Friday, December 31, 2010

The traditionalists were right . . . it should be Wisconsin versus Oregon in the Rose Bowl

A couple funerals and other concerns, plus all the hectic life associated with Advent and Christmas slowed me down, but I was still able to publish the end of regular season/conference championship rankings. Just think, instead of suffering through meaningless ECU vs. MD or Baylor vs. IL or Toledo vs. FL International games, we could be in the final push of a national playoff. This weekend could be the Final Four of football, were it a 16 team tournament, with two really important games on New Year's Day; or, if it were a 32 team tournament, this New Year's Day could be full of 4 national quarterfinal games. Sadly, we get a watered-down, stretched out set of games that many no longer feel compelled to watch. I suppose, when the money dries up, the NCAA will get in line with the inevitable. Until then, we'll just have to dream about what could have been. . . . Now to the rankings:

1. Auburn (13-0) 15.85
2. TCU (12-0) 14.33
3. Oregon (12-0) 14.17
4. Boise State (12-1) 13.83
5. Oklahoma (11-2) 13.69
6. Ohio State (11-1) 13.67
7. Michigan St. (11-1) 13.42
8. Oklahoma St. (10-2) 13.00
9. Stanford (11-1) 12.75
10. Wisconsin (11-1) 12.58
11. Nevada (12-1) 12.54
12. Virginia Tech (11-2) 12.54
13. Arkansas (10-2) 12.50
14. LSU (10-2) 12.33
15. Utah (10-2) 11.50
16. Nebraska (10-3) 11.23
17. Florida St. (9-4) 11.15
18. Alabama (9-3) 10.58
19. South Carolina (9-4) 10.31
20. Central Florida (10-3) 10.08 (tie)
20. Missouri (10-2) 10.08 (tie)

Yes, according to this formula, TCU should be playing Auburn in the National Championship Game, with Auburn being a prohibitive favorite (at least, based on the numbers). Wisconsin and Oregon should be playing in the Rose Bowl. But a lot of teams got screwed by the current system, as evidenced by those teams in BCS games which are low down or not even on the list (UCONN should still be thanking Santa Claus that they are playing in the Big East).
Better still, imagine a 16 team playoff starting a couple weeks ago:

Nebraska (16) vs. Auburn (1)
Stanford (9) vs. Oklahoma State (8)
Virginia Tech (12) vs. Oklahoma (5)
Arkansas (13) vs. Boise State (4)
LSU (14) vs. Oregon (3)
Nevada (11) vs. Ohio State (6)
Wisconsin (10) vs. Michigan State (7)
Utah (15) vs. TCU (2)

with the winners of each pair of games facing off the next week. Certainly the first round game should be played at the home of the higher seed, but maybe the subsequent rounds could be played at neutral sites in better weather.

As to the gripe that it would dilute the regular season, would it really? Boise is punished for its slip. Nebraska goes from a "shoe-in" to a "by a nose qualifier" (or host in a 32 team tourney), and Oklahoma gets bumped up in ranking by virtue of its win to get an "easier" first round match up (just as South Carolina got knocked out by its second loss to Auburn in the SEC's championship game. Ohio State is rewarded for not playing a 1-AA team (and Michigan State is punished a little bit). Plus, it is open to everyone. 4 teams from non-traditional power conferences made it in. Want in? Play and beat good teams. Want a better seeding for the tourney? Play and beat better teams. Auburn is rewarded for winning a conference whose top teams play good teams. The same is said for Oklahoma (and even OK State). The ACC, Big 10, PAC-10, and Big East need to win those intersectional match-ups and quit playing so many 1-AA teams. Of course, AD's would have a choice: do I trade a chance at a better seed or a birth for an extra home game? Ah well, maybe next year . . . (and, yes, I think TCU may give Wisconsin a game. They are better by the numbers, and I don't think they will be startled by the stage, though with the hoopla surrounding the Rose Bowl, one never knows).


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sharing His provision and in His joy . . .

Redemption and joy figured prominently into my thinking and ministry this week. It is no small surprise, given our readings and our prayers. Joy, of course, is the focus of the Advent reading for the lighting of the candle this week. We are reminded that joy grows from hope, peace, and love through the servant ministry of Mary, the mother of Jesus, whose spirit rejoiced in God her Savior. Though she could not possibly understand the cross and the Resurrection at this point in her life, she could understand that she had been given a role to play in salvation history and that her son, His Son, would be central to that plan of redemption. And, lest we forget that it was always His plan to save His people and that He could accomplish that redemption, we were reminded in our Bidding Prayer to “read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this holy Child.” Yes, it is no small wonder that they figured heavily in my thinking and ministry and, I am betting, upon yours, after some reflection.

A few of you have asked why I have not shared more about the Community Meal experience this month. It’s not that I am avoiding it. I am still trying to process and discern many of the conversations into which I was drawn or given the privilege to observe or to overhear. So much happened that I am certain I will be using it as an illustration for the rest of my time in ordained ministry. Speaking with some of the volunteers of that night, I know it has marked them for a lifetime as well. And my problem becomes “how do I communicate another sacramental moment in a brief time (either through a sermon or through a few paragraphs in the Bulletin) with people who did not see, did not hear, did not feel the in-breaking of the Kingdom in a homeless shelter that night?” God will answer that question; He always does. But He may wait to give me the way the stories should be shared.

I will say, however, that our faithful witness has had an obvious effect on others, that of joy. Though we ministered to the homeless that night, others were fed in ways you and I never foresaw. For example, the meat department at Fareway is still talking about us with what can best be described as silly awe. I was purchasing meat for my own Christmas dinner and other meals on Saturday when the guy behind the counter asked me who I was. He knew he knew me, but he just could not place me. I told him why he probably knew me. “That’s it!” And he turned to two of the other guys behind the meat counter and yelled excitedly, “This is the pastor of the church that [the manager] was talking about. He’s the priest there!” After the bloody high fives and greetings (they were working, after all), they got down to business. “Thank you and your church for that story this Christmas Season. We have been talking about it for two weeks now. Some back here think you wasted your money or that it could have been better spent. Others of us think you gifted them with a Miracle of 34th Street kind of gift. I know they will never forget it, because I will never forget it. Thank you all for taking the leap of faith and giving abundant hope where there is none at a time when we all need it.” I teased him for being so eloquent for a butcher, but I thanked him for letting me know of its impact and for trying so hard to explain one of the points of the Incarnation. Misunderstanding me, he started to explain that many who work for Fareway are Christian, or at least go to church. I reminded him that Christ came that we might have life more abundantly, and that our ministry to them that night was to remind them of His promises even to the least among us.

I got a bear hug (they have been crushing this month, as well) in the Parish Hall. “Father, I just heard the story of what you did last week last night.” Not focused on the Community Meal, and having some difficulty breathing, I asked which thing he was talking about and whether he was glad or mad at me. A friend of a friend in the gutter still, literally and figuratively, had eaten our meal and listened to our songs (some of our volunteers sang carols and hymns that night). It and some of the conversations had finally broken him. For the first time ever, he was seeking help on his own rather than having that help forced upon him. “And you know: that’s when the help has a chance to really help.” He stuffed some money in my hands and told me to use it like I had used the money to help redeem his friend. I reminded him that I was not redeeming, nor was my church. It was our Lord. “Of course I understand that. But He has to work through the ones who give Him a chance. And you guys give Him all kinds of opportunity.” And out of his gift, I was able to help another family with a specific need that I had been forced to turn down a few days earlier (when the funds match the needs, I figure discernment is easy even for the blind like me). And that joy, through small redemptive acts that figure significantly in the lives of others, continued to be spread around our community.

Brothers and sisters--that is our purpose in the world. You and I beseech of God for the opportunity and grace to share His story of redemption with those in our lives. And we share it for the opportunity to share in the joy that comes from such redemption. What you and I do, of course, pales by comparison of what He first did for each one of us, as does the joy that we feel; but, however dimly, however poorly, you and I often serve both as evidence of His grace and as means of relating His story to a world hungering for hope, getting by on subsistence, and too fixated on the darkness. You and I are called to be heralds of His coming and to live as joyful stewards of all that He has given us and to be those little tiny flickers of light in the darkness whose brilliance is overwhelmed by the glory and magnificence and abundance of the One whose birth we celebrate this week, the One in Whom and through Whom all things are indeed possible and through Whom the world might be given abundant life and joy!



Monday, December 13, 2010

Owning our answers and telling our stories . . .

Why doesn’t He ever answer questions directly or with a straight “yes” or “no”? The “He,” of course, was Jesus. What prompted the questions had been discussions about Jesus. For whatever reason this week, though I suspect it was the season, people were struggling with the hopeful message of the Incarnation. I take that as an interesting sign. Given the efforts to take Christ out of the season, people seem to be pondering His role, His identity, and His ministry that much more. And, given our readings, I secretly enjoyed the questions that much more, as they hopefully helped me to feed each of you this week.

So my question to each of you here this week is whether that question is based in truth and, if it is, why would He choose to avoid the direct answer? Certainly our readings this week give rise to such questions. John the Baptist is imprisoned. All his life he has labored faithfully for God, and now that the Messiah has come upon the scene, he is imprisoned. Why? Because he has spoken truth to the powerful, in this case the king. Imagine for a second: a giant in our faith, the man who announced the coming of the Messiah, the very man who baptized the Messiah has doubts! No small wonder. Prisons in antiquity were often not subject to the Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. No, John has done what he was supposed to do, and he does not get the expected reward. No wonder he doubts.

And so he sends his disciples to ask Jesus a question, “Are you the one?” Now at all times, given the struggle of his cousin, we should expect Jesus to say “yes.” Yet look at His answer. “Tell John what you see and hear.” Well, what do they see and hear? The blind are given the ability to see; the deaf are given the ability to hear; the mute can speak; the dead are raised! Jesus answers their question with one of His own, in essence: “Who do you say that I am?” Given the evidence before you, given everything you have heard, who do you say that I am?

Those of us who like direct answers may not be satisfied; yet is that not what He has given us? One of the consequences of this life, on of the gifts God has given us, is free will. All of us, and everyone whom we meet, has been given the freedom to decide whether to accept Him or to reject Him. No one is forced. And so, Jesus allows all human beings to decide for themselves who He is. Either He is the Lord, or He is not. There is no squishy middle ground upon which to stand. His question, His ministry, His love demands an answer. But it is an answer freely given by the very ones He came to save.

Jesus reminds the disciples of John of what they have seen and heard. Given those things, they must decide who He is. The same is true for us. We have seen and heard of God’s saving power in the world around us and in our lives. Do we commit to follow Him, or do we continue to go it alone? Because we have to decide and because it is our free choice, how better can He reach us than to point out what we have seen and heard and let us choose whether to become His disciples?

Better still, God uses our experiences, our tales, our witness to reach into the lives of others. Often, I am asked by people in the church what makes great evangelists? What makes someone better able to reach the lost for God. The right answer is, of course, God. But another answer is our own testimony. Canned packages often fail; formulaic propositions or questions and answers often fail; but our heartfelt honest and unpolished relation of the work He has done in our lives and in the lives of those around us will often give others pause. Those sincere tales of His grace in our lives and the lives of those with whom we celebrate His glory and power will make people wonder. And each will be free to accept or reject Him, to learn more about Him or to ignore Him altogether, and to be raised to new life in Him or to accept death on our own terms! And it that acceptance or rejection which allows us, during the peaks and valleys of life, during the good and bad times we will all experience, to be patient until His coming, to face evil with hope, to face darkness with light, and so help grow His kingdom day by day. So, given how He seems so often to work, Who do you say that He is? Why? Your answer may be the key which enables another to ask Jesus to release them from their prison and their shackles and to be set free! Could you give a better gift this season?



Saturday, December 11, 2010

Baptized in His Spirit!

Fulfillment is obviously one of the key themes for our readings this week. Isaiah picks up on the fact that God will not punish Israel forever. At some point in the future, when the fields have been destroyed and destroyed again, God will call His people home. A shoot will appear out of the stump of Jesse, and the Spirit of the Lord will rest on the One who is to rule. Psalm 72 speaks also to the rule of God’s anointed. In one sense, it is no doubt about David and Solomon or some other father/son combination, but it also speaks ultimately to the King that God has in mind for His people. But I think our reading from John ought both to truly humble us and to inspire us.

Matthew tells us that in those days, John appeared in the wilderness baptizing all who came to him for repentance. John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, descended of the priestly line of both his mother and his father, steps to the fore. And with the voice and authority of God, he calls Israel to repentance. That call is significant. For a few centuries, God has been silent. Israel, which was used to God speaking and acting, realizes that God has been silent since the days of Micah. And John appears with His voice and His call, and it responds! Out of the comforts of their cities do they come.

Such is their response that even the Pharisees and Sadducees are forced to come and see. And John, given God’s eyes, and ears, and heart knows what they are doing. They are there to be seen and not to repent. As Jesus will later criticize them, they want Israel to think they are doing what God commands, but they are unwilling to humble themselves or serve God’s people. And so John warns them of their impending doom. John recognizes the limits of what he is doing; better still, he recognizes the power of the One who comes after. The One who follows and baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire will gather the wheat and burn the chaff. And so he warns them. Ancestry means nothing. Associations mean nothing. What we do means nothing. All we can do is repent. The rest is up to Him!

Why should this both humble and inspire us? Think of Jesus’ discussion of John the Baptist later in Matthew’s Gospel, which we will read next week. In chapter 11, Jesus will declare that of those born of a woman, no one is greater than John. To John fell the honor and privilege of announcing that the Messiah was here! Of the OT prophets, John had the greatest and most important message: God’s plan of salvation was reaching its fulfillment! And yet, all John could do was baptize people for repentance. All John could do was allow people, publicly and symbolically, to apologize to God and to those around them for their sins. There was a limit to what He could do.

Ah, but to God’s Son, the Messiah, no such limit existed. The Messiah would be able to bestow the Holy Spirit and the fire for God on those whom He would baptize. And that bestowal, that honor, made all the difference in the world! The baptism offered by the One who followed John would be able to empower God’s people. The baptism offered by the Christ, the Messiah, would place God’s peoples’ hearts on fire for Him.

How does this play out in our lives? Think of our sacrament of baptism for just a brief moment. Each time we gather around a family or an individual, we remind ourselves of the truth of Jesus’ statement. Yes, we ask God to forgive us our sins, and, through the water, we die to self. But our sacrament does not end there. Yes, there is a conscious choice to turn from evil, but it is supplication which leads to an understanding of God’s grace in our life. We pray to God to deliver us, to open our hearts, to fill us, to keep us, to teach us, to send us, and to bring us. We, the ones baptized, do not do these things. God acts in our lives and accomplishes these things in our lives. His Spirit, His grace, inspires and empowers us to serve, to work, for His glory! And without His action, without His anointing of us, we would be impotent and lost.

Think of our Truck Stop ministry. In worldly terms, what hope do you and I have when taking on a multibillion dollar industry? How can ordinary people like you and like me expect to make a difference in a problem that plagues society not just in our country, but in the world? Simply put, if it were up to us, we could do nothing. Yet, you and I have laid claim to our first born double inheritance; you and I have claimed the pledge which God has made to each one of us both at our baptism and which He has reaffirmed every time we celebrate the Eucharist, and we have gone forth to remind both the slaves and the slavers, the victims and the victimizers, the observers and the participants, of the glory with which each one of us and each one of them was created. We have gone forth, in power, full of His Spirit, Power, and Truth to remind others just how much He loved them, the price for which He paid to ransom them, and the hope to which He calls them. Without that gift of His Spirit and fire, we could do nothing. Ah, but with that gift, with that adoption, we become kings and queens by right of our new birth empowered to accomplish all things for His glory!

Think of some of the ministry to which your call enables me to do on your behalf. As most of you know, some parishioners have been dealing with the suicide of a loved one in their neighborhood. By extention, I, too, have been called into that dynamic. And we have all wondered how God redeems situations even as hopeless as that. And yet, I stand here this day before each of you thanking you for the privilege of carrying the hope, the promise, and the love of God into the world. For one family, there is still much mourning, grief, anger, and the like to experience. But for another, there was hope.

As God would have it, I was stopped by a someone in “orbit” of our church and ministry. He had recently been diagnosed with a disease. Truthfully, his prognosis was not bad, even though the disease was. When I asked if he wanted prayers, he stopped me by saying that this was not what he wanted to talk about. He went on to describe the attempted suicides by his wife, upon discovery of his health problems. Certainly, he wanted us to pray for her and the newly diagnosed mental illness? Well, sure, but that was not what was really bothering him. “What is really bothering you,” I asked, half afraid to have him answer. “My kids,” he said. “I think they have figured out something is wrong. Worse, I don’t know if I have been a good father to them. You see, I never had much time for church. They played sports, I liked to sleep in, and there always seemed to be time for God later. Later is here, and I made no time for God. From where are they supposed to draw hope? I want them to have the same hope which inspires your people. I want them to have the same joy which allows your people to face the %$^* of life and laugh it off, knowing that the stink and feel won’t last forever. Can you help me be a better dad? Or is it too late for me and for them?” Brother and sisters, the hope that others see in us, the joy that the see in us, does not come from within us. It does not come from us simply saying “we’re sorry.” It comes from Him, the one who baptized us with fire and the Spirit and made us His own!

One last example, and then I will call it a week. Last month, I stood at the Community Meal, wondering what we should make for them for December. So I asked them. “What could we make for you to make the Christmas Season something for you to remember?” The answer gathered steam from around the room as they each remembered or dreamed. “Father, I’m not sure if it was you or another church that did it, but would roast beef and all the trimmings be possible again?” “Again?” asked another voice. "A couple years ago, I think it was them, showed up with roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, carrots, fluff, rolls, pies, the works! And they fed us. And when the workers tried to chase us off after 30 minutes, Father said ‘no.’ When they tried to rush us a bit, he made them quit. This was a meal to be enjoyed and savored.”

You can imagine the conversations that took place then. Those that were there reminded themselves of what they had eaten. I am certain that we did not cook everything they remembered us cooking, but the memory was strong. Those who were new to the meal site kept asking for descriptions. “Really? They made that for you?” I told those boldest in the back left corner that I would see what I could do. They apologized for asking, but they had a good reason: It had been a tough year. We might be worried about keeping our jobs or our homes, but our worry trickles down. When we feel poor, we give less. Given the angst around us, we can well imagine some of the “meals” given them this year. All were quick to say they were grateful for everything that everybody had bothered to give, but sometimes “you know, we just need a little bit of hope. And your feast, well, it reminds us of what’s on these walls.”

Brothers and sisters, it is a heavy responsibility to follow God. But imagine for just a moment in your own lives, away from here, the difference you are able to make in the lives of others, simply because God has graciously adopted you and bestowed you with power. You might look on biblical history with awe. Perhaps you think that Abraham or Sarah are that much more important or valuable than you. Perhaps you think that you will never measure up to a David or Esther. Perhaps you think that Moses or Ruth lived lives of privilege to which you will never measure up. Yet Jesus reminds each one of us that the very least among us, the very least of those who have been baptized and raised to new life in Him are greater even than John the Baptist, the greatest of all the prophets! Better still, He has empowered you to accomplish wondrous things in His Name, to His honor and glory! And He has asked you to be His messenger of hope and of peace, in the dark world around us. How will you respond to His call? How will you use His gift to glorify Him and bring hope to those around you?



Thursday, December 2, 2010

candles in the darkness . . .

8:00ers joked with me this morning that you can apparently take the man out of the broker but you can’t take the broker out of the man. They were laughing at my Friday observations and my use of them during the sermon this morning. As I shared with them this morning, I was reminded this week just how counter-cultural we are called to be in our daily lives and work. What set off the observation was a series of interviews that I watched on Friday.

As I freely confessed, I still pay attention to what’s going on in the world. I may not know which movie star is sleeping with which movie star or which studio voice is the new darling of the month, but I do try to stay up on important events. Black Friday this year certainly qualified as important. Now, truthfully, I could care less who is buying what. But, in an age of Quantitative Easing and TARP, the strength of the overall economy is of some significant importance, whether we recognize it or not. Anyway, as I was flipping channels between CNBC, MSNBC, FOX, and any other station for that matter, there were interviews with retail workers—lots and lots of interviews. As I flipped from one to another, I was struck by the shared observations of many of these mostly female workers. To a lady, each said that they were very busy Friday. Each talked about how the “door buster” deals had gotten people in their doors as planned and had helped boost overall sales versus a year ago. But what struck me as truly interesting was their identical responses regarding Thursday’s sales.

When each were asked whether the Thursday hours and deals had helped, each, to a lady, responded that the Thursday deals had helped. But none stopped there. Each went on to predict that, in the days to come, when we as a society have forgotten the reason behind the day, Black Friday will have become Black Thursday. Each predicted that, as a result of this year’s results, their respective companies would extend the hours and the sales next year. Eventually, they said, they wondered whether people will be able to eat a Thanksgiving Meal. “We will add hours and hours and deals to pack people in. And if we do that, who will do the cooking? And who will remember why we even celebrate the day to begin with? That’s how it works in our business. The hours get longer. The competition for foot traffic gets that much more fierce. Workers work more hours. That’s just how it is.”

That’s just how it is – has there ever been a bigger need for messengers from God. These ladies, none of whom were corporate muckity-mucks, already know their fate and ours. The competition will devour each other. The hours worked will get longer. And people, because they are so busy elbowing their way into stores or down isles, will quit making meals, and the reason for Thanksgiving, as it has been for Christmas with much of society, will be forgotten. To them, the hopeless future is in plain view. They shrug their shoulders and admit defeat – that’s just how it is. Truly the works of darkness are closing in on and around us.

Yet we as a group gather together to celebrate a new church year as the rest of the world engages in its frantic race to the finish line. While the world around us is trying to squeeze every last dime, every last second, every last whatever it is out of the year, you and I are called together to remind ourselves of our past and of our certain future. You and I gather this first day of Advent with an eye to the past. In four weeks time we will celebrate that the Lord of Heaven and earth became human. For love’s sake, our Father in Heaven came down to show us how much He loved us, how much He knew our hurt, and how much we truly needed Him. The world looks at the season like a deadline, and you and I are called to remember it is a celebration of THE Lifeline, Jesus Christ.

But, even as we look back, we do so with an eye to the future. While clerks and others trapped in the darkness lament their fate, while they have forgotten or perhaps never known the joy of promised eternal salvation, you and I are called to remember that these things around us are already passing away. At some point in the future, maybe a few seconds, maybe a few minutes, maybe a few hours, maybe a few days, maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months, maybe a few years, maybe a few centuries, He will return to judge and call His beloved disciples home and to the promised feast! And because the one who promised is the one who was raised that Easter morning, you and I can slog through the darkness as little candles of hope and joy. While the rest of the world sees no way out, you and I can face life’s trials and tribulations with expectant trust. Whatever happens to us, whatever befalls us, will be redeemed by the One who saved us! And so, we pray to our Lord this day to give us His armor of light, to place our feet upon His path, and to send us forth as heralds of His Gospel, His promise, and His joy!



Monday, November 22, 2010

Christ the King . . .

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. -- As I have shared, probably enough times that you are all sick of hearing it, God seems to go to great pains to make sure that I “get it” each week. Usually, there are one or two lessons to which it is obvious He wants to direct my attention. This week, however, will stun even those of you tired of hearing it.
This week, as we gather in worship, we celebrate the Last Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost, also known as Christ the King Sunday. In the church year, this is our New Year’s Eve party. As Americans, we might find this Sunday a bit difficult to accept, particularly at a time when we are all giving thanks for the recent elections in which we were allowed to participate (though admittedly I am simply thanking God that there are no more commercials until the caucuses pick up). It is in our DNA, I think, to oppose kings. We were founded, after all, in protest to a king’s actions. Our form of government was deliberately created to avoid any individual possessing too much power. We sometimes like to claim that our greatest export is our democracy (besides, as our trade balances show, the rest of our goods are way too expensive to be bought by anyone).
So we gather this week, mindful of the fact that God calls us into His kingdom, that He will remake our bodies and give us eyes to see what He sees, ears to hear what He hears, hearts to love what He loves, and so on. One day, we hope to be admitted into a kingdom with a ruling king. But the promised ruler is not just a king; He is not just a Lord.
How do we know? Luke starts us off in the right direction. Think back some months ago. Jesus has been approached by two Apostles asking to be seated at His right hand and His left hand when He comes into His power. The other Apostles are mad. They should have thought to ask Jesus first. But Jesus tells them that they do not know what they are asking. His coming into power, His coronation, will be unlike the coronation of any king in human history. And today, we read Luke’s account. Notice as well, the taunts of those present. Think of their diabolical nature: “If you are the Son of God, “if you are the Messiah,” then save Yourself. Of course, Jesus is the Son and the Messiah. He certainly had the power to save Himself. Yet His purpose was first to serve and to save us. By force of will, despite our taunts, He stayed nailed to that cross. The two thieves might have wanted to come down, but Jesus could have made it happen by a simple thought. Yet for love’s sake, for mercy’s sake, He stayed and absorbed the taunts. And because of His faithfulness, He is exalted! He is King of kings and Lord of lords. All things, we are told, will bow before Him and His authority. But, not just yet . . .
We, you and I, are sent into those situations we described last week, and given the message of hope to proclaim. You and I are called to remind the world that this is not all that there is. The hopelessness that we feel, the hurt we experience and cause, the pain that agonizes us—it is all passing away because our Lord is coming to make all things new. And He, unlike every other ruler on earth, has the power to accomplish whatever He wills! Better still, nothing is beneath His notice. There were many more examples of His saving grace this week, but two incidents really stood out.
As most of you know by now, I was on my way to the Cathedral with glasses for Nzara when the phone rang. Dick, of Bernice and Dick on our prayer list, had killed himself while we gathered and praying for healing. It is hard not to care for someone when we have prayed for them for years, but it is harder still when one has been given the privilege to reap where others have sown. Since the days of Kathleen, parishioners had invited Dick and Bernice to come to church. Both admitted that they gave all kinds of excuses until it was too late. By the time they realized they needed God, Dick was too sick. So I was invited out. I wish I could claim profound insights as to Dick’s mental state. He had, among other diseases such as COPD and some facial nerve problem, the so-called “suicide disease.” He was racked by pain. He could not sleep. It hurt to breathe. No position was comfortable. But in my visit, I was able to remind him that this was not what God had intended. God felt his pain acutely. And Christ had died to heal even that terrible disease.
Now, less than a few days later, a family was in mourning. Friends and neighbors were asking the questions that no one wants others to ask. Guilt was running high in that neighborhood. If I’d only . . . I wish I would have . . . . maybe then he’d be alive. Somehow, Dick had gotten hold of a shotgun and a shell, and he ended the pain. Now I found myself in a room with police, with a coroner, with other first responders, pitying them and their job. And it was my job, my calling, to speak His power of redemption even into this mess.
You might be wondering what can be said at those times. I must admit I found myself wondering as well. But as I found myself thanking the first responders and the coroner and empathizing with their jobs, I found myself speaking against the guilt of the family. What Dick had done was senseless and tragic, but God was so powerful, so sovereign, that He could redeem even that. And slowly, over the course of the week, it became apparent that He did. People who had had no appetite for church for many years suddenly found themselves confronted with the realities of their lives. Did their friends, did their neighbors even know that they were Christians? What did they believe? Was church just something to do to pass the time, or was it something of infinitely more importance? Was God really good? If so, how could He allow this to occur? By the time of the funeral, I had lost count of the number of important conversations I had had. Heck, I had even forgotten some of the names, though not the faces. Yet, even those who rejected God admitted that His existence would be the only thing that could make such tragedies into a way to force humans to reflect, to discern, and to choose. Life serving Him? Or life serving themselves?
Of course, lest you go away this week feeling sorry for a family and really wondering if God is at work in the world today, we received another lesson. Thursday, Michelle called Vern to say that she had figured out a problem. We had not ordered all the food we were supposed to have ordered. In other words, people were not going to get food that they were expecting and for which they had paid, and at Thanksgiving to boot. To say that there was some stress would be a life. We had spent hours reconciling the orders and double-checking our math, and a book with more orders had been found. Thankfully, Michelle and Vern bore it all as I was too tied up with the funeral. And yet, our sovereign Lord was already at work.
“Father, could you find people that need some turkeys for Thanksgiving?” I was asked by a member of another church. Like you, I laughed. Little did I know. This disciple had asked his boss to donate the turkeys that the employees did not need. And thankfully, mercifully, the boss agreed. Saturday rolled around and I found myself confronted by two caring Christians worried sick that people would go hungry. I already had 5 turkeys. You had been generous at the end of October for Clergy Appreciation Day. Annette had cut the Discretionary check. We could buy another turkey and the ‘fixins (that’s southern for all the potatoes, green beans, stuffing, and other stuff that goes with the meal) and make sure nobody went hungry on Thanksgiving. Problem solved. Yet His ways are not our ways, and we sometimes often forget that.
By the time distribution was over, I had too much food. People had donated meals to offer thanksgiving to God for your prior service to them. They were paying it forward and trying to be a blessing to others in need. And so, we who expected to be short 6 boxes found ourselves 14 boxes to the good. Instead of lacking 6, we had 8 boxes too many. And, yes, we still have 5 more turkeys in need of those fixins. God does not only provide, He provides abundantly!
Brothers and sisters you and I are a sent people. We are a people that live in a world in which we do not belong, proclaiming the power and resurrection of our Father in heaven and His Son. When the rest of the world is forced to lament the sufferings or shrug them off as too powerful, you and I are called to remind ourselves, one another, and any who would listen that He has already begun the recreation and that nothing can overcome Him. And nothing, no single person or thing can thwart Him. And unlike kings who calls others to serve them and to be supplicants, our king adopts us. Our king makes us firstborn children and promises each one of us that we will be inheritors of the firstborn’s double portion. The world might tell us to expect the scraps, but our Lord promises us the choicest portions. Our Lord promises us abundance. And our Lord promises to prepare us to face anything that opposes His will with hope, with love, and with determination. We weep with those who mourn, we cry with those who cry, we hurt with those who hurt, but we give thanks to God for making us His and giving us the message of His love and His grace to proclaim to the world around us. And we thank Him that He is a king who led by example who first saved us, that we might be reshaped into ambassadors of His love and heralds of His power!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Shifting focus . . .

It is that time of year, the time of year when we begin to shift our focus in the church from “green living” to thoughts of Advent and Christmas. Naturally, our readings begin to reflect that transition, and our readings this week do a very good job of reminding us of our jobs. You and I are called to worship and love God with all our hearts, but as St. Paul exhorts us this week, we are not called only to the worship of Him. Better put, perhaps, we are not able to worship God simply by showing up at church once or twice a week and singing songs. True worship of God also involves us be heralds, ambassadors of the in-breaking Kingdom of God. We live in the here-and-now, but we are focused on the results of His recreation in the future.
Isaiah starts us off by reminding us that this, the world around us, is not “as good as it gets.” This world, the things that so consume our time, energy, effort, and worry, are passing away. And God will be recreating all things new. No longer will mothers and fathers experience the deaths of unborn or newly born children. No more will people be stabbed in the back by co-workers or be stepped on like rungs as others try and climb the corporate ladder. There will be no hunger, no disease, no death. Creation itself will be renewed. Predators and prey will live together peacefully, as He intended in the beginning. Earthquakes, floods, famines, plagues, tornadoes, and all sorts of natural catastrophes will have ceased. You and I, and all members of His holy Church, are called to witness into the messes of this world, the tragedies of our lives, the hope and promise which He gives. And to remind each one of us of His ability and power to do all these things, the Father raised Christ from the dead! When things seemed most hopeless, when the Savior was dead, God acted once again to remind each of us that He wants to and can save us.
Our life in this world, He tells us, will be full of pain, suffering, persecution, and all sorts of evils. There are no “free passes” for the faithful. Indeed, the faithful will be the very ones called to remind the world of the love of God, of the power of God, of the grace of God especially at those times when the world cannot or will not see Him. We go into places like Nzara, torn by 40 years of civil war, devoid of the most basic services, and proclaim His saving grace despite world’s testimony to those residents. We go into places where human beings are treated like less than animals, where they are traded for others or used as toys or slaves, and we remind them and those with power over them that God created even them in His image and that no one has the right to treat Him or His in that fashion. He died to free them; no one has the right to sell them once again, without at least remembering that their actions will have eternal consequences. We even go into places of death. Places where hopeless human beings choose to take their own lives, and we remind the families, the friends, the neighbors, the coroners, the first-responders that it is for these reasons, and so many more, that He died. And all this, all this is passing away! He is making all things new!
Brothers and sisters, this coming week, Christ the King Sunday, we will remind ourselves that we are not really part of a democracy. We may live in America, but we are simply sojourners here. Instead, our residency is in the world to come, where we serve the Lord, the King. And we have been called by our Lord to proclaim His hope and His promise, just as He first proclaimed it to each one of us through His birth, His death, and His resurrection. We have also been reminded, and will again throughout Advent, that we need to tackle our callings with an urgency, an urgency which reflects the belief that the Lord could return at any moment, completing what He began that Easter morning, and wiping away all our tears, all our suffering, and all that reject Him. Come, Lord Jesus! Heal us and make us whole.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

November 10 Rankings

November 10 Rankings
1. Auburn 14.00
2. Boise State 13.50
3. TCU 13.30
4. Oklahoma State 12.67
5. Oregon 12.33
6. LSU 12.00
7. Nebraska 11.78
8. Ohio State 11.67
9. Michigan State 11.60
10. Stanford 11.11
11. Utah 11.00
12. Wisconsin 10.67
12.(tie) Missouri 10.67
14. Alabama 10.56
15. Oklahoma 10.44
16. Iowa 10.33
17. Nevada 10.22
17.(tie) Virginia Tech 10.22
19. Arizona 9.89
19.(tie) Arkansas 9.89
21. Mississippi State 9.78
22. Central Florida 9.44
23. Temple 9.20
24. Florida 9.00
25. Hawaii 8.80

Temple? Yes, I know. They seem to be winning (I know, a shock in itself), against teams in their own division who occasionally beat teams in their division.
Can anyone explain why the Big East gets an automatic bid to a BCS Bowl and why TCU and Boise State and Utah have to win out to hope to get in one? Yeah, yeah, I know. People all over the country are going to put eyeballs on a VaTech-Central Florida matchup in a bowl.
Of course, there is still a lot of games to be played. If your school beats good competition and it will likely rise. Stumble, and you find yourself falling down the polls like Texas or FSU.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Saints in our midst . . .

I find it appropriate that on this day, when we celebrate All Saints’ Day, for us to reflect upon the Saints in our lives. Too often, we as a church are often guilty of remembering the past while trying to look and plan for the future. As a consequence, the Saints in our lives are often overlooked, or at least unacknowledged. And while such acknowledgement always runs the risk of offending those not mentioned, it is sometimes worth the risk to point out to each other what is happening around us.
I give thanks and praise this week to God especially to Nicole. Nicole had no idea what she was doing when she took a little girl aside, hugged her, and allowed her to cry for some time. Nicole had no idea what she was doing, but she was comforting one among us who has not had a good life. How had I heard the story? Her mom came in to thank me and let me know I had an angel in my congregation. Maybe she exaggerates a bit, but Nicole was certainly a saint.
I give thanks and praise this week to God for Vern, Connie, Gay, Sherry and anyone else who had a hand placing AFM menus in the schools. For the first time in almost two years, their tilling of the ground brought forth a green shoot even as winter rears its head in our lives. Three weeks ago, thanks to all of your generosity, I enabled a school employee to help a desperate family. To be sure, that family took the fun out of dysfunction. But I had her call and tell the family that the food was here. The family picked it up, and once again that school employee apologized. This week, I received a call. “Father,” she said, “the more we talked about what you did, the more excited we got. I have heard of churches like this, but I had never experienced it for myself. Anyway, we took up a collection to thank you, and we raised enough money to purchase 6 Thanksgiving boxes for needy families. Do you think you could find 6 families?” I laughed ironically, as need knows no season. But I asked her if she could not find 6 families nor could not those who helped her contribute. As a result of your faithful giving, teachers have now collected among themselves and identified 6 needy families in their school to help. And that joy of serving that we each share, will no doubt be given to them.
I give thanks and praise to God for the ministry of Fred. Four years ago, as a priest newly landed in Davenport, I called Fred and asked him if he could help with a problem. Fred bought a pair of steel-toed boots for a man newly employed. Three weeks ago, his boss walked in and gave me $50 for the discretionary fund. When I asked why. He said, “Four years ago you helped John. I want you to know I had to fire him this week. He wasn’t lazy. He wasn’t stubborn. He was just grateful for a job. And you made it possible for him to work for me until my business dried up. I’m hoping you can pay it forward for me, because I am broken up about having to turn him loose.”
I give thanks and praise to God for Bev, who doggedly got the word out about our need for freezers and then stubbornly refused to give up finding out the identity of one of the donors so that we could properly thank her on behalf of the hungry.
I give thanks and praise to God this week for Sherry, Michelle, Sue, Robin, Linda, Larry, Pauline, Patty, Mary, Julie, Polly and everyone else who has a hand in the Community Meal. As I shared with 8 o’clock this week, I was reminded last month just how much they appreciate the effort and the love with which we serve them.
I give thanks and praise to God for Charlie (though if people yell at me for forgetting their ministries I might change that!), who often nags and nags and nags that I need to share these stories more often, and who is never afraid to speak into any situation.
I give thanks and praise to God for George, Annette and Robin, who took the modern incarnation of bingo, and turned it into an opportunity for us to teach others about God (and to make a bit of money for our church as well).
I give thanks and praise to God for those that have served on Vestry, who kindly and gently try to meet the needs of all of us while trying hard to discern God’s will for this parish and then leading us appropriately.
I give thanks and praise to God for our Intercessors, whose faithful ministry has convinced others that God is still moving and working in the world today.
I give thanks and praise to God for those who have served as my sounding board, as wonderful pastoral counselors in my life, and as elders in the faith when I have need it.
I give thanks and praise to God for Karen, who wonderful work as a mother frees me up for all the stuff that goes on around here, and who is never afraid to speak her mind, even when I do not wish to hear it.
I give thanks and praise to God for our ushers, our altar guild, our choir, and all our service participants, who faithfully labor that each of us, but most especially the visitor among us, might see, hear, and feel God during our services.
In short I give thanks and praise to God for all your ministries and the trust with which you have enabled me to represent you and your love for God to the world around us, both here in Davenport and even in the “virtual” world as we tackle the adversities in peoples’ lives on behalf of the God who calls us to such servant ministry. It is only because of your faithful labors that I am ever seen and known as the “Death sucks pastor,” the pastor the church that “Rocks,” the pastor of the church that “feeds people,” the priest tackling Human Trafficking, or a great herder of cats!
This week, as we reflect on that “great cloud of witnesses” which God has given us both as examples of holy living and, sometimes, as examples of victorious dying, take a moment to remember those in your life today who have taught you how to bear witness to His truth and who have helped strengthen your faith and devotion, and to thank God and praise Him for their roles in your life. Who knows? Maybe someone will hear the joy and love with which you speak of a brother or sister in Christ and be moved to ask you to account for that joy.
Christ’s Peace,

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Week of November 1 College Football Rankings

Week 9 Rankings

Team Ranking

1. Auburn 14.11
2. Boise State 13.00
3. TCU 12.56
4. Utah 12.13
5. Missouri 11.75
6. (tie) Oklahoma 11.63
6. (tie) Oklahoma State 11.63
6. (tie) Oregon 11.63
9. Ohio State 11.44
10. Michigan State 11.33
11. Nebraska 11.25
12. Alabama 11.13
13. LSU 11.00
14. Arizona 10.75
15. Wisconsin 10.38
16. Stanford 10.25
17. Maryland 9.88
18. Mississippi State 9.78
19. (tie)Iowa 9.63
19. (tie)Nevada 9.63
21. Hawaii 9.56
22. Virginia Tech 9.38
23. South Carolina 9.25
24. Baylor 9.11
25. Central Florida 8.75

Ok. It’s out, for all those who have been nagging me to rank the teams again. Obviously, the Auburn Tigers benefit from their early schedule strength, and, should they win out, will likely win the mythical championship. The TCU/Utah winner will obviously benefit, but it remains to be seen if either can leap Boise State with Hawaii and Nevada still on the Broncos’ schedule. Oregon is punished in this system because 1 of their victories is over a 1-AA team (Portland State) and because they have beaten two teams with no wins against 1-A competition (New Mexico & Washington State) and 1 team with only a single win against 1-A competition (Tennessee). There are still a number of important games to be played, so it will be interesting to see who rises and who falls from here. And while I do not encourage the use of these for gambling purposes, that discouragement is really important right now. Auburn and Boise State have separated themselves a bit from the field, but #5-#24 look pretty jammed up at this point. It's a sure sign that anybody can beat anybody!


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Do you miss it?

Do you miss it? Questions like this were asked by a number of people referencing Caitlyn’s entrance into the church on Sunday for the Eucharist. Excited to see her father, Marshall, across the room, Caitlyn went running across the sanctuary yelling “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” No doubt those who asked remembered when we first arrived at St. Alban’s and David’s pronouncements at the same time of “That’s my dad!”

I must confess that at first blanche I had not given it much thought, but after some quick reflection, I realized that there was a fantastic lesson in the exuberance and love expressed by some of our littlest members. You and I as His disciples are told by Jesus to think of ourselves as able to go to our Father in heaven and call Him “Abba!” Abba, of course, is the Hebrew word most akin to Daddy. It connotes both a close relationship and an innocence of worldly demands. It is a secure if informal relationship, full of trust and joy.

No doubt many of us are comfortable with think of God as our Savior. Those a bit further in the walk with Christ and further down the path of His sanctification might even be able to think of Him as Lord and as Teacher and as other important roles in our lives, but how many of us would ever be comfortable thinking of Him as Daddy? For those among us who suffered at the hands of abusive or incompetent fathers, such a relationship might seem impossible. And were it left up to us, we would be correct.

Thankfully and mercifully, He began the work in us to make such a relationship possible. When we were enemies and haters of Him, He still died for us. When we unwilling to seek forgiveness or to grant forgiveness to others, He came among us to teach us of our need of forgiveness and the need for us to forgive. When we were incapable of loving others as He so loved His people, He came down to heaven to show us Himself both His love and the cost of our hard hearts. And when we thought ourselves wise and informed, He taught us that we should all come to Him like a young child.

The same enthusiasm, the same utter trust, the same peace and contentment with which our little ones approach their parents ought to be reflective of how we approach Him when we gather in worship. Like children choirs who sing loudly and enthusiastically, even if they are a bit out of tune, we should sing joyfully to Him, knowing He loves our joyful noise! Like little children with needs and wants who never give up asking, we should also be going to Him in prayer certain and trusting in the knowledge that He will give us precisely what we need without mistakes. And like little ones who run to fathers confidently and innocently celebrating “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,” we should approach Him with the same confidence, the same closeness, the same utter trust and love, knowing that only He ever truly loved us at those times we were most unlovable, knowing that He sealed that relationship with the blood of His Son to make that cry of celebration, and that wonderful relationship, possible for all eternity!

Christ’s Peace,

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Love and evil . . .

A couple nights ago, I found myself, as is usually the case after the kids have gone to bed, watching ABC Nightline. What made the discussion on the show interesting and worth commenting, at least in my estimation, was the problems and lack of perceived solutions. Given my initial thoughts and tenor about the show, you might think that the show was groundbreaking; truthfully, however, I found it rather more heartbreaking. For those who are interested in watching the segment, it can be found here: .

No, that is not a mistaken link, at least if Whoopi Goldberg still comes up. The interview that I found myself captivated by and broken for was Whoopi's interview with Diane Sawyer. Now, Whoopi is not a figure with whom we typically associate the words tragic and pity. She is, by human standards, very successful. Prior to launching her career in acting, she was a very accomplished comedienne. Today, she is probably more famous for her gig as one of the four hosts of the View. And, while I am dealing with her career, I loved her in the roles of Guinan (Star Trek: Next Generation), Sister Mary Clarence (Sister Act and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit), and as Oda May (Ghost). By any normal standard, she is wealthy. She is famous. And, unlike so many of her fellow actors and actresses, Whoopi has managed to keep a great deal of her private life out of the public eye. Unlike so many of the rich and famous, we don't hear of her breakups, her car wrecks, destructive behaviors, and the like. In my mind, that is what made her comments all the more lamentable.

One of her comments got me so worked up was Whoopie's discussion about contemporary culture. She makes the claim during in the interview, and Diane agrees during the segment, that there seems to be more evil in the world today than in the past. People, in her mind, seem to have less tolerance of each other and are quick to pounce on one another. Politics is simply an obvious expression of that changed attitude. What's even worse, from Whoopi's perspective, is that we glorify the attacks and evil. Movies like Mean Girls; shows like Jersey Shore, Big Brother, and Survivor, and some books glorify people being mean to other people. That promotion and glorification, Whoopi noted, just creates a spiral of bad behavior. And there is nothing that can be done about it. Americans love to watch it, read it, and read about it, so the powers that be will keep putting it out there in order to make more and more money. Of course, her real frustration revolved around the fact that nothing can be done about it. Unless people quit buying it or watching it, there is no way to reign it in. So, in her mind, the evil will continue to spiral out of control, and evil will seem to get worse.

The other comment which really made me wish that she had paid attention to the lines of her co-workers in the Sister Acts was her lament about her mother's death. In a nutshell, Whoopie explained how much she missed her mother. As she praised her mother and discussed the lessons of her youth, Whoopie lamented that she will never be loved like that ever again. The world is too evil and too selfish. Her mom's death meant, in her mind, that she'll never be loved the way in which she craves to be loved, to be accepted, and to be held. How sad, I thought, that she has either not heard or simply chosen to reject Christ Jesus. Had she met Him, much of her worry could easily be placed aside and given over to Him while she got about using her talents, gifts, and platform the way He intended. Here's praying that one day, someone will reach her with the message of His love and hope, that one day, she may feel even more loved by her Father in heaven than she was by her mother on earth, and that one day, she will learn that evil has already been conquered by the only One who could make things right: Christ Jesus!



Monday, October 4, 2010

Back into the valleys

This past Saturday, courtesy of George and Annette being out of town and not wanting their tickets to go to waste, Karen and I were able to attend the Quad-Cities Symphony. I think the last time she and I had made it to a Symphony was PK, as in pre-kids. As I was listening to the work of Beethoven, in particular, I was reminded just how magnificent a composer God truly is. You may wonder what Beethoven has to do with God or what classical music has to do with our readings this week, but I found both to be magnificent as I made my way through the week.
Over the course of the past few weeks, I have felt more called to preach on the Gospel lessons. Given the lively discussions in Bible Study, in the office, over the phone or by e-mail, I think I did a fair job discerning our needs as a congregation. This week, however, we are sort of forced to move on by the selections of Scripture. As a couple people asked, not in these words exactly, but are we not in danger of slipping into triumphalism which can cause others to miss the Good News of Christ. By this they meant that our focus on the eternal perspectives, the call of God on all our lives, our double share inheritances as His adopted children, His demand that we do everything to His glory might seem to ignore the real world around us where people have lost jobs, people are beaten and murdered, where cancer and other diseases run rampant, where relationships fail, and things are simply overwhelming. Truthfully, the criticism would have been valid, particularly for anyone who has just joined us or just visited a couple times. Over the past few weeks we have not looked very much as the vicissitudes of life. Fortunately for us, our Father in heaven moves us along like a magnificent composer as we study His Word. Just like Beethoven, who works lead us through good times and joy through anger and sadness and back again to joy, God leads us through the peaks and valleys of life. And few readings speak more to the valleys in life than our Old Testament selections this week. But, God does not leave us in the valleys. Though He acknowledges the hurt, the anger, the pain, the suffering we often experience in this world, He reminds us of the joy to which we are called, the hope which only He can provide.
Both our selection from Lamentations and the Psalm speak to the bitterness of life. The author of these selections points out just how far Jerusalem has fallen. The city that was the jewel of the world during Solomon’s reign, is now the butt of jokes. Her people have been carried off into slavery, her allies deserted her in her greatest hour of need, no one pilgrimages to the city, her enemies mock her with impunity, there is no singing, there is no laughter. Has there ever been a tragedy like this? You and I have nothing with which to compare it, at least on this scale. The destruction of the Twin Towers, for all the trauma that it caused, did not cause DC to be razed or us to be carried off into slavery. We are here, so to speak, to fight another day. And, unless we spent some time travelling to NYC, we might not even realize how much even the skyline of that city has changed.
Of course, the author of Lamentations reminds us why this has happened. “The Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her sins.” God’s judgment is upon Jerusalem, just as He promised. When given the choice to love and serve only Him, Israel has rejected Him over and over again in lieu of false idols. When given chance after chance to repent and return to the Lord, Israel has chosen to seek her own destiny. And, in faithful observance of the Covenant which He made with Israel, God allows His bride to be kicked out of the Land, to be sold into slavery, to be mocked and ridiculed. Her people are gone, her treasures are gone, and, seemingly, even her God has deserted her.
Perhaps we can relate to that frustration, that anger, and that desperation. Many of us here have any number of events which have caused us to wonder where God was in our life. Jobs have been lost, relationships have ended, lives have been taken all too soon, diseases have robbed us of some of our dignity—heck, we have been reduced to praying for some whose only chance at life means that someone else must die to provide organs. Life is sometimes far too bitter.
Not surprisingly, in the midst of this anger, this grief, this desolation, God reminds us that He is in charge. As bad as the authors’ grief and anger are, they are not without hope. The Psalmist, in particular in this week’s selection, reminds God to deal with His enemies. Though life seems anything but promising, the author calls upon God to judge justly those who have destroyed Jerusalem. Those who have betrayed her need to be taught that they betrayed God! Those who killed Israel’s babes need to experience what they inflicted upon His people!
Significantly, the authors trust God to judge and repay evil for evil. The authors are angry; they cry out for justice. But they also remember that God is in charge. Only He can truly repay suffering. Only He can truly judge without error. Only He is powerful enough to accomplish his purpose. In life, you and I are often impotent to solve the vicissitudes of life. We might rail against the murder of a Big Paul, but how do we truly atone for his death and the loss in that homeless community. You and I might have to choke out prayers for Bin Laden because of the 9-11 attacks, but how can we make right the death, the destruction, and the loss of innocence that accompanied the attacks. You and I might give thanks for successful organ transplants, until we realize that another family is grieving the death of a loved one in the midst of our thanksgiving. On and on the list goes, but against Him only have they truly sinned. In fact, this past week in our parish life was filled with far too many sermon illustrations of anger, grief, impotence and struggle. Those of you who had cause know of which I speak. How do we, you and I, make it right? How do we, you and I, fix what has gone wrong on your life? The truth is, we can’t. Only He can. And to prove to us He can accomplish all things, He raised His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord from the dead. The empty tomb stands as a bold reminder of His unlimited power and His unmatched compassion. His grace can accomplish all things not only in our lives but in the lives of those around us.
You might have heard it said that such readings are beneath God or beneath Christians. Some may go as far to say that they are certain such passages were not inspired by God or are unfit to be read in Christian worship. And yet each one of us is reminded throughout the Bible, the Old Testament and the New, that we should pray for God’s just judgment. Who wants to be here when heaven awaits? Who wants these diseased and sore bodies when the New Created bodies are waiting for us? Who wants these crumbs when we are promised a feast? The martyrs’ cry goes up “how long?” And we ourselves often pray to Him to come again, perhaps forgetting the revelation that His return will be a Day of joy and celebration for His children and a Day of anguish and lament for those who reject Him. Yes, in many ways, 2 Thessalonians and much of Revelation echo the cry of Psalm 137. Pray that the Day of His return finds the whole world waiting in anticipation and not at enmity with His love or His power, anxious to participate in those choirs and choruses which sing His praises into eternity!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Messengers of hope . . .

Is it real? Do you believe in heaven and hell? Do people really go to hell? -- the short answer is an emphatic “yes.” One of the overarching teachings of the Bible is that our response in this life has meaning. Do we accept God’s offer of salvation? Do we promise to live a life dedicated to glorifying Him and serving Him, no matter the cost to ourselves? Do we promise to repent when we fall into error? In this age of pluralism, it might be tempting to want to believe that the sufferings of Hell and the eventual Judgment described by Jesus in the Bible are metaphorical or not-really inspired. Yet over and over Jesus describes both as a reality. For those who accept Him, glory for all eternity awaits; for those who reject Him and His offer, a tragic and serious reality awaits.
In our Gospel lesson this week, Jesus describes the anonymous rich man as in agony. Worse, it is a permanent agony. “A great chasm has been fixed.” What’s even worse, though, is that he sees the situation with his own eyes, the rich man’s hardness of heart continues. “Yo, Father Abraham, send that bum Lazarus to care for me, please.” Even in the afterlife, the rich man thinks that Lazarus is beneath him. Seemingly, because of His wealth, he has forgotten the vertical relationship between himself and God (love the Lord your God with everything), and, as a consequence, been unable to hear God’s call upon his horizontal relationships (love your neighbor as yourself). That hardness of heart continues even after death!
And while Jesus’ words often remind us of the reality of both heaven and hell, so does His witness. Our society might like to tell us to mind our own business, that all faiths are equal and that all people are basically good and going to heaven, if it exists at all; yet there remains the wisdom and foolishness of the cross. If our responses in this life have no real consequence, then why the cross? If everyone is basically good and going to heaven, why was He tempted, tormented, and killed? Was He most to be pitied as the victim of a cruel circumstance? Or is He the God Incarnate, Man divine who died and rose again that we might be brought back into right relationship with our Father in heaven for all eternity? Our answer, and the answers of those around us, have incredible consequences: one of eternal joy and the other of devastating torment.
That all being said, of course, Jesus does not spend a ton of time dwelling on hell. Is it a place of actual fire and physical torment (I lean to this given His discussion of fire and even the rich man’s thirst)? Is it a place of exclusion, of knowing that one has rejected the source of love, the hope of eternity, and so a place where one agonizes over bad choices? Does it really matter? In either case, the agony would be unbearable. There are a few statements which acknowledge its existence or reality, but Jesus’ manner of ministry is not to scare us out of hell but to love us into His Kingdom (For God so loved the world. . . ). And, as His disciples, we are charged with the same mission: love and serve others so that they will want our joy, our peace, our hope, and His promise. For us, hell ought to be, perhaps a motivator, but not our focus. If the Gospel writers were inspired to remember what God would have them remember, and if Jesus meant what He said and was not trying to trick us, and if the cross was really required to atone for our sins, the existence of hell probably ought to startle us at those moments of sloth or procrastination; but it should never be the focus of our faith. Rather, our faith and our focus ought to be on the prize and a desire to share that prize with as many as we can in this world.
How do you respond to His call on or in your life? Do you love your neighbor as yourself and serve them as He first served you, in hopes of drawing them into that wonderful embrace in their Father’s bosom? Or do you step around, step over, avoid at all cost the consequences of the needy in your life. We don’t stand on street corner’s pronouncing that others are condemned to hell (He is that judge). Yes, as we have discussed the past few weeks, the calling might be temporarily costly; but the rewards of faith last eternally with each of us in that loving embrace of our Father. Our job is to remember that He came not to condemn but to save, and to share that Good News wherever we go, and to act as first-born inheritors of His power and resources to the glory of His name!

Monday, September 20, 2010

A matter of perspective . . .

Let me get this straight, you think Jesus expects me to love Him more than anything else in my life, and He expects me to use everything I have for Him? Is He kidding or are you mistaken? – Versions of those questions have abounded the last couple weeks. To remind you of our recent readings in Luke, Jesus has told those who seek social standing by following Him that He has no place to lay His head. He has told those who first want to take care of worldly things that they are not fit for His kingdom or are themselves dying. Finally, last week, He reminded us that the cost of following Him is a death of self and a cross to bear. Certainly, as we joked last week, He needs to find a good PR firm and quick!

But as we also discussed, He is most certainly serious about the costs of discipleship. Jesus understands all too well the life to which He calls us, and He wants us to make an informed decision. Still, it seems a bit too much to our sensibilities. If I give my time, my money, my talents for His service, what happens to me? How can I take care of me? How can He ask such a thing of me? It’s too much. I have bills to pay. I need more sleep. I need me time.
But, as Jesus also understands far better than we, and as one of the lessons in this week’s hard parable, we are reminded by Him that our perspective must needs shift when we become one of His disciples. We are reminded, as we were by our opening Collect, that we should be focused on the eternal rather than temporal. You and I and all His disciples are not “of” this world. Our home is with Him. Our mission is what He gives us. Our promise is His Word.

How else can we face the trials of life with determination, hope, and joy? Our health sometimes fails us; relationships break down, addictions rear their ugly heads, our friends betray us, our coworkers stab us in the back—how can we ever face the trials of life with joy and peace and an absolute certainty that we will win in the end? The answer, of course, lies in the fact that He died for our sins and was raised to new life! And because He was raised and has promised to raise us as well, we can face the problems of this life as citizens of an eternal kingdom. We can face death and disease, sad at their occurrence, but certain that our grave will not be the last spoken of us. We can work to mend relationships with others because He crossed the chasm that existed in the relationship between God and us. And we can use the gifts He has given us, confident that our Father in heaven, the creator of all things, wants nothing but the very best for each one of His sons and daughters, and He will gift us everything we need.

How do we face life and all it throws at us? How we answer that question may be the best sermon a friend or family member or even a stranger ever hears. Because, if we answer that question with the joy and belief of one of His disciples, with the perspective of those focused on His promised Kingdom, others will want to know about our joy and how they might share in it in their own lives.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sometimes, there are simply too many toads to kiss--I sometimes think that the parables this week best encapsulate what our attitude as a church ought to be. More specifically, I often wish it was the attitude expressed by the wider church, rather than the attitude above which we see play out in the world time after time. So often, we encounter in churches , and perhaps we wish our church was, a place where the righteous isolate themselves from the world. It is understandable. The world is a tough place. There, people put us down. There, diseases and worries and unemployment and wars and storms and disasters lurk. In the church, God is present. And maybe, just maybe, for a brief time, we can forget the cares of the world and feel safe again. While the attitude may be understandable, it certainly is not biblical, as Jesus reminds us this week.

As the parables of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin remind us (and most seriously the Cross), we exist for the lost, the abandoned, and the forgotten. Our primary job is to bring the love of God and the hope of His salvation to the very people that the world has forgotten or cast aside. Yet, so often we concern ourselves with secular concerns. Do we need to build a bigger building? How will cover the expenses of ___(fill in the blank)___? How do we increase our income? Or how do we cut our spending without affecting our program?

But as Jesus’ teachings remind us this weekend, we are a commissioned people. We are sent to seek out those Lost Sheep of God’s. You and I are called together each week to share our worries and our joys, to be instructed better in what He demands of us, to be fortified by His sacraments, and to be reminded that the outside of the Church is our mission field. And then He says simply, “Go, find, love.”

What might frustrate us even more is the simple truth that we are often called to seek and love those people who are sometimes not at all interested in being loved or found by God or served by another human being. Certainly, in our many ministries, we have found many people to be ungrateful, not at all thankful, and simply dismissive of our presence. We give sacrificially to help many, only to sometimes have sand kicked in our teeth as they sometimes declare us to be hardhearted when there simply are not enough resources available to meet all the need. And that rejection can begin to wear on a disciple, cause one or more to stay in the safety of the sanctuary, rather than to go.

Yet, God promises that His Word and His service are never wasted. Sometimes, another person may take years before they are even drawn into serious reflection and conversation. Sometimes, it may take a life-changing even in their life to cause them to question their attitude. And you and I are engaged so that we can begin to help the see the answer, His Gospel truth.

And the rewards? Notice in the parable that the location of a lost sheep or a lost coin leads the finder to call his or her community into celebration. God wants us to share in His desire to draw the world to Him and His joy over the decision of a sinner to choose Him over death. We are told that the celebration in heaven over the repentance of just one person is greater than the celebration over 99 righteous persons. Think about that for just a second. As happy as God and the angels and saints are this very second, you and I have the opportunity to magnify that joy through faithful service. You and I can bring joy to His kingdom, and we can even share in it ourselves.

But to experience that joy and to experience that satisfaction, to find those princes and princesses of God that come from disgusting toads, you and I have a lot of work to do. It may not be easy. It may not make sense. But then again, neither was nor did His work to save us easy or make much sense. It may be over a hand of bridge, it might be through a game like Farmville on-line, it might be a divine encounter, or even someone sitting next to you this second. The next toad that gets turned into one of His princes or princesses may even be you.



Friday, September 10, 2010

Kissing toads . . .

Sometimes, there are simply too many toads to kiss--I sometimes think that the parables this week best encapsulate what our attitude as a church ought to be. More specifically, I often wish it was the attitude expressed by the wider church, rather than the defeatist or overwhelmed attitude which we see play out above in the world time after time. So often, we encounter in churches , and perhaps we wish our church was, a place where the righteous isolate themselves from the world. It is understandable. The world is a tough place. There, people put us down. There, diseases and worries and unemployment and wars and storms and disasters lurk. In the church, God is present. And maybe, just maybe, for a brief time, we can forget the cares of the world and feel safe again. While the attitude may be understandable, it certainly is not biblical, as Jesus reminds us this week.

As the parables of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin remind us (and most seriously the Cross), we exist for the lost, the abandoned, and the forgotten. Our primary job is to bring the love of God and the hope of His salvation to the very people that the world has forgotten or cast aside. Yet, so often we concern ourselves with secular concerns. Do we need to build a bigger building? How will cover the expenses of ___(fill in the blank)___? How do we increase our income? Or how do we cut our spending without affecting our program?

But as Jesus’ teachings remind us this weekend, we are a commissioned people. We are sent to seek out those Lost Sheep of God’s. You and I are called together each week to share our worries and our joys, to be instructed better in what He demands of us, to be fortified by His sacraments, and to be reminded that the outside of the Church is our mission field. And then He says simply, “Go, find, love.”

What might frustrate us even more is the simple truth that we are often called to seek and love those people who are sometimes not at all interested in being loved or found by God or served by another human being. Certainly, in our many ministries, we have found many people to be ungrateful, not at all thankful, and simply dismissive of our presence. And that rejection can begin to wear on a disciple, cause one or more to stay rather than to go.

Yet, God promises that His Word and His service are never wasted. Sometimes, another person may take years before they are even drawn into serious reflection and conversation. Sometimes, it may take a life-changing even in their life to cause them to question their attitude. And you and I are engaged so that we can begin to help the see the answer, His Gospel truth.

And the rewards? Notice in the parable that the location of a lost sheep or a lost coin leads the finder to call his or her community into celebration. God wants us to share in His desire to draw the world to Him and His joy over the decision of a sinner to choose Him over death. We are told that the celebration in heaven over the repentance of just one person is greater than the celebration over 99 righteous persons.

But to experience that joy and to experience that satisfaction, to find those princes and princesses of God that come from disgusting toads, you and I have a lot of work to do. It may not be easy. It may not make sense. But then again, neither was nor did His work to save us easy or make much sense to mortals.



Tuesday, September 7, 2010

He can't really mean everything, can He?

Our readings from the Gospel of Luke for the past few weeks have provoked some fantastic discussions. Each week, whether in Bible studies or office visits, there have been any number of questions posed about what Jesus has been teaching His disciples and us. Most of the questions center around “Do you think He was serious when He said this?”

To take us back over our readings leading up to this week, Jesus has been asked to wait for a variety of reasons by prospective disciples or He has simply been denied. “Teacher, let me follow you,” are the essentials of the first man. To him, Jesus responds that He has no place to lay His head. “Do you want such a life?” The second man wants to follow Jesus, but he needs to bury his father. Jesus, seemingly heartless, says “Let the dead bury the dead.” As we talked, it is not that burying the dead is bad—indeed, Scripture commands us to bury our dead. It is simply a question of priorities. God has walked among them. Their first allegiance should be to love the Lord with everything and above all else. The third man asks to say goodbye to his family. And Jesus tells us that anyone who looks back is not fit for the Kingdom or its work. Again, what is so bad about saying goodbye? Nothing. But compared to the opportunity to follow God, nothing else should matter. This week, Jesus teaches the crowd that if we do not hate members of our own family and do not give up everything we own, we cannot follow Him. No doubt many of us found this teaching as hard as those who walked with and followed Jesus. Some could not get past the command to hate; others could not imagine giving up everything. And do we really need to carry an instrument of death and suffering around? Certainly, Jesus needs to meet with some public relations firms to get a better message out because nobody is gonna buy what He is selling: you might be homeless, leave your dead behind, do not take time even to say goodbye, hate your family, carry an instrument of death and suffering, and come, follow Me. What in the world was He thinking?

Far better than we ever seem to grasp, Jesus understood that a decision to follow Him involved a tremendous shift in one’s world focus and it involves a tremendous cost. At least He gives us fair warning. Before we meet Him, each one of us is the focus of us. What is good for me? What can I do for me? What I need is . . . What I want is . . .. After we encounter Him, however, His Will, His heart, His mercy becomes the focus of our lives. What is He calling me to do? Whom is He asking me to service? How can I bring honor and glory to Him?--Questions such as these ought to become our focus. And when questions such as these are not at the front of our lives, we are more like all those who rejected Jesus than those who chose to follow Him. Think I am exaggerating?

Consider the Apostles. They left behind the family business (dropped their nets) to follow them. We know Peter had a mother-in-law, but he sure spent more time away from family than with. How many times do they grumble that they have given away everything to follow Him only to have that sacrifice acknowledged and to have Him reaffirm His promises about their rewards? And when given the opportunity to leave, they respond “Where else can we go? You have the words of life.”

The truth is we like to remake Jesus in our image and fashion Him after ourselves. We like to think that He a buddy or hippie or some other such approachable figure with whom we would not mind hanging out. He’s probably a fan of our favorite sports teams, He would likely be proud of the company for whom we work, He probably drinks our favorite cocktail, He probably laughs at our jokes, and He would pat us on the back for going out of our way to be nice to other people. He probably even understands when we sleep in or play golf or just lay around instead of coming to be fed by Him and to worship Him. We do this to avoid the uncomfortable truths with which He confronts us. We need a Savior. We cannot “fix it” ourselves. All our lives are indebted to Him. And He loves us far more than we could ever love ourselves or one another. Add to that His holiness, righteousness, mercy and other characteristics which He reveals to us, and we have a problem.

His solution to our problem is unheard of! Quite frankly, as Paul reminds us, it was simply unimaginable that He would die for us to restore us to Him. Follow Me, and I will lead you in safety to My Father’s kingdom. You cannot serve two masters. You cannot live in two worlds. We are, in poker terms, either folding or all in. Either way, there is a cost. Reject Him, and you come up to short to pay it. Accept Him, and your life is changed forever, but it is also redeemed.

Does He mean what He says? Of course. There is a terrible price to pay when following Him. How many of our Apostles were martyred for their faith? How many in the early Church? How many today are persecuted for their faith, passed over for promotions, not invited to certain gatherings, excluded from specific cliques or clubs, and generally teased for being a “Jesus freak” or “religious nut?” And though we may be tempted to blend in, to mute our voices, or even to remake His teaching by saying “this is what He really meant" in order to make His words more palatable, you and I are called to proclaim to the world a God centered life, a life which glorifies and honors Him for the work and person of His Son, a life which calls us to dies to ourselves and to live solely and entirely in Him and through His grace. Is it easy? No, but then He told us it would be very costly, and He took the greatest cost upon Himself.



Monday, August 16, 2010

Tempis fugit – As with many Latin phrases which have worked there way into our language as idioms, classicists cringe when we use them in English. “Time flees” has become “Time flies,” and much of the nuance of the idiom is lost. There is no sense of us, as human beings, chasing after, trying to capture, time. Time simply progresses at its fast rate, not flittering before us just out of our reach. It might seem like picking nits, but certainly the distinction was not lost on Jesus as He spoke about time and decisions in our Gospel lesson this week.

Time figures prominently in the larger section which begins with our reading this week and continues all the way to 14:24. Jesus will point out to His audience, and us, that the time is at hand that God is making divisions among the people, between believers and non believers. Jesus will also remind His audience that His ministry is important and signifies that God’s plan of salvation is nearing a time of fulfillment. Finally, Jesus will remind His audience that Israel, as a society, is nearing the time of judgment against it. In other words, it is time for a decision, a decision which will have lasting consequences both for those who decided to follow Him and for those who reject Him.

Naturally, our section this week is more concerned with the time of individual decision. Jesus knows that His very presence, His ministry, and His work point to a coming division. Families will be divided against each other because of Him. For those who like to think of Jesus as an itinerant hippie who liked a good party, such an observation might be confusing or out of place. Similarly, for those among us who buy into the idea of religious pluralism (the idea that all religions lead to God or that everybody's faith is as truthful as everyone else's, Jesus' statement might seem somewhat out of place. Why force anyone to decide? Why not let everyone get along?

But part of Jesus’ ministry is to force people to make a decision either for or against God. Israel has, to put it mildly, floundered in its calling to be a nation of priests to Yahweh. Whenever the opportunity presented itself for them to go astray, Israel seems to have been uncanny in its ability to forget the teachings of God. Modern human beings have fared little better. We have tried hard to ignore the accountability we have to God for our sin. We have tried even to lessen the importance of sin in our lives by declaring ourselves “basically good.” Yet "basically good" would never have required Him to die on the cross. "Basically good" would never have left us seemingly without hope. And so, as with countless generations, we have overlooked the grace of God in our lives, in the lives of others, and in the world.

But the cross, from Jesus’ perspective this week, is right around the corner. Soon, He will die, and people must make a decision. You and I, living on this side of the empty tomb, know the horror and love of the cross and power and joy of the Resurrection. Do we accept His offer of salvation and live a life of servant ministry? Or do we ignore His offer and, instead, embrace death? That decision is ever before us and all those whom we encounter in our daily life and work. Sometimes we might like to think we have all the time in the world to make that decision. We might be procrastinators, we might hate to make decisions, we might be like St. Augustine (Lord, save me, just not today, please); we just might not like the choice we have to make. There are consequences to our decision. If we reject Him, we can live as we see fit. But if we embrace Him, we accept a life of servant ministry. Decisions, decisions. . .

The truth is, with so many consequences, it is no small wonder that we think we have forever to make our decision. No doubt many of us hope to be able to have time to make the correct decisions on our deathbeds, but such an opportunity is never guaranteed. Far too often, lives are snuffed out far too quickly and far before their time. We persist in our unwillingness to decide, and we delight in that seeming refusal to decide. We hope we still have time. Yet, like Israel which could forecast the weather, we can forecast the end times. We live in an age of wars and rumors of wars, of droughts and hunger, of disease and pestilence, and of earthquakes and floods all around us. Like Israel, we can see clouds or feel the wind and accurately forecast the weather. Why then do we continue to ignore the signs He gave us regard His return? Is it the nearly 2000 years since He walked the earth, died, was raised, and ascended to heaven? Is it the divisions that are caused by choosing to follow Him? Why do we continue to act graciously without urgency? Why do we continue to act and witness that there is no hurry, that we all have lots of time? Why do we fail to act like the gardener in the parable, who tends his tree urgently, certain that it will be cut down if the tree bears no fruit when next the master returns? Yes, God is patient; all of Scripture reminds us of that. But interspersed among many of those stories is an urgency conveyed to His people, and urgency which impels them and us to share His story, share His love, with as many people as possible, knowing that His patience and our time to reach them is running out.