Sunday, December 28, 2008

Our Call in Every Season

Ecclesiastes 3: 1-14

What were you doing a year ago? What were you thinking, hoping? Did you know that Hillary Clinton would not recover from coming in third in the Iowa caucuses, even though she would come very, very close? Did you think that Barack Obama's victory there was the first of many? Did you know that Mike Huckabee would end up not winning the nomination, even though he did win Iowa?

Did you know that the New England Patriots would actually remain undefeated in the regular season and playoffs, only to lose the Super Bowl?

Did you ever think that the winner of the World Series wouldn't be the Yankees, the Red Sox? Did you EVER think that the two teams that played in the World Series would be the Phillies and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays?

Did you know that Center Moreland would, in late spring, become the final spiritual home of a girl named Aimee, whose mother moved her back from Arizona so that she could pass away among family and friends?

Did you know that there would be friends we would have at the beginning of 2008 that we would lose during the course of the year? That there would be people we know who would be very sick and not die, and there would be others who we would be surprised to lose?

No, and I didn't either.

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.

Ecclesiastes is one of the oldest books of the Bible. It is generally less read than other books because from a Christian perspective, from a Christo-centric worldview, it's hard to know what to do with it. There is no clear claim of providence, no pre-figuring of Christ as the culmination of divine intervention in human history. Oh, to be sure, God is present in Ecclesiastes, but not Jesus. So Christians in general do not look at it the same way we look at, say, Isaiah, or even the apocalyptic passages in Daniel or Ezekiel.
But I could suggest to you that Ecclesiastes is of great value to all who respect God, Christians included. Though the author (who might be King Solomon, but is also thought to be an author assuming Solomon's persona) writes in a resigned style, almost as if he is speaking during a great dinner with friends, he is what one commentator calls an "Idol buster", smashing in the course of the book the idols of "money, sex, power, position, human wisdom, even our attempts to become righteous." All that is left at the end, according to the author, who names himself Quoheleth, comes in the twelfth chapter, when he writes that we are to "fear God, and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of everyone."

Everything else is vanity. All that we expect from the world, all that we hope, all that we believe. All is smoke.

I recently finished reading David McCullough's biography of John Adams, and while our second President was ambitious to serve and to be of note as a young man, by the time he had served as a member of Congress and been abroad as an ambassador, he was quite happy to stay home for the rest of his life in Quincy, Massachusetts, farming and reading, being a husband to Abigail, and practicing law. His talents kept him being called back into public service, and he was glad to serve, but he had grown out of his young man's ambitions.

What Quoheleth tells us in Ecclesiastes is that God is the one who gives and takes away, and the simplest, best life is one where our gifts and graces are put to God's use, dedicated to God's purpose, rather than taken as gifts that we are given with which to gather wealth, fame or status.

We who gather here are Christians. We declare that Jesus Christ is our personal savior, and that his death on the cross is a choosing to die for us, and that he was redeemed in that act by God by his resurrection. For Jesus, life was indeed a living out of that summation from Ecclesiastes chapter 12, which was to fear God, keep his commandments, and for that to be the whole duty of everyone. His life is a model for us of how a life lived with God at its center will not want for excitement or fulfillment.

So, this coming year, you can count on there being some things that will surprise. There will be world events which will shock us, sadden us, and others that will make us happy. People around us will suffer misfortune. Others will find good fortune. Sometimes they will be the same person. There will be births. There will be deaths. Gas prices will rise and fall. Everything will change, and nothing will, and we will again not be equipped to be able to predict the difference. But if we greet the year without panic, seeing anti-Christs around every corner, but instead seek to serve God, seek him when it is hard and when it is easy, to reach out to the last and the least and the lost, and to lift each other up in prayer and in regard, we will attach ourselves to what is truly eternal and unchanging, and will weather any storm that comes.

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. Expect change in the coming year, and hold fast to God and to Christ.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Eulogy for Aimee Dickey


Aimee L. Dickey, 12, of Scranton , died Friday at Hospice Community Care, Dunmore, after a courageous battle with inoperable brainstem glioma.

Born July 22, 1996 , in Kingston , daughter of Annette Nardelli McKeon, Scranton , and Thomas Dickey, El Mirage , Arizona , she was a seventh-grade student at West Scranton Middle School and a member of Centermoreland United Methodist Church .

Aimee was a special and loving daughter, sister, granddaughter, niece and friend who enjoyed cheerleading, go-kart racing and arts and crafts. She had a special love for her animals. She will be sadly missed by her loving family and friends.

Also surviving are two brothers, Robert McKeon II and wife, Jessica, Pittston; and Travis Dickey and wife, Jennifer, Iowa; three sisters, Jennifer McKeon, Pittston; Jessica Dickey, Louisiana; Sara Seabolt and husband, Eric, Iowa; her maternal grandfather and step-grandmother: Anthony and Rita Nardelli, Scranton; her paternal grandparents, Ken and Shirley Dickey, Arizona; aunts and uncles, Theresa Harrity and husband, Roy, Scranton; Michael Nardelli and wife, Diane, Scranton; Steven Nardelli, New York; Kenlyn Winters and husband, Jerry, Arizona; and Timothy Dickey and wife, Shannon, South Dakota; nieces, nephews and cousins.

She was also preceded in death by her maternal grandmother, Madelyn Nardelli.

Amy liked to flip me off. She found it endlessly amusing, and once she found out that I was not offended by it, she did it a lot. Her mom would be a little offended, but when she would see that I wasn't, she was more OK with it, though I think it still troubled her.

She was a twelve year old girl, and she could very well have had about her the image issues that most twelve year olds, girls and boys, have. I'm sure there were kids at her school that said that she looked weird. She couldn't speak well, which many kids might have found frightening, and they may have covered that fright with insults. I never did hear Aimee talk about that pain, and she was bold as brass about not hiding herself, no matter how she looked, or felt, or whether her trach tube was in or not. She was bold, in a way which in this valley's isn't perhaps accepted, but wonderful nonetheless.

I never knew Aimee when she didn't have cancer. When I first met her, at Dottie Kupstas' house in the spring of 2008, she was already having trouble walking, and her speech was slurred. I never heard Aimee's normal voice. She was diagnosed with her glioma at the end of September 2007, and they had moved back from Arizona in February. I never knew Aimee when she didn't have cancer, but if she didn't fall ill, it is also pretty true that I wouldn't have known her or her family at all.

When a child becomes ill, the questions we all have about death rise up in our throats like shouts, rather than the whispers we normally hear at the death of one who has lived a long time. We want to know why; we want God to explain to us, in great detail, why a child has to suffer. Some of us may even blame God for what happened to Aimee. We may say, in order to make ourselves better, that God needed her back in heaven.

I believe that God is never short of grace, never short of an angel. Giving children cancer is not the work of the Lord. The God who created us, who called us good, and has loved us even when we are not good, is not in the business of causing pain and suffering to his people, and especially not to his children. Aimee's suffering is not the work of the Lord. The Work of the Lord is his constant presence in our lives, though good and bad; through pain, though joy, though life and certainly through illness. His work is in keeping his spark lit within us, until the time when it is clear that it is time to relieve our suffering. Then, like a campfire, God draws the spark back toward himself, and takes it back and makes it part of himself again. Aimee, or the spark that we know as Aimee, is now once again within and a part of God.

For almost all of those who have had near-death experiences, one thing that is in common for most of the stories they have told is that there is a light that shines forth, a warming, comforting, welcoming light. Aimee told Annette, just not too long ago, that she is in that light all the time, and that she was just not ready to walk into it yet. She was just not ready to trade perishability for imperishability. There were things she wanted to do- she wanted to go to school, she wanted to be confirmed, and she wanted go to Harrisburg with Kevin (this is Kevin Murphy, who had just been elected her local Pa State Representative) to speak on behalf of childhood cancer sufferers, and increase the visibility of this group of children. But the time finally came a week and three hours ago, and she has now joined what we, left behind on earth, call the church triumphant. She has gone to a place where her pain is over, her swollen face has returned to its original shape, and her eyes have regained that mischievous glint. The relationships that she had here on earth are now placed in their best light, and she is able to love everyone without reservation, no matter how troubled, mean, abusive or neglectful they may be here on earth. What she sees best, out the window of that dwelling place that God has built just for her, are the sparks that God has placed within each of us, those tiny flames that are his own spirit that resides in everyone's heart.

She was sure, in a way which is specific only to those who are twelve, that there was a God, and that God loved her. She had experienced his love, she had seen his light, and she had about her, even in the midst of the pain, and the embarrassment, and the sheer boredom and frustration she felt at not being able to drive a go kart, or to cheer, or even in the end to speak without signing, the certainly of knowing where she was going next. Let us be assured by her certainty. Let us know, as she did, what's next when our spark is drawn back to the home fire.

Monday, December 22, 2008

We Have Heard Angels Come from the High Realms of Glory

Matthew 1: 18-25

Advent 4

Why is it that you only really see images of angels at Christmas? Yes, it is true that some people believe in guardian angels, or use angel cards to help them focus their positive energy each morning, but for the most part, we see the images of angels really come out at Christmas. How many people have angels on their Christmas tree? How many have them at the top?

So, I got curious. I've never really thought about it, but angels are everywhere in scripture. I've always just taken them for granted. But think about it--what are the three guys that Abraham entertains in his tent? Angels. What are the two who go to Lot, and are set upon by the mob in Sodom? Angels. Who comes to try to kill Moses at one bizarre point in Exodus? Angels. Who does God make his bet with over Job? An angel. Who does Jacob wrestle with? Could be an angel, though scripture isn't clear.

Who is it that frees Paul and the other apostles from prison? An Angel. When the devil (who is himself an angel in some accounts, though probably not the ha-Satan from Job) comes to tempt Jesus, he tempts Jesus to call upon the powers of heaven to protect him, saying the angels will not let him dash his foot against a stone. Who are the guys in the tomb, telling Mary and everyone else who goes in what has happened? Angels.

They're everywhere in scripture, I just kind of read right past them. There are a lot of people who have studied them, however. The Catholic Church has a ranking of angels that is four levels high. When you hear the term "Heavenly Host", they are referring to the multitude of angels in heaven, almost like they are an army. Outside of the Protestant Canon, there are stories in the Bible that claim angelic help in the reclaiming of Israel from the Greeks.

If you are to believe scripture on this point, the evidence is clear that there's a whole other world behind out senses, one closer to God, we assume, and that there are these inhabitants of that world that can do things we can't, and their job, as far as it applies to us, is to bring messages to us from God. They are heavenly messengers. When Scripture peeks into that world, in Ezekiel, and Revelation, and Daniel, they are everywhere. They circle the throne of God, praising him constantly. The come to earth in great armies, called hosts, to save Israel from its enemies.

The role of Angels in the story of the birth of Jesus, though, is where we think of them the most.

When you think of the story of the birth of Jesus, whichever story you want to look at either from Luke and Matthew (John and Mark do not have birth stories), both versions have angels. In Luke, an angel appears to Zechariah, announcing to him that he and Elizabeth were going to have a child, and that their child would "make ready the paths of the Lord". Six months later, that same angel, Gabriel, goes to Mary and tells her that she is going to bear a son, and his name will be Jesus, and he will reign over the house of Jacob (in other words, Israel) forever. Also in Luke, an angel appears to the shepherds, telling them of the birth of the child in Bethlehem. Following that, a great choir of Angels appears, and they sing Glory to God, in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors." Well, that's the NRSV Bible version. Anyone who has sung in choirs has probably sung at some point Handel's Messiah, and because of that, this particular line only sounds right when it's sung:

Glory to God!
Glory to God!
Glory to God in the highest!
and peace, on earth.

If you look at Matthew's version, and angel appears to Joseph in a dream and convinces him not to divorce Mary because she's pregnant. Instead, he is to take Mary as wife and raise the boy as if he is his own. After Jesus is born, an angel tells Joseph to run away to Egypt, to protect Jesus against Herod. An angel then tells Joseph when to go back, after Herod dies.

Angels are everywhere. The Bible dictionary I used for this sermon has an entry on angels that is 6 full pages long, plus parts of two others. They are mentioned in the Bible a lot.

They are everywhere doing the will of God. They are members of the world that God inhabits, and so we think of them as special beings, somehow a little better than us. In Hebrews, Jesus is said to have been made "a little lower than the angels" for a little while.

So, why am I doing this lecture on the proofs of angels on the fourth Sunday of Advent, three days before Christmas? In the great tradition of preaching professors everywhere, how am I going to answer the question of "So What?"

The four Sundays of Advent represent four Sundays of Preparation. We speak of John the Baptist as the announcer of the coming of Christ. We talked about how Jesus would change from divine being to human being. We talked about Mary's acceptance of the role God has given her, and who Jesus was coming for and through. Angels are God's messengers. When matters of great import are coming, it is angels who bring the word.

Do angels bring ordinary human beings messages today, messages that are perhaps not as important as "greetings favored one?" Do they come down and, as I read once in a Readers' Digest, save people from accidents? I don't know. There is a rather large body of evidence that would suggest that it is so. We sing of angels from the realms of glory, we sing of angels we can hear, even though they are on high, sweetly singing over the plains.

From what study I've done this week on angels, however one thing is clear. If one shows up and tells you that something is going to happen, you can sure trust that it is true, and you can also trust that it is a VERY BIG DEAL. Angels are the messengers of God. If one shows up, pay attention.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Luke 1: 39-56

Advent 3

39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

Mary has already been told that she will conceive and bear a son, and the angel Gabriel has told her who this son will be, that he will have a kingdom that will have no end. The angel has also told her that her cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant, and Mary probably knows that this is more work of the Lord, because she knows how old her cousin Elizabeth is.

41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

This is certainly not your usual greeting by an older woman to a younger one. There is perhaps a span of 60 years between them, and yet, when Mary appears, Elizabeth gives her a greeting that is reverent and joyful, which most days would be very odd for an older lady greeting a girl.

Now Mary, who has already had an angel visit, and has now become pregnant by divine means, hears from Elizabeth that Elizabeth's baby has started kicking like crazy upon hearing Mary's voice. The last line of Elizabeth is the most important, though. The wonders upon wonders continue. "And blessed is she who believed that there would be fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." Zechariah, Elizabeth's husband and the one person in this story with any status at all, didn't believe, and now, in this point of the story, he has been struck speechless, not to utter another word for three more months, until John is born and about to be named. Mary, however, does believe, and has figured out what all these things that have happened to her, means.

46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

If Mary were living today, and was indeed a typical girl of her age, she might very well have texted OMG to her friends. It means "O My God", the electronic equivalent of "Omigod", in Valley girl-speak. Except she would actually be meaning the "my God" part. Mary knows who she is. She knows that she is a young girl who lives in a country occupied by foreigners. She knows that she is often in danger, and that her life is not worth much. In her culture, she's destined for early marriage, as she was already entering into when the angel came, being engaged to Joseph. The plan for her ,as for so many of her friends, was to have kids, hopefully lots of them, to be dependent on her husband for income, unless she can create a few crafts for sale in the market, and to die at a very young age. She knows that her cousin, Elizabeth, is an old woman, who has already passed her years of usefulness by those standards, and the fact that she never gave birth to any children sets her very low on the hierarchy of their culture. Surely there were women who walked by Elizabeth in the market and made that tsk-tsk sound in pity at her wasted life.

But God has other plans. From these two people, who exist on the bottom rung of life, far from power or prestige or honor, come the fulfillment of prophecy and the coming of the Kingdom of the Lord. God did not choose to break into the world through the riding of a great white horse into Rome, shining sword in hand, to clean house. God chose to enter the world as the Christ through a human being, as a human being. And God did not choose to be born by the daughter or one of the wives of the Roman Emperor, or even by the wife of Herod, but he chose to come to us through an unmarried young girl, and the one who would announce his coming came not from royalty, or status, but from what we would call a crone. And by doing so, God announces not just that he is in the world, but that all people in his world are important. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

This son that she is about to have is coming for all. It takes time for people to understand this all part--Even after Jesus has died and been resurrected, and has returned to heaven, it takes Peter's baptism of the Roman soldier Cornelius and the following great meeting in Jerusalem for the followers of Christ to understand just what all really means.

Because Elizabeth believes, The announcement of the Lord comes. Because Mary believes, the Lord domes. Because they agree, their world changes. Because they agreed then, and believed, our world still changes. Though our belief in God's lifting up the lowly and casting down the rich, oppression lives in fear. Through the acting of God in human history by the acceptance of two marginalized members of a minority population, we know that Christ will live, and die, for all. Through our belief in the gifts that this child, the Christ, who will be named Jesus, will bring for us, we will be saved.

OMG, indeed.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Same Mind as Jesus

John 1:1-5, 10-18
Philippians 2: 5-11

At the beginning of the movie A River Runs Through It, an elderly narrator is setting up the story of his family by explaining how and where he grew up. It's Robert Redfords' voice, but the words are the words of Norman Maclean. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister in Missoula, MT, and his father was an avid fly fisherman. On Sundays, he would walk with his two sons, including the author, down the Big Blackfoot River to unwind between services. The scene is of the minister picking up a rock out of the river that had circular markings on it. It was a sedimentary rock, and the marking were where rain had fallen and struck the mud, which became rock without those shapes ever having been washed out or rubbed off.

The author remembers his father saying that those rocks were half a billion years old, but beneath those rocks, even older than that, are the words of God. And if you listen closely, you can still hear that voice. So, he told them to listen. And if they're old enough and wise enough, someday they would hear.

It the world that most of us live in, this is crazy talk. Below the rocks are more rocks, then the crust, and below that is the mantle, and then the core of the earth. Most of us live in a world where the only things that are real are those we can sense--hear, touch, feel, measure, taste, see. It's hard to believe in God, because we can't see God. It's hard to believe that Jesus died for us, and some of us just don't buy it. Even more don't really believe that Jesus was dead and rose again.

But I think that Norman Maclean's father was aware of another type of truth. I've read the book and I've seen the movie, but it wasn't until recently that I really heard those first five minutes of so of the movie. Beneath the rocks are the words of God. O course he isn't talking in terms of the laws of geology, of deposits of rock beneath other deposits of rock generally being older, though in a sense, he's right there, too. What he is saying is that he understands it when John writes that
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

Everything came into being through the Word, John says. Just in the same way that a tailor stands behind his or her work, and there was a person who sews before there are clothes, the word was in the beginning. Beneath the creation, lies the creator. Beneath the object lies the maker.

Maclean's father encouraged the boys to listen for the voice of God, and stood next to a river to do so. A beautiful river in a very beautiful part of Montana. God can indeed be seen in nature, in the beauty of the rocks, the rivers, the deserts and the oceans. God's power can be seen in thunderstorms. But God's love is hard to see by using only that evidence. God does provide out of that bounty, but the fullness of God's love can't be fully, unless we widen the story.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

To understand God's power and grace and beauty, we have around us many proofs. To understand god's love, we have something else; Jesus Christ. In Jesus the Christ, we have both the proof and the pudding. Jesus, according to John, came to us so that we might understand God fully. Not everyone gets him, even today. Even some of those in the church still hope to understand. We have a man, Jesus, yes. Born a baby, grown through a human life, died the way a human dies--by the heart stopping, the lungs ceasing to pump air.

But we also have the Christ. We also have the Word, who has inserted itself into the world through extraordinary means. . . .though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
The Word came to us not in his full glory , and power, like some great colossus, a Cloverfield monster, so that we might see him and be terrified, but instead, he came in the way we could understand best; in the way that we came. This is what it means in Philippians when it says that he;
. . . emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death. . .

He came as a baby. He came as something that without love, either dies or grows in a malformed way. He came to us in a way that would of course take time to develop, but in this time, he also had the opportunity to convince us more solidly than merely showing great power and majesty.

Because the Christ came to us, to be with us, in our world, as a human being who lived as we did, a living breathing human being named Jesus, with all of the inherent separations, distractions and limitations that we have, what we learn is more than just that God created the world and it was good. We would have known that just by observing the earth and all its bounty. Through Jesus, we learn that God loves us in a very active, directed way. But it was how Jesus lived that teaches us that we can return that love directly. We can overcome those separations, distractions, and limitations, and be connected to God the way Jesus was. Perhaps not as deeply, to be sure, but his ways to connect with God are our ways; meditation, prayer, craving silence and solitude, time with friends and family, teaching and learning, and of course living a life of grace and generosity.

It's perhaps too sassy to say "if he could do it, so can we", but in a very real sense, he provides our model.

When John tells us to let our minds be of the same mind as Christ Jesus, this is what he means. Jesus was bedrock sure of God's love; so sure, in fact, that trusting God with his very life in Jerusalem wasn't a bet in his mind, though he may or may not have known the outcome. We can trust in God, too, and though we may not see what's coming, whatever it will be will be somehow good. Not nice, not pleasant, not superficially enjoyable, always, but good.

To let our minds be of the same mind of Christ Jesus is to understand that below the rocks, below the trees, below the rivers and the oceans, below the deer and the turkeys, below the asphalt and the car tires and the foundations of our houses and buildings, lies the Word of God. It is our bedrock, as it was his. So listen closely, and if you are wise enough, you might hear those words.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord

Mark 1:1-8

Advent 1

When I was a child, my father was a choir conductor at a high school. He would also do musicals. I remember him doing the Sound of Music, and I remember seeing the posters of shows like Oklahoma. One year, he did Godspell. This is a musical that was written in the late 60’s early 70’s, and the premise is that a bunch of Hippie type characters recreate, loosely the parables of Jesus, taken from the Gospel of Matthew. The movie was somewhat different, but the gist of it was the same, amid locations in New York City.

The character of John the Baptist in my dad’s play was played by a dark haired guy with one of those beefy 70’s moustaches. Now remember, I was 8 or 9, and these were big adult 17 year olds. The theatre would go dark, and he would sneak into the back of the dark theatre. Then there would be a spotlight pointed to the left aisle, and this character would, in a loud voice, go BAAAA! BAAAAA! BA-BA-BA-BA!, mimicking the sound of a shofar, the musical instrument made of horn that is used to announce great religious events. And then he would sing:

Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord;
Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord

This would be followed by the lights coming up, and all the cast coming onto the stage, singing along to those words, and the show would proceed from there. Those were the only words to the song.

I can’t read about John the Baptist without thinking of that kid, that faux-shofar sound, and that song.

John the Baptist is hugely important to the story of the coming Christ. Here is what we know.

John was Jesus’ second cousin. His mother Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary were cousins, and when Mary, the unwed teenage mother, clears out of town for a while, she goes to Elizabeth. As Mary comes close to Elizabeth, Elizabeth feels her baby, six months farther along or so, give a mighty kick, which she phrases as him “leaping in the womb”, and this is the first awareness of John as the forerunner of Jesus—first out of the womb, he knows what’s coming right behind him.
John grows up to be a prophet, unlike what anyone has seen in a long time. When John’s birth is announced to his parents, they are told that he is not to “drink wine or strong drink”, which is the same thing said to Samson’s parents in Judges. Samson was what is called a Nazirite, and Numbers tells us that a Nazirite is not to touch anything relating to a grapevine, and he or she isn’t to cut their hair, and they are not to come near a dead body. They are a symbol of greater dedication to God, and John takes this further, wearing camel’s hair clothing and eating honey and locusts. In other words, grasshoppers.

He goes into the country, to the area of the river Jordan near where Elijah ascended into heaven, and preaches repentance—getting ready for what is coming soon. John may have known who that was going to be, or not, which is the source of his resistance to baptizing Jesus in some of the gospel accounts.

He also hears, or doesn’t hear, the voice from heaven that says “This is my Son, the beloved in whom I am well pleased”.

John is present, more than anything else in our Bibles, as the one who announces that the Lord is coming again, and returning as was promised. His role is to announce and to be an announcement. Is he Elijah? He denies it, but he is set up to fulfill all that. Here’s what one commentator says:

“the parallels between john and Elijah are significant, . . .It is no accident that John identified himself this way, or that his followers regarded him as Elijah, since traditions spoke of Elijah’s return, to avert the wrath of God an to lead Israel to repentance.

In what we call the Old Testament, a passage from the prophet Malachi says it pretty plainly;

“Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”

The first week of Advent is the week of announcement. Jesus is coming. Two thousand years ago, Jesus came. There may or may not be more John the Baptists coming, there may or may not be any announcements about Jesus return to us or to a future generation. We believe, as Christians, that these prophecies have been fulfilled, and despite some teachings, we will not know when Jesus returns again.

The only announcement of Jesus’ coming that will arrive now is the one that we give. It is up to us to announce that Jesus, born two thousand years ago, God into flesh, is now born into the hearts of those who believe. We are John the Baptist. We are the announcement of Emmanuel—God is with us. We don’t have to wear hair shirts, and we don’t have to eat grasshoppers and honey, but we, as the followers of a physically invisible Lord, do have to live differently so that He can be announced.

When we celebrate Advent, it highlights that we are in a but of a mixed up world. We are celebrating a season of anticipation for something that has already happened. We are calling attention to a past story, two thousand years old, in order to point to the fact that in our spirits, that birth happens every day.

We are the announcement. We are the shofar call. We are the people set aside and sent forth to announce that God is with us. We are John the Baptists.

Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,
Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Interposition of the Almighty Hand

Deuteronomy 8: 2-18

Thanksgiving Eve 2008

Abraham Lincoln was a Biblical scholar in a way we have not seen presidents be since, well, him. Hey may not have been the most faithful church-goer, but he was, in a way that cannot be denied, strongly influenced by the Bible.

We don’t have enough time for me to go through everything that Lincoln wrote that was influenced by or recalls incidents from, the Bible. But this evening’s passage from Deuteronomy sounds an awful lot like the first paragraphs of Lincoln’s Proclamation, the document that we take as the beginning of the modern understanding of Thanksgiving in America.

Moses, in this, his last speech to the Israelites before he dies, spends much time reminding the Israelites of all that they have passed through, from slavery in Egypt until that moment. The Hebrew Bible does this rehashing of the origins of the nation a lot—you’d think the Israelites would have paid more attention for all the speeches Moses and later Joshua made, and all the times they read it in the Torah. Our passage says it again here—remember when you didn’t even know what manna was, or even how to cook it? God provided. Remember how you walked for 40 years, and your feet didn’t fall off? That was God, too. So keep that in mind now that you are about to come into the Promised Land, with its sweet water and fertile fields. Don’t forget him as you build your fancy houses amid profit from copper mines and multiplying livestock. Don’t fool yourself----you didn’t do this—God did.”

Lincoln’s Proclamation does the same thing, sort of—“Yes, this civil war is a terrible thing, and we would do well to have avoided it, but in the midst of this great national trial, look at the fact that no one has taken advantage of the situation and invaded us, we are still producing stuff to build and trade with, and the population increases, despite the loses of war.” This is his next line, word for word;
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
Lincoln believed, I have seen it written more than once, that the civil war was not itself the commission of a sin, but God’s punishment for America’s sin. And I do not think that anyone reasonable will think that it is a stretch to believe that the primary sin in Lincoln’s mind was slavery.
The proclamation, which was issued Oct. 3 1863, was a year after the Emancipation Proclamation, the executive order that freed the slaves in all the states that were currently in rebellion. If it wasn’t part of Lincoln’s thinking when he assumed office, it certainly was by the end of 1862, and by this time in 1863, men throughout the north were singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as they fought, meaning every single word. Lincoln could very well have seen the country as another Nineveh, and not having heeded the identification of their sin, were now plunged into the punishment.
So it is very interesting that, as a President, he is as open as he is about the failures of the nation as he proclaims a day of thanksgiving. But buried within the last paragraph of the proclamation of thanksgiving is a very interesting line; see if you can pick it out.
I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

While in the midst of giving God the glory for what hasn’t happened to us, remember that we have committed grave sins, and we should also be penitent. Penitent for “national perverseness and disobedience”.

Moses writes of not crediting the gifts and providence of God to ourselves, but giving credit where it is due. Lincoln writes of the nation being in the mess it is in because of it’s failure to listen to God, and that we should all pray together on the fourth Thursday of November for God to return us to “to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union”.

Would that we would pray tomorrow, as we gather around our tables, for “The Interposition of the Almighty Hand.” Would that we would acknowledge that all we have is a gift from God, and be thankful for it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Jesus is Coming, Look Busy

1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11

When I was in seminary, there was occasional need for a little blowing off of steam. One night a few friends and I went to hear a local comedian, someone who was well known and loved in Dallas, but that I hadn’t heard of. It was a small show, I think only about 20 people were there. Afterwards, we walked around the section of Dallas called Deep Ellum, which for years had been the African American center of town. The building of the highway straight through the center of that neighborhood, as well as desegregation and economic changes had pretty much killed Deep Ellum’s original energy, but it had come back through its growth as a neighborhood of music, nightclub, and boutique shops.

In one of those shops, we found a t-shirt which, to our minds, was the most amusing thing of the night. I’m sure that the original designer of the shirt had secular, antagonistic reasons to write what they did. They probably had meant to be sarcastic or somehow judgmental when they wrote on the shirt—“Jesus is coming! Look busy!”

What they didn’t know, of course, is that they had illustrated perfectly the proper mindset for Christians.

You see, one of our most central beliefs as Christians is that Jesus is going to come back. When we say the Apostle’s Creed, it is right there; “from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead”. (and by the way, since you all are not dead, then you all are quick.)

What he will do when he comes back is the source of much dissention within the church over the course of church history. The earliest letters we have from Paul speak of a belief in the imminent return of Jesus. He even advocates that people should avoid getting married, because Jesus is coming soon. By the time of Romans, one of his last letters, he has backed off of his expectation that Jesus is returning immediately. In the years leading up to the year 1000, many people believed that Jesus’ return was nigh, that a thousand years was a nice tidy number. But Jesus didn’t come. So maybe it was 1033, which would have been a thousand years after Jesus’ death. But Jesus didn’t come. You may remember the frenzy over the calendar flipping over from 1999 to 2000, and how the computer calendars wouldn’t be able to cope and the world would shut down. Some folks took that annoying inconvenience and built it into the mechanism by which Jesus was coming back. But Jesus didn’t come, and we’re still here (and so are our computers).

There have been many calculations about the return of Jesus. Much ink has been spilled printing both predictions and imagining what it will be like—the Left Behind series of novels are merely the latest, albeit most commercially successful, versions of that.

Predicting the signs of Jesus’ coming has always been problematic. From Paul himself, all the way down to Hal Lindsey in the 70’s and since, no one has gotten it right.

Prophecy isn’t seeing into the future, it isn’t using a crystal ball, or reading tea leaves. Prophecy, in the Biblical understanding, is stating the effect that will occur if the people of God persist in their cause. It is simply a Cause and Effect relationship. If you tip a pitcher of water over, then you will spill the water. If you persist in worshipping foreign gods, you will fall to the enemy before you. There’s nothing spooky about it, according to Scripture.

It can be stated that there are signs and portents that point to the return of Jesus. This bear means this, this eagle means that, this dragon means those people who are not us. Revelation and Daniel and Matthew 24 can be made to work just like a horoscope, to mean anything you want it to mean.

I do not dispute Jesus and Paul when they claim Jesus’ return. I believe that he will, as well. But Jesus and Paul are both clear here—you CAN”T predict when it is that Jesus will come again. Paul says it in this section of his letter to Thessalonica, which says Jesus will come like a thief in the night. Jesus says it in Matthew 24, “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”. He says “therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour”. In the parable that immediately follows that section of Matthew, Jesus tells the story of a faithful and an unfaithful slave. No one knows when the master of these slaves will return from wherever they went, but the one that is found to be working, feeding the other slaves, and generally doing what they were supposed to will be blessed, and will “even be put in charge of all the masters’ possessions.” He even says “for as the lightning comes from the east and flashed as far as the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man.” In other words, don’t worry, you’ll know. It will be impossible to miss. The next parable, the beginning of Chapter 25, is the parable of the ten bridesmaids that we read just last week. Remember how it ends—“Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

All three of the rest of the Gospels have similar sections. It can all be boiled down to this statement: Jesus is coming, but we don’t know when.

The signs and portents, for those who insist in them, point to Jesus’ imminent return. But so they have for two thousand years. Various supposed anti-Christs have come and gone. The people who expect Jesus to return again are not wrong. It is not a matter of getting the signs and portents right. It is a matter of reading Jesus’ own words and realizing that predictions are not the most fruitful discipleship. The things that matter to Jesus are clearly stated for us in Scripture. Clothe the naked. Feed the hungry, welcome the stranger. Visit the sick. Other things are perhaps not stated as clearly, but would seem to be just as obviously fruitful; bring the children up to understand Jesus and his teachings. Take care of each other. Take care of what God has given you to care for.

If we seek to do all of these things, and to keep body and soul together as long as we can, that’s a full enough life. Think of it this way. If Jesus is coming, what do you want to be seen busy doing? When Jesus comes, what do you want to be caught doing?

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Dance Wit’ What Brung Ya

Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-25
Matthew 25: 1-13

When you go to Yosemite National Park, there are lots of trails. Some of them are easy, taking you up to the point of falls, or to easy scenic overlooks, where you barely need to get out of the car. There are the easy ways that wind around the mountain, easy grades that are paved and so gentle even scooter chairs can be used for those who aren’t able to walk. There are some harder ones, that wind through boulder fields and forests, for the more fit day hiker. The extreme “trails” are the ones that climb the mountains them selves, even one trail (if it can be called that) that is the marked part of the sheer vertical side of Half Dome, a granite face that was half sheared off by the last glacier.

Most or all of these trails, easy or hard, have as their goal some high place. While it isn’t always the top of something, it is usually high enough to be able to see something. There are many paths, suited for lots of people.

What is almost certainly true, and the park service would endorse this for their own reasons, is that to get to those rare high views, you have to stay on the path.
There are choices to be made periodically. If you turn to the left, you will go to the waterfall. If you go to the right, you will go through the woods and come to a rock outcrop. You have to choose. You have to decide what way you will go, and the payoff is what’s at the end. Rarely do you take a walk for it’s own sake in Yosemite. What you find at the end will make your journey to Yosemite individually special. You will have seen the park in a way that no one else has, and no one else ever will. The sun will hit those rocks in just that way only once. That chipmunk will cross your path just once at that time, in that way.

Choose this day what you will see, is almost what’s said.

Joshua has laid this out for the Israelites. In Chapter 24, the last chapter of the book of Joshua, Jericho has been fought, the land has been conquered for God’s people, and the land has been allocated to the tribes. This last chapter is now Joshua gathering the tribes back together, and saying that they must now make a choice. They have walked a path that has gotten them this far- a path led by pillars of fire and clouds. A path led by God, and a series of wars that through God’s leadership, have given them their promised land. Now, with the mission finished, it is time to make a new choice, and the people must choose. There are many ways to go—they have available to them the Gods they left behind in Egypt, they have the Gods of the people they have just conquered and now live among, or they can dance with what brung them, The God of their fathers and mothers. Joshua is clear as to his choice: As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.

Hikers never get where they want to go by hesitating at the trailhead. But it is very true that when you make a choice about which trail to walk, you loose the chance to experience other trails. By choosing the waterfall, you loose the chance to see the rock outcrop. But if you hesitate at the trailhead, you gain neither.

Choosing a life of Christian faith means that you lose out on another faith. Choosing a life of Methodist practice and doctrine means that you lose out on growing as a Presbyterian, or a Baptist, or a Catholic. It’s still God at the end, but the path of the mountain is different for each one. The way on each path may be hard, or blessedly easy. What is definitely true, however, is that if you do not choose a path and start walking, you will never get to the end, you will never get to the summit. The bridesmaids are wise or foolish according to how they committed to the wait, and those that didn’t bring adequate oil for an uncertain wait lost out on the party.

Methodists are Christians. It is one path up the mountain, the top of which is full communion with God. It is a lot harder to climb up the mountain if you are trying to straddle two paths, or if you keep climbing across the side of the mountain, breaking through the forests where there are no paths, or across rock faces that have no handholds. Sure, you can get there, but why make it so difficult? Why must we insist on making our own way when there are wise people who have gone before that have experienced the same thing? We have times of dryness, so did they. We have times of trial, times when we have made mistakes, so did they. We are no less human than John Wesley, or Benedict of Nursia, or Julian of Norwich. They were no more human than we are. The reason why they are remembered is because of their wisdom, or insight, or spiritual maturity. But underlying all of that is the plain fact of their commitment. They committed to a path, and walked it to it’s conclusion. That is their model for us; that is what we can learn from them. Even though they lived in different times, with different worldly threats, different technology, different cultures, what their humanity and our humanity have in common is that they committed in the same way we can. And that is what God looks for—commitment.

The Methodist form of Christian Practice is one among many. There are differences between us and Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, and Catholics. Each practice has it’s drawbacks, each has it’s strengths. Each is a special distinctive path up the mountain to God. I’m not saying that one is better than the other. I’m saying that you are here on this path, some at the trailhead. Why not take a few steps up the path? Why not use what’s here to help you grow in Christ?

Why not dance wit’ what brung ya?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

All Souls Day

Revelation 7: 9-17
1 John 3: 1-3

We’re about to name some names in worship. These names are the names of people who have died in the past year, whether they are church members or the loved ones of church members. I am sure there are others, and there are extra candles. Of course, we also remember those who died less recently than these, sometimes back thirty, forty, sixty years. It is only natural. The tradition of doing this at this time of the year is an old tradition. It even predates Christianity, predates Christ, and many of the traditions of Halloween, the jack o lanterns, the costumes, the images of horror and fright all are based in how we think about and handle death.

The main name for November 1st, and the Sunday closest to it, is All Saints Day. The term “saint” is a problematic one for Protestants. Saints are traditionally part of a Christian practice we do not share, and have at times been very prejudiced against. In our tradition, the only churches named after saints, for instance, are churches named after John, Paul, Mark, James and Matthew. Very rarely do you see a “St. George” or “St. Patrick” United Methodist Church.

We believe in the priesthood of all believers, that all people who follow Christ are charged to preach the gospel somehow. Sometimes that is carried forward to assume that everyone who dies in the Lord must be saints. That all who follow Jesus, when they die, somehow become saints. Others understand that the lives of saints are somehow made extraordinary by a lifetime of action, or by one action. Somehow, for some, Cassie Bernall, who is known only for one act, which was professing a belief in Jesus Christ just before she was killed in the Columbine Massacre, is of the same stature as Mother Theresa, who protected, fed, clothed and otherwise kept alive and gave dignity to thousands of Children in Kolkota, India.

It is perfectly honorable to name the names of those whom we love who have died. But it is also perfectly honorable to tell the stories of people who have had clear opportunity to witness to their faith, and did so. And rather than place arbitrary value on those stories, what is better, I think, is to know the stories, and to take strength from them when we feel weak, or weary, or uninspired. Though Mother Theresa did save thousands of lives, sometimes the story of Cassie Bernall is more relevant to a situation we find ourselves in. Sometimes people are named saints in the traditional understanding of saints because of holy lives lived, other times for significant singular acts in desperate times.
Each of the people we are about to name here could be saints. Some of us here know why that could be true, most of us don’t. But we name them anyway, on All Saints’ Day, because we loved them. Were they ever inspired by their faith to witness somehow? Did they ever let it be known that they were Christian? We don’t always know. WE name these names because we loved them, and think the best of them. We name these names of those close to us, not knowing sometimes if their stories ever included inspiring moments, or moments of clear witness. For some of these names, it is easy to identify moments where they did indeed exhibit their common priesthood. For others it is harder. But we have faith that, at some point while they were on earth, God used them somehow to show his love and grace and wisdom to us, or to someone. We may never know that story, but we have faith that it exists.

We have faith that, now that they are no longer with us, alive and breathing on earth, that they hunger no more, thirst no more, that the sun doesn’t strike them, nor any scorching heat; that the lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” We pray for some that they are now where they always wanted to be, in the presence of God, praising him always, as they seemed to do so well here. We pray for others that they have realized what God actually is, and have found the comfort and ease in God that they couldn’t seem to find here on earth.

What we hope for them, and ultimately hope for ourselves, is that we experience the truth of knowing that we are God’s children now, and that what we will be will be revealed. We hope to indeed find out that when he does reveal himself to us, we will really be like him, as we believe—that the image of God that is within us is alive, and real, and the purest part of us. We praise God today for those who have gone before, because they now know the whole truth, that which we know only in part.

Are these people saints? It is not for us to decide. What IS for us is to honor them, and remember the best parts of them as those parts that reflected most clearly the image of God within them. For it is those parts that we have faith are now clothed in white robes, giving constant praise to the lamb around His throne.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Faithfulness and Butter

Deuteronomy 34: 1-12

In the Little House books, I remember their being a weekly schedule that Laura’s Ma would follow. I don’t remember the exact schedule, but it more or less sounded like Monday, laundry; Tuesday, baking; Wednesday, smoking meat; Thursday, making butter; and Friday, baths. This is back when there were no laundry washing machines and dryers, and stuff was washed by hand and hung out to dry. If it rained that day, I would guess that the laundry would be hung in the house.

In the midst of that schedule, I wonder if Laura’s ma ever thought about whether there would be a time when that schedule would be different?

I got to visit a couple this week who still live on their farm. They used to have cows, and the milking barn is still behind the house. They don’t run cows anymore, but they used to have a number of them, and they moved on to their property in 1939. I wonder if they thought, back in 1939, that they would someday be in their house, on their farm, and not have cows?

Sometimes, we make choices that have unintended consequences. Did you know that Oct. 31 is something else besides Halloween? Friday, known to little ghouls, witches and Power Rangers far and wide, is also the day that, in 1519, a monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 complaints against the Catholic church to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Nailing a list of grievances to a church door was the accepted practice, at the time, of starting a debate. And boy did he start one. In the end, wars were fought, people died, whole nations were involved, and a new set of churches was founded and now exist alongside the Roman Catholic church. When he took hammer and nail in hand in Wittenberg, he was intending to reform the church that he was raised in, served as a monk and priest, and loved very much. I don’t think that Luther intended to start a whole new type of Christianity.

John Wesley, the founder of our denomination, was an Anglican priest, who graduated from college in the 1720’s and was ordained at the same time. (When I say Anglican here, I mean that he was a priest in the Church of England.) He was the son of an Anglican priest, and his brother was also an Anglican priest. John saw that the church was very lukewarm, that there were a lot of lax practices in the church. He wanted to reform the church so that it would reflect the fire of the Holy Spirit, and he tried to do so by going out to talk to the people in the pews (or really, the people who weren’t in the pews.) He did not want to start a new church. The reform and expression of faith he started in England soon came over to the American Colonies, and when they formed their own country in the 1780’s, only then did he reluctantly give permission for the American Methodists to form their own church. The British Methodists only formed a separate denomination in England after Wesley died, and when the laws regarding religious practice changed.

Moses reluctantly took on the job of being God’s man among the Israelite slaves in Egypt. Under Moses’ leadership, the Israelites had gone from being slaves to a hardened, tough, and unified nomadic people, and the next step was now at hand. Moses was told that he would not be going into the promised land, and now, with that move at hand, Moses dies, though his eyes are undimmed and his vigor unabated. A new leader, Joshua, is raised up, one of the same generation as the Israelites who were born during the 40 years of life in the desert, one who has no memory of slavery in Egypt. So you think that Moses, when he saw that burning bush on the mountain, could have ever imagined his people becoming free and starting their own nation?

My point in all of this is to say that we do not have fortune telling skills. We are not seers, and prophecy, as we have come to understand it, is not telling the future, but rather, it is speaking toward the sins of the people and describing the consequences if we do not repent. We do the best we can we make the best choices possible with the information at the time, with all the integrity, intelligence and courage that God has given us, but we don’t really see where those choices can really lead us. We don’t know. But we do know that in each of those decisions, God is with us, and though we may be led to surprising places, that doesn’t change. God is always, and has always been with us. Even though we don’t churn butter anymore, God is as much with us as God was with the Ingalls family.

Even though that farmer no longer runs dairy cows, God is still with him. Think of all the changes those who were born in the 20’s and earlier have seen—they’ve gone from telegrams and letters, to telephone lines, to sometimes now people not even having land lines and using only mobile phones. They’ve gone from gaslight, coal, and fireplaces to rural electrification, automatically fed pellet stoves and computerized house thermostats with 24 hour timers. They’ve gone from supporting missionaries in Africa and Asia, to those areas now sending missionaries here to save the lost. In all of those changes, unforeseen and unimaginable, God has never left his people.

Truly, we can expect that, as long as we remain faithful, God has promised not to leave us. God did not leave Luther, even as he realized the depth of what he had started. God did not leave Wesley, even when he found out that his reform movement was not welcome in many parts of the country. In fact, we have seen that even when we are not faithful, God still does not leave.

The future of our country is uncertain. But it has always been. The future of the world is uncertain and troubling. But so it has always been. But it has also always been true that God is always with us. God is always seeking to guide his people to the correct path, no matter who is president of this or any other country, no matter what technology surrounds us, no matter what choices we make as a people. No matter what nation we live in, whether it is America, England, Japan, or Nigeria.

What differs is whether we listen to that leading.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Good, Acceptable, and Perfect

Matthew 22: 15-22

It’s a very sticky thing that the Pharisees have asked Jesus in this passage—very cleverly worded, so as to suss out Jesus’ true motives. If it was a normal person, they probably would have fallen into the trap.

The trap was set up like this. They invite people who support the Herod family, some of whom may have even believed that a member of the Herod family may himself be the messiah, to go with them to this opportunity to question. That way, whatever answer this Galilean preacher gives will get back to the family. They come upon the question of asking about taxes. They know that the Jews resent paying the tax; not because they don’t want to pay taxes, but because the coin that is required is a coin with a human head, and the letters on the coin claim divinity for the person whose head it is, that of Tiberius, Caesar, Roman Emperor.

As one commentator says, “coins (of the time) were handheld billboards of imperial propaganda with busts of imperial figures and inscriptions.” No one had checks back then, there was no electronic transfer of funds, so one had to pay using the coin of the realm. No exchanges like they had at the temple, to transfer the offending idolatrous money to safer, Jewish Temple coin. One had to handle the unclean money.

So, the question is “is it lawful to pay takes to the Roman Emperor or not?” If Jesus answers yes, then he can be seen as less than serious to the Jewish hopes for the messiah. He can be dismissed, because he is not truly willing to lead the people. He will be no danger, because Zealots and more passionate Pharisees will see him as not real. If he says no, it is not lawful, there are the Herodians who can report back to their boss that there is a new leader among the Jews who is now preaching sedition and treason, and he can be taken out by force. Either way, the Pharisees seem to have finally gotten Jesus to a decisive declaration that they can use against him.

Except he answers the question differently than yes or no.

The way he answers is very wise. Give to Caesar what is due Caesar, give to God what is due God. Caesar made the coin, Caesar distributed the coin, Caesar uses the coin to build roads, to pay soldiers, Caesar uses the coin to feed the people. Caesar, being the civil authority, needs to use coin in order to do his job. The coin, distasteful as it is to the people in appearance, help them live more peaceful lives. It keeps chaos away from their world. As onerous as it is to have an army occupying their land and profiting from their labor, the trade routes through the area stay open, keeping body and soul together.

But he keeps the primary focus of the Jews where it is supposed to be. Give to God what is due God. Jews of the time believe that all of the world is God’s. Christians, as spiritual, and in some cases literal descendants of Jews, believe similarly. Paul, raised as a Pharisee and still influenced by his education, says it this way in the 13th chapter of Romans; Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist incur judgment.

Note, by the way, that it doesn’t say that all government is to be obeyed. It says that there is no authority except from God. A chapter earlier, Paul writes that Christians (his exclusive audience) should not confirm to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of (their) minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God- what is good, and acceptable, and perfect.

So, Jesus answers the question with more than just the words. Yes, we should pay the tax, no matter what the government requires that the tax be paid with. If they want coffee, give it to them in coffee. If they want it in chickens, give it to them in chickens. If they want it in coins of semi-precious metal, using words an symbols that are important to them, then fine, give it to them that way. It keeps the peace, and keeps the men with the swords out of your house. But remember that they govern by the will of God, and even a government as large and mighty as the Roman Empire governs at the disposal of God.

This is an amazing answer to the Pharisees and the Herodians, because they don’t really know what to do with it. Remember, they were asking with devious intent. They really didn’t want to know the answer, but they did want to trap him. It was an early version of what we have heard a lot about, lately; gotcha journalism! And Jesus avoids being “got.”

In fact, Jesus reverses the gotcha. Remember that these are the parables that Jesus is teaching his last week of life, while he is in Jerusalem. As he teaches them, he is actually in the temple. Do you remember that Jesus asks them to show him the coin used for the tax, and they do? Well, the guy who had the coin was actually defiling the temple, because that very coin should not have been within the walls of God’s Holy temple. It’s the whole reason for having moneychangers outside, it’s the whole premise of the question. And an authority has the coin inside the temple. It’s like taking whiskey to an AA meeting—a definite no-no.
So, all this being interesting and educational and all, what’s the point? What can we leave this room with this morning and take into our lives so that we can more closely resemble Christ?

It means that as Christians, we have discernment to do. The governments that we live under are all the subject of the will of God. To the degree that they resemble God’s wisdom, grace, will and love is the degree that they are Godly.

Our job as Christians is to discern what God requires of us. We are to always keep one eye towards the words of Christ, and compare the actions of government and authority against these. We are not called to separate the worlds of Caesar and God, but to compare the world of Caesar against the will of God as expressed by Jesus, and where the two do not match, to advocate for mercy, for peace, and for loving thy neighbor. Our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God.

We are the face of God to the world. The governments of the world are in power by the will of God, and it is our duty to be their conscience. But we are to be transformed by the renewing our minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God; what is good, and acceptable, and perfect. And expect goodness, acceptability, and perfection when it is not yet achieved.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Dressing Right for the Party

Philippians 4: 1-9
Matthew 22: 1-14

“One is Only Poor only if they choose to be. . . “

I think I own probably 30 ties. I like a good tie, and I love clever, tasteful, understated ones. I think Phil’s wood tie is very clever, for instance!

Though I appreciate ties, I really only wear about 7 of the ones I own, and I wear them rarely, usually only the occasion of a funeral or wedding. I have a tie that has little champagne corks on it from when I used to be a tour guide at a champagne house. I have a tie from both of the universities I graduated from, I have a tie from the school Joe goes to and Donna works for. I wore one most days when I taught school last spring.

I have three or four sober, somber ties for most of the occasions that call for a tie in ministry, black, gray, one with a little bit of purple. I still have the tie I was married in. I have to say, though, that I am not a fan. I get very fussy about them, and after a while, I just want to take the thing off. I’m always afraid that I will get stuff on them, they are hard to control unless you have a little piece of jewelry that pokes holes in them, and no matter how loose the shirt’s collar is, they can sometimes feel tight, and that whole bit of making sure the end of the tie being below one’s belt, or the tip of the tie meeting the belt buckle, well, that’s just a level of engineering that is beyond me.

The thing is, they do look nice. When one is put together, the colors or the patterns are complementary, It’s a good look. My taste runs more toward the classic looks, understated and muted, New England Prep School styles. Preppy was huge when I was in high school.

It’s a war—clothes most definitely do not make the person- their value is not determined by their wrapping, but by golly, it is nice when people look nice. It’s almost a reverse psychology thing. Wearing a suit and a tie doesn’t call attention to yourself in a situation that calls for it-–it helps you blend in. If you went to a wedding in a college sweatshirt, jeans, and flip flops, people would notice. If you went to the beach in a suit with wingtip shoes, people will notice, too. There’s a way to dress that is appropriate to the situation.

We live in a time now where there is no clear dress code for church. I’ve been in churches where one of my predecessors preached in the boots and jeans he’d just been plowing in before church started. I’ve also been in churches where not too long before, women did wear white gloves, and the ushers wore tuxedos.

Jesus tells the story of the king who can’t get guests for the party until he invites everybody in the street, both good and bad. But then Jesus concludes the parable with the king kicking someone out of the wedding for not dressing right.

I think what Jesus is getting at here is how one’s soul is dressed. How does one dress properly for the occasion of the Kingdom coming? In this part of Matthew, he is still in the teaching mode he’s been in since he entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey colt, and his teachings all through this part of Matthew have the Pharisees listening in to everything he says. And even though he speaks to disciples and others, he’s really speaking to them. And so there is this parable about a wedding banquet, with the impossible plot of a king that can’t get anyone to come to his banquet. Of course it isn’t about clothes. It is about how your soul is dressed before God. This is a parable, so of course we are not supposed to take this literally. No one gets to be booted out of church for dressing “wrong”. There is no wrong. There is clashing, there is badly fitting, there is a question of conventional taste, but there is no wrong.

We come to dress our spirits in the proper clothing of God—in the fashion that Paul describes for us. Rejoicing, gentleness, prayer, no worries, thanksgiving. Paul tells us that to be fashion forward in the kingdom, we are to keep our minds on those things that are honorable, true, pure, just, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. By keeping our mind on these things, by keeping our mind on God in these ways, we will clothe ourselves in the proper clothing for the kingdom.

We are called to live as if Jesus has already come to this world. Our choices, our opinions, our priorities should reflect the way we think the world will work when God’s love is the prevailing ethic of the world. So, to reflect that belief, we should be dressed for that party appropriately. We should be clothed in righteousness. Not self-righteousness, saying by how we act in the world that we are better than everyone else, but righteousness—humility, wisdom, courage, and grace. We should clothe ourselves in the actions of a people who believe that the Love of God is here, the grace of God is present for everyone. Let the clothes you wear reflect how you think the world works for those who live in the Beloved Community. The fashionistas of the kingdom don’t design clothes, they design ways to show the love of God to the world. They sew together ways for God’s grace to be shown in the world. They make wedding robes, and work so that no one will ever be kicked out of the banquet.

Dolly Parton has an old song called “Coat of Many Colors”, and the story goes like this; She grew up very poor in the mountains of Tennessee. When she was a child, her mother took a bunch of old rags and sewed them together to make a coat for her, because there was nothing else. But as she sewed, her mother told her the story of how much Jacob loved Joseph, so much that he gave him a coat that had as many colors in it as this coat the little girl was about to receive. And she was proud when she wore it to school, but other children saw it for what it was, the desperate attempt to give a poor child some warm clothing with what was available. But the song ends with the claim that because she had a coat that was sewn with love, she was as rich as anyone else.

The right clothes for the party of the Kingdom, the wedding banquet of God, are the ones that are made with love.

Monday, October 06, 2008

It’s True All Over

Psalm 19
(Exodus 20:1-20, John 1: 18)

Today is world Communion Sunday, which was started by the Presbyterians in the 1940’s. Most Christian traditions, Roman Catholic and American Evangelical churches excepted, have since joined in. The purpose of the observance is to highlight the commonality of belief in widely diverse practice. In other words, even though the way we worship is different, we’re really talking about the same God and the same Jesus.

But I got to thinking—what is it that we have in common with the other churches who observe this day? What can we say that Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed, and Episcopalians can also say? For that matter, what can we say that Roman Catholics and American Evangelicals can say?

It’s not as easily said as you’d think. Of course, we claim that there is a God. But many religions outside of Christianity claim that; that isn’t a claim distinctive to Christians.

Then you begin to look at the basics of our belief, and it’s hard not to begin with the Ten Commandments. They are ethical, basic, and very much held in common by other Christians as bedrock. But if we are to think about what makes all Christianity distinctive from other religions, that won’t fly, because Jewish belief and practice also hold the Ten Commandments to be holy. They probably hold them to be holier than we do, in fact.

So whatever distinctiveness we exhibit has to be located in the Person and Work of Jesus. Is it enough to claim that Jesus existed? No, not really, because the Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet, second only to the prophet Muhammad. They revere Jesus as a teacher and prophet.

No, we do not become distinctive until we speak of Jesus as the Son of God. To be able to say, with the Gospel of John, that he was with God, and he was God. That somehow, Jesus was more than just a man on earth with a great teaching for the world. John claims to us that Jesus, or the Word, was present at the creation of the universe, hovering over the waters as a mighty wind. As the Spirit. And that spirit came to earth in bodily form, as our Philippians passage last week said, emptying himself so as to take the form of a human being, and not just a human—but as an ordinary human. Not as a King, but as a member of a society that was occupied by a foreign power and did not hold citizenship in that oppressive society.
In short, it is the metaphysics of the matter that make it distinctive for us. It is the spooky bits, the unscientific bits. What makes us distinctive in the world of religions is the part that we can’t explain. You’ve got to admit, there is a sense that we could probably have come up with a more concrete bit of material with which to make our argument. This is what Paul means when he talks about the foolishness of the Gospel. He taught, he performed miracles, but we really don’t base our belief in his divinity on those. We can’t even necessarily claim that we are the only ones who have a founder who came to earth in order to guide people to the light—that’s what Buddha did, too.

No, for us, it is that belief in what Christians call the Trinity. That Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three experiences of one God, are indeed one person, present at the creation of the world, and yet involved in a very real way in the lives of ordinary, flesh and bone humans. One part submitted himself to a human death, and returned to life after a certain amount of time, like a starfish generates a new arm.

On world Communion Sunday, it is good to remember that what we believe about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is both what unites us across all denominations, traditions and locations around the world. Worship practices can change, and do. The way we do communion can be different. The way we baptize can be different. But that we hold Father Son and Holy Spirit to be God, three in one, not three Gods, and not one God with subordinate helpers, is what makes us unique.

So, as we take communion in a few minutes, I invite you to meditate, or pray, or think about the person who is the farthest from you in this world. Think of someone with darker skin, someone with different clothes, someone who speaks a different language. Think of someone who eats different food and does different work. And think about the fact that despite all of your differences, you and they hold in common the belief that the person we know as Jesus, who came to earth to show us God’s love and died demonstrating that love, was also with God, and in fact was God at the beginning of creation, and is with him now.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

They’ll Know.

Matthew 21: 28-46
Philippians 2: 1-13

When Jesus entered Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey, the first thing he did was cleanse the temple of the unethical moneychangers. Then, he curses the fig tree, and his authority is questioned by the Pharisees. There are also a large number of parables that Jesus teaches, and Matthew places our two stories today in that week in Jerusalem.

It’s important to know the context, because Jesus is in the midst of illustrating why God is so displeased with the way things are going religiously in Jerusalem. It’s a contrast—the Pharisees and the Scribes act that way, and in the Kingdom of God, the proper way to act is this way. These two stories are given to us by Jesus as part of that teaching.

Let’s talk about the first story. There are two sons. Their father asks both of them to go work in the vineyard. They both do the opposite of what they say. The first says no, but then goes, after he thinks about it. The second says yes, but never seems to get there. And he asks, which is the one who did what he was supposed to? The answer, of course, is the second.

This story answers the question of why those who are the outcast and the sinners of the world seemed to be getting preferential treatment from Jesus and his disciples. Many of us will say to God that we will do what he wants, but then we seem to get distracted with other things. The ones who do the will of God can even include those who outwardly reject God, but show his love through their actions anyway. They are closer to the kingdom than the first.

The second story is the story of the wicked tenants. There’s an absentee owner who leaves a vineyard in the management of some tenants. The tenants get an overdeveloped sense of ownership and kill the slaves the owner sends to collect the proceeds from the harvest. He sends more, they kill them, too. He sends his son, and they, not having the tightest grip on reality, kill him too, so they can inherit his wealth. Jesus asks what happens to them? The people respond that the tenants should be killed for misusing the owners land and killing his people, and his son. The tenants should then be replaced by new ones who understand their role, and seek the owners’ will.

This is actually a fascinating story for Jesus to be telling, because the tenants are the scribes and Pharisees, the slaves sent to “collect” are the prophets of God, and the son is Jesus himself. And the tenants kill everyone. They no longer, according to Jesus, deserve the right to manage the Kingdom of God, because they have taken their tenancy and grown it in their minds into ownership, and used the vineyard wrong.

There are lessons for us here, people who can be described, and indeed describe ourselves as workers in the vineyard. We claim that we are the people of God. We are his workers. How do we avoid the fate the the original tenants of the vineyard deserve? How do we keep from killing the ones sent by the owner?
If we accept that we are not the masters of our own fates, that when we became Christian we ceased to accept the illusion of power over our lives, then what is left for us is to seek the will of God, whom we at some point trusted, otherwise we wouldn’t be here this morning.

Here is what Jesus tells us—when we realize that we have gone against the will of God, we change direction. Even when we say no, we can turn around and say yes. From the parable of the workers in the vineyard, we know that we can do that at any point and we will receive the normal full daily wage. Grace is available to those who say no and then choose to go work.

We are merely tenants on someone else’s farm. We work for someone else. It’s best if we don’t abuse those who are sent to help us.

Paul says it better than I can—“be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
And here’s the kicker: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

In other words, imitate Christ.

Of course this doesn’t mean that you should grow a beard, wear a robe and sandals, and make the local government so mad that they want to crucify you.

Rather, this means that, no matter how you dress, or the length of your hair, you have it within you to act as Jesus would have acted. And we’re talking more than being nice. To borrow and slightly alter a phrase from CS Lewis, Jesus was not nice, but he was good.

It’s to act as if the person you meet is a child of God, and when disagreements happen, to act honorably and with integrity, acknowledging the humanity of the other person. Disagreements are not the same as attacks on a person’s character.

It’s deeper than WWJD. It’s more complex than a bumper sticker. It is seeking, as the Philippians passage continues, to empty ourselves, taking the form of a servant. It means humbling ourselves and becoming obedient. And sometimes, all the way to the danger of losing your life. Let’s be clear here—being a true Christian is not having a death wish. Most of us here will never be called into a situation where our lives are required of us. But to stand up for God and for his people, to stand between his people, the poor, the sick, the oppressed, to speak up to the powers of this world can sometimes put you into situations that are a little dicey.

When our integrity comes from God, and not ourselves, they’ll know we’re Christians by our love. When we act from thinking of ourselves merely as a servant of God and not out of some cultural notion of solitary self-reliance, they’ll know we are Christians by our love. When we have emptied ourselves, and act not out of ego or stubbornness but out of love of God and the need to serve Him, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

John Wayne

Matthew 20: 1-21
Phillipians 1: 21-26

John Wayne was once the greatest star in American Movies. He was one of the greatest action heroes, starring in western and war movies, and rarely if ever deviating into romance and comedies. He was a star along the lines of Bruce Willis or Chuck Norris, though Norris has never really broken into the movies. His reputation for toughness, however, does parallel John Wayne's. There really is no comparison, because so many actors now cross genres, and the western, John Wayne's bread and butter, has evolved beyond what it was when he was making them.

He died in 1979, and there are two things I remember about that. First, it came out that John Wayne was his acting name, or "stage" name, and his real name was Marion Morrison. I was 11, and it was the first time I'd ever heard of man named Marion. It seemed weird against his image of the tough guy.

Second, I remember that when he was baptized as was dying. The biography says he was a baptized Christian for about two days. Now, I was about 15 years from becoming a Christian, myself, so really didn't have a dog in that hunt, but it seemed to me to me to not be fair play, that someone could live whatever kind of life they wanted, and then just before they die, they can become a Christian and all of their sins are forgiven. That just didn’t seem fair.

Today's Matthew passage causes a lot of stress for a lot of people, because it says that deathbed baptisms are perfectly fine, because grace is freely given. God is the one who gives the wages for us all, and he has chosen to give not on merit, not based on a lifetime of good works kept a record of in a little book somewhere, but to everyone. And that doesn't seem fair to those who have lived good, stable, quiet lives. Here's an extreme example--How does someone who is at the church every time it is open, doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, doesn't cuss, gives to charity and to support the church, serves of committees and sings in the choir, get the same heavenly wage as the person who comes into the church only for weddings and funerals, cheats on their taxes, kicks dogs, wears fur, has overdue library books, never drives the speed limit and doesn’t wear a helmet when riding their custom glass-pack muffler Harley?

Well, it's not our concern, our responsibility. As Jesus ends his parable, the vineyard owner is allowed to do what he wants with what is his, and we are jealous because he is generous. God's grace is available to all, and our displeasure that as his people we must take his grace to places we aren't comfortable with, to people with whom we disagree, is irrelevant.
Paul writes in Philippians that he isn't sure whether he wants more to die and to be with Christ, or to stay on earth and make the message of the Good News available to the world. Personally, he'd love to go he says, but he knows that that may not be God's plan. He's come early to the vineyard, he's worked pretty hard, but he knows that he's got no say in how the wages are paid, and he also knows that it's his job to go get more workers all the time, because the owner wants them. Even the ones who come to the vineyard late are OK with him, because his work isn't judging by merit, or by the clock. His job is getting workers. The better he does this, the more he is working out God's plan. The judging bit is, to use a recent phrase from the presidential campaign, "above his pay grade". He takes enjoyment in being with the people he has led to Christ, hearing their stories of growth and trials along the Christian way, but deep in his heart of hearts, he tells us that He'd rather be in heaven, with Christ.

So, of course, the question is; "Why should we take showers, get dressed, and show up here, on Sunday mornings, sing songs and listen to some guy talk? Why can't I stay home, and watch Howie, Terry and Deion, and then when I am getting ready to die, have the pulpit guy come and baptize me? What is this need I have to be here? If it works for John Wayne, why can't it work for me?"

Well, frankly, Grace is such that you certainly can make that choice. But I would suggest that the reason why you are here, the reason why you come back, week after week, is to do more than satisfy guilt. There's something here that attracts you, that fills you up, way deep down inside, in a way that no 10 hours of football on TV can. I think it is that there is a camaraderie among vineyard workers. Paul felt it, which is why he was torn between dying with Christ and living and being fruitful for Christ. We gather to praise God, and to celebrate our living with him. We gather to thank god for the work that we have been called to do, to make God's grace available to others, and to get more people on the vineyard payroll. It's almost a recruiting tool; you don’t have to have gotten in at the beginning, but at the end you'll get the same wage I'll get. And you get to hang out with some pretty good people. People who aren't perfect, but have the need to get better.

It turns out that John Wayne wasn't new to Christianity--he was a member of some Catholic organizations for a long time before he died. His journey wasn't about baptism and new birth and growth. He probably would not have used the terms born again for that event. But his story is not one that highlights the unfairness of Jesus' teachings; a judgment of unfairness is something we generate, and we've got no right to do so. Instead, we celebrate that there is God that gives grace so freely that everyone has a chance. Everyone, no matter what the path is. The vineyard is always open, the payroll is always available.

Thanks be to God.