Getting Ready for What’s Coming

Sermon on Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44, for the First Sunday of Advent Year A, December 01, 2013

Isaiah 2:1-5

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s horse
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,

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“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Matthew 24:36-44

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

Getting Ready for What’s Coming

What’s coming next?  We were just with our son Ben over Thanksgiving who announced that a material called graphene is coming soon, and he said, “It will change everything.”

Graphene is a material related to graphite, as in the lead in a pencil.  It is exactly one atom thick, so it is transparent.  It is flexible, it conducts electricity 200 times faster than silicone, and is so strong, “it would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of Saran Wrap,” according to scientists at Columbia University.

Maybe graphene will, as they predict, make solar energy super efficient, creating an energy revolution.  But who knows what’s coming?  Maybe future bad guys will find ways to use this amazing material to do new kinds of evil in the world.  We will have to wait and see.

What else is coming next?  What is coming for our nation? our church?  our families, our own health?  The most obvious truth is that none us knows the future.  So what are we to do?

Texts of Future UncertaintyScreen Shot 2013-11-29 at 9.10.42 PM

These texts we read on this first Sunday of Advent speak powerfully to us about getting ready for what’s coming in the future.  We need their message, I believe, with all of the uncertainty around us, now more than ever.

Both of these texts, Isaiah and Matthew, are about what to do while waiting.  Isaiah says,  “in the days to come…”  but the days have not come yet.  Jesus spoke of a coming event that would happen on a certain day and at a particular hour – sometime in the future.  Waiting for some future event is exactly what the season of Advent is about: a period of intentional waiting for the coming of Christmas.

We all know Christmas is coming as the calendar advances inexorably towards December 25th, but what will come on that day?   We can’t even predict the weather with certainty this far ahead, let alone know what will be happening in the world by then.

Maybe China will try to enforce their sovereign air space over those islands that Japan claims and start shooting down planes.  Maybe Israel will do something about Iran’s nuclear capabilities out of frustration with our diplomatic efforts and start a regional war?  Christmas will come, but who can predict what will come with it?

This is exactly what these two Advent texts present us with: a time of waiting that has aspects of predictability and aspects of uncertainty.

Isaiah’s Future Vision

Isaiah’s vision is hopeful and positive.Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 9.21.22 PM

The predictable part will be a future of peace and security on a worldwide scale.  The nations will come to Zion to learn Torah, God’s instruction.  The result will be peace between them.

“… they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;

But these hopeful words are spoken only after the prophet’s strong words of condemnation.  The words about a peaceful future in chapter two of Isaiah follow the harsh words of chapter one.  The prophet has looked around and concluded that the nation is like a sick person, oozing from sores from the sole of the foot to the scalp of the head.

The signs of their sickness are all around.  According to Isaiah they have embraced violence as a means – they have blood on their hands, he says.  They have left the widow, the orphan and the non-citizen without protection; an indictment of a depraved society.  They have conducted a show of worship in form only, without integrity.  And so, Isaiah concludes, destruction is coming.

So is this the counsel of despair?  How does a far off promise of peace serve a people who face disaster in the mean time?

Walk in the Light of the LordScreen Shot 2013-11-29 at 9.36.30 PM

Isaiah’s answer is this:

“O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the Lord!”

The people of God wait for God’s hopeful future in the midst of difficult and uncertain times by their steadfast commitment to continue walking in  the light of the Lord.

This phrase, “walking in the light of God” practically became the theme song of the people of South Africa as they suffered under the oppressive weight of apartheid.  They would sing, “We are walking in the light of God, we are walking in the light of God.”  Many of them were beaten.  Many were imprisoned.  Some were killed.  But they knew they were on the side of justice and that the God of justice was with them.

People of Gulf Shores, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.  Not because it’s easy.  Not because there is no struggle.  Certainly not because we can predict how Christmas will arrive this year, or next.

But we know how to wait in times of uncertainty.  We know what it means to keep waking in the light of the Lord!  It means we keep working and living towards that hopeful vision of peace.  We keep learning Torah, we keep listening to the instruction that comes from Mt. Zion.  We keep walking in the light of the Lord!

Jesus and the Uncertain Future

Uncertainty about the future is baked into the cake for us as Christians.  Jesus himself said,

“about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

It’s almost comic to hear the folks who, in spite of Jesus’ words, think they can predict the future.  We do not know what or when, any more than they did in the story of the people of Noah’s day.  The party was on, eating and drinking and marrying as normal.  But, as the story goes, ready or not, suddenly the rains did fall.

So we too are in the dark.  The thief does not announce his presence.  But something tells you he is on the prowl; he’s in the neighborhood.

So what are we to do with such uncertainty?  Jesus says, say awake.  If it’s like a thief in the night, then don’t go to bed.  Stay alert.

Alertness to the Present

Alertness for believers is about being present in the moment.  We don’t live in the idealized past, and we don’t spend our waking moments caught up in anxiety and fear about the unknowable future.  We live in the present.  We live in the moment.  We are awake to the world as it is and to our place in the world.

This is the way Jesus taught us to live, not as “the Gentiles” who run around  frantically worrying, “what should we eat, …what should we wear?”  Rather, Jesus teaches us to live as though we know that we have a Heavenly Father who, in this present moment, knows what we need, and that we are in his hands.

He’s got the whole world in his hands” as the spiritual reminds us, so that today, even with the threat of an approaching thief in the night, we can keep “walking in the light of the Lord.”

Dealing with our Defaults

Living in this way, awake to God’s presence, alert to God’s care is not our default position.  Worry and anxiety is our auto-pilot setting.  That’s why it is not enough simply to hear a little sermon every once in a while about it.  We are far too weak for that to work.  We have too many habits of mind that imagine catastrophes and calamities around every dark corner.

So how do we become people who are alert and alive to the presence of God, while living in the context of uncertainty?  How do we find the inner strength to keep walking in the light of God, seeking justice for the widows, orphans and non-citizens of our society in the glare of Christmas consumerism and the blare of the fear-mongering cable news networks?

Silent WaitingScreen Shot 2013-11-29 at 9.48.57 PM

Our Christian tradition used to be filled with people who practiced the daily habit of silent waiting on the Lord.  Following Jesus and the whole Jewish tradition that understood that waiting on the Lord required silence, Christians knew that periods of daily silence were essential.

One of these was the anonymous author of a spiritual classic from the 14th century called the Cloud of Unknowing.  Written in Middle English, this guide to contemplative prayer says,

“Speak to your mind, ‘Thoughts, you cannot contain God. You have limited skill and you offer no assistance. Be silent!’ Ignore the activity of your mind…”

For lots of reasons, none of them good, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century favored words over silence.  Theology and rationality seemed more important than silence in those contentious days.

But happily for us, many Presbyterian and Reformed communities, as well as Catholic, Episcopal and many others have re-discovered silent, contemplative prayer again in our days.  We have even been encouraged in this new discovery by neuroscientists who tell us that these ancient practices are actually hugely helpful to our brains, our emotions, and our bodies.

Advent Challenge

On this first Sunday in the new church year, at the beginning of a new Advent, I want to offer all of us a challenge.  If it is not already your custom, then decide to begin the practice  of contemplative prayer.  Set aside time every day.  Maybe you need to start small, five or ten minutes of silence may seem a lot at first.  But practice will help.

Make it your goal to pray silently for twenty minutes a day.  Get a timer, find a place to be undisturbed and a time that works for you.  Use a special word to anchor your thoughts in the present moment. Select a word from your scripture reading, or a word that suggests to you the gracious presence of God.  Return to that word each time your wandering mind goes away, and gently bring it back.

By this practice, we will be able to wait faithfully.  What is coming next?  We do not know; we cannot know; the people of God have never known the details.  But we do know that God is working.  The days are coming, said Isaiah, the Son of Man is coming, said Jesus.  God has got the whole world in his hand.

So even when it looks dark and uncertain, we can keep walking in the light of the Lord by staying awake to the present moment – which, after all, is the only moment we ever have to live.  And by the lessons we receive in silence, we will have faith to trust God with our uncertain lives, day by day, and we will have courage to reach out to the widows, orphans, and non-citizens who need us to keep walking in the light of the Lord on their behalf.

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Appearances to the Contrary

Sermon for Reign of Christ/Christ the King C,  Nov. 24, 2013, on Col. 1:11-20 & Luke 23:33-43

Colossians 1:11-20

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 9.25.50 PM

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Luke 23:33-43

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

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It has been often observed that people who are dying often seem to have a goal, whether conscious or not, (who’s to say?) to survive until the next holiday or until the new year.  And often they do.  Which means that holidays and the anniversary of the death of a loved one come together.  It makes it emotionally complicated for the surviving family members.

We experienced a similar complication for several years, as Michelle’s mother’s birthday fell on 9/11.

I’m sorry to say that the church itself is responsible for some emotional complication of the calendar too.  Here we are, about to celebrate Thanksgiving, our American harvest festival, as we come to the end of the church year, celebrating the reign of Christ as King.

The Gospel text we go to that proclaims Christ as king seems to throw us into Holy Week with Jesus on the cross which bears the inscription, “King of the Jews.”  Seven days later, a whole new church year begins, and we start the season of Advent, looking forward to the birth of baby Jesus.

And, to top it off, this is our Stewardship Dedication Sunday!

The Right Time to Celebrate/Assert

But as complicated as it is, I’m here to say that we need this Sunday at this moment now more than ever.   Today, at this very moment, we could do nothing better than to celebrate Christ as King.

To celebrate is to assert.  We are here today to assert in the strongest possible terms, that appearances to the contrary, Christ is King.  We are blessed to be citizens of Christ’s Kingdom.

But this complication is deeper than the calendar.  For people of faith, we are constantly living in the tension created by the reality we see all around us, on the one hand, and the assertion, the faith that Christ is King, reigning now, on the other.

How does it feel in your life?  Complicated, I know.  Some of you are going through difficult times.  Some are struggling with chronic medical conditions, some with lasting grief.  Some have quite complicated and painful family relationships.  Some have money problems, or at least are living in fear and uncertainty about the economic future.

All of us here have a deep concern for the life and health of our own church.  Stewardship season and the church budgeting process only highlight the difficulty we are facing.

We live with these concrete painful realities, and yet draw our sense of hope from knowing that appearances to the contrary, we are people of faith that Christ is King.Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 9.19.10 PM

Our Alternative Coronation Story

Our texts today are just right for us, and the timing is perfect for the situation we all find ourselves in these days.

We do not live in a monarchy, but we have seen films that show coronations.  They are elegant affairs, full of pomp and circumstance, dignity and solemnity.  Rich fabrics and textures; gold and jewels.

Our story of Christ as King that we read from the gospel today could not be more opposite.  Ours is the story of a convicted criminal on a Roman cross, suffering a humiliating, agonizing death.  Nothing about it is regal, dignified or pretty.

And this is precisely our hope.  That God’s kingdom is not about power and control.  It is not about status and wealth, it is about God, coming to humanity as a human, living among us, experiencing life as we know it, in all its complications and pain, and even dying death as we all will do.

It is an admittedly hard-to-understand story.  Kings are supposed to win, not suffer and die.  A Messiah is supposed to ride to his enthronement ceremony on white war horse after winning the battle, not bleed to death between criminals on a cross.

That’s why one of them mocked him, saying,Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 9.35.09 PM

“Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

But saving us is exactly what he was doing there.

Father” he said, “forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.

We were in darkness; how could we know what we were doing that day?

This is what the epistle text celebrates on Christ the King Sunday: an end to the darkness:

“He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Col. 1:13)

The darkness of these days is great indeed, and so we are here to assert that we are no longer in the dark.  We are guided by lights that shine from the King who went to his death forgiving us, redeeming us from the tragedy of the human condition, the  nihilism that comes from the belief that evil has the last word, that this is all  there is, and that we are alone.

Our Assertions

What do we assert on Christ the King Sunday?  That appearances to the contrary, the God who came to earth to be one of us to the point of death, also rose to reign as king.  This is His kingdom.  In the face of appearances to the contrary, we assert his reign.Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 9.25.50 PM

So what do we assert in practical terms, in Christ’s Kingdom?

In the face of the dysfunction and gridlock in Washington, we assert that we give allegiance to a higher power than the American political system.  Christ is King for us; our ultimate and primary allegiance is to him.

In the face of an exponentially growing gap between haves and have-nots in our society, we assert that this kingdom is for all people on an equal basis; no exceptions.  No amount of Citizens United PAC money can corrupt the policies of this kingdom.  No gerrymandered districts keep him from getting elected.  No ideology keeps him from considering the needs of the common good of real human beings.

In a values climate that makes the market into a god that supposedly gets the last word, we assert that Christ is King over Wall Street, K-Street, and every Main Street in America.  The market may not care if you are poor, or unemployed, or disabled or sick, or simply unable to find adequate employment, and the market may not notice if you cannot pay your mortgage nor care what the Title Loan Sharks are doing to drive you into permanent poverty, but the Kingdom of which Christ is King cares, and so do all of those who name Christ as King.

In a world were the only environmental question that matters seems to be, “Is there money to be made from it?” – from “fracking” to putting pipelines across vital watersheds, like they want to do near the drinking water supply in Mobile, we assert that money is not the only or ultimate value in Christ’s Kingdom.

In a world that values financial gain so highly that millions of people are in slavery right now, and many more are working poor, we assert the precious value of every  human life.

Naming the darkness

I am so thankful that we are not in the dark about ultimate meaning.  Why are we here on this earth?  What is the meaning of our lives?  What is our purpose?  The lights are on for us.Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 9.28.19 PM

It is a great darkness to believe that life is about acquiring and possessing.

It is a sad darkness to think that life is about oneself or ones family exclusively.

It is a tragic darkness to think that life is ultimately competition for honor and recognition.

We are not in the dark about the fact that no amount of wealth, power or prestige means anything at all in the long run.

God put us here to love and be loved.  Our purpose is to know God, to know God’s love and total embrace of us, despite our sinfulness, and from that point of grace and forgiveness that our King pronounced on the cross, and from the joy that  that brings, to reach out in love as much as we can.

Whether our lives are long or short, we are not here for ourselves nor are we here by ourselves.  We are in God’s world, God’s good flesh and blood, rocks and stones, air and water world, and in the kingdom of God, where Christ is King.

We have a King who knows our hearts, knows our struggles, understands our fears and has experienced pain.  In fact our King is our shepherd who walks with us through every painful and fearful moment, never abandoning us to the darkness all around.

Perfect TimingScreen Shot 2013-11-22 at 9.31.26 PM

This is why this is a perfect Sunday to dedicate our Stewardship responses for the coming year.  We assert that God who calls us to be faithful with the stewardship of our blessings will be faithful in return.  We assert that God in fact blesses generosity, whether the politicians, pundits, or economists know that or not.

We assert that God will provide for the needs of this church, and will bless everyone of those of us to are faithful.  This congregation, founded on the faithfulness of those who came before us will come through these days because we have not lost faith in the God who has redeemed us.

We will walk into even the dark moments and places of this world, as citizens of the Kingdom of Light in which we know redemption, the forgiveness of sins, and we will bear that light into the darkness all around us, in ministries of justice and compassion, as the grateful citizens of Christ’s kingdom.

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The One in Whom We Trust

Matt 6:24-34, Pentecost +26, November 17, 2013

Matt 6:24-34

6:24   “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
25   “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,  29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’  32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34   “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

The One in Whom We TrustScreen Shot 2013-11-16 at 2.51.47 PM

The pictures I have seen of the devastation caused by the typhoon that hit the Philippines last week made me think of war damage I saw in Croatia.  We pray for those people who have suffered such great loss, and who are still suffering now.

I went through a really hard time in Croatia.  Things had gone along pretty well for a while, given the difficult circumstances we found when we arrived.  We went there in 1994, during the long ceasefire that eventually became the permanent peace, but there were yet no guarantees that war would not break out again.

When we arrived there were still sandbags covering basement windows and thick wooden planks leaning against buildings in a pathetic attempt to shield the doorways – though everybody already knew by then that wood does not stop flying shrapnel.  The masonry buildings and even the paved roads everywhere were deeply pocked with shrapnel scars.

The seminary where we taught had been in exile during the fighting, but we arrived just as the teachers and students returned to the dorms and classrooms, praying that the ceasefire would hold.

The Early YearsScreen Shot 2013-11-16 at 2.57.03 PM

We had the joy of teaching bright, eager students from countries around the region, Serbs, Croats,  Bosnians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, and many others.  They lived, ate, studied and worshipped together in Christian unity, despite the demonic nationalisms that so many people, in some of their countries back home were caught up in, and in some places, even killing each other over.

Those were good years for us, at least in terms of rebuilding and hope.  We even launched a Masters program which eventually grew into an internationally accredited degree.

During those early years many of the Reformed congregations were scattered.  People were living as refugees in Hungary and other places abroad.   People had lost their homes, many of the farm fields had been sown with land-mines.  Animals and farm equipment had been plundered.  People lived off of humanitarian aid.  Presbyterian Disaster Assistance was quite active along with many other organizations.  As I said, it looked a lot like the Philippines in many ways.

In those days, I reflected about the way no one gets to choose the moment of history we are born into.  We didn’t choose to be born into a world of Balkan wars any more than the Great Generation chose the Second World War years.  But we are given a time on earth, like a shift of guard duty, to play whatever part we can.  I wanted to try to make sure that on our watch, we could help keep the pastors working and assist the congregations as they returned.

We did not know it then, but a lot of the hope and good feelings about rebuilding was going to be scuttled.  It is not inevitable that things will go well.  What has been built, can be torn down.  What has been achieved may be lost.

One of our early masters students was a promising young man, full of energy and drive.  We had high hopes for him as he began. But, to make a long story short, he did great and lasting damage.  Because of him, a church that had remained unified since the Reformation of the Sixteenth century was split apart.  Unity was lost.  Other divisions quickly  followed.  What had been built up by many generations was lost.Screen Shot 2013-11-16 at 2.59.40 PM

The Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard famously wrote that “purity of heart is to will one thing.”  The man who did such damage to the church in Croatia had a deeply divided heart, I believe.  I think he wanted power, prestige, and prosperity.  And he used the ugliest form of nationalism, us-against-them tactics to achieve it.

Jesus on a Heart Divided

The text we read from Matthew is about purity of heart.  It is about the impossibility of willing more than one thing – serving two masters, seeking both  mammon and the God of the kingdom.  In the end, mammon wins a split decision.  God is not God if a supplement is needed.

A heart of divided loyalties is an anxious one.  Jesus characterized it as the lifestyle of the Gentiles who do not understand that there is a loving heavenly Father who cares for them.  They have to run around in desperate worry about the cost of food and clothing because they feel vulnerable and unprotected.  The description sounds like it fits our times, doesn’t it?

But Jesus teaches us to know God as our loving Father.  Through Jesus we know that the God who created good eco-systems for birds of the air and grasses of the field will meet our needs.  We can relax and trust without fear, without a divided heart.

As Jesus asks,

Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

We affirm, yes it is.  It is about living on our watch in this world knowing that we are living in God’s kingdom, God’s realm, under God’s reign.

The God we Know Through JesusScreen Shot 2013-11-16 at 3.00.58 PM

During this season of Thanksgiving when we are focusing on our reasons for gratitude, I have been letting my mind wander down the path of imagining what would be lost if I did not have the privilege of knowing God as Jesus shows us the Father.

Not everybody knows God this way today.  The more I read about the perspectives of the millennial generation who are notoriously absent from churches, the more I am filled with a sense of urgent mission.  I want to get the word out that the God that many of them have rejected is not the God we know through Jesus.

Many millennials have rejected an angry God of exclusion and judgmentalism – and to be fair to them, this is the picture of God painted by a lot of angry and judgmental Christians who they see in the media, speaking as if for all Christians.  I am so thankful that I know that that ugly image is an inaccurate and untrue  distortion.   I long to help people to the joyful knowledge that the real God is the one Jesus showed us.

The Church Jesus Gave us

Of course this is not just a theoretical fact.  We are part of the body of Christ, the church, not just mystically, but practically, part of this local church.  Built up by the faith and faithfulness of the people who have worshipped and served here, this church stands as a testimony to the God who watches over us.  We do not have a history nearly as long as the churches of Croatia, but we do have a past to be thankful for.

We are deeply thankful for knowing God through Jesus, and we are also thankful for the practical ways we have come to know of God’s love and care personally right here in this congregation.Screen Shot 2013-11-16 at 3.07.11 PM

As we consider reasons for gratitude, it is worthwhile to consider what would we miss if we did not have this congregation.  Think of all the people who have been a part of us who have gone on  before us.  Think of the love that has been shared – not only in happy times like suppers and fish fries, but also in hospital rooms and homes, through cards and calls, and countless prayers.

Through this congregation we have been led to worship God through beautiful music Sunday after Sunday.  We have been encouraged in our faith through the study of scripture.  We have been challenged to grow spiritually, and we have been given opportunities to serve.

Consider the women whose gifts have been celebrated and affirmed here in ways that few other churches in the area permit.  Think of all of the labor that has flowed from this congregation to the Christian Service Center.

Think of the people in the Philippines who are receiving help right now because of our generous giving to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance which we support through the One Great Hour of Sharing offering every year.

Think of the number of children who have been tutored and therefore helped to succeed where otherwise they might have failed, leading to further damaging consequences.  Had this particular congregation not been here these past fifty-seven years, the loss to us and our community would have been substantial.  The loss to each of us individually would be substantial.

Here to be Kept or LostScreen Shot 2013-11-16 at 3.09.26 PM

But there is nothing inevitable about this church’s future. Even a long history of fruitful ministry can be lost, as I watched happen in Croatia. If we are to vouchsafe the tremendous inheritance we have received, and make it available to millennials, then we all need to play a part.  This is the time on earth we have been entrusted with.

This is our watch.  Yes times are difficult, but we are here now because people who came before us were faithful on their watch in times that were equally if not more challenging.

This is the time to assert our single-minded, single hearted trust in the God who loves us.  He has not let us down.  We will not let him down by sharing loyalty to mammon or any other competitor.  We will not be the ones who scuttled the hard-won achievements of the generations before us.  We will be the generation that in the future they can look back on with pride because we trusted that God would provide.

We do not know the future.  But we do know the God who gives us grace to live today, one day at a time, just as Jesus said.  We know the God who is with us each single moment, moment by moment that we live.

We know that God loves us and cares for us, more than the birds of the air or the grass of the field.  That is the source and subject of our gratitude.  That is what, by the grace of God, we will never lose.  We know the One in whom we trust.

Stewardship Implications

Does this have implications for us as we approach the question of our financial stewardship?  Of course, how could it not?

Please prayerfully consider your part that you can play on your watch.  We are all in this together, and each one of us has a vital role.

We will honor God by our single-hearted willingness to hand on to the coming generation the faith we have been nurtured in through this congregation as we join the generous givers of the past.  And, in the process, we will know the same blessing of the God who is able to supply all of our needs and lead us to grow in our faith in his loving care.

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Glimpsing Eternity

Sermon for November 10, 2013, Pentecost +25, Ordinary 32 C on Luke 20:27-38

Luke 20:27-38

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry Screen Shot 2013-11-09 at 1.27.11 PMnor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the  bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

Glimpsing Eternity

When Michelle and I were first dating, back in college, we did what new couples do: we introduced each other to the things we loved.  I introduced Michelle to coffee.  She introduced me to Aaron Copland’s ballet, Appalachian Spring.

We listened to it together, back in those days, by going to the college sound lab, asking them to play it, and sitting next to each other, each wearing these enormous head phones they had back then.  There was no internet to download the song from, and no iPods to play it on in those days, which feels like the dark ages, but it was wonderful.

The music, which is all about the awakening of the world to Spring, begins with a long, slow, somber passage, which I take to be about the world asleep in winter.

Suddenly it is broken wide open by an energetic set of violins playing a new melody.  Spring has burst through the cold crust of the earth with the first shoots of new life.  The music then dances with joy and delight.

Goose bumps

When I first heard the music, there in the sound lab with Michelle, I remember how those first bursting violin notes, after the slow, somber part grabbed me.  I got goose bumps.  It was like a stab in the heart.

It took me to a place where suddenly I was not thinking about how close to lunch time it was, nor about the school assignments I needed to work on; I was entirely in the moment, but somehow not in the same mundane reality.

It was beautiful, joyful, and yet, it had an element of painfulness in it, the way nostalgia does, the way the smell of fallen leaves does.  It was both satisfying and at the same time a feeling of longing for something that wasn’t there.

C.S. Lewis experienced the same feeling.  He called it “joy,” but only because no other English word would adequately translate the German Sehnsucht.

Lewis described Sehnsucht as the “inconsolable longing” in the human heart for “we know not what.” He writes:

That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead…the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.

(From “Afterword to the Third Edition,” The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992, available at http://www.calvin.edu/admin/provost/faith/cs_lewis.htm)

In his book, A Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis told the story of a young English boy playing in his backyard next to a stone wall.  The boy notices a bit of the stone is  missing.  He looks through the opening onto a seascape.  He can just barely make out an island in the West.  It fills him with longing.  He has never been to the island, but somehow it feels like it must be his true home.  The boy grows up elsewhere, and in the story, spends the rest of his adult life searching for that island; searching for home.

Which World?Screen Shot 2013-11-09 at 1.28.37 PM

Where do such feelings come from?  Why is it that beauty can fill us with wonder – not just with pleasure, like we get from chocolate, or coffee, but with a feeling that points to another world?  A world we were made for, but are away from?  A world we long for.

Lewis thought about how odd it was that we have feeling like this.  A fish, he said, would never complain about the wetness of the sea; that is the environment it was made for.  But we humans are always feeling as though there is another world we were made for.

We have ideas that do not seem to be able to arise from a purely material world.  We believe that justice is real, even if we only see shabby human approximations in this life.  We believe that there is such a thing as pure love, even if we wonder if we have ever really known it.

We ask questions about meaning as if they matter; what does my life mean?  Why am I here?  What is the purpose for being alive for this brief span of years, only to die and to fade away?

These feelings point us to a world beyond this one; one we were made for; our true home.  A world beyond the resurrection.

Answering Sadducees

If the Sadducees came up to me, as they did to Jesus, with their skepticism about the possibility of resurrection, these reflections would come to my mind first.

In their defense, we have to admit that the Hebrew Bible they read has precious little to say about life after death.  We Screen Shot 2013-11-09 at 1.27.51 PMread a bit about it from Daniel, but that was one of the books their group did not accept as part of the Bible.

Jesus, in his reply, was very clever.  He gave them an answer that shut them up.  He took a scene from the part of the bible they did accept, from Torah (the Pentateuch).  It was the scene in which Moses mysteriously encounters God at the burning bush.  Moses asks the god of the bush to identify himself.  God says to Moses,

“I AM WHO I AM….Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you…The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14-15)

Jesus makes the point that God is the God of the living, not of the dead, so the ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob must be living, not dead; they died but were raised to life; so therefore, the resurrection is real.  There is life beyond this one.

The Sadducee Perspective

Who were the Sadducees?  We don’t know much really.  After the Romans came and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, they disappear from the historical record.  But Ancient Jewish historian Josephus tells us that they were rich, they were the chief priests who controlled the temple and wielded a great deal of economic power.  They were in complete opposition to Jesus.  Barely a few verses before our text Luke has told us:

Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him;” (Luke 19:47)

They did not believe in resurrection, so they believed that this life was the only one that mattered.  Therefore, they thought, abuse the peasants, push them off the land to expand your estate, create enormous economic burdens for them, keep them virtual debt-slaves – no problem.  Get it while you can; this is all there is.

The Resurrection Perspective

Jesus, by contrast, had an entirely different perspective.  This life is not all there is.  One day, in the future, the playing field will be level.  There will be no class system in heaven.  There will be no rich and poor.  The way Jesus described it, children of the resurrection are all “children of God.

This meant something practical and crucial to Jesus.  It meant that the truest truth about us is not what we see in front of us in this life.  We see poverty, disease,  inequality, discrimination of all kinds, but one day, after the resurrection, these will all be gone.

This is the hope that the American slaves held out as they longed for a world in which they could experience justice and freedom.  It shines through in their spirituals like, “I’ve Got a Robe”Screen Shot 2013-11-09 at 1.28.53 PM

I’ve got a robe, you’ve got a robe,
All of God’s children got a robe.
When I get to heaven
goin’ to put on my robe,
Goin’ to shout all over God’s heaven.

(source: Taylor, Barbara Brown; Bartlett, David (2010-04-12). Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C Volume 4 (Kindle Locations 10743-10745). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.)

If heaven is where we end up, and in heaven we all wear the same robe (so to speak) then we better start living that way right now, as Jesus did.

What Lasts

My parents taught me a little poem when I was young.  It’s all about looking at life now from the perspective of the resurrection.Screen Shot 2013-11-09 at 1.28.11 PM

Only one life, so soon it’s past,
only what’s done for Christ will last.

What will outlast this short life?  What will remain into the resurrection?  As the poem says, “only what’s done for Christ will last.

Jesus gets to define what that means.   And he did.   In his famous parable of the king at the end of time who separates the sheep from the goats, he explains his separation criteria.  He says that people had ample opportunity to do things for Christ, that would last.

34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’  37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matt. 25)

“Only what’s done for Christ will last.”

Resurrection and Us

We are people who believe in resurrection.  That is why we pay close attention to Jesus and we live into the truth that he taught us.

Jesus’ perspective was a resurrection perspective.  It gave him an entirely different concept of money and what it is meant for in this life – completely opposite the Sadducees’ materialism and exploitation.

Jesus’ perspective also gave him hope.  He knew they were after him to kill him.  He knew that they would be successful.  But he believed in resurrection – that this life is not the end.  And it wasn’t.   He is like the first bursting of Spring life from the cold winter earth that the Appalachian Spring Ballet music captured so well: the first fruits of a harvest of resurrection that we will share in.

What is important in this life?  What matters?  What is the role of money in this life?  How do we look at other humans? Where will we go after this life? These are questions that belief in the resurrection touches deeply.

It touches our understanding of our relationships, and our obligation to each other, to be experts in forgiveness and mercy.  It touches our understanding of mission beyond our walls to the “least of these.” It touches our sense of hope as our years draw to an end.  It touches our stewardship of our financial resources, especially in a time of great need for our congregation.

“Only one life, so soon it’s past”

So, from the perspective of resurrection, what matters?  What lasts?  What is big enough to be worthy of our longing?  Where is our true home?  How shall we then live?

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Lost in a Tree

Sermon for November 3, 2013 31st Ordinary, Pentecost + 24 Year C on  Luke 19:1–10

Luke 19:1–10

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

Lost in a Treehome in 7 mile web

I first met my wife Michelle at a party hosted by a  Christian campus organization in college.  We were both new to the college – both of us had transferred in.  I liked her right away and soon I asked her out for our first date, and to my surprise, she agreed.

Michelle was still living at home, so that’s where I had to go to pick her up.  Her family had just moved from another state.  They had purchased a big old farm house that they were rehabbing.  They had some land, a barn a chicken coup, a pond and even a horse.

This is when I started getting concerned.  When you first start dating (I can still remember) you are alert to automatic deal-breakers.  You may feel an initial attraction to a person, then find out that they have a characteristic you simply could never tolerate, like that they are cruel to animals or are addicted to gambling, or that they hate what you love – there are a variety of automatic deal breakers.

When I pulled my car up to Michelle’s beautiful home I thought perhaps I had discovered a deal breaker.  She clearly came from a family of means.  I soon found out that her father was an executive with an international company.

But I knew that I was called to the ministry – which meant I would never have much money.  I thought that for sure, as soon as Michelle figured that out, she would loose interest.

But the opposite was true.  I found out that she and her family had recently experienced a huge awakening of faith.  It had transformed their life priorities and perspectives.  Within a year her father quite his  job, went to seminary and began to study for the ministry.

As for her part, Michelle had no aspirations to live in luxury.  In fact, I discovered that she was a thrift-shop-a-holic.  So, the deal wasn’t broken after all.  Just the opposite.

Freedom

A living faith changes our relationship to money.Sycamore tree web

How?   It sets us free.  The story we just read is a salvation story; a liberation.  It is a story about joy and freedom.  It’s a lost and found story.  It’s a story of hope which we all need more of.

This story is told artfully.  There is a man called Zacchaeus who is short, that is he lives low to the ground, but he climbs up a tree to get above everyone else to look at Jesus.  His whole life has been spent climbing to get above his peers.

His name actually means pure or innocent, but he is not.  He is a tax collector, whose trade is practically synonymous with extortion – in fact he is the chief tax collector – think mafia boss, like Tony Soprano, with tax collector extortionist reporting to him.

That means he is working for the Romans – doing their dirty work.  His fellow Jews are his victims; they despise him – to the point that they grumble at the very idea that Jesus will go to his home.

Wanting

Consider Zacchaeus’ life up to this point.  What has been important to him?  What has he wanted?  You don’t get to be chief tax collector by accident; he wanted this job.  He wanted what this job gave him.  He got rich.  He climbed up the economic tree and ended up above everyone else’s head.

So there he is, up there, lost in a tree, isolated from his community; above their heads economically but despised for his very un-innocent life.

What’s he doing up there?  I think he has figured out that he has been wanting the wrong thing.  I don’t think he is happy.  He is rich, yes, but unhappy.

That’s why, when Jesus comes to town, he is interested.  Something pulled him out of the office and up the tree that day – some need he felt.  Something missing.Jesus spirit man web

By this time, Jesus has a reputation. People are aware that Jesus has a powerful and direct connection to God.  He has healed people.  He has spoken and taught about God as if he had insider information.  Jesus has a reputation for being, in the words of some, a “spirit-man,” whose presence seems to exude God’s presence.

I think Zacchaeus, for all his money, still longs for a connection with God, and he knows it’s missing.   And I think he also longs to be re-connected to his people, his community, which his quest for wealth has left him alienated from.

God and People

The two go together.  If there is anything that Jesus made clear it is that God is deeply concerned for people.  He made us, he loves us, he cares when we suffer, cares when we are hungry, cares when we are sick, and cares when we have been subjected to injustice.

There is no such thing as being in a good relationship with God while neglecting the real needs of the people God cares about.

So Zacchaeus has wound up alienated from God and from his own people.  He is lost and now he feels it.  There he is up in a tree, all alone.  Is there any hope?

This sequence of events is important in the story: Jesus takes the initiative and invites himself over.  Foundational to our theology is this fact: it’s all based on God’s decision to be merciful to us.  God has taken the initiative; we merely respond.

God is not waiting for our reforms or even promises to come clean.  Zacchaeus’ great reform followed Jesus’ initiative.  The same is true with us.  We do nothing to deserve God’s mercy, and nothing we do can stop God from being merciful.   The response follows.

Response

And it did, indeed, follow.  Jesus’ presence is transformative for Zacchaeus.  Welcoming Jesus changes him.  What does it change?  It changes what he wants.  It’s like his eyes have been opened and now he sees everything differently. Suddenly, being connected to God is more important to him than the numbers on his bank statement.rejoicing web

Suddenly too, he looks at people around him and feels connected to them in a brand new way.  His past extortion matters now; it was wrong, and he knows it, so he promises restitution.  His use of money matters now, so he becomes generous to the poor.

What is the result?  Jesus said,

“Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”

What has he been saved from?  When all he wanted was wealth, he became its slave.  Now he is free.  He was spiritually empty, now he has been filled with new life.  And, at the same time, he has gone from being despised to being welcomed as a “son of Abraham.”

His whole purpose in life has changed.  It used to be about himself, about climbing; now he understands that God put him on earth to make a difference.

Lost and Found

This is a powerful story of hope. Jesus has already told several lost and found stories.  He told of a lost sheep found by a seeking shepherd; a lost coin found by a diligent woman; a lost son who spent himself into poverty, but was “found” by a Father who loved him back into the family.  It’s wonderful, but not hard to think that God can save the down and out.

But people who have gotten entrapped in the deceitful lie that money and happiness are connected, who have cared more about their assets than the common good are no less lost than the prodigal son.

So, this really is a salvation story; a liberation.  It is a story about joy and freedom.  It’s a lost and found story.  It’s a story of hope.

God is at work in this world in powerful and transformative ways.  This is why we can be hopeful.  All of us are lost in some respect.  All of us spend way too much of our lives wanting the wrong things; the very things that end up hurting us.

All of us here in twenty-first century America have way too much stuff, and way too much of an expectation that more of it will make us happy.  It never has, and it never will.

And all of us have a purpose that we are on earth for – and it includes the common good.  This is what God cares about, as Jesus repeatedly shows us.  This is what Zacchaeus woke up to; it’s called generosity.

Perspective

It is interesting that this biblical story comes up on this Sunday, just after All Saints  Day.   As we remember those who have been a part of our community who have gone on to be with the Lord, we are reminded of our own mortality; that none of us  lives forever.

And we are aware that someday our lives will be seen entirely in retrospect.  From that perspective, everything looks different.  From that perspective, we can see what to want.

What we want most is salvation.  Salvation from all the enslavements we get ourselves into.

Salvation from the bondage of wanting the wrong things.

  • Salvation from selfishness,
  • materialism,
  • greed, and with them,
  • apathy and
  • neglect of the common good.

We all need this salvation.  We are all lost.  But the good news is that,

the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

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