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!