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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!