Thursday, December 15, 2011

Advent 3, Dec. 11, 2011

John 1:6-8, 19-28
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." 21 And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." 22 Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" 23 He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, "Make straight the way of the Lord,' " as the prophet Isaiah said. 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" 26 John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
“He confessed and did not deny it. . .”  Startling words, indeed.  Not so much that John the Baptizer, as we once again encounter him, will make a good and consistent confession, we are, after all, accustomed to such things, but rather it is the content of this confession that is totally alarming.  You see, after having attracted a large and curious crowd out in Bethany, across the Jordan, out away from all the centers of learning and culture, not a place for the educated or sophisticated, John has finally landed himself on the radar of the powerful.  The opinion-makers, bloggers and talking heads have indeed begun to take notice of this strange man, his popularity more than passing fad, and so they send the interns out to do a little investigative work. 
And investigative work these priests and Levites do, knowing that they cannot return to their bosses without a satisfactory answer.  In accordance with their need to make sense of this strange man, this man whose charisma is directly affecting Temple worship attendance, and not positively one might add, the priests and Levites give John ample opportunity to present himself as something respectable, recognizable and palatable.  To present himself as something that they can stomach and understand, and life can then return to business as usual. And so the litany of questions begin, questions that seek not just to understand John, but in a certain sense, to control him.  To make of him something that they predict and manage.  And so they turn to their common religious heritage.   Are you Elijah, the prophet whose return is foretold by the Scriptures?  Are you the prophet, the one who will bring God’s reign close to earth, and throw off our oppressors?  Or perhaps even more unlikely, are the Messiah, the promised One of God?  And if you are none of these as you continually insist, who has given you the right, the authority, to baptize in the name of the God that we represent?  The subtext of this line of questioning, of course, did you clear any of this with the religious professionals before you began to preach and baptize? 
It is against this unrelenting stream of questions that John’s confession begins to take the most remarkable form.  For look at what this man, this man from God named John says to each question; “no” is his answer.  No, he is not the Messiah, no he is not Elijah nor even the prophet.  Even as the questions come hard and fast, John is, simply put, unwilling to relent, to back down, but his tactics are totally inverted.  For rather than grabbing a little credit, instead of finally ending this interrogation with a display of his ego, instead of shutting these interns up with a little alpha-male style angry strength, John will simply continue to refute any attempts at making him into something that he is not, and in so doing, he confesses, not confessing to his own spiritual greatness or piety, but rather to what he is not.
            What John is doing here is should strike us as something that is pretty foreign. Or to put it another way, I do not know that I would consult John for resume writing advice.  For turning down credit, ignoring recognition, even if it is recognition that we do not necessarily deserve, is by no means a common practice in our culture.  Instead, we as a people, are pretty intent on others noticing what we do, and making certain that credit is given where credit is due.  We want desperately to be noticed, to be received and understood for all the heroic work that we do day in and day out.  And how much more true is this of our religious lives?  For fear that God will overlook us lest we berate the heavens with our goodness, with our pieties, with our projects, we just cannot answer the way that John does.  Sure, we might give lip service to this, but we are finally too full of pride and fear to join this refrain of “no.”   We want God to take note of our goodness, we want God to love us for what we do, to turn divine love in a project that we can manage and control.  In this we  so desperately want to answer that “yes” we are our own messiahs, and we can storm heaven with our good works or correct opinions, or our proud theological heritages. 
            But the burden is too heavy, and this “no” will be squeezed out of us one way or another.  Life circumstances conspire and we realize that we are actually not in control, that life will grind down and beat up and any hope we had of producing our own salvation, our own meaning, is just not realistic.  There is no real security to be found in money, in status, in recognition or in preserving a mythical past that never really was, for the grave has little interest in what we have accumulated.   But in being forced, in due time no doubt, to answer with John that we are not messiahs, that we cannot save ourselves by any exertion of will or intellect or piety, please notice what happens.  An incredible burden is lifted, and Christ, the true Messiah who takes away the sin of the world, he is given rightful place.  To him is given the role that is his as the only one who can truthfully declare “I am.”   For with John, when we confess that we are not, we, too, confess that Christ is.  That Christ is the light of the world,  that it is Christ’s life, death and resurrection that makes you whole, and not all the paltry idols to whom we turn for security and satisfaction.  Yes, it is Christ alone that we confess, not ourselves, and in doing so, we know true freedom.  You know the freedom of a God who comes in the flesh, the freedom of a God who raises you from the burden of having to be your own god, your own messiah.   The freedom of a God whose coming spills over from age to age, and the freedom of knowing the God who promises to keep and guide you, even as the winters of our lives encroach with their stagnant grey.  Yes, it is the freedom of knowing the God whom St. Paul writes, will keep you sound and blameless, the God who in Christ, sanctifies you with his own body and blood that you may rejoice in all things, for Christ is present in all things. 
            So no, we are not our own gods, we are not messiahs, and please do revel in the relief that this brings you.  And in that relief, in that gospel-lightness, don’t be surprised when you are asked to also make the good confession.  Yes, do not be surprised if God prompts you to confess against yourself, to say to the world in both word and deed that your redemption, your forgiveness, your peace, your very identity has all been given to you by the God of cross and open tomb. Yes, Christ the light that breaks from eternity has named you and made you his own, has made you his child and his witness.  He has given you all that you need to go and bear his name to the world, to point to his sweetness and the joy of his love. And make no mistake dear people of God,  to live in his freedom will prompt questions; there will be those who want to know from whence your joy and peace comes.  Indeed, there will be interns knocking at the door asking you what all this is about.  And in these moments, all that needs to be said is this: “I am not, but I know of one who is.  And he, Jesus the Christ, is for you.”   In his sweet name, amen. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Advent 2, Dec. 4, 2011

Mark 1:1-8
1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,' " 4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

In the 2001 song, “My City of Ruins,” Bruce Springsteen asks a devastating question.  In response to the decay that all but taken over the much celebrated resort town of Asbury Park, New Jersey, a town Springsteen himself celebrates in song, he asks this question, “how do I begin again?”  I name this question as devastating because it is so deeply honest.  It is the question of a man who has seen all that he loves corrode and then fade, only to exist in memory.  And this question strikes us as true, as honest, because one need not be mourning the loss of a resort town in order to ask it.  Instead, this question is prompted by any number of circumstances.  How, indeed, do we begin again after death or divorce, after losing a job or suffering a blow to our health?  How do we begin again when all that we know and love seems to be fading away as the world continues to change at a dizzying rate?  But, it is not just tragedy or painful experiences that prompt this question, perhaps these moments just bring our situation as humans into focus more clearly.  For really, aren’t we always beginning again?  Though we like to think of ourselves as progressing, as constantly improving, I wonder if there is another way to look at it.  I mean, really, no matter how much life we have lived, no matter how many years accumulated at work in or in marriage, isn’t it true that these time lines are all the result of beginning and beginning again?    For instance, you have a frustrating week and work and yet, on Monday morning, you are right back there, having decided to begin again.  Or you have a major fight with your spouse or child, and yet the reconciliation that comes after is a sign that both parties have decided to begin again.  And, I cannot help but wonder if we answer this question on a daily basis, answering it with what we do, with what we value, with how we make decisions.  

If this is true for the rest of our lives, it is, perhaps more true indeed for how we live into relationship with God, and to be sure, the beginning that is prompted by God has an entirely different feel to it than what we experience in the remainder of our lives.  To begin again in relationship to the living God, well, that is something quite different, indeed.  To begin, again, with God is to do something very radical, it is in fact to admit who we are and to be found by a God who we seldom, if ever, really come to anticipate.  This sort of beginning is given voice by our first reading, in which the prophet Isaiah provides the template for a new beginning, and what a strange beginning it is.  “Comfort, Comfort Oh My People,” says God through the prophet, but look what comes next.  “All people are like grass, their constancy like the flowers of the field.”  Yes, take comfort says God, but this is not the sort of comfort that you can generate for yourselves.  Take comfort, begin again for God is coming to you says the prophet, but please notice the source, the location of this comfort: it is in God, in God’s delightful action, in God’s faithful care and not in anything that the prophet’s audience can create from within.  For they, the audience, are like us, like all humanity, frail as a flower amidst mighty wind, as fleeting as grass scorched by the summer sun.  And that is what is remarkable about these words, for they ask us to be found by a comfort that admits our frailty, admits our infidelity, admits our vulnerability.
            Though we tend not to think of comfort as the result of looking this honestly at ourselves, the question being asked of us is this: can genuine comfort ever really come to us without this sort of honesty?  Can we ever begin again if we do not start from the messy and painful reality of who we know ourselves to be?  Is there any real comfort, any true beginning, in running from the buffet of fear and pride that churns within?  Well, as strange as it might sound in a culture of constant self-improvement, and na├»ve optimism about what it means to be human,  the answer is no.  Any true beginning must come from this sort of honesty, from the honesty that says along with the prophet Isaiah, that I, too, am grass.  I, too am frail and full of doubt, tired and scared.    There is no point in avoiding a truth we all know, though that does not stop us. 
            But, again, this remains but half the story.  For earlier, I said that any true beginning comes from honesty about ourselves and honesty about God. Even as we stand as tenuously in this life as a flower in the wind, the surprising news is that God does not refuse us in our humble condition.  No, with the delusions of self-sufficiency having been cast away, with the frail security we build for ourselves having been torn apart, for the heavens are about to be ripped open,  a new reality emerges, a new beginning dawns, and it is God’s beginning.  It is the beginning of a joy and a comfort that breaks open a new horizon.  Yes, it is the joy of knowing a God who carries you in the divine bosom, a God whose patience and gentleness names you, remembers you and raises you to a new life from which you will never, ever be taken.  It is the reality of God whose words of comfort will keep and guide you, even as our own self-styled projects fade like grass.  Yes, this reality, this newness, this is what the Evangelist calls the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  And it has again, begun in our midst.
            And it is in knowing this, in knowing that a beginning has cracked open among us that the question of 2 Peter comes into a sharper focus: what kind of people are we to be?  Having been brought safely into the sweetness of God’s beginning in Christ, how are we to become what God has already named us to be?  There are as many wonderful ways to answer that question as there are people present, but let me sketch a few answers that are appropriate to today’s activities.  We are people who give generously, generously of our time, our abilities, our resources, for we need no longer fear that we are alone in this old world, so gently and purely has the Father loved us.    Having been found by that security, by this Christ who will never leave nor forsake, we are free to begin again in the baptism that daily raises us from the small deaths that keep us from God, from our neighbors, from ourselves. For we are always beginning, always being greeted anew by a mercy that we cannot fathom nor create.   And it this beginning that we again celebrate here today.  We celebrate this beginning as we are gathered around Christ’s body and blood, as we are joined in joyful fellowship, as we go out into the world to be little Christs to our neighbor, loving as we are loved.  Yes, we celebrate this beginning as we thank each other for all the work that has been done this year by your volunteering and as we make our pledges towards God’s work here at Centennial.   How do we begin again?  As we always do, with the hopeful expectation of those who have been gathered into the crucified and risen Christ, who is always making his beginning in and among us.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Advent 1, November 27, 2011

Mark 13:24-37

24 "But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see "the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 28 "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake--for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

As some of you might have guessed, Saturday night is not exactly my most restful evening.  While I set two alarms, I really do not need either.  Instead, I typically begin waking up at around 4:00 am and by 6:00 am or so, I have given up the battle to try and get back to sleep.  I take some comfort in knowing that there is not a pastor with whom I have talked that does not undergo this same experience, and no doubt, it is similar for before really important workdays for everyone.  It is on these sorts of mornings that I do not need Jesus to tell me to stay awake, I already have it covered.
            To be sure, we can hear these words as a call to that sort of anxious attentiveness, staying awake for fear that something awful might happen, like a church full of people waiting to begin liturgy and yet having no pastor there to preside.  Certainly, there does indeed seem much to fear in today’s reading, where a darkened sun and falling stars will usher in the end of history, an ending whose time is beyond human attempts at predicting or manipulating. And that this cataclysmic event is expressedly outside of our attempts to control or understand, see the disastrous events in the church’s history at determining this as evidence, well that only raises the stakes, to say nothing of the anxiety.  So, we are told, keep awake, stay alert, for the Master will return at an unanticipated time, everything will change in the blink of an eye, and when this will happen is not up to us nor can we scan history to determine whether or not we are close to this event.  If that is not enough to keep you awake, I am not entirely sure what would be. 
            But that’s also the catch, isn’t it?  I mean, really, who can sustain that level of anxiety-induced alertness for a drawn out amount of time?  There is not enough coffee in the world to keep us all awake in this way, and sooner or later we all end falling asleep, taking an unintended break or simply being overwhelmed by the busyness of daily life.   Personally, the fitful nature of my Saturday evening sleep is always balanced out by the sleep I get on Sunday night. Really, if this keeping awake, maintaining alertness is solely up to us, we end up like the disciples, falling fast asleep as Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane.  And while we no doubt hear these words of Jesus to “stay awake” as a threat, I wonder if that reveals more about us than about the actual words.  For really, this call to staying awake, this call to vigilance and attentiveness to God’s activity in the world, this is actually a complete gift. Before it is a call to attentiveness, it is a call to defiance, a call to regard a lot of the noise in our culture for what it is, utter nonsense. It is not an inducer of anxiety, but rather anxiety’s relief.  For listen again to these words, “ but about that day or hour no one knows . . . only the Father.”  And while this certainly should give us all the ammunition we need to glibly shrug off those who explicitly claim they have divined the world’s ending, like Harold Camping and that whole fiasco last May, the implications of this statement reach further indeed.  For there is no question that we, both individually and as a whole culture, have a tendency towards making dooms-day type predictions.  You turn on the television to catch a bit of evening news, and it feels like news anchor is screaming the world’s ending at you.  Yes, while they might not explicitly say so, the fact that politicians are behaving poorly or that the economic structures are being protested, this is all intended to feel as though the world were coming to an end,  because the more anxious we become, the more that these forces are able to manipulate us.  Try as they might, though, history, our lives, simply cannot be manipulated in this way.  Try as cable news channel might, there is no way to determine the course of history, nor to predict where this is all headed.  Life, reality, is a lot less stable, a lot more vulnerable than that, which is something we all know and experience on a daily basis.  But this vulnerability, built into the very fabric of existence, does not mean that we can predict where any of this is headed.  So no, there are no signs to be read in the heavens or on the airwaves.  This knowledge is not ours to possess, and even if personal tragedy or difficulty at work makes it seem like the world is ending, we are given sure knowledge that this simply is not the case. 
            And though these predictions will be stubbornly refused by the God who reigns in both heaven and earth,  that does not mean that we are left without hope.  For Christ says this as well, “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”   Meaning that, whatever the future may hold, may look like, it is in Christ’s strong and gentle hands, hands that in having been pierced through, now hold all things.  Yes, for whatever the future may hold, it is indeed held by the Christ whose words endure forever.  And what wonderful words they are: words like you are forgiven, you are remembered, you are beloved by your Father and you kept securely in God’s care.  This is what your future looks like, whenever it may come.  It looks like the Christ who suffered all things for your sake and promises you his steadfast presence amidst the chaos and unpredictability of this world.  So yes, keep awake, keep alert to the fact that Christ has already told you all you need to hear and that in him your future has already been secured. 
            And it is in knowing this future that is Christ we are given back our present, with a new freedom to live more deeply into our lives and the lives of others.  No doubt, the troubles and fears and worries still persist, but we need not live as though they were the only real things in our lives, and isn’t that where we really get into the most trouble with stewardship?  When we are convinced that our fears and worries are the only real and genuine things, we tend to hold our money, hold our time, and hold our skills and abilities, as closely as we possibly can.  After all, one never really knows, does she? It is so very easy to be seduced by this siren song of anxiety, to succumb to the fear and be less giving.  Even as those fears try and ease us into an anxious sleep, try to dull our senses to the goodness of God, Christ’s presence remains, calling up out of our slumber, calling us into the peace that he alone can give and giving to us the only genuine security in heaven and on earth, namely his words.  You, dear people of God, you have already been given this freedom and this security; it possesses you more strongly than you can possess anything.  This does not change the fact that we live in difficult times, sometimes simply struggling to get by.  The facts about the economy and all the rest remain stubbornly the same.  But the question, as we prepare to make our pledges next week is this: what does it mean to live as though our only real security is in Christ Jesus?  Not our money or our economy or anything else.  How does his love and care change the way we relate to all that he has given us?  These are not questions I can answer for you, but I look forward to seeing what you come up with.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Nov. 20, 2011

Matthew 25:31-46
31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 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.' 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44 Then they also will answer, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' 45 Then he will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
 If this passage scares you, it does not mean that you are a bad Christian or lack faith, it means simply that you are human.  Any judgment passage, especially one that, on its face, seems so incredibly connected to what we do or do not do in this life, should inspire some fear.  I honestly do not know what an appropriate or honest reaction to this text would be, if not something like fear or terror.  And while our first response to this passage is to begin a bit of moral calculus, adding up how much we have given to charitable causes, how much we have given to the church over the years, or how many hours we have spent caring for others, I actually do not think that this the best place to enter today’s story.  It does not seem to me that the intent of this passage is to inspire us to create yet another checklist, so that we may be certain of our place amongst the sheep, if you will.  It could just be the case that, in turning this passage into some sort of goal we must accomplish lest we be cast away from God’s presence forever, we have taken hold of the wrong terror, entirely. 
            And saying that certainly implies that there is a right fear by which we may be grasped, and I would be the first to admit that those two words, “right” and “fear” do not necessarily belong together, but please hear me out a bit.  What is most interesting in the passage, I think, is the utter surprise, what could call it down right shock, with which the sheep respond to Christ’s words.  “Lord, when did we. . .” they respond.  As if suggesting that Jesus might have gotten his rosters mixed up.  These people simply have no recollection of doing the things that Jesus has described.  They, it seems, have to take Christ’s words as the only evidence that they have in fact done what has been described.  They have no confidence in their own goodness, you see.  In no way do they march up to the judgment seat with any sense of entitlement or expectation.    The goats, on the other hand, seem a bit more certain that they have done what is required.  Yes, they too receive a shock, but it is the shock of those whose are getting less than what they think they deserve.  They are confident of their own righteousness, full of expectation that they will be rewarded and applauded for their lives of virtues, and make no mistake, they probably did lead these virtuous lives.  So really, then, what separates these two groups, for it is not some sort of conscious effort, some sort of intentional become a sheep-type program.  There is just too much surprise for that to be the case.  Neither party, you see, ends up getting what they believe they deserve. 
            And it is this utter shock, this complete surprise that might just ask the most important question of us. For what does it mean that the most important work we do is not something we are able to recognize on our own?  What might it mean that the very evidence of our salvation might, in point of fact, be hidden from our view?  Hidden so deeply, in fact, that we have no recollection whatsoever of actually having done it? What might it mean that Christ the King, the Lord of history, is himself hidden, that the one whose strong and faithful Word created the cosmos comes not to us in eternal glory, but in the rust and pollution of this old world? Yes indeed, he is hidden deep beneath the suffering of the hungry, the lonely and the ailing.  And even the way he redeems us, redeems the whole world, will be hidden under the brutality and betrayal of the cross.  Yes, it will be hidden not only because of human violence, but hidden because all the disciples will, in that terrible moment, run away in an epic fit of self-preservation.  For us, then,  what might it mean to stand suspended between heaven and hell with no recollection of whether we have done anything pleasing in the eyes of God? These are startling, yes, perhaps even terrifying questions, but here I think we have found the, shall we say, right terror of the text.  Why, one might ask, would God choose to do this to us, chose to work on us, work through us, in this way?
            The answer, I think, lies something in the fact that God cares for you, cares for the whole of creation as it actually is.  We see this all over the place in Jesus’ ministry: he loved and cared for actual sinners: prostitutes, tax collectors, the weak and the marginalized, the strong and the privileged. Christ loved actual people, not abstract versions of those people, though this does not preclude a call to repentance.  Christ loved and cared for those simply because, as the incarnate God, this love is what he does, who he is.  And I think this question of honesty is what is most at stake.  The baptismal call is precisely a call to this sort of honest love, but it can only grow out of having been loved first in this way by the Christ who seats you at his right hand simply because that is what he does.  We can only really begin to love this way we our projects of virtue and goodness have been shattered by Christ who not only will judge us, but as one of my seminary professors put it, was judged for us.  It is only when our own efforts to be good, when we realize our own checklists do not mean all that much, only when we realize that our neighbors are not objects upon whom we can work out our own righteousness, yes, it only when our illusions about ourselves are broken wide open by God’s grace, yes, it is only then that our neighbors, the least within and without us, become genuine, become fellow beloved children of God to whom we are called to care, and by whom we too are cared for.  It is at the cross that we can lay down the burden of our spiritual checklists and see that we have already been resurrected by the Christ whose merciful judgment, whose gracious gift is final and absolute. 
            And when that happens, when that grace cracks us open, as it will again here at the table,  we begin to see that which has been hidden in our quests for self-righteousness: the actual and genuine needs of our neighbors, and there is such incredible joy in that.  For when Christ enters into our midst, when he saves us by his mercy as he has again this morning, he creates within us the freedom to live for the actual needs of others, not the needs that we wished they had, nor the needs that we believe, if only they were a bit more like us, they would have.  All that is done, now.   Instead, what stand before us now is our neighbor, be they friend, family or enemy, asking for a bit of food, a shot at a living wage, a bit of attention, a warm cup of coffee or maybe just a listening ear.  And the incredible thing about the faith that you have been given is this: you are freed to love without reservation, without agenda, without manipulation.  You are free to love as honestly as you are loved, and enter more deeply into your humanity and into the humanity of others, however imperfectly and partially this happens. And make no mistake, dear people of God, none of this will feel significant to you.  It will probably feel quite the opposite, but that, too, is a gift.  Just ask the sheep.   In Jesus’ name, amen.

Nov. 13, 2011

Matthew 25:14-30
14 "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, "Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' 21 His master said to him, "Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, "Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' 23 His master said to him, "Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, "Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' 26 But his master replied, "You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

 “You knew, did you?” With that one pointed and teeth-rattling question, the last worker’s entire world is called into question.  Here he stands, yanked away from everything he thought he and yet without the courage to move forward into ventures unknown.  He stands, fearfully, suspended between an imaginary world that has been taken from him and a reality that is too vast, too wonderful for him to accept.  So he sits on the dizzying precipice of his indecision, and in so doing, loses everything, loses what he thought he had and loses a joy that he was just beginning to glimpse.  His prudence, his risk-avoidance, in the end, cost him everything.   He has, you see, effectively managed his way out of his master’s presence.  Not because of sloppy book-keeping or unscrupulous trading, but because of whom he believes his master to be. 
And so this morning’s Gospel is indeed a cautionary tale, but it is one that we have an incredibly difficult time wrapping our minds around, because in a certain sense, it is a self-contradictory cautionary tale.  The caution, you see, is against being cautious.  The third slave enters the weeping and nashing of teeth not because of his recklessness but because of his prudence, not because he takes his master’s gift too lightly, but because he takes it too seriously.  His assumptions are his unraveling and his caution takes him away from his master.  What, then, we might want to ask is going on here?  How exactly, did this man end up with his wages, and even the relationship to his master take away from him? 
Let us, then, reset the scene and follow this man as he walks into the outer darkness.   We can, like an episode of Law and Order, piece this mess together one step at a time.  So, then, back to the beginning.  We have a master preparing to go away on a long journey and he summons his slaves to him and entrusts them with his property, and this is perhaps the first problem in the third slave’s mind.  For the master does not give in a reasonable way.  Instead, he lavishes his property upon them.  One talent, you see, just one talent would be worth somewhere between fifteen and twenty years’ wages.  Put it another way, this man just received roughly 600,000 $, and his fellow workers are now in charge of million dollar accounts.  To put it frankly, this is not exactly a great business strategy on the part of the master.  In point of fact, it is eccentric, even a bit offensive for the master to be this generous. It would be like you all as a church turning over the entire Hegna fund to me with no instructions.   And sure, it says that each received according to his ability, but that is kind of like saying you won the lottery because of your algebra skills.  What the master has just done is stupefying, to say the least.   
And it seems that, according to the parable, given that the master provides literally no instructions, there are two basic responses to this action.  While we do not get a rationale for their actions, the first two slaves take what they have been given and immediately get down to business.  They invest and trade their way into millions more, correctly assuming that their master did not give them all this cash for no reason, and this, I think, is where the third slave begins his tragic descent.   He thinks himself out of the gift.  He refuses to take what the master has done at face value and attempts to find some motivation, some character flaw, that is simply not present in the master.  His crime, his tragedy, really, is assuming that the master is up to something, that there is a test standing behind the master’s gifts, and when you think that someone is out to get you, especially if that someone happens to be your boss, there is really only one way to respond: namely with fear. 
And it is this fear that edges the third slave closer to the outer darkness.  For it leads him to take what was an absurdly lavish gift and make of it a burden that he must protect at all cost.  What was meant to be enjoyed he has turned into a reality he must endure. Now, for us, taking money and burying it in the backyard might be a sign that we are need a bit of psychological counseling, but for this man, it is actually the safest action he can take with this money.  To bury the master’s treasure would mean that only he knew where it was, and should Roman soldiers come and stay with him, they would not have access to it.  In a word, the man does what is reasonable, prudent.  He does the equivalent of putting the money in an insured bank account.  While the master might have been reckless in the way the he has dolled out his cash, the third slave is intent on not doubling this mistake.  He will correct the master’s error.   He makes sure that, upon the return of his master, his unscrupulous and terrifying master, all the money that was given to him would be there waiting, and whatever bizarre test this turned out to be, he can be confident of passing it and getting back to the business of life as usual. 
And that is really the problem with this man.  In thinking that there was a test to be passed, in thinking that his master is someone whom he is not, this third slave finds himself with nothing, no money, no work, no master.  And it is not so much that the master takes from him these gifts, it is that the man never really had them to begin with.  For he never understood that the source of his master’s generosity was simply that, absurd generosity, and he never understood that the money given to him was not something he needed to protect, but was rather an opportunity.  His master and the way his master operated proved to be far too risky for this man, and so he foreclosed on this riskiness, but in so doing, cut himself off from the joy of his master.  For joy is, indeed, a risky proposition. 
And as we begin our discussions of stewardship, this is the only place to start, not with our financial situation as a church or as a people, nor with the sluggishness of the economy or with the unpredictability of the stock market, but rather with the insane, reckless love of a God who withholds nothing from us.  Indeed, a God who, in the cross of Christ, gives us even himself, tossing about the eternal joys of the kingdom as a sower throws about seed.  Yes, the question we are being asked is the same question asked of those three slaves, what does it mean to be faithful to a God who withholds nothing from us?  What does it mean to be claimed, in the waters of baptism by a Christ who, in sharing our flesh, in sharing our worries and our troubles, gives us the peace that surpasses all understanding, the peace of his very presence?  What does it mean to be vulnerable to this God, to let the riskiness of his love sink deep within us?  For you, dear people of God, you have been given everything.  You have been given the kingdom in all of its fullness; you have been given the life eternal and the joy of your master.  Christ has made you his own and promises to never leave nor forsake you. It is all here for you.  The question, then, is this: knowing the Christ who awaits us, knowing the joy to which we are called, knowing the freedom that is now yours, knowing that all has been accomplished, that Christ is your future, what are we to make of the present?  In Jesus’ name, amen.   

Friday, November 11, 2011

Nov. 6, 2011

Matthew 5:1-12
1  When Jesus  saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  2  Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:  3  "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  4  "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  5  "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  6  "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  7  "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  8  "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  9  "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  10  "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  11  "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely  on my account.  12  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

She was always there.  I cannot remember ever being at St. John’s Lutheran Church without seeing her.  From Sundays mornings to those times during the week when my little brother and I would tear around the fellowship hall while my dad wrote sermons in his office, she and the church in which I grew up are basically one entity in my mind.   Now none of the work that she did was all that extraordinary, buying doughnuts, making coffee, cleaning up when even my father, that is the pastor, had already gone home, or organizing the food and clothing pantries, sorting through second hand goods and canned foods, hardly tasks that receive much attention. Hers was a life that one barely noticed, and I think the church basement was indeed her most natural home.  I remember once, visiting her in her small trailer on the north end of town when I was a teenager.  I was there with my father and for the sake of full disclosure, the whole thing made me horribly uncomfortable.  I did not like the faintly sour smell of the place or what it meant that she lived alone there, her husband having died several years earlier.   I just wanted to leave.   And since we are telling the truth, let me say this, I don’t remember ever feeling as though she was a particularly warm or caring person, even though she always gave my siblings and me a card full of money on our birthdays. Such is the fickleness of young children.   And again, because we are here telling the truth, let me make a confession.  When my father told me that she died a few years back, it hardly made an impact.  Sure I thought about her for a few brief moments and said a prayer of thanksgiving for her life, but that was basically it.  In spite of her devotion, her incredible care for the church, she did not merit much more than a passing thought.  And realizing this only makes me sad. 
            And today, as we gather in remembrance of all the saints who have gone before us and now wear the robes of glory, I think we would do well to think through this concept of sainthood a bit.  No doubt, when we hear this word, saint, we immediately think of women and men who have lived extraordinary lives for the sake of Christ’s gospel.  We think of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Dorothy Day who started the Catholic worker movement.  Or perhaps our minds drift towards those early confessors and martyrs in the church whose faith in Christ cost them everything.  And while there is no doubt that all of these would certainly fit the category of saint, we do ourselves a great disservice of we think only in terms of the extraordinary.  For hear again these words of Jesus as he gathers his disciples: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek,  blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness , blessed are the merciful,  blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake,  blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely  on my account.”  This reads like a laundry list of the downtrodden and the excluded, those who simply do not have enough, enough time, enough money, enough gas left in the old tank to set the world ablaze with their piety and devotion.  These are the ones on the wrong side of history, those who have been left behind, whose lives are barely visible amongst the rubble of disappointment and expectations brutally rebuffed.   Now what Jesus is doing here is not voicing some hopeful expectation, but rather he is creating blessing, creating sainthood in the least likely of places. For when Christ speaks, he creates.  He is sainting the ordinary and the unnoticed, those whose humble lives of Christ-filled hope are real and genuine, though they may go as unvalued as a woman in a church basement.   For really, who compiles stories about, who remembers the meek and the broken-hearted, the miserable and those who suffer in silence, simply hoping that tomorrow will be a bit more bearable than today?  Who names and remembers the anonymous? Who would dare to call these saints?
            Well, the answer to that question, is as simple as it is radical.  For the answer to who remembers, who cares for the poor and the unnoticed, for the ordinary as well as the heroes of our collective histories, is the same as the one who has made them saints to begin with.   For it is Christ who remembers and cares for all, including the unnoticed and the ordinary, and because of Him, their memory, their presence, is inscribed into our gathering, for he bears them to us.   It is Christ who gathered the poor and the lonely, the desperate and the fearful, yes, who brought all these to himself and gave them the blessing of the Most High.  Yes, it is Christ who takes us, and takes what we may believe to be too ordinary, too mundane, and makes of them lives of sainthood.   It is in the gentleness of Christ, in the love that he has extended to us all, in his deep yearning that all would come home to the Father, yes, it is only in this comprehension of Christ’s love and care that human sainthood can begin to make any sense.  Indeed, before sainthood is anything else, it is the faith that clings to Christ in his goodness, the faith that recognize his presence in the small undignified moments that together make up this life.  Sainthood is the recognition that we are loved and remembered by Christ, not just in moments of incredible strength, but most especially in moments of weakness, fear and pain, in moments when our poverty of spirit threatens to overwhelm us.  Sainthood is the sure knowledge that though our lives are awash in the ordinary, they are also the place where Christ is active, calling us to himself and to those mundane needs of our neighbors.
            And that, that changes everything.  For sainthood means not storming heaven with our own self-created goodness, but staying here, staying in the church basement, staying here in the complexity and ordinariness of life, for that is where Christ and our neighbors are.  It means that you have been sainted in your baptism, and that you are being made pure by the hope of ceaseless glory that awaits you.  It means that any act of love, no matter how small or how hidden from the world’s gaze, is indeed the act of a saint.  Yes, the saintly act of caring for a grandchild or a lonely student, the saintly act of giving a meal to the hungry or  welcome to the stranger, or an act of unacknowledged generosity, the saintly act of inviting someone into the grace of Jesus Christ,  the saintly act of loving without expectation or agenda.  And you, you are these saints, for you have been purified by what poet Emily Dickinson called that thing with feathers, hope.  And your hope is certain, for when Christ Jesus is revealed in the fullness of his love, a love that spans eternity and yet grips even the smallest of moments, you too will become what you already are: saints of the Most High, beloved of Christ Jesus.  And oh that woman, her name was Dorothy Hill, and she now basks in the eternal splendor of the Father.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Oct. 30, 2011

Romans 3:19-28
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished-- 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. 27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. 

John 8:31-36
31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." 33 They answered him, "We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?" 34 Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

I do not know how many of you caught this last Sunday evening, but on the television program Sixty Minutes,  there was an incredible interview with Steve Jobs biographer, Walter Isaacson.  Now, the fact that is authorized biography was published only three weeks after Jobs’ death would have made the interview fascinating in its own right, but there was more to it than that. In addition to sketching the private life of one of our time’s geniuses, his adoption and upbringing, how he started Apple Computers, the breakthroughs of the Imac, Ipod, Iphone and all the rest, Isaacson’s interview also revealed Jobs’ refusal to undergo surgery for a pancreatic tumor while it was still manageable.  The failure to do so and the hope that less invasive treatment techniques would work allowed the cancer to spread, eventually killing a man whose creativity and vision have forever changed the way that our culture functions.  When pressed by the interviewer as to “how a smart man could do such a stupid thing,” Isaacson responded that Jobs had a tendency towards magical thinking, believing that a problem can be avoided until it essentially disappears.  Now, it was this same sort of imagination and utter will power that led to some of the downright coolest gadgets that we now enjoy.  But it was also a blindness that, in very real terms, ended up costing Jobs’ his life.
            What is so very instructive about this story is that it demonstrates the innate human capacity for denial, and it is the same reality voiced by the question, “how could such a smart man do such a stupid thing?”  The trick, though, in attempting to answer that question is that it really has nothing at all to do with intelligence, but with something far more fundamental, something that we could begin to name as sin.   This denial is something that we humans all share, from little children to the late Steve Jobs, may he rest in peace.  You can see this everywhere in our midst, as we attempt to manage away guilt, to minimize pain, to believe that we are utterly in control of our destinies, both in the present and eternal sense.  Yes, this is the dark side of what it means to be human, this believe that we, like those Temple leaders battling Jesus, have not need of a freedom that is more radical than anything we can work up from inside ourselves, or anything we achieve through our politics, our creations and exertions of will and effort.  Yes, we can be dumbfounded by the Temple leader’s suggestion that they have never been slaves to anyone, given that the Lord first called the nation Israel out of slavery in Egypt, to say nothing of them being exiled in Babylon and then, even as they are having this discussion, occupied by the mighty hand of Rome.  No doubt, the Temple leaders are exercising a bit of selective memory here, but the issue runs deeper than needing to revisit their Intro to Jewish History course notes.  Instead, what we see at work is the same reality that kept Steve Jobs from getting that surgery; the blinding effects that sin has on the way the world is understood.  For make no mistake, this denial, this refusal to see the depth of the problem, this belief that, in the end, we can work it out on our own, this is something that we share with the Temple leaders, with a sixteen century German monk named Martin Luther and with that technological wizard named Steve Jobs.  For this is what it means to confess that we are indeed sinners; it means to face squarely the fact that we are in a mess from which we simply cannot extract ourselves, no matter our wit and wisdom, our proud religious heritage, whether we be children of Abraham or children of Martin Luther. 
            Thankfully, though, that is only the first act of the story, for here again these sweet words from St. Paul, “but now.”  Yes, this terror at our own mortality, this fear that we will be forgotten, that our greed and selfishness is all that is left for us, that is not the whole story, for there is yet another word to be heard. “But now,” and on these words, the whole of reality hinges.  “But now,” says St. Paul, “a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known,” and it is the righteousness, the freedom, that stands right in front of the Temple Leaders, the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  It is the righteousness of a God who has joined divinity to our flesh and from the cross offers us a freedom that is beyond our words, beyond our efforts. It is the freedom that comes from dying to our need to control and manipulate God and neighbor, and instead rising into the warm light of a Christ who gives without ceasing.  Yes, it is the righteousness that comes not from denial, fear or our futile attempts to manipulate the world around us, but a righteousness that allows God to be God, a righteousness that revels in the good things that God gives, and in the peace that the Christ lavishes on you all. Indeed, it is a righteousness that allows us to be honest about ourselves, honest about out fears and our failings, knowing that we are yet loved, yet cared for by the Christ who forgives sinners, and yes this occurrence, this realization that we are loved and forgiven by Christ, this will always strike us as strange, as bizarre.  In the words of Martin Luther, “For (Christ) is near us and in us, but always in a form which is strange to us, not in the appearance of glory but in humility and gentleness.”  And it is this strange mercy of God that empowers us to love one another, to love the whole of God’s creation without concern for whether or not we are being noticed. 
            And as we celebrate Reformation Sunday, which is really a celebration of one man, Father Luther, being found by this grace, by Christ’s strange and gentle righteousness, there is no better way to again enter the story than through the baptism of Lillian.  For this is one place, the font, where this righteousness gets enacted.  For it is in these waters, these waters that are joined to Christ, that Lillian will be put to death and raised into the new life of Christ Jesus.  And all this will happen to her before she can speak or decide, so intent is Christ on making her a beloved child of God that he will not wait.  And, truth be told, you and I are no different from this precious babe.  We, too, have been given a righteousness, given a peace, given a joy that we could have never anticipated or produced, that “strange” righteousness that comes from the Christ who is so very gentle, so very loving to us all.  So, then, dear people, enjoy this: enjoy the fact that God in Christ knows you more deeply than you know yourself and loves you totally and without condition.  Enjoy the fact that your lives are secured by the God of cross and empty tomb, and that the baptismal waters that were poured over you named as a child of God.  Revel in the goodness of your neighbor, knowing that they, too, are beloved of this God, and that we are now given the freedom to care for them without agenda or stipulation.  For the Son has indeed made you free.  In Jesus’ name, amen.