Seeing God in the Subway Station, and Beyond

(sermon 12/11/16 – Third Sunday in Advent)

violinist-in-subway

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”  – Matthew 11:2-11 (NRSV)

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Last week, we heard a bit about John the Baptist, and now we hear about him again this week. But last week, he was out in the Jordan River preaching and baptizing people, and this week he’s sitting in prison. Obviously, there’s some middle part of this story that’s missing, so to keep us all up to speed, here’s a very brief summary of what’s happened between the two.

As we heard last week, John could be pretty harsh, even insulting, to people. And he wasn’t just that way with the people who came out to hear him in person; he also took the same heavy-handed approach to the powerful people who ruled over the land. In particular, he’d heaped public scorn on the head of Herod Antipas, the ruler of that region. Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great, the incredibly powerful and ruthless man who had been king when Jesus and John were born. Herod Antipas had an older brother, who was also named Herod – Herod II, who was a ruler in an adjacent region. The older brother had a wife, named Herodias, who, as you might guess from her name, was also a part of Herod’s extended family. Herodias divorced Herod II, an act that was scandalous in that male-dominated culture. Following that, Herod Antipas divorced his wife, so he could marry Herodias, which would have raised eyebrows even now, but which was certainly scandalous back then. Frankly, Antipas wasn’t all that great a ruler, and he wasn’t all that well-liked to begin with, and he was more than a bit insecure and thin-skinned about that fact. So when John the Baptist laid into him because of all this business with Herodias, making him look even worse in the public eye, he had to do something about it. John didn’t have any problem “speaking truth to power,” as we might say today. But it was as true then as it is today, that when you speak truth to power, the power is still the power; and the truth can indeed hurt, and when it does, it can end up hurting the truth-teller as much as anyone else. Antipas didn’t have a Twitter account and couldn’t just tweet out some insult to try to discredit John; and even if he had, he needed to send a stronger message than that to show the people who was in charge – so he had John arrested and thrown into prison.

So now here was John, cooling his jets in prison, and with all that time on his hands, he appears to have started having second thoughts. As strong and unwavering as his preaching had been, and as certain he’d been that Jesus was the messiah, now he wondered. If Jesus really were the messiah, ushering in the Kingdom of God, why were the Romans, and their lackeys like Herod’s children, still occupying and controlling the land? And frankly, why was John sitting there in jail? Had he actually bet on the wrong horse? Was Jesus not the messiah? Had all of his life, all of his work, just been a big mistake? So he sent word to Jesus, asking him point-blank: are you really God’s chosen one?

And Jesus answers John’s direct question with a typical, indirect Jesus-answer. He tells John, look around you; what do you see? The blind see, the lame walk, the sick are healed – all of the things that were foretold in the scriptures that would happen with the ushering in of God’s kingdom. Jesus tells John that the answer to the question is right in front of his eyes; he just has to pay attention to it, and believe that it’s a sign of the hand of God acting in the world.

How many times do we fall into the same thing that John the Baptist did? So often, the immediate circumstances that we find ourselves in can keep us from seeing the reality of what’s really going on. It’s easy enough to see the bad, and what’s wrong, in the world – but how often do we allow that to keep us from seeing the bigger picture, truly seeing the hand of God, and real goodness, and beauty, and joy, in so much of what surrounds us?

He stood in the main entry of the subway station just as the morning rush was beginning, nondescript in his jeans, leather jacket, and ball cap. Leaning down, he took his violin out of its case, and he started to play, just like all the other performers scattered throughout the station who were hoping that some thoughtful commuters would like what they heard and leave them a few bills for their effort. He kept playing, as people hurried by, paying him little if any attention at all. Eventually, one person dropped some money in the open violin case as they hurried toward the turnstile, hardly slowing down as they did. A few more people stopped to hear a few seconds of his music, and some of them left him some cash, too, before they, like everyone else, lost interest and went on about their business. After all, it was just another day in the lives of the people who scurried past him; just another day in the station.

Except it wasn’t just another day. Because he wasn’t just another subway station musician. He was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest living violinists in the world, and his instrument wasn’t something picked up in a pawn shop; it was the very well-storied, well-traveled, multimillion-dollar Gibson Stradivarius. Just a few days before, concertgoers had paid serious money to hear Bell’s virtuosity. Here, he and his music were all but invisible.

Maybe you’ve seen that story online, or maybe you’ve even heard another sermon make mention of it; it seems to be a favorite story for preachers to use. In any case, it wasn’t that the people going by were stupid, or culturally ignorant, or uncaring. For all anyone knows maybe some of those same concertgoers had walked by and never given him a second glance. It’s just that the people going by were operating under a set of preconceptions that kept them from experiencing the magical thing that was going on right in front of them. They allowed their surroundings, and precedent, to shape and put meaning to the things they were experiencing, instead of recognizing them for what they really were. Subway stations are full of musicians. They’re a dime a dozen; if they were really any good, they probably wouldn’t be playing in subway stations for tips.

They weren’t allowing themselves to see thing for themselves, as the things that they really were. They hadn’t allowed themselves to be open to see the beauty of the moment, and to appreciate what God was allowing to be taking place right in front of them.

As we go through our days, especially during this Advent season, let’s try to be especially aware of the hand of God that’s playing out around us all the time, every day. It’s this whole idea of intentionally preparing our hearts this way, and allowing ourselves to adjust our mindsets to the possibility of God’s presence in the world, why we observe a season of Advent before rushing right into the celebration of Christmas. Sometimes, people ask about whether it’s really true, this idea of “God with Us”, as we talk about, especially at this time of year? If, in our own darkest of moments, like John’s dark moment in that prison cell, we sent word to Jesus asking if God really is with us, what kind of answer would he give us? Maybe one like the answer he gave to John. Look around you – what do you see? See the joy in the faces and laughter of children playing. Or in the faces of someone enjoying beautiful music, or making beautiful music, or engaging in some other artistic expression. See the joy of a parent making dinner for their family, or baking cookies with their grandchildren. Feel the joy of a loving hand being slipped into our own, or of giving or receiving a comforting hug. Remember the joy that you feel in those times when you’re just being silly, acting in ways that someone your age isn’t supposed to, but who cares, it’s fun anyway. Remember the joy that you feel when you’ve worked so hard to learn something, and you finally accomplish it.

I think that Jesus would say that if we kept our eyes, and our hearts, open to the possibility of seeing God in the midst of our existence, we’d see it, all over the place. We’d know the answer to our own question.

This season, when we proclaim to the world – and sometimes, to our own partially-doubting selves, too – that God is here, God is with us, let’s try to remember, with God’s help, to keep our eyes open to see the reality of that great truth. Let’s try to keep our hearts open to the joy that comes with it. Who knows? Someday, maybe we’ll experience that joy by encountering a world-famous violinist playing music in a subway station. Or maybe, far more likely, we’ll experience the very same thing as we sing, for the umpteenth time, of a nameless little drummer boy playing music in a stable.

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.

The Gospel According to Seuss (sermon 12/13/15 – Third Sunday of Advent)

horton hears a who

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.- Philippians 4:1-9

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They gathered together in the cramped little room that evening after their day’s work was done. It was their custom to set aside their other worries and responsibilities, and to come together this particular evening of the week, from the youngest to the oldest, and to enjoy a common meal together. Each of them brought something to share, in terms of both food and of themselves. Joining together in the ups and downs, sharing their joys and encouraging those who were facing troubles. Eating, drinking, laughing, crying, and especially praying together. Trying to work out more and more how to live as followers of Jesus, how to live with one another, and especially with those who weren’t part of their own group of Jesus-followers.

Sometimes, they were excited to receive a letter from another group, from another city, and sometimes even from one of the leaders of the movement in Jerusalem; maybe even on rare occasion, from an apostle. And tonight was just one of those nights, because they’d recently gotten a letter from Paul – the Paul, the famous persecutor of Christians who’d had a vision of the risen Jesus and who’d become a great leader in the church. Paul, the single most important voice in sharing and spreading this faith in Jesus outward from Jerusalem and into the non-Jewish world. Paul, the man who had actually started their own little group, the very first Christian church on the entire European continent, and who had returned to visit with them at least twice since then.

So as they gathered together that night, they wondered what he’d written to them. They knew that word had gotten to Paul about an ongoing dispute between two members of their own group. Both of them working hard for the good of the group, for the good of the faith, both of them much beloved… but there was this disagreement between them. It’s funny, they thought; it always seemed like the strongest disagreements occurred between the people who had the most in common, whose actual differences were the smallest. So they wondered, what would Paul say about all this?

Paul did offer his thoughts about their disagreement, asking for cooler heads to prevail, asking that they find common ground through their common faith and common desire or God’s goodness to shine forth in the world.

As part of that advice, Paul tells them, very strongly, to always rejoice in their faith in Jesus, no matter what. They thought it was odd to get that advice from Paul, since he had written these words while he was in a prison in Rome, about to be put on trial for his life, and when everyone knew that this was all but guaranteed to turn out badly. You would have thought that Paul was the least likely person to hear this kind of advice from. And yet, even from his own bleak vantage point, he told them: rejoice in the Lord, always.

There will be times in all of our lives when we’ll feel like there isn’t much to be joyful about. We might feel discomforted by unrest or some kind of friction or turmoil in our lives. We might feel like we’re in a situation where a bad outcome is every bit as guaranteed as Paul’s was. We’ll see the news and hear ignorant, crazy, dangerous words from various people on the world stage and wonder if there’s any reason to feel any joy at all. Still Paul calls us to rejoice always, and it’s that joy that we especially think about today.

One thing that Paul didn’t tell that house church of about 55 people or so in Philippi was that, just because they were followers of Jesus, difficult, maybe even terrible, un-joyful things wouldn’t happen to them. Quite the contrary, actually, just as he likely expected would soon be happening to himself. He didn’t try to cover over the less than joyful parts of life with butter cream frosting to make them more palatable, portraying them as God’s will, or God’s judgment, or God testing their faith, or some other similar nonsense. He told them that even in the joyless times, maybe especially then, they needed to keep reaching out to God, who in some mysterious way transcends the bad things while also still being there in the midst of them, alongside us. Paul didn’t offer them, or us, some cotton-candy promise that in response to their prayers, God would make everything better; he just tells us to keep praying, to keep reaching out and calling out to God. It’s advice that almost makes you think of all the little Whos living on the speck of dust in the Dr. Seuss story “Horton Hears a Who,” all yelling out at the top of their lungs, “We’re here, we’re here, we’re here!!!” and eventually being heard, and saved. In telling the Philippians to always rejoice and keep calling out to God in prayer and supplication, for a moment it almost seems like Paul is proclaiming the Gospel According to Dr. Seuss.

But then again, he really isn’t. Because in our case, because of the message of Advent, the greatest, most joyful of news, the news of God-with-us, when we call out to God at the top of our lungs, we hear the quiet voice of the one born in the stable saying “There’s no need to yell; I’m right here beside you. Always have been; always will be. I’m here, walking this journey with you and supporting you no matter what might come. We’ve got this, together, you and me. As hard as it might be, trust me. Hold my hand. I know how this all ends, and together, we win.”

Because of the message of Advent the message of God’s entering the world to be with us, whatever may come, we can have hope. We can have peace. We can even have joy. And we can all say

Thanks be to God.