Tuesday, December 31, 2013

It's time to get back to His work . . .

     Those still basking in the soft lift and warm embrace of the Holy Night might well be shocked that a mere five days later we are reading this passage from Matthew.  If it is not your habit to read the daily office or celebrate the various feast days in your personal devotions, today’s story might seem out of place.  It should not.  The day after Christmas we celebrate the witness of the first Christian martyr, Stephen.  Two days after that, Friday this year, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents.  Their sacrifice is noted in today’s reading from Matthew.  Herod, enraged that the wise men did not return to tell him where the newborn king of the Jews was to be found, orders that all the males under two years of age be killed.  Talk about being in open rebellion against God.  Yes, for those engaged a bit more in the life of the Church, the reading makes sense.  After all, we need to cover nearly three decades by the time Lent rolls around.
     As is so often the case, we need to be reminded that, while here on earth, the mountain top experiences do not last for very long.  Worse, the higher the mountain top, the deeper the valley seems when we descend.  I suppose we could argue that the Easter experience is a bit higher than the Incarnation experience, but neither achieve their own full significance apart from the other.  It seems appropriate then that the accompanying valleys seem all the more deep and dark, does it not?  After all, the wonder of the birth of our Savior must be tempered by the way in which we will be saved from sin and death.  That Baby over whom we coo will grow to be the Son of Man who dies on the Cross for all our sakes.
     I think the readings push us along because of the temptation we might all have to sit in the “stable” and just gaze on the Babe lying in the Manger.  It is a wondrous event.  God became Man.  As the song says, the hopes and fears of all the years were met in Him that night.  But our Lord came for a purpose.  Our Lord came as part of a plan.  He entered a world which rejected HIm.  Though it was created through Him, the world failed to recognize His person and His significance.  In fact, had not the angels announced and sang His birth, it would have been entirely overlooked.  But is not the only aspect of His life often overlooked by those of us who call Him Lord.
     I must confess that my wife was way more faithful than I when we first met and were first married.  She probably still is, but I like to think that she has smoothed out my edges.  One of our early fights about God involved her prayers over tests and papers.  Karen prayed about that stuff.  I would tell her that God had important things to worry about, things like gravitational forces, peace in the Mideast, death, upon which He needed to focus.  I seriously doubted that He cared a whit whether she got an A or an A- or, gasp, a B+ on a test or paper.  How shallow and powerless was the God of my own image in those days?  Some of you are nodding; you have heard this story and my response to those claims now.  God cares deeply about the “small” stuff in our lives.  Better still, He is able to keep galaxies and suns and planets in their courses while He helps us face the big and small things in our lives.  Let’s face it.  If He could not multitask like that, He would not exactly be worthy of our worship, would He?  I mean, if He was just like men on earth--unable to multitask--would any woman follow Him?
     The reading from today in Matthew might seem a bit aimless: Joseph takes the Holy Family to Egypt, comes home again, and moves to Nazareth.  In between, a king kills some babies and toddlers, a long-dead mother cannot stop sobbing, and a new king has ascended a throne.   The details of this passage are not likely to become a movie anytime soon.  Think, however, of the comfort and joy they should offer both to the believer and to the one who does not yet know the Lord.  Our passage begins with a real threat to the Baby Jesus and His parents.  Herod will brook no opposition to his throne.  In fact, Herod was serious enough about doing away with such threats that he killed two of his own sons!  Ever felt like the world was out to get you?  Ever felt like you could not really trust others?  Ever felt like other people might betray you?  You are in good company with our Lord.  Ever wonder where you are going to live?  Ever wonder how you are going to support your family?  Ever wonder if you will ever get to see your family?  You are in good company with our Lord and His mother and father.
     One of the lessons of our Gospel lesson today is the fact that our Lord truly understands the cares and concerns of our life.  He could have remained on His celestial throne and watched us flail impotently at our circumstance, but He chose to come down from heaven and work to redeem us.  He became one of us.  The mystery of the Incarnation is that God would become human and subject Himself to all the trials and tribulations of our humanity.  His story is that He understands our cares and concerns.  He understands our fears, our worries, and our doubts not just because He is an interested observer, but because He came and dwelt among us!  He has lived facing the same threats and worries as we face daily.  Our God is a personal God.  He understands what it means to have to move about.  Like those in the military and other careers, His family moved about.  He understands what it means to pick up and leave one’s family and friends behind and start the process of creating new ones  He knows what it means to be persecuted, truly persecuted, because people drove Him from His home.  Life is hard.  Rachel’s lamentation reminds us of that.  And our Lord’s willingness to subject Himself to such a life reminds us of just how personal He really is, and how much He truly loves us.
     As Christians, we need to remember that, until His return or until He calls us home, the hurting continues.  We know this, but sometimes we forget.  Death still stalks us and our loved ones and those in the world with us.  People still hunger.  People are still suffering from violence.  And yet, in those threads of misery come the woven tapestries of God’s healing.  I found myself this weekend taking leftovers from Jan’s memorial to battered women and children who really do wonder from where their next meal will come.  Here!  In the Quad Cities.  You and I might think of all that food as leftovers, but those ladies and children saw them as anything but.  Coldcuts, casseroles, fruits and veggies -- they were a well-timed feast in their eyes.  That is the Lord we serve!  That is the God who pitched His tent and dwelt among us!  That is the God who is in the process of redeeming all things in His well-beloved Son!  That is the purpose of the Baby whose birth we celebrated this past Tuesday night.  He came that we might become His priests, His glory.  Thankfully and mercifully, He has worked in His Church something beautiful and glorious.  Now get back to work!  The world needs to hear the message of hope He has planted in your heart!  The world needs to know that He came that they might have life, and have it abundantly!


Monday, December 30, 2013

An Entwife, an Oak, and a Bride!

     For those of you visiting for the first time, let me first extend you welcome on behalf of Jan and Jack and the rest of their families, as well as the Vestry and parish family of St. Alban’s.  While we all wish the circumstances were different, we are glad that you are joining us in this hectic season to remember the life of Jan.  It is becoming an all-too-common theme around here that we are laying to rest the founders and giants of this parish.  I cannot remember if Jan was here from the very beginning, but that matters very little.  She was one of the spiritual matriarchs of this parish.
     As a new priest, I came to value her observations and opinions rather quickly.  She did me a tremendous favor in the beginning of my cure.  She also helped calm my fears in the beginning.  At my first Annual Meeting, I must have looked like a deer in the headlights.  Our pledged income and our proposed expenditures on the proposed 2007 budget were nowhere near close to each other.  Guess which number was higher and which number was lower!  Jan marched herself into my office that next day and explained to me how this parish worked.  “Father, one of the ways we discern whether we are doing God’s will is whether the funds show up.  We are simple people, and we need really obvious signs.  If we are doing what God wants, the money will be there.  If not, it won’t be.  It’s really simple.  Now, you can do us all a big favor and pay attention to that.  If you have us doing some new ministry and the money does not come, be sure God is really calling us to do it before you push it.  Otherwise, those mistakes can really hamstring this parish.  Now, get to praying!”
     Jan’s solution to everything, I came to learn, was prayer.  Jan was one of those in this parish who served as an Intercessor.  I do not doubt that many of you here outside her family were the beneficiaries of some of her intercessions with God.  I know that all of you within her family were covered by her in prayer.  Her prayer life humbled me.  She not only prayed almost unceasingly, but she prayed with conviction.  She expected God to answer her.  She would live with His answers, whatever they would be, but she always expected an answer from Him.  And as she learned of various needs, she would often share with the other Intercessors.  But what she most loved to hear about were God’s answers to the prayers.  Whenever there was a healing or a provision or anything like that, Jan would be the first to give thanks.  And whenever there was an answer with which she did not agree, she was always quick to allow God to let His will be done.  She admitted that such was not always her attitude.  Her prayer life had changed her.  She used to be a bit more demanding that our Lord work the way she wanted him to, just like Jack did, but she had learned over the years that God’s plan or solution was usually a bit better than her own.
     I must confess I had some difficulty praying about this sermon to honor her witness to our Lord.  On the one hand, Jan’s life makes anything I might say sound redundant.  I am not going to pretend that Jan did not have her rough edges.  No doubt she fought some with her sister Ann, whom she loved dearly.  John and Joel can probably name some times in their lives when she was not the charitable woman I met later in her journey, but both should know they were deeply loved and that she was incredibly proud of them.  I do know that she and Jack had some good fights.  Jan was human.  She had wonderful gifts and tragic flaws, but she was a woman who knew she had been saved by grace.  The woman that I came to know was fairly quick to apologize and repent for things she had said, was remarkably humble given that this was “her” church, and was eternally hopeful, this despite being a huge Cubs fan.  
     On the other hand, there is a lot of pressure.  Jan often told me that she hoped I would be here to do her funeral.  Every time another patriarch or matriarch passed, Jan made sure to come in and thank me for my sermons or homilies.  “You have a beautiful way of balancing all our emotions.  We are sad, but not without hope.  The are things best left unsaid, and things best said.  There is a seriousness to the situation, but you understand our humor well.  You better do a good job at my funeral.”  I would demur and tell her I hoped her funeral was many years in the distance.  She would laugh and remind me “it’s best to be prepared always.”  Given what Jan did for me, I certainly would hate to disappoint her, not that she gives a whit today about what I am preaching as she basques in the love and glory of our Lord.
     She would understand, were she here, when I admitted to you that I awoke last night  at about 3:30am to the image of Entwives.  As I said a second ago, I really struggled with this sermon.  Psalm 126 was chosen today because that is what the family and Larry were reading as she passed into glory.  During her moments of anxiety the next-to-last time in the hospital ICU, I had reminded her of the truth of this Gospel passage.  For you all, I needed a new way to remind you of her witness.  It is the kind of image that, truthfully, I wish had come earlier.  Jan was one of those with whom I could “I have this weird idea for a sermon illustration,” and she would give me her unfiltered opinion.  “It’s probably best if you stay away from South Park in the future, Brian.”  “I wish you would not use movies sometimes.  I feel like I have to watch them when I see they are on.  A lot of them are not very good.”  “Yeah, that one works.”  By the way, here’s a protip, never use Cubs fans as illustrative of goats in the judgment of the goats and sheep when you are preaching with Jan in the room!
     As I lay in bed last night with this image of Entwives in my head, however, it dawned on me how appropriate the image is in light of our reading from Isaiah 61.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Entwives, they are the female tree-creatures from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Treebeard tells the story of the Ents and Entwives to Merry and Pippin.  The fate of the Ents and Entwives is a tragic tale, though it is very short in the Rings trilogy.  The Ents like things to grow as they will; the Entwives seem to like things more orderly.  We might say that the men liked the forest, and the women liked the gardens.  Over time, as each group pursued their passions, they drifted apart.  The Ents stayed in the forests; the Entwives settled what came to be known as the Brown Lands.  From time to time, the Ents would traverse the river Anduin and visit the Entwives.  Alas, during Sauron’s first attempt to conquer Middle Earth, the gardens and farms of the Brown Lands were destroyed.  When the Ents went back to visit, the Entwives were gone.  Had they moved on and not told the Ents?  Had they been utterly destroyed?  No one could say.  And so the Ents continue to long for their lost Entwives.
     The warning from a Christian perspective is clear.  Neither the Ents nor the Entwives are bad creatures.  They do not serve Sauron and his minions.  In fact, in the great battle between good and evil in the trilogy, the Ents side with the humans, dwarves, elves, and hobbits.  Both the Ents and Entwives, however, remind us that we can be easily distracted by our passions.  The Ents clearly love the Entwives; yet they were unwilling to leave their forests to be with their wives.  One presumes from Treebeard’s story that the Entwives are similar.  Though they love their Ents, they are unwilling to give up some of the orderliness that they crave.  In the end, their differing passions cause them to drift apart.  There is no mutual submission.  There is no self-sacrifice reminiscent of the Gospel.  There is no loving another as one’s self in the relationship between the Ents and the Entwives.  Over time, they drift apart and are finally unable to find one another.  The story of the Ents and the Entwives serves as a cautionary tale about the condition of the world.  Both the Ent and Entwife would claim to love each other, but neither was willing to give up anything to serve the other.  Even love, human love, is tainted by sin and selfishness.  In a social media driven world, it is probably a message we need to hear a bit more often.
     Our prophet Isaiah realizes just how broken we are, how bound we are to sin.  The passage begins with a message about the Messiah.  God’s Anointed will preach peace to those at war, healing to the broken, freedom to the captives, and comfort to those mourning.  You and I and all those who call Him Lord have been given that gift of grace.   But that passage preaches about more than just the mission of the Messiah.  Unlike the Ents and the Entwives who have eyes and cannot see, ears and cannot hear, and hearts and cannot understand, you and I have been empowered by the Spirit of God.  All of us who have been baptized into His death and raised to new life in His Resurrection have become heralds of those good tidings.  To you and to me and to all who call Him Lord has been given the responsibility and the power to do all this listed in the prophet’s passage for the glory of God.  We, too, have been anointed.  We are called to preach freedom to the captives!  We are called to share His healing with the brokenhearted!  We are called remind people of the beauty He offers in lieu of ashes, of the joy He offers in lieu of mourning!  We are even called to stand at the grave of a loved one and sing our song of alleluias, because we know that the lives of those who die in the Lord are not ended.  We may not be able to see beyond that horizon line we call death with these fleshy eyes, but we know with certainty that our Lord has raised Jan to eternal, glorious life with Him!
     We proclaim this Gospel not just with words, but with our lives.  That is what makes this sermon so difficult in my own fleshy eyes.  I had ten minutes with many of you.  Jan had a lifetime.  She should have made a way better sermon in her life to you than me this morning.  Given the turnout this morning, I daresay she did as she was supposed to have done.  Each one of you gathered here this morning, no doubt, has a story or three of Jan’s love and concern for you.  What motivated Jan was not your need, but rather her joy and thanksgiving that the Lord had met her needs and was all too willing to meet your own.  He simply anointed her in this life to reach out to you in His name.  I may wear a stole and collar this morning, but she was a far better minister of God in your life over the years.  Thanks to His grace, she recognized the danger that we all faced when trying to live a life without Him.  All she wanted for each one of us was to feel that joy, to understand that thanksgiving that we have been saved, if only we will accept His embrace.
     I suppose I did you all a disservice this morning speaking of matriarchs and patriarchs.  I probably would have done better to think of them as oaks of righteousness.  As we have gathered as a parish family to say goodbye to those leaders, those formative men and women in the live of this parish, we have rightly lamented their passing.  Like a great tree felled in a storm, there is an emptiness in our life together.  There is a hole.  Shade that used to be offered is gone.  Climbing limbs that were available are no longer there.  Even the swinging tires have nowhere to hang.  We have lost a number of our oaks in our life these last few years, and so we rightly mourn their passing.
     Isaiah 61 was significant to Jan for another reason.  She loved to talk about the Wedding Feast.  Jan would often talk about her marriage and wedding.  Sometimes, she and Jack were more Ent and Entwife.  But at other times, they got it amazingly right!  For 61 years and a few months, they were rounding off each other’s edges (Jan swore she did way more sanding than he!).  Over the last couple years, as her health declined a bit, she began to reflect a bit more on her shared life with him.  Somehow, someway, they had made it through life together.  It both surprised and amazed her.  But it also got her to thinking.  What kind of marriage will we experience when our Lord calls us home?  Jan loved her wedding dress.  Heck, Jan loved most every bride’s wedding dress.  But she would asked longingly, “How beautiful will my dress at the Feast be?  How special will it be to make me forget all this?”  She understood, perhaps on a mystical level not given to all of us, just what it meant that her Lord would bedeck her with jewels and clothe her in righteousness.  Her barky skin would be replaced by the flesh He had intended in the beginning.  Her leafy boughs would be replace by a glorious head of hair as He intended.  She hoped she would be able to dance.  She could not wait to try all of the food.  And she looked forward to that new adventure.  Better still, she could not wait to show off her new garments to all of you who were important to you when you arrived!
     John, Joel, Ann, all her family and friends, this is indeed a bittersweet time.  One of the oaks of righteousness in our lives has been called home.  The forest, for a time, is not what it was.  The scenery has changed.  And yet, it is not without purpose or hope.  Much of what Jan has been proclaiming to each of us is that we need not fear death.  Our Lord has conquered death that we might live for ever.  And so, while we mourn, we celebrate that this dear oak, with all our initials carved in hearts on her skin, with all her branches for shade and climbing, and her arms for wonderful holding and singing, has been raised to new life and bedecked in garment of salvation that glorifies our Lord.  We look forward to that day in hope when we will all be reunited and get to marvel at her garment even as she marvels at ours!
     Now, however, is the time for that which she has helped nurture in you to begin to flourish.  I would be remiss this morning were I not to remind you of the purpose our Lord has for you, the purpose that she recognized in your life serving Him.  Mighty oaks, with all their branches and all their shade, can sometimes stunt the growth of those saplings below.  She would never have wished that, but it is, I think true.  Now comes the time for some of you, who thought of yourselves as saplings in her life, to embrace those ministries to which our Lord has called you, and to begin to spread your branches and your leaves and your roots to soak up the Sun of Righteousness and to drink deeply of His life-giving waters, and become that Oak of Righteousness in the lives of those around you.  Now comes the time when you begin to pick up her songs of thanksgiving to God, to take up her mantle of prayer to our Lord, and to proclaim liberty made possible through the Cross and Resurrection to all those captive and enslaved in your life, that His garden and his forest might continue to spring forth before all the nations of the world!



Sunday, December 29, 2013

Surprise! He chose you!

     The story of the Nativity is one of those readings so well known, it makes preaching on it difficult.  Kathleen and I were laughing today about something one of our commentators said.  “Augustus would be thrilled to know that we still read about him 2000 years later.  He just would not be too happy about being a footnote character in the story.”  The statement got me thinking, though, just how strange our story tonight is.  The events recorded by Luke took place at an interesting time in human history. Rome had just completed a period of civil war.  Julius had been killed by his friends, and a number of men sought to ascend his throne.  As with almost all attempts to seize power in those days, their efforts led to armies and battlefields.  For twenty years, Rome was plunged into civil war, until an adopted son of Julius, finally won.  That man’s name was Octavian.  
     Octavian was unique in Roman history.  An entire generation of Romans had grown up at war.  There was a temple to Janus that was opened only in time of wars.  A generation of young adults in Rome had never known the doors of the temple to be closed!  His final victory so encouraged Rome that the Senate declared him Lord and Savior of the world.  Better still, because He was obviously so favored by the gods, he was renamed Augustus, which meant great.  More surprisingly, the Senate dissolved itself and declared him emperor.  The amazingly good news, a euongalion, was sent out to all the Empire.  Why not?  The lord and savior was finally on his throne.  Peace ruled again.
     Meanwhile, in a backwater province of the empire, one of those places no one really wanted to rule on behalf of the emperor -- kind of like Wisconsin in the movie Dogma -- God was intervening in history again.  As is so often the case, though, God works in incredibly unexpected ways.  Unlike the birth of Octavian in the cosmopolitan city of Rome, our Lord Jesus takes place amongst the animals of a Jewish family.  We call it a barn, but our archaeology suggests that it was more a basement under the house where the animals were kept.  The young mother, Mary, and Joseph, the righteous father, are the only two human beings present at this birth.  It is hardly the setting one would expect for such a monumental birth.
     While the political centers of the empire were receiving the good news, the euongalion, that Augustus had ascended the throne in Rome, who gets to hear the euongalion of God, that His Son has been born?  Shepherds.  No doubt the high priest and other priests thought they might get the special message from God that His Messiah had come.  Perhaps even some of the Jewish aristocracy expected to be on the inside of such a special event.  But shepherds?  Shepherds were not well liked in Israel.  To be sure, the people wanted the meat and milk and wool of their flocks, but people were distrustful of the shepherds.  They worked all night.  They were trespassers much like gypsies.  You did not want to leave a wheelbarrow out if a shepherd was passing through your land at night.  Some had a reputation of removing those objects left out.  Shepherds were, let us say disqualified from serving on juries.  Like gypsies, they could not be trusted.  Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the shepherds were considered ceremoniously unclean.  They spent all their time among their herds.  Guess what they were stepping in all the time!  That’s right, they had chosen a career which made it impossible for them to go to worship.  How could such people be trusted?
     But what group gets the message that the Baby is born?  The shepherds.  What group gets to hear the songs of the angel choirs?  The shepherds.  Can you imagine?  God is wasting great news and other worldly music on shepherds.  Perhaps now you can understand why people who heard this story were truly amazed.  The story itself is incredible, but the Jews would have found it simply unbelievable because of the chosen messengers.  God would never trust His euongalion to a bunch of gypsies who never went to church.  Would He?
     I was reminded today of the surprising ways in which our Lord works.  I had a number of pastoral conversations with those whom we serve that struggle with addiction.  Though I was trying to get through tonight and on to Jan’s funeral, I found myself in a number of heartfelt conversations.  One lady had been struggling with the idea that God hated her.  All but one of her children are dead today.  Like Rachel in our readings later this week, she was nearly unconsolable.  Another conversation centered around marital infidelity and the pain and suffering that came with that.  What had made it worse was that the family of the adulterer had, over the ensuing years, decided that their loved one had probably been forced to step out on her multiple times because of her.  Another shared a story of abandonment.  This individual had been placed in the foster system and bounced around from house to house for much of her life.  Her story was a predictable one of abuse, of a lack of emotional investment on the parts of a few of the foster parents, and of her feeling that she cannot be loved for who she is.
     These stories, and a couple others, got me thinking about you.  No doubt a few of you are worried I am about to spill the beans on your secret sins, secrets doubts, and secret fears.  I would never do that.  I will say thank you for preparing me to deal with the pain and hurt of those whom we serve this week.  Your stories prepared me well for theirs, and, if I was a good pastor to them, it was because of you.  But in those thoughts of thankfulness, I was reminded of the purpose of those unexpected ways of God.
     We do not spend a great deal of time pondering it, but the chasm that existed between us and our Lord was too vast to be crossed by our efforts.  Men and women could keep the torah, but they could not circumsize their hearts.  In the sacramental life of the Jews, that otherness of God was expressed by the veil between the Holy of Holies.  In their worship of the Lord, only one person, one one day a year, could enter that veil.  And that individual had to wear a rope tied around his waist and bells on his cloak to let the subordinates know that he was still alive.  Our shepherds displayed that otherness when they were initially terrified by the angel of the Lord who told them the great news about the Baby.  The same can be said of Mary and of her cousin Elizabeth.  The same is true of everyone who encounters God.  They are terrified of Him.  They recognize His holiness, His righteousness, and His glory.  They rightfully understand that they are not worthy.
     That kind of otherness, brothers and sisters, is not the relationship that God wants of us.  He wants us to see as He sees, to hear as He hears, to understand as He understands, and to love as He loves.  What makes this nativity so surprising is the lengths to which our Lord would go to reach us.  The gods of the Ancient Near East were understood to be just as unapproachable as our Lord.  They were too powerful, too concerned with their own plans to be worried about mere humans.  They would use us from time to time in furtherance of their plans, but no one held any illusions that they cared for the humans who worshipped them.  The best anyone could hope for was to avoid their notice altogether.  But our God gave all that up and condescended to become one of us.  Best of all, He did not come as a king in a palace shielded from life’s trials and travails.  Instead, He came as an infant.  Like each one of us, He depended upon a mother and a father to care for Him.  Like us, He faced the uncertainties of life.  He will know the violence of war, the pain of death, and the hurt of rejection.  His family will even be hounded into Egypt.  They will even think Him nuts later in life.  Have you ever wandered why God chose this way to save the world?
     Brothers and sisters, we gather this holy night to remind ourselves of the surprising lengths to which God will go to reach each one of us.  Because we cannot go to Him, He comes to us, wherever we are.  And because He took our nature upon Himself, we can be assured that He knows us, all our fears, all our hurts, all our doubts, and all our pains.  And despite all those that conspire to cause us to doubt ourselves or even hate ourselves, He still chooses to love each one of us.  It is a love so profound that it will cause Himself to will Himself to stay on that cross three decades hence.  It is for that reason the angels sing.  It is for that reason the star burns.  It is for that reason the wise men traverse a distance of some two years.  It is for that reason that you and I are drawn here tonight!  And, unless you think this story is finished, remember: the most surprising part of this narrative might be well be the fact that He call you and He called me to share His Gospel story with all those we meet.  Our God is so surprising and so unpredictable that He can take us, with all our doubts and all our fears, and turn us each into a herald of His Gospel.


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Humility + Faith = Joy!

     One of the privileges of working for you all is that I get to be the face and voice and eyes and ears of the parish.  By that I mean that you all pay me to represent you to those in our community who are seeking God or answers or meaning.  It was important this week as we considered the stories of Mary and of Joseph.  I say both even though we read only about Joseph this year in the lectionary cycle.  The stories of Mary and Joseph, as one of my mentor’s put it some years ago in seminary, are archetypal responses of what God wants from us, His sons and daughters.  Archetypal is simply a fancy way of saying example.  Both Mary and Joseph exhibit the life of a disciple for all those who come after, including ourselves.
     Think for a second of Mary.  She is confronted by an angel with a strange greeting.  He then tells her that she will conceive of a son by the Spirit of God, in fulfillment of the prophecies.  Some of you here have been teenage girls.  How would you have responded in her shoes?  What are mom and dad going to think?  What is my fiancĂ© going to think?  Man, the neighbors are going to make fun of me.  No one is going to believe me.  How many of us laughed this week at the Yahoo headline that 1 in 200 women claim to have been impregnated even though they did not have sex?  The health care and reproductive services people in the article sure laughed at the claim.  Common sense told her refuse the angel.  The world told her that such was not possible.  Yet how did she respond?  Let it be done to me as He wills.  Maddy sings a song every year at this time called the Magnificat, reminding us of Mary’s response.
     This year, we get Joseph’s side of the story.  Gentlemen, imagine your fiancĂ© comes to you and tells you she’s pregnant with a child of God, even though you have not had sex with her.  Would you believe her?  Or would you be thinking you were glad you found out she was mental before you married her?  Joseph was no different than us.  Well, maybe a little.  We hear today that he was righteous.  He decided to put her away quietly.  It was within his rights to shame her and her family for sleeping with someone else and conceiving a child.  He could have publicly denounced her, but he chose the gentler route, likely in deference to what he thought was her obvious mental illness.  And just when he had decided this, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.  How crazy does this sound in your ears?  How crazy do you think it sounded in his?  Still, the righteous man is persuaded by the angel and agrees to marry the young girl and name the child Jesus.
     We have spent the better part of eight months this year looking specifically at discipleship.  What are the behaviors of mature Christians?  What are the spiritual practices which help us to grow?  Mary and Joseph exhibit the two most important characteristics of a Christian.  Both are incredibly humble, and both demonstrate incredible faith.  Both are simply trying to live their lives as one of God’s faithful people.  By all accounts, the two have no expectation of the honor that is about to be bestowed upon them.  Neither of them thinks they deserve the honor of becoming the parent of the One who will fulfill all of God’s promises.  Mary is a modest, faithful young lady.  Joseph is a righteous man.  Both consent to God’s request.  Notice God does not make them do what He wants.  He sends the angel to ask them to consent to His plan.  As with all His invitations, He does not force them to acquiesce.  Better still, despite the craziness of His plan, both trust that the Lord knows what He is doing.  Their faith causes them to believe that God will accomplish all that He purposes, no matter how crazy it sounds in their own ears or ours!
     You and I, brothers and sisters, are called to exhibit both humility and faith in our lives.  As people living in the shadow of the cross, we understand the vertical axis--our relationship to God and the horizontal axis--our relationship to all others whom we meet.  Those two axes sum up the two commands of the torah that we have been reading this Advent.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.  That babe in Mary’s belly will one day teach all who will listen that all the torah, God’s instruction, is based on those two axes.  We need God to save us, and we are not special or more deserving of His grace when compared to others.  That’s why Mary and Joseph serve as exemplars for us.  In the face of certain ridicule, in the certain knowledge that people would think them crazy, both agreed to serve His plan as He asked.  The exhibited the trust of a child in their Father, just as He calls upon each of us to do.
     We live in a world, brothers and sisters, which longs to know that kind of trust, that kind of faith.  Certainly, there are those who would take advantage of our faith and of our humility and try to use it for themselves.  But much of the world just wants to know they are worthy of love, that they are loved by God, and that He has a plan for them.  It is as simple a need as it is profound.  And the amazing thing is that, just as God used angels to herald the birth of His Son, He uses redeemed sinners like you and like me to proclaim His saving grace, His unfathomable love, and His power to accomplish all that He purposes.  And when we are intentionally living in sincere humility with Him and in faith in Him, joy follows.  How do I know?
     I started off this sermon with a sincere thank you.  I was in the office on Tuesday when “Mike” came in.  Mike is one of those individuals whom the storm cloud of life follows.  I have known him for about four years.  You have helped him for about four years, even though most of you have not met him.  In those four years, Mike has been diagnosed with cancer, coded twice that I know of in the hospital, gone back and forth to IA City for chemo and radiation, first reduced in his hours from 40 hours each week to 31 to make him ineligible for company insurance, been fired--it’s hard to work while going through chemo and radiation, lost a girlfriend to drugs and then a pimp, told his mouth could not be fixed until he was deemed cancer free -- they did not want to do the work if he was going to die, and then dealt with those wonderful problems of money--do I buy medicine or food, do I buy gasoline or food, do I pay utilities or buy gasoline to go to treatments.  I should mention, Mike has always found a job whenever his treatments allowed.  Mike was last in my office about a month ago asking for a gas card.  He had passed his two years of cancer free, and the dental college was going to look at his teeth.  Only problem was that he could not get there without gasoline.  I had, of course, given him a gas card.
     Here we are on Tuesday, the week before Christmas, and Mike is in the office.  Father, I’m sorry, but I just can’t stretch the gasoline for work and for Iowa City.  I get paid Friday, if you can get me to work the next three days.  Brothers and sisters, I had spent nearly every dime in discretionary funds.  On top of all that, we’d had the van in the shop.  There was no blood in these turnips.  it pained me, but I told Mike I had nothing.  Then the most remarkable thing happened as I was apologizing:  Mike smiled.  Mike smiled like I gave him a million dollars.  I had given him nothing, and he smiled like a kid at Christmas.  I wish you all could have seen the before and after.  Vern and Robin have seen him and know his real name.  Mike was self conscious about his smile for all the time I had known him.  Here he was this past Tuesday, being turned down in a time of need, and he was smiling.
     Did you hear me?  I said I had nothing?  “Father, you guys have given me hope on top of everything else.  Every time I came in here and you gave me something I needed, I knew you all were giving out of faith.  When I was down and convinced no one, and especially God, did not love me, your church reminded me that He did.  I don’t mean to sound racist, but I am not your demographic.  I don’t see too many toothless black men coming in these doors.  (we laughed at that one-he had 8 or 10 teeth)  But you gave me gas cards or food or even medicine once.  You had a guy offer to drive me to chemo.  You visited me in the hospital.  You all reminded me that God really does love me and that He really does care for me.  And you, Father, you helped me figure some things out in my life.  How many cups of coffee have we had together?  Hell, Father, if you guys hadn’t prayed for me or given me that last gas card, I might not have been around to get back my smile.  When you say you don’t have it, I know you don’t.  You guys do so much with so little.  It really is a privilege to have received a blessing from you all.  I just wish God would give you guys that $636 million lottery ticket.  It would be fun to see what kind of impact you could make for Him if you had those kinds of resources.  But maybe you all would lose your faith.  Maybe you guys would quit helping people like me if you had that money.  Maybe it is good He does not let you win it.  But it sure isn’t good for us who need help.”
     I have to tell you all, I stood in silence for a few moments.  It seemed to me I rattled through all my encounters with Mike.  I remembered the hurt when his girlfriend turned to drugs to hide her fear and pain at his looming death.  I remembered the dismay on his face and in his voice when he’d learned she had chosen, chosen to go to “work” for a pimp.  I remembered the worry he’d had that he was somehow worse than everyone else and ineligible for God’s grace.  I remembered the betrayal he’d felt when his employer reduced his hours to disqualify him for care and then let him go because he could not do the work.  I remembered the pain from the treatment.  I remembered his utter shock and confusion that God had not taken him the first time he died in the ER.  Mike had been through tons of life’s garbage.  Here he was, facing another pile of it, and he was smiling at me and preaching to me.
     What he was most thankful about us was our efforts to help and our trust that God would somehow use our meager offerings to effect powerful change, transformation, in the lives of others.  If I added up everything I had given Mike over the last five years, it probably would not be more than $600, and it would be that high because our AFM units were worth more than their $25 - 30 price tag.  But Mike recognized our situation.  Mike watched the people coming in and going out of here.  He was not sure about a couple of our “regulars” for weekday sobriety meeting, and he said so.  But he had a chance while drinking coffee, while warming himself in our nave, and while talking with those who were here to get a feel for the people of this parish.  He even met a few of us down at the Salvation Army Site as a customer one Wednesday night.  He by no means met many of you, but he heard lots of stories about a lot of you.  And that witness made an impression on him.  Like Mary and Joseph, many of us here responded in humility and faith at his time of need.  You may not have known it was him, you may not even have given it a second thought other than to toss your money into the Discretionary Funds and to pray that those monies were used to God’s glory.  But to the extent that you gave and you trusted God, you had a big hand in our ministry to Mike.  And look at the result.  Where there was faith and humility, along came joy!  Of all the things that we gave to Mike, he most valued the hope and the reminders that God loved him.  Life will, no doubt, still throw all kinds of garbage on him and in his path, but Mike will face all those with a smile on his face, because he knows he is loved by his Father in heaven thanks to you.  Every time he looks in the mirror, he will know that he is loved by God.
     Brothers and sisters, life is never easy for most of us or for most of those whom we encounter in our daily life and work.  Never.  Looking around the world this week, it seems as if the words of Isaiah have come true and God ought to be frustrated with us.  Politicians pay for pet projects by reducing food assistance for those most in need.  Coup-attempts and slayings are bumped from the headlines and the national conscience by the actions and responses of reality “stars.”  People have already decided to celebrate the “Season of Christmas” by fighting, elbowing, tasering, and even ignoring the death of fellow shoppers.  Mike’s story if far too often repeated.  And even in our parish life, we have been forced to deal with the death of another much beloved matriarch.  Where do they turn for hope?  Where do they turn for joy?
     That, brothers and sisters, is our job.  Just as our Lord sent angels to proclaim the birth of His Son in a tiny town in Judea many years ago, He has given to us the opportunity to proclaim that baby’s significance, to acknowledge that our sin required His death, but that His power made Resurrection possible, and that all can share in that same eternal inheritance.  In short, we are given the opportunity to be heralds of His love and of His redeeming power--we are given the opportunity to be heralds of joy!  You and I are given the opportunity to point people to the One to whom they should turn.  How do you respond to that invitation?  How do you respond to God’s desire to work through you to reach others?  Do you think of excuses?  Do you remind Him that you are not an eloquent speaker, not educated enough, not rich enough, not powerful enough, not old enough?  When faced with those opportunities, brothers and sisters, remember the examples of a likely teenage bride-to-be and her betrothed.  Remember their humility and faith and what God accomplished through them.  You may not think that you can accomplish anything as significant as Mary and Joseph (and you are right in one sense), but try telling that to men and women like Mike.  Try telling them that what you have to offer is anything less than the very thing they most treasure.  Maybe you will get a nice sermon in return; maybe you will get to see the joy in their life at having been lost and found!


Monday, December 16, 2013

He will bring us comfort and joy . . .

     You thought you understood the plan.  You were born a few months before your cousin.  Although salvation history and God will focus His attention on Him, you have been blessed with a sacred role.  You have heard the stories since you can remember from your mother, your father, members of the family, and maybe even your aunt.  For inscrutable reasons known only the Lord, He has chosen you to be a prophet.  It is a significant event in the life of Israel.  Not since Malachi has the Lord chosen to speak through a prophet.  But Elisabeth, your mother, prayed and prayed for a son.  When the angel appeared to announce to her your role, even your father did not believe.  Zechariah, for his disbelief, was punished by the angel.  Until your birth, he was silenced.  He could not defend his wife.  He could not fulfill his priestly duties.  He could not even affirm his wife’s instruction to name you John.  The in-laws and his family were shocked that Elisabeth wanted a name from outside the family.  But, having met the angel and having experienced the curse of silence and the gift of you, your father Zechariah was not about to fail to listen to God’s instructions again.
     Little in your life has caused you to doubt.  Your parents dedicated you to the service of the Lord.  You have eaten wild honey and locusts.  You wear camels hair, a material not known for its softness.  And God has given you this fiery sermon.  You have been given a message of repentance.  And, boy, people have flocked to hear your sermons.  Over and over again you have preached about the need for repentance.  And concluding many of your sermons, people have come forward to be baptized into water for repentance.  Why, even your cousin, the One whom your mother and aunt claim was fathered by God, has come to you to be baptized.  And though you have heard the stories of His ministry for some time now, it was then that your service of Him was confirmed.  You had offered to let Him baptize you, but He insisted that you baptize Him.    And you did.  For your obedience, you were blessed to an amazing sight.  As you lifted Him back up, the heavens opened up, a spirit like a dove descended, and a voice thundered “This is My Son, the Beloved.  In Him I am well pleased.”
     Is it any small wonder that you have had little doubt in your life?  Your family has raised you consecrated to God.  The people of Israel have confirmed your role as a prophet.  And you have been privileged to behold the Lord anointing your cousin as the Beloved, His Chosen One!  Even the king has feared you.  When he decided upon an impermissible marriage, you spoke against it.  You reminded the king and the people of Israel that such a marriage was a sin!  And, though the king was powerful, he could not bring himself to kill you, so afraid was he of the people, the people who know you are a prophet.
     But time has dragged on.  How long have you been in prison for speaking God’s will to the king and to the people?  Six months?  Nine months?  A full year?  If your cousin really is the Messiah, what is taking so long?  Where is the army to cast off the Romans?  If cousin Jesus really is who mom and dad and aunt Mary have said he is, why does He not at least lift His hand to free you?  Maybe He is not the One for whom you were to prepare the way.  Maybe your family misinterpreted God’s instructions.  Perhaps He can settle your doubts and fears.  Maybe your disciples can give you some comfort and restore your faith.
     That is the setting for our Gospel lesson today.  John the Baptist is imprisoned and has sent his disciples to make sure his life’s work has not been in vain.  Doubt has crept into his cell with him.  How does Jesus respond to John’s question?  Is He disappointed?  Does He chide John for a lack of faith?  No, Jesus asks the disciples what they have seen, what they have heard, and what they have learned.  The sick are healed.  The lame walk.  The deaf hear.  The dead are raised to life.  And the poor are given hope.  Jesus points out these questions not to dodge an answer, but to give one.  In our Isaiah reading, we are given a prophesy about events that will surround the coming of God’s Anointed.  Jesus has come to fulfill that prophesy and not to become the warrior king that society expected and desired.  No doubt John expected to be the herald of a mighty figure who would cast off the yoke of Roman oppression.  Yet, here he was, sitting in jail, accomplishing nothing for the glory of God.  Jesus does not answer John with a simple yes or no.  Nor, however, does He condemn John for his doubts.  He simply reminds John’s disciples of the prophesy, of His works, and allows John and his disciples to make up their own minds.
     For those of us sitting here two thousand years later, the reading might seem a bit out of place.  We are supposed to be getting ready for Christmas--you know, the Babe lying in a manger, Silent Night, and all that.  Yet here we are less than two weeks prior to the anniversary of that wondrous event reading how John the Baptist had doubts.  It seems out of place and strange.  Why do we read this passage?
     We are, of course, in the season of Advent.  You and I are called this season to remind ourselves that we live in that time between Jesus’ first appearing and His Second Coming.  At any moment, He could return and catch many of our fellow human beings unprepared.  It is certainly understandable that we need to remind ourselves intentionally that He will return again.  Watching society’s counter-gospel certainly makes one wonder if the Silent Night and Epiphany experience are real.  We are bombarded with messages of purchasing the right present for our loved ones.  Parents must buy the “hot toy,” if they want to make their kids truly happy.  Husbands and boyfriends must find that perfect piece of jewelry for their wives or girlfriends.  Bev Kritter talked about one of the advertisements which highlighted this counter-gospel of society: I shop; therefore, I am.
     Society certainly embraces that idea.  Did you realize that those American families carrying credit card debt on average carry a balance over $15,000.  The number was significantly higher before this economic malaise took hold.  Unfortunately, it is not as if Americans became frugal and started paying down their debt.  Did you know that between December of 2009 and December of 2010, credit card companies wrote off an average of $2700 per family as bad debt?  That is only one year.  How long have we been in this malaise?  At 18-24% interest, think of the money being paid that does not affect the balance owed.  Jesus will teach us elsewhere that we cannot serve God and mammon.  Think He was right?  We are enslaved by our debts.  Is it any small wonder that people today find the Gospel unbelievable?  Is it any surprise that doubt can creep in on those of us with great faith?
     Advent is that intentional season when we try to ignore what society wants us to know and to re-attune ourselves to God.  You and I are conditioned by Madison Avenue types to value ourselves based on our possessions.  We become slaves to the idea of the perfect dinner, the perfect gift, the perfect weather.  Some of us try to outdo one another like Clark Griswold with our Christmas lights.  We go to company parties and wear outlandish sweaters and engage in all kinds of behaviors.  Why?  Because we have forgotten the message of the season.  Jesus could have come at the head of a battalion of angels.  It was within His prerogative so to do.  But such an appearance would have done nothing for us.  Instead, He chose to be born of a woman who gave birth to Him in a stable rather than a palace.  He was raised by Joseph to be a working man, a carpenter.  From the humblest of beginnings, Jesus reminds us that He came the first time to serve, to dwell with us, to pitch His fleshy tent amongst us.  That is the message of Christmas.  Something unbelievably good has happened.  God has become human!  God has become one of us that He might redeem us!
     It is a message we often forget because we ignore the signs.  I was thinking last night how much the hymn “Do you hear what I hear?” encapsulates our goals for Advent.  The song begins with the night wind asking the sheep if it sees what it sees.  The star with its tale as big as a kite stands out.  Until that moment the night wind asked the sheep if it noticed creation’s recognition of our Lord’s birth, however, the sheep was oblivious to its brilliance.  The sheep has been concerned with green pastures and cool streams.  It’s focus, if you will, has likely been on food and drink.  It takes the night wind asking the question to get the sheep to see what was before its eyes--the Star!
     From there the sheep goes to the shepherd boy.  Do you hear what I hear? asks the sheep of the shepherd boy.  A song, a song, high above the trees.  With a voice as big as the sea.  The senses of the sheep have been transformed.  Not only does the sheep now see the sign in the heavens, but it hears the angel choir celebrating the birth of Jesus.  The sheep asks the question, and the boy must refocus his attention.  We can imagine the shepherd boy’s focus prior to now.  Tend the sheep.  Tend the sheep.  I must find them pasture.  I must find them water.  I must protect them from wolves and thieves.  We who live in 21st century America understand how work can make us oblivious to the important things in the world around us.  In light of the sheep’s question, the shepherd boy must re-attune his ears to hear this noise that has been drowned out in the background of his work.
     The shepherd boy, as the song goes, takes this wonderful news to the king.  Do you know what I know?  It is a threatening message, potentially, to the king.  One has come to supplant him.  Yet the shepherd boy, whose senses have now been re-attuned to the sights and sounds of God in the world around him, realizes the significance of the event.    It is a euangelion of the highest order!  The star in the heavens and the angel choir proclaim the birth of THE KING!  The news is too joyous to contain, and all must hear it.  And so the shepherd boy goes into the palace and describes our Savior’s condition.  The One who deserved a palace and warmth and soft robes is shivering in the cold.  The king, rather than taking offense at either the message or the shepherd boy’s enthusiasm, is excited for what the birth signifies.  
     Those of you trying to sing along in your heads know what comes next.  The king goes and tells the people.  Listen to what I say.  The king takes the message and explains it to the people.  In a way, the king in the song is the very antithesis of Herod or Augustus.  The king in the song is much like the king was called to be by God in Deuteronomy.  To steal from another source, the king in our song uses his power for good.  He shares the good news of the birth of the Savior who will bring us goodness and light!  It is wonderful news.  It is amazing news!  God’s Anointed has been born in a stable and will walk among us.  Words cannot describe the joy it ought to bring.  And the joy derives from the simplest of beginnings.  The wind whispers to a sheep setting in motion this train of conversations.  Our Lord chose to be born of a woman in a stable in a backwater province of the Roman Empire.  But from those tiniest, seemingly insignificant seeds has come the offer of salvation and eternal life!
     Brothers and sisters, you and I are part of that process of sharing.  Advent for us is a time when we intentionally re-attune our senses to the world around us.  We may be in the world, but we are not of the world.  To you and to me has been given the ability to see and to hear and to understand the events in the world.  Others may be worried about storms and wars and famines, but we know that they are birthing pangs, signs that our Lord’s return is drawing closer.  Others may be consumed with finding the perfect gift or setting the perfect table or putting on an outward appearance that everything is under our control.  We know better.  We know beneath such facades are hurts and pains and feelings of unworthiness.  Yes our Lord’s coming reminds us of the inestimable worth He places on each one of us and upon all of those whom we encounter in the world.  He values each so much that the Babe whose birth we celebrate next week chose as a man to die for all our sins!  He did not die for one group or another; He did not die to offer salvation to one group or another; He died once, for all, that all might share in His eternal inheritance!
     Advent is that time when we re-attune ourselves to God’s working in the world around us.  And we have all been given eyes to see His work, ears to hear tales of His mercy and grace, and hearts to understand His purposes.  Some might scoff at us for our faith, but they are more to be pitied and served.  Sitting here, when have you seen God at work in the world around you as clear and as brightly as the Star was that blessed night.  How many of us have seen a blessing of loaves and fishes at Community Meal?  How many times have we taken food for 40-50 individuals only to have 80 or 90 or more show up?  How do you explain the seconds those nights apart from God’s grace and provision?  How many of us have experienced a provision ourselves?  I know, none of us have ever had bank errors in our favors or forgotten rebates appear just as a seemingly insurmountable bill forced its way into our lives, have we?  How many of us have experienced a healing?  How many of us have been given a vision?  How many of us have seen God raise the dead?  And how many of us, although we have not experienced one or more of these ourselves have heard the stories of others?
     The world might want to reject His offer of grace, but God is in the midst of always reaching out to the world through us.  The signs are always there to be seen or heard.  The understanding is always there to be gleaned or revealed.  But the world is like the Ethiopian Eunuch; it needs people like us to explain the significance of the sights and sounds and purposes of His grace and mercy.  You and I are heralds of His offer of salvation.  You and I are harbingers of the simple truth that all this around us is in the process of passing away.
      Were we to stop there, the magnitude of the task and the realization of His love might leave us breathless.  Fortunately for us, God did not stop there.  Two more lessons are taught us this day.  Jesus reminds John’s disciples and all of us that anyone who does not take offense at Him is blessed.  It seems an interesting warning, does it not?  Why would he send that back to John and reveal it to us?  Peeking ahead, you and I know the story.  Lots of people will take offense at Jesus and His Gospel.  The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Roman politicians, and even the Roman soldiers will all take offense at Him and His message.  Many will conspire to see that Silent Night baby crucified, dead, and buried at the end of Holy Week.  John certainly had reason to doubt, but He also had reason to begin to lose faith in the message.  Jesus reminds us and all who hear Him that He knows our hearts and understands us even better than we understand ourselves.  When John’s disciples tempted his ego, John reminded them that he had to decrease in order that the Anointed might increase.  John, the first prophet to speak on behalf of the Lord in almost four centuries, has to set aside his ego to fulfill God’s purposes.  And Jesus reminds John in prison and us that we are blessed when we take no offense at Him.
     The last lesson involves our rank in the kingdom of God.  Jesus asks the people why they went to see John.  He was not a politician bending with public opinion.  He was not a wealthy celebrity living in a beautiful house with all the trappings.  Quite the contrary.  John was a prophet, but more than a prophet.  John was trusted with the role that every other Old Testament prophet desired.  To him was given the honor and privilege of announcing the coming of the Messiah.  To him was entrusted the responsibility of teaching the people of God that God’s purposes for them were finally and fully being accomplished on their behalf because they could not save themselves.  John’s position, like Jesus, was foretold by the prophets.  The day for which Sarah & Abraham longed, the fulfillment of God’s covenant with them, is at hand!  And John gets to shout it to the world.  Of all those in former times, John the Baptist is the greatest.  No one born of a woman was greater than he.
     But notice the end.  Even John the Baptist, for all the honor and privilege bestowed upon him, is lesser than everyone in the kingdom of heaven.  Think on that for just a second--you rank higher than John the Baptist.  “Why?” you might ask.  To you and to me have been given the honor and privilege and perspective of understanding that God’s purposes have been fulfilled in Christ.  The patriarchs and matriarchs of old simply trusted in God, and He credited it to them as righteousness.  John, for all his proximity to Jesus, did not understand how God would or could redeem suffering.  No doubt he was confused as Herod had him beheaded because he did not live to see or hear of the Cross and Resurrection.  You and I, though, have the benefit of hindsight.  You and I can look back on the Cross and the Resurrection and understand how God’s purposes were fulfilled in Jesus.  That He was God’s Anointed and that His words were true we know because God raised Him on that third day!  Armed with that knowledge, empowered by the Holy Spirit, you and I can go into the world proclaiming the hope of the nations everywhere with certainty.  You and I, unlike John, can point to God’s fulfilling purposes in the ministry of Jesus.  Unlike John, we know that even our death cannot separate us from the love and power and mercy of our Lord.  We know He has accomplished all things for our good!  And so, we are able to be more effective ministers of His will.  You and I are in now wise less important in the kingdom of God because we lived half a world away and two millennia removed from His earthly ministry.  Instead, we rank higher even than John, but tempered by the fact that so does everyone who joined the kingdom of believers after His Resurrection.
     Brothers and sisters, we are three weeks into this Advent season.  How is your Advent going?  Are you chasing after the perfect gift?  Are you planning the perfect meal?  Are you so consumed with the trappings of the season that you have forgotten its significance?  Do you hear what He is saying?  Do you see what He has shown?  Do you know what He has revealed?  To you has been entrusted the knowledge of the way into the kingdom of God, the person of Jesus Christ.  Now, sure in that knowledge and confident in His power, how will you help others find Him in this season and the rest of the year!



Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Low fruit and Gospel heralds!

     Happy New Year!  I noticed more than one faced was a bit surprised to see the Advent wreath up and me clothed in a blue shirt this morning.  Yes, it seems like Christ the King Sunday usually follows Thanksgiving.  But, here it is December, and we have four weeks of Advent to celebrate!  For those of you visiting or relatively new to the Church, Advent is that intentional time in the Church calendar when we watch for God’s arrival.  It is a time when we are pulled between looking back and looking forward.  God’s people, of course, waited for Him to come and pitch His tent among them.  This He did in the most unexpected of ways -- the Babe born in a manger.  But, equally surprising, we look forward to His promised return.  That Day, picking up on the passage from which our Gospel lesson is taken, when He returns to judge the sheep and the goats.
     That Day is naturally the subject of much conjecture and discussion.  A number of famous pastors have predicted the date of our Lord’s return.  Heck, let’s be honest, a number of not famous people have tried unsuccessfully to predict the date of His return.    I have suffered through some complex justifications for selected dates in a number of strange locales, the most recent being a handi-mart in rural Kentucky while taking Sarah to school this past August.  Not surprisingly, that October date has come and gone.  Truthfully, I have never understood the need to try and figure out the date.  If one believes that Jesus is Lord and that all He taught was true, which most Christians do, our reading from Matthew’s Gospel seems to preclude anything but blind luck for getting the date of His return correct.  That is not to say that Jesus does not have much to say about the Day.  In our reading today, Jesus has a couple important lessons for us, lessons which should help us get others thinking a bit about Advent, even if they do not yet know what to think of Jesus.
     People often want to know what the Day of our Lord will be like.  Jesus uses the days of Noah to describe those days.  Though we know with the benefit of Scripture that the Flood was God’s judgment of the earth, those who were about to be judged had no idea it was coming.  Jesus describes them as going through every-day activities up until the point that Noah closed the doors of the ark.  The people outside Noah’s family were eating, drinking, getting married, and generally engaged in daily life.  Up until the Flood came, they had no idea they were doomed.  So it will be, He says, for us at His Second Coming.  Like those swept up in the Flood, we will be surprised by His return.
     Right before His Second Coming, men and women will be engaged in normal activities.  I know Tim LeHay has made a small fortune describing life at this time in the Left Behind series, but I think it is important for us to remember that he writes apocalyptic fiction.  He paints a picture where people just disappear.  Cars and trucks crash, planes  fall out of the sky, everybody knows someone who has been called to heaven by Jesus, even if some are not sure where they have gone.  The reason I am certain it is fictional is from a couple weeks ago.  Jesus teaches us that we will know when He returns.  In some way that defies our understanding of physics, everyone will realize that Jesus will return.  We need not fear that He will come unobserved or that we will be Left Behind.  When He comes again, the world will know it.  There will be no mistaking or missing His appearance!  As the angels said at the Ascension, He will return the same way He left, in glory and in power!
     Prior to that point, though, everyone will be engaged in daily life and work.  Farmers will be farming, children will be in school, office workers will be doing their work, volunteers will be volunteering, some will even be sleeping.  Life will be pretty normal up until the moment He appears.  We look for incredible signs in the heavens and portents and wars to predict His coming again; yet those fortunate to be alive at His return will be caught unawares, much as the man whose house was robbed.  All we can do, all anyone can do, is keep watch, be alert, or be ready.  We must live every day as if He could return any moment or as if we could be called home by death at any moment.  Yes, there is an urgency to our faith.  You and I and all who claim Him as Lord are tasked with sharing His offer of grace as if there might not be a “later” or “next time.”  Death unceasingly stalks us, and His return could well be imminent.  We are commissioned with sharing His love with our families, with our friends, with our co-workers, and even with strangers when given the opportunity.  And we need to be about our work as if He could return any moment, because He could, and loved ones might find themselves on the wrong side of judgment that Day.
     It is important to remember that judgment is not a bad thing for those who call Him Lord.  Those who have accepted HIs offer of grace are judged worthy and taken to the place He has prepared for Him.  It is a message of Good News.  It is a message of Hope.  And, boy, does the world ever need a message of hope.  I will say, seldom is the Gospel ever more counter-cultural than what we have experienced these last three days.  This Brown-Thursday/Black Friday nonsense has given us pastors tons of low hanging fruit for sermon illustrations, but it is fruit that I think we would all do well to examine, if we are to be heralds of His coming.
     God often reminds us that when we create gods who cannot speak or cannot hear, they enslave us.  He offers us perfect freedom; yet how often do we choose to be be enslaved?  Like the ancient people of Israel during the Exodus, we would often rather be enslaved in certainty than risk the uncertainty of freedom.  Is there any better reminder of the slavery which we have created for ourselves than what we have experienced the past couple days?  I realize that when Black Friday was coined back in the 1960’s, it was an innocent term.  For years, the Friday after Thanksgiving had been considered the official start of the retail Christmas season.  That Friday came to be known as the day when retail stores began to make their profit for the year.  It meant the stores were moving from the red (losing money) into the black (making money) for the year.  To spur purchases, store had great sales.  Innocent enough, right?
     Look at us now, less than fifty years later.  Those of us in retail sales may have been forced to be at work by five o’clock on “Brown Thursday,” what our ancestors called Thanksgiving--you know, that day when we as a nation celebrate God’s provision for us.  The lucky ones in retail sales don’t have to be at work until very early on Friday morning.  For what?
     As I said earlier, this is very low fruit, but sometimes the low fruit needs to be picked.  How many people went into this weekend expecting it to be like any Thanksgiving holiday in their past, or any other day in their life, never to see its end or, if they did, to be changed in ways they could not imagine?  People were sitting at a pub in that second best land, Scotland, when a helicopter crashed into them.  Imagine: you are sitting on a stool drinking a pint with your friends and, boom, it’s over.  You’re dead through no real fault of your own.  I think I read reports of a trampling and of a heart attack victim being ignored by the press of crowds.  Think of the callousness required to trample another human being who has had the misfortune to fall or to ignore someone dying from a heart attack because you “just have to get that deal.”  Loving our neighbors as ourselves?  Hardly.  There were shootings and tasings, if that is the right verb, over sales.  The one that most amazed me were the fights over bath towels at Wal-Mart.  Really?  We need to fight over Wal-Mart bath towels?  Truthfully, I could not tell you who makes luxurious bath towels, but I am pretty sure I would not need a life-line to figure out that it is not Wal-Mart.  A train crashed killing a number of people.  And one story which seems to have grabbed many of your attentions on Facebook is the death of Paul Walker in a car crash.  One moment he is living life, getting ready to film Fast & Furious 7, and the next moment his life is over.
     Chances are, in the upcoming week if it has not happened already, you and I will be asked what we think about such events.  What is your answer?  Are you simply content to murmur something impotent about tragedies?  Or are you determined, as our Lord instructs, to be ready and to make sure others have the opportunity to be ready?  Are you ready to give an account of the peace and joy and power and freedom that is within you?  To you has been given incredible power.  You have been gifted by the Holy Spirit to share His story of mercy and grace with all whom you encounter.  If someone asks you, you have a ready-made opportunity to invite them into Advent.  All these illustrations, and there are probably many more that caught your eye, serve as a stark reminder of the message of the world and the enslavement of the idols we create.  Better still, they all call to mind the moment of surprise which our Lord describes in our Gospel lesson this day, that moment of surprise when we, mere mortals, come face to face with our Lord and make an accounting of our choices in life!  For those who chose the Lord, their deaths, while worthy of mourning, are not tragic.  They are already with the Lord and celebrating the very beginning of eternal life with Him.  We who proclaim His death and Resurrection until His return know that we will see them again one day.
      But what of those who rejected His offer of grace?  What of those who wrongly thought they had until “later” to get right with God?  Their fate is truly tragic.  Salvation was offered and they chose not to embrace it.  How many are like them in our lives?  How many people do we know who tell us “some day” or “not today” or some other excuse?  These stories, in the midst of Advent, when you and I are called to be intentionally urgent in our efforts, serve as illustrative points as to the idols of the world.  People lost their lives over things passing away.  Is there anything more futile?  Is there anything more tragic?  Is there any great pall over life?
     You and I, though, are called to be heralds of hope in the darkness.  As we just lit the candle of hope to begin to drive away the darkness of the world, you and I are called to put on the armor of light and go forth reminding those who ask us that salvation has come near and that Judgment will one day come upon us suddenly.  Where people are enslaved, we are called to proclaim His perfect freedom!  Where people are buying into a system which enslaves our neighbors, you and I are called to love our neighbors as ourselves and to serve them as He first served us!  And where people are caught up in an idolatry that leaves no room for hope and no room for grace, you and I are called to remind the world that Emmanuel has come and will come again to dwell eternally with His people.
     Brothers and sisters, we are entrusted with a heady responsibility.  We live life in the shadows of the Manger and the Cross and the Empty Tomb.  We are all entrusted with Good News for all the world to hear.  God has come and dwelt among His people.  He died to redeem us from our sins.  And He has been raised from the dead to remind us of His power to keep His promises.  All of this, though, we must share with urgency.  For some of those whom we encounter and even some of us, there may not be a tomorrow.  There may not be another chance.  And so, impelled by love and by urgency of His surprising return, we are called to share His story of redemption.  We are called, each and every one of us, to invite others to that Feast He has prepared for those who love Him.  When loving others into His kingdom is our primary and urgent task, we begin to experience those others gifts of which He will remind us this season of Advent.  Focusing ourselves on these wonderful opportunities allows us to experience that peace and joy He promises to all who follow Him, even as we serve as a beacon for others to find Him in our lives and in our words.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Rejoice the Lord is King!

    Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done -- When you pray that each time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, for what is it you are praying?  How many times do you say the Lord’s Prayer each year?  How much do you think about what you are actually praying?
     As you have no doubt figured out by the change in colors, today is a bit different.  Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday.  It is actually the last Sunday of the church year.  Next week, we start Advent.  The Feast is rather new to the Church.  Pius XI created the feast back in the 1920’s as a way of protecting the world against rising secularism.  The chief concern was that a number of anti-Christian dictatorships were spawning around the world.  The Pope hoped that the rulers of nations would be reminded that the Church should be free, that they owed their power to Christ, and that the people in the pews would be strengthened in their faith.  Looking around our parish, our community, our country, and the world, we can see just how effective this day was in protecting the world against that rising secularism.
     I think it is also a challenge for those of us born in the United States.  It is part of our DNA not to trust nor to tolerate kings.  They had they chance and failed miserably, at least from our perspective, in the Revolutionary War that spawned our nation.  Tom Bracket, the TEC Evangelical Officer that some of us met a couple years back at our diocesan convention, wondered aloud last week where our prophets have gone.  I think part of the seeming loss of prophets is our efforts to democratize God.  We don’t trust monarchs, and we don’t trust people who claim to speak for them.  Most parishes operate by committee.  I just returned from a meeting of the diocesan Board of Directors and the All Commissions’ Day.  Convention was just a month ago, and we had to elect delegates to our General Convention.  We have enshrined democracy in our ecclesial polity.
     Understand that we have done that precisely because of those who have abrogated their responsibilities or proven that they were not speaking on behalf of God.  Many monarchs became tyrants.  Rather than ruling for the good of their subjects, they ruled for their own personal benefit.  And for every pastor hard at work trying to lead his or her congregation into the ministries to which God calls them, it seems as if there is a Jim and Tammy Fay Baker, a Jimmy Swaggart, a Robert Tilton, Jack Schapp, a bishop who failed to oversee his clergy, or someone else to distract the country from some of the good work being done in our churches.  Placing our faith in individuals almost always never works out well.  They almost always begin to put their self-interests ahead of our own.  Almost always.
     Today we remind ourselves that there is One in Whom we should place all our trust, our Lord Christ.  Today we remind ourselves that He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  The world might not yet recognize that simple truth, but it will one day.  Our reading from Luke might seem a bit out of place to you.  Our reading about Jesus’ crucifixion seems more appropriate to Holy Week.  Why do we read it now?  Perhaps you remember the story of the two brothers, James and John, who ask Jesus to sit at His right hand and His left hand when He comes into His kingdom?  Yes, I know Matthew says it was their mother who interceded with Jesus, but the question is the same.  How does Jesus answer them?  He asks a question after telling them they do not understand what they are requesting.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?  Naturally, the brothers respond that they can.  Jesus tells them that they will drink and be baptized, but the spots at His right and His left have already been prepared for others.  James and John are, of course, disappointed; the other Apostles are mad, most likely because they did not think to request that honor for themselves.  And Jesus instructs those who follow Him that He is a different kind of king that the Gentile kings with which they are familiar.  There will be no lording over others in His kingdom; the greatest will be the ones serving the most.
     Jesus has a number of counter-cultural teachings, but few are this absolutely crazy by worldly standards.  Jesus is even re-ordering our understanding about power.  How do we accumulate power in the world?  In days past, we often resorted to brute force.  Armies were used to determine who was more powerful.  Brute force is still used in some cases, especially bullying, but we have “evolved” a bit.  Nowadays, power is closely related to wealth.  We notice that wealth in our country, despite our constitutional protections and claims to the contrary, that there are two legal systems and two educational systems and now two health care systems.  Money gives us all kinds of advantages.  We can get better defense in criminal or civil claims; we can get a better education; and we can get better doctors and health care.  The poor can get a defender; the poor can get an education; the poor can get some health care.  But does anyone really believe it is a level playing field blind to the trappings of wealth and power?  And yet Jesus is insistent that serving others to the glory of God will be the hallmarks of greatness in His kingdom.  Is He delusional near death?
     Notice how a couple loose threads are nicely tied up here on the cross.  I commented a moment ago how nearly all individuals will often disappoint us.  Not Jesus, though.  Jesus is near death.  He has been beaten and cruised.  He has been whipped and mocked.  Now He is hanging on a cross awaiting His death as people mock Him.  And the people who mock Him, though they do not know it, provide what amounts to a diabolical messianic temptation.  If you are the Son of God . . . If you are the Messiah . . . Could Jesus save Himself?  Absolutely.  You and I can do little to change our human condition.  When we hurt, we have to let the body’s healing powers work.  When we are cut, we have to let the body heal.  Were we imprisoned, we would have to let the legal system and time works their course, if we want to experience freedom.  Jesus, though, as fully human and fully divine, could simply will Himself down.  Or He could call upon the angels to slap the “you know what” out of the mockers’ mouths.  How does He respond?  He wills to remain on the Cross and see His effort through.  More amazing, though, He prays another time to His Father.  Father, forgive them.  They do not know what they are doing.
     Can you imagine?  Can you imagine the force of will required to stay on the Cross for our sakes?  Can you imagine the compassion in Him for Him to be able to make intercession on behalf of you and me and those mockers, all of whom put Him to death?
     And look a bit deeper at another loose thread.  Jesus states that the spot at His right hand and His left hand have already been prepared.  Notice anything about the positions of the thieves?  He is in the middle.  They are on His right hand and His left hand.  Where does Jesus come into His kingdom?  Right here on the Cross!  That is why James and John cannot share this position of honor.  He is to be crucified for their and all our sakes, but they still have work to do.  They will be commanded to go into the world proclaiming His death and Resurrection and baptizing disciples into the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit after that Easter experience.
     These thieves, and their attitudes toward Jesus, also instruct us about the God Man whom we rightfully call Lord and Savior.  Even though one shares in Jesus sentence of death, he chooses to mock Jesus.  The other, though, recognizes Jesus’ wrong execution and His authority.  He rebukes the other thief and then asks Jesus to remember Him when He comes into His kingdom.  Like Pilate, who writes the inscription placed over Jesus’ cross, and the centurion, who testifies upon the world’s shuddering at Jesus’ death that He was the Son of God, a thief understands Jesus’ power and authority.  And such is our Lord’s compassion that, even near the end of His life, He grants pardon to the one who seeks it and the assurance of eternal life.  His last words are words of compassion and grace, testifying as to His true character, His true love for all in this world.  And you and I are the beneficiaries of that character.  You and I stand this day as redeemed, by virtue of His Cross.  We have laid down our lives and asked Him for a share in His eternal kingdom, not unlike that request of the thief.  And, just as He did with the thief, He has promised to raise us all to new life with Him!  Maybe now you have a different understanding of that hymn, When I survey the wondrous cross?
     With all due respect to those who would mock Pius for a seemingly futile effort to keep the forces of secularism at bay and even to those who, like Tom Wright, want to contend that Ascension Day is really Christ the King Day (I would argue that our Lord is crowned on Good Friday and seated upon His throne on Ascension Day--similar to how we consecrate bishops and then seat them at their cathedra), I find I like the reminder offered by focusing on the fact that Christ is king.  As Americans, who tend to think of king or queen as a four-letter word, we are reminded that heaven will not be run by committee.  We will have His mind, HIs eyes, His ears, and His understanding.  We will be new creations in Him, and we will lovingly and joyfully embrace His will being done.  We will be joyful and thankful servants of the King.
     More importantly, though, we are reminded that He calls us to embrace a different kind of power.  While the world will chase after the trappings it values, be it force of arms or physical strength or wealth or whatever, you and I called to give up those values and embrace our Lord’s.  We are called to have compassion on those around us and to serve them in His Name.  We are called to feed, to clothe, to teach, to care, to pray, to cry, to do whatever He gives us insight to see is needed that others might be drawn into His saving embrace.  Yes, people might try and take advantage of our compassion.  Yes, people may mock us for ignoring whatever the world currently values.  Should we expect to be treated than our Lord?  And here is the absolutely crazy thing, if He asks us, we can even lay down our life for the benefit of the other, confident that we will be restored to life, just as was our Lord and King!  We can be a soldier, a first responder, a teacher, a doctor, or just a good samaritan.  And we can make that ultimate sacrifice in His Name, certain that He possesses power even over death!  That is the reminder this day, that we re subjects of a King who came not to be served but to serve, and who came not destroy lives, but redeem them!  So, in the words of our hymnal, Rejoice the Lord is King!  Your Lord and King adore!  Rejoice, give thanks and sing, and triumph evermore.