Sunday, December 26, 2010

Out of Egypt

Comments and constructive criticism always appreciated!

Isaiah 63:7-9
I will recount the gracious deeds of the LORD, the praiseworthy acts of the LORD, because of all that the LORD has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. For he said, "Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely"; and he became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Hebrews 2:10-18
It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, "I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you." And again, "I will put my trust in him." And again, "Here am I and the children whom God has given me."

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Matthew 2:13-23
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean."

This is the Word of the Lord.

I don’t know that it’s quite fair: we’ve just gotten done with Christmas; the presents are opened, the dinner has been eaten, we’ve rested and enjoyed family, watched a television special or two, perhaps, and we’ve reflected on the birth of Jesus, the angels and the shepherds and Mary and Joseph and little baby Jesus in the manger…
and all of a sudden, we’re confronted with a horrible drama, a shocking dose of reality, an event church tradition has called “The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents.”

To be honest, I approached this reading with some fear. I’d rather spend the Sunday after Christmas talking about the first chapter of the Gospel of John, how “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” How “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Who wants to talk about the murder of infants and toddlers, not just the day after Christmas, but ever?

But, you know, one of the most dangerous things we as Christians can do with Scripture is to keep the parts we like and ignore the rest. At best, we become like Will Farrell’s character in “Talladega Nights,” preferring to pray to, and I quote, “tiny infant Jesus...” or “…little baby Jesus, who's sittin' in his crib watchin the Baby Einstein videos, learnin' 'bout shapes and colors…” or “…8 pounds 6 ounces baby Jesus, new born, not even spoken a word yet.” At worst, we become like that church in Kansas that goes all over the United States picketing the funerals of soldiers, convinced that God hates America.

So we have to deal with this reading, just as we have to deal with all the parts of Scripture which make us uncomfortable or which aren’t clear to us. And in dealing with this particular passage, one thing that becomes clear is that, while it would be nice to rest in a Jesus for whom at least his birth could be held in a protective bubble of spiritual perfection, the Scriptural accounts of the birth and life of Jesus never stray far from the grit and pain and uncertainty of the reality of daily life.

Yes, God transcends reality. God transcends time and circumstance. But God also deals in reality. God is with those of us who on Christmas sat in a warm living room, drinking hot apple cider while the kids opened presents, and God is also with those of us who on Christmas were homeless, trying to survive another cold day in the rain and snow. God is with those of us who on Christmas stuffed shredded wrapping paper in plastic bags and wondered why the kids ignored the shiny toys to play in the boxes, and God is with those of us who spent the day disarming another IED on a dirt road outside of Kabul, Afghanistan. God is with those of us who spend this hour on the day after Christmas in our familiar house of worship, and God is with those of us who, because our churches in Iraq have been bombed and our friends and relatives killed, are living in France, trying to make sense of it all.

God deals in reality, and the reality of human existence is that, to one degree or another, at one time or another, our reality includes uncertainty and pain and suffering. Our reality includes horrors like the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents.

Herod, a jealous, power-mad tyrant knows that a prophecy has been fulfilled. Those magi who passed through a while back were supposed to drop back by and tell him where this new King, this pretender to the throne, was living. It would have been a simple process, send a couple of soldiers to the house; kill everyone there, no muss, no fuss. As time passed, though, it became more and more apparent that these Gentile magicians had no intention of living up to their end of the bargain… which meant that, somewhere in or around Bethlehem, there was a child who would someday take his throne from him, and that simply would not do.

Isn’t it an odd twist that the God who came to save us needed to first be saved from Herod?

That part of us which is like Rickey Bobby from “Talladega Nights” might have wanted a “Chuck Norris Jesus” or a “GI Joe Jesus With the Kung-Fu Grip” to step in and take care of Herod, but the sad and stark reality is that this Jesus, this God-with-us, was a baby, a child, and as such he needed protecting.
Like the children of Israel during the long-ago famine, Jesus had to seek refuge in Egypt, out of the jurisdiction and reach of Herod. And like Moses, Jesus had to come out of Egypt when the time was right.

Yet the innocents were still slaughtered, and even today, in parts of the world in the grip of poverty, disease, war or famine, the slaughter continues. I wish I could come up with a nice story or a clever turn of phrase that would make this all sound better, but there isn’t one. God deals in reality. God deals in our reality. Through Jesus, God entered in to our reality. More than that, in Jesus God has chosen a whole new way of living to win us salvation. This new way does not run away from the violence, doesn’t gloss it over, but faces it. Neither does God resort to the old way of doing things, which is to fight force with force. God will not stop the madness by getting caught up in the same madness. We don’t meet Terminator Jesus in the Gospels. No, God gives us a totally new way to live. In Jesus, God stands in the face of violence and continues to love. Love. God has come into the midst of the madness, and through a suffering love has begun to pioneer a new way for us.

If we have this new way, then one has to ask, why is there still violence? It could be that it’s like the joke where an atheist said to a Christian, “If your God is so all-powerful, ask him why he allows killings, starvation and homelessness in the world?” To which the Christian replied: “I would. But I’m afraid he might ask me the same question.”

Reverend Paul J. Nuechterlein’s answer is a little different. He says violence still exists “Because love refuses to violently snuff it out. Love only knows love… When those who stand for the old way of doing things, like Herod… are confronted with this new possibility, they strike out with all that they can muster. But Christ-like love is the power of love that can stand tall in the face of it. And we who are called as disciples are called to follow in this new way of love. Perhaps the best news is that God, in becoming a human being, took on our human nature and has begun to transform it, baptize it, so that we are able to follow in the way of Christ.”

Our second lesson from Hebrews speaks of Jesus' coming into the flesh to save us -- not some angels, but us. Jesus came into the flesh, to share in our life! To be personally and completely identified with the very things which make up our realities.
It says that 'he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might pioneer for us a perfect way of salvation through the sufferings of our human reality.' Not around them, or over them. But through them. Our Hebrews passages concludes, “Because Jesus himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

God knows what our reality is. Not in a way that a distant, uninvolved deity might know – a theoretical, theologically-justifiable and quantifiable, doctrinal kind of knowing. God knows, because God has been here. God has done this. God is with us! And because God has been here, done this, and in the Holy Spirit is still with us, we can face the realities of our day, and, where possible, begin to transform those realities.

I don’t have a whiz-bang sermon conclusion today. I have questions, things to ponder as we begin to move away from Christmas and toward the New Year. As we ponder these questions, perhaps the answers will inform the direction of our discipleship in 2011.

There are areas in our life where we may feel that the armies of Herod have come through, leaving death and destruction. Jesus has been there.
How can that knowledge, and the presence of God-with-us, help us to begin to transform those realities?

When we look to the realities of our day, the suffering around us that doesn’t necessarily touch us, but that we read about in the newspapers or see on TV, how can the knowledge that God is with us, and the power of the Holy Spirit in us, help us to begin to transform those realities?

How is God calling us out of Egypt?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Advent IV: Joseph's Problem...

I think Joseph gets a bum deal during Advent. He made some hard decisions, and did some amazing things.

Isaiah 7:10-16
Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. Then Isaiah said: "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

Romans 1:1-7
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Matthew 1:18-25
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

This is the Word of the Lord.

This was the biggest problem Joseph could remember ever having. More terrifying than when the Romans came though last year and destroyed the town of Sepphoris, just four miles from Nazareth. More worrisome than the time he’d dropped his hammer and ruined the finish on an expensive table he’d almost completed for a rich client.

He’d known for a week or so that Mary was pregnant, and that he was not the father of the child. They’d been betrothed for a year already, and though the wedding date was fast approaching, there was no chance that Mary would be able to hide the fact by then. The ridicule and embarrassment would be unbearable – imagine, Joseph, a respected member of the community, well-known in the synagogue, sinning in such a way! And if he dared let it be known that the child wasn’t his, well, Mary’s very life would be in danger!

His workshop was a mess. He’d overturned his bench in frustration, had thrown his saw against one wall and his hammer against another, and he’d paced the dirt floor until his feet were sore. The Jewish law was clear: he should denounce Mary publicly, and she should be stoned. A cruel solution, but one where he could save face. It would be a just decision, and it would be the right decision under the Law. It was the obvious choice.

But for Joseph, it was an impossible choice. Put aside the fact that he loved Mary; every time he considered the route of cold, cruel justice, the words of God as written by the prophet Hosea echoed in his head: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”

“I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”

What did that mean? What was “merciful” in this situation? That was what had Joseph wearing ruts in the floor with his pacing, running his hands through his already wildly unkempt beard and hair.

Finally, as the workshop grew dark with the setting of the sun, Joseph stopped pacing. It seemed, finally, that the merciful thing to do would be to, very gently, call the wedding off. Perhaps send Mary to her relatives someplace far away. To very quietly move on from the whole situation, preserving his honor and Mary’s reputation as much as possible. To elevate compassion over justice.

Joseph could think about it no more. He was exhausted. Settling in his bed, sleep came quickly, but rest would elude him. God had other plans, you see.

There was a dream, there was an angel. This pregnancy was no accident, no mistake, no youthful indiscretion. This child was from God. The angel gave Joseph the solution to his problem, but it was a solution which led down a frightening, unsure, even scandalous road.

Take Mary, pregnancy and all, into his home as his wife, as planned. Endure the stares, the whispers behind his back, the open disgust and rejection of the most religious in the community, and accept this child to raise as his own.

And the very idea! God coming to earth, not as a vengeful warrior, exacting retribution from the Roman oppressors and establishing a holy Empire upon the earth, but as a baby? How could such a thing be true?

How deep, Joseph, does mercy go? Is mercy just a word, or is mercy an action – and more than that, a series of actions? Tell me about faith, Joseph. Is it enough to expect God to act, or must we reserve the right to dictate the ways in which God may act? Yes, God is with us. For you, Joseph, God will be in diapers. God will need to learn to walk. To use eating utensils. God will need to be potty trained.
Take this step – make Mary your wife, watch this child be born, accept the responsibility that comes with naming the child (because that is the right of the father in the Jewish custom, and it signifies acceptance of the child into the family), live out the mercy you claim to be seeking in making a quiet end of the marital contract… do this, and God’s love, salvation and forgiveness will explode forth from this child, bathing the earth in God’s grace and mercy, establishing a kingdom far greater than anything an avenging army could hope for!

Here’s your choice, Joseph: look back, embracing the Law and its rigid code of right and wrong, ignoring flesh and blood in favor of words on a page, or look forward, to an uncertain future, knowing only one thing: Immanuel! God is with us!

We know how Joseph responded. He chose the difficult path, the way of uncertainty. He decided to trust that the promise of “God With Us” was enough.

And that promise – Immanuel, “God With Us,” is ours as well!

Advent is not simply how we spend our time in church in December. It’s not simply getting ready for Christmas Day. Advent is both a recognition of Jesus having come, and it’s a statement of faith, a step out into the unknown, an acknowledgement that we, too, in our own way, walk the path of divine mystery. We say that Christ will come again, though we haven’t the foggiest notion of when. We say that we shall spend eternity in the City of God, the New Jerusalem, though we’ve never met anyone who has actually been there.

But this we know: God is with us! We cannot say how God will act to save, to heal, to restore, to forgive. We can only say, with assurance, that God will do these things, and will do them in God’s time. Like Joseph, we expect, but we do not control. We trust in the promise of Immanuel: God (is) With us!

Thanks be to God!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Advent III: Who Were You Expecting, John?

I relied heavily on Sarah Dylan Breuer for parts of this sermon. I seriously owe that pastor/teacher dinner, she has saved my bacon repeatedly.

Isaiah 35:1-10
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you."
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; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

James 5:7-10
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

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.

Prison was a lonely place. Chained in a filthy, vermin-infested cell, unable to walk around, and without human contact except when his disciples brought him food, or when Herod wanted to chat, John had a long time to think. Who knows what he had expected when Jesus came up out of the water of the Jordan, and the dove descended and the Voice spoke?

Maybe John was like so many others, who expected Jesus to use his power to overthrow the Roman oppressors, to utterly destroy all the ungodly hordes surrounding the small nation of faithful men and women, to re-establish in glory the Throne of David.

Maybe what John expected was for Jesus to use his power to clean up the corrupt religious leadership, to bring the Temple elite in line, to re-establish true holiness in the worship of God.

Maybe what John expected was both of these things. What he was seeing was none of them. The Sadducees still ran the Temple like their personal property, the Romans still occupied, the only throne in the entire province was occupied by the despicable, the insufferable Herod Antipas, in whose dungeon John now languished.

And it ate at him. What if he’d been wrong? What if he’d been imagining things? He had to know! So he sent some of his disciples off, to find his cousin and ask him, point-blank: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus answers John, and in answering, he flips the question on its head. “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.”

You see, in those days, there was a very simple system for keeping track of who had pleased God and who had sinned against God. We see a glimpse of it in the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel, where the disciples see a man who was blind from birth and ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Simply put, if you were sick, if you were blind, if you were crippled, if you were deaf, if you were a leper, if you were poor, you had done something – or perhaps your parents had done something – which caused God to punish you in that way.

Jesus said, “No. God does not hate you. God is not mad at you. The Kingdom of God is for you.”

Jesus was the one John was expecting, but he was doing things in ways neither John, nor anyone else, expected.

John expected Jesus to replace the Roman Empire with an empire of God. As it turns out, of course, this is exactly what Jesus came to do… only, instead of swords, there was Good news. Instead of spears, there was healing. Instead of siege towers, there was resurrection. Instead of castles and thrones, there was forgiveness of sins.

The Kingdom of God is not a social hierarchy, not even an inverted social hierarchy. The Kingdom of God is a covenant of equals. The opportunity to heal, to teach, to comfort, to feed, to clothe, to befriend is offered, without prejudice, to all.

Jesus isn’t just speaking to John, of course, nor is he simply addressing the crowds around him that day. Jesus speaks to us. Jeanyne B. Slettom says. “The message of both John and Jesus is a call to live according to the way of God and not the way of empire. The way of God is described over and over again by the prophets: take care of society’s most vulnerable (the widow, the orphan, the immigrant); limit the gap between rich and poor (the Year of Jubilee), do not use power to further the narrow self-interest of yourself and your friends; do not accumulate wealth at the expense of the poor. So when John’s disciples question Jesus, he answers in language they both understand: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed. This is the way of God—definitely not the way of empire. Nor is this news as reported by political shills; it is the good news that can be seen and heard by anyone who is paying attention.

“The question put to Jesus is this: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ By implication, the question is also put to us: is this the one we are to follow—which would require us to change—or can we prolong business as usual for a while longer while we wait for someone else to come? If Jesus reveals God by his unswerving fidelity to God’s way of being in the world, then do we not reveal the same when we act in fidelity to Jesus? The incarnation of God in the world is always already happening, but we can act in ways that bring more light to the strangers in our midst, to our neighbors, our friends and family members, and—as so many devoutly desire at this time of year—to ourselves.”

John was expecting a Jesus who was, more than anything, like The Terminator – out to wreak vengeance on all the perceived enemies of God. Yet Jesus came to teach and to heal, to love and forgive.

And when all that teaching and healing and loving and forgiving resulted in the whip, the cross, and the tomb, Jesus took it all – and even forgave those who were killing him. And the teaching, the healing, the loving, the forgiving didn’t stop when Jesus rose. These things continue today.

The question, then, for us is this: what kind of Jesus are we expecting to return? If we, like John, are expecting The Terminator, I think we’ll be just as disappointed as he was.

But if we’re expecting the Jesus that John’s followers were told about – the one who gave sight to the blind, who brought life to crippled limbs and light to blinded eyes, purity to lepers and life to the dead, and who preached the glorious Good News to the downtrodden and impoverished... if this is the Jesus we long for, the Jesus we confess with our lives and our lips…

Well, that's the only Christ there is. That Jesus – his humble service to the poor, the outcast, and the sinner, his willingness to eat with Pharisees as well as tax collectors and prostitutes, and most of all, his willingness to die on a Roman cross for us and for our salvation – is the judge of the nations, God's final answer to the question of what humanity, at its worst or its best, really deserves, in God's time. The extent to which I can finally embrace that truth, the extent to which I can receive others with the kind of generosity with which Jesus received those who came to him, is the extent to which I can understand just how boundless God's generosity, forgiveness, and love are toward someone like me.

And so I can say with all my heart, Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent I: Waiting...

Many thanks (as usual) to Kate Huey, and a special thanks to my friend Jim Morgan, (@jimmorgan10)for help in writing this sermon.

Isaiah 2:1-5
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Romans 13:11-14
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Matthew 24:36-44
"But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."

This is the Word of the Lord.

I’m not real good at waiting. I try to be, I know that being patient is a virtue, and that I need to be a good example for folks and all, but I really hate waiting. There are lines to wait in at the post office, lines to wait in at the supermarket, there’s the long wait in the waiting room when you go to the doctor, and when you’re finally called in, it’s only so you can sit on butcher paper and wait in the examining room. For a society obsessed with fast food, instant answers, and get-rich-quick schemes, we seem to do an awful lot of waiting, don’t we?

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus has just gotten through telling his disciples that the Temple would be utterly destroyed, and the disciples, naturally, had one question: “when?” Jesus responds by telling them of the coming persecution – that’s the persecution that the whole Church endured almost nonstop for its first three centuries of existence, and the persecution that goes on today in many parts of the world – and he tells them how he will return. Not when, but how.

Because, you see, the disciples were waiting, too. They, like their parents, and their parents before them, and their ancestors going back for centuries, had been under the bootheel of one conquering empire after another. They had been promised a Messiah, someone who would establish a new kind of empire, a Kingdom of God.
They had thrown their lot in with this itinerant Rabbi from the backwoods of Judea, this man who could heal the lame, cleanse the leper, and even raise the dead. He talked a lot about the Kingdom, taught them to pray for the Kingdom to come… they were waiting on this amazing man to overthrow the Roman oppressors and establish his kingdom, by force if necessary. All of this talk of wars and earthquakes and the Abomination of Desolation standing in the Temple, and the description of the Temple utterly ruined, well, it sounds like something is finally happening!

But not yet, Jesus says.

Journey down a few more decades, to the first people who read Matthew’s Gospel – men and women either living under the gathering clouds of destruction, as Titus Flavius Vespasianus led the Roman legions to lay siege of Jerusalem, or mourning the memories of the utterly destroyed city they had left behind, never to see again. These men and women, these early Christians, were hated and persecuted on all sides – by the Jewish people, because of their faith in Christ, and by the Romans, for refusing to worship the Roman gods. Groaning under the weight of oppression, they wondered when, too.

Not yet.

The meaning of the word “Advent” is “coming,” and it’s a time when we recognize that the same Jesus who we remember as coming to us as a baby, born in a barn and cradled in a feeding trough, will come again. The same Jesus who rose from the dead and ascended to heaven will return, will come back, will bring us into that final glorious place of relationship and eternal worship.

But not yet.

We’re waiting, too.

But this waiting is not the inert, listless, waiting-in-line variety. This waiting is an active kind of waiting. As Advent bursts upon us, we recognize that we may well see Jesus appear in the clouds, but we are far more likely to see Jesus appear just around the corner, suddenly, like a hungry person, or a neighbor ill-clothed, or someone sick or in prison. We know that the way we react to this more common, more likely appearance of Jesus will dictate how Jesus sees us in the end.

That’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it? “The end.” You know, when you get right down to it, we aren’t really waiting for “the end,” are we? Our hope is better characterized as expecting the Beginning of the World, not the end. We are waiting for the freeing of… the completion of… creation, not its destruction!

There’s another way to refer to “active waiting,” you know. Another way to view the not-yet waiting we all do, not only at Advent but every day of our lives in Christ. It’s a journey.

I have a friend who lives in West Texas, a fellow named Jim Morgan. He has a voice and an accent almost exactly like Sam Elliott. He’s a wonderful storyteller, taking Bible stories and giving them a cowboy setting. I could listen to that guy talk and tell stories for hours!

He’s coming off a four-week-long case of writer’s block, which is one of the worst feelings a writer of any kind can have. He says, “I ruminated on the sermon writing block… and have come to the belief that the silence was God trying to show me something. Ironically it was a line from the Disney movie Cars that opened the door for me.

“Sally Carrera, the ‘girl car’ in the movie, was explaining the old days to Lightning McQueen. She explained to him how the new interstate highway didn’t follow the land but cut through it. In the old days, she said, ‘Cars didn’t drive to make good time, they drove to have a good time.’

“We all know this line. We hear it said in many different ways. Usually I hear it as ‘it’s not the destination that’s important, it’s the journey.’”

Jim continues, “God doesn’t offer us pat answers. God offers us a journey. He offers a journey where we learn more of him with each passing day. A lot like your relationship with your spouse. You learn little by little, day by day. So what was God telling me with the writer’s block? Living in grace and peace is much harder to do than talking about grace and peace. It’s part of the journey.”

We journey in the not-yet, in the waiting. As we long for a new heaven and a new earth on this first day of the church year, I like Barbara Brown Taylor’s words about seeking to live our lives right here, right now, in ways that are pleasing to God as we learn to trust in God's goodness: "Every morning when you wake up, decide to live the life God has given you to live right now. Refuse to live yesterday over and over again. Resist the temptation to save your best self for tomorrow. Live a caught-up life, not a put-off life, so that wherever you are….you are ready for God….Ours may be the generation that finally sees him ride in on the clouds, or we may meet him the same way generations before us have – one by one by one, as each of us closes our eyes for the last time. Either way, our lives are in God's hands.”

For the active-waiting journey through the not-yet, for Advent, for new beginnings every day, and for the hope of the New Beginning when Christ does return, we give thanks to God.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Christ the King: Jesus Is Lord!

Many thanks to Kate Huey and the Preaching Peace website for help in putting this sermon together.

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."

Luke 1:68-79

"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

Colossians 1:11-20

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Luke 23:33-43

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

This is the Word of the Lord.

For the Christians living in the Roman city of Colossae, the world was more than what a person could see, feel, and touch. The world was a strange and frightening place. Most people in that day believed that the air was thick with unseen spirits, and mere humans ignored them at their peril. The Colossians, as a culture, lived in a kind of constant terror that, if they did not appease these spirits, they left themselves open to poverty, disease, war, and famine.

The citizens of Colossae looked with suspicion and anger at the Christians, who dared to refuse to honor these gods, thus endangering the entire area and everyone in it! Suppose the gods noticed the lack of worship from these Christians? They might kill them all!

So these Colossian Christians endured constant persecutions and hardships. No wonder so many of them wondered, what is Jesus compared to all these angry, spiteful, dangerous gods? When the persecutor’s whip fell and their children’s bellies grumbled from hunger, they looked around and wondered, surely this can’t be all there is. Is this Jesus really more powerful than the gods we worshiped before Epaphras came and told us the Good News? Is there really any point to this Christianity stuff?

After all, to a person living under Roman rule, merely saying the words, “Jesus is Lord” was a seditious act. To say “Jesus is Lord” was to invite insurrection, to work against the established order and societal expectations. To have any king but Caesar was to be a terrorist, a malcontent, an invader. The Colossian Christians knew that Jesus, and not Caesar, was Lord… but it would have been a lot easier to simply give up, burn the incense at the feet of Caesar’s statue, and just get on with life.

It is into this fear, frustration, lack and pain that the writer of Colossians speaks. Yes, Jesus is more: more powerful, more real, more eternal… Jesus is more than a first among equals within a pantheon of every god everyone ever thought to worship or pray to or think about. Jesus is more than Rome, and more than Caesar. Jesus is the one true, lasting and relevant and reliable image of the living God. The Colossian Christians are no longer citizens of that angry and frightened city, no longer despised subjects of a remote and despotic Caesar, but have been brought into the here-and-now of the Kingdom of Christ.

This is a call to see the question of Jesus Christ as not of secondary but primary importance in the lives of his followers – both those in first-century Colossae and in twenty-first century America. The question of who Jesus is cannot be simply something we think about on Sunday morning, or when someone asks us what church we go to, but a question that shapes our whole life. For the early Christians, and for us today, following Jesus changes everything. As Neta Pringle puts it in Feasting on the Word, the writer of the letter to the Colossians says that being a Christian "is not simply a matter of fitting Jesus into our present way of thinking. We are transferred, moved, deported, from one kingdom to another. Nothing is as we have known it."

This Kingdom is so different than anything anyone has ever known, nothing is as it appears. Imagine the thoughts of those who followed Jesus while He walked the roads of Judea, as they stand before the Cross – or cower in fear, far away from it – in the Gospel reading today. All the years and the miles and the miracles and the teachings end up here, on Golgatha, with the one who was supposed to be the Messiah, the One who was to bring the reign of God to earth once and for all, hanging naked and bleeding on a cross. They must have thought, surely this can’t be all there is.

But what really was happening there? Was a really good idea coming to an end at the hands of an oppressive governmental and religious structure? Or was there something more – the redemption of all humankind, the restoration of all that is, all that ever was, and all that ever shall be, into community with a loving Creator?

Could it be that, in Jesus, we are exposed to a new kind of Empire: not one obtained by the edge of the sword, shedding the blood of enemies, but an empire established when the King Himself sheds his blood?

Isn’t it fascinating that, out of everyone there that day, all the soldiers and all the religious leaders and those few followers of Jesus with the guts to stand at the Cross, one guy understood? Not John, not even Jesus’ mother. Not Pilate, not Annas or Caiaphas, no one. Not one person looked at the cross and saw anything but disaster… except a common criminal, a thief, hanging on the cross right next to Jesus. He said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Do you notice what Jesus said? He didn’t say, “Sure, in three days, when I rise from the dead, you and I will dwell together.” He said “Today.” Joining Jesus in paradise had nothing to do with dying. It had nothing to do with being raised from the dead. It had everything to do with seeing beyond the appearances to the truth, that God is victorious in the cross. It has everything to do with the thief’s realization that his own condemnation on the cross bore no relationship to his standing before God. In that moment, he became free. In that moment, he joined Jesus in paradise.

We are called to make that same paradise a reality in this present moment, as Jesus did for the thief on the cross. We are called to point to the reality of Jesus’ kingship in the here and now, not to point to it as some far-off reward for our perseverance. We can see beyond the lies of this world to the world beyond because we see the meaning of the cross.

Today is “Reign of Christ,” or “Christ the King” Sunday. It is a day we traditionally use to particularly emphasize the triumph of Christ, and the reality of the Kingdom of God, both here in our world, and in the world to come. For this congregation, we proclaim our hope in Christ as King for the second time in four days. The Roman Empire has fallen, and while no human reigns over us demanding full control of our existence, insisting on being worshiped as a god, we have a Caesar – his name is “Death.”

So we, as Christians, as residents in this Kingdom of Christ, proclaim faith and fellowship with the reigning Christ even when we face an open grave, and when we say goodbye to a loved one. Because when we say “Jesus is Lord,” when we proclaim Christ as King, we don’t ignore or deny the pain of loss, the fear of the unknown, or the questions which nag at us. Certainly, for the church at Colossae, the persecution didn’t stop simply because the Apostle Paul wrote them a letter. Rather, we say that the reality of the cross is that through Jesus, God reconciled all things. Everything, be it death or doubt or persecution or fear, has been conquered. We choose to remember that the “Kingdom of God” — to which Jesus constantly pointed — is as fully available now and always as it was 2,000 years ago. We choose to live as if the one who reigns is not Caesar, but God. Jesus is Lord, and because of that, in life, in death, in life beyond death, we belong to God.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

God, Out of the Box

Thanks to Pastor Debye Swilley, who helped get me past a mental block concerning the Gospel reading. With my background in Fundamentalist Christianity, it's difficult sometimes to see beyond the apocalyptic language of the passage to the meat of what Jesus is saying to us today. Once again, it's Twitter to the rescue...

Isaiah 12
You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

Thessalonians 3:6-13
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone's bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.
For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

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 his Gospel, the final week before Jesus will be executed by the Roman authorities. At this point in history, what is known as Herod’s Temple is still under construction, and will be for a number of years to come. The city is packed to bursting with families that have come to take part in the feast of the Passover. However much people dislike, distrust, even hate whichever Herod happens to be in power at a given time, 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 remembers the Temple as it was when King Herod I undertook its renovation in 19BC. They’ve heard about it: small, rather run-down despite constant repair and expansion, it was actually torn down as part of the 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 there wasn’t any arguing that, 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, deep down, it was hard not to think that this was 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? We know, living on this side of the Resurrection, this side of 70AD, how Jesus, and how history, has answered that question. Yes, the long temple renovation will be finished, and it will stand completed… for three years, before being utterly destroyed in 70AD. As my friend, the Reverend Debye Swilley put it, “What ‘was’ has to fall, so that what ‘is’ can come.”

Here’s what that means: just days from the moment Jesus speaks the words in our reading this morning, the heavy curtain that separates the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple will be torn apart. The idea of God being contained in a structure will be forever destroyed, as anyone in the Temple courts will be able to look inside the darkened chamber only to find it empty.

Empty, like the burial chamber three days after they lay Jesus to rest.

The fact that Jesus arose and ascended doesn’t mean that those who call on the name of Christ are to sit idle, waiting for Jesus to return. 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, people have been moving.

From Pentecost onward, 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.”

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 where men, women, and children are being imprisoned, starved, tortured and killed for the crime of believing in Christ. Iraqi militants stormed a church and took worshipers hostage, killing fifty-eight of them. Since then, Iraqi Christian neighborhoods have been the scene of bombings and attacks by militants. In Pakistan, Asia Bibi, was arrested for sharing her faith in Christ and has been sentenced to hang for blasphemy.

This is not, by the way, simply a problem in Muslim nations. China, too, persecutes Christians, as does North Korea, Columbia, Cuba, and dozens of other countries. Yet in these places, Christianity thrives and continues to grow. Christians persevere.

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.

Part of what Jesus speaks about in our reading today is the art of “speaking the truth to power.” He has promised to give us the words to say. It is up to us to speak.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

It Gets Better!

It isn't like the "It Gets Better" campaign I've enjoyed seeing blossom over the past month or so... but, then again, it kinda is.

Haggai 1:15b-2:9
In the second year of King Darius,
in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the LORD; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the LORD of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the LORD of hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the LORD of hosts.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?
But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word

Luke 20:27-38
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, "Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her."
Jesus said to them, "Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive."

This is the Word of the Lord.

One of the difficulties we run into as twenty-first century people is that, very often, when the Scriptures make reference to people, places, and events, we have no real frame of reference for them. Groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees, for example, tend to get grouped together in our minds and in our conversations, filed away in a box marked “enemies of Jesus.”

In reality, these two groups were as different as you could get and still be within the same general ideology. To begin with, the Sadducees counted only the Pentateuch, or first five books of our modern Old Testament, as authoritative. The Sadducees insisted on a very strict literal reading of Scripture, and since these five books of the Bible make no mention of an afterlife, they held that there must then be no such thing.

The Sadducees were the elite in Jewish culture – they were the ones who were in charge of the Temple’s operations (and, as a result, became rich off of the merchants who sold goods in and around the Temple); and from a select few of their families, the chief priests were assigned.

In contrast, the Pharisees take—and I know it sounds odd, but bear with me—a more liberal view of Scripture. In Jesus’ time, the Pharisee held the whole Bible as it existed as authoritative. As a result, they believed in a resurrection, a life after death. What’s more, they were much less wedded to the Temple as the center of culture and worship. If the Sadducees were the religious elitists, the Pharisees were much more democratic in their practice of religion.

Now, the way this played out in practice is, rather than being limited to the strict interpretation of the text of the Law, and only the text of the law, the Pharisees sought to place the Law into the context of daily life. This resulted in hundreds upon hundreds of supplementary rules. For example, if one is to do no work on the Sabbath, then one must define what “work” is, right? So they developed, over time, some 39 general categories of activities which are prohibited on the Sabbath. These are: Carrying, Burning, Extinguishing, Finishing, Writing, Erasing, Cooking, Washing, Sewing, Tearing, Knotting, Untying, Shaping, Plowing, Planting, Reaping, Harvesting, Threshing, Winnowing, Selecting, Sifting, Grinding, Kneading, Combing, Spinning, Dyeing, Chain-stitching, Warping, Weaving, Unraveling, Building, Demolishing, Trapping, Shearing, Slaughtering, Skinning, Tanning, Smoothing, and Marking.

And while these laws (and believe me, that list is a tiny representation of the legal minutiae the Pharisees developed) served to produce in the Pharisees the very self-righteous superiority they had originally rebelled against in the Sadducees, it is their ability to have a construct of faith apart from the Temple proper that allowed them to rescue Judaism from obscurity following the temple’s destruction in 70AD. By contrast, the Sadducees all but ceased to exist.

Now, that’s the wider historical background, but if the dispute is between the Pharisees and Sadducees, why on earth drag Jesus into it? He certainly was no fan of the Pharisees, and the feeling was mutual. Well, our reading takes place during the last week before Jesus is crucified. When Jesus came into Jerusalem, his first stop was the Temple, where he singlehandedly drove out the moneychangers. Now, as you might imagine, running the moneychangers out served to take a bite out of the Sadducees’ profit margin. Thus you might say that, in all of Judaism, the one thing the Pharisees and Sadducees could agree on was that they hated Jesus.

Obviously, the question they pose to Jesus is meant to not only discredit him, but by extension to show the impossibility of life after death. The law they referenced – called levirate marriage from the Latin levir ("brother in law") comes from Deuteronomy 25:5-10 and sought to insure the preservation of one's family name by stipulating that a man should marry the childless widow of his brother.

Think about it: if there is nothing to hope for after the end of life, then the most important thing a person can hope for, the only immortality available, is that one’s name will live after them. Thus the levirate marriage law would have been of inestimable importance to the Sadducees. Yet for all the importance they placed on the idea, their question was based upon a ridiculous and improbable situation. I mean, Elizabeth Taylor hadn’t even been born yet! But, of course, they weren’t really interested in the answer at all, were they? They were interested in discrediting Jesus, and if they made fools of the other folks who believed in the resurrection, well, that was a bonus.

But it turns out that the Sadducees were making an error. Not just in thinking they could confuse and embarrass Jesus. No, they were making a mistake that many of us make: they were assuming that the afterlife is, at its core, merely an extension of this life.

I don’t know if you ever saw the movie “Beetlejuice,” but I found its (thankfully comedic) interpretation of the afterlife depressing. The dead were either employees of – or victims of – a bureaucracy, where you took a number and waited in line for years only to find that they’d misplaced your papers.

And what Jesus tells them is, oh, no, you’ve got it all wrong. It’s better than that.

In our reading from the book of Haggai, the exiles have returned from a 70-year captivity in Babylon, dragging with them their meager possessions and a few building materials, and they’ve managed to cobble together a Temple. It’s ramshackle, tiny, pitiful. An embarrassment. Their stomachs growl as they wonder, is this it? Is this all we ever have to look forward to? Living hand-to-mouth under the heel of some king or another, worshiping in a shack, the rest of our lives? This is when God whispers in their ear, “No. It gets better.”

What is it we hope for? Do we, like so many Christians today and through the centuries, hold to some Greek notion of the immortality of the soul, where whatever it is we imagine our spirit or soul to be carries on, a wisp of who we are now, into the Great Unknown? In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells us, “Oh, no. It gets better.”

Hear the Word of God, from First Corinthians, the fifteenth chapter, reading from the New International Reader’s Version: “The body that is planted does not last forever. The body that is raised from the dead lasts forever. It is planted without honor. But it is raised in glory. It is planted in weakness. But it is raised in power. It is planted as an earthly body. But it is raised as a spiritual body. Just as there is an earthly body, there is also a spiritual body. It is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living person.’ The last Adam became a spirit that gives life. What is spiritual did not come first. What is earthly came first. What is spiritual came after that. The first man came from the dust of the earth. The second man came from heaven.”

It is the whole person, not some wispy essence, that God promises to redeem. We do, in fact, die – there is no escaping that. But because of the One who died on the cross and was raised again from death, we live and die with the promise that God will similarly raise us from death to new life where, in the words of Jesus today we “cannot die, because [we] are like angels and are children of God, being children of resurrection” (David Lose)

Marcia Thompson puts it this way: “Heaven does not equal earth taken to perfection. Life in God is not an extension of this life. Resurrection is complete transformation. The only thing that holds this life together with the next is God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

The Sadducees thought that they were God’s favorites because of how they were born – the children of privilege, destined to prosper, to enjoy the authority and profit of controlling the religious life of a nation. The Pharisees thought that God’s favor was a thing to be earned, an ideal to attain through careful observance of every nuance of legal observance. Neither had it right, of course.

The resurrection life isn’t just a future hope, but a current crucial aspect of our existence. Heaven isn’t “up there,” but as Henry David Thoreau said, “Heaven is under out feet as well as over our heads.” Yes, there is a beyond, and yes it is beyond anything our minds can comprehend, but eternity begins now. This is why we live. This is why we love. This is why we worship. This is why we hope.

Oh, yes. It really does get better.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Zaccheus and the Verb Tense of Doom!

I got challenged to look at an old story a new way.

I highly recommend it.

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous-therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.

To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Luke 19:1-10
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Do you remember the children’s song, “Zaccheus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he…”? I was going to start out this morning’s sermon by singing the whole thing, but that’s all I remember.

But if you’ve been going to church as long as I have (nine months before I was born), you’ve heard the story of this man, Zaccheus. He was, indeed, a wee little man, both short in stature, physically, short in moral stature, because he is a tax collector, and as a result, short in stature in his community.

We talked last week about tax collectors, and how they were, to the people of first-century Palestine, on a level with prostitutes and Samaritans. Zaccheus’ name means “clean” or “innocent,” is clearly neither one – not only is he a tax collector, he is the chief tax collector! And rich to boot, probably by taxing his fellow Jews into poverty.

In the Roman provinces there were three main kinds of taxes: a produce tax on all the crops and goods produced, a universal poll tax assessed every resident, and a toll or customs tax to be paid as goods were transported from one province to another. To collect this last tax, custom booths were located at the border between provinces on all the major highways and trade routes. The tax collectors would often overstate, and thus overtax, the value of goods. Furthermore, Roman law allowed the tax collectors to confiscate and keep goods not declared by the merchant. Here too, the system was ripe for abuse as many tax collectors would improperly seize goods.

You would think that, upon hearing that Jesus was passing through on his way to Jerusalem, Zaccheus wouldn’t have been interested, or would have been intimidated, even fearful. At the very least, we’d expect him to approach Jesus in the same way the tax collector in last week’s reading approached prayer: penitently, on his knees, begging forgiveness and mercy.

Besides, honestly, climbing a tree? Zaccheus is a grown man, for crying out loud! And men in those days didn’t even wear pants!

But things almost never go the way we expect them to when it comes to Jesus. Not only is Zaccheus curious enough about this itinerant Rabbi to climb a tree so he can get a glimpse as the teacher passes by, Jesus notices him – calls him by name – and invites himself to Zaccheus’ home!

And far from being fearful, or contrite, or even embarrassed, Zaccheus is overjoyed! Excited to have Jesus come and visit! It’s almost as if Monty Python had written the scene!

One thing in this story goes exactly the way you’d expect, though, doesn’t it? The crowd is scandalized, shocked, disgusted, angry! Why, this so-called prophet can’t even tell, or worse, doesn’t even care, what kind of man he’s talking to! The nerve – staying at the house of such an evil, vile, sinful… tax collector!

But who’s this story about – Jesus, or Zaccheus? If it’s about Jesus, then we are reminded that Jesus is all about finding the lost, and if you want to find the most lost person in a Judean town, you’re not going to get much more lost than a chief tax collector! And a hyperactive, tree-climbing chief tax collector at that!

If it’s about Jesus, then Zaccheus’ joy at being called down, at being honored by the presence of the Lord of Life in his very own house, makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? It’s the perfect picture of God’s prevenient grace – calling us from wherever we are, drawing us to Christ, inviting us into fellowship with the Triune God. And Zaccheus’ words of instant repentance fit right in! “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” And as a response to Zaccheus’ sincere words, Jesus pronounces salvation not only for Zaccheus, but for his entire household.

And of course I posed a ridiculous question to begin with: Certainly, the story is about Jesus! It’s the Gospel of Luke, right? We are walking with Jesus down this road toward Jerusalem, this road that leads to arrest, to torture, to death… and to resurrection, and to the destruction of the barrier between ourselves and our loving Creator. How could any account, and periscope, any Gospel story ever be about anything but Jesus?

So the story isn’t about Zaccheus, but it’s possible we don’t see everything there is to see about this chief tax collector.

Remember that the New Testament was originally written in Greek. And ancient Greek has as much to do with modern Greek as early English has to do with modern English – and if you ever get a chance to look at a page from a manuscript of Beowulf, you’ll see that early English is a wildly different, dead language. For this reason, when it comes to translating the manuscripts of the New Testament into English, sometimes there are words or phrases, even verb tenses, whose meanings are, quite honestly, debated among scholars. And smack-dab in the middle of this periscope is a hotly contested disagreement.

When Zaccheus speaks to Jesus about giving half of his possessions to the poor, and paying back fourfold anything defrauded, he uses the present verb tense. Now, if this were English it would be cut-and-dried, but the fact is that scholars don’t know if the meaning of the verb is as in an action to be taken from that point forward, like it is in our reading from the New Revised Standard Version: "…half of my possessions… I will give to the poor…if I have defrauded anyone… I will pay back..." or if it is a statement of present, ongoing activity, as it is translated in the King James Version:

"…the half of my goods I give to the poor,” it says, then “…if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.”

If it is the latter, and Zaccheus is responding to the accusations of the townspeople by stating the facts as they are, then he is no longer the man lacking moral stature. Rather, he is someone of exemplary morals, who does the right thing. Zaccheus fulfils far more than what is merely his obligation under the Law of Moses. You see, according to Old Testament law, if a person cheats someone he must make restitution in full and add twenty percent to it. If a person steals from his neighbor he must pay back double as restitution. Further, according to Roman law, a tax collector who wrongfully confiscated goods had to restore double the value. And, if force was used, a threefold restitution had to be made. Zacchaeus’ statement went far beyond the demands of both Old Testament and Roman law; he offered “four times the amount!”

And Zaccheus does this not just when no one around him pays attention, but when everyone around him, even the very people he gives to, the very people who benefit from his generosity, openly hate him!

I don’t know if they still make these, but there used to be plastic, hand-held label makers, where you’d spin a dial to select a letter, press a handle, and as you pressed out letters and words a thin strip of stiff plastic would stick out the end. Squeeze another handle and the plastic was cut off. You’d pull the backing off of the adhesive, and presto! You could label just about anything! You know, every one of us has a kind of label maker. And it’s funny, even with this story of Zaccheus, we humans have our label machines going. We read the story through and label Zaccheus a sinner, a bad man, a thief and a liar who, confronted by the joy and forgiveness of the living Christ, repents, makes restitution, and gets a fresh new “saint” label. After all, that’s the way it’s always told to us.

Yet if we reinterpret Zaccheus’ words to read in the present tense, where he is already acting in a faithful and generous manner with his money and his life, we’re unfairly labeling him, treating him in exactly the same way every resident of Jericho had treated him all his life.

Looking at it from this direction, Zaccheus teaches us more about ourselves than we may want to learn: we are label-makers, and even on the rare occasions where a label is earned, that label does not serve to define. Rather, labels limit, exclude, deny, marginalize. People diappear behind the labels we give them, and behind the ones they give themselves. Lives collapse under the weight of the labels.

But Jesus seeks those who are lost.

And in the face of Zaccheus’ stubborn faithfulness, Jesus does not save Zaccheus from his own actions; rather, Jesus seeks Zaccheus as one lost to those around him. One lost in the labels people have put on him. By seeing him, calling him, staying with him, and blessing him, Jesus declares for all to hear that this Zaccheus, even this chief tax collector, is a child of Abraham...and child of God.

Isn’t it amazing that, any way you look at it, Jesus is seeking and saving the lost. Either way we approach it, Jesus is restoring humankind to God. Either way, when Jesus passes by, nothing is ever the same again.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Of Tax Collectors and Justification

Thanks to Kate Huey, David Lose, and George Elerick for help with this week's sermon.

As always, comments and constructive criticism are welcome.

Joel 2:23-32

O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Throughout the Gospels, and especially, it seems, in the Book of Luke, Jesus has a habit of using characters and imagery which contradict people’s expectations, which upset the societal norms of the day. If we will allow them to, these parables will upset our own expectations as well.

At that time in history, if you wanted an example of what utter faithfulness, piety, purity, and true Godliness looked like, you looked to the Pharisees. In fact, the reason that there are people who can live and worship as Jews today is because of the Pharisees. When the Temple was destroyed in 70AD, it threatened to take with it the cultural identity of the Jewish people. Without the temple, without the sacrifices, without Jerusalem, how could one be Jewish?

It was the Pharisees who, though their extensive knowledge of the Law and long experience with cultural practices, were able to make sense of the Jewish faith apart from the Temple. They were, to the Jewish people at the time Christ walked among them, the picture of holiness.

By contrast, tax collectors personified everything that was wrong with the nation of Judah. You see, the reason Rome conquered so many lands and people was chiefly so that the Roman government could get its hands on the treasure of a given country, and tax its citizens. Thus the tax collectors were as much a symbol of occupation and oppression as the Roman soldiers who made up the occupying army. These tax collectors were Jewish, but not only were on the payroll of the pagan Romans, but used their power to bully and overtax their fellow countrymen, profiting on the backs of their fellow Jews.

And, in any case, was anything the Pharisee in his prayer untrue? He wasn’t, as a matter of fact, anything like that tax collector. He wasn’t like the thieves, rogues, or adulterers either. He worked very hard to be faithful. His group followed, more strictly than any other person in first-century Palestine, the absolute letter of the Mosaic Law. He indeed fasted twice a week and gave a tenth of his income. Rev. Kate Huey writes, “For the Pharisee, God seems to live right inside him. His prayer is more of a Shakespearean soliloquy, praising himself and his works and his own goodness. He has it all figured out, and things add up rather nicely for him. Perhaps he comes out looking better than even God does! It helps to have the tax collector nearby for stark contrast, because the Pharisee far outshines him in his virtuous works. To this religious leader, God is benevolent and has surely noticed how good the Pharisee is. Actually, there isn't much need for God to do anything in the life of this Pharisee except to agree with him.”

The problem, of course, is obvious, and Luke explains it in the very first sentence: the Pharisee was comfortable in his righteousness. What’s more, he had constructed that life of righteousness under his own power, had attained doctrinal purity through his own efforts alone.

By contrast, the tax collector knows he has no claim to righteousness. He has, in fact, done everything he could to offend the Mosaic Law and oppress the people of God. He must rely, completely and solely, on the mercy of God, and he knows this to his core. Because of this fact, and this fact alone, the tax collector found forgiveness and justification in the eyes of God.

It’s easy to read through the parable, see the Pharisee as the bad guy, the tax collector as the good guy, lesson learned, be like the tax collector, Judy plays the piano, we pass the plate.

But here’s a strange contradiction for you: the moment we begin to thank God we aren’t like that Pharisee, being all braggy about how un-self-righteous we are and all, we become… like… the Pharisee. “Lord, we thank you that we are not like other people: hypocrites, overly pious, self righteous, or even like that Pharisee. We come to church each week, listen attentively to Scripture, and we have learned that we should always be humble.”

The biggest complaint Jesus had against the Pharisees was that they had lost the point of all that righteousness they worked to attain. The keeping of the Mosaic Law in every point had become the focus of their existence. Rather than using the Law as a tool to serve God, they had let the Law become their god. And make no mistake, any time we let our doctrine become the focal point of our righteousness, rather than the lens through which we see the Living God more clearly, that doctrine has become an idol, and must be pulled down.

In this parable Jesus teaches a lesson for us about God's mercy in justifying the abject sinner, the tax collector, instead of the apparently holy Pharisee. If we come before God in humble openness and fervent trust in God's goodness – and, honestly, how else would we be forgiven but for God's goodness? – we make room for God to work in our lives.

More than all the good works we can manage, all the doctrines we can perfect, all the church services we can attend, all the sermons we can preach, it is approaching God as a benevolent and loving Parent, as the wellspring of mercy and grace, which produces righteousness.

Charles Cousar writes, “Prayer is the occasion for honesty about oneself and generosity about others.” Honesty flows from openness: an open heart, an open mind, a life opened to God and to transformation. For Luke's audience, learning to be Christians in those early post-Resurrection years, “Prayer was not a last resort when all the plans and programs and power plays had failed; prayer was, rather, the first and primary task of Christians.” Prayer helps us to discover who we are, and who God is: merciful and loving and just.

This is why the tax collector, and not the Pharisee, left from his prayers a justified man. Going back to the quote I read from Rev. Huey, it could be argued that the Pharisee wasn’t really praying as much as he was bragging. And I don’t know about you, but I can’t ever feel particularly close to someone who spends all their time telling me how awesome they are.

So is the only proper context of prayer to be sobbing, breast-beating, and begging? Is our only prayer the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner?”

There is immeasurable value in the prayers we say when there is nothing left to say, of course. But prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of praise, hymns sung as worship, all of these are just as valuable, because it is the attitude of the person praying, more than the content of the prayer, which is important.

The shelves of the local Christian bookstore are stuffed full of books on how to pray. I hate to say this, but most, perhaps, all of these books are completely useless. The question is not so much what are we praying, but why are we praying? Is it to remind ourselves of the righteousness we have attained through the good things we do, through believing the right things, through supporting the proper causes, through saying the right things? Or is the reason for our prayer to communicate and grow ever closer with our God, who loves us and has redeemed us through the blood of Christ?

Are we righteous under our own power, like the Pharisee? Or are we made truly righteous by God, like the tax collector?

Righteousness isn’t a commodity we can earn, or a goal to be attained. Just like every good thing that comes from God, it is a gift. And isn’t that a wonderful thing? How exhausting it must have been for the Pharisee, to have to work so hard every day to make sure that nothing he said or did or even thought was contrary to the letter of the law!

By contrast, in Jesus Christ God has emancipated us from the need to seek out righteousness through good works, through right thinking and right practice. Rather we are set free to seek mercy, receive righteousness, and find rest in grace.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Nicea, and What We Say About God

This is actually a recycled sermon, first preached June 7, 2009. I don't like doing this, and won't bore you with excuses; I'll just say that in it I get to use the Nicene Creed and talk about a very important piece of church history (for better or worse, depending on your outlook).

Some of my less theistic friends may take offense at what I say; please know that this is not meant to be a "turn-or-burn" kind of sermon. Rather, what we believe shapes who we are, and if one is to be a Trinitarian Christian, one should certainly know what this means.

In any case, please read and offer comments/criticisms, and by all means take advantage of the open invitation to come hear it live!

Jeremiah 31:27-34
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the LORD. In those days they shall no longer say: "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.

For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

John 3:1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.'
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?"
"Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."
"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

This is the Word of the Lord.

“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

I have to confess to you that I used to think the Nicene Creed was just an expanded version of the Apostle’s Creed. Somewhere along the way, someone had either decided to expand on the Apostle’s Creed, or that the Apostle’s Creed was made when someone decided to edit down the Nicene Creed into a bite-sized format. I came to find out over the years that the Nicene Creed is, in fact, the first truly definitive statement of who the Triune God is, and how that God interacts with humanity.

What we say about God matters. It’s easy to get bogged down in talking about the Holy Trinity.

It’s easier still to dismiss Trinitarian theology as the stuff of scholars and seminarians, of no real significance in the lives of ordinary people. But what we say about God matters enormously in our lives.

When we sing my favorite hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” we sing, “God in three persons, Blessed Trinity…”

…because it makes a difference whether a person says, for example, “I believe in God, or maybe something of the sort; well, I mean, there must be something like that out there, so I suppose we can call it ‘God’”, or whether one says, “Yes, I believe in God, who is our Creator, Redeemer and Counselor; that is, I believe in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

It makes a difference whether you believe in God as an elemental spirit or you believe in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. What we believe about God makes a difference to the way we live.

What we say about God is so important, in fact, that if it weren’t for the courageous Christians who forged the Nicene Creed in the fires of controversy, persecution, and excommunication, not only would you and I most likely not be celebrating Trinity Sunday today, but we may not be having church at all. Certainly, whatever we did here would be far different from the worship we are accustomed to.

The year was 325AD. Thirteen years before, prior to a decisive battle in his struggle to unite the Roman Empire (under himself), the Emperor Constantine had seen a vision of a cross in the sky, and the words, “By This Sign Conquer.” He won the battle of Milvian Bridge, according to some reports converted to Christianity, and with the Edict of Milan in 313, made Christianity legal at last in the Roman Empire.

Now, skeptical types look at the legalization of Christianity as a ploy by Constantine to further solidify his authority and strengthen the newly reunited Empire under a common faith.

He certainly thought of himself as the one responsible for making sure that God was properly worshipped in his empire. Of course, even Constantine agreed that what proper worship consisted of was for the Church to determine.

And herein was a problem, because though Christianity had enjoyed only a decade or so free from persecution, it had been in turmoil for some time over the question of who, exactly, Jesus is. If the Emperor wanted a religion that was a stabilizing force for the Empire, it seemed he bet on the wrong horse: Christians were even rioting over this question! People had died over this question!

Why? Because the answer to the question of who Jesus is would define exactly how God interacts with God’s people – and how, or if, God saves God’s people.

One group of Christians, led first by Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, and later by the bishop Athenasius, understood Jesus to be God, of the same substance and being as God the Father, and coeternal with God.

Another group, who found their voice in an Alexandrian priest named Arius, believed Jesus to be a created being: the most perfect of all created beings, perhaps, and perhaps of similar substance to the Father, but created and thus not eternal. Divine, perhaps, maybe a kind of demigod… but not God.

So Constantine called all the bishops in the Empire together for the first council of its kind, and somewhere between 250 and 318 attended: men still bearing the marks on their bodies of years of horrible persecutions, missing eyes or limbs, scarred from being burned or beaten or bitten by animals.

The discussion took a month. Creedal statement after creedal statement was proposed, many of which were loosely worded enough the Arians would have signed on with no problem, controversy resolved, which way to the lunchroom?

What nobody had counted on was that Bishop Alexander had brought Athenasius to the council, and Athenasius could not fathom compromise with those who would deny that Jesus was both eternal and God! Athenasius knew that what we say about God matters!

Over the centuries, a lot has been made of the fact that, when it came right down to it, the whole Christian world was in turmoil over one letter of the Greek alphabet: the iota. The Greek word for “same substance” is “homo-ousius.” The word for “similar substance” is “homoi-ousius.”

So what was Athenmasius arguing about? After all, it’s just one letter, and the smallest in the Greek alphabet to boot, so what’s the big deal? Doesn’t seem to be much difference between “like substance” and “similar substance” anyway, really, right?

Wrong. That one letter makes all the difference! What we say about God matters, because what we say about God is a reflection of what we believe about God, and what we believe about God will govern how we live our lives.

Put in that iota, and the “homoi-ousius” God becomes depersonalized, a distant entity, who interacts and communicates by proxy. This God doesn’t come to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, but builds a Jesus and sends him to Earth, thus corrupting or canceling the idea of any kind of redemption through his blood, because a Jesus who is not quite God cannot quite save! Moreover, carried to its extreme, it could be argued that if Jesus was a created being who was made divine, there’s nothing keeping other people from becoming equally divine. Thus Jesus is not only not God, he’s not unique. Thus Christianity stops being a faith journey toward deeper relationship with a loving, personal, active God, and becomes a project, a cause.

You cannot really experience love with a project or cause. You can have love by some definition for a cause, or love doing a project, but you can’t have a relationship with a project or cause, because a project, a cause is not a living thing.

Making God a project or a cause has profound negative implications in, for example, the way we are governed, in our attitude to the environment, and in the way we treat each other in families and personal relationships.

But look again at the Nicene Creed: “…one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance” – homo-ousius, no iota – “with the Father, by whom all things were made.”

We believe that God is not distant, is not a project or cause, but a living, loving, active God who cares about the world. What’s more, we believe that because God cares, God sent Jesus – begotten, not made – to us to form a new and everlasting relationship with us, and we believe that God comes to us personally in the Holy Spirit.

What we say about God matters, and we say that we believe in God, who is our Creator, Redeemer and Counselor; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And while it is true that however we say it, we cannot fully comprehend the mystery of the Trinity, it is also emphatically true that, because we know that God loves us, has redeemed us, and is active and present with us always, we will never be without the hope, joy and love which are ours through:

“God in three persons... Blessed Trinity!”