Monday, November 26, 2012

For Folks Who Don’t Get Kings

John 18: 33-37

Christ the King Sunday

This is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent starts. It’s located that way to remind us that, as Jesus is being born, in the most humble way imaginable; as a child of an unwed mother in a backwater town of the Roman Empire, not even a citizen of that Empire, but rather a native of an occupied country and people, he is still the King of the Universe. No matter how small, how pitiful, how out on the ragged edge this child gets, we know where he ends up.

We talk about mangers, we talk about shepherds, and censuses (censusi?), we talk about all the trappings of poverty and dislocation, but the story ends up with the baby being the savior of all humanity.

This is an easy enough concept if you live in medieval times, and I’m the only one in the room who can read, and the women are all on one side of the church, and all the men are on the other side, but we don’t live in medieval times. Families sit together, everyone can read, and the church is lit with electricity.

We live in a country that, 200 years ago, spent a lot of blood and treasure to NOT have a king. It’s instructive that, when I asked a child in the children’s sermon what a King does, he said he couldn’t remember. You’re never going to find a British kid who says that. You’re never going to find a Saudi kid who says that. We, as Americans, don’t really know what a king is for. For some of us, having a federal government and a President is bad enough. To have a king, who owns us and all of our talents, and gifts, and all of our output, down to the children we bear? That’s not going to happen. I don’t think any American would buy that, no matter what political persuasion.

So, what does it mean to have a King? So what does it mean for Jesus to be our king?

Can I suggest to you that perhaps the reason why we reject royalty, as Americans, is because we value our own decisions? We value the fact that we can rise and fall on our own talents? Our own choices? Yes, we make bad choices, yes, we make difficult decisions that affect the rest of our lives, but generally, it is our own choice. This makes us a little more noble; gives us a little more dignity. If we’re told what to do, or where to do it, or how fast to do it; if we’re told, like Pharaoh told the Israelites to makes the mud bricks without straw, knowing full well the bricks are inferior, we lose dignity. But if we don’t do it, we know we’ll be killed, so we do it, knowing full well it isn't our best work. This is why we don’t trust kings.

But when we say that Christ is our king, can I suggest that perhaps we can say this because Christ alone is trustworthy enough for us to give that assent to? He says “My Kingdom is not of this world”. The kingdom of Jesus Christ is the universe. It doesn't work like civil government does. It doesn't work like England, or Sweden, or the Sultan of Brunei. To act as if we are loyal subjects can be a spiritual discipline.

Imagine you are a medieval blacksmith. You sharpen plows, make horseshoes, and other maintenance. But in time of war, each of those projects are set aside, and you are compelled to make swords, build armor, and other weapons. In times of castle construction, you are required to make grates for windows, hallway torch racks, and such like. You are compelled because your kingdom requires it of you. You can sell some stuff, you can create some stuff, sure, but if the local royal needs something, your stuff is set aside. The trade off is already arranged-the local royal owns your house, your lands, and your materials. You eat food from fields the royal owns. You can’t hunt in the forest. Your work and all your output is not yours, but it is the royals’.

Now, because we were born in a country that has not had a system like this for 230 some-odd years, we’re all thinking in our heads, Nope, that’s not us!”
But can I suggest to you that this is exactly what we are called to do in the name of Christ? All that we have, and all that we are, are to be put into the service of the Kingdom of God?

That may not sound too palatable, given the picture that I just drew. It’s probably not a great tool for describing the positives of being a Christian. But if we are the people of God, that means we have pledged ourselves to serve God, and we have salvation.

In fact, here’s a difference; in an earthly kingdom, we receive the protection of the local royal in exchange for the service we provide, though with extreme coercion. In Christ, we offer our gifts and talents in service to God in gratitude for the salvation we have already received, and are assured of.

All that we have, and all that we are, will not be used to make war with anyone. Instead, it will all be used to share that message of grace with everyone.

Say you have a job as an accountant. There are two ways to do the job; one is to do the work shoddily, and never check your work, and to not care when mistakes are made. The other is to be conscientious, to check your work, and do everything you can to give the best, fairest, and most honest tax return you can. Which way gives glory to God? Which way is a testament? This is true about homework, about care giving, about fighting fires, about any output we generate, down to the cake we bake, or the turkey we smoke.

For us, the good way not only gives testament to the love of God, it also marks us as loyal subjects of a kingdom. The subjects of a king who is the ONLY one we will ever serve. It’s a good thing to know that this person we have pledged our loyalty to is the only perfect person. And when we serve this one being, the output is always love.

Isn't that a fair trade? Only love, only grace, only forgiveness, only peace. That’s a pretty good king. And we’re loyal subjects when that is what we spread in the name of the kingdom.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Stone Unstacked Upon Stone

Mark 13: 1-8, 1 Samuel 2:1-10

These passages sail the shores of emotion this morning. The song of Hannah is a prayer of thankfulness for the lifting of what in those days was the curse of barrenness by a woman who has had a child, and that child having being dedicated into the service of God.

Contrast that with the worry and the concern with the end of the world, which is coming, in the context of Jesus saying that there will soon be a time when the temple will be destroyed, and not one stone will be left upon another. This is the scariest thought possible for the Jews of that day.

It’s hard to read the Bible sometimes, when here is such a spread of emotion. We read the Joy of the song of Hannah, and we think of people who have not had that joy; who have gone through months, maybe years of in vitro fertilization, spending thousands of dollars; who have gone through years of trying, and perhaps have even been stonewalled while trying for adoption.

We read that song, and then we read immediately after this the Mark passage, which talks about destruction and fire and the end of the world, and the cornerstone of the Jewish identity at that time being destroyed, and we find ourselves more familiar with the Mark passage. Perhaps it is hard to think about, but effectively, the end of the world is more comfortable to think about than the joy of a new mother.

We have all had loss in our lives. Somehow, somewhere, there are people we have lost. Parents, spouses, children, aunts, uncles, grandparents, grandchildren, and we can’t also ignore that some of us may have lost friends that were closer to us than any family member.

Frankly, it’s easier to get our heads around stories of loss in scripture than stories of Joy. We distrust joy, don’t we?

We live in an area of the country that has not had a positive economic forecast for 60 years. The Knox Mine disaster happened, and the economy craters. Then comes Hurricane Agnes, and the crater gets deeper. This area has never recovered completely. There are efforts, and they do work partially, but don’t you find yourself expecting wonderful economic efforts, civic improvements; don’t you expect them to fail at some level in your mind? It’s easier to hear bad news; we’re more used to it here.

But let me tell you a story about this. Outside of the narratives we have in the gospels, and Acts, the story continues. Yes, in AD 70, the temple was destroyed. Stone was indeed unstacked from stone, and there was fire and broken walls. When you see people today lined up in Jerusalem against what’s called the Western Wall, praying and putting pieces of paper into the chinks on the walls, that wall isn’t even a wall of the temple. It was the retaining wall that enclosed the temple. The temple was destroyed so utterly, that the best remnant we have is just the enclosure, not even the temple itself!

And with the loss of the temple, the idea of how to be a Jew ceased to be possible in the old way. Many, many people lost their faith because they lost their practice. No more temple sacrifices, no more priests.

But oddly enough, there were already synagogues and rabbis present, and in the absence of the sacrificial ritual, the religion shifted to knowledge of Torah, and Judaism rebuilt itself fundamentally. In that complete redesign of how to be a Jew, new joys were created, new moments were sanctified, and God was shown to still be with the people. Even after something that cataclysmic, God was still present.
Imagine the collective state of mind after the towers fell on 9/11. How shocked we were, how angry we were, what our thoughts of doubt were. Now add to that the component of something like that being the ONLY religious outlet for a whole religion, the focus of all faith, being destroyed like that.

But the faith did not die. It changed, it metamorphosed, it grew. There were other dangers in the history to come. We can talk about Pogroms, we can talk about the Klan, we can talk about the Holocaust.

But there is still joy expressed in the faith. The Song of Hannah is still sung by those who feel joy in God. So it is with them, so it is with us.

Yes we have all lost friends, we have all lost family. But the sun does rise the next morning. There are new joys. Life changes, but it continues. There is always a new joy to look forward to. Perhaps the prospect of grandchildren. Perhaps success in a job you don’t even hold yet. Perhaps friends you don’t yet know that will hold your heart in their hands, and will bless you.

They are always coming. We are always becoming.

Sometimes, the anticipation of the worst thing that has ever happened to you is worse than the actual event. We don’t always know it’s coming. Car accidents, heart attacks, are always sudden traumas. But if we have sat with loved ones in their illnesses, and watched them decline, the actual event of their deaths is sometimes less a blow than a relief. We’ve thought about it, we’ve stayed up nights worried about it, we have seen lawyers and funeral directors to prepare for it, and that is usually worse than the actual passing.

Sudden or lingering death, a divorce, a job loss, all of these are traumatic. They are all major changes to our internal narrative, the story we tell ourselves about how the world is going to go.

But we know from our faith and this book that there are joys ahead of us. Our faith tells us that the end of the road is joy, no matter how much pain there is in the meantime. In the end, Revelation tells us, we don’t go to heaven; heaven, the new Jerusalem, comes to us!

There is always tomorrow. The sun always comes up, and god is always with us. Even when we can’t see God, even when we don’t want to see God, God is still with us and understands us.

After all, God lost a child, too.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Crack in the Windshield

Mark 12:38-44

There’s a story I read this week about a little boy who had not been buying his milk at school. The father, who found this out eventually, was concerned about bullies, or more, that the boy was squirreling away the money for candy or video games or something. So he confronted the boy about keeping secrets, and sent the boy to his room.

The boy’s teacher called the next day and told the father that she wasn’t sure if he knew, but that his son had been, all week, dropping his milk money in the collection box the school had set up for Hurricane Sandy relief.

We live in a world, and in a time, where it is a good thing to be known for the gifts that you give. Twice a week, while I am at The University of Scranton for school, I go buy coffee and a snack from the DeNaples Student Center. Last week, I went to see a famous comedian at the F.W. Kirby theatre in Wilkes Barre. Some of us will go see Mannheim Steamroller or a Penguins game at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

I’m not so sure that’s a bad idea. It’s good to be known for something. It’s good that we know that Bill and Melinda Gates have given two BILLION or so dollars for poverty relief in Africa. There is no way that we, in this congregation, even if we sold the church building, all of our cars, all of houses, liquidates every last asset and emptied out the kids’ piggy banks, there is now way we could even come within miles of two billion dollars. So for the folks who can, they should, and if they want to honor someone with the gift, like Ross Perot did with his friend Morton H. Myerson in Dallas when they build the new symphony hall there, so be it! It’s fine.

But under no circumstances should we think we can do it all ourselves. Not even Bill and Melinda, for all that money, have made a major dent in poverty in Africa. Two billion dollars is just a rock chip in the windshield of the car that is African poverty. Not even the United Methodist Church has helped to completely eradicate malaria. We’ve contributed to halving new cases of the disease through the Nothing but Nets program, yes, but it isn’t completely gone.

To support a congregation takes the congregation. To support a fire company takes the whole fire company. It is a sign of participation.

And, yes, while that widow has given what she could, the rich folk bring in their large sums, and make their big shows, in this story, what is in common between them is Jesus’ lesson. It’s not about supporting institutions; money spends like money, whether it’s sacrificial giving or a tax write off.

To me, why Jesus points out the woman to the disciples, is that she gives all. She gives her last copper coins. She is serving God out of a perception of abundance, not of scarcity. There are times, in our lives, when we can afford to great and generous spirits. Say your child has left the house; they’ve gone to college or to their own place, and while your disposable income has increased, it is also true that your available time has increased. Say you add to that mix that you have retired. Disposable income, and time on your hands. It is no surprise then, that many people choose this time in their lives that people do mission trips-most of the trips I’ve been on have been populated by people of late middle age, with time and discretionary income. When you get the chance, you will support the things that important to you.

We are called, as followers of Christ, to give. In the United Methodist Church, we try to think in terms of Prayers, Presence, Gifts, Service, and Mission.

Serve the church, lift up your church with your prayers.

Give to the church with your presence. Be present. Be active.

Gifts: this can be your talents, yes, but it can also be the things that you are involved in, like donating Avon to a homeless shelter, or making a basket of spa items for a silent auction. We all have many gifts.

Service: when the church needs help, as an organization, to serve on a committee, this is what they mean. When a friend calls and says she needs help cooking lasagna for the mission down the street, this is what is meant by service; service to Christ, in Christ’s name.

Mission: What is our mission? To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. To show God’s love to a world that is eternally in need of it. To invite them to experience God’s love.

Everybody always wants to make the “Widows’ Mite” scripture one about pledging financial support to the church. It falls at the right time every third year, right about when churches (the ones that do such a thing, anyway) program their stewardship campaigns. But Jesus sees more in the woman than just a poor widow dropping her last bits into the donation box. He sees a generosity of spirit, he sees a spirit of abundance, and he wants the disciples to take note.

This is our lesson. We have nothing to be afraid of. Some people have lost power since the storms last week, there are a few that have not yet gotten it back. But it is a matter of days or weeks, and then we will quickly take it for granted then. Some had their food-and-housing secure lives interrupted for a while, but the status quo for them is that they are secure in where they live, they do know where their next meal is coming from. We DO live in a world of unimaginable abundance. We don’t have to imagine, more than we can even think of is right here.

We have been blessed. And because of whom we have been blessed by, because we have everything we need and more, that “More” is to be used for others who are in need. Whatever we define as more; financial, material, spiritual; however we are led by the spirit, we should keep in mind that that excess, that surplus, is meant for the world. It can be something as simple as energy. As complex as managing a portfolio or providing psychological counseling in a free clinic on our free days; and yes, it can be money, too.

But because we have been given our lives, because we have been given reassurance that when we are gone from this earth, that is not the end. The things of this earth are given to us to support ourselves and others.

This should be our whole spirit, not just our checkbooks. The widow, according to Jesus, understood this, and was able to give all: Prayers, Presence, Gifts, Service, and Mission.

What are your gifts, and where will you direct them?

Thursday, November 08, 2012

I would like to extend an apology for the interruption in regular postings here on FryerDrew. I was without a home computer for a couple weeks, and so I am a little behind. The sermons for October 21 and 28 will be posted soon, but I wanted to post my most recent sermon first. Sorry for any inconvenience!

Grand Hotel

Preached November 4, 2012, in the Dunmore/Throop charge

Revelation 21: 1-6a

We really don’t know what happens after we die. We know that we feel some things in this life, and death sometimes alleviates pain, and suffering. We don’t know what happens next. We have some ideas, there have been people over the years who have written books about what happens next. Going into the light, coming back from the light…We just don’t really know, and we don’t like to feel sad, and we don’t like going to a funeral, and seeing the family, and not knowing what to say.
And if you’ve ever been on the other side of that; if your spouse has died, or a parent, or a sibling, or a child, and you’re the one receiving the line. It’s brutal. You have to open yourself up enough to accept the grace and well wishes of many, many people all in a row, and endure some really boneheaded statements because they mean well.

I remember that when some people would try to comfort me, they would say some things that would make me very angry, angry enough t want to lash out. “Well, God just needed another angel in heaven”. “Well, her spirit had learned all it needed to, and it has gone back home.”

Yeah. I’ll be honest. I wanted to swing at someone. God didn’t need another angel more than my son needs his mother. Her spirit wouldn’t have quit midstream just because it was done.

At the same time, they were doing their best to say something of comfort in a terrible situation. I knew that, too.

What I believe is that in most cases, God does not call people home. What I believe is that God accepts them freely when they arrive, but there is no grand calendar by which we live and die according to a schedule. My God is a comforting God, an accepting god. My God is not a God that causes death, or pain, or cancer, or car accidents, or heart attacks or aneurysms. These are just our bodies at work. And God IS ALWAYS ready to accept us home when we arrive, though God is sometimes surprised to see us there.

The 14th chapter of John speaks of this, where Jesus says “where I go, I go to prepare a place for you; in my fathers house are many dwelling places…” Like the Grand Hotel on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, with great green lawns. And Jesus says, “I’m going to prepare a place for you.”

We as Christians, we do not believe that death is an end. We believe that death is a change, and a positive change. Everything that we receive from God and Scripture and tradition tells is that when we die, we return to God. This is not the final place. This is not even the best place. Where we’re going next is better. Where we’re going next is to be with God.

Now, another thing: when we talk about death, and All Saints, we talk about heaven, we have to be honest and also talk about hell.

When we read our funeral liturgy, what you hear in the service passes only very lightly over hell, though you will hear it mentioned. What you gather from that is that hell is never a permanent place; and I think this is Christian orthodoxy. I think this is right. This is just not what Jesus is about.

But we have to deal with it in our culture, because there is so much popular or folk Christianity out there that says, “bad people go to hell”, and “good people go to heaven.” And some people get it so twisted up in their minds that they end up not being sure where they will end up. Some say “all non Christians are going to hell”, and “All Christians who didn’t do what they were supposed to” are going to hell. Well, maybe so. But I don’t think so.

One of my friends is a pastor who once had to deal with the idea that had taken hold of a congregation that said that people who die in suicide all go to hell. Then someone in her congregation did so, and she had to deal with the dismissive-ness and anguish with the people who now believed that their friend has kissed her guarantee to heaven goodbye in one irrational act.

Northing in scripture supports this. If someone commits suicide, they are in a huge amount of pain, and they make an irrational snap decision. It’s different when someone is suffering from a terminal illness, the treatment may be worse than the disease itself, and all treatments give you a half life measured in months. That’s not suicide in the sense that this colleague was dealing with. There is nothing in scripture that deals with this, so there is nothing that permits us to go against the loving spirit of God in saying that that person has sent themselves to hell, permanently.

Hell might be there, for all we know, but right in the beginning of our funeral liturgy we say that “Jesus holds the keys of hell and death.” What that means is that whomever might be sent to hell, they are not there permanently. The power of the redemption of Jesus is such that he can open the gates and redeem everyone inside, as well!

This is what we believe. Our God, our Jesus, is more powerful than hell. Our God, our Jesus, is more powerful than death; we know this because of the resurrection of Jesus by God at Easter.

There’s a church tradition (I’m not sure how Scriptural it is, I know it more from the original Apostles’ creed, but I like it) that in those three days between Good Friday and Easter, between death and resurrection, Jesus also went to hell, and he had keys made for the gates, so to speak. Because he’s coming back, he’s unlocking those gates on that day, end everyone inside is coming home, Olly Olly Oxen Free.

Even the father who beat your mom when he was drunk and you were a kid. Even the mother who abandoned you. Even Hitler. They will all be redeemed, they will all be changed, they will all be brought back into God.

All of our relatives are part of being in God after we die. These people will join them at the right time, and Jerusalem will descend from heaven, as a symbol of God coming to be with us. There will be one place, and we will all be with them.
This is what we understand heaven to be. Because of the love of God, in Christ, we can be assured that we will end up here, too when it is our time to die. Deny that idea all you want, ignore it, push it away; but we will all die. It is inevitable. But take comfort and reassurance that the next stop, the destination, is a better place, and we will all be with God. We will all be reunited with those whom we love; we will all be reconciled to those whom we hate, and we will all be in one place, together.

Where we’re going is not scary. Where we’re going is love. Where we’re going is home.