Shock and Awe

(sermon 12/3/17)

manger

Isaiah 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

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Mark 13:24-37

“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.

“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. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 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. 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, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

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He looked around and saw a world turned upside down. Living under a government that had taken away people’s rights, their freedoms, their wealth. Every day the news chronicled yet another way that things were going wrong, and every day he thought this was rock bottom, things couldn’t get any worse, and yet, every day, they did. People were filled with uncertainty and dread, and coming to believe that things would never get any better, they lived their lives in the hell of lost hope.

That was what the prophet Isaiah saw as he and his fellow countrymen were living in exile as slaves serving the Babylonian Empire, which had conquered Jerusalem and Judea, destroying the Temple and life as the Judeans had known it. They had believed that in a very real and special way, God dwelled in that Temple, and the only way the Babylonians could have captured and destroyed it, they felt, would have been if God had left the Temple, abandoning them to the Babylonians – and if that was the case, then what hope was left? Many of the Judeans were angry at God. Many of them gave up believing that God had ever existed and been present at all. No all-powerful and loving God would have ever let something like this happen.

That was the situation that prompted Isaiah to write the words we heard this morning, calling, begging, even demanding that God return and save them – and to do it in a big, dramatic, decisive way. Shock and awe. Earthquakes, fire, nations trembling in fear; make sure there’s no doubt who’s in charge, and that the good people would be vindicated and the bad ones punished. God, if you really exist, come down here and set things right.

Today, we start the journey of Advent, week by week considering a different aspect of the meaning of Jesus’ birth, and the incoming of God into our world and our human existence. This morning, we think about the particular aspect of the hope that Jesus’ birth offers. Hope is essential to us. It’s the water that sustains our roots; without it, our life itself withers and dies. In the facing of the biggest challenges and setbacks, when people were the most discouraged, the gay-rights activist Harvey Milk used to say “You’ve got to give ‘em hope!” because he knew that without it, everything was lost, and he was right.

Hope is what makes it possible to see past the hard realities and setbacks of the present, to the goodness that can, and will, eventually follow. And it’s hope that enables us to somehow see God in the midst of all of it.

Many times, when we’re struggling to have hope for something better than our present, for things to be set right, just like Isaiah, we want God to come with a big, bold show of force, something that won’t leave any doubt about what’s going on – something like a literal playing out of the words Jesus uses to describe his return, the end of the age, in today’s gospel lesson. Darkened skies, clouds rolling back, ominous events better than any Hollywood special effects team could come up with. However each of us imagines that culmination of this age, we have to realize that in some way, literal or otherwise, what Jesus describes is going to happen eventually, and because of that we can have hope.

He sat in the assisted living center that he’d been living in for the past couple of years. All of his life he’d been in control of his own life. He’d always been on the go, physically and mentally. Now, he spent his days in this little shoebox of a mini-apartment, and it might as well have been a real shoebox – he felt as if someone had just put him up on a shelf in a stockroom, out of the normal flow of daily life, left there and largely forgotten. His physical abilities had definitely declined, but mentally he was as sharp as ever, and it made his furious when the staff, and just as often, his family and friends, talked at him – and it was *at* him, almost never actually *with* him –  they treated him as if he were a helpless little child. The whole system seemed to be designed to strip away every shred of human dignity he had left. And at some point almost every day, the prayer entered his mind: “God, where are you? Do you even exist at all? I want to have hope, but right now I’m so mad at you that I wonder if you are even there, or if I’ve just been wasting my breath all these years. I deserve better than this! God, if you really exist, come set things right.”

In Jesus’ birth, God has come to set things right. In his birth, we see that God loves us so much that God actually chooses to live among us, as one of us – knowing all of our joys, sorrows, fears, doubts, suffering, and eventually, while on the cross, even experiencing the feeling of being completely abandoned by God, and the hopelessness that comes along with it. Understanding this about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection allows us to know that when we experience the same things, God hasn’t abandoned us any more than Jesus was abandoned. And that just as God vindicated Jesus through his resurrection, God will vindicate us, too. Looking at Jesus’ birth, and everything that followed, we can be assured, and have hope, because we can know that even in our darkest moments, God hasn’t abandoned us at all, but is actually right there in the midst of those moments right alongside us.

In Jesus’ birth, God entered the world not in the dramatic way that Isaiah wanted, or the way that we might want intervention today, or the way that people often imagine Jesus’ return. Instead of shock and awe, when that intervention actually happened, God appeared humbly, in the middle of nowhere, out of the spotlight, born to nobody parents that the world would consider losers; not with trumpets blaring and riding in on clouds of glory, but with sheep bleating and lying helplessly in hay in a manger surrounded by animal manure. The thundering voice of God now the frightened whimper of a newborn.

Maybe entering the world this way actually makes it easier for us to find hope, because now we know that we can find God in the everyday. We can find the face of Christ in the face of anyone, without having to wait to see him in the clouds, in the sweet by-and-by. We can find the love of God in the love we receive, and give, to one another.

In Mark’s gospel lesson today, Jesus doesn’t tell us why we, or he himself, would have to endure hardship and suffering, and why God wouldn’t spare us from it before the culmination of all things. He just promises that whatever the actual details of it happening, when it’s all said and done, it really will be all said and done. Things will be set right. And it will be good, and just, and peaceful, and loving, and reconciled, and it will be forever. And it all starts to unfold with the birth of a child in a stable. And whenever and however it does finally come to completion, it will be so dramatic and different that people will understand it as being a time when the current heaven and earth actually passed away. Speaking just for myself, that will be all the shock and awe I’ll need.

Thanks be to God.

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So Now What?

trashed-campaign-signs

(sermon 11/13/16)

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord. – Isaiah 65:17-25

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When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” – Luke 21:5-19

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It usually isn’t a good idea to try to base a sermon on a melding of two different Lectionary texts of the day, but I think this Sunday might be an exception. In today’s first reading, the prophet Isaiah tells us about that final, ultimate future coming of the Kingdom of God on earth – a time of joy, and peace, and contentment. A time of new beginning full of hope, the dawn of a new era where all the wrongs of the past will be corrected. A time of that all-encompassing kind of peaceful existence that the Hebrew language captures in the single word shalom. In the gospel text, Jesus is also telling his disciples about future times, too, not the same time to be sure, but still, a future time. It would be a very different kind of time and experience from what Isaiah was describing. This is a future full of suffering, pain, persecution, and refection. A time when the world is not going to respect, or be ordered based on the way that Jesus’ disciples would understand the world should be like.

If you’ve logged onto Facebook or watched any news in the last several days since Tuesday’s election, you know that there are a lot of people in this country who feel that the election of Donald Trump was the ushering in of a joyful new future, the dawning of a hopeful new era for our country, a time when past wrongs will be set right, and life will be good and hopeful – not really in the fullest sense of the vision that Isaiah laid out for us, but something similar to it. And you also know that there are a lot of people – actually a bit more people, looking at the actual popular vote, but still, on a national level it’s about a 50/50 split – who are shocked and crushed by the outcome of the election. They’re afraid that his presidency is going to result in a regressive time that will lead to increased injustice, inequality, discrimination, and violence. An existence much more similar to the  dark picture that Jesus painted in today’s text.

As I said in this week’s email, Springdale Church is certainly made up of people who voted for both presidential candidates, but based on conversations I’ve had with a number of you this past week, in person, on the phone, or via email – not to mention your Facebook posts – it seems pretty obvious that this congregation leaned significantly toward supporting Hillary Clinton, and is now more in the “fear and dread” category when thinking of a Trump presidency. There’s a split here, a divide. It isn’t anything near the national 50/50 split, but there is still a split nonetheless.

On a national, secular level, this split is significant because it doesn’t seem to be a simple difference of opinion on how we achieve mutually accepted social goals. We aren’t just disagreeing on what the fairest marginal tax rates are in order to pay for our governance; of whether we should or shouldn’t accept some treaty with one country or another; or the best way to fund our schools to achieve academic excellence for our kids. The split we see nationwide now is much deeper than that. I think we’re in the midst of a fundamental disagreement over what our ultimate end goals should actually be. It’s a fundamental disagreement over our basic understanding of what life in our society, our culture, our nation, should be all about.

So what do we, as Christ’s Church, as this particular congregation, do with that kind of divide? What do we do, how do we direct our fear, if we’re fearful over the election; and how do we channel our joy, if we’re joyful over it? And how do we stay in relationship with family members and friends, maybe the person we’ve sat next to in the pew for decades, when we know they voted for that other candidate; the one that we can’t understand how anyone could have voted for – especially in our context, how could anyone who professes to be a Christian have possibly voted for ________? Fill in the blank, because make no mistake, I’ve heard that exact same comment, verbatim, made by people on both sides of this political divide. How do we move forward, and at the moment, not thinking about that question on a secular level, but specifically for us here, in this place, as members of the kingdom of God, as followers of Jesus Christ?

I guess all I can really say to that question is this:

It really doesn’t matter who you or the person sitting next to you this morning voted for; and it doesn’t matter who won or lost the election. It doesn’t matter – but I say that with a very big, bold, asterisk at the end of that sentence. This statement comes with a condition, a qualifier, specific to all of us who have professed, at the baptismal font or any number of other places that “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.” And that qualifier is this:

It doesn’t matter who we voted for, and it doesn’t matter who won or lost, as long as we always remember that our primary and ultimate allegiance is to Jesus Christ, and to Christ alone. Not to Donald Trump, or Hillary Clinton, or any other politician or political party. It doesn’t matter who won the election, as long as we continue to live out the commandments of our God, to always work to help, and lift up, and work on behalf of the downtrodden. The oppressed. The marginalized in our society. To care for the poor, the sick, and the hungry. To care for and provide hospitality to the alien, the foreigner, the immigrant, the refugee, living in our midst. To be compassionate to those who are imprisoned. To work for justice for those who are immorally discriminated against, whose human and civil rights are denied, whether in the guise of legality or otherwise.

As long as we who say “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior” continue to hear and obey those commands given to us by that Lord, and as long as we hold our leaders accountable – supporting them when they support those goals, and opposing them when they don’t, regardless of whether they’re a Republican or Democrat, and regardless of whether we’re a Republican or Democrat – then it doesn’t matter who we voted for. Then it doesn’t matter who lives in the White House. And if we do those things, then we’ll most certainly be able to continue on in positive, loving relationships with our family members, and our friends and coworkers, and that person sitting next to you in the pews, because even though the nation might be divided from a secular viewpoint about what we should be all about, we have no reason to be divided here – in this place, serving this Lord. Yes, we have legislators and governors and judges and congresspeople and even a president, but here, we also have a King – a King who wasn’t picked by popular vote or the Electoral College; a King who doesn’t have to worry about term limits or polls. And that King, our King, has given us a clear direction, a clear understanding of how we’re called to live and together serving that King, and living and serving one another in this world. It’s in that King where we find our salvation, and hope, and yes, even our joy.

So whether we’re happy or sad about the outcome of this election, in the end we can all be joyful, because regardless of any twists and turns, regardless of the difficulties that Jesus told us we’d endure at various times, we already know the end of the story. We know how the movie ends; we’ve literally read the last chapter of the book. We know that our future is that final, great, shalom-filled existence that Isaiah described for us. On any given day, in any given year, we might be encouraged or discouraged based on one given election or another, but we’ll still be hopeful, even joyful, because of who we call our King.

Thanks be to God.

Squeaky Wheel

(sermon 10/16/16)

scary-judge

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” – Luke 18:1-8

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A number of years ago, when my cousin’s son Jack was maybe seven or eight years old, our two families were out at a pizza place for dinner. And next to the checkout counter was a freezer chest filled with all sorts of ice cream desserts – Popsicles, Drumsticks, Klondike Bars, and so on. Jack really wanted an ice cream bar, but his dad kept telling him, no, no, no. But Jack kept up with his continuous attack, whining, crying, complaining, begging, getting louder and louder and getting the attention of other people seated around us, until finally my cousin snapped and said, “All right! I’ll get you your ice cream; just be quiet!” So he went over and bought him the ice cream and brought it back to the table. Jack took the ice cream, and as he started unwrapping it, he smiled and said, “See, I knew if I kept that up, he’d finally give in and I’d get my way.”

I never knew my cousin could move so quickly. In a flash, he jumped up, grabbed the ice cream, and threw it in the trash. Then, he guided Jack outside to their car, where I’m not certain, but I suspect they continued their conversation in a more tactile way.

Whether it was ice cream or something else, I suspect most of us have some experience with a scenario like this one, whether as kids or parents or both. And most of us have seen the same thig play out at work, or in other places – the idea that it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the attention. So when we hear these words from Jesus today, about the widow hounding the unjust, self-centered judge until he finally caves in and gives her what she wants, we all have some firsthand understanding of what’s going on.

It would be easy to hear these words and get the impression that Jesus’ advice to always keep praying was advocating the same “squeaky wheel” philosophy for prayer; that even though God is good and loving, sometimes we need to war God down in order to get whatever it is that we’re praying for.

But I don’t think that’s Jesus’ intention. In fact, he says bluntly in this passage that we don’t have to wear God down like that at all; that with God it’s the exact opposite. God will quickly, without any delay, hear us, and help us, and answer our prayers.

And I have to admit, this is one of those places where Jesus’ words can get troubling for me. Just like so many of you, I’ve personally experienced times when I’ve prayed deeply for something, and not selfishly but with good and selfless motivation, and not gotten what I’d prayed for. And I’ve sat and prayed with other people in times of real crisis – good, decent people who were praying persistently and form a place of compassion, only to see the hopes expressed in their prayers be denied. So sometimes I struggle with these words of Jesus. As I do, all I can think is that if Jesus isn’t crazy and delusional, or if he isn’t deliberately lying for some reason, then I must be misunderstanding his point. So thinking about these words again, what could his point be?

Maybe I’m trying to make the question more complicated than it is. Pastors can do that, sometimes. Maybe his point is just to encourage persistence in prayer, despite the outward appearance that it isn’t effective. Imagine how many times it must have seemed to the widow that her efforts were just a waste of time, not accomplishing anything, but in the end, it became clear that it was all a necessary part of the process – this allowing of herself to always remain hopeful that a good outcome was possible. Not guaranteed, mind you. We can only assume that the widow always remained realistic, and that she must have lived her days assuming the unlikelihood of getting her way, even while she kept working for the unlikely positive outcome. But she kept up hope, knowing that the positive outcome was possible. Maybe it really is that simple. We all understand that God’s ways aren’t our ways, and that God’s vantage point sees the totality of an issue while we can only see a very narrow part of it. Because of that, maybe Jesus’ whole point is just to keep that hope – to have that faith. We aren’t supposed to keep praying because we need to be a squeaky wheel to get God to notice us; we’re supposed to do it because we know that, as Jesus promised, God is answering our prayers, promptly, and in the best way possible as seen from God’s broader vantage point. And knowing that gives us the hope, which comes out of our faith, to keep praying.

This isn’t a long sermon. It isn’t a particularly deep sermon. It doesn’t dig into complex theological positions and arguments about the nature and efficacy of prayer of various sorts. It’s actually pretty simple. It’s simple because Jesus’ words were simple, too: in ways that we can’t always see or totally understand, God’s got this, so in a gospel equivalent of a Nike commercial, Jesus tells us Just do it. Just keep praying. Keep hoping. Keep trusting. And so we do.

Thanks be to God.

Silence! (sermon 2/1/15)

capernaum synagogue

The ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum, on a much sunnier day than when I visited it. This synagogue dates to the 4th century CE, after Jesus’ time, but is built on the foundations of the earlier synagogue, where Jesus would presumably have done what we read about in this gospel text.

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, [Jesus] entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. – Mark 1:21-28

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When I was in seminary, I had a class where I had to translate a fairly lengthy portion of an Old Testament passage – a pronouncement from one of the prophets; I don’t remember which one – where, at one point in the translation in which God calls out “Silence!” And as I translated that, I couldn’t help but laugh because it made me think of something else. A lot of you are probably familiar with the ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, and his one character, Achmed the Dead Terrorist. If you are, you know that this particular ventriloquist dummy, this character, is just a comical-looking skeleton with wild eyes, a turban, and a beard. Achmed was supposedly a suicide bomber who ended up dying in an accident as he was building his bomb, and part of the routine is Achmed telling a number of pretty off-the-wall, politically incorrect jokes – and his one recurring, trademark bits is getting angry at the audience and yelling in his put-on accent, “Silence!…… I keel you!”

And try as I might, I just couldn’t get that stupid line out of my head as I translated this passage from the Old Testament. When I did the translation work for the professor, I had even written that line into the translation as a joke, and it was only at the last moment that I deleted it, worried that the professor wouldn’t have as much of a sense of humor as I did, and realizing that things that seemed like a good idea at two in the morning don’t always look so good in the light of day.

I couldn’t help but remember that incident, and laugh all over again, when I read today’s gospel passage. I pictured Jesus, teaching there in the synagogue in Capernaum, and him calling out to the possessed man, “Silence!”…. and some smart alek calls out from a back pew in the synagogue, “… I keel you!” Well, not likely, I suppose. I need to say that I think it’s okay to allow ourselves to laugh about things like this; I believe that Jesus has a pretty well-developed sense of humor and I don’t think we’re going to be banished to hell for something in the Bible making us laugh, as long as we get through that layer and consider what’s really important, what’s really going on in this story and is there some significance for us in it?

This is the first story, the kickoff, of Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s gospel, and that makes it an important signal of where the gospel is going to go; what it’s primary point or message about Jesus is going to go. The people who wrote the gospels were telling a story and trying to convey a particular overarching message. Just like when I sit down to write a sermon, the first thing I determine is the one, single point that I want to make, and then I’ll try to shape everything I do in the sermon to illustrate that point, shaping the content and tone and the rhythm of the sermon all to best convey that message. I might weave around the point a bit to get there, but the idea is to never stray too far from that overarching point. The writers of the gospels worked in much the same way. They were all starting from the facts of Jesus’ life, but each one of the writers shaped the story in a particular way, to emphasize a particular point. They chose how to arrange the story, how to sequence it, how to pace it, what words to use or what stories to include or not include, or how to enhance or shorten the stories, all to help them in their goal. They were storytellers, in the best sense of that term, rather than historians or news anchors, each trying to convey a slightly different overarching point about Jesus and the importance of his life and teaching. That’s why we end up with places where the gospels disagree with one another, and sometimes in ways that can’t just be easily explained. When the early church fathers decided to include the four gospels we have as part of our scriptures, they weren’t idiots. They recognized the inconsistencies in the stories; but the point was that perfect historical accuracy wasn’t the important point – the point being emphasized in the particular gospel, about Jesus and his message and his significance was the important point.

So in that light, we can look at the first thing that each gospel writer focuses on at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry and find a signal of where that writer is going to go with Jesus’ story; what their emphasis is going to be. In Matthew, the first major event is the Sermon on the Mount. In this gospel, Jesus is going to be portrayed as the Great Teacher. In Luke, the story of Jesus’ ministry starts with him preaching in his hometown synagogue, talking about how God has anointed him to bring good news to the poor and outcast. In John, the story starts with Jesus miraculously turning water into wine, and a lot of it, as a sign that Jesus is the eternal God in the flesh. In each of these cases, that becomes the main theme of the gospel, the main point the author is driving at. Teacher, Friend of the Outcast, Cosmic God as Attested to by Miraculous Signs. And here, in Mark, Jesus’ first act is one that showcases his authority and power – power that changes in the entire world, power that shows God is a boundary-breaking God. Time and time again in this gospel, Jesus is portrayed as the incarnate God who breaks through every barrier set up for him, barriers that to Mark’s readers would seem to be impenetrable. The preacher Karoline Lewis has pointed out that through Jesus, God breaks through political, social, religious, ethnic, racial, sexual, and as we can see in this exorcism, even the cosmic forces of good and evil. A key message of Mark is that God is present in and beyond all of those barriers. That’s Mark’s way of understanding what the good news, the gospel, that Christ brings into the world is all about. Jesus is the barrier-breaker, showing people that God is present, God is here, even in all those places behind those supposed barriers, the places supposedly beyond God’s help and power, those places supposedly controlled by powers other than God. Through the authority and power that he shows over and over again in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is God’s “No!”, God’s “Silence!”, to those other powers.

The good news for us is that God is still yelling this “Silence!” to all the powers that would control our lives, too. Those things that we could say “possess” us, and prevent us from living that fullness, that contentedness and “at-peacedness” of life that our Jewish brothers and sisters simply call shalom. Powers like loss. Grief. Depression. Anxiety. Addiction. Illness. Disease. Mark’s message to us is that God is still here, with us, in the midst of all of those powers and more. God has not left us or forsaken us, and while sometimes it doesn’t seem true, we still can be reassured by Mark’s message that God is Here. God is Here. Walking with us, holding us up, and embracing us, through it all. And that God does have the power that some day, some way, all the pain and suffering that we all endure in our own ways will be wiped away, banished, exorcised by God. That was the hopeful way of explaining the gospel in this first gospel written, and it resonates to us even all these years later.

Thanks be to God.

Doodah Parade (Sermon, Palm Sunday, April 13, 2014)

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Matthew 21:1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

*****

Whether we’ve grown up being in church since we were in diapers, or whether we grew up with our only religious exposure being Hollywood movies and television shows, we’ve probably all seen representations, and have our own mental images, of this story that we just heard – Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem in the days leading up to the Passover feast, and his crucifixion and resurrection. But what must this event really have been like? Do you suppose it was really like the Sunday School pictures, or the movie portrayals? What would the average man on the street – what would Joshua Six-Pack have seen and thought if he happened to see this scene unfolding? 

To give a little perspective, it might help to visualize that in Jesus’ time, Jerusalem had a population under normal circumstances of maybe 40,000 people – just slightly larger than Gahanna. But it had a smaller physical footprint than Gahanna, so while it wasn’t huge, it was still a pretty densely populated place. But during major religious festivals like the Passover, Jewish religious pilgrims flowed into Jerusalem from all around the ancient Mediterranean world, ballooning the population of the city to at least a quarter of a million – making an almost overnight change from a city the size of Gahanna to one about the size of Toledo, full of people speaking dozens of languages, and all of them trying to find a place to eat, and sleep, and go to the bathroom; and all of them trying to get the same picture next to the Roman centurion standing guard, or taking videos of the priests making sacrifices at the Temple and uploading them to youTube; and just trying to make their way through the ten-foot-wide streets making the city just a big hot mess and the whole thing was as chaotic and exciting as Times Square at midday. And every year, as part of this, the Romans would stage a big, impressive parade full of pomp and circumstance, and music and flags and war horses and shields and daggers, all as a welcome to the religious pilgrims pouring into the city to worship and celebrate and spend their money – but more importantly, as a show of force, and as a warning to tourist and resident alike to stay in line – to not to make trouble, or the Roman hammer would come down hard. 

But this year, this particular day, on the other side of town, there was another parade going on – Jesus’ entry into the city. On this day, here comes one average looking man riding into town not on a fancy horse like the Roman generals across town, but on a humble little donkey. He’s just ridden in from this little village out on the Mount of Olives – just about the distance between here and the Bob Evans at Crosswoods – and a bunch of the villagers are flocked around him, shouting out religious praises and waving tree branches and throwing their clothing into the street, and as far as the average bystander can see, basically acting like a bunch of crazy people, making as much of an impression as the annual Doodah parade, if even that. And now they’re pushing into the crowd of the city, getting in the way of tourists trying to get across the street to buy a three-pack of cashmere scarves and postcards from the Holy Land. And some tourist asks who this man on the donkey is, and what the demonstration is all about, and one of the country bumpkins says that this is Jesus, the Messiah who’s going to kick out the whole Roman army and establish God’s rule over all the world. And for a moment, the tourist looks at Jesus, and looks at the people around him. And then he nods his head, and pushes his way past them into the postcard shop, noticing the little hubbub in the street, and then forgetting it before they get to the next intersection.

Maybe that isn’t quite the way we tend to picture this event in our minds, but I’ll bet that to the average bystander in Jerusalem that day, it must have been something very much like that. Something whose point was largely missed in the moment. Something that offered a completely different, alternative message to the big show going on all around them. On this day, Jesus enters Jerusalem, and God speaks to humanity, in a way completely different from conventional wisdom and religious hierarchy and the power and might of the government. 

And that’s the way God usually seem to reach out and speak to us, too. We want to hear God, and get answers to the questions in our lives, clearly, in writing, with bells and whistles, and maybe even fireworks if there’s time to schedule them. But God reaches out to us and speaks to us in different ways. Maybe we’re at some crisis point in our life, feeling unloved and unwanted and unimportant to anyone, and maybe the world would be better off without us. And in that moment, God comes to us as a little girl who reaches up and tugs on our shirtsleeve, and at just the right moment, looks into our eyes and smiles and says “I love you” and gives you a big awkward hug around your knees. 

He was having trouble taking some risky step out in faith that he’d been wrestling with, and he wanted some clear-cut, doubt-free direction from God, but what he got as he sat down at the bar at the Old Bag of Nails was a damp, wrinkled cocktail napkin sitting in front of him that the bartender hadn’t scooped up, and someone had scribbled a note on it that said “Do you trust me?” and it was just signed with the letter G. 

She sat at the kitchen table overwhelmed with worry and fear over two dozen stressful situations she was dealing with, and worrying about how she and her husband, and their kids, were going to get through it. As she sat there, she pushed aside a big pile of unpaid bills, just enough to prop her elbows on the tabletop and without even thinking about it she blurted out “Oh God, what am I going to do?” And suddenly, without warning, and in some way she’s never really been able to describe, she felt a complete, overwhelming sense of peace, and she felt love almost as a physical thing cascading over her like a wave, and she heard a voice that somehow, she just knew was God saying, “It’s OK; everything is going to be all right; I love you.” 

We want steel-reinforced concrete from God, but what we get is the Doodah Parade. What we get are these alternative, counterintuitive ways of reaching into our existence. These things that the great Presbyterian minister and author, Frederick Buechner, called certain uncertainties, dim half-miracles, oddly relevant sermons at just the right moment, things like that. Things that just might be coincidence, and that’s what many people would write them off as, but that for some reason you just can’t. It’s more than coincidence. For better or worse, it’s that alternative way that God uses to cut through the clutter and the crap and the background noise of our lives to let us know that what we see in the life, death, and resurrection of the man riding into town on the donkey, riding into the chaos of the Old City and the chaos of our lives, is the love, and the way, and the very face, of God. And that no matter what we go through, God will be with us, and see us through anything that life, and all the power and might represented in that other parade might dump on us. In all these little, ambiguous ways, God calls us to come join in the alternative parade on the other side of town; to the alternative way of understanding life and the world – to the reverse logic of the kingdom of God. 

So today, you get to write your own ending to the sermon. Just what did Joshua Six-Pack do when he bumped into this little alternative parade? Did he pass by and forget it? Or did he fall in with the crowd? Did it change his life? 

What did he do? What will we do? 

Thanks be to God.

Hope for Us Whack-a-Moles (sermon 12/1/13)

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 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” – Matthew 24:36-44

Every Advent season, the Lectionary readings begin with some dramatic passage relating to Jesus’ second coming. This particular passage, from Matthew’s gospel, is part of a longer story, where Jesus’ disciples have asked him for some kind of sign so that they’ll know when he was about to return and bring in the new age. This kind of speech and writing about the end times is what we call “apocalyptic” writing. The term comes from the Greek word for revealing, unveiling, uncovering, and this style shows up a number of places in the New Testament. The purpose of these passages, whether it’s Jesus or someone else making them, is not to literally scare the hell out of people, contrary to the way they’ve often been used in the history of the church. Actually, it was just the opposite. The New Testament scriptures were written during the first and second generations after Jesus’ ascension and his promise to return. And after a short period of the believers thinking that Jesus was going to return quickly, his followers had to begin to come to terms with the reality that his return was apparently going to take longer than they’d thought, and that, in fact, things weren’t always going to be easy for them while they waited. All of these apocalyptic passages were meant to remind the believers of two things.

First, whenever Jesus returned, it was going to be at a time, and in a way, that no one will know or expect – not the angels, not even Jesus himself, and certainly, not Jesus’ followers. So forget about trying to calculate when Jesus is going to return; quit trying to shoehorn every current event into some supposed biblical prophesy road map that will give us the date and time that Jesus is coming back. That’s all a silly waste of time, Jesus is saying to the disciples. Instead of getting worked up over an unanswerable and unimportant question, Jesus tells them that they’re supposed to always be ready for his return, by living their lives faithfully, lovingly, and compassionately; always being grateful for the love and grace that God showed them – and to do it every single day, whether Jesus took five thousand years to return or if he came back next Tuesday at 3:00.

The unexpectedness of Jesus’ return is an important thing for us, because it isn’t just the second coming that’s unexpected. In fact, while I’m sure that we all wonder about when it will happen, Jesus’ second coming probably isn’t a burning question at the top of our concerns in our day-to-day existence. But the whole idea of unexpectedness in our life is something that gets a lot of our attention. And maybe that’s an even more important reason Jesus’ words in this passage are important for us.

We try to insure ourselves and insulate ourselves from a lot of that unexpectedness. But no matter how much we try, we all encounter unexpected things – often, negative things – in our lives. Maybe we suddenly lose a job, when we’re supposedly in the peak of our earning years – and suddenly, we’re in the job market for the first time in thirty years, and our competition is some whiz-kid who’s half your age and is willing to do the job for half your pay. Or maybe we receive an unexpected diagnosis from our doctor when we just thought we had a routine ache or pain, and overnight, our whole life is turned upside-down while doctors run tests and don’t have many answers, and the ones they have aren’t very good. Or maybe we have to suddenly deal with the same thing happening to someone we love. Maybe something happens to unexpectedly hurt or even destroy a relationship that we have with a loved one, and we have to learn how to continue on after losing that important relationship.

Much of our life – maybe most of it – is actually unexpected, and leads to uncertainty and risk. And obviously, that can be scary. And in an attempt to stave off that unexpectedness and lack of certainty and security, we’ll do all sorts of things. I actually think it’s that fear that’s at the root of most all of the hurt and harm that we do to each other in this life. On a less lethal, maybe even comical, side of this fear, we can see some of the extreme “Doomsday Prepper” people, who have built their bombproof bunkers and stocked up guns and ammo and food and toilet paper, and they’re ready on a moment’s notice to climb down into their shelter and shut themselves off from other people and the rest of the world.

But we don’t have to be one of those extreme people on reality TV to have allowed the fear of the unexpectedness of life to paralyze us, to cause us to turn inward and away from others, and of living life fully in this world that God has made us part of. That kind of fear and paralysis can make us unloving, untrusting. It can harden our hearts, making us think that to put ourselves on the line like that is just too risky. That to stand up for something, to have the courage to keep going despite potential risks, only invites our getting smacked down like we’re in some big cosmic game of Whack-a-Mole.

But this is the second point of Jesus’ words here – I think it’s the most important point he’s making. It’s the message of hope. God has never promised that we’ll somehow be spared from the unexpectedness, the uncertainty and risk of this life. But Jesus is telling his disciples, and us, that whatever does come our way, good or bad, that ultimately Christ will gather all of God’s people together. All will be made right. God will usher in that new age, that new kingdom, where we’ll know the fullness of God’s love and justice and righteousness. Christ’s promise gives us the hope that enables us to live life outside of the bunkers, whether real or emotional. It’s that hope that allows us to continue to step out in faith, to keep living, and risking ourselves, the way Christ wants us to, even though we know that sometimes we’ll end up feeling that big padded mallet pounding us back down. The hope that we get from Christ’s promise that he will return makes it possible for us to keep the faith, and to keep moving forward, onward, even in the face of unexpected setbacks.

He was one of the greatest composers in the history of Western civilization. And surely, his final work, his Ninth Symphony, is one of the greatest and most well-known pieces of music that Beethoven ever wrote. The last movement of that symphony is Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the beautiful, inspiring piece dedicated to the joy of life and love and humanity. It’s raised the spirits of countless millions of people worldwide, and it was actually chosen by the European Union to be the official Anthem of Europe.

Beethoven worked on that symphony for seven years. But as he began to work on it, his health unexpectedly began to decline. He suffered what many have come to believe were the long, drastic effects of lead poisoning, which included gradually losing his hearing. Despite this, Beethoven continued to compose his symphony. In fact, by the time he’d completed it, Beethoven was for all practical purposes completely deaf. In spite of that, he insisted on personally conducting the orchestra for its premiere in Vienna in 1824. Incredibly, the man who had written one of the most joyful and uplifting pieces of music in all of human history never heard it performed. His deafness was so profound that at that premiere, after the piece was over, Beethoven was facing the orchestra, and a musician had to turn him around to the audience to see the amazing response and applause coming from the audience – to see the result of his continuing on, despite his unexpected setbacks. 

Beethoven himself was, at best, an unorthodox Christian, if he would have considered himself a Christian at all. But just as is the case today, Christians back then didn’t have an exclusive lock on having the hope and confidence that sees that it’s worth the risk to not hide from the world, to keep moving forward despite unexpected problems and not to be paralyzed by worries about uncertainty – the hope that God will eventually set all things right, and make all things new.

This Advent season, we think about the beginning of God’s making all things new, seen in the birth of the baby Jesus, and we remember the hope that his birth and his promises bring to us. The hope that enables us to face the unexpected in our lives, and to accomplish great things in spite of them. Maybe we won’t write a world-famous symphony. But we can have the courage to answer another job posting, or endure another round of chemo. Or care for a spouse battling Alzheimer’s. Or stand up to help someone who’s being deprived of their human rights, or who’s being discriminated against. And each of those things makes this world a little more like the kingdom of God.  So today, remembering hope, and the light that it brings into our world – God’s world – we light this first candle. The candle of hope.

Thanks be to God.

Out from under the Covers

Since I didn’t have anything hard-scheduled first thing this morning, I went to bed last night without setting the alarm. That allowed me the ability to wake up in that glorious way people are able to do sometimes, just gradually accepting the reality that it’s morning and that at some point they’ll have to get out of bed, but only when they’re good and ready. At least, that’s the way my awakening started. That gauzy bliss came to a screeching halt when the rebooting brain cells hit the sector that recalls that I’m still only half-employed, and I have no idea how I’m going to meet even my basic financial obligations this coming month. Emotionally, this time of day is often very difficult for me; I suspect it’s truly some chemical deficiency that occasionally makes me slip into morning terrors, and that I’d probably benefit from some very small dose of antidepressant to ward them off. On the other hand, I’ve discovered from past experience that with the obligatory burying my head in the covers and crying that I just can’t face another bout of financial insecurity out of the way, once I actually crawl out of the bed and into the shower, the impending pressures seem at least manageable.

Once I did get on with the day, I discovered a few more congregations to forward my information to. I also attended the funeral of a wonderful woman, a beautiful celebration of her life. A good funeral can often extend hope to not just the grieving family, but to anyone facing pressures and struggles in their lives, and that was the case today. Immediately after the funeral, I got a chance to talk with my older daughter on the phone a bit, which always makes me feel good. I got some good news regarding health insurance coverage for at least the next couple of months, and actually made some progress toward possibly getting ordained even before finding the full-time call I’m so desperately seeking. Then, I thought about the good conversation I had with a friend in Toronto via Skype the night before, and about how nice it was to have been able to get together with family a few days ago, even if it was due to a death in the family.

This evening, I sat down to read a little bit more of the book I’m reading now – In the End – The Beginning: The Life of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann (Fortress Press, 2004). Moltmann is a great German Reformed theologian, one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. His thoughts have greatly influenced my own, and, among other things, he could arguably be considered the father of liberation theology. His books are often difficult, slow reads; I’ll admit that sometimes it could take me half an hour just to really understand what he’s packed into a single page. He will never be featured on Oprah’s Book Club. But this book, at least the part I happened to read this evening, was very different from his usual dense, scholarly writing. In it, he opens up a bit about his own past. Maybe because of the way my day started, or maybe just because it’s a compelling story, it really struck me.  I thought I’d share an extended quote from the book here:

I am … a survivor of “Sodom and Gomorrah”. To say this is not poetic licence in the religious sense. It is painful fact. Whenever I call up that catastrophe and descend into the dark pit of remembrance, I am overwhelmed again by fear and trembling. I am talking here about the destruction of my home city of Hamburg in the last week of July 1943. Night after night, about a thousand Royal Air Force bombers appeared over the city, and with explosive and incendiary bombs kindled a storm of fire which … burnt everything living and reduced every home to rubble. During those nights and in that fire 40,000 people died. Ironically, the code name given to this destruction by the RAF was Operation Gomorrah. Together with others belonging to my school class, I was an air force auxiliary in an anti-aircraft battery in the inner city. The battery was stationed on the Outer Alster, easily visible for aircraft, and it was completely wiped out in a hailstorm of bombs. But for some incomprehensible reason, the bomb which blew to pieces the school friend who stood beside me at the firing platform left me unscathed. I found myself in the water, clinging to a plank of wood, and was saved.

…In the end, those of us who had survived made our way through the wreckage of the streets, climbing over charred bodies. We were convinced that this was indeed “the end,” and that the war would be over in a few days. But this terrible end was followed by two other years of unending terror which destroyed the lives of millions. There is no need to describe it any further. But for the description of Hamburg as Sodom and Gomorrah I should only like to add that during the Nazi dictatorship about 40,000 people were murdered in the Neuengamme concentration camp near the city, and about 50,000 Hamburg Jews in White Russia. That too is part of the catastrophe which I escaped. At that time I was 17 years old. What effect did this catastrophe have on me?

I come from a secular Hamburg family of teachers. My grandfather was Grand Master of a Freemasons’ Lodge in Hamburg, and had left the Church. For me, religion and theology were totally remote. I wanted to study mathematics and physics. Max Planck and Albert Einstein were the secret heroes of my youth… But in that catastrophic night, for the first time in my life I cried out to God: “God, where are you?” That was my question in the face of death. It was not the theodicy question we are all familiar with – the question, how can God allow this to happen? That always seems to me like an onlooker’s question. The person who is in the grip of a catastrophe, or is already in the jaws of a mass death, asks differently about God. And then came the other question, the one which has haunted me all my life ever since: why am I still alive and not dead like the rest?

Three years as a prisoner of war, from 1945 to 1948, gave me time enough to search for answers to these two questions. In the first year particularly it was for me a struggle with the question about God. Like Jacob, wrestling at the brook Jabbok with a dark and mysterious angel, I tormented myself with God’s dark and mysterious side, with his hidden face and his deadly “no” which had put me in misery behind barbed wire. At the end of 1945 a well-meaning army chaplain gave me a Bible. I must have looked at him somewhat uncomprehendingly: a Bible of all things! I then went on to read it without much understanding until I came to Israel’s psalms of lament. Psalm 39 caught my attention: “I am dumb and must eat up my suffering within myself…”My life is as nothing before you… I am a stranger as all my fathers were.” Those were words that echoed what was in my own heart… Later, I read Mark’s gospel. And when I came to Jesus’ death cry: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” I was profoundly struck. I knew: this is the one who understands you. I began to understand the Christ who was assailed by God and suffered from God, because I felt that he understood me. That gave me new courage to live. I saw colours again, heard music again, and felt the stirrings of renewed vitality.

The kindness which Scottish miners and English neighbours showed the German prisoners of war who were at that time their enemies shamed us profoundly. We were accepted as people, even though we were only numbers and wore the prisoner’s patch on our backs. But that made it possible for us to live with the guilt of our own people, the catastrophes we had brought about and the long shadows of Auschwitz, without repressing them and without becoming callous.

In that Scottish camp I arrived at Christian faith and decided to study theology. Mathematical problems lost their charm. True, I had no idea what the Church was about, but I was looking for an assurance that would sustain existence, and asked about the truth of the Christian faith. In 1948 I returned to Hamburg, limpin indeed like Jacob but “blessed.” That was my new beginning, the beginning I arrived at when Hamburg was at its end: in the end was my beginning.

Two experiences put a mark on me.

First, I discovered that in every end a new beginning lies hidden. It will find you if you look for it. Don’t lose heart!

Second, I found that if one gathers the courage to live again, the chains begin to smart, but the pain is better than the dull resignation in which nothing matters, and one is more dead than alive. (33-35)

In every end there is a new beginning. Terrifying at moments, life is still good. And God is good, too. Even in the midst of troubles, even in the midst of morning terrors with the covers pulled over your head and questions of where God is in that moment, God is still good. Don’t lose heart.