Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Happy birthday, your son is dead. . . .

     Those with sensitive ears may well be offended, so I caution you to cover them now.  I did, of course, warn Jeen that I might use some earthy language today and that I was worried about the response of family and friends.  Jeen, of course, reminded me that she had raised five boys.  They played sports and hung out in locker rooms; some of them participated in jam sessions; they fought like cats and dogs—there was not a word I could use that has not come out of their mouths multiple times or that would offend her ears.  So here goes:
     There is a wonderful uniquely parable of which I was put in mind this week.  That parable is a movie called Christmas Vacation starring Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Randy Quaid and a bunch of others.  As with all the National Lampoon works, there was an edge to the comedy, a bit of truth and a bit of satire.  In case you have not seen the movie or in case you have forgotten, this is the movie that gave rise to the idea of a Griswold Christmas.  Chevy Chase plays Clark Griswold, a man trying to host the perfect Christmas for his family.  Along the way during the holidays, he encounters any number of obstacles that threaten to ruin Christmas.  In particular, though, I was reminded of Randy Quaid’s character.  In the movie, Randy shows up for the holidays as an unwanted guest in his RV.  There’s a classic scene in the movie where Eddie is emptying the RV waste straight into the storm sewers on the street.  One of the neighbors is, understandably, grossed out.  Eddie simply smiles and waves and by way of explanation says “Merry Christmas, the shitter’s full.”
     Now, before you get too offended, here me out.  I used to have a boss in the brokerage business that repeated that statement in the pit whenever he was unable to enjoy his morning constitutional.  Nothing ruined his morning or day like grabbing a paper, heading to the restroom after a coffee or three, only to find the stalls all full.  He would storm back into the office, slamming doors with his face in a rage, repeating Eddie’s greeting at the top of his lungs.
     In truth, it’s how I felt when Joyce called to tell us at church that Adam had dropped dead.  To take you all back in time a bit, Sunday was a great day for worship around here.  Adventers had shown up.  The weather was almost fallish.  As Jeen was headed out the door, I hugged her and told her to have a great celebration.  Jeen was so excited she told me it was her 80th birthday this week.  I don’t know if you have ever hung around southern women, but one NEVER asks their age.  Ever.  I don’t know if any of you have ever met Jeen, but she was born and raised in the South.  Yet here she was, excited for the week, the celebration, the cakes, the dinners, the pomp that comes with a milestone birthday, proudly boasting this was going to be a great 80th birthday.  There was a spring in her step and a sense of expectation in her voice.  In truth, it was contagious.  Everyone around her was smiling and congratulating her, telling her to have a good time. 
     Like it was for nearly every other Adventer, Sunday was unremarkable.  The Titans played.  The weather stayed nice.  We went to bed and awoke to that horrible news in Las Vegas that a gunman had ambushed a concert and killed or wounded well over 500 people.  As we were processing that, Joyce’s call came.  I could well-imagine Jeen’s emotional state at that moment.  Happy birthday, your son is dead.
     For the next couple days, as you might imagine, I was the recipient of several phone calls.  It makes sense.  I’m the ordained guy.  I am supposed to be the one who reminds us that God has a plan or that God wanted these things to occur.  Some that called were struggling with predictable questions.  If God is good, why did he allow someone to murder so many innocent people?  Do you think God is too busy worrying about Las Vegas that he’ll forget Jeen?  What will Jeen do now?  Other questions were more difficult, reflecting personal or denominational bias rather than real care or concern for any of those suffering at the hands of evil, so I will not repeat them.  Monday, I began to be introduced to that diaspora community known as St. Matthias.  I have heard lots about that now, but I also learned that the community of St. Matthias really stays in touch and really cares for one another.  Many of you showed up to mourn with and love on Jeen in the family.  Thank you for your care and concern.  A few people called with their favorite story about Adam.  Originally, I had a hard time reconciling some of the stories I was hearing.  Jeen, of course, summed that all up rather neatly.  Adam had been diagnosed as bi-polar.  As such, he had lived through incredible peaks and valleys in his interactions with people.  I learned that Adam had never really found a new church community after the closing of St. Matthias.  In that, I learned, he was by no means alone or unique.  I learned from those in his building that Adam was well-liked and was going to be missed.
     I also learned that the Prosise family was no stranger to sudden and unexpected tragedies or near tragedies.  Jeen’s husband died suddenly at age 56.  Another son nearly died at 41 and found himself on the receiving end of a quintuple by-pass!  I learned that Adam’s last days were probably perfect for him.  He and a brother had jammed on their guitar and drums at their studio, really a storage unit, that last weekend.  They had had such a great time that Adam had picked up the lunch tab for his brother and sister-in-law.
     I also learned that Jeen and the family were fiercely jealous of Adam.  They loved him dearly.  One of the overriding concerns was that Adam was misunderstood at times, that he sometimes had difficulty fitting in.  They wanted to make sure that we remembered Adam as they remembered Adam.  They will miss him terribly in the coming days and months and years.  It might be a holiday meal or favorite restaurant, it might be a favorite song on the radio, it might be a sporting event or a conversation.  There will be triggers that cause them to remember their loss and mourn yet again his passing.
     There will also be a great deal of anger.  Some of us gathered here will say the wrong thing, ask the wrong question, speak when we should simply sit in silence and let them cry on our shoulders.  They may sense our timidity in speaking about our memories of him.  We will want so hard to explain why we think God allowed or caused this to happen, especially at a joyous time like an 80th birthday, when they know our Lord mourns with them this day even as He mourned at the death of His friend Lazarus and that we have no real answers for the questions that plague them.  We will want desperately to make them feel better.  They will, in time.  The hole will always be there though, at least until the Lord calls them home and they rejoin Adam in the new creation.  I understand we want to understand God and His plan.  I understand we want to love on the family.  It is for that reason that I want to focus a bit on our reading from the Revelation according to John.  I want to give you insight as to what is happening now and in the future, to prepare each of you to care for those mourning in our midst, and most importantly, to remind you of our hope and the reason that we can gather today and sing alleluia at Adam’s grave.  I want to remind the family and you that we are trusting in a God who told a young mother two thousand years ago that He would use her to fulfill His redemptive plan if she would allow Him, a mother who experienced the same pain that Jeen feels now as her Son suffered on the Cross and died an unjust death, a mother who experienced the joy and unfathomable power of God's healing at her Son's Resurrection.  I want us all who claim Christ as Lord to be prepared better to answer those questions about tragedies in the world around us, for us to really be able to wrestle with the ‘Happy birthday, your son is dead” experiences that seem to bombard us in this world!
     If you have only paid attention to FB memes and articles and Tim LeHay’s creation, you might be a bit surprised by our reading from John’s Revelation today.  Literally, the word is apocalypse—an unveiling!  Think of the temple curtain around the Holy of Holies being torn from the top down.  Just as Christ’s death for our sins made it possible for us to see God face to face as a friend, John was given a vision by God to peek into the new creation.  The curtain that separates us from seeing heaven has literally been torn aside for the Apostle John!  What does he see?  People snatched up?  Planes falling out of the sky?  The saints flying on wings or playing harps in the clouds?
     He sees a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and first earth had passed away.  If you have thought of Christ’s return along the lines of the rapture and getting your wings, you may well be surprised by what God showed John.  But, upon reflecting on the vision, should we?  Should we be surprised that matter will still be around, that we will not be just spiritual beings, that we won’t turn into angels, or that we won’t spend all our time in church?  After all, if you have read the beginning of this love story, you will know that God walked with us, conversed with us, entrusted us with the care of that Garden in which He placed us to dwell.  We were created to see Him and to talk with Him; it was our sin that separated from Him and caused His voice to terrify us and made us unable to see His face.  In many ways, the rest of the Bible is teaching us how we cannot get ourselves back into that intimate relationship with God, but that He still desires that kind of relationship with each one of us!  He wants to be our God and dwell with us, just as John describes in the passage today!
     Now, admittedly, if you are a lover of nature and your heart is rejoicing at the possibility that nature will still be around in the age to come, you might be a bit worried.  After all, there is no sea.  Who does not like the soothing roar of the waves?  Who does not love the smell of the air near the sea?  Some of us may even like surfing or fishing or just feeling the sand and water between our toes.  Does this no sea reference mean we lose that experience?  Not necessarily.  The sea was the abode of the god or goddess of chaos in many of the Ancient Near East cultures.  Chaos was a deity that threatened to undo the perceived order of the world.  We like to think we are so sophisticated, but we sometimes wonder whether God really has power to reign in chaos, do we not?  Who here did not wonder why God did not jam the shooter’s gun in Las Vegas or allow so many to die?  Who here has not wondered the last few weeks whether nature is out of control?  Seriously, we have satellites and hurricane hunters, but look at the chaos those storms have sown!  What of the earthquakes?  The fires out west?  And, oh, yeah, by the way, we are here remembering the life of a young man, by modern standards, who died almost on a milestone birthday of his mom.  Tell me again how things are so orderly, so predictable, so good in this world.
     John’s writing, I think, is far more about the ultimate subduing of chaos in the world.  For now, God allows the consequences of sin to gain some traction.  For now, God is willing to give us the freedom to accept His offer of love or to reject it.  Bad things happen to good people; good things happen to bad people.  The rain falls on the just and the unjust.  There is a time coming, though, when He will return and recreate all things.  Then, and only then, will chaos finally be subdued.  Then and only then will all things be subdued.  Until then, we can only trust in His redemptive power.  And notice it is redemptive.  All of us gathered her can speak to tragedies in this world.  I daresay all of us have known the death of a loved one; many of us have experienced privation; some of us have been betrayed or stabbed in the back.  Our lists could go on and on.  Few of us have faced the difficult task of burying our dead children; fewer still have had to do so at the time of a celebratory time in our life.  Jeen, boys, the rest of the family, God will redeem Adam’s death.  That is His promise.  Adam’s death may not be fully redeemed until you see Him in that new heaven and a new earth, in that new Jerusalem, with that body that God intended for Him since the beginning of creation, but there will be redemptive moments along the way.  My prayer for you all is that you will see His redemptive work in your midst, that you will hear His redemptive voice in the cacophony of noise around you, so that your faith in the promises described by John this day will seem even more certain in your own faith walk with God.
     But keep in mind that ache, that emptiness, will be in your hearts until this scene described by John comes to pass.  Some may tell you that real Christians should not cry, that real Christians should not be angry, that real Christians should accept everything as part of God’s plan.  Jeen knows better because she has to listen to me, but the rest of you need to hear this, too.  This, what you and I call life, this, this gathering at the death of a loved one, this is not what God intended.  Just as He wept at the death of Lazarus his friend, so our Lord weeps with you all this day.  He knows your hurt; He knows your pain; He knows your sense of loss.  He even knows how others will use those pains and sufferings to lead you from Him.  He will not condemn you for crying; He will not condemn you for hurting; He won’t even condemn you for doubting.  Our translation today uses victorious, but it is a word that recognizes we are in a struggle.  The sense of the word in Greek is that we have overcome the things of this life, the pain, the suffering, the temptations, and in the end, trusted in His promises.  So long as you always turn to Him and return to Him when you stray, He will provide you with comfort and hope.  He will see you to that new earth, that heavenly city.  You will be His child, and He will be your God! 
     Just as importantly, I think, He will one day provide you with more than you can possibly ask or imagine.  In that great American parable I mentioned at the beginning, we see the frustrations of Clark as he works and works to provide the best possible Christmas for his family.  Clark wants the best tree; the best meal; the best lights; the best pool; the best gathering; the best everything for his family.  Who does not want what’s best for their family?  If you all could “redo” your brother, you would no doubt give him what you think he needed.  Maybe instead of drums you’d make him be a pianist; maybe instead of him having a hard time making friends you’d make him the life of the party.  No doubt you would fix all those things that bothered you and you think hurt him.  You’d surely fix whatever caused this early death.  In truth, though, by all accounts, Adam was comfortable in his skin.  He knew who he was and how to live in the world as himself. 
     Much of the movie hijinks are about Clark’s hilarious efforts to make all those things come true for his family.  One of my favorite scenes in that movie is the Christmas lights scene.  Clark and his son spend hours and hours stapling thousands and thousands of lights to the house.  They have diagrams and who knows what else to set up the most incredible light display ever.  When the moment for the big reveal comes, darkness reigns.  The in-laws mock his failure.  His parents “see it in their mind’s eyes.”  His wife is sorry they did not light up.  Clark’s  son frantically works to get out of looking for a dead bulb.  It’s only when his wife, played by Beverly D’Angelo, flips a switch to the basement that the lights come on.  The nuclear generator sounds the alarm for more power.  The neighbors are blinded, hysterically so, by the lit up sky.  The scene is so iconic that Americans often refer to the house on their street with the most lights as the “Griswold house” in their neighborhood.
     As an older man, now, I have a heart for Clark’s response.  He cries tears of joy because its’s better than he ever imagined.  It’s brighter and more beautiful than he had hoped.  No matter what each of you hopes for when you are finally reunited with Adam, no matter what each of us hopes for when we are united with all our loved ones who died in Christ, I am certain we will all be like Clark.  We, too, will be overjoyed and overawed.  We, too, will be amazed.  What you and I can imagine always pales next to what God desires for us, to what He plans for each of us.  Adam’s new body will be more glorious than you or I could ever consider because it will be the Lord who created him who has refashioned him perfectly.  But unlike Clark, whose struggles were by no means over, you and I will enter into that Sabbath rest and marriage feast and that communion with all the saints who have gone before us . . . for eternity.  We will have no need to worry about tears and death.  We will have no need to fear awkward moments like “Happy birthday, your son is dead.”  We will be celebrated simply for overcoming, for not giving in to the chaos and to those who would lead us astray.  We will never again experience chaos or have a need to overcome.  That is His uncompromising promise for all His children!  That is how we are able to stand at the grave of Adam this day and sing our alleluias, certain that Adam, who died in our Lord, is now alive in our Lord.  One day, all this will pass; and on that Day, we will all see the brightness and glory of God!  And, unlike those movie characters who must shield their eyes from the brightness of those lights, we shall see Him truly as our God and our friend!

In Christ’s Peace,

Brian†

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Sour grapes and the choices we make . . .

     I am cognizant that there is a lot going on today.  We have the Healing service, Vicki’s stewardship talk, the potluck, an Outreach Committee meeting, and all the normal Sunday morning events.  I acknowledge this by way of saying that I will be intentionally brief this morning, allowing more time for healing prayers and Vicki; I will, however, try to be a little more intentional writing out a better sermon than what I say today.  Put differently, you may way to wrestle a bit more with me by grabbing a copy later this week or reading it online, assuming I get to that part of my work in a timely fashion.
     Our reading from Ezekiel begins with a note that the word of the Lord came to the prophet.  In one sense the writing is formulaic; in another, of course, the writing reminds us that the words that the prophet is about to share comes directly from God.  This is not Ezekiel’s thoughts and ruminations on the condition of Israel, but rather God’s thoughts about Israel.  As such, we should take notice, as we are the new Israel, part of the Church.
     God begins His instruction by noting a famous proverb, or a proverb that is repeated often in the life of Israel.  “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”  If we think about it, it makes sense why this was a proverb.  Karen and I learned the lesson of this proverb with Sarah.  As you all know, I am not much for using my family as sermon illustrations, but this one is just too easy to ignore.  Karen was meticulous with how she ate and drank when pregnant with Sarah.  As with many first time parents, we wanted to make sure we did everything just right.  As part of her incubating routine, Karen gave up caffeine.  I see the nods and elbows.  Many moms-to-be give up caffeine and alcohol while the babies are developing within.  Anyway, for our first night out after Sarah’s birth, we went to a restaurant called Bennigan’s with our best couple friends, Sean and Shannon.
     It is at this point that I should mention that Karen was nursing Sarah.  We were only three or four weeks out from Sarah’s birth.  The doctor had said it was ok for us to take Sarah into the public, but we waited for a week or two before “risking” the great wide world.  Without thinking, Karen ordered a diet coke to go with her meal.  I see the nodding laughter of those who nursed their own babies, or watched their wives nurse their own babies.  I sure did not think anything of it.  Sean and Shannon, newly married at that time, sure did not think anything of it.  If our waitress did, she sure did not say anything.  It wasn’t until Karen was on her second diet coke of the meal that the thought crossed her mind.  It was then, of course, that it crossed mine, as well as Sean’s and Shannon’s minds, too!
     Karen can speak better to the consequences.  This was a Friday or Saturday night, I think, and Sarah did not sleep until Wednesday or Thursday of the next week!  Since Karen had scrupulously avoided caffeine during her pregnancy, you all know how Sarah likely responded.  I think it really was a full day before Sarah went to sleep.  She was not upset or whiny, quite the contrary!  She was like a little energizer bunny that just kept going and going and going and going.  To modernize the proverb, Karen had consumed caffeine and the child needed no sleep.
     We have since learned, of course, that caffeine is not the only food that affects a nursing child’s behavior.  You may recall that we have seven children.  That means Karen has nursed a lot of babies, relative to many women here.  You know how individualistic my children are, so it may not surprise you to learn that their behavior was affected by momma’s diet.  Some liked mother’s milk with a hint of Mexican food; others got a bit fussy or colicky from it.  Some loved mother’s milk with pizza flavor; others could not stand it.  Part of Karen’s challenge, of course, was trying to figure out which foods she could eat with which child.  Thankfully, none reacted badly to chocolate!
     Now, you all have been laughing and elbowing and sharing your similar stories in whispers even as I describe this in a bit more detail.  You know the truth of what I am saying.  Heck, even if you did not live it yourselves, we have Rosemary to remind us of its truth!  That means you understand the proverb that Israel is reciting.  The children’s teeth can certainly be set on edge by what the parent is eating.  Of course, the proverb is not about nursing mothers and their children.  In this case, the proverb refers more to the fact that the parents’ actions and inactions have an impact on the child.  What gets passed along is not limited to food passed in milk.
     Again, this should come as no surprise.  We are all raised in family systems.  Heck, most of us here have created our own family systems.  We may like to think we avoid the same mistakes as our parents, but it’s a safe bet we make our own mistakes with the next generation.  If you do not believe me, ask the next generation that you raised.  If they tell you that you did everything perfectly, they are lying.  We are human beings; we make mistakes.  There are few places other than in families where we are able to fail more.
     Why does God, then, hate this proverb?  Why does He ban its use among His people?  That, too, is easily understood.  Don’t raise your hands; just give it some thought.  How many of us are disappointed or worried about our country?  I see lots of nodding.  Good.  I am not alone.  Sometimes I wrestle with whether I am getting old.  As a youth, I would have never imagined another Civil War.  Nowadays?  I’m not so sure.  How many of us are disappointed or worried about our church?  I see the nodding.  I know some of the fears associated with that as a number of you have spoken about it with me this year.  How many of us are disappointed or worried about our families?  See?  Aren’t you glad now I did not ask you to raise your hands?  The truth is that most of us are worried about big things and little things and things in between.  We look at the country and feel a bit impotent, like we can’t really do anything to help correct things.  The President and members of Congress are not our Facebook friends; we don’t have their numbers in our phones.  The church seems a bit closer to home, but the work is incredibly hard.  We look around and see there are too few of us in the early family stage of life and middle age.  There’s a big gap.  Each of us probably feels we can do something about that—invite younger people, support programs that attract younger people, and things like that—in reality, though, the work is hard and seems a bit tough for many of us.  Families, of course, hit closest to home—pun intended.  We like to think we can impact our families.  The truth is, though, they are made up of other free-willed individuals.  We can law down the law or make a change, but there is never any guarantee others will listen to us.
     I’ve used only three examples.  No doubt you have thought of others at work or social or athletic clubs.  Perhaps, with the upcoming Primates Meeting, you are even worried about the wider church.  Aside from the desire to do something about those systems about which we care deeply, we share another characteristic with those of Israel on the receiving end of Ezekiel’s prophesy: we don’t like the blame.  Whose fault is it that country is not working the way we think it should?  Our leaders’.  But who elects our leaders?  You and me and those around us.  The same is true in the church.  Who do we blame for that donut of 20-50yo’s in our midst?  Some like to blame the clergy.  Others like to blame the Vestry.  Some like to blame those in that age group for not being committed.  The truth, of course, is that we all have a hand in their absence.  Churches are formed by relationships.  When the younger set has appeared amongst us, how many of us have done the hard work of forging relationships with them, of getting to know them, of putting down our guard and letting them get to know us?  And families are too obvious, right?  If we are the mothers or fathers, we have designed and shaped the system that is in place at home.  But we blame our upbringing or the willful kids or the unsupportive spouse.  And while those can influence a system, they do not explain everything.
     In His prophesy today, Ezekiel is calling out a generation for absolving itself of blame.  To root you in the history of this reading, the Northern Kingdom has been defeated and is in the process of being carried off into Exile.  Their cities have been destroyed.  Their armies have been crushed.  Their Promised Land, that outward sign of the fact that they were God’s chosen people, has been taken from them.  They are being marched hundreds of miles across the empire to be settled in isolated communities that cannot pose a future threat to Babylon.  Those on the trail blame the parents and ancestors for their misfortune.  It’s their fault we are disgorged from the Land.  Hand our ancestors been faithful to Yahweh, we would not be defeated and humiliated.  The parents have eaten the sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are on edge, indeed!  Like humans of every generation, no one likes to accept blame for mistakes.  We think we are so smart when we stand before judges and claim we are not guilty because our parents abused us or did not love us in the right way or that we had to steal because we were raised in a poor family or that we killed because we were once scared by someone in another encounter.  The truth is, we have been making those arguments since the time of the Garden!  Does Adam accept his guilt when first confronted by God?  No!  He tells God, “That woman that YOU gave me, she gave me the apple and I ate.”  Adam blames both Eve and God in that argument, and we think we are so advanced.
     The other side of that argument, though, is equally invalid.  Sometimes, rather than simply cast blame at others, we seek to limit ourselves, we adopt an attitude of fatalism.  Sometimes, we like to assert that we are the victims of our circumstances and that nothing can change that.  We can’t love properly because we have not been loved properly; we cannot learn correctly because learning was not valued at home or supported in our schools; we cannot eat right because people where we come from don’t eat right—you have heard many more of these excuses, I am sure.  And, reading or listening to Ezekiel’s words today, we might be tempted to become fatalistic.  What can we do about our situation?  Our parents and ancestors have disappointed God, so we will, too, might seem a natural response, but it is a lie whispered by the Enemy and repeated amongst ourselves.
     We skip a number of verses today, as you can all see.  Often, the skipped verses are important.  Ezekiel shares the story of a righteous father, an unrighteous son, and a righteous grandson.  Long verses and story short: Is the unrighteous son guaranteed God’s blessing because of the righteousness of the father?  No!  Is the righteous grandson punished for the unrighteousness of the father?  No!  Each generation is responsible for his or her relationship to God.  God will not accept the proverb any more because Israel is refusing to own its share of the sour grapes, its share of the broken relationship with God.
     As we read and study this passage, we learn a lot about God.  We learn that God’s patience has a limit, that God keeps His word, that His punishments are painful, that He will use our enemies to chastise us, that God’s justice is often different from our own, that we are responsible for our relationship with Him, that we cannot force someone else into right relationship with Him, and there are probably other lessons we can learn.  But the good news of this passage is the heart of God that is revealed.  Knowing that we are responsible for our relationship with Him, and knowing that He has made that right relationship possible through the work and person of His Son our Lord Christ, why would we ever choose to claim this proverb for ourselves?  Why would we ever lay claim to fatalism?  Why would we not claim His Son our Lord and live?
     Modern scholars and infrequent attending Christians like to claim that God changes between the Old and New Testament.  Something happens to Him where He ceases to be a tribal volcano god of wrath in the Old Testament and becomes a loving, gentle God in the New Testament.  The problem, of course, is that we do not pay close attention to stories and prophecies like this.  Yes, God has had a strong word to say to Israel.  He has shown them what psychologists and others call tough love.  You will not use that proverb to explain your circumstances?  Israel is free to complain and gripe about their circumstances, but they are going to have to be honest that they had a share in the creation of those circumstances.  Still, though, He is a God who seeks no one’s death.  He far prefers for us mortals to turn and live.
     Our collect today reminds us that God chiefly shows His almighty power by what?  Nuking the nations?  Hurling lightning bolts at sinners?  No!  In showing mercy and pity!  He is a God who shows His power through forgiveness and mercy, both in the Old Testament and the New.  And make no mistake, He is the perfect parent.  Sometimes, we best learn the lessons we need to know by learning from our mistakes.  He promises only to redeem all our sins and circumstances.  There is no promise that we get to avoid them, except in the fact that Jesus took our sins upon Himself and died so that we would not have to die ourselves.  More amazingly, He was raised from the dead so that we might live, very much in the way that God speaks to Israel through the words of Ezekiel at the beginning of the Exile some twenty-five centuries ago.
     There are three lessons I would wish that we would all hear this day.  First, we are responsible for our relationship to God this day.  No one else can bring us into right relationship with Him.  We must choose to turn to Him, through Christ.  Corollary to that, though, is the understanding that we cannot force anyone into right relationship with Him.  We can be as loving and winsome and joyful as possible, but the burden of decision falls on the other person.  Pray for them, serve them, teach them, love them, ask their forgiveness when we screw up; but remember they must make that decision for themselves, whether to turn to God through Christ or to continue on their own way.  Lastly, we serve a God who takes no pleasure in death and destruction.  We dishonor our Lord and we grossly misrepresent Him when we claim that “they got what they deserved” for rejecting Him.   Be they our friends or our enemies, they and we are all His children.  Should He not have pity on ISIS or North Korea or those in our lives who have rejected Him, to remind you of His words in Jonah last week?  And just as His heart breaks at the death of one of His children, so does it leap when we choose Him!  And you and I are called to be heralds of the almighty God who declares His power chiefly in showing mercy and pity!  Rather than accepting that people have received their just desserts in earthquakes or fires or hurricanes or other natural disasters, we should be reminding everyone that He wants us only to turn to Him so that we might live forever!  In the end, if we are about His business of loving and serving those around us, there are no sour grapes.  Better still, there is no reason for anyone’s teeth to be on edge!

In Christ’s Peace,

Brian†

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Sentinels . . . warning of danger and death/pointing the way to God and life!

     I had one of those sermon prep weeks I hate.  A few weeks ago, when I say that Amanda would be joining us from Room in the Inn, I figured this would be a super easy week to preach.  Oliver always likes to gently remind me to give quicker sermons when we have an Outreach group attending, so I knew I would have brevity on my side.  And, given the readings so far this summer, I had every reason to assume that at least one of the readings would deal with feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, showing hospitality to those less fortunate or something along those lines.  My goal on Outreach Sunday’s is to provide a bit of a lead-in for the speaker from the group that has been chosen by the Outreach Committee.  Given those expectations, you might now understand why I was disappointed in our readings.  Look at them again.  Which one ties into the work of RitI?  Now you see my problem.
     The problem was exacerbated because I really felt a need to keep you guessing about my sermon.  Hey, if you know what I am likely to preach, you may feel you can skip!  Lol  I had a couple “Will you be preaching on the late spring/early summer difficulties at church, Father?  I mean, that’s an easy sermon illustration, right?”  I also had a couple “Will you be sticking to Romans?  You and Holly both have been focused there the last couple weeks.”  Nobody, and I mean not one soul, asked me whether I would consider preaching on Ezekiel this week.  In fact, when I asked some probing questions, I learned we rather avoid that difficult passage and that our movie knowledge is less than extensive.
     What is a sentinel?  I had one brilliant younger member of the congregation rightly guess it was Shane Falco’s team.  For those of you who do not get the reference, there was a great football movie called The Replacements that starred Gene Hackman as the coach and Keanu Reeves as the college-star-quarterback-gone-bust who fill in as strike replacements.  And while there are redemptive elements to that movie, I do not believe they speak to the message from Ezekiel today.  So I ask again, what is a sentinel?  Why did the writer choose the word sentinel over the word for watchman?  What is the difference conveyed by the word choice?
     To take us back in history again, let’s consider when the two were used.  Watchman describes the ongoing monitoring, particularly at night, to see if any threats present themselves.  Watchmen were deployed in all times, even peace time.  Think of men stationed along a city or village wall at night peering and listening in the darkness for sounds of raiders or other threats to the well-being of the community.  It was a job of tremendous responsibility.  If the watchmen missed the warning signs or, worse, fell asleep while on duty, the community could be harmed or even destroyed.  Great trust was placed in the watchmen by the community.  True, walls helped make up for human frailties, but many communities did not have the walls.  Imagine their vulnerability in a time when there was no electricity, no cell phones, no 24 hour news service warning them of imminent dangers.  Why, do you think, did the watchmen long for the morning?  Imagine the responsibility of being charged with the safety of your friends, family, and community and possibly failing.  That was the challenging aspect for a watchman.  That’s why they longed for the light of day and its accompanying safety.
     Sentinels, on the other hand, were deployed primarily in times of threat, particularly the threat of an invading army or large band of outlaws.  Their job was to assume the threat was real and challenge everyone.  A watchman might see Otis the drunk heading out to sleep off the binge and think nothing of it.  A sentinel would perceive that Otis might be a threat, a traitor, or be walking into danger and so challenge his presence and intention.  The distinction may seem fine to us, but it was a difference in expectation in the Ancient Near East.  One worked under a presumed time of peace with only occasional threats; the other worked under a presumed threat with rare times or actions of peace.
     The distinction ought to make us wonder a bit more at this passage, if we understand the history of Israel in Ezekiel.  The first 32 chapters of Ezekiel deal with God’s judgment of Israel, and chapters 34 to the end deal with the restoration of Israel.  Our passage, as you’ve no doubt noted, is from chapter 33.  It stands between the judgments of God and His restoration of His people.  If we read just a few verses more, we discover that Jerusalem has already fallen.  If Jerusalem has already fallen, what need is there of a sentinel?  Who is to be warned?  From whom do they need to be protected?  The invading army has conquered and, in this case, did so as God’s instrument of judgement.  So, why the need for a sentinel?  It seems akin to closing the barn door after the horses have gotten out.
     Our struggle with the passage is likely complicated by the address.  Our translators render the Hebrew ben adam as “mortal.”  It is hard to read that phrase and not be reminded of God’s inquiry of Cain and Cain’s response that he is not his brother’s keeper in Genesis 4.  I think that intentional on the part of the writer.  In one sense, God’s address of the writer and prophet as mortal serves as a direct contrast to His own infinite and transcendent glory.  But in another sense, the address is used to remind the prophet that he is linked to all humanity just as you and I are linked to all humanity.  In a real sense, we are all sons and daughters of Adam.  We are all mortal and finite.  By virtue of our baptism, we are all on the receiving end of this address.  And that complicates things a bit further.
     We live in a culture that has forgotten community.  We live in a culture that encourages individuals to cut themselves off from one another.  Think I am overstating the problem?  How many of us grew up knowing our neighbors?  How many of us knew that some of our friends’ parents were as likely to thump us if we got lippy or sassy as our parents were to thump our friends if they did the same?  How many of us lived in fear that the teacher or principal would call mom or dad to complain about our lack of effort or respect?  Loneliness might be our greatest fear or enemy now.  I don’t mean to oversimplify things, but we are a culture that is far more isolated.  Now we connect via smart phones, sometimes even when we are together, rather than face to face and eye to eye conversations.  Social media has replaced chairs and swings on porches.  And loneliness is now a greater threat than nearly everything else to our longevity, at least that is what health professionals and sociologists are beginning to teach us.
     And the Church has been infected with that loss of community and increase in loneliness.  How many members of churches like to pretend they have their act together?  How many churches really allow people to be themselves, to really admit their failure, their impotence, their sense of unworth?  And heaven help us now with respect to sentinel work in our midst.  We are so “me, me, me” that we forget the “us, us, us” and we far more timid about calling out sins.  We don’t want to appear judgmental.  We live in a mind your own business culture; who wants to be responsible for someone else’s business?  Yet here is God in Ezekiel, as He does in other places in Scripture, reminding us that we are our brothers’ keeper.  While it is true that Jesus instructs us not to judge the salvation of another soul, He also instructs us how to deal with sin in our midst in a loving, sentinel fashion.  Those who doubt what I say need look no further than Matthew’s Gospel lesson today from chapter 18!
     There is a phrase in Spiderman which evangelists picked up in the 1990’s – with great power comes great responsibility.  Adoption into God’s kingdom is a wonderful, glorious thought.  But it comes with tremendous responsibility.  His adopted sons and daughters, His princes and princesses, serve rather than be served.  His adopted sons and daughters practice humility rather than pride.  And his adopted sons and daughters are tasked with naming sin.  Now, I get the aversion.  We are Episcopalians, not Baptists or Church of Christ.  Nobody here wants to be on a street corner proclaiming “repent or die” or “know Jesus or know hell.” And, I think as we see in Matthew 18 today, we do not need to be on a street corner.  But neither are we called to accept anything He declares a sin as acceptable in the lives of those around us.  Worse, failing to address the sin means their blood is on our hands.  If we gently and winsomely and lovingly wrestle with sin in our community, the guilt is on those who reject God.  But if we ignore it, it’s our guilt.  Tough words, no?
     Think of the damage that sin does to a community of faithful Christians or to the honor of God.  When we cheat on our taxes, we are stealing.  How does the world view tax cheats who claim to be Christian?  How do they view God?  Who wants to join a community of thieves?  When we Christians ignore the plight of homeless or immigrants or whatever marginalized group you want to name, when we work to ostracize them rather than draw them into the loving embrace of our Lord and Savior, how does the world view us and the Lord we serve?  Who really wants to join a community of the hard-hearted?  Such communities are plentiful in the world around us!  When we encourage gossip, how does the world view us and the Lord we serve?
     I have been here nearly three years now, so I think I can name how it impacts us at Advent more specifically in love, not in judgment.  Look around us again this morning.  Where is the next generation?  And the one after that?  One of our greatest gifts we are gathered to steward are our children, our youth?  Why are they not here worshiping with us today?  When did we decide that it was ok to miss church for soccer games?  To use Sundays for sleeping in and ignoring worship that day or any other day of the week?  Why were we ok with lukewarm responses to God’s love with those whom we most treasure, most love?  And, for those of you thinking “whew, I get a pass, my kids moved away,” are they active in a Christian faith community where they live?  Have you shared with them the importance of your faith in God and Christ?  And, where are those their age who moved to Nashville even as yours left.  We add 4800 people a month to our population in the city.  Are none of them between the ages of 25 and 60?  Are none of them visiting us?  Are none of them looking for community among us?
     It is tough being a son or daughter of God.  That’s part of why He calls it a cross and not a martini glass.  That’s why He calls us sentinels.  Our work is dangerous, often thankless or even rejected, but incredibly important!  We want so much to believe that how a person acts and speaks is between only them and God.  We want to believe that, but this passage reminds us that such is not true.  So does our life together.  Loving someone fully means desiring they share in that intimate relationship offered by God.  When we sit by silently, not challenging, fearful that they might think us too religious, we are failing them as much as sentinels failed when they refused to challenge those who went about.  And what happens when we fail in our jobs as sentinels?
     True, our communities may not be attacked in the same was as Ezekiel would have understood such language, but one cannot escape the comparison.  Friends and neighbors have drifted away in the darkness.  Why?  Where have they gone?  Has it been clergy failure?  Has it been busy lives?  Has it been a question of faith?  Family members have drifted away, forgetting that the worship of God is THE most important thing we do.  Why?  The people that you and I claim to hold most dear have, in many instances, turned away from God?  Why do we remain silent if we truly care about them?  What is it that keeps us from being sentinels?
     But in these tough words also is the wonderful reminder of the heart of God.  What if the mortal realizes his or her sin?  What if the other son or daughter to whom we speak, to whom we love, to whom we strive to be in relationship and community with realizes their sin, what hope do we have for them?  Even in this hard passage God reminds us that He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.  God is not sitting up on His throne sharpening a lightning bolt excited at the prospect that He gets to smite someone.  No, indeed.  What gives Him pleasure is that the wicked turn back to Him.  What causes rejoicing in heaven is the repentance of a sinner and not the destruction of a sinner!  Can you imagine!  Of course you can!  You are here!  Each and everyone of us who is gathered here this day is here to give thanks to God for making it possible for us to serve Him, for us to choose life over death!  And we recognize each and every time we come before that altar or table that God gave us that possibility of choosing life through His own life and death and resurrection.  That is our primary purpose.  That is why it is called a Eucharist – I give good thanks!
     This sermon today has been a bit challenging.  I have noticed the squirming; I have seen the elbow nudging and the eyes.  This is an inherently dangerous passage if we forget that the sentinels not only warn about danger but that they also point the way to safety and security.  To you, brothers and sisters, has been given the greatest treasure and greatest responsibility in the universe.  Each of you gathered here this day understands the need for a Savior.  Each of you gathered here this day understands why so many choose to reject God, to scoff at His warnings, and to chase death.  That means you are uniquely equipped to speak to and to serve others, lovingly and winsomely, just as others once spoke and served you and drew you into His saving embrace.  We call it a Gospel, in part, because it is not dependent upon you or upon me.  It is dependent solely upon God.  And in His gracious heart, He has not demanded perfection from us or from those to whom we reach in His name.  No indeed.  When we fail, we need only to repent.  We need only to redirect ourselves to Him and to His purposes.  And that Lord who reminds us that we are mere mortals forgives us, restores us, and empowers us to be fit sentinels in His kingdom, pointing others to Him and to life.  Yes, we name the sins, we do not pretend they are anything other than those things which separate us from God’s love.  Of equal importance, however, is the certainty that God has made it possible for all to come into His saving embrace, not just in this life, but for eternity.

Peace,

Brian†

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Of nadirs and failures and God's redeeming power . . .

     I shared with 8am folks that I was worried I was preaching more against bad preachers this week than really speaking to the congregation at Advent.  It will come as no surprise to you all that have attended the last couple years that some of my colleagues were teasing me this week about me having my own Elijah moment.  Colleagues were discussing their insights into the passages, as we are often wont to do, but they were driving me nuts.  One colleague is preaching on this passage from 1 Kings as a moralistic sermon: Don’t be like Elijah!  Ugh.  I tried to remind him that Elijah was on the mountain with a transfigured Christ last week.  I don’t know that God wants us to think of Elijah as a failure.  But it fell on deaf ears.  Here’s hoping that sermon does, too.  I had another colleague “discover” that God really only cares about His competition with Ba’al.  God does not condemn the worship of Asherah.  Really?  That whole first commandment thing doesn’t give you pause?  That whole shemah thing we read in Rite 1 worship doesn’t suggest that God hates all forms of idolatry?  I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts! 
     Things were further jumbled after the events of Friday night and Saturday in Charlottesville.  Most of us believe that we preach best with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper (or the internet nowadays) in the other.  Charlottesville looms large over our national context this week, but the events did not happen until yesterday.  Most of my colleagues wrote their sermons on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.  Thursday and Friday were days of editing or fine-tuning.  How can one ever preach on such an event with no preparation?  What was worse was that some complained our readings did not lend themselves to the events of the weekend!  The sense of failure expressed by Elijah or the chaos of the wind and waves were somehow disconnected to those events.  And, because I was busy for several hours with June’s funeral, I had missed most of the events.  Unlike my brother and sister clergy, I was unable to watch events unfold on television.  This was, to their understanding, going to make me ineffectual discussing the tragedy with you.
     Of course, 8 o’clockers decided God showed up powerfully this morning in the sermon.  Somehow, 1 Kings made sense to everyone in light of our context here at Advent, here in Middle Tennessee, and as an American.  And, although it was not the sermon I had in mind at the beginning of the week, I have to admit I found it encouraging as well.  So, if you are following along, turn in your Bibles to chapter 19 or turn to the first page in your Order of Worship. . .
     Before I speak to the despair of Elijah, I need to speak to the work and deeds of the man.  Last week, we read that he appeared on the mountain with Moses and Jesus.  In the Jewish tradition, Elijah was the prophet, and Moses was the law-giver.  Elijah, it was thought in some circles, might return to rule for God.  It makes sense, right?  He was carried off to heaven by the chariots of fire before the cohort of prophets and Elisha, his successor.  Since he was not dead, he just might return to rule for God, or to advise the Messiah who ruled for God.  When people describe Jesus as Elijah in the Gospels, it is with this kind of cultural understanding they have in mind.  It’s a compliment.
     Elijah, of course, accomplished incredible things for God.  Elijah, in the lead up to our passage today, was the prophet of God in the so-called battle of the prophets.  Acting on instructions from God, Elijah challenges the priests of Ba’al to a worship contest.  He and they will construct an altar, sacrifice a bull, and call down fire upon the sacrifice.  Whoever’s god answers will be the god of Israel.  Such a competition is possible only because Ahab and Jezebel have led Israel astray from God.  They have introduced the worship of idols to Israel.
      In a battle worthy of a Hollywood movie, the priests of Ba’al construct their altar, sacrifice their animal, and then call down Ba’al’s fire.  Unfortunately for them, Ba’al does not answer.  The Hebrew is rather amusing.  Elijah mocks them for their god’s inability to answer.  He laughs that Ba’al is busy on his throne, as many men like to do in the bathroom, and so incapacitated and kept from answering their prayers.  He wonders at another point whether Ba’al is asleep.  Again and again he teases the enemy priests.  Eventually, they all pass out from exhaustion.
     Elijah builds his altar, sacrifices his animal, pours water all over the wood (they are in a three year drought and he wants no one to accuse this of being spontaneous combustion), and calls down Yahweh’s flame.  God consumes not only Elijah’s sacrifice but that of the sacrifice to Ba’al.  Everyone is stunned.  And Elijah uses that stunned time to order the priests of God to kill all the priests of Ba’al.  Can you imagine anything more glorious?  Elijah certainly could not.  Scripture does not tell us what he expected.  Maybe he expected all Israel to turn and worship Yahweh after such an answer?  Maybe he just expected Ahab and Jezebel to return to the Lord?  Maybe he expected idolatry to go the way of the dodo bird after such an impressive display.  Whatever he expected, he got something completely different.
     And, lest we think this is Elijah’s only supernatural encounter with God, he has all kinds of reasons to know what to expect from God.  God has shut the rains at Elijah’s prayer.  This is the same Elijah who is sent to the widow in Sidon.  It is from her never-ending jar of oil and jar of flour that she, he, and her son are fed during this extreme drought.  It is that same son that is raised from the dead at Elijah’s intercession.  There are more events in his relationship with God, but you get the idea.  Elijah has had quite the walk with our Lord.  And it is that same Elijah whom we find groaning, complaining, and giving up today.
     Whatever response Elijah expected as a result of that battle of the prophets, he gets a death threat as well.  Ahab is blind to the events described in that battle.  When he recounts the events to his wife, he claims that Elijah did all of that, not God.  In response to her husband’s testimony, Jezebel sends a messenger to tell Elijah that she is going to do to him what he did to her priests of Ba’al.  Those of us who are rational might well wonder at the threat and Elijah’s response.  If he killed all the Ba’al priests, who is alive to kill him?  More to the point, why send a messenger to threaten the prophet of God?  Just send the killers.
     Whatever Elijah expected, that was not the response.  And so he flees south.  He flees to the very southern edge of the kingdom.  Still, that’s not far enough!  He tells his servant to remain at a place while he travels a day into the wilderness, further away.  It is there that Elijah finds a bushy tree, collapses, and basically asks God to take his life.  If the battle with the prophets or the raising of the widow’s son, or the transfiguration appearance represent the pinnacle of Elijah’s walk with God, this scene represents the nadir, his own Jonah-fleeing moment.
     It is at this point in the story that we need to remind ourselves of the character of our Father in heaven.  I often have a different parenting outlook.  When my kids come whining to me about a booboo or cat scratch, I am the dad that offers to cut off the finger or leg to make that pain go away.  It’s ok to laugh.  None of them have ever let me do it.  It’s terrible parenting, isn’t it?  But who has not had it done to them?  Who has not offered to do it?
     Thankfully, God does not respond like us.  Does Elijah get beaten for running away in the “this is gonna hurt me more than it hurt you sense?”  Does God ignore Elijah for his lack of faith?  Does God condemn or punish Elijah for Elijah’s wrong expectations?  Look at what He does to Elijah.  He feeds Elijah.  He lets Elijah rest.  He asks Elijah why he is where he is.  And God listens.  Think of how petulant Elijah’s answer must sound in God’s ears.  “I have done everything you have asked and still they seek to kill me.  None have turned to You, Lord!  I have wasted my time, my energy, my care, and my concern for them.  Take my life, please.”  Pathetic, is it not?  It’s at these points in our conversations with our kids that we mouth that eternal wisdom, “you think you are hurting?  I’ll give you hurt” right?  Is that how our Father in heaven tends to Elijah?  No!
     After feeding and allowing Elijah rest, God sends Elijah to Mount Sinai.  There Elijah finds a cave.  Some rabbinical scholars claim this is the very same cleft or cave where God hid Moses when His glory passed by.  While in that cave, God speaks to Elijah.  The miraculous or supernatural happens again.  A wind with the strength to split boulders happens.  But God is not in that wind.  Next an earthquake rumbles.  But God is not in the earthquake.  A consuming fire falls to earth, and still God is not in the fire.  Where does Elijah finally encounter God again?  Our translators say the sheer silence.  Others have described it as the small whisper.  We might as well think of it as the personal, the ordinary, the common.
     What Elijah experiences is common to people in their walk with God.  Think of the stories of your favorite prophet, or your favorite matriarch , your favorite patriarch, or your favorite Adventer.  Is everything they do laudable or praiseworthy?  Of course not!  And God responds to each as a loving Father.  Almost all complain; many are dejected at some point.  Some flee Him; some beg Him to punish the enemies.  Many take things into their own hands to “fix them” and wind up making an even bigger mess.  And each time God is loving and merciful.  God knows what each needs and provides it, be it a kick in the pants or a softer life lesson.  Elijah needs to know that God is the One rejected.  Elijah, and we, need to be reminded that God not only gives meaning to our work, our ministries, but He is the sole arbiter of our success.  For American Christians like us, this is a heck of a spiritual wedgie, right?
     As I was watching CNN before the funeral yesterday, I watched a modern Elijah.  The crew was following a small group of white supremacists after the police had dispersed the crowds from the park.  They would try to capture every confrontation on camera and in an interview.  They came upon an older, bearded black man with sad face and shaking head.  The reporter asked him what had happened to him.  In an obviously pained voice, the man expressed failure.  Nothing, it turned out, had happened to him.  Why was he so sad?  “This is not who we are.  I don’t know any of these people—on either side!  Are we perfect?  No.  But we aren’t this.  Now, it’s our city’s reputation that is getting ruined.  Our businesses are being hurt.  Our property is being ruined.  This is not us.”  As he was shaking his head, the crew moved on because there was another verbal confrontation up the street.  But I was struck by this man’s sense of failure.  He was of an age where I am sure he remembered worse times.  He was likely of an age where he thought the worst was behind us.  I don’t know how long he has lived in Charlottesville, but it does not have the reputation or feel of a racist divide.  It’s a university town snuggled in the foothills of the Appalachians.  Their big riots generally involve drunken college students being stupid, wielding kegs or fifths of liquor.  Not racist protesters bearing semi-automatic weapons or their counterparts carrying clubs or pepper spray.  And had he been a worker for racial equality and justice much of his life, I can only imagine the sense of his futility.
      It is a futility that no doubt touches us.  I am loathe to put words in their mouth, so you should ask them and thank them afterwards, but think how Billy and George must feel doing the work of the anti-racism taskforce.  We are trying to do the right things, I think, as a diocese.  If we screw up, it’s well meant intentions.  Heck, we began with a corporate, public repentance, just as many experts suggest.  We acknowledged that our churches did not stand up with the innocent for justice when it mattered most.  Our silence led to their deaths.  It was a powerful service, a powerful beginning, Naomi was able to speak to racism as a South African who finds herself for a season planted firmly in Nashville . . . and very few showed up.  Was it the timing, a weekday morning?  Was it the location?  Rush hour makes Fisk a longer trip than normal for those of us living on the south side of Nashville.  But where were the people from north Nashville, or East Nashville, or West Nashville?  Where was the press?  Never mind the CNN’s or Fox News or major outlets of the nation, where were our press members?  Why weren’t the cameras following everyone as we processed to St. Anselm’s to reveal the new marker?  And for all the good beginning that our task force has done, how quickly would it all had been unraveled if those protesters and counter-protesters had chosen to duke it out in Nashville rather than a small university town in Virginia?  For those who have fought racism, today is likely an emotionally exhausting day.  Sometimes we like to think we have made such a difference.  Then the world kicks us in the teeth and reminds us that our life’s work was a failure or worthless.  Is it any wonder we, like Elijah, rail at God, flee from God, or wonder whether He really cares?
     Such a feeling likely hangs over two more Adventers this morning.  I hear it was shared in Bible Study, so I will share it as well.  Unbeknownst to many of you, Tina and Robert have been teaching English as a Second Language classes as one of our nearby churches.  Tina and Robert have taken it upon themselves to welcome immigrants and refugees in Christ’s name.  Their chief contribution is a willingness to teach English to any who come to the classes.  It is hard work, exhausting work.  Through translators they get to hear first hand the accounts of lives in other countries.  Through translators they get to hear first hand the accounts of incredible journeys to get to the United States.  Through translators they get to hear first hand the accounts and stories of living in this land as a foreigner, an alien.  Many in power try to wrap themselves in the mantle of Christ claiming this is a Christian nation.  Tina and Robert can tell you we sure don’t seem that way to “those people.”
     Up until this point, of course, Tina and Robert could claim a distinction between the country and the Church.  The country may get things wrong and only say what is necessary to remain in power, but the Church knows better—the Church follows Jesus.  Their eyes will water as they share the story, but that distinction ended this week.  The church that was hosting the classes stopped them this week with no warning, with no hint of any problem.  It turns out that the idea of teaching foreigners how to read and write English was divisive in the church.  Let me say that again: the idea of hosting adult foreigners to teach them our language was divisive in a church.  People were threatening to leave the church of those people, and take their pledges with them, so the pastor stopped the classes.  Somehow, I doubt the Jesus who supported Peter on the waves today was proud of His disciples.  Could we blame Tina and Robert if they gave up?  Could we blame them if they gave up on the Church and on God in the midst of such hardened hearts and stiff necks?  Would we be surprised if they found themselves, like Elijah, ready to throw in the towel?
     I have already spoken of a couple pastors’ failure this morning, but it is worth reminding you I think that we are human.  I’m sure by the time today is over I will have heard of many more.  Heck, some of you may lump me in with that group.  But I was reminded of clergy failures earlier this week by a visitor.  I won’t share all the details as I invited her to church, but she recounted how a priest had really screwed up in her past.  The result was that she and her family walked out of this church and the Church for many years.  When she dropped in this week, she said she had attended the irregular wedding or funeral, but had not been to weekly services in decades now.
     On one hand, we might be tempted to dismiss her claims.  Why give up on God because a priest is human?  But we clergy understand it.  Our mistakes, we quickly learn, have far-reaching consequences.  We are stewards of God’s holy mysteries.  Our mis-stewarding has far-reaching and eternal consequences.  Was the priest trying to do what he thought was best?  I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.  Was what he was doing unquestionably wrong?  Yes.  As I talked with her this week, Elijah was, naturally, on my mind, but I had also had a few conversations with less experienced clergy on my mind.  Somebody had suggested that each reach out to me.  I learned again that I am a rare sighting in our beloved church.  I’m not yet fifty years of age and I have double digit years’ worth of ordained experience.  We laughed as I shared that with her, but hers was the nervous laugh of “why is he telling me this?”  I told her that clergy make a lot of mistakes right out of seminary.  It’s no wonder.  We have people and clergy at our sending parish telling us we should be ordained.  We have imposing figures we call bishops concurring.  We go through committees of strangers called Commissions on Ministry and Standing Committees with the same result.  Once through all them, we find ourselves at seminary, surrounded by ordained professors whose jobs depend upon them preparing us and encouraging us for the days that lay ahead.  Is it any wonder our expectations get out of whack?  Who does not want to be the next great thing?  Who does not want to be the one who grows the next super church?  Who begins the next revival?  Who earns that “saint” title in the next iteration of Holy Women Holy Men?
     Like Elijah, our expectations get out of whack.  God needs us to further His kingdom is the lie we tell ourselves.  And then the honeymoon at the first parish ends.  We screw up.  We offend rather than scandalize.  We discover that people do not like us.  Every decision costs the parish income which, in turn, increases the stress on the Vestry?  Some clergy run away to another parish, and some parishes go looking for another clergy.  Some clergy go looking for that perfect parish, and some parishes go looking for that perfect clergy.  Somewhere along the way, bishops hope that the new clergy and the vestries learn to work with each other.  If the call is mutually discerned, bishops hope clergy and parishes look for God in the ordinary, the mundane, the boring, and each other.  My ministry with this woman this week was rather boring.  I don’t think she walked out of the office thinking “that guy is brilliant.”  She may have been scandalized by a couple of my questions or statements.  Time will tell.  She had been wrestling with God for a few months.  She found herself on Franklin Pike and noticing the sign rather than flying past us on the interstate yet again.  We talked.  I apologized for my predecessor’s failure.  We spoke of some of you; she threatened to give us a try.  Miraculous?  Yes.  Supernatural?  By no means.
     How this all relates to us individually, I hope, is obvious.  It is understandable if our individual ministries to which He has called us result in disappointment and sense of failure.  How it relates to us corporately, I think, is less obvious.  When Bishop John visited with us in June, he made a point of encouraging me to thank the vestry members repeatedly for their work of adaptive change or discernment or whatever we want to call it.  What God and the bishop and Holly and I are asking them and you to do is hard work.  There is a temptation, a strong temptation, to want to give up, to quit working, to quit doing the hard stuff.  Heck, in this day and age of consumer Christianity in America, it is easy to want to give up and run away and hide, just like Elijah!  Those feelings that we sense or understand in our individual efforts can even be magnified in corporate settings.  That’s why I find it more than comforting that on a day when our country is struggling with the institutional sin of racism and when members are struggling with their own sense of failure or inadequacy and when we as members of a parish may be experiencing similar feelings of failure and wasted effort, we are reminded the week after the Transfiguration of Elijah.
     Like us, Elijah was called to walk in the path of God, the path of righteousness.  Like us, Elijah was called to draw others into God’s saving embrace.  Like us, Elijah was given incredible power and incredible signs that he was doing what God asked of him.  And like us, Elijah found himself in a world full of people who had no idea they were in darkness, who had no idea they were walking in valleys that led to death, who had no idea they were blind.  And like us, Elijah took their rejection of God as a rejection of himself and as an evidence of his failure.
     Like us, Elijah had a Christ like ministry.  His ministry was not of his own doing.  He went and did where and what God commanded.  Like God’s Son who came centuries later, Elijah’s ministry seemed a failure.  Like Jesus, Elijah’s ministry seemed to be pointless and leading to death.
     It would have been within God’s right to smite Elijah or yell at him for his pity party; it would not, however, been within His character.  Like He does so often for each of us, God needed to remind Elijah where He was to be found.  Like us, Elijah needed to be reminded that God only requires obedience.  Like us, Elijah needed only to be reminded that nothing God does is without purpose.  We may not understand the purpose, but He always has at least one!  And like us, Elijah needed to be reminded that God is the judge of our efforts.  He is the determiner of the success of our labors.  Not us.  Not the world.  To us and to those in the world we can appear as abject failures, as impotent human beings not up to the grand tasks assigned us by Him.  Nevertheless, He determines the success.  He has the power to redeem all things, even our seeming failures.  Elijah felt a complete failure, yet God reminds him that 7000 heard his words!  7000 were rescued out of Elijah’s self-evaluated disappointment or failure!  How successful would we view ourselves if we each rescued 7000?  You and I share in that promise and that hope—that He will give meaning to our lives, that He will redeem our failures, that He will give us a share of His glory for all eternity.  Just as He redeemed this nadir of faith of His prophet Elijah, He will redeem our nadirs, both individually and collectively.  Heck, just as He redeemed the death of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, He will redeem us, even if our seeming failure seems to lead to our own deaths!  And, because He is a Father who loves us more deeply than we can ever understand or appreciate, He has even more than redemption in store for us!  Just as He demonstrated in His Son’s Ascension and Transfiguration, you and I, like Elijah, will one day share in His glory!  What a promise!  What a hope!  What an incredible God and Father!
     Why are you here, Adventers?  Let’s eat and get back out there, toiling in the mundane and the ordinary, reminded of that wonderful promise and reward He has in store for all those who call upon Him!

In Christ’s Peace,

Brian†

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Oases of the Kingdom of God . . . Mustard seeds and yeast!

     Before I begin today, let me first apologize to all the strict sermon evaluators among us this morning.  I recognize what I am about to do is neither expository nor faithful to the text, at least in an important sense.  In another, though, I am quite certain I am being quite faithful in addressing a pastoral need that really came to the fore this week, just as we were scheduled by the lectionary editors to encounter these readings.  I suppose this is my long-winded way of saying that I hope I am like Jesus’ master of a household who has truly brings out of God’s treasure what is new and what is old.
     And while I am at it, you all owe a huge debt of gratitude to the 8 o’clocker’s.  I have shared how they often interact with us to shape our 10:30am sermons.  As I was preaching earlier today, I had the distinct feeling that this was the worst sermon I had preached at Advent.  Maybe it was?  Thankfully, it is not recorded, so we will never know for sure.  More thankfully, though, people heard what they needed to hear in light of what I preached.  Holly† and I are sometimes brutal to one another.  We agreed this sermon was bad.  Yet, those at 8 o’clock were excited by the sermon, were full of more illustrations I could use, and seemed amazingly comforted by what pained the two of us.  If this ends up speaking to you, empowering you, reminding you of God’s call on your life, thank those that come early when you see them at the picnic.  Let them know you appreciate their work!  With that all said, let’s get started.
     We have spent some significant time in this, the green or growing season of the Church that we call “Ordinary Time” in Jesus’ teachings from Matthew.  Unfortunately for the initial audiences and for us, Jesus delighted in teaching through the use of parables.  I say unfortunately because, more often than not, if we are faithful attenders and faithful responders to His parables, we find ourselves relating to the parables in different ways as we walk through life with God.  A great recent example would be the parable of the wheat and the tares.  All of us love to believe that the other, whoever we think the others are, is the noxious weed and we are the fruit bearing wheat.  If we faithfully engaged Jesus in that teaching though, I think some of us came to the realization that we may, in fact, sometimes be weeds.  It can be a fearful thing to be sitting in your favorite pew, dressed just so, convinced of your own piety and righteousness, only to be provoked by reason of conscience and by the Holy Spirit that, perhaps we are lucky this minute is not the Day of the Lord, that we are lucky He is not sending the angels to harvest this minute.  We might find ourselves rounded up with the weeds.
     Those conversations, of course, allow me to remind us of the simplicity of the Gospel.  There is nothing in us that saves us.  Every one of us, each and every single person we encounter, is only saved through the work and person of Jesus Christ.  It’s humbling news, perhaps, to learn that He was willing to die for our own sins.  It’s humbling in a completely different way, though, to hear that He died for everyone, that He has patience for everyone, that He loves and desires all to come to Him.  Realizing that makes us realize that we are not as unique, not as special as we might like to think, at least in how the world would like us to believe.  But it is also good for us to be reflective about Jesus’ teachings, to remind ourselves how difficult it is to be fruit bearing all the time, how dependent we are upon God’s grace and mercy.
     Often those parables are challenging.  More often than not, the disciples have to ask Jesus about their meanings.  Given the cultural and time distances between us, it is no small wonder that many of us have difficulty had understanding some of them today.  Given the complexity of those parables, it’s no small wonder that we read them differently at different times in our life.  Heck, given our ebbs and flows in relating to God, it’s no wonder we find ourselves comforted at one time and challenged at another by the exact same parable.
     This week’s parables from Matthew are dangerous.  You laugh nervously a bit, and I get that.  But this week’s parables are truly dangerous.  You know you are in trouble when the disciples understand Jesus.  How can they not understand the wheat and the tares but get the good and stinky fish?  How can they struggle with the parable of the sower and get the treasure in a field?  In particular, I felt called to concentrate on the first two parables of our reading from Matthew this morning.  But rather than focus on them in a regular fashion, I wanted to look at how they speak to our lives, individually, as disciples of Jesus Christ.
     The two parables are well known.  In the first parable, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to the mustard seed.  Most of us know the background of what Jesus intends.  The mustard seed is originally rather small.  There is no indication from the seed that the resulting plant will be the oasis of life described by Jesus.  With proper amounts of good soil, water, fertilizer, and sunlight, that little seed will become a source of food and shelter for any number of living things.  For the planter, the resulting tree shrub will become a source of herbs or mustard seeds.  Meals will be improved.  The seeds can even be sold for money used to buy other necessities.  But that same tree will be a source of shade for those travelling in its vicinity.  For some birds and animals it will become a home and a place for shelter.  For those that prey on such animals, it will become a source for food.  I’m intentionally being quick, but you all have heard lots of stories about the mustard seed turning into a tree.
     The same can be said about the leaven and the flour.  It may be too simple a thing to claim that the Jews were not overly fond of leavened bread.  Certainly, an argument can be made that they should be suspicious of fermentation as signs of implied corruption and disintegration from the days of their Exodus.  But were they?  How often were the Jews like us?  How often did they miss God’s teaching , or ignore it altogether?  And, let’s not forget experience.  How bad does baked bread from leavened dough smell?
     Jesus’ parable points out that bakers had to keep an acidic piece of dough that had been set aside during a prior baking.  That piece of dough could be mixed with flour and water and set aside.  The resulting fermentation would cause the dough to rise.  A good baker would pinch off a piece for the next time, but the rest of the dough was used to bake bread or crusts or whatever recipes call for dough that has been allowed to rise. 
     No doubt we have all heard stories and sermons of how Jesus intends to illustrate the surprising growth of the kingdom of God in our midst.  The reign of God starts off insignificantly.  We might say it starts in a manger in an out of the way city in an out of the way province.  Heck, those hearing or witnessing the beginning of that reign likely thought it ended abruptly, if it was beginning at all, that fateful Good Friday afternoon.  It’s bursting forth, of course, became evident, not just on Easter, but on His Ascension and on Pentecost!  We get the big story.  We understand the big picture.  But do we miss the trees for the forest?  Do we miss how we are mustard seeds, how we are pieces of leaven in Jesus’ parable?
     Looking at your faces, I see some confusion.  Let me explain a bit differently using modern illustrations.  Two Advent group meetings will help us all to understand how these parables are applicable to our lives of faith.  The first was the Bible Project on Wednesday.  For seven of the last eight weeks, driven mostly by the vision and energy of Tina, and the support of Nancy and Holly†, we have engaged in some food, some fellowship, some games, some learning, and some worship.  Different people enjoyed different aspects of those gatherings at different times.  For our last gathering, we looked at the illustrated version of what Carola† taught you was the tension between the already and the not yet.  Good, I see the nods.
     One of the questions with which Christians have struggled is the end times.  It makes sense that we have struggled.  If we can’t get history right, how can we ever expect to get the future correct?  The authors of the Bible Project illustrated what they think is going to happen by the use of two overlapping circles.  One circle is the kingdom of heaven; the other is the kingdom of the world.  The overlap was, in the Old Testament, the Temple.  That was the sacred space where God’s people were supposed to be made righteous and holy and empowered to evidence His mercy in grace in the world around them.  The same is true for us.  Except that Temple is now the Cross and Empty Tomb of Jesus.  It is through His work on the Cross that you and I are made sons and daughters.  It is through His intercession that you and I are empowered by the Holy Spirit to do those things He has given us to do.
     Looking at those circles, of course, I was drawn to the fact that we do not stay “in the Temple.”  God’s people are always sent back into the world.  In our Episcopal parlance, we are sent into the world to do those things He has given us to do!  We may not be of the world, but He sure has a lot of work for you and I to accomplish in that world for Hs honor and His glory.  Had I illustrated their message, I would have sent lots of little crosses back into the dark circle of the kingdom of earth signifying the ministry to which each one of Christ’s disciples is called.  By virtue of our baptism, each of us has put our fleshy selves to death on that Cross.  Now we work for Him!  To use the illustration of the parables today, you and I are those pieces of dough that ferment all the flour.  You and I are the seeds that give rise to that lively oasis described as a mustard tree this morning.  Does it seem crazy?  Think about ministries of Adventers.
     Naturally, we have already spoken of the impact of Tina, Nancy, and Holly in this Bible Project effort.  Those who came were fed, engaged in conversation, played with, educated a bit, and led in worship.  From three little seeds came an enormous abundance of life, an abundance whose impact we cannot adequately judge right now.  Look at our “biscuit ministry.”  I still don’t know who the mustard seed or leavened piece of bread was.  Somebody, though, planted an idea.  Now, several Adventers help giving away dozens of biscuits every month.  People are being fed here and there and not with leftovers, but with the very best biscuits most of us could buy!  Consider Barbara’s work in the Parenting Adult Children group.  It was her vision, her passion, and her study that helped make that group work.  She provided the yeast, as it were, to cause the rest of the flour rise, giving evidence of the kingdom of God in the midst of the lives of those who attend.  Heck, many individual ministries at Advent reflect beautifully the teaching espoused by Jesus this morning.  Larry and Dale drive Room in the Inn.  Ron and Ellen and Jerry and Janice and a few others drive our work with St. Luke’s.  Frank hosts fellowship events with great care and vision, even in the midst of terrible pain.  Candida has taken up the cause of Human Trafficking and is impacting Rotary and the world around in ways that stun her.  No doubt you, like 8 o’clockers, can think of more!
     Sometimes we clergy need the reminder, too.  Speaking of human trafficking, as most of you know, I have been far too consumed with Advent to do more than dabble in the fight against Human Trafficking.  It drives me nuts sometimes.  I had done next to nothing since January—you may have heard that the Vestry and clergy have been a little swamped with budgetary issues.  But I received a call a couple weeks ago from a staffer of one of our Senators.  He wanted to know if I was willing to support the Senator’s effort to make a Tennessee organization a warehouse for human trafficking information.  Mostly they wanted to make sure that Congress is getting the best bang for their buck.  The Senator wanted Tennessee to retain its leadership role in this fight.  I answered without thinking.  Why wouldn’t I?
     He needed us to do some professional printing for an organization in Knoxville that works on a string budget.  Hmmm.  Who do I know that prints professionally?  Where will I ever find that kind of specific help?  Heck, we were so well-suited to this work that we have a retired lobbyist in our midst who can speak to the expectations of the members of Congress.  I won’t say Ron’s and my conversation was edifying in the traditional sense—it really only served to confirm my suspicions about their forgetfulness that they are supposed to serve us--, but it does allow me to approach that work with some confidence that we will get the best bang for our buck!  And, if we are not careful and God does not come again before then, we are that much closer to that wonderful stadium Eucharist with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope serving as a kickoff for creating a network of shelters around the world!  Talk about leavening the flour!
     The second big parish conversation that helped me bring these parables into focus was the Wrestling with Faith group on Thursday.  I’m not sure who is more disappointed in the lack of growth in that group, Robert and Jim who convene it, or the Advent clergy who recognize its need.  We have our suspicions why it does not really catch support among those Adventers who struggle with their faith, but it is a group that simply intends to consider those aspects of our faith with which both the Church and the outside world have struggled over the centuries.  Sometimes, the participants border on the verge of eloquently espousing heresy . . . again and again.  Sometimes, the participants come to realize that their struggles are reflective of the struggles that have existed in God’s people since the beginning.  All our conversations this week, though, led us back to why the questioning was important.  As smart as Robert and Jim are, they ask no question with which the Church has not struggled before.  There are those in the wider Church who would no doubt condemn them for such questions, but would our Lord?  These struggles are real.  The struggles shape us.  How we live these struggles, more important, testifies to the world the redeeming power of God.  How we live these struggles, individually and collectively, molds and shapes and waters and nourishes us to become those kingdom of God outposts in the world out there!  And that, after all, is where and how the kingdom appears in this world.
     You and I speak often of being ambassadors and sons and daughters of the King.  Should we be at all surprised that our King sends us into the world as seeds that die to self or leaven that can “infect” more flour?  Should we be surprised that our Lord can use such tiny initial faith on our part to accomplish glorious works in our midst?  Given His teachings and parables, I do not think so.  Lord, help my unbelief ought to be ringing in our ears today even as our focus is on the growth of the kingdom of God in the world around us.  Yes, we can never mistake the fact that He provides the growth; He provides all that is really necessary to grow His kingdom.  But for reasons known only to Him, He seems quite content to use you and me and anyone else who comes to Him in faith the salt, the seed, and even the yeast that causes the kingdom to burst forth around us in ways we could never ask or imagine.  And maybe, maybe such stories remind us that no matter our own inconspicuous beginnings, you and are called by our Creator and Redeemer to a glorious fulfillment that none of us, no Adventer, begins to grasp.

In Christ’s Peace,

Brian†