Sunday, February 16, 2014

Laundry Lists and Love...

This isn't the best title for a sermon, but it is the best I could come up with. 

I think everything has to do with relationships. How we relate to God, how we relate to one another, how we regard the rich and the powerful and the poor and the marginalized. And no one relationship is disconnected from another.

Thanks this week especially to David Lose, Carla Works, and Peter Bush.

Finally, something that has nothing at all to do with the sermon, but it was part of my soundtrack as I was writing it. Javier Barria's cover of one of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs, "The Rain Song."

MATTHEW 5:21-37
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Wow. That is quite a list, isn't it? It's like Jesus is taking the Law and putting it on steroids. Many scholars call these the “antitheses,” because Jesus is saying, “you have heard... BUT,” putting expectations over and against established expectations.

Oh, goody, new rules. Peachy. And a laundry list of stuff, too... murder, anger, adultery, divorce, making oaths... and the punishments are over-the-top! For cryin' out loud, being condemned to Hell for calling someone a fool? Mutilating our body to refrain from committing sin? No wonder these fall in to the category that's called “the hard sayings of Jesus.”

It goes without saying that most Christians don't follow the letter of these sayings. We get angry. I know I do, anyway. Divorce is common nowadays, and in our lawsuit-crazed society we swear oaths verbally and with our signatures all the time. I don't know of anyone who has come to the Lord's Supper, then before taking part has left to go make up with someone they'd had a quarrel with. It has probably happened, sure, but I have never seen it. I don't know of anyone who has poked their own eye out or cut off their own hand to refrain from committing sin.

As a list of rules – I am gonna go ahead and just say it – these are unreasonable. If I have to treat this passage as a checklist of things I cannot ever under any circumstances do, or else, I give up. I can't do it. I mean, for crying out loud, I get upset at people's FaceBook posts, and don't even get me started about Twitter!

And let me go further: If we treat the Scriptures as a list of rules and regulations, a law-book, a Constitution... we will fail. Maybe not every time, on ever point, no. I may do OK not lusting after my neighbor's wife, but as soon as I get in a hurry to get from one job to another and Highway 280 gets backed up around the Summit, I can promise you someone is gonna swing in front of me from the other lane, cut me off, and I will at least call that driver a fool.

I can tell you that I know of at least one person who was mentally ill, and who obsessed over keeping every point of Scripture, and was constantly tortured that he could not do it all, to the point that, one night, he lay down on some railroad tracks. And no, the story does not have a happy ending.

But what if... what if the point of what Jesus is saying here goes deeper than keeping rules, following laws? Look at what Jesus is actually saying here, look at the focal point of his antitheses.

...If you are angry with...” “...if you insult...” “...if you say...” are some of the phrases Jesus uses to start off this reading, and he does it over against murder. Jesus seems to say anger is worse, or at least on a level, with killing... and to be sure, someone would have to be pretty angry with someone to kill them, you'd think. But I want to suggest to you that this isn't even about antecedents to murder.

It is about how we think about – how we treat – one another. It ain't about rules. It's about relationships. God cares about our relationships. That is the thread that weaves this seemingly stream-of-consciousness reading together. It isn't random rules and threats of punishment. It's about how we relate to one another, and through that, how and if we relate to God.

Isn't that amazing? This is truly revolutionary thinking! God is not the Unmoved Mover of the philosophers, nor does God see us as playthings, nor is God completely disinterested in God's creation. God is not simply a spiritual director or a dispenser of divine karma. God cares. God cares about us, and God cares about our relationships.

I know that sometimes people say or even do bad things, and our natural reaction is anger, our natural tendency is to strike back somehow. We have a right to! But at least in the Christian community, that right is less important than the responsibility, on both the part of the offender and the offended, to reconcile.

God cares about us. God cares about our relationships.

Think about it – when we hold a grudge, the person we are mad at is living in our head rent-free! It takes our heart and mind away from the things that matter, it causes stress, and stress can kill us. Better to forgive, even if we cannot safely forgive face-to-face. Forgiveness isn't about letting someone off the hook, remember, it is about allowing ourselves to move on and grow out of that and into our life in Christ.

And notice how the burden of reconciliation isn't just on the one offended – Jesus says that, whenever we realize we have offended someone, even if we are in the middle of church, even gathered around the Lord's Table, we must go and fix it right then, it is that important. Right relationships with one another both speak volumes to those outside of the faith looking in on us, and those relationships help to strengthen our individual and corporate walk with God.

Believe it or not, this dovetails in perfectly with Jesus' words about adultery, lust, and divorce, because if we value other people deeply enough to care about right relationships, one thing we are careful not to do is objectify other people – remove their humanity, define them as a body part or value them only for what the can do for us. We cannot treat people as possessions and truly value relationships with one another or with God.

God cares about us. God cares about how we care for and about others.

Now, treating people, specifically women, as a possession was exactly what Jesus was talking about when he was speaking of divorce. In Jesus' time, remember, women had no rights, no identity of their own. Rabbinic tradition held that a man could write up a “bill of divorcement” and leave his wife if she displeased him in any way. Women couldn't own property, had no legal recourse, could not work... for cryin' out loud, even the Ten Commandments lists “your neighbor's wife” in the same “Thou shalt not covet” sentence as his livestock!

A woman could be left homeless, destitute, starving to death, because she burned the toast.

So this isn't about forcing women, or anyone, to stay in bad, even abusive, relationships, it is about elevating women, and by extension all people, of any race or gender or nationality or orientation or identity, to the level of equal human beings.

I am serious. If we can get that one thing right, everything else will fall in to place.

If I consider every human being equal, then I don't have to worry about being greater than someone else. No one has to be less-than for me to feel good. If every human being is of equal value in the eyes of God, then my concern for right relationship with God compels me to act like it – to reconcile, to support, to heal.

If I am honest, it would be easier if our passage today was a list of rules and regulations, a checklist I could review every day and give myself a pass-or-fail. Relationships are messy, difficult things. I am a dyed in the wool extrovert (I know that is a shock), but there are days when I just don't want to be messed with. There are times when I get hurt or offended or wronged and, by golly, someone owes me an apology.


God cares about us. God cares about our relationships, and right relationships are more important than being right.

In the coming week, I'd like to invite you to join me in doing two things. First, call to mind one of the relationships in your life that is most important to you. One that is healthy and whole and good and sustains you. What makes that a good relationship? Why is that relationship so important? Reflect on that relationship this week, and in your time of prayer and meditation give God thanks for that person and the relationship you share.
Second, think about another relationship that is important to you, but it has suffered some damage. Don’t waste time trying to figure out who was to blame for the hurt; rather, hold that person, hold that relationship in prayer. Offer that broken relationship to God as an arena of God’s help and healing. And here is the hard part: take some time and think about what action you can take to move that relationship to greater health.
That's it. We start small. Just one.

Let us pray.

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you:
We give you praise for our good relationships. Help us to see, and to focus upon, the things that are good and right and which bring us joy and life.
And because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you,
give us the help of your grace to begin to heal those relationships which require reconciliation, and to practice forgiveness in those places where reconciliation is not possible.
Loving Creator, may we please you both in will and deed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

"Come and See"

My thanks to the writing of Richard Swanson, Kathryn Matthews Huey, the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton, and Paul J. Nuechterlein for their valuable insights into today's Scripture reading.

John 1:29-42
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

This is the Word of the Lord.

When John calls Jesus the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” what is he saying? I think the most common interpretation is that Jesus is the sacrifice which atones for the sins of humankind. And that's true, yes, and it's fine, in and of itself, if that is what one takes away from the Gospels, it's enough.

But the interesting thing is that – remembering that Jesus and John and the disciples are all Jewish, and that their understanding of sacrifice would be based solely upon the Jewish Temple sacrificial system – lambs, in the Scriptures, are not sin sacrifices.

Bulls are sin offerings, as well as male and female goats. Where a lamb is mentioned it is specifically a female lamb.

Remember, though, that Jesus is crucified during Passover. That feast specifically calls for a male lamb, unblemished, sacrificed, roasted and consumed. The blood of that sacrificed lamb was to be splashed on the doorframe of the house, so that when the Angel of the Lord saw it, that house would be passed over, and another, unsplashed home would see its firstborn killed.

The sacrifice of that lamb protected the home, and ultimately freed the Hebrew people from slavery, and set them on the road to finding the Promised Land. The annual feast of Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, remembered that mighty act of God. This, then, is what Jesus, as the Lamb of God, does: liberates the world from slavery to sin by bringing the world into new and fresh contact with the presence of God, so that human alienation from God can end.

Yes, Jesus Christ is our atoning sacrifice, Scripture is clear on that. But to say that Jesus simply died to please the bloodlust of an angry God, was One who wiped the slate clean so we could mess it up again – and let's be honest, for a sin-washed world, there is plentiful sin still to go around. People still kill people, people still rape and steal, hate and lust, disease and starvation and slavery...

Jesus is our Atonement, and so much more.

When John points out Jesus to his disciples, when they leave John to approach this Lamb of God, they approach one who is about reconciling the cosmos, all there was, is. And ever will be, to God, one who exists to break down the barriers which separate all of us from our loving Creator.

There is a word in Greek that shows up a lot in this reading: “meno,” which is most distinctively rendered “abide.” That word occurs five times in four verses here: “And John testified, 'I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abided on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and abide is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' Then: “When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, 'What are you looking for?' They said to him, 'Rabbi' (which translated means Teacher), 'where are you abiding?' He said to them, 'Come and see.' They came and saw where he was abiding, and they abided with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon.”

Later in the Gospel of John, Jesus teaches us that he abides in the Father and the Father in him, and we as his disciples are then invited to abide in him and he in us. So when Jesus turns to ask the approaching disciples what they're looking for, and they ask where he lives, maybe they aren't asking for his address. Maybe they are really answering the question: “What are you looking for?” “We are looking to abide where you abide, to live where you live.”

Now, each of the Gospels is clear about how completely clueless the disciples are, so I don't know that these two completely understand what they are asking. What I do know is how they reacted to Jesus' answer to their question they respond the same way John did, by telling what they had found.

Andrew finds Simon, and brings him to Jesus... and Simon is changed. He gets a new identity.

Evangelism is a scary word, I'll admit. We don't talk a whole lot about it in mainline denominations, and when we do, it's often within the context of a program or ministry of the church as a whole. The dirty little secret, though, is that even in evangelical denominations, the idea of sharing your faith is daunting. That is why there are shelves full of how-to books, warehouses full of tracts and step-by-step formulas for witnessing to others about Jesus Christ.

I've used them and taught them before, but I will be honest: when I was writing this sermon, I couldn't remember more than Bill Bright's “The Four Spiritual Laws” and “The Romans Road,” which walks a person through key verses in (you may guess it by the name) the Book of Romans.

So I Googled “witnessing tools.” What I found was nine hundred and two thousand results, including how-to websites, offers of brochures and tracts, a Christian multi-tool (one of those things with pliers, screwdrivers, knives, and all in a pocket tool), a Christian mini barrel spotlight, illustrations, instructions on witnessing with balloon animals, Christian tee shirts, Christian bumper stickers, Christian drumsticks and Christian guitar straps and Christian keychains and Christian bracelets and Christian iPhone cases and Christian purses and Christian wallets and Christian sunglasses and Christian hair accessories...

But is the best way to share our faith found in a lanyard or a bumper sticker? Has anyone's life been changed by a one hundred twenty five foot high cross on I-65 North or by a billboard or keychain or church marquee sign?

Jesus did his fair share of seeking out disciples – John and Andrew by the sea of Galilee, for example. But in this case, the disciples sought out Jesus. They were told about him by someone who had firsthand knowledge, and they went to find out for themselves. And Jesus said to those inquiring disciples, “Come and see.”

And they saw. That is to say, the disciples saw his life, saw where he abided, and from seeing his life, they came to know who he was – Andrew said to Simon, “We have found the Messiah.”

A multitool or t-shirt can't do that, nor can a billboard or bumper sticker or a huge metal cross. I submit that these are marketing campaigns, not evangelism. The most effective form of evangelism, the best way to share our faith, and by far the most frightening, is by living. By being who we are in Christ.

The disciples were seekers. They had connected with John the Baptist because he had a message, and he pointed out for them the way to transformation – “Behold, the Lamb of God.” To be sure, this is a world full of seekers. We have “the pursuit of happiness” written into our history and our cultural DNA. We seek for meaning to life, we scramble to fill what St. Augustine called the “God-shaped hole.” And through it all, our hearts are restless until they rest in God.

To find and be found, we all need a John the Baptist, an Andrew, a preacher, a teacher, a parent, a friend, a brother or sister – maybe all of the above and more – to point us in the right direction and to keep us on the trail.

To be John the Baptist for someone else is not difficult, it is not something to worry about or shy away from. It doesn't require perfection or a flawless delivery of perfected points of doctrine. We don't have to be right all the time. Madeline L'Engle (“lingel”) said, “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

All that is required is a willingness to help others find what you have found. To help them find the place where they can sit and be still and wait for the Christ to come and say to them, as he has to each of us, “Come and see.”

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Are You The One?

Thanks go out to the work of Arland J. Hultgren for his thoughts on the Gospel reading.

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

This is the Word of the Lord.

A lot has happened to John the Baptist since we met him in last week's Gospel reading. He's gone from a wild-eyed prophet in camel's hair, standing knee-deep in the Jordan and preaching repentance to an imprisoned man facing death and wrestling with very real doubts: after all of this, has he hitched his horse to the wrong wagon after all? Is Jesus really the Messiah he had been proclaiming?

John's troubles began when Herod Antipas, who was Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, divorced his wife, then somehow arranged or forced his brother Philip to divorce his wife, Herodias, and married her. Confusing, I agree, and not only against the Jewish Law but (since Herodias was also his cousin) creepy.

It was hard to find a person in all of Judea, much less the region of Galilee, who didn't find the whole affair abhorrent, but because the Herods were a bloodthirsty lot who could pretty much do as they pleased as long as they kept Caesar happy, not very many people had the guts to speak out against it.

John the Baptist was, as you might imagine, one of the few exceptions.

Now, I imagine that it is one thing to have the odd priest or Pharisee criticize the tetrarch, but people were listening to John the Baptist, and the more John talked the angrier people got at Herod Antipas. So to shut John up, Herod had him arrested and imprisoned.

So this gives us a little background, yes, but I don't think it fully explains what has happened to John, because he had to have known this was coming. John couldn't have expected, in that day and age, to preach against the hypocrisy of the Temple elite and the most feared and respected theologians (meaning the Pharisees and the Sadducees), and condemn the private affairs of a despotic ruler, without consequence.

These are the choices and actions of someone who knows what is right and true and who knows that standing for righteousness is worth the danger. These are the actions of one who is confident in his calling, committed to laying the groundwork for the coming Kingdom of God.

So why the doubts? Why ask Jesus, who John himself had baptized, who John himself had proclaimed the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” if he was, in fact, the Messiah?

It wouldn't be a stretch to blame his doubt on the fact that he was imprisoned. All that time alone, left to his own thoughts, time to reflect and question and worry and second-guess... but I would suggest that the issue goes deeper than that.

Firstly, being imprisoned by Herod wouldn't have been like spending the night in a drunk tank, or in any fashion like being incarcerated in our modern penal system. Upon his arrest, John would have been taken to Herod's palace, and through a passage beneath the building to a dark, wet, cold, vermin infested cell. We can expect that he was beaten, malnourished, and miserable. The only things that may have kept him from starving to death or dying of exposure would have been visits from his disciples and the interest of Herod Antipas, who we read elsewhere enjoyed late-night talks with the imprisoned prophet.

Add to that John's own expectations of Messiah. Remember how he had preached to the Pharisees and Sadducees: “ who is more powerful than I is coming after me... he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Fire and winnowing and clearing... for John, the Messiah would come bringing righteousness, exacting judgment, finally and decisively. And it wasn't much of a journey from that belief to the realization that John needed some justice exacted on his behalf, and soon. If Messiah was going to wipe out evil, why wasn't it happening? Why was John shivering in this rat-and-sewage-infested hole day after day after horrible day?

Jesus doesn't fit John's expectations of Messiah, nor does he fit in to Jewish Messianism in general. I can't help feeling that, as understandable – and, I daresay, as important – as this question may be, it must have been a painful one for John to have asked.

We know that John and Jesus were cousins – Mary was Martha's niece, and the two women were obviously very close and definitely knew who Jesus was. Literally from “day one.” It is conjecture, but not inconceivable, to see John and Jesus growing up together, or at the very least seeing one another regularly at Jewish festivals or family gatherings. If John leapt in Martha's womb when Mary came near, how would he have felt each time he was with his cousin Jesus? Think of it – he grew up knowing who Jesus was, certain of it, and knowing what his own purpose in life was to be!

And now... what if he was wrong? What if the universe had played an awful trick on him? What if all of this was for nothing?

Scholars point out that Jesus' answer was kinda vague, indirect, that it wasn't really a yes or no response: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” And yes, it's true that Jesus made it a habit, at least in what are called the “synoptic Gospels” (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), to never, ever proclaim himself, but to proclaim the Kingdom.

Yet, for all of this, I would argue that Jesus' response was direct, and was a resounding yes! Messiah had come! The Kingdom of God was indeed at hand! Justice and righteousness were being shed abroad... just not in the way John – or many other people, for that matter – were expecting.

After all, what is righteousness? Is it merely a state of being? Or is it a verb, something that is done?

What is justice? Is justice simply to punish wrongdoers? Or is it something more holistic?

Punishing evil may be satisfying... but it does nothing to relieve the suffering of the hungry. And all the efforts we may make to be righteous do nothing for the downtrodden.

With his simple response, Jesus is directing John's attention to the oracles of the prophet Isaiah, the promises of Messiah who comes with healing, with mercy, with healing, with hope.

Hear the Word of God from the Book of Isaiah:

First, Isaiah 29:18-19

On that day the deaf shall hear the words of scroll, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.”

Isaiah 35:5-6

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert...”

And finally, Isaiah 61:1

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners...”

So even though John and much of Jewish literature and many portions of the Old Testament expected Messiah to be a powerful ruler, one who would usher in – by force – a new era of peace. John was looking for the God with the finger on the “smite” button, for regime change, for an earthly – if holy – Kingdom in the here and now.

God has a longer view than that. What's more, God is for us.

What that means is that God's love, God's mercy... these come first.

Jesus came to usher in the blessings of the messianic age – the healing, the restoration of life, the cleansing of the impure, the mercy, the love, the good news spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, among others.

Jesus loved, healed, cleansed, and forgave lavishly, extravagantly, ebulliently – and not just the Jewish people, but Romans and slaves and pagans and Samaritans. He spent time not simply with the religious elite – Pharisees and Sadducees – but with tax collectors and sinners. In proclaiming the now-and-coming Kingdom of God, he drew the circle of mercy and love and forgiveness wide, and sealed that forgiveness in his blood.

In Jesus Christ, God is for us.

This is our legacy, Resurrection People. We live in the promise of hope and healing and new life in the risen Christ, whose advent we both celebrate and look forward to. We live in the calling to be hope and healing, to be the vehicles which bring the good news of new life in Christ to all people: the poor, the downtrodden, the marginalized... even our neighbors and our family and our friends. People across the planet and people across the street need to know that God loves them.

Yes, there is indeed plenty in Scripture which tells of a time when evil will be purged, when this present sinful earth will cease and a new heaven and a new earth will be established in righteousness. But until that final Advent, we Resurrection People continue the work of our risen Lord – to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God, and always to draw the circle wide, and to be just as extravagant, lavish, and ebullient with the love and mercy and forgiveness of God... as God has been with us.

God is for us.

Alleluia, Amen.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Prepare the Way of the Lord...

I am indebted to the writing of the Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton and the Rev Dr. John Fairless for their insights into the Gospel reading.

MATTHEW 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

I have resigned myself to the knowledge that there are some things I just will never understand. Calculus, how to play songs on the guitar that are in, say, C sharp or B flat... and why, smack-dab in the middle of Advent, in amongst all the pretty lights and the carols and the nativity scenes and the cooking and the shopping and all of the buildup to the day we, in our own way, celebrate the birth of Christ, we get slapped in the face with John the Baptist.

It seems that John just showed up one day, out in the middle of nowhere, yelling at the top of his lungs at no one in particular: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!”

Maybe a group of shepherds, watering their flock in the meager, muddy water of the Jordan, heard him first and went to investigate. It's not much of a stretch to think that they would be a little freaked out by what they saw: a man wearing a garment of camel's hair, tied at the waist with a leather strap. I imagine his hair and beard were unkempt, and that he had a wild-eyed stare, but that is my imagination talking.

But maybe, after gawking and maybe stifling some giggles, these shepherds would listen to what he was shouting, and remember some of the readings they'd heard over the years in synagogue – The ending of the book of Malachi, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes...”

This was a nation and a people, after all, who were hungry for a Messiah. What's more, this was a nation and a people whose cultural identity was wrapped up in the writings of prophets... yet there hadn't been a prophet in Judea in hundreds of years. A man wearing animal skins, standing knee-deep in the Jordan and shouting at the clouds certainly could be a prophet...

In any case, word got around, and people began showing up, and kept showing up, bringing friends and family, spreading the word. Because John was doing something new, something unheard of: baptism.

No, baptism itself wasn't a new thing. One of the requirements for those wanting to join the Jewish faith – male and female – was baptism. There was also, in that day, a group called the Essenes, who, rejecting Temple worship in favor of a more personalized and rigorous faith journey, separated themselves from the rest of the Jewish culture, and practiced daily ritual baptisms.

But what John was preaching wasn't to proselytize Gentiles, nor was it introducing a regimen of daily cleansings. John was preaching repentance.

That's an interesting word in a lot of ways. First off, in the original Greek, the word for “repentance,” metanoia, isn't all that remarkable a word. It didn't have particularly religious connotations. It was simply the word they used for turning around.

The Reverent Dr. Delmer Chilton – I love his name – tells the story of a pastor friend of his who met God on the interstate. He was driving north on I-85 when a truck crested the hill ahead of them, going South. Emblazoned above the cab, across the front of the trailer, were the letters G-O-D.

As the truck drew closer, he could read the side of the trailer, “Guaranteed Overnight Delivery,” so he understood what G-O-D stood for in that case – but a question came to his mind... “If God is going South, what am I doing going North?”
In the New Testament, metanoia, repentance, means more than merely changing one's mind. There is more to repentance than feeling bad and telling God we're sorry. Confession is vital, yes, but it isn't the full picture. If we say we are sorry, but we do nothing to change, all we've done is indulge in a feeling. When we are called upon to repent, we are called upon to effect a complete change – a reorientation of the personality!

And that is what John is talking about when he comes down so hard on the Pharisees and Sadducees – both, in their ways, a religious elite, both groups quite comfortable that they were God's special snowflakes. A dip in the Jordan would make them part of the crowd, gain them some acceptance in the community, show everyone around how utterly serious they were about pleasing God, and whenever this Messiah person showed up, they would be assured a place in the re-established Kingdom of David.

But it wasn't about the water. There is nothing magical or specifically holy about the water of the Jordan. Dunk or sprinkle or pour, adult or child or infant, use the water of the Jordan or the water of the Black Warrior or the water of Lake Purdy or crack open a bottle of the off-brand purified water you buy at Wal-Mart, the point of it all is changing the things which separate us from God – the things that keep us heading North when God is headed South.

When John says to the Pharisees and Sadducees – and to us – to “bear fruit worthy of repentance,” the idea is not to do stuff that makes us qualified to repent. We don't run around doing good stuff hoping that God will accept our apology. Rather, to bear fruit worthy of repentance is quite simply to live like we have repented – to show by our actions that we are a changed people.

In this season of Advent, when we remember both the birth of our Savior and anticipate his return, we are called upon to look at our lives and decide if we are going in the right direction, following the correct path, adhering to the way of Jesus Christ. And if not, if we are going north when God is going South, now is the time to move in a new and better direction, to jump off the next exit, turn around, and go God's direction.

God is traveling on the side of peace and justice and the poor. God travels the paths of mercy, grace, love and hope. God moves toward lifting the downtrodden, freeing the oppressed, and including the marginalized.

It is not for us to debate whether or not that is the side God is on, or whether or not God should be on that side. It is for us to get on that side.

The Good News of the Gospel is that no matter how far we may have gone in the wrong direction, there is always hope with God; and turning to go in a new way is always the dawn of a new day in the life of the spirit.

Alleluia, amen.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Speaking The Truth To Power...

My sources include Deutsche Welle,, and The Daily Beast. You can find your Representative here, and your Congresspeople here.

Luke 21:5-19
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down."

They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is near!' Do not go after them.

"When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately." Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

"But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Luke is recounting, in this part of his Gospel, the final week before Jesus will be executed by the Roman authorities. At this point in history, Herod’s Temple is still under construction, and will be for a number of years to come. As we pick up the narrative, Jerusalem is packed to bursting with families that have come to take part in the feast of the Passover. And however much people dislike, distrust, even hate whichever Herod happens to be in power at a given time, there is no denying the beauty of this structure. From about any point in the city, one can look up and see the Temple, its white marble highlighted with gold decorations, smoke from constant sacrifice wafting through the air and to the heavens.
By the time Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt, the Temple has been under construction for some forty-six years. Barely anyone alive would remember the Temple as it was when King Herod I undertook its renovation in 19BC. Most folks would have heard about it: small, rather run-down despite constant repair and expansion, maybe – just maybe – when compared to the beauty of the temples the Greeks and Romans built for their gods, a little embarrassing. No matter; that building was actually torn down as part of Herod's building project. But since the daily religious activities had continued without interruption, Herod’s Temple was still considered the second Temple, first constructed by the returning exiles in 515 BC.

The magnificence of this work in progress filled the hearts of every Jewish man, woman, and child with pride. Here, at last, a building which personified the Jewish people and the Jewish God, every stone and every embellishment dedicated to the One True God, who had led them from captivity in Egypt, and had brought them back from Babylon. And right there, in that tallest structure on the innermost courts, was the Holy of Holies – and while no one would admit believing that God actually resided in the Most Holy Place, still deep down, when you looked at the glory of the structure, witnessed the solemn dedication of the army of priests, and felt in your soul the beauty of the singing of the Psalms, it was hard not to think that this was the place where God lived.

But can God be contained in a building? Of course not, it’s silly to even pretend that it’s worth discussing in a sermon. So let’s change the question: can a people’s identity, can a faith tradition’s identity, be so closely identified with an architectural creation that it is, in effect, inseparable?

The Jewish people may have thought so. Thankfully, of course, they were wrong. I say “thankfully,” because only three years after the Temple was finally completed, in AD70, it was utterly destroyed. Not one stone was left on the other. As we've talked about in past weeks, the Pharisees were able to, in effect, save the Jewish faith from obsolescence when the Temple, the focal point of their faith, ceased to exist.

Long before that time, mere days from when Jesus utters these words in our reading today, he will shout, “It is finished!” and in that tallest structure in the Temple, the heavy curtain that separates the Holy of Holies from the rest of the planet will be ripped apart, torn from top to bottom like tissue paper.

Anyone who looks will be able to see that this most holy place, the chamber which once housed the Ark of the Covenant, the place where God lives... is empty.

As empty as Jesus' tomb on Resurrection Sunday.

From Easter morning on, God’s identity, God’s community, God’s activity will reside not in a building – even a beautiful building – but in people: men and women in every time and place. The Gospel isn’t a residence. It’s a journey, and since the moment the tongues of flame settled on the disciples’ heads on the Day of Pentecost, God's spirit has been loose in the world, and people have been moving.

Men and women found themselves at odds with the Roman authorities, arrested and killed for daring to refuse to worship Caesar, blamed for everything from foreign invasion to natural disaster, they knew, firsthand, what Jesus meant when he said, “they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”

Imprisoned, tortured, and killed, still they refused to abandon their trust in the living God, their faith in the risen Christ.

I confess that I am doubtful if anyone in the United States today has any understanding of what it’s like to undergo true persecution. Yet there are places on this planet right now, today, where men, women, and children are being imprisoned, starved, tortured and killed for the crime of believing in Christ. 

According to the German aid organization “Open Doors,” across the world some one hundred million Christians are undergoing persecution in 2013, in countries including North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. In Egypt, Coptic Christians are coming under increasing fire from the Muslim Brotherhood, which blames them for the ouster of Egyptian President Muhammed Morsi. In September, a Taliban suicide bomber killed at least 85 Christians in All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Syrian Christians continue to suffer at the hands of Islamist rebels and, according to one report, fear extinction if Bashaar Al-Assad falls.

Two thirds of Iraqi Christians have simply vanished, having fled the country or been murdered for their faith.

Yet even in environments where Christians are persecuted and killed, the faith grows. In India, despite a growing anti-Christian bias, some seventy-one million people, across all social strata, count themselves as followers of Christ, making it the eighth largest Christian nation on the planet.

Perhaps you and I don’t know what persecution is like. Perhaps it falls on us, then, to be the voice of those in countries who cannot speak up for themselves. It’s as simple as a letter or email to an elected official, calling on them to push for human rights in all areas of the globe.

It’s as simple as writing a check to a ministry or organization that works to support imprisoned and persecuted Christians, and, for that matter, any marginalized and neglected segment of the world’s population.

It is simple, but it is vital.

Kirsten Powers, a columnist for The Daily Beast, quotes Israeli author Lela Gilbert as saying that, while her Jewish neighbors are “are shocked but not entirely surprised” by the attacks on Christians in the Middle East. “They are rather puzzled, however, by what appears to be a lack of anxiety, action, or advocacy on the part of Western Christians.” Powers notes that, while American Christians are quite able to organize around issues that concern them, religious persecution appears not to have grabbed their attention, despite worldwide media coverage of the atrocities against Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.

In January, Republican Representative Frank Wolf penned a letter to 300 Catholic and Protestant leaders complaining about their lack of engagement. “Can you, as a leader in the church, help? Will you use your sphere of influence to raise the profile of this issue—be it through a sermon, writing or media interview?”

There have, according to Powers, been far too few takers.
Wolf and Democratic Representative Anna Eshoo sponsored legislation last year to create a special envoy at the State Department to advocate for religious minorities in the Middle East and South-Central Asia. While it passed in the House overwhelmingly, it died in the Senate. In January, it passed the House again, but the bill sits idle in the Senate, where there is no date set for it to be taken up.
Imagine the difference an outcry from constituents might have made. Is anybody listening? When American leaders meet with the Saudi government, where is the public outcry demanding they confront the Saudis for fomenting hatred of Christians, Jews, and even Muslim minorities through their tracts and textbooks? In the debate on Syria, why has the fate of Christians and other religious minorities been almost completely ignored?
Part of what Jesus speaks about in our reading today is the art of “speaking the truth to power.” He says, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

We must speak. We must write. We must act.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the authors of the “Theological Declaration of Barmen” in our Book of Confessions, wrote, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” And Martin Luther King Jr. is quoted as saying, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Jesus has promised to give us the words to say. It is up to us to speak.