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, http://textweek.blogs.com/textweek/



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.
            Amen.  

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Sermon for All Saints Sunday, "Blessed"

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

Blessed


            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.