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Friday, December 25, 2015

Star Wars, Baby Jesus and Hymns of Rebellion

Christmas Eve, 2015.
          While I may not have seen the long awaited, much hyped, most recently released installment in the Star Wars, I have seen the previous films. Whether or not you are a Star Wars fan or have seen each of the episodes in the franchise a hundred times, you probably recognize words from the opening crawl that set the story in time. Each one of the movies begins with a prologue. Those words let the audience in on what has led up to the point where the action begins as the start of the movie. 
          In the very first Star Wars movie we read the words rapidly crawling up the screen, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, …” as John Williams’ famous Star Wars theme plays in the background; and each movie afterward starts with the same music and a scrolling prologue that adds to the story and says in a few words what has happened leading up to the start of this particular movie.
          With each Star Wars installment, we remember the origins of the story. We remember the characters that have come and gone and the ones who have been central to the story. And we remember that at its core this is a story about the age-old forces of good resisting and rebelling against, the forces of evil.
          We witness the struggle between these forces in the movies. We root for the good guys who, at the end of each movie have gained the upper hand, yet we know that the struggle between the imperial forces (those are the bad guys) and the rebellion (the good guys) is not over. Far from it. [After all, there is another sequel or prequel to come.]
          At the conclusion of each of these movies, even as the x-wing fighters make their victory laps, we know that the evil still exists and will once again raise its ugly head, but we also revel in the fact that the Good guys continue to resist, that the rebellion continues to grow, and that good does triumph; and one day, hopefully, will overcome all evil. Despite the twists and turns in the plot, we can believe that it will ultimately win not just the hour or the day, but the whole shebang.
          Tonight we gather as we do each year on Christmas Eve, and sing our beloved Christmas carols and hear again the now-familiar biblical texts telling the story of the nativity of Our Lord Jesus.
          We rejoice in the fact that God’s love is so strong and God’s mercy is so broad that God came to earth as a little child. We revel in the birth of this tiny baby, which is just the beginning of that episode in which the grand story of our redemption is revealed.
          As we do every Christmas Eve, we hear the familiar words from Isaiah, our own prologue to the story: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them a light has shined.”
          And then, we hear the words we long to hear, the words we have been waiting to hear. We hear the words of hope: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
          Did you hear the wondrous, good news? “A child has been born.” And then, the words that tell us why this is good news: This child has been born For us. This child has been born for you and for me.
          This is our prologue. This is our song, and it sets the stage for the glorious story that brings us to this night. But this prologue also reminds us of the stark reality of our world. It reminds us of what is at stake. People walk in darkness. There is darkness in the world. Unlike the movies, this is not fiction. This is real. While good and evil still battle in the world, we rejoice tonight because God is the ultimate victor, for our sake.
          The truth is that God has reached out to humanity before – freeing Israel from slavery, giving us the law to guide our ways, sending the prophets to warn us of the danger we risked because we rebelled not against evil, but against the ways of God.
          Through it all, God’s love for humankind persisted. God’s desire for us grew ever greater. God’s determination that we should not perish but should enjoy an everlasting relationship with God was firmly rooted in God’s endless love. In the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, God sent God’s own eternal light and life to the world.
          We gather this Christmas Eve surrounded by the beauty of the night, sharing the story, singing hymns and carols because with the birth of Jesus God has inaugurated a new age. It is the age of hope. It is the age of our salvation. We sing our beloved carols, our own songs of rebellion against the evil and tyranny of the world:
O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant! O come ye, to Bethlehem, and behold him, our newborn king. He is the highest most holy, light of light eternal…Jesus…and to him we give all glory and praise.
We sing our victory songs, acknowledging that God’s goodness reaches down to earth in this babe born in Bethlehem, and is the only power strong enough conquer the sinful forces that seek to claim us. And so, on this night, we are encouraged to shout out the good news:
Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere; go tell it on the mountain that down, in a lonely manger the humble Christ was born, as God sent us salvation this blessed Christmas morn.
          The history of the liberation of humankind from the evil forces of sin and death reads a little bit like the saga of the Imperial Forces and the Rebellion of the Star Wars movies.
          “In those days a decree went out…” and suddenly we attach a chronological time to God’s advent into the world through Jesus Christ. The mystery of the ages is that this miraculous birth then becomes kairos time – God’s time – the time when the veil between heaven and earth is lifted, and God descends to earth and enters our humanity in the birth of the Messiah.
          In this humble birth God stands against the powers of the world, the evil that lurks around us. God faces down sin and death. Through this birth, God came to tell us that we are deeply, truly and eternally loved and desired by God, and that nothing in the world can keep us from God’s love and grace and blessing.
          God’s message to us tonight is that God’s love is for all, and that God’s love not only wins the day but wins every day forever and ever. God’s love is for everyone, for you, and you, and me; whether we feel lovable or not; whether we feel we are worthy or not; whether we feel we are strong enough to resist the forces all around us or not. God’s love is for each and every one of us.
          In a few moments, we will sing out our battle cry against all the forces that would seek to deny God’s love, God’s power or God’s very existence. We will sing out a song of rebellion full of the blessed assurance of God’s eternal victory:
Love has come—a light in the darkness! Love shines forth in the Bethlehem skies. Love is born! Come share in the wonder. Love has come and never will leave us! Love is life everlasting and free. Love is Jesus within and among us. Love is Jesus, Immanuel.
Glory be to God, on high.
Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Flirting with Joy

Zechariah 3:14-20 & Advent 3
Rejoice! Shout! Exult with all your heart!
            These are the words that set the stage for us on this third Sunday of Advent, as the count-down to Christmas races on. It’s no wonder that these are the words we hear on this Sunday, a day known as “Gaudete Sunday”, Gaudete being the Latin word for “rejoice.” And our biblical texts this day all reflect this theme*. Rejoice! Shout! Exult!
            This exhortation represents a shift in our Advent journey from the messages of judgement and the warnings that we have heard delivered by the prophets through scripture the past couple of weeks.
            In our worship, the shift in tone reflects the excitement that is building as Christmas approaches and the time draws ever nearer for the coming of the Christ child, the embodiment of God’s love and mercy for all this broken world.
            And yet, even as these words ring out, Rejoice! Shout! Exult! I know that some of us struggle to feel cause for rejoicing.
            This has been a tough year. There have been major challenges in our individual lives and in our world. We are faced with the knowledge of our imperfection, our culpability in the pain and suffering of the world, in the prejudice and bigotry that resides deep within, in our failure to value every human life as Jesus does.
            A number of you, like me, have lost loved ones. Some have suffered serious illness, or undergone grueling medical treatments; others have undergone surgical procedures and rehabilitation. Physical, emotional and spiritual challenges have been faced and are perhaps still linger.
            There may have been broken or changed relationships and families.
            Even if things in your own life have been spared difficulties like these this year, it is likely that you have walked and are still walking beside a friend or loved one who was going through a difficult time.
            For these reasons and more, some of us may feel may feel ill-equipped to rejoice, exult, and shout for joy, or to even face the festive season or the future.
            Yet still we hear the words from Zephaniah, Rejoice! Sing aloud! Shout! Exult! And then assurance of Isaiah: Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid.
            An article published in the New York Times this week reported that fear is at its highest level since the months immediately following 9/11/2001.
            A continuing onslaught of terror attacks around the world have set people on edge. Public confidence in our leaders to protect us is shaken.
            Even the most mundane of our plans has suddenly taken on a new dimension of doubt, planning, second-guessing and challenge. Should we travel? Should we fly in an airplane? Are trains safe? Is it wise to gather in any large venue? Who do we let in and who do we keep out? What are the limits of what we will do remain safe?
            How do we face this Christmas season with the buoyancy required to do as the prophets tell us to do, rejoice, shout and exult, when the reality of our lives is that we are stressed, struggling, and surrounded by fear?
            And then we hear it: another Word of God comes to us in each of our scripture readings:
“You shall fear no more;”
            “I will trust, and will not be afraid;”
                        “Do not worry about anything,….”
                                    And finally, even as he has pointed out the hypocrisy of those who claim to be followers, John the Baptist “…. proclaimed the good news to the people.”
            Placed side by side, these exhortations and proclamation invite us to hear and trust in God’s promise that God, who sees us just as we are – broken, sad, struggling, fearful, reactive, and full of sin – loves us still. God promises that through Jesus, he will remove the chaff from us – the outer, imperfect sheath of the perfect people God created us to be.
            This Sunday, three-quarters of the way through Advent, there is a burst of pink – the candle on our Advent wreath which was lit today – which signals the welcome hope and attendant joy that our sorrows, worries and the fear that plague us will not define us – because God will fulfill our hope that it does not.
            Rather, through the coming of the anointed one, God, defines us and will define us as God’s beloved children, worthy of redemption and washed from sin in the waters of Baptism.
            This Sunday of rejoicing alerts us that something better is coming – that as the fulfillment of God’s promise of redemption is at hand – this Word begins to prepare us for the rejoicing to come with the arrival of God-with-us.
Rejoice! Shout! Exult with all your heart! Have no fear!  
            Because –
God will lift up the lowly,
            the suffering ones,
                        the outcast
                                     and the oppressed,
                                                and will enfold them
                                                            in unending, ultimate joy and protection. 
            Our worship today reflects the hope that abides within us, inspired by God’s Word, and plants the seeds for true joy that persists deplete all that assails us. Advent is traditionally a season of somber reflection and penitence, a counterpart to Lent. That’s why until this week our worship space has been devoid of festive markings and decorations.
            Fasting, repentance and spiritual preparation place our focus on this anticipation of the coming of the Lord.
            Right about this time in the season, we often hear the lament – and perhaps share in it that, for whatever reason – whether in our planning and busywork or by the placement of our hearts and emotions, we are just not ready for Christmas.
            Our lament, it seems, has a lot to do with the stuff we need to do, and little to do with what God has done and is doing in our midst.
            Such is the way of sin. Such is the way of the world. Such is the way of a humanity which calls out to be saved from all that frightens us – even from ourselves, but which steadfastly turns away from the mercy and love of God, is never quite prepared for God to come among us, is never quite ready to welcome God’s desire for us.
            But look around us today. There are signs of life springing forth all around us. As Zephaniah assured the people that their penance was over and God’s salvation was near, there are signs that God is at work here, today, not only in the greening of the church, but in the people who surround us, in the prayers that unite us, in the meal that feeds us, in the light of the candle of joy that shines before us.
            God will have the last word. On this day God’s Word to us reminds us that God is already in our midst as we prepare for the incarnation of God to come, bringing needed transformation to our hearts.
            Because of God’s love and even because of God’s judgement, even as we sit with the reality of a world gone wrong, even while we still sit with illness, pain, brokenness as our companions on earth, we CAN rejoice, we CAN shout AND exult, because God’s abiding presence with us gives voice to the hope and the acknowledgement that the joy God brings is not the claim that, for now, there is no suffering. God’s promise today and the prophets’ invitation to rejoice, shout and exult in the Lord does not mean that God is blind to the ways in which we continue to hurt, continue to sin, continue to oppress others, continue to fail to acknowledge with our lives the reality of the dawn of God which breaks upon us. Rather, the light that shines in the darkness, the light that breaks the bonds of our sorrow and hopelessness, is the light of Christ that assures us that new life is coming to live among us in the form of a savior who will show us the way to live.
            The same God who intimately knows us and who knows our fears and failures sends us abundant hope and promise:
            “Do not fear…The Lord, your God, is in your midst.” ….”
                        Do not fear” is not a plea, but a declaration.
                                    “Do not be afraid, Zechariah,”
                                                “Do not be afraid, Mary.”
            Later, on a night not long from now, in the story that the evangelist Luke tells of a night of fear and pain and dis-ease, we will hear the words, “do not be afraid…I am bringing you good news of great joy.”
            And then, another Gospel proclaims at its end, “Do not be afraid…he is not here, for he has been raised.” (Matt 28:5-6)
            Zephaniah and Luke join all of the voices speaking throughout the scriptures in a persistent, insistent biblical refrain. “Do not fear” is repeated over and over again because human beings are afraid of many things. But by God’s Spirit, they invite us to have faith; to believe that God is with us and for us, and God is preparing us for a new reality of living as God’s faithful people.  God declares that we shall fear no longer, because God will not only bring victory over the enemies all around us, but also those deep within. God will join us in rejoicing and song. God will join together a wide variety of people in singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving.
            We can rejoice this day because we can trust that God will restore the broken, destroy the fear, and bring to rights the cosmos and all that inhabit it, all the creatures God so dearly loves.
            And so, by the power and promise of God, we are confident as we listen again with the words of the apostle Paul:           
            “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Thanks be to God! Amen.

*Additional texts this Sunday are Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, & Luke 3:7-18.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Football, Figs, and Faith

Everywhere I look lately, I see Peanuts. Peanuts characters, that is, the ones created by the late Charles Schultz. There are Peanuts on TV, in the movies, even on Facebook.
With all this focus on the Peanuts, I have a favorite Peanuts scene I’ve been thinking about. It’s the one where the hapless Charlie Brown is playing football with his friends. It’s his turn to kick the ball. He gets himself all ready, and winds up to give that pigskin his all, while his friend Lucy holds the ball in place. And then, just as Charlie Brown approaches the ball, as he rears back with his kicking foot, preparing to send that ball to the moon, what happens?
That’s right. Lucy whisks it away. And poor Charlie Brown, totally unprepared for this deception, flips and falls, flat on his back, stars in his eyes and ringing in his ears.
Today, I view that scene as an allegory for life. It is reflective of our hopes and dreams, our plans and our preparations, and our vulnerability to forces waiting to be unleashed, forces which can turn our world upside down, leaving us with stars spinning wildly before our eyes, and bells ringing in our ears.
Charlie Brown’s football incident illustrates what it might feel like when all that you are aiming for in life is suddenly whipped away, out of reach, leaving you totally stunned, breathless, and disbelieving.
We enjoy a good laugh at the plight of Charlie Brown, perhaps because we recognize – uncomfortably so, at times - that we are all subject to Charlie Brown moments. The truth is that in life, those moments come all too often.
While we might chuckle at the Peanuts gang, and shake our heads at their antics, I have to admit that there is a certain poignancy to the image of the stolen football for me today. Because I think a lot of us are feeling the emotional toll of lost opportunities, of plans and lives gone suddenly awry, of unexpected reversals in life.
Those losses and betrayals might come in the form of facing a first holiday season since the death of a loved one or the breakup of a significant relationship. Or they might take the form of illness, an unexpected diagnosis, the health struggles of your child, your parent, your spouse. Losses and struggles might be work-related. And, we are subject to demons from within and without which have the ability to whisk our feet right out from under us, leaving us a Charlie Brown kind of breathless.
If you are like me, you may have come here deeply troubled this morning, overwhelmed by the news of the past few weeks and the months before them. If you are like me, you sometimes find yourself thoroughly shaken and grieving over the tragedies in this world, the opportunities lost, the betrayal of our expectation that we are safe and secure from evil.
If you are like me, your sense of shock is reinforced when you hear about shootings, child abductions, wars and rumors of wars, a planet in danger of overheating, plane crashes and errant missiles, bombings and chemical warfare, protests and riots, all overwhelming realities of this world.
If you are like me, you experience sadness, discouragement and despair at the realization that our progress eradicating prejudice, bigotry and hatred as a society is but an illusion, and that justice is far more fragile than we ever thought it could be.
While we seek peace we live in a world where turmoil and death, violence and chaos exist. We seek justice yet are surrounded by evidence of corruption and brutality and deception.
But then, Advent comes and with it we hear the promise of the ages. We hear the promise that our redemption is not only coming, it is already among us.
At first glance, our gospel text seems like a creepy way to begin this season of Advent. Jesus speaks of signs in the sun, the moon and the stars and predicts distress among nations who will be confused by roaring seas and waves.
Jesus predicts people will be afraid – so afraid that they will faint. But, when these things take place, Jesus says, pay attention. Be alert. Because your redemption is drawing near. It is present. It is active. It is abundant in Christ himself.
As a common tree that people of Jesus’ time could relate to, Jesus turns to the fig tree. The coming of the Son of Man and your reason for hope is like this - it’s like the fig tree. Just as you know summer is coming, bringing with it the ripening of the fruit, when you see the leaves begin to sprout on fig trees, when you see these signs I just mentioned, stand up and raise your heads and know that your redemption is near.
Don’t be frivolous, Jesus continues, wasting your time so that you are caught unawares. Instead, pay attention, and while you are doing so, pray. Remain firmly connected to God. Remain fully dependent on God. Remain faithful to God.
 When we look back over the course of the Common Era, is there ever a time that doesn’t reflect the signs that Jesus describes?
History reveals a broad record of celestial events – lunar eclipses, solar eclipses, solar storms, the birth and death of stars, meteor showers, and so on. We see “historic” storms and cycles of catastrophic weather events. We see earthquakes and cyclones and tornadoes – droughts and floods, tsunamis and other devastating events. And with each one there are many who faint with fear, predict the oncoming destruction of mankind and our planet, and bemoan our future.
But as Jesus tells us that these things will be part of our worldly experience, he also tells us, that when they occur, know without question that we need not fear. Our hope, our redemption, is at hand. Because Jesus is present. Jesus is acting for the benefit of the world.
Though the sin and brokenness in the world exist, God is fully present, fully working, fully redeeming us from our sin through Jesus Christ.
David Lose explains it this way:
“…according to Luke….. we live and work, love and struggle between the two great poles of God’s intervention in the world: the coming of Christ in the flesh in order to triumph over death through his cross and resurrection”… “and the coming of Christ in glory at the end of time and his triumph over all the powers of earth and heaven. This “in-between time,” though fraught with tension, is nevertheless also characterized by hope and courage because we know that the end of this story, while not yet here, has been written by the resurrected Christ.”
Jesus reminds us that he is the Lord of history and we can trust that he will bring all things to a good end. So, what of plane crashes and war, disease and divorce, death and disaster? God has the final word. For the sake of love, in Jesus Christ God has waged God’s own war on sin and death and has won the victory.
In the meantime, in mercy for the fallen world, God sent Jesus Christ to reign in our hearts and in our world, shaping our behaviors so that they reflect the love and hope that God has for all of humankind.
Alan Boesak has written this beautiful Advent Credo uses Jesus’ own words to describe how Jesus is the one who has both come and is yet still coming, is present yet is still arriving:
It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;
It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.
It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.
It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.
It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.
It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.
So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.
From Walking on Thorns, by Allan Boesak, Eerdmans, 2004.
This is the sermon from November 30, 2015, Advent I. Text: Luke 21:25-36

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Lost in Translation - Who's your king now?

John 18: 33-37 ~ Christ the King Sunday
A few years ago, there was an award-winning movie called “Lost in Translation.” The story is set in Japan, where an American actor is being filmed in a Japanese whiskey commercial. The actor does not speak or understand any Japanese, and the director speaks no English. One of the scenes goes like this:
On set to rehearse for the shoot of the advertisement, the director of the commercial speaks in Japanese to the interpreter:
“The translation is very important, okay?”
The interpreter responds, also in Japanese,
          “Yes, of course. I understand.”
Now the director addresses his instructions to the actor, “Mr. Bob.” He looks at the actor intently and begins to give his creative direction clearly and concisely, though of course, again in Japanese:
“You are sitting quietly in your study. And then there is a bottle of Suntory whisky on top of the table. You understand, right? With wholehearted feeling, slowly, look at the camera, tenderly, and as if you are meeting old friends, say the words. As if you are Bogie in Casablanca, say, "Here's looking at you, kid,— Suntory time!”
Now it is the interpreter’s turn to translate this important direction to Bob. He turns to the actor and in English says, “He wants you to turn, look in camera. Okay?” End of translation.
Bob blinks and asks, “...Is that all he said?” End of scene.
This illustration reminds us that a great deal can be and often is, “lost in translation.” Our everyday lives are filled with moments lost in translation – moments when meaningful details are entirely overlooked; moments when interpretive reflection misses the real point of a conversation;         moments when we talk past each other; when your words and my interpretation don’t quite match up; moments when what you think is most important is the one part of the conversation I dismiss as irrelevant.
In relationships, the fallout of this phenomenon is played out all of the time. Being lost in translation means missing important information, making false assumptions about a person or a group of people; what is lost in translation is often the missing piece of a puzzle that has the ability to complete a picture accurately.
Sometimes these missing details are innocuous. Other times, missing the point creates situations which can totally change the trajectory of a relationship, or even of history itself.
Missing the point or not “getting” the full message can create misunderstandings. It can even lead to me giving you bad information. When vital pieces such as these are lost in translation, dysfunction and division between people result.
In the movie, in addition to the meaning and detail lost in the translation of the director’s words, the central character in the film, Bob, is lost in other ways. On a basic level, he is lost in a culture which is alien to him, where he does not speak the language, and does not understand simple social cues – he is, after all, an outsider in Japan; he is a stranger in a strange land.
Our relationship with God is also, it would seem, filled with instances of this same phenomenon. Lost in translation. Missing the boat.
The disciples of Jesus are often mystified and confused by details which have been lost in translation. The gospels are full of instances where Jesus is teaching about the meaning of God’s love, about who he is, and about how he is in fact the perfect expression of God’s mercy and justice.
But Jesus’ words and motives are often lost in translation not only by those who oppose him, but by those follow him as well.
Today is a day in the church year when we celebrate the reign of Christ, but the claim that Christ is King is one of those realities that can easily be lost in translation.
So it was for Pilate, and in many ways, so it is, still, for us, today.
Because the kingship of Jesus is nothing like anything else in our collective experience. God’s way of rule is as foreign to us as the Japanese language and culture were to “Mr. Bob”.
If we look at our gospel text for today, Jesus has been taken to the praetorium – the headquarters of the Roman military governor,        Pontius Pilate. There, Pilate tries to get to the bottom of this “Jesus problem.”
I can only imagine Pilate’s frustration. Jesus is accused of claiming royal status and power. In a world where status and power were carefully measured, delegated and protected, Pilate wants to get to the bottom of this claim of his.
So, Pilate tries getting a straight answer out of Jesus.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” All Pilate wants is a yes or no. A simple answer. Then he can go home for the day.
But as we know, Jesus’ response is not so simple – Jesus knows what no mortal can fully understand. Jesus cannot answer Pilate with a simple affirmation or denial.
What Jesus knows, what Pilate and we struggle to understand is that our human, culturally, politically and economically driven ideas and understanding of kingship do not come even close to God’s reality as revealed by the Reign of Jesus.
Earthly kingdoms have boundaries and earthly kings have limitations. Mortal kings live and die, they come and go. The borders of earthly kingdoms and provinces, of finite nations and their leadership are constantly shifting.
The reality of the kingdom of God and the kind of royalty defined by Jesus is simply lost in translation because the kingdom of God is limitless and Jesus’ reign is eternal.
Jesus answered Pilate, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” And we collectively stand around and scratch our heads and wonder, is this a test?
Because that answer astounds and confuses us, even we who believe in Jesus. We know what is coming. We know about the passion and death of Jesus. And if Jesus is a king, our king, and we believe he is, then why doesn’t he just come out and say so? And if Jesus is truly king, and therefore in charge, why is the world in such a mess?
What is lost in translation between Pilate’s insistent question and ours, is the meaning and scope of kingship. Through his teaching and his ministry on earth, Jesus has been demonstrating the radical difference between the human concept of royal rank and the godly reality of God’s kingdom and rule.
While in the history of the world earthly kings have been people who have wielded great power, who have ruled over people and armies,       who have claimed ultimate allegiance and obedience from their subjects by sheer threat of force and violence, who have demonstrated giant-sized flaws to go along with their enormous egos, God does things differently.
Our God does things like send his son to earth in a humble, human birth. Our God provides a cross for a throne, so that we can live in everlasting relationship with God in the resurrected life Jesus has won for us.
Jesus was born into this world, but is not of this world. He and Pilate speak different languages. To Pilate’s question, “So, you are a king?” Jesus responds, “You say that I am a king.” But placed side by side as each man speaks, this word – king - is lost in translation.
Because unlike the “king” of Pilate’s understanding, the king God has sent us comes with a different kind of power – a power stronger than any mortal’s – for Jesus has the ultimate power to liberate us sin and death.
And, unlike Pilate’s king, the greatest weapon in Jesus’ arsenal is love.
The Christ who claims our allegiance demands that we do as he does. When asked what is the greatest commandment, what does Jesus respond?
Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment of all is that you should love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself. And then Jesus says that if we love him, if we truly love him, we will keep his commandments.
We will follow his way.
We will seek the truth, that God is love, and we will cling to it and allow it to permeate our being and our behavior.
Micah 6:8 expresses God’s will and command for us beautifully:
          “He has shown you, O Mortal, what is good.
                   And what does the LORD require of you?
                             To act justly,
                                      and to love mercy,
                                                and to walk humbly with our God.”
Here is God’s mandate for us, lived by Jesus himself, who put love, mercy and justice for those in distress above his own needs and security and indeed, even above his own life.
For those under the reign of Christ, these are words to live by.
My dear Jesus followers, we are reminded that love is not an affliction of the heart but is a way of living and being - love guides and is evident in our actions.
Jesus says, “I came to testify to the truth.” To testify is to act as a witness.  Jesus himself witnessed to the love of God for humankind. This is the truth Jesus himself demonstrated for us:
The same Jesus who ate with tax collectors and sinners asks for the same kind of compassion and love from us.
The same Jesus who drank at the well with a woman of questionable morals, who supped with and loved even – especially - the one he knew would betray him, asks us to testify to the truth – that what God desires from us is that we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly, as Jesus did.
The same Jesus who, soon after his birth found himself an alien and refugee, calls for us to open our hearts to those who suffer, to show mercy to the vulnerable, the homeless.
The tragic events and the aftermath of the past couple of weeks call us more than ever to show ourselves to be Jesus followers   who are truth-tellers in a world spinning frighteningly out of control, knowing that there is but one king who rules our hearts, our lives and our love-driven actions.
There is but one king whose reign is absolute.

          There is but one king who can calm our fears,
                   proclaim peace,
                             call for justice,
                                      cry for mercy, and who loves us
                                                from the depth of his being,
                                                          from the height of the cross.                                            

This king, our king, the Christ who reigns over all requires that we demonstrate by our very lives that our kingdom is not of this world, thanks be to God!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Chaos, Clutter, and Cost - Attachment Issues

Mark 10:17-31

            I was in a local store last week, and I just couldn’t keep from smiling to myself, though I was probably the only one around doing that. NOT smiling were the parents of a toddler, a little boy who was absolutely, heartbreakingly, and very noisily expressing his displeasure as his parents explained to him that no, he would not be getting anything from the store today. They were there for another reason. No, no toy; no Power Ranger; no ball, and certainly no candy.
            I smiled because I knew that struggle - I could remember enduring similar scenes, especially with the youngest of our three children. While our other two children saw him as the spoiled and indulged baby of the family, the “one who gets everything,” the one “who got to do the things we never got to do,” or at least got to do them sooner, he saw himself as the disadvantaged youngest. He was the one who got the leftovers. He was the one who got left behind when the other two got to do the really cool stuff. He got the hand-me-downs. He never got what they got.
            Maybe it was this sense of relative depravation that caused this child, more than either of our other two, to have melt-downs like the one that I witnessed in the store. Could that child wail! He just couldn’t help himself.
            His distress was so keen, his disappointment so deep, his grief so profound that it just poured out of him. I remember once he actually blurted out between sobs, “but I have to get something! I just have to!” He didn’t even care what it was. He just had to have. Some. Thing. Fortunately, that particular stage of development passed, and both our son and his parents survived it.
            Having been so recently reminded of those days, however, I thought of the children’s honest struggle and the stress and grief “needing to have things” caused them (and us) when I read the gospel lesson for today. Because, for the man in our story, his attachment to what he thought he needed was a real stumbling block for him, wasn’t it?
            So much so, that for the first and only time in the Gospel of Mark, the person offered healing and relief by Jesus rejects it. “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” In love, Jesus offered this man healing.
            What kind of healing does the man need? Perhaps he needs to be freed from the possession of his possessions – the power they hold over him. He needs to be freed from his idea of what is important in life, and what it means to be faithful.
            Jesus offers to free him of what possesses him, to cure him of what binds him. “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But the man walked away, grieving. He just doesn’t get it.
            Jesus brings a reorientation of understanding of what is essential to life. The first few commandments on the tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai had to do with our relationship with God. What followed, the ones Jesus lists now for this eager, seemingly sincere young man have to do with our relationships with others. It is what Jesus has been telling us all along. “Do not keep the little children from me.” Relationships matter. “Go, sell what you have. Give the money to the poor.” Relationships matter. “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Relationships in the kingdom of God matter – and they won’t look like what we cling to so tenaciously as what we “need” or “want.”
            Our notice and engagement with others in our community and in our world matter. Care of the poor is essential for those who follow Jesus.
            But the man in our story doesn’t understand. He goes away grieving, because he can’t imagine giving up the life he is currently clinging to – even for the true life that Jesus offers. His “stuff” got in the way of life.
            I can relate to this man. I get the thing about how attachment to things and to my own ideas of what is important can get in the way.
            My husband and I are getting ready to move to a new house soon. So, I’ve been spending a lot of hours going through the house and the garage doing the hard work of purging.
            While I am not a hoarder – I do have clutter. Our adult study group talked about clutter during one of our conversations this summer; about how it enters our lives and how hard it is to get it to leave. Of course, part of the problem is in most cases it doesn’t leave on its own. Which means we have to be intentional about getting it out, and keeping it out.
            We discussed the ways clutter affects us physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually; about how it can hold us back and impede our well-being in every one of those areas.
            After that conversation, I decided I was going to go through our house and purge us of all our clutter. I was going to free our lives for other, better, more important things, more godly things. Oh, the ambitious goals we have….
            The thing is, it’s not easy. I may not be screaming and crying and hollering like those children in the stores did about letting go of the stuff we have accumulated, but I am finding this hard, exhausting work.
            Am I possessed by my possessions too? Probably. Am I clinging more tightly to this “stuff” than to the relationships Jesus is inviting me into having with him? With others? Most certainly.
            Am I refusing to be healed by Jesus?  What can I do to inherit eternal life?
            Here’s the rub. That’s the wrong question. The answer to that question is, “nothing”.  We know that on our own there is nothing we can do or say to earn eternal life and forgiveness of our sin. We know that the camel has nothing over us in level-of-difficulty for earning eternal life. It is impossible.
            For human beings earning eternal life is indeed impossible. But it is not impossible for God. With God all things are possible. Neither wealth nor the divestment of wealth saves us. Only God can do that. Knowing our weakness, God has done in Jesus Christ the only thing God could do to raise us up to new life.
            In Jesus is the eternal life we seek. But that is not all. The eternal life we neither earn nor deserve is freely given to us by Jesus on the cross. It is assured through our baptism. We are reminded of it powerfully each time we gather around the table and hear the words, “….given for you……shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.”
            Perhaps the question we should be asking, then, is “how can I live a life more reflective of the love and values of Jesus?”
            In calling us his own through Jesus, God reorients us to the life to which God calls us. The grateful response to the gift of that life requires putting our hearts, our minds, our behaviors, our choices, and our relationships before our ideas or possessions.”            
             Jesus makes it clear that our relationship with the rest of God’s children is at the top of what concerns disciples of Christ. To follow Jesus means to love what Jesus loves. Jesus loves and calls us to love the least, last, lost, little and lifeless - those who lack the economic opportunities we have; those who live in poverty; those who are the cast aways of society – Jesus calls us to joyfully love and share our bounty with these.
            Our possessions blind us to the needs of our brother and sister. Jesus invites us to take off the blinders – “go…sell”. Sometimes they make us want to erect barriers between ourselves and others to keep out those who might compete with our ability to amass even more wealth. Jesus responds, “…sell what you have…give to the poor.” Dependence on our stuff keeps us from realizing our true dependence on God. Jesus invites us, “Come, follow me.”
            In our gospel text, the man thinks he is ready to commit, to do whatever Jesus tells him to – perhaps he thinks there is a simple exercise to complete, or some parchment that needs to be signed, or some final steps to be checked off a list. Because if he can just do something, then he is home free. “…tell me what to do, I’ll do anything you want, just give me this thing I want or need.”
            Like many Jews of Jesus’ time, the man probably thought of his wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. Not only a sign for him but also a sign to those around him. “Here I am. Blessed by God.” We are not all that different.
            What do you love so much that you might put it above relationship with God and all that God is offering you?
Rather than blessing, Jesus sees this thing as the impediment it truly is.
                At the heart of this gospel, we remember that Jesus looked at this man, and loved him. Love is a way of seeing, and in loving the young man, Jesus sees him as he truly is, but in a way that the man is not yet capable of seeing for himself. Jesus loves him AS HE IS, while this man seems to think there is more he must do.
            Jesus wants him to have life, but lets him know that it is his own attachments that prevent him from finding fullness of life.
            What is it in your life to which you might be clinging? What is the sword upon which you would fall, the thing you just can’t imagine giving up? What might you be tempted to turn away and pursue, rather than accepting Jesus’ invitation? Is it material? Intellectual? Relational?
            Jesus is inviting us, too, to let go. Whether we do or we don’t Jesus is still loving us, still caring for us, always desiring the best for us, and continuing to call us to follow. Jesus looks lovingly at the young man, at us, and awaits for us, waiting for us to know the joy and full life of discipleship.


Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Christmas Creche, Creatures, and Stewardship

Mark 10:2-16, Genesis 2:18-24
I have to confess that I am a fan of St. Francis of Assisi. I mean, who wouldn’t love a man who gives up the benefits of class and wealth in order to have a closer relationship with God? What is there not to admire about a man who commits to a life devoted to healthy relationship with God and neighbor? Who wouldn’t love a man who purportedly spoke to the birds, made friends even with wild animals, and embraced a God-centered ethic of love and peace?
Most notably, in case none of that impresses you, who wouldn’t love the man responsible for Christmas pageants and the Christmas crèche – those nativity scenes we display at Christmas? Though I must say the Francis who embraced a life of simplicity and even austerity would probably be stunned and horrified by many of the garish, commercialized offerings of the nativity already on display in stores this first weekend of October.
Today is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, a man who is identified as a renewer of the faith, and is also known for his great love and care for creation.
While we Lutherans do not worship the saints, nor do we pray to them as intercessories, we do honor them for the vision they offer of what the life of faith might look like. We consider what they can teach us about how a living relationship with God and how faith-full life – within which relationship with God is at the core of our being and the center of our decisions and behavior - might be experienced.
We remember the stories of the various named saints as their feast days approach and we recall that by God’s love and mercy, each of us is a saint of God too, named as such through our baptism, a fact that we will celebrate soon, on all Saints Day.
Francis of Assisi is a favorite among the saints, especially for peacemakers, tree huggers, and animal lovers. He is a frequent resident of both home and garden in statuary and artistic form. His gift to humankind was his love of God as he experienced God in all creation.
While we reflect on the themes of love and care for which God has created us, themes we see reflected in Francis’ life and work, we acknowledge those same themes working within the scripture readings we just read.
The stories of Francis and the biblical record work together to remind us not only how very much God intends good for us, but also how God uses us to serve the good of all within God’s creation.
God provides for abundant life for all that God loves. In the creation story from Genesis today, we are reminded that in the midst of God’s great works of creation, God determined that it was not good for the human to be alone, and so God gave him a partner, but not before God created the animals and birds, bringing each one to the first human for their naming.
This is a significant part of our story, because in the Hebrew Bible, the very act of giving a name is important and fraught with meaning. Giving a name is an act of love; giving a name is an act of bonding; giving a name is relational - it is an act which takes place within what is meant to be a lasting relationship. To underscore the importance of the bond and relationship of humanity and the creation, God gives Adam this privilege and duty.
Likewise, in the Hebrew Bible, when God calls you by name, it means that God loves you. When God calls you by name, it signifies that God is already in intimate relationship with you. Each of us, in our own baptism, is in fact called by name as well as given the name, Child of God.
In our reading from Genesis we learn that God engaged Adam, this very first human, in the naming exercise in the garden. To be human, is to be loved by God and to be drawn together in intimate relationship with all the others that God has created and loves. This text gives us the story of how God provides for the companionship and relationship at the very beginning.
In the gospel story, the Pharisees come to Jesus seeking an answer to a relationship question. In actuality, Mark makes it clear from the beginning that their question is really not a concern about relationship at all.
The Pharisees aren’t really looking to Jesus to clarify or teach them about love, marriage and divorce. They aren’t looking for clarity about how the laws address relationships and how the law of God applies to divorce. Not really. Rather, they are there to trip Jesus up. Having already begun an agenda to destroy this troublesome rabbi, they ask the question to test him hoping to cause him to stumble. It is really a trick question. Maybe they can discredit him.
But Jesus is wise to their ploy, and uses this opportunity to teach about the broader issues at hand; issues like our relationship with all that God has given us – most especially the people - all the people - God has placed in our lives.
These texts serve us well as stewardship texts, inasmuch as they truly speak to the way we consider, treat and care for one another and for all that God has given us.
It is in the broad spectrum of relationships that we define what we truly care about. God wants us to value and care about what God values and cares about. If we value what God values and has placed in our lives, we will have the kind of healthy relationships and world that God desires, and the kingdom of God demands.
God has given us so much, and our relationship with each of these gifts of God matters. The relationships God has established – between humankind and the works of God’s creation, between those whom God gives to love one another in loving union, with the neighbors God gives us and the communities in which God places us, communities like this one – are all gifts from God. And, as God has created and given for their care, God desires that within the scope of our relationships, we care for them too.
So in our gospel text, Jesus first makes it clear that the reason for the law God passed on through Moses and every law since has had at the heart of it God’s desire to fix a problem. The problem is that the lure of power, control and selfishness which result in  this hardness of heart that Jesus refers to - corrupts the goodness and purity of God’s intention for humanity.
In God’s goodness and love, God gave the law to support and nurture healthy relationships on earth. Jesus makes clear that God’s hope is that our relationships are more than legal matters but instead holistically provide for abundant life within relationships of mutual dependence and vitality.
This week is a week in which it has sometimes been difficult to see the cherished relationship God desires for us existing at all.
We have been surrounded by evidence of the brokenness of humanity and the persistent hardness of the human heart in the continuing refugee crisis and the fighting in Syria and Afghanistan; stories of executions and stays of executions; the ongoing issues of poverty and racial inequality and tensions here and elsewhere; and further upheaval on the political stage.
By week’s end we were confronted with yet another shooting, yet another school turned into a bloodbath, yet another massacre fueled by hatred or mental illness, either way igniting yet again the question of why exactly we hold more dearly to a law which holds the sanctity of gun ownership over the sanctity of life and protection of our citizens and children, who are too often the tragic, innocent victims in gun-related violence.
We know true brokenness in a world not only torn apart by war but a world in which international institutions of medical assistance are dismissed as “collateral damage” in combat action.
We know this brokenness not only from world events. We experience this brokenness when once-loving relationships do end in divorce; in everyday acts of jealousy and hostility; in the times we find ourselves caring too much about our status or power and too little about what is at the heart of our relationships.
The strong connection between today’s Old Testament reading and the Gospel story are timely, coming as they do during a week in which our weariness over the heartbreaking brokenness of this world and the disorder in our own lives is so present and overwhelming.
“Stewardship” refers to the management and care of something. The kind of care that God calls us to is a stewardship matter. Good stewardship reflects the kind of love and care that God first built into God’s creation even to the naming of creatures.
Good stewardship in marital relationships requires ongoing care, work, flexibility and compromise. Good stewardship in community means that we listen well to the other, engage in critical thinking and problem solving and look for the welfare of the other.
Good stewardship as citizens given a place in a particular society ensures that the most vulnerable and needy in our society are cared for, valued, and protected; That children grow up nurtured physically, spiritually, emotionally, educationally, with opportunities for growth and life. Good stewardship of our resources provides that each person has a place to go home and a bed to sleep in, and good nourishing food to support good health.
All stewardship comes from a place of gratitude. St. Francis saw all that God had done in creation and more specifically at the cross of Christ as God, in solidarity with the suffering and the poor and for those yearning for love and care, became as one of us in order to bring us everlasting life.
In gratitude for God’s love and generosity, may we be blessed to look upon our families, children, the church, the poor, the environment, the neglected, the prisoner, the refugee, are all given to us as gifts from God. They are each given over to our care in gratitude for the richness of God’s mercy. May our care and service to what God has entrusted to us be experienced as both duty and delight.