wary of getting taken in. And despite our love of the bonus gift, we won’t accept it, or the main attraction, if it sounds too good to be true. We’re wary consumers, motivated by the desire for the best deal, the best bargain, but suspicious and hesitant too.
But, I think, we also have this dilemma when it comes to matters of faith. Our motivations for seeking out a relationship with God are many. What motivates us in seeking God? Hopefully, for all of us, some of the time at least, our motive for seeking God is the desire to fill the deepest longing of our heart with this grace and love God offers. But I think, for all of us, some of the time at least, our motives are completely different. We are sometimes motivated by guilt over sins or mistakes or other things we’ve done or think we’ve done wrong. Sometimes we’re motivated by a need to belong to a community, to have a social circle, to have companionship that comes with the fellowship of a congregation. Sometimes we’re motivated by a sense of obligation. There are many circumstances that bring us to a time and place where we are seeking God’s presence in our lives, and some of them are more pure and some more selfish. 
            Luckily, God is good and God is gracious. No matter what less-than-perfect motives get us to God’s house, to God’s table, open to God’s message, God is still willing to give us the best of the best, the best offer, the best gift. No matter why the crowds came to Jesus, and no matter what would have been the ideal motive for their seeking him out, Jesus still offered himself to them as the bread of life. He still offered them life-giving bread, no matter what brought them to him that day. And this gift is still offered to us. In Christ we find an offer of full, complete, abundant life, right now. Ours for the taking, free of charge, no matter why we’ve come. Unconditional love. Of all the gifts for which we give thanks, there’s nothing better than this.
            We can react like suspicious shoppers. But you can examine this deal, ask questions, scrutinize the offer all you want. There’s no fine print. No shipping and handling charges you weren’t aware of. No cut off date. No “while supplies last.” Just a gift, freely offered, for you, beloved of God. Come, and receive God’s best offer. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sermon for Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday, "Beginning and Ending," Year C

Sermon 11/21/10
Luke 23:33-43

Beginning and Ending

I’ve almost always been a lectionary preacher – that is, I’ve usually chosen to preach from the texts assigned to a given Sunday as part of what is called the Revised Common Lectionary – four texts – a history text, a psalm or poetry text, an epistle lesson, a gospel lesson. These texts are used by many Christian church, so if you visited a Lutheran church or Episcopal or Catholic church today, you might well hear the same texts as we’ve read today. But it isn’t required – many pastors choose their own texts to use for preaching each week. I’m my years of ministry I’ve done this only very rarely. There are good arguments for either strategy, but for me, I feel like choosing my own texts is telling God what I’m going to say, and using the lectionary helps me be open to God speaking to me. Beyond that, I feel like the lectionary provides an ebb and flow, brings us so carefully and thoughtfully through the seasons of the church year.
Today is a perfect example. Today is the last Sunday of the year – the church year. Next Sunday, Advent begins, and that’s our Christian New Year. We start with waiting for Christ to come. But today, the end of the year, is a special Sunday. We celebrate Thanksgiving Sunday today, and I hope you will come on Wednesday night to celebrate Thanksgiving fully. But Thanksgiving isn’t actually in the liturgical calendar. Today, in the church year, we celebrate Reign of Christ, or Christ the King Sunday. And the texts in the lectionary for Reign of Christ always bring us right to the crucifixion of Christ. It’s jarring, and it is meant to be. We’re nowhere near Lent and Holy Week, when we expect this text. We’re waiting for the baby Jesus, not the crucified Christ. But the text drops us into the crucifixion scene and tells us to figure it out. Beginnings and endings get all mixed up, until we’re reminded that our beginnings are endings, and endings are always beginnings in God.
For me, this Sunday, Reign of Christ, is the perfect last Sunday before the beginning of Advent. Advent is a journey, and it is always wise, before you take a long journey, to look ahead to where you are ultimately going. Even if you have many stops and legs of travel and twists along the way, even if you take it piece by piece, it’s a good idea to know what you expect at the end. In Advent, we might think of Christmas as the end – but today reminds us that we celebrate Jesus’ birth because of who he becomes, and where he takes us. Today, we stop and ask - who is the Christ that we're about to celebrate? Who is this man - this god - this king - that we will spend the next month or more anticipating his birth?
Our reading today takes us to Golgotha, the place of the skull. Here, in Luke's account, the actual process of crucifying Jesus merits just a passing phrase: "they crucified Jesus there with the criminals." But the details come from those who watch Jesus dying: the religious leaders, the soldiers, and the two criminals with whom he is crucified. From most, there’s a repeated refrain: Why doesn’t Jesus save himself? “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, the chosen one!” from the leaders. “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” from the soldiers. “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” from one of the criminals. Only from the other criminal do we hear anything different. He declares that the two criminals are only justly paying the price for their crimes but that Jesus "has done nothing wrong." He then asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom, and Jesus responds that truly that day the man will be with him in Paradise.
For our celebration of the Reign of Christ Sunday, for Christ the King Sunday, we have a Jesus who seems most un-kingly. He's mocked, beaten, suffering, harassed, murdered. How is Jesus a King? The inscription that was placed above him – his sentence, the crime for which he was being crucified read, “This is the King of the Jews.” But it was meant as a mockery. A man being crucified with criminals was hardly a king. The sentence poked fun at Jesus, at his disciples and followers. But yet, we believe Jesus reigns. So how is Jesus king? Well, today, for us, it is about putting the emphasis in the right place. So this Sunday is perhaps not about the fact that Jesus is King, but about the fact that Jesus is King. (1) Do you hear the difference? This Sunday is not about the fact that one characteristic of Jesus is his Kingship, his divine royal status, one characteristic among many others. Instead, this Sunday celebrates the fact that it is Christ who is supposed to be placed as King, or highest authority, in our lives. Jenee Woodard writes, "It keeps occurring to me that at this time, there WAS a King of the Jews - Herod - who may have been unpopular among Galileans and some others, but had done some pretty good business on behalf of Rome and Jerusalem . . . He was the "rightful" king. I hear, maybe, Pilate asking [Jesus at the trial], "You think that YOU are the king of the Jews? I KNOW the King of the Jews, and he's nothing like you!" as a reversal-[thing] - a deconstruction of kingship and power as understood in any then-contemporary terms." (1) Jesus is King.
Going back through the text, the interaction between Jesus and the two criminals especially catches my attention. We read that the first criminal "derides" Jesus, saying, "are not you the Messiah? Save yourself and us." The Greek word used here has an interesting connotation. This word we read as "deride" comes from a word that is also often translated as "to blaspheme," but means specifically, "to speak lightly of sacred things." What does it mean to speak lightly of sacred things? We don't know what else this criminal might have been saying to Jesus, but we know he says, "aren't you the Messiah? Why don't you save us and yourself then!" Are his questions, echoed by all the other in the passage, so strange? Are his questions of Jesus so unwarranted? Here, next to him, is the one some have been calling the Messiah, God's son, King of the Jews, as the inscription with the charge against Jesus reads. And yet, he is somehow speaking lightly of sacred things. He's missing the point, or ignoring it, not seeing or refusing to see the situation before him for what it really is.
We have that repeated phrase in this passage – Jesus, why don’t yourself? The religious leaders, the soldiers, the criminal – they all say it. And maybe we wonder. What does it mean to be saved? What would it have meant for Jesus to save himself? Would he save himself by calling down the angels to take him away from the suffering on the cross? Would he be saving himself if he claimed the charges against him were false, and just went back to Galilee? Imagine - Jesus was only in his thirties when he was put to death. Wouldn't it have been great if he could have taught for decades more, taught us more, set us straight and made sure we had it right before he was killed? But I imagine that even by avoiding death on the cross, even if he had escaped these charges, Jesus would not have been saving himself, but destroying himself. Jesus' constant message to anyone who would listen was to love God and love neighbor. He taught a way of peace that radically urged a complete change of lifestyle for those who truly wanted to be disciples. What would it mean, then, to abandon it all for his own personal safety? A true leader must walk the walk, and practice what he or she preaches. Jesus did just that.
            And then we have the second criminal. I'm not sure what he saw in Jesus, how we was able to recognize who Jesus was. We know, by his own admission, that he was not a perfect man. But he recognizes his faults, and Jesus' innocence. And he seems to know something about Jesus' identity, because he says, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." But Jesus response is even better than this man could have hoped. Jesus answers, "today you will be with me in paradise." Jesus, it seems, speaks of a present and right-now paradise that he can offer this man. Now, we know that Jesus’ resurrection isn’t until the third day, and that Jesus ascends to be with God much later on in our biblical accounts. So for Jesus to promise this immediate paradise, he must have something different in mind than we would usually consider. What would Jesus mean by offering paradise today? Jesus has been preaching about God's kingdom, God's reign, being at hand, already present. In his last interaction with this man, he confirms it - paradise is now - if we see it, usher it in. On a day like Thanksgiving Sunday, perhaps we are especially tuned to understanding Jesus' perspective. Paradise is for today.
The reign of Christ. Jesus is King. What does that mean for us?  What do we take away with us on this last Sunday in the Christian Year? First, foremost, we find grounding for our lives. It is Christ who is our king. Christ who is the foundation of our being. Christ the king. Christ who reigns. When we remember where our center is, who our center is, we aren't so easily distracted by the other things that want to claim our attention and allegiance. We know who we are and who leads us in the decisions we make, in the paths we choose, in the lives we live.
Second, we are reminded again about what it means to be saved. Our own salvation doesn't always mean our personal safety, or a place reserved for us in the clouds of heaven. Jesus' teachings were full of paradoxes, and so were his actions. Sometimes, he taught, the way to save your life was to lose it. And he did just that. Sometimes, to experience life, death is necessary. Sometimes, the only way to be saved is the hard way - by giving ourselves up. Perhaps we don't need to suffer the death that Christ suffered. But we can seek to live as Christ live, to do as he taught. The paradox is that by putting others first, by caring for our neighbors, by loving others, we save ourselves in the best way possible.
Third, we are reminded to be very careful when it comes to speaking lightly of the things we hold sacred. In the Advent season fast approaching, we'll be pressured day after day to make light of what we hold sacred, by letting the meaning of Christmas be obscured. We make light of the sacred whenever we let other things overrule the faithful celebration of Christmas. Be on guard - do not make light of sacred things. Don't water down your faith and our story for a cheaper imitation that will lose its luster by the time New Year rolls around.
And finally, take heart. We don't have to wait to experience the paradise that the second criminal asks Jesus about. Today, Jesus says. Today, we can enter paradise. Here-and-now, we can experience God's kingdom made present on earth, the good news made manifest among us. Rejoice, God is here, right now, in this very place. Rejoice, Christ is reigning over us. Jesus, remember us, when you come into your kingdom. Amen.

(1) Jenee Woodard, The Text This Week Weblog,

Sermon for 25th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28, Ordinary 33, Year C)

Sermon 11/14/10
Isaiah 65:17-25, Luke 21:5-19

            Since just after Pentecost, last June, we’ve been in the season of the liturgical calendar, the church calendar, called “Ordinary Time.” I think I’ve told you before that ordinary time isn’t meant to specify what it might seem like – that this is the time of the church calendar that is without special religious holidays, like Advent and Lent, and therefore is plain, ordinary; rather, it is called ordinary time because each Sunday is numbered, and those numbers are ordinals – this is, in fact, the twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost. By now, twenty-five Sundays after we celebrated Pentecost, and the confirmation of several of our young people, perhaps we are all ready to move on – to Thanksgiving and Reign of Christ Sunday next week, and then onto Advent and Christmas. And our last several Sundays have been full and busy too – after a speedy September, we celebrated World Communion Sunday, a Stewardship Campaign, and then All Saints Sunday last week. Today marks the only Sunday in sometime past, and in the weeks to come, that is “ordinary” in the more traditional sense of the word. Today is just an ordinary Sunday.
            I think sometimes we see our lives in the same way – we anticipate the big events – the special occasions, birthdays, weddings – even the events that bring pain or sorrow mark our lives – loss and grief of all kinds. But even if we spend our time counting down days until the next big event, our life is spent in the ordinary time. Who we are, how we live, what we do – it is spent over Mondays and Tuesdays and everydays that have no other particular significance. Just life. Just living.
            Some years I am not ready for Advent. Last year, I’ll admit, I had a hard time experiencing the season. But this year, I’ve been itching for Advent to begin for some time. I’m ready to wait – wait for the Christ-child that we’ll celebrate in the blink of an eye. But a day like today, a so-called ordinary Sunday, reminds me: We would not be so fascinated with how Jesus were born if it weren’t for how he lived. It is his life, in great measure, that makes his birth so important – how he lived, what he taught, how he called us to do likewise. Today, as we look at two texts that mark no particular occasion of event, I hope we’re reminded that discipleship is extraordinary because of its ordinariness – it is our everyday life.
            We start with Isaiah. Isaiah is a prophet. Today when we hear the word prophecy, we don’t always know what to do with it – we don’t have a lot of prophets wandering around today, at least not that we know of or recognize. And so we’re most likely to think of a prophet as a fortune-teller of sorts. Someone who predicts the future. But that’s confusing psychics and prophets. Prophets were truth-tellers. Perhaps after just completing a particularly brutal election-cycle, one in which I read there were a record number of “attack ads” in the campaign, we might be able to cultivate a better appreciation for the prophetic voice of truth telling. Prophets were truth-tellers particularly when no one else wanted to say how things really were. You know what I mean – we do it all the time. Everyone knows what’s really going on, but no one wants to speak unwelcome truths out loud. A prophet is the child who tells the emperor he has no clothes. A prophet would tell it like it was, say how bad things really were, talk about where the path they were on would lead if things didn’t change. But a prophet didn’t necessarily want what he or she speculated to come true. Instead, a prophet wanted people to stop and repent before things had gone too far. 
But in our text today, Isaiah has some good news to speak of. This part of Isaiah, the last chapters of Isaiah, take place after one of the most trying time’s in Israel’s history – a time of exile to Babylon. When Isaiah is writing these words, he knows that the people are just about to return home from exile, after many years of being forced out of their own homes, lands, cultures, and customs. So Isaiah’s words are words of hope and thanksgiving. He hears God’s voice laying out a new vision for a new day. “I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth,” says God. The text is filled with words like joy, glad, delight, and rejoice. This vision of a new world Isaiah paints is a world were no child has a short life, when to live to a hundred will still be considered youth, where the land is rich and productive, where no one hungers or lacks shelter, where one’s children and grandchildren and so on are blessed by God. So perfect will this new world be that even the wolf and lamb will feed together in peace. That’s Isaiah’s vision of peace, his vision of hope. It probably isn’t so different from the perfect world we might imagine – enough for everyone, long life, blessings for our families.
            And then there’s this text from Luke, these words from Jesus. A vision of a different kind. Our scene takes place near the end of the gospel of Luke. His words to the disciple have been changing. He’s spending less time teaching in parables and more time talking about what will come next, and usually the disciples aren’t excited to hear what Jesus has to say. He speaks of his death, or leaving them, of a huge change coming to their world. Our passage today is one example of this type of conversation with the disciples. While near the temple, Jesus mentions that it will someday be destroyed. The disciples want to know when this will happen. They get more than they bargained for in response from Jesus. Jesus is certainly speaking as a prophet here, too. His words are truth but truth that no one wants to hear or speak. He talks about being led astray by false teachers. He talks about war and insurrection, earthquake and famine, plagues, and dreadful portents. He describes for the disciples how they will be persecuted and arrested. They will be hated and betrayed by all, even their families, and some will be put to death. But, Jesus concludes, “by your endurance you will gain your souls.” Perhaps a seemingly small comfort with all Jesus describes.
            Isaiah’s wolf and lamb feeding together, or Jesus’ description of chaos and persecution. Which of these two visions for the future do you prefer? The rejoicing and delight Isaiah describes? The new heavens and new earth he speaks of where weeping and distress and violence have no place? Or the earthquakes and persecution and wars and terror that Jesus describes? Which vision do we think will hold true?
            We have a strange fascination with the end of the world. In the same way that we as individuals may have in our minds the reality of our own mortality, our own certain death, we as a global community have a fascination with our collective end. Think back to the chaos surrounding the year 2000. Y2K and all of the terrible things we knew would go wrong. These days we’ve moved on to an obsession with the year 2012 and what a Mayan calendar might or might not say. Tally up the number of movies that have to do with the end of the world or the near-miss of the world’s end. Armageddon. The Day After Tomorrow. Deep Impact. War of the Worlds. 2012, of course. Think of the cult groups who meet their own end because they’re convinced they know of the world’s end. We’re afraid the end is coming, and we’re strangely fascinated by it too. We just can’t turn our eyes away, even though we’re looking into what we dread, our greatest fears, our uncertain future.
            But we’re hardly new to this preoccupation with our own end. For as many years as people have read Jesus’ words, they’ve interpreted his words to signal the end in their own time. For thousands of years, people have looked around them and seen false leaders, wars, famine, earthquakes and plagues. For thousands of years, people have been convinced that the end was near, and been filled with an anxiety about the fate of the world. And so far, we’re still here. So far, what Jesus spoke of hasn’t come to pass, has it? Or has it? Didn’t the disciples already face this suffering and persecution Jesus describes? Indeed, the early Christians faced persecution, torture, and death in ways we can hardly imagine. Weren’t they indeed brought before rules and leaders to testify? The Acts of the Apostles, also written by Luke, is full of stories of the disciples being arrested and tried for their faith. And, as Jesus says, they were indeed filled with the Holy Spirit when they testified, as we read in Acts. What Jesus spoke of the disciples already experienced.
So do we even worry about this text then? Does it refer to things already done and gone? I don’t think it’s that simple either. We do desire to see Isaiah’s vision come to fruition, I think. But for that to happen, the world has to change, doesn’t it? To have Isaiah’s vision be a reality, things would need to change. Can we work with God to bring about what Isaiah spoke of? What I find interesting is that even though we’d readily admit that things in the world now are pretty screwed up, we’re still unlikely to welcome any drastic changes to the world we know. If we had to characterize the state of affairs today, if we had to give a sort of ‘state of the world’ report, we’d have a lot to say about what’s wrong with things. We want a world at least something like Isaiah describes. The vision of peace he has isn’t what we have now. What, then, would be so bad about the end of the world as we know it? Why do we cling for dear life to the way things are, when we’re not even sure things are so great?  
            Jesus is certainly talking about the end of the world – the end of the world we know now. And that’s something to be hopeful about, I think. I’m ready for a new world. With our doomsday outlook, we tend to skim through what Jesus is saying and pull out only certain pieces, and think of his words as predictions of fearful and terrifying situations. But we miss other verses and sentences altogether it seems. Jesus says false leaders will rise up and talk about the end times being near. But Jesus says not to follow them, not to go after them. Jesus talks about wars and insurrections, but he tells us not to be afraid of these things, and that, again, these things don’t mean the end times have arrived. Jesus talks about persecution and suffering, times of great trial, but he says that God will be with us in these times, that God will fill our hearts with knowledge and wisdom and words to speak. Jesus says that we’ll feel completely abandoned, but reminds us that our most precious possession – our very souls, will be completely safe from harm. His words, his vision, this truth he speaks – it’s about hope even in the midst of chaos and turmoil.
I am ready for the world to change. I pray for a new world. I pray for a world like Isaiah describes where poverty and hunger and disease and death are no more. But if I pray and hope for this world, the world I know now has to come to an end. The world must change, and we, Christ’s disciples, must work with God to change it. Jesus doesn’t promise an easy path to changing the world. But he promises his constant presence in the midst of change. A fulfillment of all God promises means the end of the world – at least the world we know, and end of things being exactly the way we are now. These endings can be scary, and unsettling, and confusing, and disruptive. It can seem like the end of everything. But really, Isaiah says, it is beginning of everything. The beginning of hope. The beginning of peace. The beginning of discipleship. The beginning of God’s kingdom, right here, right now.
            What does the future hold? Just as we suspected: The end of the world! And just as we forgot to hope: And the beginning of our abundant lives in Christ.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Sermon for All Saints Sunday, "Blessed"

Sermon 11/7/10
Luke 6:20-31


            Today is a sacred day in the life of our church. This has been a hard year of losses in the congregation. It seems like we named nearly a whole generation of women and men who shaped this place. It’s a day to remember, to reflect, to cherish, to celebrate the lives of our loved ones. This is an act of a congregation – it is a community celebration, one that affects us whether we individually have a person to name today or not. That’s because loss – your personal loss – is also a loss to the whole, a loss to all of us, whether we knew the person named today or not. Those we hold as Saints individually shape us collectively. That’s what it means to be part of the Body of Christ. That’s what we mean by a Communion of Saints. We all take a share in the loss, and in the blessings of the lives we celebrate.
            Our gospel lesson today is Luke’s rendering of the Beatitudes – the Blessings. They also appear in Matthew’s gospel, and though each writer takes a different approach, they share the key elements: an example of Jesus’ teaching where Jesus flips expectations upside down. Blessed – that means happy. You could read each of these statements as “Happy are you” – and so Jesus is found here saying that you are happy when you are poor, hungry, weeping, hated, excluded, reviled, defamed. Our culture values happiness to a high degree – it’s written into our very foundational documents as country. Our Declaration of Independence even names it as a goal, an inalienable right: we have the right to pursue the American Dream – happiness.  
            J. Ellsworth Kalas is a seminary professor whose series of Bible studies, “from the backside,” I really enjoy. He has “Christmas from the Backside,” “Parables from the Backside,” and of course, “Beatitudes from the Backside,” to name just a few. He aims to look at some well known biblical texts from different, unusual angles, to reread familiar stories with new approaches. He said of his volume on the Beatitudes that they’re really already from the backside – Jesus is already looking at the familiar from a new point of view. Kalas says that in Jesus’ view, happiness is “not something we get by pursuing it; indeed, almost the contrary.” We’re told we’ll experience happiness in states that appear quite the opposite. Beatitudes are a “declaration of dependence” on God.
            The word “happy” comes from the root hap, as in “happen” or “happenstance,” like happiness has a degree of luck, gambling, with odds. But what Jesus says is real happiness, blessedness, is different. William Barclay once wrote about a Greek island called Markarios. That’s the Greek word for “happy” – the Happy Isle. He said that it was “the Happy Isle” because everything you needed was on the island. You never had to go outside the island to find happiness. It was all right there. Whatever was going on in the outside world didn’t affect the happiness of Happy Isle. He said that true happiness then, to be blessed, is really “that joy which has its secret within itself . . . completely independent of all chances and changes of life.” “When we say that the Beatitudes describe the happy life . . . it has little or nothing to do with chance or circumstances, and it doesn’t depend on health or wealth or even achievements. It is . . . complete within itself. One doesn’t need to go beyond its borders to fulfill the quest.” (Kalas, 4-5) That’s what Jesus is talking about. He offers blessings, a happiness that is complete within itself. True joy comes from God within us, not what happens to us.
Some years ago, a pastor friend shared an email forward with me that I have saved since, finding it to really make a clear point. It contains a short quiz that goes like this: "Take a few moments to think about your answers to the following questions. Question 1. Name the five wealthiest people in the world. 2. Name the last five winners of the Miss America contest. 3. Name ten people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer Prize. 4. Name the last half dozen Academy Award winners for Best Actor and Actress. 5. Name the last decade's worth of World Series Winners. How did you do? If you are like most people, you can only fill in a few names here and there, but usually can't remember who did what and who won what. The point is most of us don't remember the headliners of yesterday. These are no second-rate achievers. They're the best in their fields. But the applause dies. Awards tarnish. Achievements are forgotten. Accolades and certificates are buried with their owners.
Now, here's another quiz. See how you do on this one: 1. List a few teachers who aided your journey through school. 2. Name three friends who have helped you through a difficult time. 3. Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile. 4. Think of a few people who have made you feel appreciated and special. 5. Think of five people you enjoy spending time with. 6. Name a half dozen non-celebrity heroes whose stories have inspired you. Easier? Of course. We have no problem remembering the people who have helped to shape us. We remember those who have inspired us and encouraged us. These are the people we tell our friends about. These are the people that hold a place in our heart. These are the people we truly value."
Today we celebrate All Saints Sunday. We celebrate people who were blessed, and who were and are a blessing to us. They were blessed not because of good things that happened to them, but because of the goodness, the light of Christ, the love of God, that was within them.  May you discover that these blessings fill your own life too. May you know the happiness that comes from letting the love of God inside you shape the world around you, and may your life be a blessing to others. Amen.