Thursday, December 18, 2008

"You May Have Won"

I don’t know whether it is the Christmas season or the current economic crisis, but my email inbox has been inundated with these promises to pass on mounds of money "with no strings attached" if I simply reply to the email. Most of them end up in the spam folder, but some get through. Lots of them get through. And there are basically two types: "You are a winner!" which then tries to get us to respond because the check is waiting – and "I chose you, dear friend" which then tries to tell us someone died and left scads of cash and to help disburse it they need my email reply to get the ball rolling.

Well, I’ve done enough reading and have lived long enough to recognize a scam when I see it. But I thought about adding up all the cash being offered in the past few weeks, discovering that if they were all legitimate it would be enough to give GM some hope. It is so much money that I guess I understand how some people get sucked into it. Maybe, they think, maybe this one is real. Maybe there is someone out there just waiting to pass on hundreds of thousands of dollars to a random email address. Maybe. And they just happened to choose mine. Maybe I did enter a contest in a foreign country I’ve never been to. Could happen. Couldn’t it?

The worrying thing that is that are so many for whom that is a logical argument. Or maybe an act of desperation. Things are tough out there. Every day it seems we read of another company going out of business, another spate of layoffs, another sign of recession, another front page full of disheartening news. Desperate times seem to call for desperate solutions. Today’s paper carried an article that hinted that our good mayor, while not giving approval, is not taking legalized gambling off the table as a possible remedy to our malaise. And while my United Methodist stomach turns at the very thought, I understand desperation. Might as well start responding to these email bail out offers.

Isaiah understood desperation. The people in latter part of this multi-themed prophetic tome anyway. There are at least two moods in Isaiah - the first half, when things were going well for the people as a nation, was a mode of warning and judgement. Pay attention, the prophet said over and over again. Look at what you are doing to one another. Look at how you are living, look at the source of your wealth, look at the foundations of your society. Does your socio-economic system reflect your status as a people of God? The second half of the book speak to a desperate people who have lost all, who are hungry and afraid and homeless, they are refugees, without status or rights. Now the mood shifts, the tone of the book is starkly different. Now it is a word of hope, it is a promise. And a call to live - even in desperate times - by a different standard. Take a look at our Old Testament reading for this Third Sunday of Advent:

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion-- to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. 4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. ... For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed. 10 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Things are bad, take my word for it. The prophet comes to these people and says...what? Good news. Good news for the oppressed, good news for the brokenhearted, good news to captives and prisoners, good news to those who mourn. Great. What is this good news? What do they get? Garlands, oil, a mantle. Uh. What? Where is the promise of wealth and goods? Where is the "you may have won" email that tells us we could be set for life with no more effort than hitting reply? Where are the goods?

God comes to people who are desperate and tells them to decorate? It doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem enough. Decorations are nice and all, but they hardly serve to make things better. They hardly can be counted on to change the world. Can they? Why do we bother, in the end? Are we just shouting in the darkness?

Well, yes, in a way. But shouting in the darkness is a noble profession. It is a calling. When we shout, when we decorate our homes and our churches, we are not saying that we are unaware of difficulties, we are not saying that we are oblivious to bad news, but we are saying that we choose to live by good news. We are saying that we choose to live by hope and not despair.
But what keeps this from becoming a rose colored glasses scenario is the prophetic call to act in hope. Look back at Isaiah’s words. The Lord brings the good news, the Lord through the prophet - proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor. But then we are the ones who bind up hearts, we are the ones who set people free, we are the ones who rebuild. We work because we believe. We build because we hope. And because we hope we are blessed.

Just like Mary. The Gospel reading I chose for this week is Mary’s song of deliverance called the Magnificat.

Luke 1:46-55 And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

What is interesting to me is the change in verb tense from Isaiah to Mary. OK, go with me here. In Isaiah it is all present tense, taking place, going on now. It has an air of a call to action, let’s get busy, there’s work to be done. Wonderful, good news kind of work. But Mary speaks (or sings) in past tense. It is already done. You can count on it.

Now that may sound odd to us, given that hungry aren’t filled, and powerful are still on their thrones. But I think the good news here is that the outcome is never in doubt. We may wonder how we get there in the end, but we never need to doubt that we will. That is our blessing, the confidence of hope. Even if takes longer than our lifetime, God’s promise will be fulfilled.
So, let’s decorate, let’s build up, let’s rejoice - because we have already won!


Two-way Street

One of the thoughts behind this late night bible study was that we would engage in a dialog through this medium. As I look back over the postings on the website ( for those who are wondering where to find it) I see that there have been times when a few would respond, but it isn’t all that common. A few will send a response directly to me, but the rest don’t see it.

That’s OK really, there isn’t a dialog requirement to receive these email messages, or to pick up the printed copy in the Connection on Sunday mornings. It is written in a style that doesn’t really demand a response, I realize that. But the possibility is there for anyone to weigh in on a topic. Those who receive this via email, simply have to hit reply and everyone on the list will receive your insights. Those who read this on Sunday morning can also send an email to me ( and ask me to add it to the conversation. Or drop me a note, or give me a call or stop me in the hallway. I’m open to response - positive or negative. Honest. At least I like to think I am.

I really do want to know what you think. I like to hear from readers or hearers. Any of us would like to know that the things we say or do are being received, responded to, thought about. I’ve often heard La Donna muttering under her breath "I don’t know why I keep talking to you people, no one listens to me anyway." This is usually after an unnamed teenager has neglected to pick up socks or take down dirty clothes or something like that ... for the 100th time.

We like to know we are being heard. We desire communication - two-way communication. Which means, of course, that we have to learn to listen as well as to speak. And maybe even listen more than we speak. What is that old cliche? God gave us two ears and one mouth...

I know Advent isn’t really about communication, yet when I read the passages for this week, I couldn’t help but hear that theme underneath. I think the proclamation is in part at least about hearing and being heard. Take a look:

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

John appears every advent to remind us that we haven’t been paying enough attention. He shouts to wake us up. He dresses oddly to capture our fascination. He storms up and down the river bank asking us to take the plunge. He doesn’t seem to be here to listen. He is hear to talk. To announce. To shout. A one way communication, you would think.

Except he is asking for something from us. He is asking us to join the road crew. We’ve got streets to level and curves to straighten. Whether we think in personal terms about cleaning up our own hearts and bodies, straightening out our behavior patterns; or in communal terms of justice as we make straight the pathways to wholeness that have bent in ways that keep certain people out - either way there is work to be done. A response needs to be made. John wants us to be participants in our own salvation, the one who comes doesn’t overwhelm us, doesn’t transform us against our will. We are partners, contributors in the conversation of hope and transformation.

Yet, as my kids will argue, it is all about marching to the tune of the one in charge. Right? It is not about conversation, it is about obedience. About following orders. Get to work, clean this up, take care of that, do this, don’t do that, and on and on and on. Hardly a two way street, some argue. This is the Lord’s highway we are straightening. And we all know that it is the Lord’s way or the highway! Right?

Not according to Isaiah. We have to get the whole picture. This conversation doesn’t begin with Jesus or with John. It began long before that. Jesus was a response. Listen to this:

Isaiah 40:1-11 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken." 6 A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!" 10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

God heard the cry, and now comes with a response. God has listened and now speaks, and the word God speaks is Jesus. Oh, that wasn’t the word that the first hearers of Isaiah’s words heard. They heard home. The people of God were in exile, cut off from the land they loved, the land that God have promised to them. The land where God took up residence. They felt alone, cast adrift in an unfeeling, uncaring world. They cried out to God, they confessed that they had forgotten to live as God’s people and were now paying the price. Their society had begun to cater to power and influence and wealth and many suffered because of it. They forgot to look out for the ones on the margins and now they were all on the margins. The systems in which they had placed their trust no longer were strong enough to support the life they took for granted. So they cried out. And God heard.

And God will bring them home. Not necessarily to the home that they envisioned, but the home that God envisions. The community that God calls us to create. The relationships that fulfill us and connect us. This is the home we seek, all of us. And it is the home we find in Jesus. The child in the manger and the savior on the cross speaks of home to us. A home where we are loved and healed and heard.

The glory of Christmas is that while there is a silent night, there is a need to listen and to shut out the distracting noise of the world and our own brokenness, it is fundamentally a dialog.

The Lord’s highway is a two way street.


Two by Four Faith

Yikes, it’s Advent. That the proper liturgical formulation for this season. Yikes, it’s Advent. It is an admission that no matter how closely we pay attention to the calendar, no matter how much we follow the development of the Christian year, we are still surprised when Advent comes. Even though last week I commented that I had been decorating for Christmas at church, it still surprises us. Because, if you recall, last week I said it was too early. Too early is our normal greeting for this time of year. "It’s too early" we exclaim to all we meet. It can’t be time for this, we opine. I’m not even sure what opine means, but it seems to fit this season. And not because of the greenery!

We are just not ready, we have too much to do, our lists grow longer, our accomplishments are fewer. For everything we check off, six more slip onto the list. How does that happen? This is where the whole legend about elves came into being - people found their Christmas to do lists growing almost before their eyes. Who is doing this? Must be elves. We’re not ready.

Which is precisely why we need Advent. The creators of the Christian calendar knew that we all would need a swift kick to get the new year started. So, it begins with a call to get ready. Because we aren’t ready. Worse than that we’ve forgotten that there is anything to get ready for. Or we thought that what we are supposed to be getting ready for is a celebration of the past. We are preparing for a historical observation of something God did at one time. And we are still grateful for it, we are still defined by it, we still try to live differently because of it. But it is to an extent old news. It is a case of "been there, done that" when it comes right down to it. Or is it?

What is it that we are waiting for? What are we looking for? The first reading for this first Sunday of Advent reminds us that what we long for is not a historical remembrance but a new reality, a new encounter. Take a look:

Isaiah 64:1-9 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence-- 2 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! 3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4 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. 5 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. 6 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. 7 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. 8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

"O that you would tear open the heavens and come down," they plea. We know you are present, our faith tells us that you are here. But we need to know it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Shake us up so that we can be certain again. We’ve begun to wonder, we’ve begun to doubt. So, do it again Lord. Do it again.

There is where our historical observance comes in. There is where telling the story becomes so important. Not just so that we can look back with a sigh and long for the good old days, not so that we can wistfully wish for the blessing that they had back in the day, but so that we can learn to recognize it when it comes again.

That is the task of Advent, to pay attention to what is and what might be, not simply to look back at what was. The people of God were in exile, the foundations of their nation had been shaken, that comforts that they had begun to take for granted were taken from them. The human institutions that they had constructed no longer held the security that they had begun to take for granted. So, they began to look elsewhere and they realized that their faith was shaky as well. They needed a boost. So, they looked back and they looked forward at the same time. The mountains of our society were shaken, so shake the mountains, O Lord. The foundations of our nation were shaken, so shake the foundations, O God.

They needed an Advent upside the head! We remember, they claimed, we remember how you used to deal with us, and we want that again. We want to remember as you remember. The words seem like they were reminding God, but really they were reminding themselves. The look back was not just to give them a warm feeling about what once was, but a way to spur them to living differently.

Advent is a reminder to get out of our sense of complacency. Though it is hard to be complacent when things are difficult. When all is going well, then we need the two by four of Advent to wake us up. But when things are difficult we use Advent as a prayer, as a reminder to hope.
Believe it or not, that is the call of Jesus in our gospel passage for the week. It is a call to hope. We sometimes have to listen hard to hear something hopeful in these descriptions, but it is there. Underneath sometimes, but still there.

Mark 13:24-37 But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 28 "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake-- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

Nervous? Well, yes, because there is much to do and a deadline to meet. But at the same time there is the promise that the master is near. Not as a threat, but as a promise. We are not alone. What we see in front of us is not all that there is. History is heading somewhere. We may not know where exactly, except that it is someplace called the Kingdom of Heaven. Or as Jesus was fond of describing it, it is Life. And that is what we long for in the end, life. Life in all its fulness and meaning, life in all its joy and promise. That’s what is coming, that is what is promised.

And we forget every now and then. We forget that we are looking for anything, that we are hoping for anything. Until Advent comes and knocks us upside the head with a not so subtle reminder. Watch!


Saturday, December 6, 2008

If It'a Been a Snake

"What socks?" The socks that are lying right there in the middle of the floor! "Where?" Right there!! An excerpt from an actual conversation with a teenager. They both have had eye exams, they both have adequate vision. Yet they can walk past dirty socks on the floor, they can climb the stairs and step around the piles of their stuff lovingly placed there to assist them in taking them up to their rooms, they can overlook the piles of clean clothes left by their mother for them to put away.

If it had been a snake it would have bit you! I don’t know where that cliche first came from, but I suspect teenagers were involved. OK, that’s a bit harsh. The truth is we all can ignore what is in front of our faces from time to time. Sometimes we genuinely don’t see what is so obvious to everyone else. Maybe we are distracted or occupied by deep thoughts of some kind and we simply miss it. Other times we don’t want to see what is in front of us, we choose our blindness when what is in front of us is uncomfortable or ugly or seemingly beyond our capacity to affect. We can only take so much of helpless, before we - out of self-preservation perhaps - turn away and try to convince ourselves we didn’t see what we saw. Or convince ourselves that what we saw was not our responsibility, not our business.

Our cultural fixation on "live and let live" has driven us to turn blind eyes to all sorts of situations, all sorts of needs because we don’t want to "impose" - we don’t want to get involved. So, we have learned to not see the snakes that are just waiting to bite us.

At least that is what I think is going on here in our Scripture text for this week. This is a very familiar passage. So familiar it has become a part of our language. So familiar that I think we don’t see the snakes that might bite us in the story that Jesus tells us. Listen again:

Luke 10:25-37 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 26 He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" 27 He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." 28 And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live." 29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" 30 Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" 37 He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

Of course we know the story. Everyone, Christian or not, has heard of a "Good Samaritan." There is even a "Good Samaritan Law" on the books in Indiana and other states to protect someone who stops to help in a crisis situation. So, it would seem there is very little that would need to be discussed here. Everyone agrees on this. Jesus tells the story in such a way that even a lawyer can see what is right! Sorry, that was mean too. Some of my best friends are lawyers. Anyway...

Well, lets take a look at our friend the lawyer. Which in this case might better be described as a religious scholar, than what we think of as a lawyer. Since there was no distinction between religious and secular law in Israel at that time, a lawyer was someone who knew the scriptures well enough to argue for right and wrong. He was a scholar who had studied the Torah (which is Hebrew for "law") and was called upon to settle disputes, or to represent the interests of someone wronged.

It is interesting that Luke’s lawyer asks a subtly different question than the ones in Matthew and Mark. There the question is "what is the greatest commandment?" Here it is "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" In the end it is the same question, but the approach is completely different. The former sounds like a religious scholar/lawyer kind of question. What is greater...? Or "what commandment is first of all," in Mark’s version. They might have meant most important or it might have been which is precedent setting - "which law trumps other laws" that sort of thing.

But Luke’s lawyer asks "what must I do?" Which is the kind of question Luke would hear more clearly. There is more than a legal issue here. There is a participation, there is a connection, there is a life direction kind of issue here. Some have argued that what he was really asking was "what is the least I can do and still get in?" I don’t know if that can be inferred, but you couldn’t blame him even if it was. It is a very human kind of question. "Is this going to be on the test?" That is how students ask the question. "Do we have to know this stuff, or are you just talking?"
He might have been trying to slide by with minimal effort, but I prefer to think that he really wanted to know. I know Luke says it was a test. Maybe it was a test with a hidden hope underneath. Maybe he was put up to the test, but made it a personal quest on his own.

Whatever it was, Jesus took it seriously and turned it around to the questioner. This was Jesus’ M.O. He rarely handed things around on silver platters. He always wanted us to work a little bit. Maybe with interpretation, maybe with application, but there was always something left to do when Jesus stopped talking.

In this case it was the question itself that came back. "What do you think?" My kids hate that, but I do it all the time. Here the lawyer answered with the Great Commandment. Case closed. Jesus gave him lovely parting gifts and it was all over.

Except the lawyer wasn’t satisfied. Luke interprets for us: "But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’" It’s that "justify himself" bit that bugs me. It bugs me because I do it too. "I’d like to love my neighbor," goes the thought process, "but I’m just not sure what’s safe. I’m just not sure what’s needed. I’m just not sure for whom I am really responsible. I’ve got kids, I’ve got a wife, I’ve got my hands full." There are rules, you know, how to treat certain kinds of people. Well, if not rules than expectations, standards. Help your own first, goes one school of thought. Charity begins at home. The lawyer’s lawyerness kicked in here. He decided to try and divert judgement on his behavior by asking a question for which there was no easy answer. He wanted to tie this verdict up in court and avoid having to act on it. At the very least he was hoping for a pat on the back and "well, do the best you can" from Jesus. Instead he got a story.

You know the story. You know the way Samaritans were viewed, especially compared to priests and Levites. You know that Jesus was trying to move the debate beyond an academic justification issue into an "open your eyes" kind of issue. He was trying to move it from a label and an insiders verses outsider kind of thing toward a taking responsibility for the need in front of you kind of attitude. This isn’t about changing the world, but about healing the hurts. In Micah’s words this isn’t doing justice, it is loving mercy. Both are necessary. But if we spend all of our time out trying to chase windmills, out trying to make the world a better place for everyone someday, we will miss the opportunity to make it better for one close by right now. In fact we could argue that without acts of mercy, or kindness, there can be no move toward justice. If we allow needs to go unmet then we are asking for trouble on a larger scale. There are needs aplenty, just open your eyes. If it had been a snake, it would have bit you.


Hand in Hand

I spent part of the morning decorating the sanctuary for Christmas. I wasn’t terribly happy about it, to be honest. Not that it wasn’t fun. Those of us who gathered enjoyed the community and the work, and the fun. Except for maybe David Carter’s puns. Just kidding, David, they were hilarious. Sort of.

Anyway, it was a good time and I’m sorry so many people missed it. It was a pretty small crew. So, it wasn’t the company that I was grumpy about. Nor was it the work (even though I left early to pick up a kid - sorry about that gang). No my grumble has to do with the timing.
Maybe I’ve been married too long, but La Donna has driven into me this sense of order and Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving just seems wrong somehow. It had to be done, I realize, but it just seemed too early. We’ve had snow and cold and the stores have had the decorations up for a month or more now. So, what’s my problem? Dunno. Just doesn’t feel right. Something is out of sync. Even when you can’t explain it, you respond to it. It is as if your soul can feel it. "This just isn’t right," we think - maybe without words to describe it.

I’ve moved from early Christmas decorating, into something more powerful. That feeling that nothing you are doing seems to work. The relationships you thought you understood, now seem to be out of reach. The community you thought you were a part of now seems alien and foreign to you. The world in which we live seems to have taken a turn that we didn’t plan on or approve of or completely understand. We are told if we just work harder, just focus more, just pay attention then it will all make sense, or we can work ourselves back into a right relationship with all there is, or at least enough of all there is to feel comfortable again. So, we try. With all our own strength and knowledge, we try. It seems to work for a while, but not for long.

It is to this frustration that Jesus speaks in our Gospel passage for this weekend. It is this belief that we can fix our own disorder, we can make things right by doing more, by working harder that he so wants to change. It is his desire that we find our way to hope, that we live in sync.

Take a look at these familiar verses:

Matthew 11:28-30 "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

Contextually, Jesus was referring to the burdens placed on the people of God by those in leadership who expanded on the law. When God gave the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai it was a pretty simple thing. Ten Commandments carved onto two stone tablets - straightforward, clear and concise, just what we expect from laws! Right? Uh, no. Ever read the simplified tax code from the US Government?

God tried to keep things simple. There were laws about how to worship and laws about how to live in community - and what else do you need? Well, heaped on top of these ten laws were literally thousands of interpretations and applications that also must be followed in order to stay right. It became so onerous that no one could remember them all let alone obey them. So, every one lived out of sync with God’s law, at least according to those in charge. Most people wanted to be right, wanted to follow the law, but it was impossible. So, they lived with the burden of not being right, not being pure enough to worship, not having access to God, except through those in charge who guarded the gates religiously. (Sorry - I blame David)

Jesus came along and said "take my yoke." One of the concepts we struggle with in this passage is the fact that there is a yoke to take and that there is rest to receive. Which is it Jesus? Yoke or rest? A yoke implies work, and rest implies ... well ... NOT work. We like the rest thing, aren’t too sure about the yoke thing, to be honest. Even if it is easy and light.

Someone called this passage the Great Invitation. That makes four "Greats" that I can identify. There is the Great Commission - "Go and Make Disciples" (Matthew 28:19); the Great Commandment - "You shall love the Lord" (Matthew 22:37 et al); the Great Requirement "Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8); and now the Great Invitation - "Come to me" (Matthew 11:28).

But the real question is, to what are we invited? Is it work or is it rest? Labor and struggle, or vacation and getting away from it all? Is this about heaven or about earth? Yes. To all the precedes. Yes. And no. The invitation is to a relationship. "Take MY yoke," says Jesus, "and learn from me." He is inviting us into a partnership, to labor alongside him in the fields of the Lord. He wants us to take on his spirit, his heart. He asks of us to be "gentle and humble in heart" as we live and work in this world. It is not a task so much as a way of living, a way of being alive.

So, it IS a yoke. There IS a burden. But it a yoke that is easy and burden that is light. Does that mean that there is no effort here? That it is something we do without thinking, without straining? Not necessarily. "Easy" in this case really means "well-fitting." The yoke that Christ offers is a yoke that fits us, it is right for us. It doesn’t rub in the wrong places and make us sore. There is effort, there is struggle at times, but it is good effort, it is healthy struggle and we feel the better for it. The burden of walking in the way of Christ is light because it is right, it is good, it builds us up rather than takes us down.

Christ doesn’t offer us an effortless life, but one that means something. We don’t get a struggle free life, but one that accomplishes something, and makes a difference in the world. Those around us are better because we are there. We are better, happier, more whole. That is the promise.

Sounds good, but doesn’t sound like rest to me. Unless by rest he meant something other than what we first imagine. Unless he meant something like the antidote to restlessness. That what he was offering was not so much a sun drenched beach upon which to kick back and nap, but a sense of belonging and of purpose that allows us to know that we are right, we are in sync with our deepest selves and with our loved ones (which is always a bigger crowd than we acknowledge) and with him. The offer of rest is another way of describing salvation, which has less to do with the gates of heaven and more to with the fields we plow when we are yoked to Christ. Certainly there is a promise of eternity and an invitation into the presence of God, but that promise and that presence are what make the burden of living so light and what make the yoke of Christ so easy. We will find, says Jesus, rest for our souls. Our backs are into the labors of love, our shoulders are bent to the tasks of justice, our hands are busy with the works of kindness, but our souls are at rest.

Walking humbly with God is offering yourself to the yoke of Christ. As a church what better can we do than be about the business of walking hand in hand with the one who calls us? As a church what better can we do than invest ourselves and our resources in that which brings us into the presence of God? What better can we do than to commit ourselves to the maintenance of the body of Christ?

What better can we do than to prepare ourselves for the advent of the Lord, especially when it seems too early!


Justice Song

What do you sing about these days? An odd sort of question, I realize. Maddie was complaining the other day about getting a song in her head that she couldn’t get out. You know that feeling. Maybe you heard a snippet of a song, or something that sounded like a song, something that reminded you of a song. And now that song keeps playing over and over in your head. Even when you don’t want it to. You find yourself humming the tune, you find yourself mumbling the words. They are just there, rattling around in your skull, driving you crazy. Or if not you, everyone around you as you keep singing that song over and over. Because it is stuck in there - and it begins to define you in a way.

I had a friend who thought everyone should have their theme song, like in the movies. If you look at a movie soundtrack you’ll see titles like "Jack’s Theme" or "Liza’s Song." And this music would play whenever that character was central to the scene. Well, this friend thought that we should all have our theme music to play that would define us, that would announce our presence and point to us when it is our turn to enter into the dialog or to shape the action.

OK, I’ve had some weird friends over the years. But still it is an intriguing idea. If you had the ability and the opportunity to write your own theme song, what would it sound like? What would it say?

We start a three week stewardship series with the reading for this week. The whole series is titled "What the Lord Requires" and is based on Micah 6:8: what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Each week we will examine one requirement as outlined in this verse. The stewardship connection is not just that it is that time of year, but that stewardship is our response to the requirements of God. Stewardship is how we manage God’s affairs in our living.

So we start where the verse starts, we start with the biggie: do justice. Read what Isaiah says in our reading for this weekend.

Isaiah 42:1-9 Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. 5 Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6 I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. 8 I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

This is the first of four passages called the Servant Song of the book of Isaiah. There is some considerable debate about who is the servant referred to in the first verse of chapter forty-two. On the one hand it seems to be the ideal follower of God. Maybe there isn’t a particular reference at all, it is just anyone who seeks to follow, this is the kind of life he/she will lead, this is the kind of person she/he will be. It is an example passage.

Some argue that this was a passage read after the coronation of a new king. It was a reminder to the king and to the nation that a leader serves not for his/her own benefit, not from his/her own power, but as a servant of the Lord who called and equipped him/her to serve. It was a celebration of a new administration launched in hope. Sound familiar? If only all our leaders saw themselves first as servants, what a difference that might make in governing.

Others, who read a little further in these verses determine that the servant is the whole people of God. When Isaiah speaks of calling, of being the light on the hill, we know it is whole nation of Israel that was called to that task. It has echoes in the words of Jesus when he tells us that we are salt and light, the church is the light on the hill, inviting all the world to come and know what we know, to know who we know. So the servant is the community of faith.

Then, of course, we Christians can’t help but read these words and imagine Christ. Jesus was the servant of the Lord who showed us what a life of service was like. Jesus was one who lifted up the fallen, who received the Spirit of the Lord to bring forth justice. This is a prophetic passage, spoken and written hundreds of years before the one to whom it refers came to be.
Finally, it is hard to read these words and not hear the call upon our own lives. Each of us (as well as all of us, mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago) is called to serve the lord, to work for justice. Each of us, this is a call passage, an invitation to a way of living.

So, you might be asking, which is it? Which one is the right answer? Well, all of them. That is the glory of the bible, it functions on so many levels all at the same time. I believe that historically it referred to the king who ascended to the throne of Israel and to the nation who that ruler led. And sometimes they listened and sometimes they didn’t. I think it also carried the seeds of prophecy, paving the way for the coming of the Christ. Did Isaiah know he was talking about Jesus of Nazareth? Probably not, but God knew. Just as God knows that we have the opportunity to live as servants to God and to the people. This is indeed a calling, an invitation to live in certain ways, to work for certain ends.

And what might those ends be? Did you notice that the word "justice" appears three times in the first four verses? It seems pretty important, don’t you think? Especially when we read that we or he or someone "will not faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth." We can’t rest, the task isn’t finished, Christ’s work isn’t done until justice is established in the earth.
So, what defines justice? Well, that is more than I can resolve for you in the small space left here. But a glimpse is given in the passage. To establish justice is to open the eyes of the blind - whether those blinded by material things or limited education or poverty or prejudice or... It is the work of the servants of the lord to help folks see what they overlook. To establish justice is to release those who are imprisoned in dungeons or darkness - whether those dungeons are human made barriers to freedom and wholeness, to sustenance or beauty; or practices that enslave minds or resources and keep people trapped in a cycle of poverty or on the brink of illness or disease from the lack of sanitary systems we take for granted; or the lack of resources or knowledge that will enable children of God to know how valuable they are to their creator and to this world. That is the work of establishing justice in the earth - to be in the business of systemic change, lasting change that makes life better for all. These are the new things that are about to spring forth, the new things that we are to tell about. These are the songs that we are called to sing into being.

Someone once said that God didn’t say let there be light, like is says in Genesis one. God sang it. God sang the world into being. And we are now called to sing the songs that will bring forth justice. And to keep singing, and singing, and singing. Like that song we can’t get out of our heads, we are fill our vision with justice. This is our theme song, says Isaiah 42, the music that plays whenever we take the stage is a song of justice.

What songs are you singing these days?



OK, it has been a while since I put anything here. Sorry about that. Sort of fell asleep at the switch. Anyway, let me catch up with the last series of postings on my other site ( and then I'll do Advent later.