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.