Crazy Talk (sermon 11/29/15 – First Sunday in Advent)

advent wreath week1

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”- Jeremiah 33:14-16

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Today’s first Lectionary reading, from Jeremiah, is very short – here, listen to it again: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time, I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called” The LORD is our righteousness.”

Advent is all about looking forward to what’s coming. In the Lectionary texts, we’ll hear narratives of people expressing hope in what appears to be hopeless situations, and this reading is certainly no exception. Throughout much of the book of Jeremiah, the prophet has been telling the king, and the people, that things are going to go really poorly for them. He’s warned them of troubles that are headed their way. Running contrary to all the prophets’ personal blogs and websites, and what he read in all the books like “Smart, Career-Enhancing Things a Prophet Should Tell a King,” Jeremiah told the king that he was going to fail in battle, that his opponents would overrun the country and obliterate the city and even take the king himself into captivity. And, as you might expect, Jeremiah’s words didn’t make him many friends. He was jailed at one point, and thrown down a cistern and left to die at another. Even these words we heard today were uttered while he was cooling his heels in the king’s prison for telling the king things he didn’t want to hear. But now, these words were different. Now, while he’s in prison, and the Babylonians, the superpower, had overrun the countryside and had laid siege to Jerusalem, Jeremiah starts to tell the people “The days are surely coming…” Everything is going to be fine, even better than before. God will raise up someone from the line of King David who will set everything right, once and for all.

It was foolishness. It was nonsense; it was crazy talk. Anyone who was listening to him at all at this point must have wondered if he was getting high while sitting in his prison cell. And yet, there are the words. Contrary to all common sense and what everyone knew was about to happen, Jeremiah keeps saying, “The days are surely coming…”

It’s on just that hope – that crazy-talk – that our entire faith rests. During Advent, we remember the improbable, outrageous way that God chooses to enter into our world and begin what Jeremiah foretold – coming to us in the flesh, as a helpless baby in a manger. And we’re called to believe the unbelievable, that through this same child, God will finally usher in the fullness of that same promise.

It would be easy for us to look at the news, with all the bombings, the shootings, all the examples of human beings being atrocious to one another, to think that Jeremiah’s words are as pie-in-the-sky, naïve, crazy as the people of ancient Judah must have considered them.

And yet… and yet, we can’t stop hearing them, and praying and hoping against hope that they’re true. That the promise is real. That there is cause for hope. That somehow, all that’s wrong in the world, and all that’s wrong in ourselves, will finally be set right.

The whole season of Advent is our testimony to this hope that we hold in our hearts, against the logic of the world and against critics who would say we just invented this whole hope thing, this religion thing, to try to make sense out of an existence that’s really meaningless and hopeless.

I admit that some days, when I look at the world, I wonder if they’re right and if all we’re doing here is just whistling in the dark just because we don’t know what else to do.

But then there are other days. These days; the days of Advent. The days of hearing Jeremiah’s words, and the words of the other prophets, and the words of the one born in the manger all grown up, and taking it all together, knowing somewhere deep in our hearts that whether we can explain it or not, there really is something more going on here – something more than reason can explain; something more than the cynics can dismiss. It’s something that assures us that the hope Jeremiah talks about, and that Jesus talks about, is real. And it really does give us hope. So with that hope in our hearts we light candles, and have mini-dramas, and sing O Come, O Come, Emmanuel – and really mean it.

Thanks be to God.

Then They Will See (sermon 11/15/15)

son of man

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

“As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

“But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days. And if anyone says to you at that time, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘Look! There he is!’ —do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be alert; I have already told you everything.

“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 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.

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Since I didn’t really grow up in the church, the first time I ever encountered these words of Jesus was when I was in my teens, when I’d become part of a “parachurch” Christian youth group. In between weekly gatherings where we did almost all of the strange activities that Rachel Held Evans described in her book that the Book Group just discussed, and a few that she didn’t; and the periodic field trip to some amusement park or the beach, we’d have weekly Bible studies. These studies usually centered around how the scripture of the day spoke to the most pressing issues in our lives at the moment – how the physics test I’d blown was going to affect my GPA and the college I’d get into, or how our parents just didn’t understand us and must hate us, or how we really liked some unnamed other person but they didn’t even know we existed. Looking back on it, I never realized how many Bible passages must speak directly to that particular issue, based on how many times that became the topic of conversation

But beyond those general discussions, when the merely occasional group attendees weren’t around and it was just those of us who were apparently in the inner circle, and we wanted to be Really Serious about Bible study, we’d start to talk about passages like this one. The passages people said dealt with the “end times.” The end of the age. The Rapture. We’d read these passages, and cross reference them against Hal Lindsey’s hot new book “The Late, Great Planet Earth.” We’d count the years from the establishment of the nation of Israel and debate just how many years there were in a “generation,” since one of them wouldn’t pass from the beginning of a Jewish state to Jesus’ return. We’d scan the news for any sort of thing that would point, at least in our minds, to the rise of the Antichrist, the Mark of the Beast – credit cards and bar codes were particularly suspicious things, I remember – and we’d talk about the imminent arrival of years of persecution, plague, pestilence, and famine. Ah, those were good times.

In fact, a lot of people have pointed to Jesus’ words here as a description of the end of the age – the end of this broken world and the ushering in of God’s direct rule over a renewed and transformed world. If you want to impress, or more likely annoy, your friends with a bit of trivia, in serious religious discussion we call Jesus’ second coming the “eschaton.” There you go; use the word at parties at your own risk.

On the other hand, a lot of scholars and historians have pointed out that most of what Jesus described here actually did occur, just less than 40 years after the end of his earthly ministry – when the Roman occupation brutally crushed a Jewish rebellion by slaughtering thousands of people and completely obliterating the Jewish Temple forever, in 70 CE. During that slaughter, the Jesus-followers in Jerusalem remembered these particular words of Jesus – that when they saw these things occurring, to flee the city – to head into the hills and hide for their safety. That’s exactly what these Christians did, and it made them despised by their Jewish families and friends, who considered them cowards and traitors because they didn’t stand up and try to defend the city against the Romans. If there were one specific moment you could point to when Jews and Christians became two totally different groups, instead of Christians being a subset of Judaism, this was it.

So what is it, then? Was Jesus predicting something that was going to happen in the first century, or sometime in the distant future? Or both? Or did someone just put these words into his mouth, to try to make sense out of the destruction of Jerusalem and where they were supposed to go from there?

For myself, I’ve long ago put aside the way of understanding Jesus’ words here the way I heard them as a teenager. It’s been a long time since I tried to figure out whether Jesus was going to return next Tuesday at 2:30 or sometime in the next millennium. And the older I get, and the more I think about these things, I’m not sure we can really even say with any certitude what it means when Jesus talks about returning. Is his return an actual, physical thing? Personally I think so, but I can’t say that with any real certitude, and to be honest, it isn’t a dealbreaker to my overall faith. Is his return something physical, or something just spiritual? I don’t think we can know for sure.

And maybe that’s important, because I think it speaks to what I take home from Jesus’ words here. Because whatever Jesus-in-the-world might mean in the future, it means something now. We’re called to be Christ in the world, now, in our moment. We believe that we’re united spiritually with Christ, with the very Spirit of God, and that in that union, we’re called to be the face, the heart, the hands, the feet of Christ in the world right now. Christ, present, never-really-having-left in the world, every single day. Maybe when Jesus talked about all of these calamities that we’re supposed to watch for – and honestly, when has there ever been a time that we didn’t see all of them? – and then saying, “they will see the Son of man coming in the clouds,” and God sending out angels in response – maybe what he was foreseeing, predicting, at least in part, wasn’t so much about him, but about us. Maybe that’s what “they” would see – us, stepping into those situations, bringing the power of Christ’s love and peace and healing into them. Maybe *we* are the Son of Man moving in, in the wake of all those things. Those wars and rumors of wars. And earthquakes. And famines. And persecution, and hatred, and suicide bombings and mass shootings and bloodbaths perpetrated in the name of God. Maybe this is Christ telling us to do whatever we can do to reach out and be agents of healing in those times. It’s the message of the Kingdom of God. It’s the message of “This Little Light of Mine” – to be millions of individual lights, believing and working together, letting our combined light shine into all the darkest places of our world, and of human hearts. That’s the mission of the Church; that’s what we’re here for. That’s what Christ established the Church for. To concentrate our faith, and our efforts, on that – and to let the future take care of itself.

Thanks be to God.

It Mite Be (sermon 11/8/15)

widows mites

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” – Mark 12:38-44

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The envelope arrived in her mailbox looking like so many of the ones that came before it. Her first name printed in bold red ink, asking for her attention to this urgent request. It was the perfect teaser to get her to open the envelope, but truth be told, she’d have opened it anyway. What was the latest news from the Reverend’s ministry? What was the urgent situation that had caused him to send out this letter? We’re so close to reaching a breakthrough for the gospel in this remote location of the world; we just need a bit more resources to make it happen. Or we suffered a setback leaving our ministry financially strapped. If you could just be a faithful servant of God and give just a little bit more, just a little bit more. You’ve been one of our most faithful supporters in the past, won’t you please help us through this current time of need? I just know that God will send you a special blessing for being so generous.

So because it was such an emergency, she sat right down and wrote out a check for the Reverend. It wasn’t much, only ten dollars, but it was all she could spare. And then she went back to her dinner – the fourth time that week that dinner was a can of tuna and a small portion of store-brand macaroni and cheese, served with the second cup of tea made from the same tea bag. Some variety would be nice, she thought, but everything is just so expensive these days, and you just had to have your priorities.

In the portion of Mark’s gospel that today’s Lectionary story is part of, Jesus has been criticizing the scribes, the religious leadership of the time, for any number of things. At the beginning of this particular story, Jesus is blasting the scribes for, as he put it, “devour(ing) widow’s houses,” in order to preserve their own luxury and perks. And right after that comment, Mark turns our attention to the scene that plays out in today’s reading. You can see it in your mind: the wealthy people dropping large sums of money in the offering, but it was still just coming out of their surplus – they weren’t going to miss it; they hardly felt any sense of sacrifice giving it up, if they felt any sacrifice at all. And then we see her – a poor widow, dropping in her two mites, these two tiny little copper coins – next to worthless, really, but still, it was all she had. She gave it because apparently she’d been led to believe by the scribes that that was what a good, faithful person should do. Her giving was most likely a sign of great faithfulness, and her act probably came from a pure place in her heart, just as was the case with the woman who got the Reverend’s latest urgent appeal. But based on the way the whole story is being told, it doesn’t seem like Jesus’ actual point was to praise the widow or to say that what she’d done was the right thing to do. Truth be told, it just might be a very different point Jesus is making. It seems more to me that, without taking anything away from the widow’s faithfulness or her good intentions, Jesus is incredulous at hat he’d just seen. I hear Jesus’ words in the context of what he’d just said before this. In that voice, Jesus seems to be saying, “Just look – do you see that? That’s the kind of harm that the scribes’ words cause; making even the poorest and most vulnerable fear God so much that they think they have to do something like that in order to gain God’s favor.”

This is another one of those texts that show up during stewardship pledge season, and it’s offered up in order for us all to seriously consider how we understand stewardship as part of our overall life of faith – that stewardship isn’t just paying our dues in order to be part of the club. Stewardship, the way we handle our personal finances to support God’s mission, is itself a spiritual discipline, just like prayer, or any other spiritual discipline, through which we express our love for God, and through which our faith is deepened and strengthened.

And most of the times when we hear sermons about this widow, she’s praised for her faith – which is indeed very great – and that we should all strongly consider whether we’re using our finances in the way God would want us to – which we should. But despite that, I can’t preach about this story in the same way that it usually is – that the woman is a model for us to aspire to, even if we never reach her degree of faith and commitment. To be honest, based on the total context of the story, I see the woman’s actions as a result of spiritual abuse, extortion, ecclesiastical malpractice, on the part of the religious leaders who had made her believe that such a total sacrifice, even in her extreme poverty, was what God would want from her.

So, here in the midst of our stewardship campaign, am I saying to not have the same mindset of the widow who gave all she had to the offering? Well, yes and no. Clearly, almost all of us could take a look at our stewardship giving and realize that the way God would prioritize our spending and giving would be different than the choices we make ourselves, and we should move to correct that. Most of us should truly be giving more to support God’s mission through our stewardship giving to the church.

On the other hand, in the midst of all the money talk this time of year, and the usually soft-pedalled but clear message to consider increasing our pledges, there are also those of us who can be made to feel guilty for not giving more. Some who are on fixed, and small, incomes who, if we aren’t careful, can be made to feel like they’re freeloaders, church-squatters who aren’t pulling their fair share just because they aren’t giving at some imagined level of giving. We all need to be very careful during our stewardship campaign to not make the same mistake as the scribes that Jesus was skewering for offering the same message. Sometimes, even if we aren’t trying to say that, that’s the way it can come across. I know; I’ve felt that same guilt when I was at my absolute poorest – when I was having those four tuna dinners per week. And I’m sure that many if not most of us here have been there at one point of their life or another, even if you aren’t there now.

I guess I can’t say it any more bluntly than this: if you have a limited income, for whatever reason, I’m speaking directly and specifically to you: If you’ve carefully considered what you can do to support the church and you’re doing that, do not feel like you have to go even further, depriving yourself of the things you need in life like the widow in the story did. I don’t believe God wanted her to do what she did, and I don’t believe God wants you to do the same thing, either, just because you think that’s how you’ll stay in God’s good graces.

Because the good news here is about exactly that – God’s good graces. God’s grace, God’s love and acceptance and mercy, are already yours. You can’t buy God’s love, there’s no giving God more of your money in order to get some special blessing. God already loves you and keeps you in the palm of his hands. You don’t need to feel any guilt about how you can or can’t financially support the church. If you’re in a precarious financial situation in your life, to be perfectly honest, the church should be reaching out trying to find ways to help support you, not the other way around. Of course, that would mean that the rest of us who are more financially able would need to increase our giving to make it possible.

Is that what Jesus’ message really is here? You never know – it just might be.

Thanks be to God.