Friday, November 30, 2012
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Apocalyptic literature often serves as a great challenge for 21st Century Americans to read and inwardly digest. Part of the problem is that we like for everything to be explained. Apocalyptic literature simply does not lend itself to the simple explanation that we so value. The omens and portents and prophesies are hard to understand until they are seen in light of history, and some of those same omens, portents, and prophecies can be fulfilled multiple times or in more than one sense. We want to treat the literature like it is tomorrow’s headlines, when, in fact, it is often the headlines for events that have happened or are happening in our midst. But, it is part of the way in which God reveals to His people what is happening, so we cannot ignore it simply because it is hard for us to read. Instead, we should seek to understand it on His terms, that we might better witness to the world around us the truth of its claims. Better still, while the world likes to focus on the gloom and doom of apocalypses, God reminds His people that the battles discussed are causes of joy and celebration because He wins! Daniel 7, for that reason, is a valuable reminder for us about what to expect and the joy we should have in the face of those events.
Typical of our lectionary editors, we ignore an important part of the book. Though, in their defense, there is a limit to what can be accomplished in church. The first 6 chapters of the book remind us that God is in absolute control of events in the world. Those things which are meant for evil for His people are always being redeemed by His sovereign purpose. The wise men of Babylon like to threaten and plot against His people; sometimes the king rages against God and His people. Sometimes, natural disasters seem even to be conspiring against God. But, in the end, nothing is too difficult for God to overcome. He will not be thwarted.
Chapter 7 is important in the divine narrative, however, as we move from human evil to institutional evil and the spiritual forces which rebel against God. We ignore the first 8 verses of the chapter, but Daniel sees a vision with beasts. He describes these beasts as being “like” well known animals, but different. Do they represent the empires of the day (Babylon, Persia, Greek and Rome)? Do they represent specific kings in those empires? Do they symbolize evil in the structure as opposed to the individuals? Do they refer to all those understandings?
In any event, the scene shifts from a description of those beasts and their terrible infliction upon humanity to a courtroom setting that we read today. While the world seems to be railing and thrashing against God, things in the spiritual realm are moving to their own conclusion. “The Ancient of Days” is enthroned. The image presented about Him is one of righteousness and holiness and of one who sits on a throne of judgment. Presented before Him is one like the son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. And all things are placed in subjection to this one like the son of man. His dominion is described as everlasting; and the reign of His kingdom is eternal. Set against the hopelessness and thrashing of the world, it is a remarkably calm and powerful image. The one like the son of man who approaches is God Himself, as He rides the clouds reserved only for God. Sometimes we struggle to see Jesus in the Old Testament, but I think even the blind can the Son and the Father in the image described by Daniel. We are left, however, trying to figure out the significance of the vision in our day, and the hope and joy which it should impart in our understanding of the cosmic warfare which surrounds us.
Last week, we looked a bit at human sin as individuals. This week, the focus is on the fact that human evil is institutionalized in the apparatuses of the state. The animals fight among themselves. They are always provoked to violence. They sometimes chip away at one another. And often, in the middle of their fights, they choose to target God’s people. The imagery is frightening, but so is real life. Who really thinks “the system” wants to help them? Who around here really thinks that our various institutions and systems have our best interest at heart? Does anybody really think that the stock market hopes to help you retire securely? Does anybody here really believe that the healthcare system is in the business of improving your health? Is our educational system really about teaching, or is it about indoctrinating, convincing us that this is as good as it gets? Does anyone here buy into the myth that the slaver really cares for his or her slaves? Of course, against all that evil and self interest stands His beautiful bride, right? We all know that all churches are concerned with doing the ministry God has given them and that we never chew people up and spit them out in the business of the church, right? I could go on and on. Heck, you can go on and on how the system care little for your predicament. That understanding is not new. But rather than serving as a hopeless reminder, Daniel’s images serve to encourage us!
First, there is a limit set for the thrashing and gnashing. Yes, God’s people are allowed to be attacked, for a time. But at some point in the future, God has decreed that the attacks will end. At some point, He will step in and execute the authority given Him. We might wish that greater attention was paid to the details of that limit and His ability to execute judgment in the end, but none of us can argue that there is any ambiguity regarding the end. At some point in the future, He will act. His sanctuary will be reconsecrated. And rebellion will cease. Period.
It really is that simple, and He really is that powerful. How do we know? The cross and Resurrection. Though the world, and the spiritual authorities behind it, could rebel and act to kill the very One by whom it has its being, still it could not be freed of His authority and dominion. By the simple but amazing power of the Resurrection, you and I and the rest of the world were taught that rebellion against God is, ultimately, its own vanity. To be sure, it will appear to us and others that the world is winning in its rebellion from time to time. But we are exhorted to be of good cheer for He has conquered it already. And when next He returns to claim His inheritance, His people will be restored and enthroned for all eternity.
Do we ignore those battles? No. Are we to be surprised that they are being fought? No. But it is our job to witness to a world caught in the talons and teeth of institutions that their Father in heaven loves them and that He alone cares for them and has power to do what is best for them. The rest, well, as Daniel says, they will be swept aside like the horn that boasted. So, for now, do not be surprised if you find yourself in the midst of a terrible struggle. Do not be surprised even if you come to realize that the battle you are in is of a cosmic nature. Instead, give thanks that the One who called you and redeems you, is the One with the power to slay all His enemies and lift up all His servants, even those placed among the lions or in fiery furnaces.
Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Why am I suffering? -- It is a question which often lays behind a number of our pastoral conversations together. Sometimes, the question is meant to be big picture. People in our congregation and in orbit of our community have been taught, wrongly of course, that when one “decides” for Jesus, all of one’s problems go away. Sometimes that question makes a lot of sense, and there is an element of fear in its asking, when some ask me that particular question. But sometimes that question is far more specific. Over the years, I think we have done a fair job of reminding ourselves that our Father in heaven loves us, that He wants what’s best for us, and that He will in the end redeem us from all of our suffering. Sometimes we note how the suffering in our lives is consequential to our actions. At other times, we note how our suffering is the result of the actions of others. So, there is a natural propensity, I think, when we find ourselves suffering to find out whether the suffering is our own fault or the fault of others. Naturally, if we are conscientious disciples and trying to live the life to which He calls us, there is a desire to amend our behavior. If the sin is beyond our control, then we realize we are called simply to suffer unjustly, shadowing our Lord, trusting that He will redeem the suffering. But in the midst of the suffering, whatever it’s cause, there is always that wonder at whether He knows or if He cares. I think today’s readings remind us of the love our Father has for us, no matter how insignificant we think we are.
Looking at the readings, you might be a bit surprised. The widow’s mite and the widow at Zarephath are usually stewardship readings. No doubt today a number of sermons are being given around the Church speaking about the need to live like the widows. We should trust God with all that we have. But notice the story. While these widows serve as wonderful examples of those who trust God and live by faith, there are other examples of people who should serve as a warning to us and to others. Jesus begins His teaching in the Gospel today decrying the attitude and behavior of the Teachers of the Law. They serve as a counterpoint to the teacher last week who asked Jesus which command was the greatest. Jesus goes from praising him - you are not far from the kingdom of God - to condemning the greater number of teachers for their disregard for those beneath them. Widows, as we have talked about many times, had very poor prospects in the ANE. If families would not take widows in, the widows were usually forced to choose between begging and prostitution as a means of support. True, some would get lucky and be able to set up a business of sorts to support themselves, but a lack of protection usually meant they would end up victims far too frequently. This lack of prospects is one of the reasons that God always reminds us that He loves the widow and orphan.
Of course, Jesus’ judgment is also a kind of fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah. Near the beginning of his book, Isaiah prophesied that all those who robbed widows would, in turn, be utterly destroyed by God. Here’s Jesus, the God incarnate Man divine proclaiming that these teachers of the law are devourers of widows’ houses. It should be a frightening declaration to those who hear Jesus’ instruction and judgment. They, of all people, should know the danger of ignoring Isaiah 10; yet they choose to serve recognition rather than Yahweh.
What I wanted to focus a bit on today, however, was the psychology behind the question that many of us have as we are in the midst of our suffering and how God addresses that psychology in our readings today. Few of us, when we are suffering, are excited or overjoyed at the prospect. We might read Paul’s instruction that we should count righteous suffering as a blessing, but it is awfully hard to do while we are suffering. Few of us sit around saying “Boy, I am so glad my job is on pins and needles at work. I relish the thought of unemployment so that I can see the provision of God in my life.” Fewer of us think we are blessed when we suffer from terrible diseases or horrible injuries because we know God will be at work in the healing process. I could go on and on, but hopefully you get the point. Our mindset during suffering for most of us is a big “why me?”
One of the reasons, of course, is that people in the Church try to please God. We may hear and talk about grace and grace alone, but who here doesn’t secretly hope that we do some good works to help balance our equation a little better? Who here is not seduced by the potential for “transactional salvation?” There is often a subtle temptation that we can earn God’s grace by doing the right thing. So when circumstances seem to be against us, we naturally wonder “what did I do wrong?” This week alone I have had a half dozen conversations with people who think there suffering is a direct result of some evil in their past and that God is still getting evil. It sounds noble at first, “you know, Father, when I was in my 20’s I . . . . and God is still making me pay for that.” If that many people are saying it to me, I always wonder how many are thinking it. Hear me now. He has paid the price for your sin in full! Whatever your deep, dark, secret sin may be, He died for it 2000 years ago! Unless there is a fairly direct connection between your sin and the consequence, direct enough that you and those whom you trust in your life in spiritual matters can point out to you that your Father in heaven is teaching you a lesson, you probably are not suffering because of that sin. And guess what, even if the cause and effect are able to be seen by the blind, your suffering as a result of your sin in way serves to redeem you. Your salvation was earned on the cross by Christ Himself. And He went to that cross 2000 years ago knowing that you would commit all your sins, and by force of will He chose to hang there until He died so that your sins would be buried with Him. That’s it. Our suffering never redeems us. Our suffering might testify to others our faith in God. Our suffering might instruct us. Our redemption from suffering should glorify Him. But our suffering in no way redeems us.
Confronted with that truth, though, there is a temptation to belittle ourselves. I think it is beyond a Midwestern attitude, people sometimes begin to wonder whether they are really noticed by God since they cannot work to earn His grace. Our readings this week speak against that temptation to believe in our own insignificance. Look at Elijah in 1 Kings. Elijah has just pronounced a drought on Israel because of the sins of Ahab and Jezebel. The king and queen are so evil that God refuses to send the rains for three years! Do they listen to the prophet as they should have been instructed? No. They continue on their path. In fact, they will conspire to kill God’s prophet in an effort to silence him and to silence the voice of God in their kingdom. And yet, while God is dealing with an insubordination of incredible proportion, and while He is busy arranging the weather patterns so as to remove rain from Israel’s future, God knows the plight of the widow at Zarephath and works to save her. A widow outside the covenant gets a visit from God’s prophet. She has a choice in front of her. Do as Elijah asks or do what common sense says? She chooses well, and she and her son are saved despite their prospects in a three year drought. In fact, her son is saved despite a close encounter with death itself. Such is God’s care for the individual in His kingdom.
Check out our reading from Mark this morning. The widow’s mite comes right after that judgement of the teachers of the law. Jesus condemns them for beating down the oppressed. And yet, while He is condemning them for their attitude, He simultaneously lifts her up as an example of faithful obedience. No one else sees what she is doing. No one else hears the tink of her two coins that are worth a penny. Yet God Himself sees and God knows her heart. He does not forget her even as He is condemning those who try to help crush her and others like her. He even goes so far as to single her out, and we who follow Him have heard her story for two thousand years.
The truth of the matter, brothers and sisters, is that Christ has dealt with all our sins, the root cause of all our suffering, already. Just as the author of Hebrews points out, that work is already finished. The suffering that we experience as those who believe in Him and claim Him as Lord in no way indicates a diminished significance of our own value in His eyes. Each of you, each and every one of you, as well as each priest or pastor who stands in front of you as a servant of Him, was of such a value to Him that He went willingly to that cross. Nothing, no suffering, no scheming, no plotting on the part of His enemy can alter that. Brothers and sisters, He loved you enough to die for you that He could redeem you. Yes, He is the God who created the heavens and the earth and all that is therein, but He is also the God who loves the widow and the orphan and the miserable sinner who repents. Your condition, your suffering, no matter how bad it ever gets, does not testify to you anything about His love for you. It may well testify to His power to redeem you, and it may serve to cause you to turn aside from a particularly bad path, but it in no way shape or form testifies to His love of you. His willingness to set aside His glory for a time and walk the path that led to that cross is His testimony of His love for you.
In a bit of irony this day, it is perhaps fitting that we concentrate on His love for and and care for widows. In the end, God condemns those leaders, those teachers of the law, who burden the widows and ignore them because, in the end, they feel that the widows can in no way offer them anything significant. In the end, that is our standing before Him. There is nothing, no single thing that we can offer God except our love of Him, our thankfulness and praise to Him, and our desire to live as one reborn by His Spirit. And no matter highborn or low, no matter how significant the world sees us or how often it passes us by as worthless, He knows us! He knows us. He loved us. He died for us because we could never earn any grace with Him. And in the end, when He returns to redeem us, whether it is from our circumstances or even our deaths, we can trust that because He died for us, He will cause us to live for Him. Such is the hope and promise of the Gospel. Such is His love and promise to you, no matter your circumstances, no matter your suffering.
Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Good morning, Saints! I know, it is an uncomfortable address for many of you. Who really wants to think of themselves as a saint, let alone be addressed as one? I sure don’t. But I did have a specific message for you from the Bishop of KS / VP of the House of Bishops in our church -- he was the keynote speaker at convention last week. Like Paul, he has heard of your faithful ministry and service and gives thanks for your ministry among and with the victims of modern slavery. Personally, he asked me to convey to each of you in the parish that the thoughts and prayers of his diocese are always with you. Too many congregations get caught up in the minutiae of daily living. To you it has been entrusted by God the meaningful ministry of wakening the slumberer and rousing all of God’s people to once again proclaim the message of freedom to the world! Cherish your calling and know that all of God’s people give thanks for your courage and determination and the joy with which you try to accomplish those things given into your charge by God. I know, it is hard to believe let alone accept that there are those out there who view us as a part of that great cloud of witnesses about which we prayed this morning in celebration of All Saints’ Sunday. And yes, I know they don’t know us well. Sometimes, distance is a great cleanser. Because they are far away, they see the big picture. They don’t get to see the “accidental” successes or glorious failures the way that we do, day in and day out. It is in that spirit that I went ahead and used the the proper readings rather than Thursday’s readings for this feast. You might be wondering what glorious failures and accidental successes have to do with these readings, but I can assure you that they do.
Our Old Testament reading today focuses on the beginning of the story of Ruth. For generations in the church, the story of Ruth has served as an inspiration. While men have done a fair job in history of convincing women that men are the superior sex, stories like Ruth (and Sarah, and Hannah, and Mary, and Mary, and pick your favorite heroine) remind us all that women, too, play an important, recorded role in salvation history. And though women may feel a unique burden, in that they are blazing trails that men often take for granted, the story of Ruth (and Naomi and Elimelech) reminds us that God is able to overcome our poor choices and still work His will in our lives.
Why do I start like this on a celebratory day, a day in which we celebrate the life and witness of those who helped to blaze a trail for us to the God whom we adore and worship this morning? Because over the course of the last two weeks, I have had a number of uncomfortable conversations with many of you and several who are in orbit of our parish. There seems to by a whispered myth that you and I are called to be perfect in our faith. And when we faith in our efforts, as we all invariably do, we are somehow diminished in God’s eyes and maybe even no longer worthy of salvation. Those more active in the church will point to heroes and heroines that stand larger than life in the eyes of their faith. We come to believe somehow that Paul or Sarah or Isaac or Jacob or Elizabeth or those more personal in our lives like grandparents never struggled in their faith, never failed to follow God in all things. I have news for you, all the saints have glorious failures in their history. All of them. Even those whom you knew personally and for whom you give a special thanks to God for this day. No exceptions. So, from a pastoral perspective, our readings today come at a great time. Here are a couple heroines in salvation history. Let’s see if they meet your standard of excellence . . .
Right off the bat, we are told that we have a couple not unlike Sarah and Abraham. What do I mean by that? Both Naomi and Elimelech have made a bad decision. We are told that when the judges ruled and there was a famine in the land, this Jewish couple heads to Moab. Although the sentences are pretty short, they convey a great deal of meaning. Israel has fallen away from the the instructions of Yahweh. Remember the promises: He promised cause the rain to fall and crops to grow if Israel obeyed; He also promised to given droughts when Israel fell away. And, lest you think there is no theological implication in this starvation, peek ahead to what motivates Naomi to head back to Israel and how she views what has happened in her life to cause her such bitterness. It is hard to convey what this move means. Imagine high Anglo-Catholics among us suddenly choosing to move to Russia during the Cold War knowing their would be no church and no sacraments. Moab was a bitter enemy of Israel. It had plotted at various times to overthrow Israel and had earned Israel’s enmity. They were on par with the Amorites and the Samaritans, though truthfully the Samaritans were like the black sheep of the family. And the outward sign of that inward and spiritual grace of a relationship with Yahweh was possession of the Land promised to Abraham. Now they both walk away to hated enemies to provide for themselves? Bad decision.
To make matters worse, when the time comes Naomi chooses Moabite women for their sons. We all remember the prohibition against Israel marrying outside the Jewish nation because the pagans will mislead God’s people. So, very quickly, we learn that Naomi and Elimelech have made some terrible decisions. They abandoned the Land (signifying a severing of their relationship to God’s promises), they fled to an enemy of their people, and she chose wives for their sons from among that enemy nation. We might understand the reasons behind the decisions, but we also have to acknowledge that these are not the decisions of saints. After all, they ignore God for a time, right?
Those hearing or reading the story in that context probably were not too surprised to learn that Elimelech dies and then the two sons. They probably were not too surprised to learn that even after a decade or so of marriage, God has not blessed the sons and Moabite wives with children. Seemingly, the boys’ deaths are a judgment of God. And Naomi interprets it as such. Realistically, she sees no good way out of her mess. She is too old to have sons. Even if she somehow could have a son, it would be unfair to ask Orpah and Ruth to wait for the son to grow up, marry them, and father children on them. As widows with no family, their fates are seemingly sealed. They can beg, or they can prostitute themselves. There is very little hope. And Naomi realizes that God’s hand is against her. She doesn’t have to drag her daughters-in-law down with her, though. She tells them to return for their families because their families will be able to care better for them than she will be able to. It is clear from the text that these three women genuinely care for one another. Think to your relationship with your own mother-in-law. Is yours this good? Is your husband or wife’s relationship with your mother this good?
The real tragedy of our reading today is that Orpah chooses to return to her family. If it is the reasonable choice why do I call it the tragedy of the narrative? Remember our laugh at accidental successes a few minutes ago? Look at how Naomi has witnessed her faith to her daughters-in-law. Their genuine love for one another is one example, but look specifically at Ruth’s response. When Naomi urges Ruth to be like Orpah and return to her people and to her gods, Ruth determinedly refuses. Do not press me to leave you . . . Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Naomi, and Elimelech with her, made some poor choices. Yet, she has lived her life well enough to cause her daughter-in-law to step out in faith. Presumably, she has tried to live according to the torah to the best of her abilities. If she possessed scrolls and knows how to read, presumably she has read from the scrolls. Certainly, the stories that she remembers have inspired Ruth -- your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Ruth rejects her people and their pagan gods and chooses to follow this Naomi of faith. She is so determined that she even invokes a curse of God if she does not do what she pledges. This is no flight of fancy. This is an altar call of eschatological proportions. And she chooses rightly.
Hopefully, if I have done my job well today, I have disabused you of the notion that the saints whom you admire are any different than you. Make no mistake, they, like you, were human. That means they sinned. They might not have sinned in the same areas that you or I do; nevertheless, we know that they sinned because they, too, needed a Savior. But my job is not yet finished this All Saints’ Sunday. Like us when we are baptized and when we repent, Naomi returns to the Lord and Ruth turns to Him. Whatever their sins, they focus on God and trust Him, even though they know the world is and the odds are stacked against them. They will follow Him wherever they will lead.
Those of us who know the story of Ruth knows what happens. Both Naomi and Ruth are rewarded for their faithfulness. Naomi finds a hunk of a husband for Ruth. With a little nudging and a little manipulation, Naomi coaxes Boaz to fall for her daughter-in-law. Their future, by human perspective, is secured. Boaz redeems Naomi’s family and sires sons to continue possession of the Land promised to their ancestors. Truly, it is a good ending. But there is more. . .
Though Naomi and Ruth receive far more than they can ever hope to receive, God is not done blessing them. Remember, Naomi chose poorly leaving the land and marrying her sons off to Moabite wives? Remember that Moab was cut off from the covenant? Remember Naomi rightly judging that the hand of the Lord had turned against her? How does this story truly end? In the end, through what can only be an incredible act of grace and mercy, Naomi’s people truly becomes Ruth’s people and Naomi’s God becomes Ruth’s God. While we would have accepted the ending as it is and counted these widows truly fortunate, God had even bigger plans in store for them. As an anticipatory reminder of the Gospel of Christ, this Moabite woman is given an amazing honor in God’s plan of salvation. Ever spend any time in the Gospels reading the genealogy of Jesus? If you have, you might remember the names of Boaz and Ruth. That’s right. A woman of a nation cut off by God is grafted into the holy family in recognition and blessing of her faithfulness. Ruth becomes a great, great, great (and a bunch more greats in there) grandmother of Jesus of Nazareth! A Moabite widow now sits at the feast with our Lord and gets to hear those wonderful words “Grandma, would you pass Me the . . . “ for all eternity. For her faithfulness, she is honored by God and among us in ways that I am certain she never could have imagined when mourning the death of her husband and then fighting her mother-in-law’s attempts to send her back.
Brothers and sisters, that same kind of reward awaits you! Yes, I know many of your weaknesses and temptations. By now, you all probably know all mine. In our view we could not be further away from sainthood because we know our failures intimately. Thankfully, though, God knows our hearts. Mercifully, He sees us in His Son, Christ our Lord. Those failures, those sins, those poor decisions that we have made have already been redeemed by Christ’s work on the Cross! And because He has paid that debt for us, our Father in heaven sees us as we long to be and has granted us each a place to sit at that same banquet. And one day, for all who believe in Him, it is given to hear those words as well “Brother / Sister, would you pass the . . . “ for all eternity. You and I have been called to remember that this, all this around us is not our home, and that we are called into that magnificent community of witnesses we call saints, ever mindful of what He has done for us and of what He would have us do for others. Like it or not, brothers and sisters, if you have turned to Him, He is about the business of making you a saint. And one day, regardless of your sins and shortcomings, somebody somewhere will give thanks for you this day just as you give thanks for others in your life. If He can redeem a Moabite widow and a Jewish widow who made bad choices, He can redeem your life as well and cause you to be one of those signposts on someone else’s faith journey.