Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A king like no other . . .

It seems appropriate this Sunday to take stock of ourselves. After all, this Sunday, Christ the King Sunday, marks the last Sunday in our church year. Next week marks Advent I, and we switch from Year B to Year C in our readings. So it is a time not unlike we will all be experiencing right after Christmas and right before New Year's Day 2010. On the surface, what more needs to be said? We serve the King, the Lord. We may be Americans and think that we have jettisoned the idea of a king some 200+ years ago. But God reminds us over and over that His Son, Jesus, is the heir to David's throne. Over and over again we read about the Good King who keeps all of God's instruction, who cares for the widows and the orphan, and who defends those who suffer from injustice, and rules God’s people as He has declared. Clearly, God's idea of a king is radically different from those British kings and queens whom we rejected so long ago. So why remind ourselves who it is we are supposed to serve?

This past week, I launched the ministry at the truckstop. Initially, it will be a ministry of presence. I have no illusions that the workers and truckers will be slow to talk to me, let alone point us in the directions that we need to go to more effectively those whom we are trying to reach. Yet, even as I sat there this week, drinking a coffee and watching people, I was reminded how much the world around us needs to hear about our King. Truckers coming in from the northeast end of the building were usually on a phone or hustling to get to a phone. Over and over I heard a trucker checking in with his company. I was not eavesdropping. In some cases, I was as much as 20 or 30 feet from the driver on the phone. Apparently, it was tough to stay on schedule last week. "Yes, I know I am 71 miles behind schedule." "Yes, I know that I should have been here 1 1/2 hr ago." "You see there was a bad wreck." "You see, there was a lot of construction." The other end of the phone was concerned only for the schedule. Goods needed to be moved from point A to point B at a certain rate. No excuses. So many of those drivers which I watched grimaced, covered the phone, or simply rolled eyes at the tongue lashing from the other side. A lot of them hung up and then grumbled words best not mentioned in this article. Noticing me for the first time, a few even blushed or apologized. Who is their lord? Whom or what do they serve? They know a slavery to which some of us might relate. They need the paycheck. They need a good paycheck. They will take a tongue-lashing for the right to keep collecting that check. And, no doubt, once the re-fueling was finished, many tried to get back on schedule. They will likely make their money. But at what cost to their health, the families, and even, perhaps, to others on the road?

I have no idea what her name was. She was of Asian descent. As I neared her, I saw the vain attempt that had been made to cover the left side of her face. It had been a good attempt, but the mark was simply too big and too dark to be covered. Her business was one of selling herself to others. Language was a barrier between us. I do not know whether her boss (you and I call them pimps) or a customer had struck her. Certainly, both feel that they own her once they pay for her. Her boss expects his (or possibly her) money. Her customer expects to be pleased. Disappoint either, and the bruised face is one of the softer punishments that one might face. Kit had called offering me spots at Winnie's for any women that might want to flee their lives. This lady was not interested in seeking safety. I would like to think it was the language barrier that kept her from leaving. I fear it was her fear. This is her life, that is her master. Her fear of them is greater than anything in the world. The hope that I was offering her, from her perspective, was probably illusionary. But, I will be back. Maybe one day, she will hear His call in my voice.

He had been asked to sit with a friend of his bishop. The local priests were simply too busy to mark the passing of another life, and, I suppose, the bishop back east had more important work to do as well. But the priest set aside his work and went. Keep in mind, these people were family friends of a bishop. And as he sat and watched the husband seemingly unwilling to die, the priest turned to the soon-to-be widow and asked her “have you given your husband’s care to God?” “No, it’s too hard. I don’t want to lose him.” Softly, tenderly, the priest reminded her that she was not losing her husband, she was giving him the freedom to go home to the Lord, the Lord who had promised to redeem even death. She remarked it was hard to see her husband like this. Once again, the priest reminded her that we cannot protect any of those whom we love, really protect them. We give their care to God and trust that He will care for them. And when they stumble, we trust He will redeem their missteps. That is His promise to us.

So many of us, hopefully, as we reflect this week upon our lives and upon our Lord's calling of each one of us, will think of those things and those people whom we served before God called us. Some of us may have sold ourselves, our very identities, in pursuit of a paycheck or a career. Some of us may have sold ourselves to addictions in search of something to numb the pain that we felt in our lives. Some of us may have sought out destructive relationships thinking that we could never find love. And then He called. The God Incarnate Man Divine called to us. We heard His offer. And we accepted! And all He asked of us was for us to allow Him save us, and then to use us to reach others in our lives. So many kings in this world demand. They demand taxes. They demand military service. They demand honor. And yet, God's King, the One who saved each one of us, does not even demand of us that we serve Him for what He has done for us. Though He has acted to free each of us and all whom we encounter, He gives us a choice. "Please let Me save you." "Please serve Me." “Come, follow Me.” And, typical of Him, we are all free to reject Him. And many whom we encounter do.

And yet, that is the very message you and I are called to carry into the world. That is the truth that Jesus expects His disciples to hear, to remember, and to share. Yes, people will be like Pilate. "What is truth?" will ring out many times in our lives. Yet Jesus has called us all into relationship with Him. He has asked to be our King. Will we let Him? And if we do, will the world be able to tell that He is our King? Brothers and sisters, our King has asked you to give Him control and trust over everything in your life, even your death. As we end this liturgical year and begin a new one, what parts of your life are you withholding? Where are you, like those whom I met last week, determined to enslave yourself to another? Brothers and sisters, He called us into relationship with Him. He called us to love Him. And best of all, He has promised to free each one of us!


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Yet another prediction (sigh) . . .

Sometimes, we just have to laugh at God's timing. Just as the hype and publicity surrounding the release of 2012 on Friday the 13th has reached its height, you and I are reminded of the real end times in Mark's Gospel. Think on that for a second. Of all the weeks to release a movie, the producers chose one when all churches who follow either the old lectionary or the Revised Common Lectionary, will get a lesson on the end times. So, is the world going to end in 2012?

Our story from Mark this week begins with the apostles pointing out the magnificence of the Temple in Jerusalem. They remark at its seeming immovability and its beauty. The implication is, of course, this is God's house and it will never be moved. Jesus' answer no doubt surprised them. They were expecting him to remark at the permanence or beauty of God's house, and he tells them that every stone will be over-turned. I think we sometimes forget the massive scale of some of the buildings of antiquity (after all, who measures in cubits nowadays?), but these stones and buildings were magnificent. And big! And the Teacher tells them that every stone will be overturned.

As the story progresses, the apostles find themselves on the Mount of Olives alone with Jesus. They ask of Him for signs when this destruction is to occur. And Jesus begins another of His teachings about the End Times and His expectation for us. Jesus tells the apostles privately that there will be wars, that there will be earthquakes, and that there will be famines. These events, He says, are but the beginning of the birth pangs. While the timing of the reading was impeccable this year, we might wish that the editors of the lectionary would have kept the entire pericope together. Jesus's answer actually forms a chiasmus over some 21 verses. A chiasmus is, among other things, a literary way of placing emphasis on something within prose or poetry. The emphasis in these passages is Jesus' instruction to His disciples to be discerning. Really, a better translation might be "see with understanding," but we get the idea.

Events will happen around us, objects will loom large in our lives, and Jesus commands us to see with understanding. The temple, that outward sign of the immovable God of Israel, houses those who will kill God's only begotten Son. The place that houses those who ought to be watching most attentively for Him will instead house those will successfully manipulate the Romans into crucifying Jesus and the people into complacency surrounding His death. And even these horrible events can be overwhelming. Earthquakes are just weird. Who likes it when the earth moves? We call it solid ground for a reason. And wars. As we have learned, wars carry a terrible cost. The toll on those in war is nearly overwhelming. There are physical, financial, emotional, and mental strains placed upon soldiers that doctors and sociologists are only beginning to understand. And Jesus tells us that things mark the beginning of the birth pangs.

So, do I think the world going to end in 2012? I think it is as likely to end in 2012 as it is in five minutes hence. I do not mean to downplay the likelihood; rather, I mean for us to think about Jesus' teachings on the End Times. How does Jesus describe His return? The images used by Jesus are one of surprise and suddenness. "Like a thief in the night" or "like the bridegroom returning home in the middle of the night," Jesus describes His return as swift and sudden. At the end of this story, He describes His return as sudden. Even when the disciples ask Him directly about the time, Jesus says only the Father knows. But when it is time, He will come. So we are told by Him to be alert, to be awake. In other words, we do not know when He will come again, so we had better be ready at all times for our Lord's return. Maybe the bumper sticker is right: "Jesus is coming. We better look busy." Might Jesus be coming in 2012? Sure.
But He might come before then or after then. It is our job to be prepared. It is our job to finish those jobs and ministries that He has given us. It is our job to make sure that we have cast His net as wide as possible, have invited as many as we have seen to the Feast, have shared His story of redemption with all with whom we come into contact. Because His appearance will be sudden. His appearance will be decisive. His appearance will mark the gathering of humanity and the Final Judgment. For those who have accepted His offer, it will mark the beginning of a wonderful celebration. For those who have rejected His offer, it will be a terrible time, way worse than wars and earthquakes and famines. And there are no "do-over's."

Armed with that knowledge and certainty, you and I are sent into a world with urgency. Should we be scared by Mayan calendars? No. If Jesus did not know when the Father would send Him, do we really think the Mayans knew? Should we be afraid of guys or gals on the street corner holding a placard proclaiming "the end is near." No, but we should be reminded of the urgency of the work to which He has assigned to us. Should we fear natural disasters such as tornados, floods, earthquakes, and fires as harbingers of His return? No. But we should use those events as opportunities to share the hope that we have in our Lord's ability to overcome everything, even the grave. And should we fear "prophets" who claim to speak in His name and urge us to any number of crazy actions? Absolutely not. We are to look with eyes that perceive and hear with ears that hear His voice and hearts that truly understand Him so that we cannot be misled and so that we can speak out against those who would destroy more of His sheep. It is not by accident, at least I hope that it is not, that our lectionary editors chose the prayer over Scripture for this set of readings. We are called to read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest His Word. His Word, His grace, His love ought to be lived out by His disciples. Are the end times near? Absolutely. Do we know the moment of His return? No. So watch, and get busy! Someone in your life is waiting to hear His story.


Monday, November 9, 2009

The Redeemer . . .

When I say the word “Redeemer,” of what do you think? A few 8:00er’s were scared I was slipping into Appalachian Pentecostal mode when I mentioned it Sunday. After all, it is a word we Episcopalians don’t think that we use very much. I say “think” because we use that word specifically in Rite I and in Rite II, Prayer A, Prayer B, Prayer C, and Prayer D (the words will still be here when you get done looking for yourself). And, naturally, we often describe Christ’s work of redemption of us. So, even for us institutionalists, it is not really a four-letter word.

Our lesson from Ruth, this week, reminds us of the Gospel purpose of the Redeemer and our relationship to Him. How so? First, in Hebrew, the word translated as Redeemer is goel. Literally, it means kinsman redeemer. Leviticus 25:25 might be the quickest and simplest definition of goel, but it often exists in Scripture. In fact, Ruth is full of redemption. In quick terms, one could be in need of a redeemer if one was forced to sell oneself into slavery by force of circumstances (drought, storms, etc). A relative with resources was required to redeem the enslaved relative and family. From that time forward, the redeemer was goel to the family he redeemed. It also existed in times of war. To finance wars, kings and armies would capture hostages. Those hostages were often sold as slaves. A goel could redeem a relative by paying the ransom rather than letting the family member be sold into slavery. In our story of Ruth, both Ruth and Boaz play the role of goel for Naomi. Even the ladies who name Obed understand that.

Think, for a second, of your own extended family. Who would be within that circle that you would redeem without giving it another thought? Who in your family is in that circle of those whom you love that you would make any sacrifice to save them? Your parents? Your grandparent? Your children? Your grandchildren? Your aunts and uncles? Your cousins? How far out would your redemptive love extend? How far out has it extended thus far in your life?

And, yet, think of Jesus. He was goel to each one of us. We might like to think of Him as a figure in history from 2000 years ago, distant in time and space, but He thought enough of and loved us each enough to pay the only price that could redeem each one of us! He was to us that favorite uncle, that grandparent that spoiled us, that cousin with whom we were “thick as thieves”, and He freed us from certain slavery and death when no one else could or would.
Jesus is not just some figure in history who did some dying and rising. Jesus is that One person in all the universe who loved us the way God calls us to love everyone. And when faced with the cost of our redemption, paid it without begrudging us, without grumbling about us and our thankfulness, and without reservation! Brothers and sisters, we often grumble that we wish we were loved. We wish that spouses, children, parents, or others loved us so we could feel wanted and needed. By His work, by His actions, Jesus showed us just how much God loved us and loves us still! The creator of the universe loves you! The creator of the universe has redeemed you and set you free! That is the message to us. And that should be our message to those around us!


Monday, November 2, 2009

Saints before us, after us, and among us . . .

Our reading from Ruth this week, I think, turned out to be perfect both for us as a congregation and for a family about to baptize their first child into the faith. I won’t share with you again the sordid details of how we ended up with the regular RCL readings for this past weekend, as opposed to the readings assigned for All Saints’ Day. Suffice it to say that God’s grace was in our midst. The computer and the disc survived my and other volunteers’ efforts to curse them. The Old Testament reading certainly should have spoken to us on this day, this day when we baptize a new member and recall the saints that have come before us and been part of our lives.

I love the book of Ruth. For those who want to argue that God is wrathful in the OT and full of mercy primarily in the New Testament, this book will prove quite the surprise. For those who want to argue that the OT is misogynistic and paternalistic, this book screams “did you not hear what I said in Genesis?” It is a great book. There is terrible tragedy, there is amazing redemption. And it all happens in a few short pages.

Our reading begins with the reminder that “everyone is doing as he sees fit.” Judges has commented upon the fact that Israel has rejected God as king. Elimelech and Naomi are proof of this. There is a famine in the land, proof of God’s displeasure with Israel. The famine should remind Israel that they are not keeping the covenant, but this is a time that they are doing as they see fit. The warning is missed. And so, in direct rejection of God, the couple heads to Moab. If God will not provide for them, they will provide for themselves. They give up the land promised to their ancestors, and they leave.

And their decision seems to pay off. They get food. The boys grow up. Everything is moving along. In fact, the couple decides that the boys need wives, and so they get Moabite wives for their sons. It might make sense to us; after all, that is where they are living. Who else is there to marry? But God had instructed His people not to marry outside the covenant, else the people would be led by their new families to worship false gods. Nevertheless, Elimelech and Naomi get local wives for their sons.

Then tragedy strikes. Elimelech dies. Naomi is a widow. But she has her sons and their wives, until both her sons die. Now she, and her daughters, are widows. Without family, widows in the Ancient Near East had little for which to hope. Widows were seen as burdens. They cost money to feed and to clothe. And so their lives were harsh. Though God commanded His people to care for the widow and orphan, we know just how much they listened to Him.
Naomi decides to return to her people. She tells her daughters-in-law to return to theirs. She even tells us that the ladies were good wives. When the ladies protest her instruction, Naomi is the voice of reason and love. I have no husband. I cannot bear sons to marry you. Go, and I pray that you are blessed with husbands.

Orpah goes. Ruth stays. When Naomi tells her to follow her sister, Ruth refuses. In fact, Ruth clings to Naomi. “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Truthfully, the story should have ended there. Two widows, no family. There was not much hope for them.
We will continue the story over the next few weeks. For those that do not know the story, there is a happy ending. In fact, the “wrathful” God of the OT does something amazing. The two ladies return. Boaz, a distant cousin of Naomi, is smitten with Ruth’s beauty and faithfulness to Naomi. He negotiates with her closest kinsman, and he acquires the right to become the kinsman redeemer. The story, if ended there, is amazing. But God is still not yet finished! Boaz and Ruth have a son named Obed. Obed has a son named Jesse. Jesse has a son named David. David has an ultimate descendant named Jesus. Yes, that Jesus. Ruth, an anonymous Moabite woman, a woman excluded from the covenant, is grafted in so fully by her faithfulness to God and to Naomi and by His grace, that she becomes a great, great, great (however many times) grandmother of Jesus Christ.

The story should speak to us this day on a couple different levels. Perhaps, as I have been telling this story and you realized then end, your response has been one of “yeah, Father, but that’s not me. I am not special like Ruth.” Nothing could be further from the truth in God’s eyes. Were you the only one in need of saving, such is His love of you that He still would have come and saved you. And think of Ruth before her declaration and His grafting of her into His vine. She was a Moabite. She was a woman who would mislead His faithful sons. Her story takes place centuries before the work and person of Christ. She should not yet know that God loves her as much as He loves His sons and daughters. And she is a widow whose in-laws cannot provide a future for her. Her future, by worldly expectations, is begging or prostitution. She seems condemned to a life of anonymity. And yet, for her simple clinging to Naomi and her God, she is lifted to unimaginable heights! Through her faithful actions, a Savior will be born! And all this occurs despite the fact that her in-laws rejected God. They left the Promised Land. They took Moabite wives for their sons. They rejected the covenant that God established with their ancestors. And still, His grace was at work in their lives.

Just as His grace has been at work in your lives, and just as His grace in your life has been at work in others. Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day. Were I to take the time and ask you who was a saint in your life, how many of you would tell me it was a famous saint? Heck, how many of you would tell me it was even a member of the clergy? Many of you would no doubt say it was your mother or father, your grandmother or grandfather, your boss, your co-worker, a friend at church, a neighbor. Few of us would say it was anybody famous by worldly standards. Yet, look at their impact in your life. Because of their faithful witness to His redeeming love, you were drawn into His kingdom. Because of their commitment to Him, you, and others like you in their lives, chose to cling to His mercy and His grace rather than go your or their own way. And brothers and sisters, I am here to tell each one of you this day that you are having the same impact on those around you each and every day of your life. How you live your life in faithful service to Him is usually the single best sermon another human being might ever hear. That is how He works. He makes the anonymous special; He makes sinners into saints.

But our story does not end there this day. In addition to remembering and honoring all those who have come before us, we are about to baptize Ezekiel into His family. Z will be part of what the diocese calls the Next Generation of Faith, those who come after us. Jason and Grace and their family and we are about to take an oath before God to help raise Him to be a Psalm 112 man. Each one of us is promising to be for him a saint who points the way to the One who saves, Jesus of Nazareth. Each one of us will promise to be a leader, a leader who leads by serving the needs of those around us as He gives us time and talents so to do. Jason and Grace, you are about to enter an amazingly difficult time in your life together. The balance of the life that you have forged with one another has now been altered. Nothing in your lives will ever be the same. Soon, as Z grows, you will find yourself on the slow, inexorable slide of becoming and sounding just like your parents. Every screw up you promised you would never make, you will make. Everything you promised to yourself you would never say to your kid, you will say. There will be times of great joy, times of great worry, times of great sadness, and even times where he may hate you for a season. But God’s promise to you is the same as it was to Naomi and Elimelech. You never have to face these things alone. Where you go, He will be in the midst of you. Where you do well, He will bless. Where you make mistakes, He will redeem. And salvation history will continue along the path He has set. And you, and Z, will be always in His care. That is His pledge to you this day, just as He promised to Sarah and Abraham and all the ancestors of Elimelech and Naomi.

And now, brothers and sisters, let us remind ourselves just how He has worked throughout salvation history and how He is making us saints in His eternal kingdom through His mercy and grace, and let us begin the process of welcoming another of His redeemed among us . . . .