Sunday, December 28, 2008

Does Jesus build rollercoasters?

     I know that if I were in charge of the lectionary, and the world for that matter, things would be so much better organized. We have these ridiculous peaks and valleys built into our lectionary. We go from the excitement and anticipation of Advent to the joy of Christmas to the nadir of Stephen’s martyrdom and the deaths of the Holy Innocents. And this year, our corporate life has reflected this roller coaster a bit more. We had the extra dip associated with the passing of Barb before the pinnacle of Christmas which was, in turn, muted by the ice storm. In some ways, I can so relate to Peter. Lord, I love the mountaintop experiences. Let’s stay here! And even in His Church, there is a built-in reminder that our lives will have spiritual peaks and valleys. There will be times when things seem that all is fine; and there will be times when things seem to be falling apart at the seams. Our liturgical life reminds us that God is every bit as present in the good times as in the bad times. Our liturgical life reminds us that He can redeem the bad in life just as He redeemed Christ’s death on the cross.

     Her name was Patty. To back up the story a bit, we had a Christmas service scheduled for Christmas Day. About a dozen or 15 people had asked if we could. Naturally, I agreed. Unfortunately, only one family showed up. Needless to say, Connie felt a bit awkward and a bit selfish for dragging me out of the house on Christmas Day (her words). I told her that others had asked and that it was fine. We gave people some time to arrive and then decided to start the service. Just as I finished my what-passes-for-a-homily-when-only-four-people-are-present, she walked in.

     “I am sorry to intrude, but are you having church today.” Yes ma’am, you just missed the homily. “Is it ok if I come in, I am not a member.” of course. “Let me park my car.” So we waited. Patty came back, joined us for the Eucharist, but did not receive nor come forward to receive a blessing. After Connie and the family left, I asked Patty what was wrong. “Nothing.” Ma’am, I may not have the best eyesight in the world, but the blind can see you have a heavy heart this day. “I do not want to burden you with it.” Ma’am, that is why they pay me the big bucks, to help lighten your burdens. She paused, chose her words carefully and said, “My daughter died six years ago today.” I am so sorry, how? “An asthma attack, right in my arms. And I am a nurse to boot, and I could do nothing for her. She died right in my arms, not breathing, scared. Just like that.” I am so sorry for your loss. There was a long pause.

     “Aren’t you going to tell me that it was for the better or that God needed an angel?” No. “Aren’t you going to tell me that I need to get over it?” No. “Why not?” We both know that such answers are wrong. God did not take your baby because He needed an angel; God did not plan this; God certainly knows that the pain it has caused you was not for the better. “How can you say that so certainly?” Ma’am, He of all people knows what you are feeling. “What do you mean?” This baby and wonderful birth that we celebrate this day ends on Calvary. God of all people knows what it is like to lose a child. And I wonder, has He maybe lost two because of your daughter’s death? “Yes. I have been a bit upset with God for the last few years. It’s been hard to keep that faith because His churches are never open the day I need Him most. That’s why I was so excited to see cars in your lot. You were the first of 10-12 churches I tried that is actually open today.” We continued to talk for a bit. I would like to think, as she left, that just for a moment, she has begun to re-evaluate her understanding of God and His love of and grief for her loss.

     We as a church are reminded of that grief felt by all parents who have lost children on this day. Some 2000 years ago, King Herod commanded that the threat to his throne be eliminated, and so all the youths in Bethlehem were killed. Can you imagine the tragedy? Can you imagine the hurt? Where was God in all that mess? How can a loving, nurturing God allow such an event to occur?

     For us as Christians living today, the story is a stark reminder that there is opposition to God and His plan of salvation. In other parts of the world, there may still be martyrs, but here the opposition is no less present and no less discouraging. Who wants to be labeled as “religious” or a “Jesus freak” or a “Christian wacko”? In all times and in all places, there are people and forces so concerned with their own agenda that they act in opposition and rebellion to His message and His gift of salvation.

     Yet, this story reminds us that God’s Will will not be thwarted and that He never forgets. The Holy Family flees as instructed so that the babe may grow to walk the road of the cross and resurrection. And, though history seems to have forgotten the deaths of these babies who were slaughtered for being born at the wrong time, God has caused the story to be recorded and remembered by all His people. Maybe we should not be too surprised. Like those parents of the Innocents, He knows what it is to lose a child. And, as He has with everything in our lives, He has promised to redeem even a tragedy such as this. And so, after feeding us and armoring us, He sends us back out into the world to witness His love and His faithfulness and His ability to redeem all things. Maybe, just maybe, the lectionary editors understood this as they were selecting our readings.



Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas Message

     Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us. Why do we gather this night? Why do so many of us brave the ice, the cold, the idiot drivers that do not stop at the 4-way stop sign to gather this evening? For some of us, this may be one of the few times that we actually drag ourselves to church. What do we hope to see? What do we expect to see? What do we hope to feel? What do we expect to feel?

     No doubt many of us gathered here tonight hope to feel joy. No doubt many of us hope to feel peace. No doubt many of us hope to feel love. Given the uncertainties of life in the world right now, sometimes we long desperately for such wonderful, warm feelings. It is awfully hard to feel joy or peace when you are worried whether your place of employment is going to lay you off. It is awfully hard to feel peace or joy when you are battling a disease or illness in your life. It is awfully hard to feel peace or joy in your life when you are forced, by the season, to confront the various family dysfunctions present in your relationships. Perhaps you are made to feel like a freeloader because you lack the resources to purchase the gifts others in your life so strongly desire. Perhaps you are forced to confront behaviors of addictions or abuse which, if you had your preference, you would avoid altogether. And so you come to see this wonderful thing that has taken place, to search for those wonderful feelings which every commercial on television shows every person and every family having. You probably come longing for the joy, the peace, and the love so desperately missing in your life. And do you find it?

     In the hustle and bustle of the season, in the midst of the advertising, in the rush from party to party, it is easy to fall into the trap that this season will be the perfect one. And when it does not happen, the depression sets in. Brother and sisters, seekers and doubters, what did you come to see? An innocent babe in a nativity scene? A choir of angels lifting their voices to God and your heart? A sense of calm? A sense of peace?

     We often forget, but the world into which He was born was every bit as hectic, every bit as dark as our own sometimes seems to be. A despot, Herod, was on the throne in Jerusalem who had no consideration for human life. An empire had conquered and oppressed God’s people. Life was hard. Life was cheap. And nobody seemed to care.

     And into that world came this wonderful, awe-inspiring babe! Into that dark world shined this amazing light! This wonderful babe taught the shepherd and us that God cared. This wonderful God Incarnate reminded each and everyone who saw him and who later heard the Gospel message that they were loved by God! And let us not forget, this innocent babe came to walk the road to Calvary, the road of the cross to save all of God’s people. Life may not have mattered to Herod or the Romans, but it sure mattered to God! You life, your security may not matter much to your company or your bank, but it sure matters to your Father in heaven. His presence in that manger so long ago reminds each of us just how much we need him, His walk to Calvary reminds us all how much He loves us. And secure in that love, safe in that knowledge, you and I can face the world and shine like these candles we are about to light and so draw the world, dark and discouraging as it is, to His saving light!



Monday, December 22, 2008

Barb's last sermon . . .

A number of parishioners asked me what I thought of Barb's passing. Why would God take her in the Christmas season? Don't you think it was better that she passed quickly and suddenly? What will her family do? How can this ever be redeemed? These are just a few of the questions that I heard. Some were easier to answer than others. But the question about redemptive death struck me the most. I heard that particular question most often. On the one hand, I could state "redemptive death -- that is a story that sounds strangely familiar," but I also knew what was meant. Many of us knew Barb and the issues she faced in her daily life and work. For many of her friends and families, there will be a tremendous void, a tremendous sense of loss at her passing. Yet I wonder . . .

During the course of the end of the "regular season" and the beginning of Advent, we have been looking closely at the reminder that Jesus' return will be swift and unexpected. We have heard the parables of the wise and foolish young ladies, we have heard His warning of being like a thief in the night, we have heard Him remind us that He will come suddenly like a bridegroom, we have read His stories about the coming judgment, and we have heard His warning to "be ready." Over the course of these readings, we have looked at the life to which He calls each of His disciples, and we have considered how He should find us when He returns. We should be clothing the poor, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned, remembering the forgotten. We should be serving those to whom Jesus ministered when He walked the earth in human form.

We have also talked any number of times that one's life is the best sermon that anyone will ever give. In many ways, Barb's life and death were a wonderful sermon. She visited the prostitutes, the imprisoned, the homeless, the forgotten veterans, the poor in our schools, the aged, the infirm, and any number of other groups looking for a way to serve them. I cannot begin to recount the number of people who came to visit me and began their conversation with "This crazy lady invited me . . ." or "This crazy little lady told me I should come here . . ." Immediately, I knew who had invited this person before me. They called her a crazy lady because she went to places no sane person would ever go! Prostitutes were shocked she came to their hotel, the homeless were shocked she came to the shelters, and the paroled were shocked she had been to the prison. Invariably, I would be asked "Why would she ever consider visiting or helping someone like me." But, her ministry was what first drew them to the love of God. Did any accept His offer of salvation because of her ministry? I cannot say. God only knows. I do know, however, when she met her Lord last week, He found her doing the ministry to which He called her. That Sunday, she had asked us to fill out cards to send to veterans recovering at Walter Reed hospital. Once again, Barb reminded us of those whom many of us had forgotten, many of whom wonder at this time of year whether their sacrifices cane be redeemed, whether anyone truly cares for the suffering they have born on our behalf.

Yet Barb's passing also served as a stark reminder of the coming judgement. Her passing suddenly was not unlike His future return. It was sudden and unexpected. Because of His delay, we are always tempted to think that we still have time. "i do not need to apologize to _____________ because I can do that the next time I see him or her." "I do not need to repent of _________________ and reconcile myself to the one harmed by my actions because I can do it another time." "There is always tomorrow to set things aright." "I do not need to worry about ministering to a co-worker or a family member because there will be time to do that next week, next month or next year. Barb's passing, as sudden as it was, reminds us that there is no guarantee that we have time. Every moment that we have, just as every possession, every loved one, everything we have, is a gift of God. Barb's sudden passing reminds us that we all need to examine whether we are good stewards of all that He has given us, including our time.

So often we Christians fall into a trap of thinking that there is no urgency to our mission, that we have all the time in the world. Yet Barb's passing reminds us of the fallacy of such belief. Those who saw her on Sunday saw Barb in good health. She had no outward sign of that vessel that was about to burst. To all outward appearances, she was in excellent health, particularly for one 68 years-old! She was even ministering, praying and worshipping just like always. And just like that, she was gone. Now, we as Christians can take hope in the promises of God. We know that He can redeem all things, even death. And we can make our alleluia at her grave, though we will mourn her passing. But even her death can serve as that last sermon to us. If He returns now, how will He find us? Are we prepared to meet Him this moment? Have we repented where necessary? Have we reconciled with those whom we sinned against and those who sinned against us? Have we done what He has asked of us? If our answers to these questions and others is no, then for what are we waiting?

Advent is that season of the year which causes us to look with amazed joy at His first coming and with joyful expectation at His next. In many ways, Barb's death is a reminder of that season. Her life reminds us of the calling we all have as His faithful disciples, and her death reminds us of the urgency to which we are all called to act on behalf of His ministry. Will we make excuses for why we do not want to accept His calling, or will we embrace the callings He gives us as His faithful laborers and stewards?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

We are like those who dream . . .

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy. Then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed. Restore our fortunes, O Lord. We lived this on Wednesday night at the Community Meal. We had not been serving food for more than 15 minutes, and I had been approached (as had Charlie and Larry) about the meal we were providing. I would have never dreamed that somebody would do this for the homeless. A few shared their stories. Some were down on their luck; others had never had any luck. But each was amazed that we would ever serve a feast like that and, better still, give them choices. You know what they say, Father, beggars cannot be choosy. And, of course, a number of individuals asked us why we continued to do this. You guys have been serving this since I have been coming here. Why do you keep doing it?

In a way, we are like the psalmist from our reading this weekend. You and I know what it is to be burdened by guilt, to be chained by sin, to be a prisoner of our jailing. Better still, you and I each know what it means to have been restored, to have been freed, to have been loved! You and I can look back on the work of Christ, on the terrible cost to Him, on the love that He had for each of us and realize what has been accomplished on our behalf. And we can dare to dream! We can dream of what an eternal life in the presence of God will be like. We can dream about that wonderful wedding feast to which He calls each and every one of us. We can dare to claim the Creator of heaven and earth as our Heavenly Father, our abba, our daddy. And we can proclaim what He has done for us. We can laugh. We can shout for joy. Even at the grave we can make our alleluias because we know the wonderful things He has done for us and the many more promises that He will keep. We can celebrate because our fortunes have been restored. We are like those who dream.

Yet, Advent reminds us that we live in the time between, that time between the already and the not yet. We look back on His first advent with joyful wonder and look forward to His return with expectation. Yes, Christ has come and fulfilled God’s plan for salvation, but He must come again to restore all things as they were meant to be. And so we are called to live in that time where there is still sowing with tears, where things are not as they were meant to be.

We do not expect this world to be perfect. Indeed, we understand that this world is far from what God intended. Diseases strike our bodies, sudden death grasps us, relationships fail, jobs are lost, bullies assault us, spouses abuse us, children fail to listen to their parents, economic systems dissolve before our eyes, homes are lost, dignity is often attacked, and, like our Lord and Savior, we weep.

But we follow in His footsteps. We, His disciples, know that we serve the Lord. We know that He keeps His promises. So in the face of life’s vicissitudes, we travel faithfully. We carry on with our roles in salvation history, and we endure the race He has given us to run. Though our budgets might be stretched, we dig a bit deeper for His sake. Though our time is often overspent, we find a bit more time for Him. Though the world testifies that He has lost; we find ourselves clinging ever more stubbornly to our faith in the One who was anointed by God and given the power over life and death. And we go out sowing with tears; we go out weeping, carrying the seed. Yet, the Lord promises that one day, all those who carry on in His name in faith will one day weep with songs of joy and one day come in again with joy, shouldering our sheaves.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, for a few minutes the kingdom of heaven broke into Davenport Iowa this past Wednesday. For just a brief time, the forgotten, the marginalized, the tearful and the lost were reminded that they can dare to dream. For a time, we were His body, buying His food, preparing His feast, and serving abundance in His Name. We were His voice bringing comfort to those most in need. We were His disciples, teaching others what a servant life is truly like. We were His witnesses, testifying to a crowd too familiar with death and sadness that He has freed us from all our chains and bondage. We were His light, shining in that dark place of human existence. For a brief moment in history, those whom society has forgotten were reminded that their Lord and Savior loves them dearly, that He has not forgotten them, and that they can dare to dream because He has offered to redeem them as well!



Thursday, December 11, 2008

I need to brag about my people one more time . . .

     I received a phone call from one of my Vestry members last week, Sue, who with her mother is in charge of our work this month at the Community Meal. Thanks to the work of one of our saints, Thelma, all the churches in Davenport are able to prepare meals for the homeless, the hobos, and the other needy, marginalized citizenry in our community. Now, many churches have one assigned night each quarter, but, in an ackowledgement to Thema, we are one of nine churches (so I am told) that are allowed to participate each and every month. Woe be to my successor who decides to give up some of that ministry!

     Anyway, Sue called with a problem. Over the course of the past couple years, St. Alban’s has become very intentional in providing a meal rather than just food. In Novemeber of the past couple of years, we have provided turkey or ham with all the trimmings. We have had comfort meals of meatloaf, meatballs and the like. We have even had theme meals of “Italian” or “Mexican” or foods from some other such ethnic origins. I have been known to bring the Seder to the homeless the past couple of years. What started out as a fun idea was recognized to feed the recipients in ways we never imagined. People broke down because the meatloaf “was just like mom used to make” or the lamb was “way too expensive for a bunch of rejects like us.” And we, serving, recognized how important that call to an abundant feast was to the lost and forgotten in society. Sue’s problem was that she had a feast idea and no money to accomplish it.

     It was both exciting and heartwrenching to get this phone call. Sue recognized the very real financial difficulties facing our congregation. Yet Sue had listened to her pastor and to her Lord. He provides for all our needs, and His people needed to be reminded of the abundant life to which He calls everyone. Plus, the readings for the end of the “green season” looked specifically at how our Lord should find us when He comes again, feeding His hungry, visiting the sick, giving drinks to the thirsty. I told Sue to ask. If God thought it was a good idea, He would bless it.

     Sue threw the idea out there for the congregation. Once she thought she had enough money, she called a local grocery store which we, as a congregation, like to frequent. Fareway is closed on Sunday’s so that its employees can spend time in worship or with their families. Anyway, the guys in the meat department gave her a discount. Sue had collected 75 cents more than she needed!

     Later in the week, as we heard that the numbers at the mealsite had increased, Sue asked again for money. The short story is that enough money was raised to provide a feast of Prime Rib for everyone at the shelter that night. Others stepped up and provided the baked potatoes, the mashed potatoes, the sweet potatoes, the corn, the beans, the pies, the gravy -- everything necessary for a Christmas feast!

     To say that those present were overwhelmed would be a gross understatement. They had a choice in their meal. Different potatoes, meat cooked to differing degrees, desserts. Many commented that it was like going to a fancy smancy restaurant. And they gave me my sermon for this week. Sunday, we will read psalm 126. Thanks to the efforts of those members of St. Alban’s and to the joyful response of those whom we fed, I am once again humbled and reminded that we are “like those who dream. Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.” For a moment, for the briefest of moments, mercy and righteousness kissed at a shelter in Davenport, Iowa. For a moment, all of God’s people were fed and glad indeed! During Advent, we are called to look expectantly toward His second coming and the fulfillment of all of His promises. For just a moment, a group incarnated that idea and reminded that “those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.”

Christ’s Peace,

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The audacity of hope in Christ

What a world we live in! Terrorists take over a famous luxury hotel in Mumbai, India and specifically target British, American, and Jewish citizens. The result is the death of 172 individuals (at least as of the writing of this article). Pirates roam the seas in the Middle East stealing ships. Muslims specifically target Anglican congregations in Nigeria, burning churches and houses and killing entire families. Earthquakes, floods, tornados, droughts, and other natural disasters seem to occur almost daily. We are fighting two wars each and every day, a fact of which many in our congregation are very much aware as their loved ones are involved in the fighting. Our economy may be headed for the worst crisis seen since the Great Depression. People are losing jobs; people are losing homes. And human life has become so devalued that we now go to toy stores armed with concealed weapons. Human life is so devalued that we think nothing of trampling a WalMart greeter on Black Friday (now, truly aptly named) in a mad dash to get that "great deal" on that item that will likely be even cheaper come December 26. Churches and other non-profits are feeling the pinch of a receeding economy. As the need has become greater, our resources have seemingly become fewer. And we, as members of Christ's one holy and catholic Church have the audacity to claim that there is meaning, that there is hope? What in the world are we thinking?

Three of our readings this weekend reminded of the hope we should have when Christ is our Lord and Savior. Isaiah wrote of the Lord, "you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity." The Psalmist wrote of God, "how long will you be angered despite the prayers of your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have given them bowls of tears to drink." Certainly, both of those authors understood what it was like to feel abandoned by God, to know how ridiculous it may seem to proclaim a redeeming God when the entire world testifies against such a faith. Bot were writing to a people who felt anything but that the Lord was in control, that their Redeemer was reaching forth His sovereign hand to lift them from life's morass.

And Jesus, in our Gospel from Mark this weekend, reminds us that these bad things will occur. "In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken." Yet, what scares the world ought to spur us to greater vigilance and greater urgency in our mission. “When you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates . . . Therefore, keep awake!” What in the world is He talking about? Who can sleep well in the midst of such pain and suffering? Who can’t help but wonder what all is going on? And who cannot help but feel a bit embarrassed proclaiming a saving Lord in the midst of such hurt and pain? If He is who He say He is, if He truly is a God of love, how can there be such senseless suffering?

Part of the purpose of our lessons this week was to remind each of us that hope requires great faith. Specifically, our readings remind us that we must place our faith in God. Both Isaiah and the psalmist were writing to a people that had been disposed of their inheritance. For the people of Israel, the outward sign of the covenant with God was possession of the Land which He had promised to their patriarchs and matriarchs. Yet, Isaiah was reminding them that God had kept the covenant. They chose not to keep the torah, so God have given them the curses. And the Psalmist eloquently expresses that feeling of abandonment and isolation that came from that exile.

Yet both writers from the Old Testament remind us that God is a redeeming God, that He is a saving God. Isaiah reminds us “O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” And the Psalmist reminds us that if God would “show us the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” Both express that attitude that God can accomplish all the He purposes, no matter how out of control events seem to us to be. And Jesus reminds us of this hope explicitly in His statement to His disciples. “When you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” Jesus reminds us that each day places us closer to His eventual return in glory and the restoration of this world.

Advent is a season in the Church that is both backwards and forward looking. We look back at that wonderful night, when love came down and was incarnated not as a king or emperor, but as a babe in swaddling clothes. And we look back on that beautiful, Silent Night conscious of the cost of our redemption. That beautiful, innocent babe will walk the long, arduous road of Calvary. But, when the story should have ended, at least in worldly terms, God stepped in again. God conquered even death on a cross! Still, His job is not yet complete. There will be a time in the future when He comes again to fulfill all that He proclaimed since the foundation of the world. And so, Advent calls the Church to look forward in expectation of that event. Just as we look back on our Savior's birth with awe and humility, we look forward to His return, confident that He will restore all things as they were meant to be before human sin marred His wonderful creation.

Fittingly, then, the first Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of Hope. We remind ourselves that our hope is, as it always has been, in the redeeming Lord, Jesus Christ. We remind ourselves that our patriarchs and matriarchs had faith in God and His purposes, and He credited it to them as righteousness. We remind ourselves that even in the Exile, He was being faithful and would not be thwarted. We remind ourselves that when He was Incarnate in the world, He told us to expect the world to testify against His reign. Yet, the same God who has always redeemed His people promised each one of us that He would one day restore us and the world. Only a God who can conquer even death can make such a claim. Only such a loving God who would give up everything to save His people is worthy of such faith. Only such a redeeming God can give us each hope in the face of the tragedies confronting the world. Keep Awake! He is at the Gate!