Thursday, December 25, 2014

For unto you is born the Savior . . .

      Is there a better gloria than Hark, the Herald Angels Sing? Nicole always does a great job with the music, but I look forward to her tinkering during major feasts days. Truthfully, I have a hard time hearing the song and not seeing Snoopy dancing in my head. Those of you not laughing may not know me well and might be surprised to hear me bring up the characters of Peanuts on this Holy Night. When reading Luke's account of the birth of Jesus and the announcement of the fact to the shepherds by the angels, I cannot think of another modern sermon illustration that captures the images of Luke any better. The cool kids and the “in crowd” sends Charlie Brown after a tree because they want him out of the way for rehearsal. Each, in their own way, wants to be the focus of the Nativity Story they are getting ready to put on. Charlie Brown, tired of the commercialism and wrong focus, keeps reminding them to be faithful to the story. He becomes such a nag that the kids tell him to pick out a tree as a prop for the play. Needless to say, Charlie Brown picks out a tree that is rather sad. When the kids place a single ornament upon its branches, the tree bends over and its top touches the ground. The kids ridicule the blockhead for choosing such a pathetic tree.
      Linus steps in to save the day. Linus proclaims that he sees the beauty in the tree that first attracted Charlie Brown to it. He wraps his blanket around the tree like a makeshift tree-skirt. He declares that it needs a bit of love and care. The other kids hear him and decorate the tree, which becomes more beautiful than seemed possible when the tree was bent over with the single ornament. The blockhead becomes a hero, and the group breaks out in Hark, the Herald Angels Sing while Snoopy does his happy dance.
      I suppose my mind is on such things as the first service focused on the kids. Cohen, in particular, was trying to contain his Snoopy dance. After church, he was heading over to his grandmother's to open gifts, and he could hardly stand it! I think his attitude, and those of the other kids, accurately reflects our own attitudes. Many of us are just wanting to get through the obligatory service so we can get to the food and presents and football, aren't we? Many of us come to church this night more out of a sense of tradition or a mom's or grandmother's nagging than any real sense of joy and love, don't we? Most of us probably share Cohen's desire that the sermon goes quickly so we can get out of here.
In truth, it is a difficult thing to prepare a sermon on Luke's passage. For most of the year, the congregation and pastor share a rhythm. We progress through the readings and the seasons and share in a corporate life of baptisms and deaths and births. Once a year, though, we pause. We pause and share with visitors and infrequent attenders the images painted in the words of Luke and John. And it is the job of the pastor to make the well known words seem vibrant and relevant. The truth is, we pastors cannot. Only God can do that.
      At the early service tonight, we looked at bullies and how God works in the face of bullies. It was a decent sermon for our youth. Cohen said it was great because it was short. We looked for a bit at Augustus, the Emperor of Rome. Augustus had a revenue problem. People, he thought, were not paying their taxes. So he declared that all who lived within the empire should go to their hometowns to be registered. This was his way of ensuring that those who depended upon the empire for its livelihood and protection would render the required support. Notice that Joseph and his 9-month pregnant wife travel to Bethlehem to be registered. Such was the power of the Emperor that no one dared defy his edict. Our airlines will not let women on planes that are seven months along. Doctors and midwives strongly discourage travel within six weeks of a due date. Augustus, however, wants his subjects registered, and he gets what he wants. Mary trudges along with her betrothed, at times walking and at times probably riding that donkey. Can you imagine how uncomfortable she felt? Ladies who have born children, how afraid would you have had to be to consider undertaking such a journey on foot during your ninth month?
      Opposite Augustus and Quirinius, his governor, are the shepherds. If there was a group of people more outside the circle of power, it might have been shepherds. Shepherds were the original “those people.” They slept during the day and worked mostly at night, just like our modern laborers who work third shifts across the country. Their job was tedious until it was not. Nights might pass with no predators or thieves or illness and then, boom!, the flock was in danger. To make it harder for shepherds to blend in, their work caused them to be surrounded by a particular odor which often offended the sensibilities of others. Those of you who grew up working around livestock know that smell. Oh, and let's not forget the rumors. Shepherds, you know, were probably the reason Yahweh had included the prohibition against bestiality in the torah. I mean, come on, who really knows what is going on out in the fields at night. You laugh, but how many of us make certain assumptions about the people who do certain jobs in our offices? How many of us think we know people by what they do?
      So, on the one hand, the narrative of the Gospel is set against the rich and the powerful. As today, the powerful issue commands, and those of a certain standing obey, regardless of the cost. On the other hand, God is using the marginalized to grow His kingdom. More specifically, God uses the marginalized in this case to announce His kingdom come! It is an interesting polemic to be sure. Augustus, and his representative Quirinius, believe themselves to be the most powerful men. God is so powerful, though, that he can use those forgotten or ignored by society and those in power to accomplish His purposes. The message is a warning to those who are on the inside and a note of encouragement to those on the margins. There is another group intended to hear this message tonight, though. Did you catch it? I wonder how many times we have read the story and not really listened to the words? “For unto you is born in the city of David, a Savior.” Did not Mary just do the hard work? Was not this baby born to her?
      Many of you here tonight know that I have had some cause to be in labor, delivery, and recovery rooms around this country. Those of you who do not know me may be unaware I have seven kids with my lovely wife, Karen. As a dutiful father, I attended the birth of all my children. I see you older men looking a bit squeamish, I get it, Believe me, I understand why you all may have preferred to wait outside in another room and not hear the screams that accompany the pangs of childbirth or the blood and other fluids. I was so dutiful I even did my pre-birth class of hoos and hees. Yes, like an idiot, I heed and hooed for Karen for precisely a few minutes of one birth. I managed not to get light-headed and pass out which, let me tell you, is no mean feat! Having been at the birth of seven children, delivering one of those while a new nurse panicked and a doctor could not be found, never in all those childbirths did anyone suggest that a baby had been born to someone else. Yet here are the angels telling us through the shepherds that the Savior has been born to you, and to you, and to you, and to me. We are also part of the intended audience of this Holy Night. The Savior has been born to each one of us.
      Let that thought roll around in your head for a bit. For unto you is born the Savior. We talk in the Church a great deal about the grandeur and majesty and otherness of God, what theologians call the transcendence of God, and often rightfully so. He is so far beyond us that we are often grasping at shadows when we describe Him to others. Yet this night reminds us of one of those glorious mysteries revealed to humankind. God condescended to take on human flesh in the form of a little baby. He belonged in a heavenly palace, and yet His throne became a manger. The greatest of the world's aristocrats should have been their to pay Him homage, and yet God selected shepherds to become the heralds of His Gospel. Even more amazing, though, is the purpose behind this uncomfortable labor, this rather ignominious birth, by human standards. He came to save you and to save me! That little Babe lying in a manger came for the purpose of walking that path that leads to Calvary and the possibility of you and of me being reconciled to God. That, my brothers and sisters, is the reason we gather here and remember that night nearly 2000 years past. We gather to remember and to reflect upon a miracle too amazing for words. God became human to save each one of us.
      When I was describing the scene from Peanuts earlier, I noticed a number of longing faces. I think everyone was familiar with the animated special that airs this time of year. How many of us, though, feel a bit more like Charlie Brown than Lucy or Schroeder or the girl with the naturally curly hair. How many of us really feel like we are leaders or have a special, valued talent, or are simply beautiful on the outside? I think part of the timeless allure of the Peanuts narrative is that it speaks to the Charlie Brown inside each one of us. Each of us wants to be able to kick the ball, direct the play, get a kiss from a crush, believe ourselves not to need a psychiatrist, or some other dream. Each of us realizes that, in the eyes of so many in the world, but especially in the eyes of our own selves, we are much like Charlie Brown. We want desperately to be important, to be known, to be loved.
      This night we are each reminded that we are loved. Unto each of us this night in the city of David was born our Savior. Best of all, our Savior is none other than the God who created all things in the beginning. The absolutely transcendent God came down from Heaven and dwelt among us, enfleshed in human form. That, brothers and sisters, is why we gather. That, brothers and sisters, is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ. That, brothers and sisters, is our message to those who are not with us this night. To them, just as to us, was born the Savior. And just as He charged the shepherds 2000 years ago, He charges you with this wonderful knowledge. And now He bids you to glorify Him and tell all you have heard and been told of this Babe, lying in a manger!


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Why must she have been a virgin . . .

     This week brings us to that time in Advent when we get serious about remembering the first time our Lord visited the earth in the work and person of Christ.  In particular, we hear the story of the angel appearing to Mary and announcing that future birth as well as the birth of John the Baptist, who has occupied our Gospel lessons these last two weeks.  In the Protestant tradition, this week mark's Mary's Sunday.  We lit the pink candle before the beginning of the service.  Had we still the pink altar linens and stole, it and I would be so adorned.  Those who pay closer attention to ecumenical affairs may well wonder why we and our Roman brothers and sisters cannot seem to get the remembrance of Mary on the same day.  As one who just got back from Rome discussing human trafficking and charged with education the wider Church about the fight, I wonder the exact same thing.  I can tell you, however, that it is still an important day in the life of the Church.  Wednesday, I preached on the Mary as the counterpoint to Eve in salvation history.  Several of the ladies in residence came up afterwards to thank me for that sermon.  My favorite comment was from a 101 and a half, never forget the half, year old resident who wanted to make sure she had heard me rightly.  “So if anyone blames women because of Eve for being the source of evil and sin in the world in my presence, I can just tell them them that they better be glad that Mary said 'yes' because salvation came into the world through her?”  I'd say she heard the lesson pretty clearly despite the buzz in her ears!  You laugh a bit here, but it was a serious lesson for some of those women.  Ask Bernice or Jane.  We are fortunate that we do not live with some of the burdens laid upon them!
     Last week's sermon clearly caught a number of you where you needed to be caught.  Few sermons I have ever given have had that kind of feedback.  From my perspective, it was a rather simple message: rejoice!  I discovered in those conversations, though, that some of you do not yet see your struggles as places where God will glorify Himself in your lives.  A bunch of times this week, we spoke in terms of our struggles as places where God does His absolute most noticeable work.  When we get out of His way and come to realize that we bring nothing substantial to the battle, it is amazing the things that He can accomplish.  I know a few of you are still struggling with the idea that our primary purpose of gathering each week is to praise God for the work He has done in our lives both corporately and individually.  Yes, we are fed to go back into the world.  Yes, we are charged so that our energy will carry us through the week.  Yes, the flame of the Holy Spirit is vented a bit so that we might be a brighter light in the darkness.  All those images are true.  Our primary purpose for worshipping, our primary work, is to give thanks to God for the work He has done for us.  All of us.
     David was taught that lesson well in our passage today from 2 Samuel.  David has completed the work assigned to Joshua so long ago.  The “ites” have been conquered, and David has earned a rest from his labors.  David has a great idea.  He is going to build a temple for God.  Understand where David is coming from.  As we are taught in the passage, David thinks it unjust that he lives in a house of cedar while the ark of Yahweh is kept in a tent.  God, and His ark, are of infinitely more value than David, and so David wants to give God an appropriate place to dwell.  It seems reasonable, does it not?
     Culturally speaking, David's desire makes even more sense.  I have explained until you are all sick of hearing from me about the cosmology of the ANE.  Just as countries rose and fell with the battles in the heavens of their gods and goddesses, temples we considered a kind of bailiwick on earth of each god and goddess.  Mars and Venus might like all of Italy, but their temples in Rome were their real homes.  Zeus might like all of Greece, and parts of the Mediterranean who worshipped him, but his real seat  of power was his temple.  Israel, as we know, will buy into this cosmology.  Israel will come to believe that they are unable to be conquered by their enemies.  They knew God was real; He had acted to save them in the past.  Since He was real, so went the logic, He would have to protect His people in order to make the world knew He was THE celestial being.  A loss would be unthinkable.  If you understand this way of thinking, you get a grasp of what Israel felt at the Exile.  You begin to get a glimmer of the feelings they had at the razing of the Temple, and its paltry, by comparison, successor that Ezra and others built on orders by the great king.  If you begin to understand how the loci of temples were viewed in the ANE, you begin to get a sense of what would have plagued the faithful Sanhedrin when they judge Jesus and, later, Peter and John Mark.  Blaspheming on a god's temple was not done.  Blaspheming on THE God's Temple was unimaginable.  But those are other lessons . . .
     So here is David, wanting to build a temple for God and His ark.  Like a good king, he consults God's prophet.  Nathan cannot think of any reason why David should not build a Temple to God, so he advises the king to proceed.  Then, that night, God speaks to Nathan about David's plan.  God reminds Nathan and David that He has never lived in a house since the day of the Exodus.  For generations God's dwelling has been a tent.  Never, in all the history of God's dealing with the people of Israel or their ancestors has He asked them to build a temple.  Part of the reason for that, of course, is polemical against the cosmology of the ANE.  God reminds His people over and over that there is no need to chase after dumb idols, to worship gods and goddesses who cannot hear or speak.  They do not need to go to a temple to speak to Him.  He is God.  He speaks and then He does.  There are none in the heavens who compare to Him.  Best of all, He has chosen them to be His people.  The God has chosen this people to be the group through which salvation  comes to the world.  Israel has been taught how to live in communion with a holy, righteous God.  Through their living, or so they believed, the covenant that He made with Abraham will come to pass.
     The other reason that God does not need a temple, though, is that He is a God who is with His people.  One of the consequences of a temple in the ANE was that the temple became the focus for that particular god or goddess.  It is not unlike some of us today.  How many people think that God is really confined to these walls?  How many people live their faith as if God is really only looking down into this sanctuary?  How many people think their faith is something to be lived for 60-90 minutes each weekend?  I can steal supplies from work because, you know, it's work?  I can mock my neighbor or my friends because, you know, this really isn't church?  I can sell substandard products or do substandard work because, you know, God only expects good behavior from me at church?  I don't have time today to pray or to study Scripture because, you know, that's what we do at church?  All of us know people who have bought the lie that God is not God over everything, just a few minutes of our week.  Heck, at one time we were them.  And we even patted ourselves on the back for going to church!  God ought to appreciate the fact that I gave up sleep/golf/football for Him today.  Ever thought that?
     The greatest difficulty of being a Christian, I think, is the effort that is required to live a life as if we believe in Christmas and Easter and everything in between.  It is hard, hard, not to fall prey to the lies of the world.  How many times are we tempted to curse the other, evening knowing the other is created in His image?  How often are we tempted to give God “good enough,” even though our testimony is supposed to be that we are stewards of His glorious abundance?  How many times do we place our trust in other human beings only to learn that they are human and sometimes fail us?
     One of the important lessons of this day for us is the reminder that we cannot do anything for God, absent His blessing and empowering.  David, for all his heart and for all his faithfulness, was still a huge sinner.  There is nothing that David can off God.  Nothing.  It is God who took the youngest of the family from the pasture and made him king over Israel.  It is God who gave David victory over those who fought him.  And it is God who will make a house for David, a house that will stand for ever, unlike those temples made by human hands.  All David can do is give thanks and praise and remind himself “Who am I?” to be so blessed.
     All of that brings us to the Gospel lesson.  I am often surprised with the statements of colleagues in ministry.  I find it a hard thing, given the hours we keep and the pay that we get, that a substantial number of colleagues serve God without believing in the entirety of the Gospel narrative.  I'm not talking about private doubts spoken among us, but of voiced doubts shared with congregations.  Some of us stand in the pulpit and doubt things like the Resurrection of the body or the Flood or the deliverance through the Red Sea or the casting out of demons, and then we lament when some non-Christian thinks he has found Jesus' heal bone with the nail from the Crucifixion still in it or some other “biblical conspiracy” captures the imagination of our assigned flocks.  Another example of that is the birth story of Mary.
     Our NIV translation calls specific attention to the fact that Mary was a virgin, even though she was betrothed.  How many people in the Church scoff at the idea.  In this age when “hooking up” or “friends with benefits” or “booty calls” define our relationships from our early teenage and, in many cases pre-teen years, it is no wonder that people outside the Church reject the story.  But why do so many of us within the Church reject it?  Science has taught us that there must be a sperm and an egg to create new life, Father.  Really?  Did science teach you how to raise the dead?  Did science tell you how to feed 5000 men, plus women and children, with a couple fish and some loaves of bread and somehow have more leftovers than original bread and fish?  Did science teach you how to visit plagues on Egypt?  Did science teach you how the youngest son, a shepherd, might rise to become king over a county despite the oversight of his father and the will of the king?  Did science tell you how to replicate your personal favorite miracle in Scripture so that you could perform it over and over and over again to your heart's content?  Did science teach you how to circumsize your own heart, how to nurture your faith, so that you could develop a flow chart that helps those new to your faith travel the same road as you and come to the exact same level of faith?  The why would you discount the teachings of God in the face of a science that fails on so many other levels?  Why?
     Better still, you know why the virgin birth is important!  First, it fulfils a promise of God.  Way back in Isaiah, God promised that The Virgin would birth The King!  God spoke, and now He gets ready to fulfill what He has said.  That's the way God works.  He tells us His plan, and then He accomplishes it.  He always, always keeps His promises.  He has selected Mary to be The Virgin of whom He spoke, but He wants her assent, just as He did Abraham & Sarah, Moses, Joshua, and countless others in between.  What He is asking of Mary is too wondrous for words.  Mary, I want you to give birth to My Son, the fulfilment of My promises to Abraham & Sarah, to Moses, and to David.  He and all Creation waited for her answer.  We are arrogant if we do not believe she understood the worldly consequences.  Mary had to fear what her parents would think, what Joseph would think, and what the neighbors would think.  Still, she trusted God that He would redeem her decision, and she became the God-bearer!  She became The Virgin described by Isaiah centuries before.  She became the one through whom God's plan of salvation would come into the world!  She would make it possible for Emmanuel, for God to be truly with us.  Her faithfulness would see the angels sing and shepherds tell in wonder.  And the world would never again be the same . . .
     But did she need to be a virgin, aside from Isaiah's prophesy?  Had the baby that she born entered into her womb by traditional means, that baby could not have been the Savior.  Had Mary been raped by a soldier or fooled around with Joseph, that child that she bore would have been created by the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but not of God.  It would have been like the temple proposed by David and all those who chase after false gods.  That child would have been like a human-made idol.  That child would be incapable of becoming the perfect offering for our sins.  The torah could not have been fulfilled by a child of human effort (think of the story and promise of Isaac).  The human baby would have been insufficient and devoid of power to redeem; but the fully God and fully human Incarnation was perfectly fashioned for His role.  That babe will grow obedient to the role of the Son as to a Father.  That baby will grow into the role of the Rabbi.  That babe will become the One whose thong John the Baptizer is unworthy to tie.  That babe will die that we might receive power to become His children!
     On your way to church today, I figure the last thing you expected to hear was a bit of teaching on the Virgin Birth of our Lord.  The world and some in the church poo-poo the idea because they think they know better, they think God is somehow bound by the rules which He constructed, that those who are engaged could not possibly not be having sex.  The world has the wonderful ideas which, for reasons too long to explore today, have become idols in their own fashion.  You know and I know, however, that God is not an idea.  He is a real person.  Well, He is Three Persons in One Unity, but that is a sermon for another day.  God is known and made known through His work with people in relationship to Him.  Mary received the honor of becoming The Virgin because she assented to His will.  Did she have any idea that her faith would make all that we know about the work and person of Christ possible?  I doubt it.  She heard many strange words and pondered them in her heart, we are told.  I do think, however, that she understood the Lord whom she served.  She believed that one day Messiah  would come.  She believed that Yahweh would one day free His people.  And she believed, if He really had chosen her to be the instrument through whom His Child would be born, He would bring about His purpose.  And so, she chose to believe.
      If I have done my job today, you have a bit of why God's Son had to be born of a virgin, to be more specific—THE Virgin.  But I hope so in a way that removes the gullibility of which Rufus may have accused you.  The virgin birth really is a doctrine of the faith.  But does the doctrine of the virgin birth really save us?  That is a yes and no question.  It does, but not in the way that we think.  When people ask us that question, it is usually a reference to our belief about sex and its role in our lives.  To believe in the virgin birth is equated to having a biblical understanding of sex.  The Virgin birth is about so much more than that, however!  What really saves us is the product of that birth from The Virgin's womb.  God declared that The Virgin would give birth to His Son.  That Son, and His faithfulness to the Father, is what really saves us.  Neither, however, is it simply a doctrine upon which we can disagree.  Our creeds, which are really distilled teachings about our faith, remind us that we who confess the faith believe it.  But the story of Mary teaches us why it was necessary.  God had promised to deliver His people, and knew that we, His people, could never produce anything on our own to save ourselves.  Our efforts are vain, our gods are mute and deaf.  So, once again, He entered and acted in history, that all who came to know Him and call Him Lord might be saved.  And because Mary consented to bear the Son, and the possible stigma and shame and, dare I say Cross that was intended for her Son, we who gather here today give thanks for her faithfulness and the fruit of her womb!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Comfort His people . . .

Peace is like a candle shining in a dark place. We speak this season of Advent in terms of Peace, of Hope, of Joy, of Expectation in terms of small, but powerful lights in the surrounding darkness. Certainly, those who heard the words of the prophet Isaiah knew darkness. Certainly he spoke to a people who had lost hope. For generations they had been taught and come to believe that they were God’s chosen people. Such a selection and understanding should have come with some significant perks. If God really was God, and if the idols were dumb and mute as He taught, they had nothing to fear. No God could fight Him in the heavens and win, and nobody could fight His people on the earth and win. Yet, Israel found itself in Exile, seemingly abandoned by God. Part of why Israel could not be overthrown was that the Temple of God was in their city. The only thing more important to God than His people, so the thought went, was His Temple, His home. God would obviously defend His home against any who would attempt to sack it. Life, seemingly, had taught God’s people they were wrong. They could be defeated. His Temple could be destroyed. They could be scattered from the Land He promised to their ancestors.

We don’t have to work hard at imagining how Isaiah’s audience likely felt. Stunned would be one feeling. Regret would be another. Can you imagine the feeling of having been part of God’s people only to realize that you broke the covenant and drove God away? After all, if they kept the torah, God would bless them; if they did not keep the torah, He would punish them. The prophets had certainly been reminding them that God kept His promises. They sinned; He punished. That was the deal. And, in the midst of this cosmological/theological struggle of their place in the world and in God’s covenant, life events were still happening. There were questions of provision. How will I feed my family? How will I pay for the doctor? Where will I find work? There were questions of health and disease. There were questions of relationship. Imagine being scattered and trying to find a spouse for your children.

We find ourselves, I think, empathetic to the the plight of the exiled Jews. We proclaim the Holy Mystery, Christ has died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again., every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist. But in the midst of the day’s or week’s trials, do we really remember that? Do we really believe it? How are we going to keep the lights on? How am I going to afford medicine and food? How am I ever going to straighten out my kid? How am I ever going to be able to care for my parent? Throw the worldly anxieties in there, such as Ebola or Typhoons or mudslides, and mix in a few tragedies from the lives of our friends and coworkers, and we have a real understanding of the psyche of the people to whom Isaiah was writing. After all, we are those people, and they are us! If God raised Jesus from the dead, why is all this crap happening to us? If God is for us, why are we suffering? Over time, we begin to buy into the myth that God is not real, that we are not loved by Him, and that (if He is real) He really is not able to change the course of our lives.

Notice the words today from Isaiah. They are words of Advent, words of reminding. Comfort, comfort My people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term. She has received the double for all her sins. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed! Part of the truth revealed by God is that we do sin and we do suffer as a consequence of those sins. The pain, the hurt, the toll are real. As real as they are though, they do not signify that He has forgotten those who call upon His name as Lord and as Savior. As real as they are, they are not above Him or His power to redeem.

We talk often about how our behavior is meant to glorify our Master. I cringe when I hear moralistic sermons — particularly when I give them! —, when I hear a televangelist or radiovangelist tell the widow to give him or her that last $1000 so that God will finally bless her, when Christians tell those suffering at the deaths of a loved one that God needed another angel, when Christians argue that good enough is representative of God’s love to the world. When we fall short of His calling upon us, we dishonor Him. We do the opposite of glorifying Him to the world.

But have you ever considered that this honor relationship works both ways? Whatever happens to us, sullies Him, besmirches His reputations, makes Him seem impotent to save? Why do you think those in the Old Testament could wait patiently on His vengeance rather than seeking their own on their enemies? They knew that their dishonor was His! What was done to them was really done to them, one who was created by Him and among His chosen people! You and I can live our lives, and all the circumstances which work their way into our lives, because we know that He will redeem us. We have called upon His name. We have accepted the sacrifice of His Son and picked up our crosses to follow Him. We have asked that we be given the grace to die to ourselves and to live only for Him! And in that amazing act, He binds us to Himself. He reminds us that whatever we suffer, He suffers. Whatever pains us, pains Him. Whatever mocks us, mocks Him. And one day, one glorious Day, He will come agin with power and glory and angels to judge the living and the dead. One Day, one glorious Day, He will come with recompense and repay all humanity in judgment. Those who claim His Son and His sacrifice will be judged as holy, as righteous, as sheep of His own redeeming. And, best of all, He will scoop them up into His arms as a shepherd who gathers his lambs to his bosom. He will feed them, and He will gently lead them. That is the promise of this season of expectation and of our Lord!

It is a tender image. You and I are promised that one day our Lord will appear. Like a shepherd, He will gather us in His arms and hug us tightly to Him. He will feed us, He will lead us, He will love us. Can you imagine the feeling? Those of us who miss the loving embrace of a loved one will be embraced even better than that! For all the good parents and grandparents who loved us, for all those wonderful embraces we have experienced in the arms of someone who truly loves us, even those will pale in comparison to the tender embrace of the Creator, our Father in heaven, who loved us and redeemed us! It is that message you and I are given to proclaim! Why can we face cancer with hope and peace? Because we know one day He will hold us to His bosom! How can we face questions of provision in our lives with hope and peace in our lives? Because we know one day He will feed us, He will lead us to water, He will serve us at the Wedding Feast to which He has called all humanity! How can we face ridicule and persecution with hope and peace in our lives? Because we know one day He will come with recompense before Him! How can we face death with hope and peace? Because we know He will conquer even death’s apparent victory over all His people!

How do we know all this? I mentioned last week that we are a remembering people who are called to look forward, especially during Advent. We are called to remember that the Babe that will be born that Silent Night when all creation sighs at His coming will suffer the Passion and Death that makes possible our own salvation. We are called to remember that His Resurrection that Sunday reminds us not only that He has power even over death in our lives, but that He has power to keep all His promises. Since He has promised, He will come again. Nothing, no power of Hell, no distance, no time, no earthly philosophy, no death, no disease, no doubt, no single thing can prevent Him from keeping His promise to each one of us. And that promise, as we were reminded this morning from Isaiah, is one of comfort, one of hope, one of peace.

Brothers and sisters, to you have been given the words of eternal life. To you have been given the words of comfort. Our Lord loves us. Our Lord will one day come for us. Our Lord will one day take us to where He is, gently like a shepherd leading mother sheep, that we might dwell with Him for all eternity. And to remind people of that love, of that hope, He has planted that burning spark in each one of you and sent you back into the world as laborers. He has sent you bearing crosses that others might see your testimony, that others might hear your words, that you might lead them to His Son. Now go! Go and comfort His people! Just as He has comforted you!



Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Mother, daughter, fiance, aunt, and sister . . .

     We gather this day to celebrate the life of Amalia (Molly), and to remind ourselves of the promises of God.  I know when Nathan read me the text from Tom, I thought Tom was playing at some sick game.  “Mom is at the hospital and not going to make it.”  Are there sadder words that can be said or read?  I suspect that so many are here today because they know your kids’ history.  Two of you are now orphans, while two more of you have “just” lost your mom.  In some ways, though, there are other tragedies that draw others here.  Molly’s mom and dad bear that unspeakable burden of burying a child.  A fiancĂ© will, today, bury dreams that he shared with a woman that he loved.  Where is the good news?  Where is the comfort?

     We gather here at a church in witness to the faith of Molly.  Those of you who knew Molly, know the role her faith played in her life after the death of her first husband, and the father of Tom and Joe.  Being a widow in one’s thirties is not a common experience.  The world might not be too surprised and acknowledge such is the way of things to a woman in her sixties or seventies or older, but younger women, especially younger women whose husbands are not serving in times of war, are rare.  Yet that was the path given to Molly to walk.  Some sitting with us this day might be tempted to say that Tom’s death was easier.  At least Tom had time to say his good-byes, at least his family had an opportunity to get used to the prospect of his death.  As if a lingering death is somehow a blessing, as if a lingering death somehow lessens the pain, the hurt, the anger, the impotence, the frustration.

     Those of you who knew Molly might be here because you know the role her faith played in the aftermath of a failed marriage.  I cannot claim to have known her then, and I cannot claim to have been privy to the dissolution of their marriage.  Our only real conversation about that was her frank discussion of her unwillingness to regret it.  She had two more beautiful children whom she loved dearly as a result.  The divorce was painful, it was a sin, but God had blessed her beyond measure.  And she would treasure that blessing just as she treasured Chris and Carlotta.

     Naturally, I met her through Tom.  If you have ever raised a teenage son, and if you know Tom and Molly, you might well understand her gallows’ humor.  Sometimes she wondered whether Tom was her punishment.  She always said it with a twinkle in her eye and with upturned lips, but those of us who know Tom might well understand her exasperation.  My guess is that her mother and father well know that frustration.  Apples, it seems, fall very close to the trees.  My suspicion has been a bit confirmed by the words of Mrs. Pokora this morning.  Yes, Molly was a good woman, but she was by no means perfect.  But she knew someone who is!  Molly’s faith in Christ made her a formidable woman.  By most accounts, she was a great mom, a great daughter, a fantastic aunt, a dependable friend.  In the liturgical tradition in which I serve and of which Molly was not a part, Molly was like a candle burning in a dark place.  She had a joy about her which drew others in, a joy which pervaded her life, a joy which came from knowing that she was redeemed by her Lord.

     How do I know this if we did not serve in the same tradition?  My only significant story of Molly involves my mother-in-law.  Tom decided he wanted to join my son Nathan on a mission trip to an orphanage in Honduras.  During the course of fundraising, Tom came up short and needed to cancel.  Molly and my mother-in-law talked and spoke of trying again next year.  What impressed me and my son about the conversation was my mother-in-law’s impression of Molly.  Those of you who have mothers-in-law might have noticed that they can sometimes be difficult to impress or satisfy.  My mother-in-law came away from that conversation less worried about Molly’s salvation than she is about my own.  When Nathan shared that story with Joe, Joe asked if she had forgotten I was a priest.  Nathan said no., and I gather everyone laughed.

     But I learned that was Molly.  Tom’s mom, Joe’s mom, Chris’ mom, and Carlotta’s mom had a joy and peace about her in all that she did.  The kids at school often noted how their friend’s mom was always so happy — at school we parents really have no identity outside our kids until somewhere in Upper School!  Chris’ mom is always so happy.  Joe’s mom has a great smile.  Carlotta’s mom makes me smile.  That’s how she was mentioned, that is how she was known.  Seeing your nodding faces and the tears in your eyes, I can see you know of what I am speaking.  Molly had walked through the shadow of death with her husband, she had walked through the failure of a marriage with her second, she had faced all kinds of trials in her life and knew, absolutely knew that God was actively redeeming her life.

     Although I could better relate to the grumblings of raising a couple teenage boys, one of my favorite stories about Molly was the nieces’ and nephew’s discussion of them being a prince and princesses in one of the Scandinavian countries.  Molly always cracked them up by pointing out that they were the real heirs in that country because it was their names which were mentioned in the press releases.  It was nothing for her nieces and nephew to get a notification from social media pointing out that “this is you!”  No matter how many times they would remind her that Scandinavian stock and Hispanic stock were different, Molly would insist that they were the real prince and princesses.  It is a well-known image given us by God that informed her.

     One of those images which confuses people outside the faith is the idea of the firstborn son.  Throughout Scripture we are reminded that all who accept Jesus are heirs.  Better still, we are not just heirs, but firstborn sons and daughters!  Each of us, by virtue of His adoption of us into His family, are entitled to double portions of inheritance.  The math makes no senses to us.  How can there be millions and millions of double shares?  It is part of the mystery.  Such is God’s love and provision for each of us that one day we will all inherit a double portion.  Such is His love for each one of us that we will all be treated like ANE firstborn sons!  CS Lewis drew on that imagery in his wonderful series known as Narnia.  In one scene, Edmund famously corrects the enemy king who, understandably is confused by Edmund’s assertion that he is a king and Peter is a king but that they rule as stewards of Aslan.  When the king fails to grasp it, Edmund shrugs and acknowledges the difficulty but insists on its truth.  Molly understood at a fundamental level of her faith and her being that she was a princess in God’s eyes.  She was entitled to a firstborn’s double portion of inheritance.  And so, from time to time, some of us might have found her trying on a tiara, modeling a crown, and reminding us that we were princes and princesses.  Our heritages did not matter.  Our sins which had been forgiven by Jesus did not matter.  We are all heirs of those crowns.  We will all one day be kings and be queens in His eternal kingdom.

     Wonderfully for her, that day has come.  No doubt she has entered into that joy promised by our Lord.  She has received her crown.  She has received her robe.  And she now resides at the throne in the presence of His eternal glory.  But what of us left behind?  What of a mother and a father who mourn the passing of a beloved daughter?  What of us who have buried our plans with her death?  What of her children who face the reality of being orphans?  What of her children who face the reality that mom will not be there to kid away boo-boos and hurts, to hug away the stings of life’s disappointments, to share in the joy and awe of a child’s imaginations, to look upon a mother’s proud face at our accomplishments?  Where is our good news?  Where is our comfort?

     Our comfort is to be found in the same Lord where Molly found hers.  Mom and dad, the pain of losing a child is deep and heart-wrenching.  The world has convinced us that the “natural order” is that parents are buried in turn by their children.  I am here to remind you that lesson that you have learned from your Father in heaven: this was not what He intended.  Death was not part of His plan for us.  There was no natural order that included death intended.  But, if there is One who truly understands your hurt, your pain, your anger, your sense of loss, it is your Father in heaven.  Like you, He watched His Child pass.  In fact, He has watched all His children pass.  Rather than leave us in this mourning and hurt, thought, our Lord used the death of His Son to make it possible that all of us might be with Him forever.  Though you miss Molly terribly, and will in the days and weeks and months ahead, this is not the end of her story nor of yours.  That same Lord who feels this pain has also promised you that all that believe in Him will be with Him, together, for all eternity.  That you might know He has the power to keep His promise, He raised our Lord from the dead that Easter morning so long ago as a first fruits promise of the harvest that will come.  Mom, Dad, cast your hurt, your pain, your grief on the Lord.  He will send you the Comforter.  But remember, one glorious Day in the future, you and she shall rise in Him and see each other, as well as Him, face to face.  Remember this as well: as parents, we are given one job.  We are instructed by our Lord to tell them of the wondrous things He has done and encourage them to follow Him.  In that singularly most important of tasks assigned to you when God granted you your beaming daughter, you succeeded masterfully.  Your daughter was well-prepared when others may have been caught unawares.  And because of your faithfulness to your Lord and your responsibilities as her parents, she knew her Redeemer face to face, as a friend.  Well done.  Well done, indeed, mom and dad.

     Jeff, you stand in a kind of limbo land for many.  People will not quite know how to deal with you and what you are feeling.  For their confusion, I apologize.  For the unintentional things that they will say, I apologize.  Understand, too, that the Lord in whom Molly placed her faith, understands your loss today in ways that many of us cannot.  For all those idiots who might wish to comfort you by telling you things like “God needed an angel more than you needed a wife” or “at least you did not get married so you are not a widow” or some other such nonsense, know that our Lord weeps.  He has made that salvation He promised to Molly and all whom she loved available to everyone.  He has, in a real sense, invited lots of brides and lots grooms to His Wedding Feast, only to see far too many choose not to join Him.  Like her parents’ grief, He understands yours, Jeff.  Like His promises to them, He will keep His promises to you.  And one day, one glorious Day in the future, if you continue to trust in and serve Him, you will see her, radiant and smiling, not just for a fleeting time here on earth, for all eternity.

     Joe and Tom, what brings me to this particular labor of love has been you and your brother and sister.  The four of you share the pain of having lost a mother and all that entails.  You will never hear again your mother’s voice encouraging you to “go, play, be a kid.”  You will never again feel your mother’s arms hold you when your heart is broken, or you have an accident, or when she is overjoyed by your accomplishments.  You will never again hear her us your full name, recited in anger, as she chews you out for something you should not have done.  You will never again hear her voice say “I love you” or “I am proud of you.”  A mother’s love is like our Father’s in heaven.  No matter what we do, moms love their children, even if we drive them to distraction and frustration.  In your case though, as many have already reminded you, you have the unfortunate experience of having lost both your mother and your father.  You are orphans.

     I know, Tom, that as the oldest of the kids, you feel the weight of her death.  You have worried about Joe’s anger, about the care of Chris and Carlotta.  You have wondered how you are going to ever keep her commitments for her because, well, that is how she raised you—to keep commitments.  Thankfully, you have a room full of friends and family who want to help.  All of those hear gathered understand your grief, even if they cannot yet understand the pressures you might be tempted to bear.  And through all this uncertainty, the voice of the Enemy will remind you that you are unloved, unvalued, that you must have done something terrible to deserve to be punished.  Remember, though, the words of our Lord.  Throughout Scripture, when He reminds His people that He is The Lord and that He has power to accomplish what He wills, He always reminds them that He loves two people in particular: the widow and the orphan.  Though God is often thought to be fixated on keeping the planets and stars in their courses, preventing nuclear war, and whatever other such things, always He reminds us that He loves the widow and the orphan.  Tom, He has loved you since the foundation of the world.  Tom, He has remembered you to His people since He first revealed Himself through Scripture.  In the weeks and months and years as you find your way to church or reading Scripture, remember that your mother’s Lord loves you.  None of what has happened or is likely to happen as a result of Molly’s death is part of God’s plan.  This garbage was not what He intended for you.

     He is, though, a God who redeems.  He is a God who takes an active role in our lives, more so, I think, in the lives of widows and orphans.  Tom, things will likely happen that you cannot control, cannot fix, cannot keep.  The pressures you are thrusting on yourself as a 17-year old are not what He wanted for you.  But know this: just as your mom is wearing her beautiful tiara in His presence this morning with her smile beaming like the stars, He will redeem all that has happened to you.  He promises.

     The same goes for you, Joe.  Joe, I know you feel the need to “step up” and help Tom.  As hard as such weights are for him, they will be harder for you.  For us, you are not yet a man; for some in your extended family, you are the baby.  It makes it challenging for all of us to deal with you.  Please understand, Joe, that much of the dumb things that will be said to you will be said out of that confusion.  Forgive them, Joe, for they do not understand.  They do not understand the hurt; they do not understand the anger.  The strong emotions and the desire to do or say anything in the face of it will cause them to misspeak.  Understand that, though they err, they do so out of love for your mom and for you.  First and foremost, this was not what God intended; God did not need another angel and took your mom; God did not plan this.  He will redeem this, but He did not plan it.  Your grief and hurt, though, will make it hard to consider the possibility that your mother’s death can be redeemed.  Guess what?  He understands that as well.  Our Lord’s love for you, Joe, is not best known by reciting and throwing verses at you.  The study of Scripture has its place, but now may not be the best time for it.  Now you may want to rage.  Now you may want to cry.  It is ok.  He understands.  He understands your heart every bit as well as He did David’s, and David wrote the psalms of imprecation, of wailing, of unspeakable pain.  For now, simply remember the trust and faith your mother shared with you.  Yell at Him, rage at Him.  He has broad shoulders and will bear it the same way He bore the Cross for your mother, for you, and for each and every one of us.

     Chris and Carlotta, I fear that Molly’s death will be the most disruptive to and least understood by you.  Chris, I know you mainly through your time with David; Carlotta, I know you only by name.  Whatever comes when all this settles, your lives will be impacted.  The plans that Molly had for the two of you with her will not happen.  I wish there was a word or phrase or gesture I could say or do to make everything better.  Alas, such is not the gift given me.  I leave you with two thoughts, though, that I hope you can carry with you into the future.  One, though this day is sad for all of us here gathered, it is not a day bathed only in darkness.  Your mom in her care of you, in her sharing of stories, in her demands that you go out and be kids, in her expectation that you use your gifts and talents to the best of your abilities, has testified to you that she knew she would not die forever.  She knew Jesus had been raised that Easter morning and that He would raise her from this coffin and grave.  I would encourage you, as you continue to grow, to learn all you can about this Jesus that placed such a beaming smile and playful spirit in your mom.  Second, as you have learned so harshly this week, bad things happen.  We live in a world that groans for its Creator to finish the redemption.  For reasons beyond our understanding, He continues to show incredible patience with those whom He created.  Never, however, mistake His patience for indifference or impotence.  Our Lord cares more for what you have experienced this week than you will ever know.  As He cried at the grave of His friend Lazarus, I have no doubt He mourns here with us at the grave of His friend Molly.  But know this, learn this, understand this: she has already heard His voice and come out of that grave.  We may not be able to see her, we may not be able to feel her, but we can sure know the One in whom she has been raised.  In this, Tom and Joe will be great older brothers.  What you suffer this week, they have already suffered at the death of their dad.  They, better than all of us, will likely be able to tell you how the death of your mom will be redeemed.

     What of the rest of us gathered here today to celebrate the life of Molly?  What lesson of Good News is there for us in the midst of such pain, suffering, senselessness, and confusion?  Molly’s untimely death can be for us a reminder that none of us, none of us knows when we will find our journey over.  The world likes to entice us with claims that we can nearly master death by medicine, exercise, and good sense.  Molly’s death, though, reminds us that Jesus was right when He compared His return and death to a thief in the night.  We no more control life than we control the sun and moon in their courses or the stars in the sky.  Thankfully, as Molly often shared with those of us present, we do know the One who does.  The God that Molly served never promised us a life on earth without hardship, a life on earth without toil, a life on earth without evil, a life on earth without suffering, a life on earth without hurt.  If you have heard others present our faith in those terms, I am deeply sorry.  Our Lord has taught in all times and in all places that our lives is service of Him are cross-bearing lives.

     But the great news of the Gospel is that this is not all that there is.  We do not just live and die and fade to nothing.  We are known and judged by our faith in the living Christ.  Our Lord has promised, through faith in His beloved Son, that He will redeem all suffering in His name.  Today, such redemption may appear far off.  But our Lord’s promise is ever the same.  And to demonstrate to us and to the world His ability and power and desire to keep that promise of redemption, our Lord raised Jesus on that Easter morning nearly two thousand years ago!  That is the promise upon which Molly staked her life, her life not just on this earth, but in the age to come.  It is that promise which assures us that one day, one glorious day in the future, all of us who know Him who call her mother, daughter, beloved, friend, or sister, will be reunited with her in His presence for all eternity.  Remember that promise, all you who loved Molly, and think of that radiant smile when next you meet in His presence!



Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The time is at hand . . .

     I found myself in one of those weeks desperate for a sermon illustration.  We had translated the Epistle and Mark’s Gospel from Greek into English back in my seminary days, so I was very well prepared to preach on either of those passages, but I lacked an illustration.  Then, almost as if God heard my cry, or maybe George’s to get his daughter off his insurance plan, the Lord gave us an engagement.  That’s right, today I get to use Tucker and Maddy as a modern illustration of the eschatological Wedding Feast and the need to be alert!  Ok, Tucker, now that I have panicked you and introduced you to a small snippet of the torment you will experience in the Eaton-Zemek family, I’ll fess up.  We’ll wait and do that when the two of you are not here!  See how that works?  You are uncomfortable and on edge?  That’s what God calls us to be until His return!  We are all doorkeepers, but I get ahead of myself . . . 
     As I was trying to figure out how to approach this Advent with you, I skimmed through a number of commentaries.  One of the threads that is in more than one is the idea that Mark had two different manuscripts from which to work.  One manuscript treated our Lord’s return as an imminent event; the other treated it as a distant event.  Mark, so goes the theory, tried to be faithful to both manuscripts from which he was working and weaved their threads throughout this chapter of the Gospel bearing his name.  While I recognize the need for people to come up with various subjects for their dissertations, I must say I have no idea why some writers felt it necessary to invent this idea of Mark struggling with two texts.  After all, he lived this struggle as an Apostle and disciple of Jesus.
     There is perhaps no greater evidence of that struggle for Mark than in his discussion of the signs of the time.  Like other writers, Mark tells us that all these efforts to figure out the Day of our Lord’s return to be wasted effort.  No one knows, except the Father.  No one.  If I had a dollar every time somebody wrote me, called me, made my Facebook feed, appeared on television, or appeared on radio claiming to have solved the mystery of Christ’s return, I would not be Powerball rich.  But I sure would not be struggling.  From your laughter I can see you all share the same frequency.  Everybody has an idea for decoding when Jesus returns.  And our “modern” culture is not alone in this effort.  In my preparation for the Bible study on the book of Revelation, several commentators described nearly 1000 predictions that gained some public support.  1000 predictions!  Who knows how many were ignored by the public the last 19 centuries!  So, before we get started, the next time someone offers to give you a date of the Lord’s Return, just switch off your hearing aid or check out in a daydream while their mouth is moving.  If Jesus does not know nor the angels who attend Him, I am going to bet a lot of money that some doomsday preacher does not either!
     That being said, there are some hints about the time in the prophesies, but they tend to be events which are meant to sharpen our dulled senses.  There is, I think, a tendency in the human heart to get complacent about His return.  After all, Jesus has not returned in almost 2000 years.  I can imagine that after the first hundred or so false predictions of His Return, the public began to be amused by the Christians’ insistence that He would return, much as are we whenever so guy gets on late night television with the date figured out.  One big difference between them and us is the culture in which they lived.  For the first 2 1/2 centuries or so, the Roman empire was not the best place to be a Christian.  Claiming to be a disciple of Jesus could cost one his or her job, property, freed, and even life.  Christians longed for that day when they would be delivered from their suffering.  While some Christians, particularly those in the Middle East, suffer for their faith in Christ Jesus, most of us in the West are only marginalized, at worst.  People might laugh at us like they do a crazy uncle or aunt at the family Thanksgiving Dinner, but, for the most part, no one is really interested in really persecuting us for our faith.
     And yet Jesus gave signs of His return.  Why?  To remind the faithful and to give them hope.  Whenever the Church heard of famines and pestilence, wars and battles, natural disasters such as floods or droughts or earthquakes, even signs in the heavens such as comets or eclipses, the Church was to be reminded that His Day was imminent.  Those who had grown complacent like lazy doorkeepers about His return would, hopefully, be startled awake and into watchfulness once again.  Our ministry is like that of the doorkeeper who must guard against falling asleep, lest an intruder sneak in or the master return to find us asleep on the job!  Could this be the moment?  Is this the day?  What was that noise?
     Mark, of course, was aware both of His Lord’s teaching and of the pastoral problems facing those whom he served.  Like his Lord, he wished to give his people hope.  Like them, he once needed hope, too.  For all the effort to recreate these texts and traditions which Mark supposedly wove together, I wonder why we miss the obvious tie to Mark’s need for hope and those whom he served.  Look down in today’s passage to the specific descriptions of the time we do not know: evening, midnight, cockcrow, and dawn.  Think back to where this teaching occurs on the timeline of Jesus’ ministry among His Apostles.  Do those specific times stand out to you?  If I mention that this passage occurs two days before the Feast of Unleavened Bread, would those specific times then ring a bell?
     Evening.  To refresh your memory a bit, this teaching in Mark occurs right before the Last Supper.  The Apostles and disciples are asking questions, and Jesus is teaching them even to the end.  He knows that His ministry among them is drawing to a close.  But do they really understand what He has taught?  Do they understand that He must die and rise from the dead three days later?  By their behavior, I would say it was a safe bet they did not.  What happens in the evening after the Last Supper?  Where do they go, and what does Jesus ask them to do?  They go to the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus will ask His Father that this cup be passed.  Though He sweats blood, He is obedient to the end.  And how do the Apostles, the cream of the disciple crop we suppose, respond to His struggles?  Do they stay awake, supporting their Master and friend?  Do they seek to pray with Him?  No.  They fall asleep.  We understand their fatigue, don’t we?  How many of us dozed after dinner or leftovers this past weekend?  We understand how a lot of food puts us to sleep.  But here is Jesus, about to face the purpose for which He came into the world as a babe in a manger, and how do His closest friends support Him?  By sleeping!  Even when He wakes them, telling them the hour is at hand, they nod off again.  Some friends.  And if these were the cream of the crop, can you imagine what the others were doing?  Scripture does not record that Jesus bothered to invite them.
     Midnight.  As the evening wears on, Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss at midnight.  You all know the story.  He gathers the Temple police and leads them to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus and earn his thirty pieces of silver.  And how do those closest friends and Apostles respond?  Most flee.  One even flees naked, he is in such a hurry not to be captured by the authorities.  True, Peter cut off the ear of a slave, but Jesus reminds Peter that now is not the time for violence and reattaches the ear for the slave.  Jesus will face His ordeal alone, as God intended.
     Cockcrow.  I am guessing by now that I really do not need to focus on this time.  Peter, who was willing to fight for his Master, denies that same Master two or three times before the cock crows, depending on the Gospel we are reading.  What makes this prophesy so shocking is that Peter is so determined to suffer with Jesus when the evening began.  Peter declares to Jesus that even if no one else will fight for Him, he will not fall away.  Peter was so determined that he took up a sword to protect Jesus from the Temple squad, yet he is unwilling to confess his allegiance to a serving maid or soldiers warming themselves around a fire that night.
     Dawn.  What happens at dawn?  Jesus is turned over to the Romans so that he can be put to death.  The Sanhedrin cannot even agree on the charges, but they know they want the itinerant rabbi from Galilee put to death.  For this, they will need the help of Pilate.  In what can best be described as a travesty of justice and utter cowardice, Pilate sentences Jesus to death, knowing He is innocent of the charges levied against Him.  Pilate has Jesus scourged and mocked by the guards and then led to that hill where He dies for our sins, just as God knew would happen from the foundation of the world.  His Enemy has thrown his best punch.  The forces of evil which reject God as sovereign Lord have given it their best effort to thwart His plans.  His Son has been put to death.  God, seemingly, has been overcome.
     Can you imagine the darkness and hopelessness felt by the Apostles that Friday and Saturday?  Each of them went into what we now call Holy Week with their own expectation of the Messiah.  He rode in on the donkey with the people of Jerusalem waving palms and giving thanks to God for Jesus.  He had arrived, and they were chosen by Him to help lead the people of Israel, or so they likely thought.  Each of them, instead, was shown to be a sinner in need of redeeming.  Mighty Peter denied Jesus three times.  None of Jesus’ friends could stay awake with Him that fateful evening.  All deserted Him when confronted by the authorities.  They objected at the anonymous woman’s anointment of their Master for burial.  A stranger carried His means of execution.  Heck, a Centurion witness confessed He was the Son of God when no Apostles could be found to attend His death.  Even after the reports that He had been raised from the dead from the women and from Peter reached their ears, they still could not believe.  They were skittish and confused and hid behind locked and closed doors.  Still they struggled to reconcile what had happened with their own expectations.  Mark did not need to reconcile two traditions.  He had lived through that process!  Like the other Apostles, he knew failure intimately.  His Lord had taught him that He would die and rise from the dead after three days time.  Did Mark believe Him in the beginning?  Not enough to stay awake; not enough to stay with Him when the cops came; not enough even to carry the crossbeam for Him; not even enough to attend His death with the ladies.
     Yet, the grace of God and the reality of the Resurrection transformed Mark and the rest of the Apostles and disciples into someone quite unlike the stupid cowards they acted that Maundy Thursday and Good Friday so long ago.  Each of those men, through the revelation of God and His redeeming power, was utterly transformed.  Within a couple months of his famous denials, Peter will, with John Mark, evangelize the very Sanhedrin that conspired to put his Master to death.  Philip will evangelize an Ethiopian Eunuch.  James will rise to be bishop of Rome.  Each of those who meet our Resurrected Lord are changed significantly.  Gone is the uncertainty.  Gone is the hesitancy.  In their place are certainty and determination.  All are willing to lay down their lives in the service of the Gospel, and all eventually do.  But none are fearful of what the empire, the world, has in store.  Jesus has conquered the world through His death and resurrection.  Nothing can thwart His plans for them or for those who choose willingly to follow Him.  So, in one sense, the immediacy of the prophesy has been fulfilled in Mark’s account.  The Son has already come into His glory during Easter.
     Of course, there is an eschatological outlook to this prophecy of Jesus.  You and I are to mark the various signs and rouse ourselves, and those whom we love, from slumber.  We are called to rouse ourselves from the complacency, from the belief that we have all the time in the world until we meet Him.  Like a master returning from a journey, He may arrive at any moment.  Like a thief in the night, He might catch us unprepared and asleep.  Like unwise virgins, He may find us unprepared and our lamps dimmed.  It is our responsibility, our heritage, that we keep alert and remind people of the signs.  The world might like the cooing of the Baby, without considering the cost that Child will bear when He grows into the stature of a man.  But we cannot forget.  We are keepers of the door!  That is the job with which He has tasked us!
     How does such understanding play out in our lives?  I cannot think of an better time of the need to be reminded that He will come again in glory to rule.  Brothers and sisters are being martyred in other lands for their faith in Christ; armies are at war in various places around the world; here at home we have witnessed riots over race; terrorists are threatening to make a show on Christmas; politicians are more concerned with their own welfare than those who need help; we minister weekly, if not daily, to those who have been chewed up by the system and spit out: battered women and children, the homeless, the unemployed or underemployed, those addicted; we know the suffering mentioned by Jesus firsthand.  And, living in that darkness, we come to the same realization as Mark: the suffering of God’s people and the advancement of His kingdom are inseparable until that blessed Day when He returns for good!  One day, His kingdom will have arrived, and there will be no suffering.  That is His promise to His Apostles, His disciples, and to us.
     Mark, inspired by the Holy Spirit we believe, places these words in Jesus’ mouth both as a warning and as a promise of hope.  We might like to think that the world will spin on for forever, that we have all the time in the world to “get right with God.”  In reality, we do not.  Both His Return and our deaths can come upon us suddenly, like a thief in the night, and we who were warned might find ourselves unprepared and dressed in robes other than He would have us wear.  For those of us who claim Him as Lord, those of us who have laid down our lives, picked up our crosses and followed Him, these words are the words of ultimate promise.  They are the words of rest, of peace, of joy, and of eternity.  They are the surety that all these things, no matter how bad in our lives, will one day pass away and give way to the eternal shouts of Hosanna and the eternal presence of the Lord dwelling with us.  They are the words of love, true love.  When we could not atone for our sins, He bore the price willingly for each one of us.
     Brothers and sisters, once again we come to that time we call Advent, the beginning of another year in the Church.  Once again the world will focus on the Babe lying in a manger and what’s under the tree.  You and I, however, are called to remember the purpose behind that little Baby’s birth.  You and I are called to remind those in our lives that the Nativity Scene, no matter how peaceful and how beautiful, is already marred by His Passion and Death during Holy Week.    Our attention is drawn forward in expectation even as we look back in thanksgiving.  But just as God had the power to raise Him from the dead that Easter morning, so does He have the power to raise each of us who believes in Him to eternal life.  More importantly, He longs to raise everyone we know, everyone we serve, and everyone we meet.  We are, as Paul says this morning, a people reborn and awaiting the revealing of our Lord.  But as we wait, we are keepers.  We are keepers called to watchfulness by our Master, not just watchfulness for His return or the actions of thieves, but of those who are called to introduce others to the narrow door that is Christ.  No matter the past, no matter the present, the future, our future, belongs to Him!  No matter the time, He has already won!  Keep awake!  That blessed Day is much closer than when you first believed.  One day, at some unknown hour, the Master will return.  Keep awake!



Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Kingly foundations . . .

Today marks that most unAmerican of days in the Christian calendar, the day we call Christ the King Sunday. Christ the King Sunday marks the last day in the liturgical year—next week we will be celebrating Advent—and it reminds us of the governance we can expect when our Lord returns. It is quintessentially unAmerican because it describes the King. We tend to think democracy is the best kind of government. How do we call rectors? We vote on Search Committees and Vestries. How do we call bishops? We vote in two orders, lay and clergy by diocese. How do we call Presiding Bishops? We vote by orders, bishops and delegates, both of which are sent by participating dioceses. Our church functions similarly to the way our country does, which is not surprising given that many founders were also members of the Church of England and, later, the Episcopal church. And yet we proclaim that one day, one glorious day in the future, our Lord will reign as King of kings and Lord of lords. We won’t gather in heaven and vote on what we will be doing. Our Lord will tell us. And so today becomes a day that can kind of stick in our own craw when we celebrate it; worse, if not explained properly to those outside the church, it can serve to repulse them.

For background of discussions today, I wanted to look at the passage from Ezekiel. The passage before our reading today reminds us of the relationship between Israel and God. When Israel is freed from slavery in Egypt, God goes with them. God goes with them in a real, if not entirely tangible, way. He provides the pillar of fire by night and the pillar of cloud by day. Once they have journeyed to the appointed place, God instructs Moses and the elders how to build His Tabernacle. From that point forward, whenever Moses must speak with God, the cloud will descend into the Tabernacle to converse with Moses. It was a special position for Israel. God really was in the midst of them, in His dwelling-place. He was their God, and they were His people.

But what happens? Over time, Israel begins to think of itself as not like the other nations of the world. They look around and notice these other nations with kings. They ask the prophet Samuel to ask God for a king. Samuel, of course, is upset by this request. God reminds Samuel that it is He that is being rejected and to do as they ask. So, Israel votes on a king to replace God. Despite God’s warnings about human kings, Saul is elected by the people and anointed by Samuel. Over time, as God predicted, Saul refuses to obey God or even seek His advice. Worse, and this is really where Saul differs from David, Saul is unwilling to repent of his sins. Saul is unwilling to yield his desires, his wants, to the commands and expectations of the Lord.

If you have ever spent any time studying the books of Samuel or Chronicles or Kings, you know that very few of those kings that followed earned the praise of God. David is a king after God’s own heart. He sins, big; but he always repents of his sins. Solomon does a pretty good job, until he marries the foreign women who lead him from the wisdom and worship of God into idolatry. Josiah is unique in that he is praised and given a long rule. Most of those who follow in the lineage of David, though, do far worse than their fathers. Time and time again, Scripture describes the rule of the kings as abhorrent to God. Time and time again they do far worse than their fathers and grandfathers.

Fast forward to our reading from Ezekiel today. In the passage just before our reading today, the shepherds are devouring the choicest lambs. The shepherds are supposed to be taking care of the flock, but they prey on those whom God has charged them to lead. God declares that He will hold the shepherds accountable for the flock. Then He makes the claim we read today. He will pastor His flock. He will care for His sheep. He will be their God; they will be His people. Can you imagine the significance of what God is saying? How many times do we wonder if He cares? How many times do we listen to the whispers of His Enemy and believe that we are beneath His notice? How many times do we choose to sin, fully aware that it is, hoping He is like an inattentive parent who will not notice or be too busy to think it is really bad? Yet His judgement in the passage right before this reminds us that He pays attention to the littlest of the lambs in His flock. Put in the language of Matthew 25, what the shepherds do to the lambs they do to Him!

Christ the King Sunday reminds us that one day, all this inattention, all this preying on us by the shepherds, all the droughts and diseases, all these consequences of rejecting Him as King will come to an end. One day, one glorious day in the future, we will celebrate the fact that God is truly dwelling among us. He will be our God; we will be His people. We won’t have to vote because He will rule us. We won’t have to worry because He will be providing for us. He will be the Host. He will be the Groom. He will be the Waiter. We will be the bride and the guest at the Wedding Feast. It’s amazing imagery to be sure. But how do we convince modern Americans this is what they want? How do we convince the rest of the world that sometimes risks life and limb to make their way to our shores that democracy falls short of the kingship promised by the Lord?

As you all know, I was in Rome at the beginning of the month. The idea for this sermon popped into my head while I was there. As those of you who follow me on Facebook know, a lot of money was spent on our recent elections. I think nearly $75 million was spent on just our Senate race in Iowa. It seems like at least that much was spent on the Illinois House race. That last week in October saw increased political ads for the less important spots. The most wonderful part of Rome, as you have now figured out, was the blessed absence of political commercials. Yes, a television could be on or a radio could be on, and there was no Joni Ernst/Bruce Braley/Cheri Busto/Bobby Schilling advertisements to be heard. Can you imagine the peace? Can you imagine the happiness? You are laughing but only because you have not had to hear one of their advertisements for the last two weeks. Think how good this would have sounded before the election. Now add in all those other advertisements. You get an idea of the bliss promised us by our Lord.

All kidding aside, how long do you think it will be until we are disappointed by one of those whom we elected? How many days or weeks do you think it will be until you find out the position upon which they ran has shifted like sand? If a priest shows up here in February claiming that a politicians lied, will you be surprised? Or will you just assume he or she opened their mouth? It sounds cynical, but don’t we understand what God is saying in Ezekiel 34? Those who are charged with protecting us prey upon us? Those who are supposed to make it possible for us to pursue life, liberty, and happiness are willing to trample us and our rights to get theirs. What we offer, part of the Gospel, is that the Lord will dwell among us, that He will be our God and we will be His people! There will be no democracy. There will be no campaigning. There will be no weak preyed upon by the strong. The Shepherd will not be devouring His flock. He will be lovingly, tenderly, justly caring for His flock, from the littlest lamb to the oldest ram and all the sheep in between.

Unless you think this is only a long-dreamed-for event in our country, I got a view of some who desire it in Rome. While I was out and about in Rome, I ran into a cardinal in full regalia. He was actually on the other side of the street when I first noticed him, but he made it across the street before I could get passed him. I noticed he was passing out coins, laying hands and praying for others, and simply talking with still others. People were clutching at his cassock which, truth be told, seemed a brave event. It looked like a very well tailored cassock with nice think threads marking his position. When he crossed the road, he asked me about my green clergy shirt in perfect English, wanting to know my obscure order. I told him I was an Episcopal priest in Rome working against human trafficking. He held up a hand and offered me what sounded like an Italian blessing—I say sound like because he eventually got to the “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” as he made the sign of the cross.

When I made it back to the dorm that night for evening meal, I asked a friend I had made among the Roman Catholics what I had seen. He asked me where I was, then he told me I had simply seen Cardinal “So and so” campaigning. Like you, I was a bit taken aback. Campaigning for what? I wondered. Another Vatican official answered, as my friend was drinking his wine. “to be the next Pope.” It was then explained to me that some Cardinals make quite the show of being out and among their people in Rome, trying to win the support of the people. The problem with the Cardinal that I had met, he went on to say, was that he misunderstood what made Francis so popular. Francis did not do ministry, so far as he could tell, for public accolades. In fact, he went on, His Holiness is rumored to give their version of the Secret Service fits by slipping out in “regular clothes.” Both men wondered whether Francis was the first ever to give up the site cassock voluntarily. Of course, both had to be somewhat circumspect in their criticism. Both acknowledged that the Cardinal I had met might one day succeed the Holy Father.

While I can tell you the substance of our conversation, I cannot relate to you the tone in their voice. Both men are part of the Vatican machinery. Everyone who stayed in the dorm where I stayed is at least a midlevel Vatican official. Both men enjoyed the fact that Francis sneaks out to serve people. While they were sympathetic to the plight of the new Security Chief, both thought Francis’ willingness to be among the people was great for the Church. He was really trying to earn the mantle of St. Peter by being a servant of all. To them, Francis was a fresh wind blowing. And the Cardinal I had met represented the stale, putrid air of old. When I asked them why they were so critical of the Cardinal, thinking maybe he was really like Francis, both informed me that the Cardinal in question had no history of such activities in his home country. When he is in Rome, this is how he acts; when he is home, he is more a prince of the Church. Ouch.

Like us, our Italian brothers long for those who serve. Like us, our Italian brothers are energized by the thought that someone who seems to be a true disciple of Jesus could be named Pope. Like us, they have been so disappointed by men who have devoured the flocks, they have become cynical. Like us, they long to work with and for those whose hearts have been transformed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Like us, they long for that day when God will truly be Emmanuel, God with us!

My last conversation about how Christ the King Sunday speaks to us today was from a teenager from outside the parish. A local school brought kids in their religion to church see our worship space and to ask me questions. Let me tell you what, we need to keep our youth pastors in our prayers! Those who deal with teenagers have a special ministry on behalf of the Church. Anyway, this one youth asked me how many Christian denominations there were in the world. When I answered that it was hard to tell, but somewhere in the 30-40,000 range for denominations, everyone looked like they had misheard me. The instructor, trying to clarify things for me, said that the youth wanted to know how many denominations existed in the world. I laughed and told them I understood the question. There were, really somewhere around 35,000 denominations in the world. As everybody murmured and tried to decide whether I was right, the youth popped off “You guys sure don’t act like you believe Jesus was the Son of God.” When I asked why, he responded that if Jesus was the Son of God, you would think we would do a better job of staying one, just as Jesus said He and the Father were One. Ouch.

The instructor sought to intervene, but I thought the question fair and said the same. It was such a great question this week that I spelled it out for his classmates. One of the great prayers of Jesus is that we would be one as He and the Father are One. That is why divisions in the church are to be avoided. In our song, The Church’s One Foundation, that we sing from time to time, the robe of the Bride is distressed by heresies and torn by schisms. I laughed. When he asked the question, the youth had no idea about Christ the King Sunday. He had no idea that we Christians are supposed to long for hearts and minds of God. But do we really? Do we really want His heart, His eyes, His everything to lead us? Or would we rather keep Him at a bit of a distance from our hearts? Every time we are moved to divide, every time we are moved to split from one another, our testimony to the world is that our system of worship, our way of governing ourselves, and even our way “doing theology” is more important than our way of expressing the Gospel in our lives. Our One Foundation has become in many places anything but the Lord of Lords and King of Kings. And yes, the world notices. Even youths not yet in our church know that our fights dishonor our Lord and King. And still we fight.

Brothers and sisters, this day reminds each one of us that we are called to serve The Lord and The King. Sometimes our political situation or religious contexts or even our upbringing can cause us to forget this wonderful truth. Next week, we will begin the new year and the season of Advent. We will remind ourselves that, just as the Babe lying in a manger can to us, so will our Savior return to dwell with us. One day, one expectant day in the future, He will come. One Day, one expectant day in the future, He will come to live among us from that day forward and forever more. On that day, the wolves will have been cast out of the sheepfold, the bad shepherds removed from their responsibility, and those who have been victimized will be restored. On that wonderful Day, we will be able to burn the ballot boxes, cast aside our divisions like so many bad memories, and live in Unity with the One who died that we might all be One in Him. That is why we remember this day that Christ is truly King!