Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What song is in your heart?

     Chances are, you have heard a wonderful rendition of the Magnificat over the course of your life.  It is one of those songs that many non-Christians have heard that have made an imprint on their knowledge of the Christian faith.  Usually, the song is sung by a soprano, reminding us of the voice we like to think young Mary the mother of Jesus likely had.  Why we think her a soprano rather than an alto is a question for another time, but I see the nods.  It is a well-known and well-loved song.  Have you, though, paid close attention to the song?  Have you ever considered how the song should be echoed in our own voices, even if a bit off key?  Have you ever thought that your and my voice ought to be raised in that same song making a joyful noise unto the Lord?
     Luke’s reading today ends with the Magnificat, so it is right that we take a moment this Sunday, when we remember the significance of Mary His mother, and consider her hymn.  Mary, as it turns out, is cousin to Elizabeth.  She heads over to the home village of Elizabeth and Zechariah.  We are not told why she goes there.  I would like to think that maybe she goes to talk to Zechariah about the strange greeting from the strange man she just received.  Who better to speak with unusual events than a priest, especially when the unusual event is that you have just agreed to give birth to God’s Anointed?  Maybe Mary liked Zechariah.  Maybe she felt safe speaking with him about this encounter than she did her own parents or her betrothed.  We just are not told.  Of course, given Zechariah’s muteness, which must have begun working its way around the family, I find it doubtful she went to talk to Zechariah.  I imagine her real target was Elizabeth.  Elizabeth was already dealing with the fallout of strange encounters.  I’m sure she enjoyed the enforced silence of her husband, but I am also equally sure that it made communication a bit more difficult than it needed to be.  To refresh your memories, Zechariah had scoffed at the idea that his wife would conceive the voice of one crying in the wilderness.  For his lack of faith in the message of the angel and of the One who sent the message, Zechariah was muted for the entire pregnancy of his wife!  Whatever the reason that drove Mary to Elizabeth, we have this incredible encounter between these two important, if normal, women.
     Upon Mary entering and greeting Elizabeth, we are told that the baby within her leapt for joy.  To us men, such a description may seem farfetched.  Just how far was he going to leap inside her womb?  How could she tell the difference?  I cannot claim to understand how women can feel what is happening within them, and I have watched my wife go through seven pregnancies and deliveries.  Sometimes, Karen would describe the babies’ actions as stretches or turning over.  At other times, she would complain about a baby’s elbow or foot hitting an organ uncomfortably often or even in a painful jolt.  Sometimes, my wife would laugh at the hiccups of the baby, at least until the little spasms got annoying.  Every now and again, Karen would wonder if the baby within her was having a dance party of some sort within her.  I see the nods and the laughter on ladies’ faces today, and the same stupid look we men tend to get around such things.  Ladies know and we are clueless, right?  But Elizabeth recognizes that the movement of the boy within her is one of excitement and joy.  More importantly to us, she is filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaims that wonderful blessing upon her younger cousin Mary.  Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.  Elizabeth understands the risk that Mary took, perhaps better than anyone.  They share many of the same family members.  They do not seem to live too far apart, so they likely shared some of the same friends.  Mary would be at a big disadvantage in her life relating her tale because of her youth.  The older women would think she was crazy or covering up an affair with someone.  Elizabeth at least has a reputation to which she can point in her own defense, that and a husband who cannot speak.  And she rightly recognizes the some of the potential cost that Mary will bear as a result of accepting the Lord’s invitation.  How will Joseph treat her and the baby?  Will people ever forget her story?  Will the Romans target her if her son grows up to be the military leader for whom they have all longed.  No doubt you can think of other thoughts.
     Mary’s response is amazing, too.  We might be tempted to respond with false modesty (aw, shucks, it’s no big deal), were we in the same place.  Mary simply acknowledges the truth of Elizabeth’s words and, far more importantly, gives us insight as to how we should respond to the knowledge that God is not only real, alive and sustaining us, but that He cares for us and has worked to restore the chasm of sin we created between us and Him.  Her words are well known.  I will not this morning spend much time discussing the nuances of the Magnificat.  I want us, instead, to focus how all of God’s acts, both in the world and in our own lives, ought to cause a Magnificat to spring up in our own hearts.
     In many ways, Mary’s hymn captures the essence of the Gospel that will be told by Luke.  Knowing God in the Jewish culture was considered an honor, and it was treated with a deep sense of respect by those who truly knew and feared Him.  The priests mirrored Moses in that they approached God only by reciting certain prayers and hymns and by stepping in certain places.  Forgetting a prayer, forgetting a line in a hymn, and mis-stepping were considered disrespectful.  Those who have participated in the Bible Study at Advent led by Larry and Tom know this even better.  High priests wore ropes and bells to let the others priests know if they were still alive or to pull them out if they were smited by God for dishonor or blasphemy.  By contrast, we think nothing of taking God’s name in vain.  How many Christian leaders make a mockery of God by ignoring His teachings?  How many Christians make a mockery of His love or His mercy by telling those less fortunate, by example if not word, that they deserve what they have received?  How many people today are quick to eschew the God who revealed Himself in Scripture for the idol they call “my god”?
     Ask many people why they fell away from the Church and you will often hear versions of “they were hypocrites.”  When people complain we are hypocrites, they are not often complaining we are sinners.  No, more often than not, they are complaining that we do not repent when we sin or, worse, we celebrate our sins as if they are acceptable to God.  Knowing God, of course, should cause humility to rise in our hearts.  Instead, familiarity seems almost to breed contempt of or for God in our hearts rather than fear.  It’s crazy.  But it is true.  Jesus warns us elsewhere to fear the one who can destroy our soul, and yet we treat Him as a good luck charm or, if you will pardon the pun, a Hail Mary.  My favorite meme on Facebook this week is the criticism that faith healers only work on television and not in hospitals.  Think about that for a second.  It’s a deep criticism.
     So many of us, though, take the idea that God acted to save us, that God wanted us to know Him for granted that we find ourselves unable to get out of a warm bed occasionally to thank Him.  We find ourselves so unimpressed with what He has done for us and for all humanity that we actively neglect to tell our children, or the next generation, of His saving works.  As a somewhat priestly father of seven (my kids can speak against ontological change!), I can tell you that one drives me the most nuts.  If I had a dime for every I want my child to choose for him/her self when he/she grows up whether to worship God or not?  If I had a dollar for every time I heard a version of that, we’d need no stewardship campaign.  Ever.  Our endowments would be flush with cash.  Think of the hubris such an idea conveys in opposition to Mary’s hymn.  You know what.  I don’t think I want to raise my child to believe that the Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen, wants to be known intimately by my child.  I would rather he/she grope about in the darkness.  We find ourselves so ungrateful for the saving works He has done in the world and in our lives that we cannot be bothered to feed the hungry in His name, to clothe the poor in His name, to put our talents, given by Him, to His use.  We go through life as if He is lucky we choose to give Him any of our valuable time.  We go through life as if He is lucky we chose to worship Him at all, rather than reminding ourselves He owes us nothing.  In this relationship, we are the debtor.  I see the squirms.  I seem to have touched a nerve or maybe, maybe, the Holy Spirit is among us giving us a much needed wedgie?
     Consider our own thoughts and actions and words in light of Mary’s.  Luke will spend much of his book explaining to us, teach us, reminding us that we must take God at His word and that the proper response to His word of salvation and redemption in the world around us and in our lives is amazement and joy.  As faithful Episcopalians, we might say our response is a joyful thanksgiving!  In many ways, Mary’s hymn describes us in worship.  In one sense, her willingness to accept God at His word has incredible potential consequence for her.  She has not slept with her husband or any other man, yet now she is pregnant.  How will Joseph respond?  Her family?  The neighbors?  More importantly, we often speak of God’s faithfulness, mercy, love, justice, and whatever other characteristics as abstract attributes.  But now Mary knows God relationally.  He has asked her to bear His child.  His has come upon her in the power of the Holy Spirit and caused her to become pregnant.  More incredible, He has promised that all that He promised to her ancestors will be fulfilled in her child.  Can you imagine?
     In truth, we all should.  We should all be singing a Magnificat with Mary every day of our lives.  We do not worship an abstract truth or collection of attributes, brothers and sisters.  We worship a God who wishes to be known, who wants us to love Him, who wants nothing less for us than a great Father wants for His children.  Mary’s hymn reflects that incredible understanding.  She starts off by wondering who she is, that God should notice her, but she moves quickly to singing her understanding of that same relationship that was offered to Abram & Sarai, to Jacob & Rachel, Moses, to Hannah, to David, to Solomon, to Elizabeth her cousin, and to countless others, including you and me!  Mary’s hymn of praise testifies to the fact that the she sees God for who He is, and she rejoices that He has been mindful of her!
     Mary’s song, though in the beginning quite personal, is also universal.  Everyone we encounter is noticed by God.  Everyone.  He knows their names; He knows their situations; He knows their hurts, their hopes, and their fears.  And across the chasm He calls to them.  He may send you and me instead of an angel, but He calls them and us all the same.  Put in modern language, He changes the world by transforming our souls and equipping us for ministry in His name.
      Brothers and sisters, how is your heart in your breast this morning?  Did you drag yourself to church only because you had to?  Did you come to church because you were working or because you needed to see some people or because you only wanted to watch the youth put on their presentation?  Or did you come, echoing Mary, praising Him who noticed you, called to you, and promised to redeem you, through the work and person of that baby whose birth we celebrate later this week?  Did you come, a recipient of His tender mercy, led to Him by the Son whom Mary bore, whom Pilate killed, and whom God raised from the dead?  Or did you come merely because you were dragged?  In the end, brothers and sisters, He wants us to know Him fully.  The beginning of the end of His plan of salvation for all of us began with that little girl’s assent to His request.  If He can save the world through the faithful and joyful obedience of a young girl, imagine what He could do through a congregation of believers, a congregation that includes you and me!


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Making the ordinary extraordinary . . .

     We continue our journey in Advent with some good old fashioned hellfire and brimstone preaching.  Not really.  I’ve been called a lot worse than a viper in my life, and I imagine most of you have, too.  I have found my stroll through the commentaries interesting, though.  There is a serious discussion, almost a back and forth in the commentaries, between those who think that naming sins and calling people to repentance is anything but good news and those who think the age of overly permissiveness has caused us to forget our real Gospel news.  Put in English language, some experts wonder how John’s preaching could ever be considered good news by Luke and the people.  The struggle for them, of course, is that the crowds flocked to John to hear his message.  I’ve only been doing this a dozen years or so, and my sense is that I really don’t have to beat people up with their sins.  They know them all too well.  But, neither can we let them pass unaddressed.  When we fail to call sins sins, people begin to think that some of their activities and thoughts are no big deals.  Who really gets hurt if I watch online pornography?  My company makes so much money anyway, it is never going to miss the reams of paper/boxes of pens/tape dispensers and other stuff I took, is it?  If we both agree we should divorce, it is not really a bad thing, right?  It does not really matter if I give the middle finger to those idiots who cut me off on the highway or at traffic lights, does it? 
     I hear chuckling, but my guess is that most of the chuckling is rueful.  We have become experts at rationalizing our behavior, have we not?  And we like to think most of our behavior is ok in God’s eyes.  Yet it is precisely those everyday sins as well as the “biggies” that caused Him to come down from heaven.  It was precisely those “no big deals” that separated us from our Father in Heaven every bit as much as the big ones like murder and rape.  People need to know that the secret sins, the horrible sins that make them unlovable, have been paid in full by our Lord Christ.  But people also need to know that those little sins matter every bit as much to God and that our Lord died as much for them as the big ones in our lives.  In many ways, we are much like the Jews who came to hear John preach.  We understand righteous behavior; what we don’t really understand is this idea of forgiveness.
     Our reading from Luke picks up right where it left off last week.  John’s activity has been placed alongside the emperor’s, the governor, and the tetrarchs.  This nobody by worldly standards, John, comes from the wrong family and the wrong town, has been given the responsibility of serving as the last of the Old Testament prophets, this after God has been silent for a few centuries!  He has strolled out of the wilderness and has begun preaching his message of repentance.  Amazingly, the people have heard his message.  In a day when social media, television, and cell phones did not exist, John’s message was enough to get the folks in the city to head down to the river to hear him preach.  Many, we are told by Luke, were baptized by him.  Some wanted to place their salvation in their family tree or in their location; John reminded them that God was having none of that.
     As they approach, as they hear his message of repentance, they wonder.  What does a repentant life look like?  What are the fruits of repentance?  As people ask, John answers.  John’s answers, of course, do not sound so new to our ears.  We know that the second great commandment is to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, but we have the hindsight of Jesus’ teaching and the red letters of His words to direct us.  John simply has the torah and Holy Spirit upon which to base his answers.  Those who are wealthy, having two cloaks or plenty of food, ought to share with those who have none.  Even traitorous IRS agents, tax collectors, can bear fruit worthy of repentance simply by collecting only what is owed.  Soldiers, too, come to John and ask if they can bear worthy fruit, and John instructs them that they must not allow themselves to be used to extort people and that they should be satisfied with their wages.  Presumably other professions were in the crowd also asking how they might bear fruit, but these would be two groups many would think outside God’s love and one group that must clearly be loved by God based on outward appearances.  John, of course, reminds them and us that God has little concern for outward appearances.  It is the repentant heart and the accompanying fruits which God desires.
     John’s answers are simple yet profound.  The crowds, we are told, began to wonder whether John is the Messiah.  John answered them all, Luke tells us, by reminding them that he baptizes only with water for repentance.  The Anointed, the Christ, will baptize with the Holy Spirit, empowering them for incredible work and ministry.  Luke ends our passage today with this amazing little snippet.  “And with many other words, John exhorted and preached the good news to them.”  Those who reject sin and those who have become too permissive about sin reject John’s preaching as good news, Gospel.  Similarly, those who want to believe that there is no accounting before God, that there is no threshing floor, cannot accept that the people in the crowds are exhorted and filled with good news.  I suppose the difficulty comes from being an academic versus being a pastor.  How can calling sin a sin be good news?  How can a reminder about judgment be good news?  How can a critique of one’s profession be good news?
     Notice anything remarkable about those coming to see John?
     Boy, if I called on people in the pews this morning, there would be a panic, wouldn’t there?  Who are the people in the crowd?  They are normal people like you and like me, are they not?  Luke highlights the tax collectors, soldiers, and rich, I think, because of their perceived standing by those in the crowd.  The Jews often thought themselves unassailable because of their chosen status by God.  Some really believed that those living in Jerusalem could never be conquered because God had to protect His Temple.  God could never allow His people to be subjugated because that meant He would be subjugated in the heavens.  They really believed this despite the testimony of the Exile and the warning of the prophets.  What is the saying?  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Clearly, many of those who come to hear John speak think their birthright protects them from God’s wrath or ensures them of God’s promises.  John reminds them that their ancestry guarantees them nothing from God.  What forges the relationship with God is a repentant heart.
     We see this attitude of the people alive and well in the modern church, don’t we?  I encounter it all the time.  “Are you a Christian?”  “Of course.”  “Great!  How has Jesus worked in your life?”  “Well, I’m not that kind of Christian?”  “What do you mean, that kind of Christian?”  Then follows a list of excuses.  I’m just a Christian because mom and dad took me to church as a kid.  I’m just a Christian because mom and dad and grandma and grandpa are Christians.  I’m a Christian because I’m an American.
     You all are chuckling, but we hear these excuses all the time.  In my short time among you I have met a number of people in the real world of Target or the mall or Publix or other sites who proudly tell me they are Adventers.  When I ask how they support Advent, either through worship, prayers, or financial contributions, I get a litany of excuses.  God knows I need sleep, so I sleep in on Sundays.  Why don’t you come to worship on Monday mornings, Tuesday evenings, or Wednesday noondays?  Well, I’m really busy so I don’t have time to pray.  Not even at night before bed or at mornings when waking?  How about in the car?  I can barely pay my bills as it is, or my favorite, that’s all you priests care about is money.  Well, you do know there is a cost associated with worship and with ministry?  It costs money to let sex addicts meet in our church.  It costs money to let a refugee community worship in our church.  It costs money to be there when you finally decide you need to talk to someone about God.  But you can also give in ways than financial.  People today, like people in John’s time, act as if Peter is going to ask for a membership card when we reach the pearly gates and not question our allegiance to His Lord our God.
     John’s rebuke of the selfish or miserly rich should prompt them to live lives that feed, water, and clothe the Lazaruses in their lives.
     Sitting here today, though, I have also heard some of your arguments against John’s teaching.  I’m not sure what caused the conversation dam to break, but over the course of the last six weeks or so, we have had a lot of conversations, so many that I am now usually running a couple weeks behind on getting my sermons typed up and put up for those absent to follow along.  I have heard until I am ready to scream what I call the excuse of ordinariness.  God needs someone better than me for that ministry, Father.  I can’t possibly do that, Father, I’m just . . . me.  That would take someone more holy than me.  What we often forget is that, in God’s eyes and under His tutelage, the ordinary become extraordinary.
     Think of John from our passage today.  Does he come from the right family?  Is he from the right town?  Does he have the right career choice?  Does he wear the right clothes?  Heck, does he say the right words?  John reeks of ordinariness.  His father serves in a town outside of Jerusalem.  He is located at the parish and not the cathedral, to use our language!  His clothes are rough, to say nothing of his diet.  Yet, how does God view John?  He caused us to remember his name.  The world might be fascinated by Augustus, Quirinius, Pilate, and the Tetrarchs, but God loves those who fear him and follow His teaching.  This unremarkable man, by worldly standards, is well known by all Christians today and many non-Christians.  More importantly, He was and is well known by God, who gave him the honor and privilege of being the one crying in the wilderness for the Anointed One!
     And lest we think John is an exception, let’s talk some of our recent stories.  Ruth?  A Moabitess widow!  Neither her heritage nor her condition cause the world to notice her, yet God and Boaz does.  And what about Boaz?  A seemingly ordinary guy of middle age!  Yet both become the parents of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David, you know, that famous shepherd with a heart after God’s own.  Peter?  A fisherman.  James and John?  Fishermen or net-minders?  Matthew?  An old fashioned IRS collector!  In reality, if we pay close attention to Scripture, there are very few extraordinary men and women, at least by worldly standards, who choose to follow and obey God.  Most are normal John’s and Jane’s, right up until that moment they decide to do as God asks!  Then, and only after their faithful, obedient response, does God truly bless them.  What if Ruth would have followed the footsteps of her sister Orpah?  What if Boaz had been more like his kinsman closer to Ruth or a wicked man who ignore God’s torah?  What makes the people special, what makes the people extraordinary in our eyes is the One that they serve.  There is nothing in them that causes the world to go “Wow.  We could totally see that in her/him.”  It is their faith in God, who promises to redeem all things and who promises to indwell in all His people, who makes them the giants we think they are.
     All of that, of course, brings us to Nashville in the year 2015.  Look around for a moment.  Consider prayerfully what you think God is calling us to do and to be at Church of the Advent.  What do we really lack?  We have tons of skills seated around you.  Tons.  And now think back to that face staring back at you as you dressed this morning.  What role is He asking you to play in His wonderful plan of salvation?  You can bet that if He is asking, you will have the skills necessary to accomplish His will.  Either they are already within you, or He will give them to you at just the appropriate time.  Best of all, that plan He has for your life and for salvation is dependent only upon Him.  True, He asks us to respond obediently in faith.  But the real execution of His plan, the real working out of His plan, is up to Him.  If His enemy, who is diametrically opposed to His plan cannot thwart Him, what makes you think you are powerful enough to really screw things up?
     Brothers and sisters, you and I serve a God who excels at taking the ordinary and making them extraordinary, who takes the common and makes them sacred, and that truly is good news to those of who hear and believe!  As John reminds us, our Lord takes faithful obedient behavior and uses it to His glory and His honor and the welfare of His people.  Rather than fight Him in your life or argue with your inner demons that you are incapable of incredible work in His name, why not join yourself to His will?  Why not do as He asks and look expectantly for the result?  In the end, He has promised to share His honor and His glory with all who follow Him.  Should we really be surprised that we remember and honor men and women like John, like Peter, like Mary, like Ruth, like Boaz, like Martha?  Should we really be surprised that one day men and women born again of our Father’s Spirit remember you or this parish in the same prayers of thanksgiving?


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

In the seventh year of Obama's presidency, when Haslam . . .

     When I was in Rome last year, we had a change of plans, at least as far as pastoral care is concerned.  As many of you know, one of the issues facing us in this fight against slavery is the “silo” nature of the ministries.  Everybody does their ministries—some very well, and yet we do a poor job of connecting or being connected to one another.  Such a claim might sound strange in our ears, given our episcopal nature and ecclesiology.  But we do a poor job of supporting those engaged in this ministry.
     It was because of the need for some “down time” or spiritual care or whatever that you want to call it that the Pope and ABC were able to move quickly.  During our first four days we engaged in what I term heavy ministry.  We talked about and watched things human beings should never talk.  Ever.  Yet here we were, mostly lay and a few clergy engaging in a viscerally evil spiritual warfare, even as we were trying to rally the Church to the fight.  So, as part of our care, Justin and Francis sent us to this former prison in Rome.
     This prison was located well below ground.  You and I would call it a dungeon by our imaginations.  The only problem is that the prison was really a house or villa.  Back in the 1st century AD the windows looked to the streets and sky outside.  Now, however, the house is well below ground.  What struck archaeologists who found it, and I must confess the details were a blur, was the fact that it was the basement or catacombs of a church, which served as the same for another church, which served as the same for another church.  I can’t remember for sure now, but I think it was nine churches built over this house.  The number was high enough that archaeologists knew it was very important to early Christians.  That’s how they preserved sites back then—they built churches over them.  In this location, the floods of the Tiber over the following centuries had forced the Christians to build new churches above the older churches.  Naturally, everyone was excited to see what was at the bottom.
     In the prison/house/villa at the bottom was little remarkable.  There were windows, a well, and other accoutrements one would expect to find.  Then on the walls the archaeologists began to notice quotations from the Epistles.  Finally, on one wall, there was a beautiful mural.  It was a scene that painted various Apostles and disciples doing their work, even as Mary held her son, Jesus.  Ironically, the Eastern churches have a tradition that the picture of Mary holding the Baby Jesus with his halo was done originally by Luke.  Being a physician, Luke had painstakingly tried to draw a likeness of Jesus based on his conversations and interviews with Mary and those who knew our Lord during His earthly ministry.  We might say it is the closest we have to a photograph of our Lord.  The Church in the West, as you might imagine, poopooed this idea.  It made for great storytelling, but there was no way to know whether it was true.  Until they unearthed this house/prison/villa.
     There, on the wall in the villa, was a scene that included the very picture of our Lord and His mother the Eastern Church knew so well.  The Church being the Church, that is all being worked out.  Officials from the Vatican have taken control of the mural and had it removed for study.  What is no longer debated now, though, is the resident of one who stayed in the house/villa/prison.  Yes, Paul.  The house is thought to be the site where Paul was imprisoned before he was killed by the Emperor.  We believe now that his faithful companion, Luke, drew the mural to help remind his master and friend of the work of our Lord.  Though Paul was imprisoned in a house in Rome, the Gospel had spread throughout the kingdom!  And though the Emperor within a few years or months, depending upon when the drawing and painting occurred, would put Paul to death for his faith in Jesus of Nazareth, an emperor some 26 or 27 decades later would bend the knee to Christ.
     It was a great place of silence and reflection and pictures for those of us present.  Archbishop David gave us many of those details for which some of you no doubt hunger, but for us dealing with atrocities that disgusted us and shook us to our cores, it was the perfect place to meditate on that question of why God allows such evil to exist.  The reminder, of course, was that in the end God wins.  Yes, the battles during the intervening years will be brutal.  Yes, we may face mockery, derision, and indifference, but He wins in the end!  We don’t know the purpose behind the mural, of course, but it seems reasonable that Paul must have wondered from time to time what God’s plan was.  How could he evangelize anybody while imprisoned?  Yet, the artwork would have reminded him that it was not up to him to reach the world, only those with whom he had contact.  God was taking care of the rest, even while Paul was confined.
     Why do I share the story?  Partly, I think it gives us insight as to one of the driving focuses of Luke.  The other reason is that it speaks to an eternal truth of which Luke wants us to know we are a part.  Luke is very good about going from the abstract to the close, from generalities to specifics, from out there, to in here, our hearts.
     Luke at your readings from Luke today.  Every three years we read this passage from Luke.  To those who must preach on this passage without a bit of knowledge of Luke, it must be incredible hard.  Why does Luke mention these rulers?  Why the big quote of Isaiah?  Why not add more to the reading to give us real preaching material?  Yet Luke has a particular focus and mindset he wants to share, if we will just pay attention.
      Luke sets the passage in history.  Specifically, the passage is set in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius.  To us, the date may seem obscure, but we live under a calendar set up by a successor of Tiberius.  This is the way they counted dates in the ANE prior to the calendar you and I know now.  This is the way we count things in the Church even to this day.  Bishop John will have confirmed Robbie last week in the ninth year of his episcopacy—that’s how the certificate will read.  But the emperor was this far off power whose impact on daily life and work was non-existent.  Put differently, if Luke wrote about something happening in the seventh year of Obama’s presidency, how many of us would feel any tie to him?  We live in a democratic republic where we vote for our president, but I think it fair to say that most in the country feel no personal relationship, for good or for evil, with our President or with any President.
     So, in the political realm, Luke moves closer.  When Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea.  Ah, now we are getting a bit more local.  In our modern language, Luke might well be saying In the seventh year of Obama’s presidency, when Haslam was governor of TN.  The Emperor might be a far off figure, but Pilate was much closer, and people knew his influence, for good or for ill.  Chances are, people blamed him for high taxes, poor municipal projects, bad roads, brigands on the loose, and any number of other problems that beset them.  Pilate would, of course, journey to Jerusalem on important occasions.  Heck, on one such journey, Pilate met our Lord and sentenced Him to death!
     And Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene.  Now we are getting specific.  Herod and Philip ruled as vassals of Rome.  In fact, when Jesus is first presented to Pilate, Pilate sends Him to Herod to let Herod decide the fate of the Jesus of Nazareth, since most of Jesus’ ministries and activities had occurred in the territories ruled by Herod.  When Herod the Great had died, he had left a will dividing his kingdom among his surviving sons.  Without going in to great detail, this was the Game of Thrones in real life.  The problem was, of course, that the Augustus had to ratify Herod’s will or make his own decisions.  Eventually, after the three brothers had journeyed to Rome to make their respective cases before Caesar, the emperor largely upheld Herod’s will.  Herod Antipas managed to rule Galilee for some 42 years, a rather remarkable feat given the winds of change that drove the empire.
     For those who lived in Galilee, Herod was Rome.  He set the specific policies.  He placed whom he favored in whatever position of power.  The governor held greater authority, to be sure, but it was Herod and Philip who controlled the daily application of Roman power and law to the lives in their lands.  It was Herod who determined to rebuild buildings or to build new towns in honor of his patrons in Rome.  It was Herod who decided whether to build defensive walls or not around the cities who claimed they needed them.  Heck, it was Herod who decided to build a city over a graveyard and force people, most poor Jews, to relocate there, that despite the ritual uncleanliness of a site.  It was Herod, of course, who killed the prophet of God, John the Baptist, over an oath, knowing full well that his subjects knew John to be a prophet.  More on that in a moment.
     Phillip was Herod’s brother.  In essence, Herod Archelaus had been given half of his father’s kingdom, the west side, and Herod Antipas and Philip the other (eastern) half.  Phillip ruled the northern half; Herod the southern half.  Between the rulers, of course, all political power was covered.  And, both men had their share in ungodly behavior.  Philip, as it turns out, ended up marrying Salome, his niece, she of dancing before her mother’s lover or uncle and, as a result, securing the death of John the Baptizer.
      Little is known today of Lysanias.  His coins bear the inscription “high priest and tetrarch.”  Josephus claims that Lysanias offered a Parthian satrap 1000 talents and 500 women, if he would place his son Antigonus on the throne of Judea.  Of course, Josephus also claims in a later work it was someone else who made the offer.  What seems clear is that Lysanias ran afoul of Cleopatra, who wanted his territory.  So, near the time of Jesus’ death, Marc Antony put Lysanias to death.
     Putting these three positions in modern political language might be to consider them glorified mayors, with Herod and Philip splitting Nashville while Lysanias ruled Clarkesville.  The end would be that most of us in central TN would be familiar with the political powers that be.
     Luke, of course, is not done.  He goes on to mention the religious rulers.  During the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.  Annas had been removed from being high priest by the Roman authorities, but his influence behind the scenes was rather strong.  Five of his sons and at least one son-in-law, Caiaphas, served as high priest.  All faithful Jews knew this family.  Who do you think it was that was responsible for turning the Lord’s house into a market?  A den of evil?  Who do you think it was that adopted policies which elevated their words to the words of the Lord?  Who do you think it was that placed in positions of power those who like to mouth pious words or be seen as religion, rather than lead the people in the worship of God?  It would be like us naming a time of a bishop or pope as reference.
     In the midst of this grand narrative, however, Luke does something remarkable.  As the political powers and winds are shifting around the people, elevating some while killing others.  While politics have invade the Lord’s sanctuary, the Word of the Lord came to John bar Zechariah in the wilderness.  Yes, politics is important.  Yes, religious institution is grand.  But out in the wilderness, as far as one could be from the seats and thrones of power, God was doing something new!  He was raising up a prophet!  For the first time in three centuries, God was speaking again!  And this honor and obligation fell not on Herod or Philip or Lysanias or Caiaphas or Annas, but upon someone on the margins of society.
     John’s ministry, we are told, was very specific.  He went about the Jordan proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  Baptisms were not unique in the worship of the Jews.  Gentiles would be adopted into the family of God, as full descendants of Abraham & Sarah, through a ritual bathing.  It is likely that Ruth, about whom we read a couple weeks ago, underwent such a ritual, such a sacrament.  How else do we explain her determination to follow and serve her mother-in-law Naomi, as part of her service to Yahweh.  Yahweh had become her God.  And her service of Him and loyalty to her mother-in-law, as much as her good looks, captures the eyes and ears and imagination of Boaz.
     Jews would also cleanse themselves after the appropriate sacrifices.  Righteousness was something they felt was conferred and earned by one’s attention to the torah and one’s observance of the sacrifices.  When Paul claims he was righteous under the law, he is not being arrogant.  He is stating a fact that, when he sinned, he made appropriate sacrifices and underwent the ritual cleansings whenever he was made unclean.
     John’s baptism, though, was new.  He was proclaiming a baptism of forgiveness.  If I had cross words with Shane, and we determined to make amends before the next service at Temple, each of us would be required to make some sort of sacrifice.  If we were just a little mean to each other, we each might owe a turtle dove.  If we had been ruthless in a business transaction, we might each owe an oxen.  You get the idea.  In this way, appropriate sacrifices, righteousness, became the purview and opportunity for the wealthy.  They could rob foreign visitors or blind or steal widows’ houses, but as long as they made the sacrifice required, everything was supposedly ok with God.  Think in terms of the mafia and its relationship with the Roman church.  Think in terms of those who claim to be Christian in our midst, at least for ninety minutes a week, but then spout evil or engage in activities that are supportive of evil.  If you were poor, of course, you were screwed.  Absent the appropriate sacrifices, you could never be righteous.
     Heck, this week I received a letter from a US Senator in my former state.  In it, he was proclaiming how proud he was to support efforts to curtail child slavery in the US labor markets and how supportive he was of our efforts to end slavery.  I have not yet heard back his response to my letter (I forgot to mention I had moved, but I will repent of that in a moment), but I wonder why the language was changed.  The original bill introduced in the Senate called for the end of all slavery in our labor markets.  All slavery.  Male.  Female.  Adult.  Child.  All.  Yet this self-described Christian senator seemed to think that the fight against child slavery was somehow morally superior to the enslavement of adults, this coming as a follow-up to his vote against the federal effort to fight slavery in our midst, that despite his promise to a bishop that he was on the side of God in this fight, as if God cared a whit for the political ties that caused him to vote against the federal legislation, as if God was somehow more supportive of adult slavery than He is child slavery.  Can you imagine?  To those whom much is given, much is expected.  Naturally, he wanted me to share with members of my congregation about his wonderful support.
     It is against that backdrop of the human condition that John strolled out of the wilderness preaching the words of Isaiah.  The hills will be made low, the valleys will be filled in, the twists and turns will be straightened, and all flesh will see the salvation of God.  What John preached was novel.  God was going to make forgiveness possible.  God was going to make forgiveness possible to everyone.  The offer was going to be made to the rich and the poor, the weak and the powerful, the Jews and the Gentiles.  The offer was going to be open to all who would accept it, to all who would grasp at it.  There would be only one stumbling block, that of the Lord providing the way of forgiveness Himself, in the flesh of His Son our Lord!  That was the message of John.  That’s why the people flocked to see him and to hear him.  God had been silent for generations.  Now, while Pilate was governor, while Tiberius was emperor, while Herod and Philip were tetrarchs, God was fulfilling His promises to Abraham & Sarah.  It was an amazing time to be alive.  And God was beginning this effort not in the forum of Rome, not in the palaces of human kings, not even in His own temple.  No, God was beginning this fulfilment with a word planted in a man in the wilderness and through the birth of a child born in a village!
     Brothers and sisters, you and I share in that same ministry of John!  You and I are called to remind ourselves that we are heralds of peace, harbingers of hope, and full of joy.  We are disciples of that salvation.  Each time we gather, each time we come to worship God, we give thanks for the death, resurrection, and coming of our Lord Christ.  It is the very heart of our message.  When we could not atone for our sins, when we could not hope ever to earn forgiveness, our Lord offered it to us through His own ministry, through His own action.  You and I are called to proclaim that light in a dark and dreary world.  And you and I are called to proclaim that light, in word and in action, with everyone with whom we interact.  It does not matter their ethnicity, it does not matter their education, it does not matter their profession, God’s salvation is open to all who would proclaim Him Lord and join us, through that amazing sacrament of baptism, into new life!  He has entrusted you and me with the most amazing invitation, an invitation for which He has paid the cost in its entirety.
     As Luke goes to great pains to remind us, all of this takes place in the “real world.”  Luke places his Gospel narrative and the action of God in its place in history.  Luke reminds us that God acts in this world, through people living in this world, to effect His purposes.  To those hearing the Gospel for the first time, it no doubt sounded crazy to think that the work of John could have amounted to anything significant.  Certainly, his work would have seemed to pale in comparison to emperors, or governors, or tetrarchs, or high priests.  John lacked the funds to reach the rich and powerful; John lacked the education to convince people He was intelligent; John even lacked the religious pedigree to make people think He was anything significant in religion.  But John did received the Word of the Lord and responded faithfully.  As it turns out, that was all he needed.  Those who were seemingly far above his influence feared him and the Word he proclaimed.  Those who discounted his wilderness education could not contend with the wisdom granted by the Lord’s Word.  Even those who were keepers and stewards of God’s holy mysteries found themselves drawn to his preaching and teaching.
     That same word which was active in John’s life is alive in yours and mine.  That same Word which frightened the powerful, baffled the intelligencia, and caused the religious elite to pause and listen is present in us.  He has promised!  And that we might know He is able to keep all promises, He raised His Son our Lord that third morning, raising us along with Him in that life that is to come.  Adventers, this is our patronal season.  This is our time.  Those who founded us named us after this time when baptism of forgiveness goes out.  It is in our spiritual DNA and in our heritage that we celebrate His first coming even as we await His Second coming in power.  Whatever the obstacle, He will overcome.  That is His promise and that is His practice.  It matters not whether an emperor fights us and imprisons us; it matters not whether bosses and co-worker mock us or try to take advantage of us; it does not even matter whether a neighbor responds with indifference.  In the end, every knee will see His salvation and our glorification in His Son!  How will you respond to that call on your life?
     In the seventh year of Obama’s presidency, when Haslam was governor of TN, when Megan was mayor of Nashville and Ron was mayor of Oak Hill, and when Justin was Archbishop of Canterbury and Michael had just taken over for Katherine in the church, God called you and called me to proclaim His salvation, offered through His Son Jesus Christ our Lord.


Thursday, November 26, 2015

It’s Good He is King!

     Well, we have made it through another church year.  Those of you a bit surprised to see white today may have forgotten it is the last Sunday after Pentecost, also known as Christ the King Sunday.  The Feast of Christ the King is a relatively new feast day in our liturgical cycle.  It came about only in 1925.  That is not to say that our spiritual ancestors did not believe that Christ was King of kings and Lord of lords.  It means only that they did not celebrate a day of intention whereupon they reminded themselves of that reality.  The feast itself was introduced to the liturgical church world by one of the Pius’.  Pius XI noticed the rise of secularism and the increasing denial of Christ as King, as well as Christians’ (RC’s in particular) increasing belief that the Church could not continue Christ’s authority.  So he came up with a plan.  Each year, there would be a day of celebration where we reminded ourselves that Christ was King and so counterweighed the testimony of the secular world that was given the other 363 days of the calendar year!  Why are you laughing?  He was a Pope.  He must have known what he was doing!
     All kidding aside, Pius did write a document outlining his goals for the celebration.  (1) He wanted the leaders of the nations to see that they owed respect, at least, to Christ, who would one Day come to judge them and their use of the power He granted them.  (2) He expected the nations, or more specifically their rulers, to see that, since the Church followed Christ, churches should be exempt from being an agent of the state.  Put in modern language, there was to be a separation of the Church from the State, and the State, out of respect for her Lord, would not interfere in her affairs. (3) The faithful who celebrated this day would be strengthened in their faith and reminded that Christ must reign in our minds, our hearts, our wills, and our bodies.  From your laughter a moment ago, it was clearly an ambitious goal.  Given the rise of secularism over the last 90 years, and the increasing pressures on churches in places that practice a separation of Church and State, never mind the ones that make no such distinction, one might say Pius’ vision failed miserably.  Of course, Pius has good company.  The outcome of our Lord’s conversation with Pilate, as recounted by St. John today, was one of seeming abject failure.  Pilate later sentenced Jesus to the Cross where He died.  That failure should have been the end of this bit about Jesus and kingship; yet here we are, two thousand years later, celebrating that truth half a world away!
     Pilate’s opening question of Jesus is a loaded question.  To take you back to the scene a bit, remember, the governor of an area was personally responsible in the eyes of the emperor for any alleged crime that might affect the well-being or interests of the empire or where capital punishment was required.  The Sanhedrin, led by Caiaphas, has done a wonderful job of walking this minefield.  Jesus has been arrested outside the view of those whom He has taught in the temple.  The trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin has gone very well.  They have voted that Jesus should be killed.  Now, Pilate must be navigated.  Pilate must be convinced to kill Jesus as a threat to the empire, but they cannot enter the debate directly, for fear of ritual defilement.  See any irony there?  They are plotting to kill Jesus while maintaining ritual purity.
     Pilate is loathe to enter the Jewish squabble.  When first engaged in the discussion, Pilate tells them that their powers are sufficient to deal with the troublemaker Jesus.  They argue that it is a capital case and so must be heard by him.  The threat in the words is heard by Pilate.  If this Jesus was not killed and later led a rebellion, Pilate would be personally held responsible for the rebellion.  His failure to hold a cognitio to determine the facts of the case against Jesus would likely cost him his life as well as his power.
     My guess is that Pilate wanted nothing to do with this case.  Most likely, his soldiers had told him of the great threat this Jesus was to Rome.  He taught in synagogues and in the temple; He advocated putting away the sword; He advocated paying taxes to Caesar; and He claimed Yahweh as His Father.  He might be crazy, but this Jesus of Nazareth was no real threat to Caesar.  His question would serve to cut to the nub of the case.  If Jesus says He is king of the Jews, then clearly He was some sort of crazed rebel.  If Jesus said He was not king of the Jews, He could not possible be a threat.
     What we forget reading this passage is that Rome had denied Judea a king since the death of Herod the Great.  Herod’s sons, although they pleaded for the title of king, were allowed to call themselves only ethnarch or tetrarch, depending on the child.  None of the four governors who preceded Pilate had ever had to deal with a king in Judea.  From Pilate’s perspective, were Jesus to claim the title of king, then perhaps He might be a threat, however small, to the empire.  An affirmative answer would indicate complicity in some sort of conspiracy to seek independence from Rome.  Were He to ignore the title, then it was likely He was not.  Pilate was nothing if not energetic in his apparent zeal for the empire.  As a minor aristocrat, he wanted to prove his worth and rise in the rank of service.
     Jesus, naturally, does not answer the question directly.  Instead, Jesus probes the source and intention of the question.  If Pilate is asking “Are you here to lead a revolution against Rome and Caesar,” Jesus’ answer would be no.  But if Pilate is asking the question on behalf of the Sanhedrin sycophants, then the question is something more along the lines of “Are you the Messianic king of Israel.”  That answer, of course, would be yes.  In essence, Jesus is asking Pilate to consider his question.  Pilate is being forced to evaluate the threat of Jesus; it seems only fair that Pilate then know what and who it is he is evaluating and by what standards he is doing his evaluation of this accused seditionist.
     Jesus’ response, “Do you ask this on your own, or did someone else tell you about Me?” forces Pilate to do a couple things.  One, Pilate must acknowledge that it is quite possible he is being manipulated.  Second, if this really is Pilate’s question, what does he mean by asking it.  Pilate naturally seems indignant about the idea that he is being drawn into a Jewish religious squabble.  Pilate is the representative of the might and force of Rome, Pilate is the representative of Caesar in Judea, why would he care a fig about internal Jewish religious quarrels?  Worse, Pilate’s power is as much a threat to them as it is to Jesus.  Still, Pilate needs to fulfill his duty in case this carpenter’s son thinks Himself a ruler.
     “Are you a king?”
     Before answering, Jesus describes His kingdom and affirms that it is not of this earth.  We might say this is Jesus’ way of reminding Pilate that He is not a threat to Rome, for now.  Jesus’ kingdom is not even of this earth.  Were it, His servants would be fighting for Him even now.
     Luckily for Pilate, he has an answer.  The guy before him is a nutcase.  Who says, “My kingdom is not of this world?”   Where else are kingdoms going to be, but in this world?  Jesus is, of course, testifying that His kingship does not come from this world; it comes from Heaven.  He is ruler of this world because He made this world and all that is in it.  He is ruler of this world because the people of this world were made in His image.  Pilate, as we might expect, knows none of this.  Looking around, he would see no fighting.  Heck, Jesus’ own people have turned Him over and demanded He be executed.  Whatever this nut thinks He rules, His servants are not acting against the interests of Rome.  So he asks Jesus again, “So You are a king, then?”
     Jesus responds with a different affirmation than Pilate or we might expect.  “King is your word, not mine.”  More importantly, Jesus goes on to describe His mission in great detail.  We make a terrible mistake in thinking that truth here in John and in Jesus’ mouth is a philosophical or ethical term.  John relates that Jesus is concerned with far more important matters.  Jesus has come into the world to unveil (apocalypse) the truth to the world.  What is the truth that Jesus unveils?  Jesus has come into the world to unveil that His words are God’s words, that His voice is God’s voice, that His face is God’s face, and that He is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to humanity!  Truth in this understanding put forth by John is the reality we experienced lived out in full communion with God.  Jesus, the Son of God, already shares that full communion with the Father.  All that He does, all that He says, all that He teaches comes from that amazing relationship with His Father in Heaven.  And He has come into the world to open that relationship up to all of humanity who will hear His voice.  John will remind us that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  God will affirm all this by taking what the Sanhedrin and Pilate meant for evil and using it for the greatest good possible.  Through Jesus’ suffering and death, our sins will be forgiven.  Through His Resurrection, we will be raised into the possibility of that true relationship with the Father.  Yes, we will fall short in this world, but one day, one glorious day in the future, we will share in that same abiding as our Lord Christ!  It is an amazing and glorious promise and thought.  It is a thought that Pilate cannot grasp because he is not given to Jesus by the Father. 
     What does it mean to be one who calls Christ the King?  What does it truly mean to be one who claims that true relationship with the Father in Heaven?  We have seen what it means in the life and ministry of Jesus, who lived as the Father’s only Son.  Our King placed His faith in the Father and the Father’s will, eventually at great cost to Himself.  He did not rejoice in His sufferings; indeed, He asked the Father to let that Cup pass and even sweated blood.  Still, His commitment was to do the will of the Father.
     In theological terms, we might think of this as emptying Himself.  Jesus came down from Heaven not to the sounds of trumpets and angel choirs heralding His descent, but to the baying of animals and wonder of shepherds.  His life was an emptying of Himself to show what the Father wanted for His people.  Think how tired you and I get working forty, fifty, or sixty hours a week.  Jesus was the Messiah 24/7/365 for some 33 years or so.  Talk about pressure.  Everyone He met had a need, and Jesus met those needs in ways they struggled and we still struggle to understand.  Even those who fought Him He engaged, not to condemn, but to turn back to the Father’s intention in their lives.  Always He gave of His power, His time, His wisdom, and later of His life.  And to us, His disciples, He charged us only with picking up our crosses and following Him.  Our lives are meant to emulate His.  We do not lord ourselves over one another, we serve one another.  We become great by becoming least.  Talk about radical kingship!
     Given that wonderful example, and the amazing promise through faith in Him, why then the fear in our lives?  Why is it we trust in our accumulated wealth more than His provision?  Why is it we trust in our own power and influence rather than in His providence in love?  Why is it we claim to serve a God of infinite resources and power, but live as if we have more?  The low hanging fruit this week, brothers and sisters, has been our “Christian” response to the Syrian refugees.  Politicians who claim to be Christian are holding press releases proudly proclaiming their willingness to turn away from the plight of those impacted by wars.  Pastors who are charged with proclaiming daily in word and deed the death, resurrection, and return of our Lord are shouting against the admittance of foreigners people because some among them might be terrorists.  I am never one to encourage you to seek martyrdom or stupidly risk your life brothers and sisters, but I am one who will remind you that the worst thing that can happen to us in death is that we wake up and see our Lord face to face ushering us into the most amazing wedding feast ever prepared!  And if that is our “worst case,” what do we really need to fear about death?  Oh, one more thing, our Lord commanded us—it wasn’t a suggestion, it wasn’t a “guys, if you have time”—He commanded us to proclaim the Gospel to all people.  How much easier is it for us to proclaim in word and deed when they are among us?
     There are other low hanging fruits that hit far closer to home.  Every time there is a shooting of some sort, who often leads the cry of “we need guns to protect ourselves?”  I cringe every time I hear a pastor say it, and I flinch whenever I hear one of their flock elevate the Second Amendment to some sort of permanence like the Gospel.  Jesus Himself reminds us that if His kingdom were of this world, His followers would be fighting Rome and the Sanhedrin to free Him.  Heck, when Peter draws the sword and chops off the ear of Malchus, how does Jesus respond?  He rebukes Peter and heals the ear.  If we really are residents of somewhere other than here, why are we so jealous to protect the trappings of this life and this world?  Why is it that we who claim the truth are so quick to serve a lie?  Those who do not belong to Him do not hear His voice, but what is our excuse?  We read it.  We hear it.  We ignore it.
     When we consider the appropriateness of a ministry within our body, how often do we think first of its cost to us, in terms of money, resources, and time, rather than its advancement of the kingdom and of our mission in that expansion?  When we consider whether to help someone in need, how often do we count the cost to us, never once thinking of the cost that was born for us by the King?
     What does it mean to have Christ reigning in our minds, in our bodies, and in our wills, as Pius asked barely a century ago?  What is it we celebrate?  I know we should have joy.  I know that you and I ought to be impelled by thanksgiving to do those things our Lord asks of us.  Knowing our shortcomings, knowing how many times we would fail Him, still He stood before Pilate and the Sanhedrin and took our medicine, our punishment for us.  Despite the cost, despite the pain, despite the anger and hurt, despite even the mockery of those whom He came to save, still He testified to the Truth.  He lived and died and rose again, to show us that what He taught was truth, that salvation in His name was now possible for all.  Brothers and sisters, throughout all time and throughout all history only one person has ever come to rule for the welfare of all.  Some kings and some queens have ruled well for there people, but only Jesus Christ has come to rule for the well-being of all.  We have beheld His glory, as the only Son of the Father.  Amazingly, He has called each one of us to represent Him.  How do we respond?  Will He see us as Pilates, not really given to Him, or will He see us as disciples, frayed, battered, tattered, and dealing with our sins, trusting that the King has come, the King has redeemed us, and the king will one day restore us?


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

On predictions, prophesy, and urgency . . .

     As we continue our push to the end of the Church year, we encounter an interesting piece of literature in Mark.  What makes the piece so challenging, I think, for us modern readers is that we really do not read and write in this genre anymore.  The style is called apocalypsis.  It comes from the Greek word that means unveiling, rather than final battle or destruction or whatever you might assume apocalypse meant.  Apocalyptic literature, in our Judea-Christian heritage, often  spoke of how or taught how God was at work in the events of the world.  As western people based in science, we tend not to look for God at work in the world around us.  Many of us are closer to the deism of Thomas Jefferson than the Christianity of the Apostles and disciples.  We like to think that God is out there, but we want Him at a safe distance.  If He gets to close, He might figure out who we are.
     It is, of course, natural that the Church should focus on unveiling the actions of God in the world around us.  Each time we gather, we remind ourselves that Christ lived, suffered, died, and was raised again for us.  What was the big sign in Mark’s Gospel that we have access to God again through the Christ?  The tear of the Temple Veil, from top to bottom.  Talk about an unveiling!  To outward appearances, the son of a carpenter dying in the Roman occupation of Israel is less than noteworthy.  Heck, except for the resulting claims that Jesus was raised from the dead, the famed historian Tacitus barely gives Jesus of Nazareth a paragraph in his voluminous writings.  It remained for the Church to give meaning to what Jesus endured.  It remained for the Church to testify to the reality of the Empty Tomb.  We enshrine that testimony, if you will pardon the word use on my part, in our Eucharistic liturgy which we celebrate when we gather.
     We may take such unveiling for granted since we do it often, but we sure struggle with it in other areas in Scripture.  And if we, the Church, struggle with it, how much more will society around us!  Imagine two thousand years hence how the world would view our business practices of the late 20th and early 21st centuries if they unearthed books of the comic strip Dilbert.  If comic strips have gone away by that time, they might well read the strips as a “how to” manual for how we ran our businesses today, missing out on the sarcasm, irony, and goofy behavior of the characters.  On second thought, given the way we run our businesses, Dilbert might not be example of potential veiling over time. . . By the laughter, I’m guessing at least some of you get what I am trying to say or work in a business that has a Dilbert spy employed!
     In one of those moments that makes you wonder if the Apostles and disciples ever listened, one of the disciples points out to Jesus the magnificence of the temple.  I’m guessing this disciple was at a bathroom break during the teaching on the widow’s mite.  Jesus then makes this incredible pronouncement.  “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  It is a statement that His accusers will try to use to have Him put to death.  It is also a statement that turns out to have been prophesy.  Those of us who read history know that within about three decades of His giving this statement, Jesus will be proven correct.  In an act of wanton destruction and more animalistic fervor than conditioned soldier, the Roman soldiers will pull the temple apart, once they are finished raping and killing.  The scene was anything but glorious.  As the Romans broke through each of the walls, fierce fighting occurred.  Eventually, the defenders were driven into the temple.  So crazed were the attackers that they pulled the temple apart after winning.  The gruesome scene, however, caused Titus, the son of Emperor Vespasian, to refuse the Senate’s offer of the garland of victory.  Titus reportedly tossed the garland to the crowd while stating there was no glory in defeating a people whose god had clearly deserted them.
     Think on that for just a second.  The son of the Emperor refused the garland of victory because the god of those conquered had clearly deserted them.  Can you imagine?  I know commentators want to make a big deal about how the thought of God abandoning His people would have been unimaginable to the Jews at the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  But would it have been so unimaginable?  Would not faithful people have in mind the Exile?  Was there not another example, or more, of God’s seeming abandonment of His people because they served idols rather than Him, because they listened to their own hearts rather than His torah, because they turned the rightful worship of Him into a business that weighed heavily on the poor that He loved?  Would the idea of God allowing the temple to be destroyed again really be that crazy?  Sure, those who paid little attention to His torah, to His prophets, to His heart might have found the idea as preposterous as rebuilding it in three days’ time.  But what of the faithful?
     As is so often the case in Mark, we are in the midst of another chiasmus, or literary sandwich, that is making and repeating a point or more.  In this case, I think, it is the more.  On the one hand, deceivers will appear, wars will occur, and our job is to watch, to see, to perceive.  And in the very middle of this literary sandwich is this promise that His followers will be persecuted for following and glorifying Him.  Still, He promises victory.  Still, in the midst of those persecutions, wars, false witnesses, still He wins.  His return will be unmistakable.  No one will be able to miss it, neither those who claim Him Lord nor those who reject Him!  And our instruction in the midst of this chiasmus, this literary sandwich of which Mark is so fond of using is the command, not a suggestion but a command, that we watch ourselves.
     Jesus is telling His disciples and us that we will face persecution, we will face hatred and mockery precisely because we cling to Him as Lord, especially in the midst of these cosmic or international or local events.  These events are simply the beginning of the birth pangs, He says.  What He is unveiling is that these events signal the destruction and His return.  But Jesus does not give the disciples nor us specific signs.  Jesus does not say that He will return when the temple is destroyed or rebuilt.  He does not say that on December 31, 1999 He will return.  He does not say that He will return when there is an eclipse, or a flood, or a fire, or an earthquake.  Those events, though, as tragic and painful as they are, simply remind us that He is returning.
     It is, I think, significant that Jesus uses birth pangs to describe this process.  In the one sense, we are being reborn.  Unsurprising to you present, I have a bit of experience with the birthing process.  But there are a number of you who have been present for your children’s births.  There are a number present who have delivered babies.  Were any the same?  Did they all last x hours and y minutes?  Did the cervix widen at a predictable case that suggests a linear motion over a set time?  Were the babies all the same size?  Were the pregnancies all identical to the day, hour, minute, and second?  Of course not!  Births are as unique as the individuals they produce!   Each one has a story of pain and suffering, or a needle in the back, and then incredible feelings of love.  Really, mothers, can you really explain even to your husbands the why you were willing to suffer what you did?  Can you ever really put into words the how you could put yourself through those nine months in a way that would make us dads truly understand why you were driven to conceive and to birth?
     And just as each our birthing processes are unique, our rebirthing processes are unique, too!  The sins that tempt me are different that the sins that tempt you, or your neighbor, or the person beside you in the pew, or even our children.  For reasons known only to Him, God uses the refiner’s fire to purify us.  Oh, we can say we believe He is Lord, but when does our rubber hit the road?  When is our mettle tested?  During our suffering.  When we are powerless to stop the suffering, He must step into the breach!  It is then, then, at our impotence that we see His power at work in the world around us.
     This last couple months have produced what I call low hanging fruit sermon illustrations.  The suffering in Paris is simply too early and too raw for us to draw much from it.  If God is good, why did He let those terrorists get away with so much destruction?  Yet, even after only a couple days, we are beginning to hear tales of how Christians and others responded to anarchy and destruction.  Some officers, doing their job at the soccer stadium, discovered a bomb-vested man and ended up giving up their lives to save the lives of those in a stadium.  Some ran toward the shooting to tend or comfort the wounded and dying.  Already the French press is interviewing people and discovering that some of these people were driven by the faith in God.  In France.  In post-Christian France, there are still Christians willing to lay down their lives for complete strangers.  What, do you think, gave them the confidence?  What, do you think, convinced them that this world, this body, this life was worth sacrificing for someone else?  Our Lord and His promise.
     And while Paris will dominate our news cycle until the next event, there have been others.  What about the hue and cry over the red moon super eclipse or whatever it was called?  How many “Christians” claimed to know that the eclipse was THE sign, even though our Lord refused James, John, and Andrew privately.  In seeking that special knowledge of Christ and His plan, they became instruments of the Enemy who would love to lead us all astray from God.  Now that the world has continued on, how as our Lord glorified in their bad prediction?  How has their false testimony made our testimony about Jesus seem more believable?  Have they not made it harder for all of us?  Thankfully, and mercifully, we serve a God for whom nothing is harder or impossible.  He can overcome any false testimony.  He can use what was meant for evil for His redeeming purposes.
     What of the church shooting in Charleston?  I know that event was tragic for those who lost loved ones.  I mourn for them whenever I see them cry in interviews.  But in those interviews I have watched, I have also seen that steeled face of our Lord.  Just as He steeled Himself to Jerusalem, they seem to be steeling themselves to forgiveness.  They struggle with the wantonness of the crime, but they recognize that our Lord promised them that such was the lot of those who follow Him.  And so many, after mourning, remind themselves, the interviewer, and those listening that their loved ones are alive even today!  As much as they miss them, they are so happy to have known them and to know that now they reside in the shade of our Lord with all the martyrs, and that their voices have joined the cry, “How long?”!
     Lastly, pick your favorite natural or manmade disaster over the last year or two.  Have there been floods?  Tornadoes?  Earthquakes?  Droughts?  Wars?  All are happening around us all the time.  What are they?  Jesus instructs us that they are simply the beginnings of the birth pangs.  They are simply reminders to you, to me, to all His faithful followers that His return might be as imminent as a baby’s birth when the mother is in labor.  That the birth pangs have lasted 2000 years may not be as surprising when we consider it on that scale.  Nor should it surprise us or catch us unawares if the next pang turns out to be the last contraction that precedes His appearing!  That possibility ought to inspire each of us with a sense of urgency.  Just as each of us during the push phase would expect the doctors and nurses and midwives and doulas to be present, we should be present to the possibility that His return may happen any moment.
     Jesus was careful not to give specific dates and specific signs to presage the date of His return.  First, Elijah needed to come.  He did.  Jesus needed to suffer, die, and be raised.  He did and was.  The temple needed to be destroyed.  It was.  The disciples needed to suffer because of their loyalty to Him?  They did and do.  And the Gospel needed to be preached to the ends of the earth.  It is.  All His requirements have been met.  All the pre-conditions for His return have been fulfilled.  His return, like that of a birthing mother who is dilated to 10cm, can happen at any time.  In the meanwhile, it is our job to reach out to others in His name and to guard ourselves that we do not fall away because we have forgotten His words.  Rather, it is our job to remind ourselves and others that the events have occurred just as He said they would, and that they point to the glorious day of His return.  Events like Paris or whatever comes next do not testify against God.  Thanks to His unveiling, they remind us that we and the world around us are in the midst of those beginning birthing pangs that one day, maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe two thousand years from now, will lead to our rebirth in His eternal and glorious presence!


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The promises and glory of The Redeemer . . .

     I hate weeks like this.  A couple months ago, as we were beginning to speak about Stewardship in the Vestry, I was challenged by a couple members about my lack of sermons on Stewardship.  Their concern was certainly legitimate.  During the search process, some on the Vestry and Search Committee had been excited that my own sense of my call had coalesced around a stewardship sermon I gave as a much younger layman in charge of my sending parish’s Stewardship campaign.  Not unsurprisingly, eyes lit up at that story.  You mean you are not afraid to talk about money?  You mean you pay attention to secular concerns?  I had not preached specifically on money since my arrival at Advent.  Understandably, this had some of us a bit concerned.  But I started going through the lectionary with Gregg.  We had not had many “money” opportunities.  To be sure, I had preached on stewardship in other areas of our life, but I had not hit the wallet or checkbook.  That got us looking forward.  Somewhat surprising to us both, there was no real reading on money until the Widow’s Mite.  But, it was in November and stewardship would be ramped up by then and it would work.
     For two months or so, I was pretty certain what I wanted to preach on today.  Then the week hit.  Try as I might, I could not bring myself to preach on the widow’s mite today.  Believe me, I tried hard.  But for some reason I felt the knowing urge to go elsewhere today.  That being said, at least in naming the sermon I am not preaching, maybe you will hear an old one in your minds and mull it over more in your prayer life this week.  Or maybe, if you prefer, ask a friend what his or her preacher said about the widow’s mite and giving to the church this week.
     Instead, I was drawn to Ruth.  Like Job, Ruth is one of those books that we ignore to our own detriment.  Heck, it is a book that ought to appeal to those of us who love Outlander, Game of Thrones, a love story, a bit of suspense, a bit of tragedy, and an incredible ending.  For those who have forgotten the story, Naomi and Elimelech are suffering from a drought in the beginning of the book.  Faithful Jews, they are tending the land promised to them since the time of Abraham.  Those who farm often live on the edge.  I know the joke is that there are few atheists in foxholes, but there are fewer even in farming.  Farmers can do everything right, everything from plowing to adjusting the pH of their soil to selecting their crops, but if the rains do not come in a timely fashion, or if the scorching heat and freezing cold occur at just the wrong moment, all their hard work can be undone.  Many pray to God for the weather, because they recognize He sets the patterns in place.
     Naomi and Elimelech are so on the edge of starvation that they eventually abandon their inheritance.  I have explained to you several times that living in the Promised Land was much like us sharing the Sacrament.  It was that outward symbol of God’s grace and promises.  Imagine choosing to give up the Sacrament.  Maybe it is not so hard for us today either.  Many of us know people who cannot find time to attend church, who’d rather be golfing or sleeping than giving thanks to God for what He has done in their lives.  Perhaps some of us have been in that mood as well.  In any event, Naomi and Elimelech hear that life is better in Moab.  Moab of all places!  What in the heck is going on with God?  He is causing rain among one of the enemies of His people but is withholding it from His people?  Is He asleep at the wheel?  Has He forgotten His instructions?  No, of course not.  This is the time of the Judges.  People are doing as they see fit rather than listening to God.
     Naomi and Elimelech head to Moab and begin scratching out a living with their boys.  Eventually, the time comes for the parents to find brides for their sons.  Faithful Jews would look from among the Jews, right?  That’s what God commanded.  Naomi and Elimelech, unfortunately, look locally.  They choose two Moabite women as brides for their sons.
     Not unsurprisingly, the story goes downhill from there.  Elimelech and the two sons die.  We, as students of God’s instructions, know that this is clearly His judgment on the family for forgetting God and His commands.  They left the land, they went to Moab of all places.  They chose Moabite women as wives for their sons.  Maybe they should have flipped God off as they went about their life.  Clearly, this book is about judgement.  The patriarch sins and God exercises vengeance against him and his sons, just as He always promised He would.
     As the story continues, Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, are in tough shape.  Naomi hears that things have improved back in Israel—God has opened up the heavens again.  So she determines to head home.  Before leaving, the seemingly accursed mother-in-law frees her daughters-in-law from her.  She tells both that they are young and able to find new husbands.  Were she even of a mind to try a Levirate marriage, they would be well past child-bear age once she produced another son for them to marry.  Not surprisingly, Orpah heads back to her family, though after an emotional parting.  Clearly she loved Naomi.  But, she accepts Naomi’s wisdom and heads back into Moabite society.
     Ruth, on the other hand, refuses to leave Naomi.  Naomi’s God has become her God, and she will forsake neither.  Though Naomi tries to dissuade her, Ruth is determined.  So the two widows set out for Israel.
     Eventually, they arrive back in the area of Naomi’s family.  There they meet a kinsman of Naomi named Boaz.  Boaz, we are told, is a righteous man.  In fact, when he sees Ruth gleaning the field, he instructs his workers to give her something to drink and assist her, because of her faithfulness to Naomi.  He tells the men not to hassle her.  He even instructs her not to go to anyone else’s field.  I need not remind you all of the vulnerabilities faced by women in the ANE.  Imagine being a young, beautiful, immigrant woman in that day and age.  I don’t have to because I have met lots of Ruth’s.  The more things change the more they stay the same.  Yes, faithful Jews were supposed to let the poor and foreigners glean the fields.  Yes, the faithful Jews were expected to be gracious hosts and to remember above all else that the Lord their God loved the widow and the orphan.  Of course, faithful Jews were supposed to keep the Land their Lord had given them.  Faithful Jews were not supposed to marry Moabite women.  Boaz stands out because he lives his daily life in testimony to his Lord.  He does his best to do as God instructs.
     As a curious side note, Boaz even explains to Ruth the source of his seeming generosity.  He has heard how she gleans for Naomi, how she left her home and land and travelled to Israel in faithful service to his kinswoman.  And for her faithfulness he offers a prayer of blessing.  He prays that God will bless her and reward her both for her service and for seeking refuge under His wings.
     This is where our story picks up today in our readings.  Naomi asks her daughter-in-law to trust her, but that she needs to get her some security.  Naomi instructs Ruth to bathe, anoint herself, and dress and then sneak into the threshing floor after the men have fallen asleep for the night.  She tells Ruth to observe where he sleeps.  Once he is asleep, she is to uncover his feet and do as he says.
     I said that the story is like Game of Thrones or Outlander.  It is more so like the latter, but it has some good sexual innuendo in it.  The Hebrew word for feet is also the Hebrew word for another part of the male body.  I see you get the danger of the passage now.  Naomi may well be pimping her daughter out for their mutual security.  Such was the likely outcome of widows.
     We already know, though, that Boaz is a righteous guy.  We have been told that, and his actions have backed up what has been described to us.  He has told the men not to harass Ruth.  He has told them to share their water with her.  Heck, he has even given her as much as five gallons worth of grain for gleaning!  Nevertheless, hearing this story for the first time, we should probably hold our breath.  What will he do?  When Boaz wakens and finds Ruth at his “feet,” he blesses her for what she has done.  On the righteous hand, she has loved Naomi enough to have offered herself to Boaz so that he might redeem Naomi and her family by giving her a son.  On the other hand, she has trusted Naomi even to the point of prostituting herself to care for her mother-in-law.  She has defied common sense and normal relationships.  She has come to truly care for the mother of her husband, the lady who instructed her in the love and grace of the Lord.
     Boaz does not seem to think himself to be quite the catch.  He is neither young nor rich nor hunky.  Ruth, in his mind, should have been chasing after young men, wealthier men, or more handsome men.  She has chosen instead to trust the advice of her mother-in-law.  But a problem remains.  There is a kinsman who is closer to Naomi than Boaz.  Before Boaz can redeem his kinswoman, this closer relative needs to give up the right in front of the elders at the gates.
     Boaz may be righteous, but he is nobody’s fool.  He seeks out the kinsman and asks if he has heard that Naomi is back and that her sons are dead.  The implication is, of course, that the old woman needs someone to care for her and to try and father a child on her for poor Elimelech.  The kinsman wants nothing to do with the cursed hag mentioned by Boaz.  So Boaz offers to redeem his kinswoman in this guy’s stead, as well as the Moabite hanger-on.  For different reasons, both are excited to do this in front of the elders at the gate.  The closer kinsman wants freed of his responsibilities to Naomi.  Boaz wants to marry the faithful beautiful daughter-in-law of Naomi. 
     Plots, intrigue, some comedy, a little sex—the story seems right out of prime time network television, does it not?  In the most amazing way, God answers Boaz’ prayer.  Never in a million years did he think himself anyone’s answered prayer; yet God used him to redeem the family of Naomi and Elimelech.  Both lived happily ever after, it seems, yet we are given an amazing footnote.  Boaz did indeed know his wife and she conceived a son.  His name was Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David.
     For her faithfulness, this Moabite widow is not only grafted into the vine of Israel, but she becomes one of the matriarchs of the Holy Family.  Yes, the town to which Ruth and Naomi returned was Bethlehem.  Yes, Ruth is the grandmother of David, the king of Israel.  More amazingly to a foreign widow and to us, she now stands in the lineage of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of David.
     The story is a beautiful story and full of twists and turns and humor and sadness.  On the surface, it is about the kinsman redeemer of Israel, the Go’el.  None of Israel was to be dispossessed of their land.  To be dispossessed from the land was equated with being cut off from the promises of God.  Whenever tragedy befell families, God expected kinsmen to alleviate the suffering and eventually produce an heir, if possible, for the ones dispossessed.  It is a simple and complex rule and was followed by the righteous and ignored by those who did as they saw fit. 
     Family dynamics are . . . .interesting, are they not?  Most families, it seems to me, excel in putting the fun into dysfunction.  But what we call dysfunction, God calls normal.  Every family has its difficulties.  Sometimes it is a black sheep; sometimes it is someone who besmirches the name of the family by their actions.  We like to think such black sheep are distant cousins or weird aunts and uncles.  But, with the holidays on the horizon, let’s be real.  Some are far more closer to our immediate families than distant cousins or odd aunts or goofy uncles.  Some are brothers, some are sisters, and some are seen by us in our mirrors.
     At the deeper level, though, the story of Ruth speaks to all our need for a Go’el, a kinsman redeemer.  We all need someone who will rescue our families from whatever systemic sin we find ourselves rooted.  The story of Ruth speaks to that frailty, that weakness we all share with the One who came down from heaven and called Himself the Son of Man.  At the deeper level, Jesus took on that title and uses this story to remind each and every one of us that He is our brother who has redeemed us.  When we should have been cut off, when we should have been abandoned, He stepped in and adopted us into that same family that now counts among its matriarchs and patriarchs Ruth and Boaz.  When we were the drunken uncle, when we were the crazy aunt that could not stop pinching cheeks, when we were the black sheep who hung out with the wrong crowd, introduced substances to our bodies that had no business being there, or sought comfort in the arms of one after another, He stepped in and reminded us that we were loved, that we were invited into this amazing holy family, that we could be white sheep, while retaining some of the unique characteristics that made us us.  And the relationship He offers us is not one of tolerance, not one of “I only have to deal with you on special occasions like holidays,” but rather one of love!  How do we know this?  Because He died for us, knowing all our faults, long before we ever came to know and understand Him.  He died for us even when we were fighting against Him!
     And what does He ask of us?  Everything and nothing.  In one sense, becoming a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth is as simple as asking Him to come into our hearts and to rule our lives.  When we sin against God or neighbors, we repent and try again.  He has already born the true cost of our forgiveness on the Cross.  On the other hand, though, becoming a disciple of Jesus, becoming a follower of the Lord, is the most difficult thing you and I will ever do.  Accepting that relationship means that we become His hands and feet and voice in the world, a world which wants nothing to do with Him or us.  Accepting that relationship means that we begin to live as if we believe the things He taught are true.  Boaz had every reason not to want to father a grandson for Naomi.  As a faithful man, he no doubt felt some twinge of guilt about marrying a Moabite woman as go’el.  Yet, he also had the witness of Ruth’s service to Naomi before him.  He knew she was different that her sister.  He knew she placed her trust in her mother-in-law and, far more importantly, in her God of Israel.  Knowing he was no looker and no longer young, Boaz likely understood there would be whispers and laughter at the man being taken advantage of by the Moabitess.  But he was determined to follow God and serve him in all that he did.  How he treated the poor and aliens before Ruth entered the picture is clear enough to us.  And God blessed his faithfulness in ways this humble, faithful man could never have expected.
     That same relationship is offered by our Lord to each one of us.  Our Lord stands ready to redeem each one of us, not as a slave, not as a servant, but as a friend, a brother, and a sister.  Our Lord stands ready to serve us even as He asks us to serve Him.  Brothers and sisters, each of us has incredible misery in our lives.  Were we honest and truthful with each other, we would all know, way down deep inside, that we are in a real way unlovable.  Still, He loved us and died for us and offers to redeem us.  All those secrets He knows, and still He suffered to redeem us!
     His love for us will not make the hurt magically go away.  Our decision to follow Him will in no way end all our suffering in this world.  But our decision to follow Him, just like Boaz’, will have incredible opportunity for redemption in our lives.  He will give meaning to the senseless in our lives.  He will give value to the valuelessness of our lives.  He will sanctify and redeem that which the world claims is not.  And for our faithfulness, for our willingness to pick up a cross and follow Him, He will give us rewards even greater than Boaz received, for all eternity.  That’s what it means to be THE GO’EL.