Saturday, January 24, 2009

Something's Fishy

In one of those odd coincidences I went to Muncie today to speak to a District UMW meeting. OK, odd maybe, but where is the coincidence, you are asking. The coincidence is that this weekend is also UMW Sunday. Funny thing, don’t you think? Two independent events coalesce like that out of the blue. Eerie. Two disparate worlds align in orbit for once in a lifetime observation. Wow.

OK, maybe not such a bit big deal in the end. But it is at least interesting. Like it was planned or something. Spooky. We like to find those little connections, don’t we. We pay attention to the fact that sometimes things work out in ways we didn’t foresee, and yet it just seems right. "I was just thinking of you," we say to the person who calls us out of the blue. We take a different route to work and bump into a friend we hadn’t seen for years. We go shopping for one thing and come home with something different. (Act of God, honey, honest. I don’t know how those cookies got in the bag!) OK, maybe that’s something different all together.

But you know what I mean. Connections. Coincidences. Things come together, words bring results we didn’t expect. Hearts are opened, lives are changed, and we never saw it coming. Something fishy, we say. Maybe we enjoy it, maybe we are unnerved by it, but it happens. Who knows how it happens, but it happens. And we are surprised.

Unless, of course, we work for the source of constant surprises. Like Jonah. Gotta feel for the guy. He got set up. He got thrown into the deep end, into the lion’s den (I know that was Daniel, go with me here). He was reluctant at best, and yet was probably the single most successful prophet in the Old Testament. Our reading for this week comes from the middle of the story, but it is the climactic point - at least from a preacher’s point of view. Take a look:

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you." 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. ... When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

A second time, did you hear that? The Word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time... because the first time didn’t go so well. The first time the Word came Jonah went ... the other way. God’s Word said go, Jonah’s feet said no. And for his troubles he got a sea cruise berthed in an inside cabin with no view and a pervasive smell, and don’t get me started on the plumbing! But that was then, this is now. The Word of Lord came to Jonah a second time. And this time he decided he’d better go the direction the Word pointed.

The problem was it pointed toward Nineveh. Yikes. If there was ever a town you didn’t want to go to it was Nineveh. If there was ever a place full of the wrong sort of folk, it was Nineveh. You know how in some cities there’s a side of town you’re told you ought to avoid? Well, that’s the good side of Nineveh. No wonder Jonah didn’t want to go. They didn’t like him and he didn’t like them and they were both happy keeping things that way. Except... the Word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.

God has a thing for lost causes. And it was a cause God was trying to enlist Jonah in. So he went. Dragging his feel all the way. Into a city three days walk across, he walked one day, so a third of the way in. He plants his feet on a busy street corner and mutters his eight word sermon while picking fish bones out of his beard. Check that off the list, Jonah thinks to himself and turns to make his way back out of town. Ready to duck the rotting vegetables and pointed sticks he hunches down, and then realizes that the city is eerily silent. His eight word sermon froze them in their tracks. They were staring at him with that deer in the headlight, hand caught in the cookie jar kind of glaze. And one by one, they turned. First they turned in and didn’t like what they saw. So, next they turned out and began grasping at straws. They put on sackcloth as a sign of how bad they felt. They poured ashes on their heads. Whole families, whole neighborhoods turned. That’s what repent means, you know, they turned. They were heading in one direction and then because a word, well eight words, they turned a whole new direction.

That’s the fishy bit, at least as far as I’m concerned. How could that possibly be? How could a few words turn a life around? It is almost too incredible to be believed. Why, if we were to accept the possibility of such a thing, then we would find no situation beyond our ability to affect, we would find no life beyond the possibility of redemption, we would find no excuse to wash our hands of anyone at any time. Because we just might have the word that would cause their lives to turn around. No, it can’t really be possible in the real world. The real world is hard and cruel and there are good guys and bad guys and we know who is who. Or is it whom? We live a world different from Nineveh, at least the Nineveh that Jonah found, or helped to create. No our world is a world of hard work, back breaking labor to get anywhere. The kind of world guys like Simon and Andrew, James and John lived in. Men who knew their trade, who knew what mattered, who kept their noses to the grindstone. Right? Well...

Mark 1:14-20 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea-- for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

In the Wednesday Bible Study, someone said, they must have known him before. Or maybe they heard about him. It just seems incredible that with a word - follow me - that they would follow him. It seems like there must have been more than that. More to it than we see. It seems too fishy. Too unbelievable.

There is power in words. God’s word certainly, but even in our words. Knowing this, we now have the responsibility to use them, to turn lives around. Our own certainly, but others as well. We have an obligation and a joy, we have been given a gift that we can’t horde, that we can’t keep secret. It is a part of the gift itself that we share it. It is woven into the fabric of love that it is shared, multiplied infinitely until all know what we know, all know who we know. Even those we don’t think are worthy of it.

That was Jonah’s problem. That’s why the word had to come a second time. We discover in the final chapter that Jonah’s reluctance came from the fact that he was afraid that God would love the Ninevites as much as God loved him. That God would forgive the citizens of Nineveh like he had been forgiven. And that burned him up. God’s grace was fishy to Jonah. It was too incredible, too encompassing, to accepting. After all, Jonah was caught up in that net of God’s love, who knows who else might be included.

I’ll make you fish for people, says Jesus. But before they could fish they had to be caught. Which means we are all fishers and fish at the same time. Hmmm. Something’s fishy.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Wake Up Call

I slept in today. A rare thing. Not because I don’t want to, but because there is always something for me to get up and do. I am not a morning person. I have trouble falling asleep at night, I’m often up into the small hours of the morning. So, getting up isn’t something that I really want to do. But I do it. When I have to. And I have to most of the time, it seems. I do it. I don’t look forward to it. But I do it.

And don’t ask me to have a kind word for the wake up call that comes before I’m ready. But then by definition a wake up call can’t come when you are ready. If you were ready you would be awake, wouldn’t you? Then you wouldn’t need a wake up call, right?

I don’t know. I know that for some folks a wake up call is a good thing. It causes them to rethink things that otherwise might have gone unnoticed. It sometimes causes us to change behaviors, or attitudes. So, it can be a good thing, even if it is painful when it comes. Our first scripture lesson seems to be all about a wake up call. Take a look:

1 Samuel 3:1-10 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the LORD called, "Samuel! Samuel!" and he said, "Here I am!" 5 and ran to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call; lie down again." So he went and lay down. 6 The LORD called again, "Samuel!" Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call, my son; lie down again." 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. 8 The LORD called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening."

Once again the lectionary stops before we find out what is really going on. So, we only have half a story here. A great half, to be sure. Lots of lessons tucked away in this half a story. The most stark is signaled by the very first verse: "The word of the Lord was rare in those days..." Why is that? Did God not have anything to say? Or did the people forget how to listen? Was the weight of the world simply too much to bear and no one was lifting their eyes to heaven? Was the darkness so deep that no one remembered the light? We don’t know. All we know is that the word of the Lord was rare in those days.

Yet God spoke. That’s our first wake up call, I suppose. In a time when the Word of the Lord was rare, God spoke. Maybe that helps explain the situation a little bit. Not that we need to find who’s to blame, not that we need to know who is at fault, but God still spoke when visions were not widespread. How easy it is to give up on God. To decide that we are on our own and God has abandoned us, because we don’t have a clear vision, the Word is rare in our days. We feel cut off, we feel alone, as though no one understands what we are going through, as though no one cares that we are struggling, we are hurting. So, we develop that layer of cynicism, a sarcastic streak that keeps the world at arms length to protect ourselves. And we hear even less of a word of hope because that is what we have come to expect.

That’s the attitude that seems to be reflected in one of Jesus’ disciples. Well, before he became a disciple anyway. The Gospel reading for this week comes from John, the end of the first chapter and the calling of Nathaniel. Nathaniel only appears here in the Gospel of John. Some scholars think that the Bartholomew mentioned in the other three gospels is Nathaniel. William Barclay even argues that Bartholomew is a last name, translated as "son of Tholmai." So, his name might have been Nathaniel Bartholomew. Hmm. I don’t know. Others argue that Nathaniel wasn’t even a real person, but rather a representative of a human trait of pride and prejudice and the need to listen for the call. I don’t know about that either, but it is obvious that there is something of significance going on here.

John 1:43-51 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." 46 Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" 48 Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." 49 Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" 50 Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these." 51 And he said to him, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."

"Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" The word of the Lord was rare in those days. We don’t know why Nathaniel said what he said. Maybe he just wanted to be left alone, didn’t want to be bothered by Philip and his new best friend. Maybe he really thought anyone from a hick town like Nazareth wouldn’t have anything of significance to say to him. Maybe he had given up the search that Philip was still on, decided he didn’t need a Messiah after all. Was doing all right on his own.

But was he? Are we doing all right on our own? Most of the time we think so. Most of the time we are content with the world as it is, with our lot in it. Most of the time we are grateful that things aren’t any worse than they are. And the Word of the Lord is rare most days.
Every now and then we ache to hear that Word. When we let down our guard, in our heart we long to know and to be known. We want so much more of life than we settle for most of the time. We want our relationships to be deep and satisfying, want those we love to trust in that love, we want to live the fullness of that love. We want someone to know us, all of our weaknesses and strengths, all our beauty and ugliness; to know us and love us still.

Almost sounds like fantasy, doesn’t it? Such knowledge, such love is not possible in this world, a world where the Word of the Lord is rare. So, we bury such thoughts, such quiet desperation behind the facade of being all right, of not needing anyone or anything. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Or anywhere for that matter?

Well, yes, it can. Out of Nazareth can come the one who knows and who loves still. Out of the darkness of the night can come the voice that calls us by name. Out of your church filled with hypocrites and sinners can come a sense of family and community that remakes us. Out of your house can come a trust and openness that gives us that sense of home we were created for. From surprising people can come unconditional love that builds us up and makes us whole.

We all need a wake up call from time to time, to keep from sleeping through our own lives. It is a call to hope. Speak, Lord, your servants are listening.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Taking the Plunge

They were there again. I mentioned them last year about this time. (You do remember what I write a whole year later, don’t you?) Those polar bear guys and gals. They were there. Even here in Fort Wayne apparently. They ran down on New Year’s Day to leap into the St. Mary’s River. Brrr. Of course the pictures of those having to dodge ice flows were more dramatic, but still... I imagine the St. Mary’s River was cold enough for their purposes. Whatever they are.
That’s what fascinates me, I guess. Those purposes. I’m sure they have them. Even if they are of the mountain climbing variety – "Because it’s there!" Some argue the health benefits of a bracing dip in the water. In Finland, apparently, they heat up in the sauna and then run and roll in the snow or plunge in icy waters and it is supposed to be good for something. Heart? Circulation? Mental stability? No, that doesn’t seem right. Maybe some medical personnel can weigh in on that one.

But why New Year’s Day? What is the significance there? Maybe it is getting it over with. Maybe if you start out the day by jumping in a frozen lake or river you figure your year has got to be uphill from there. You survive that you can survive anything.

That makes some sense, in a weird sort of way. Maybe it is a new start. Maybe they figure the heart stops with the shock of the cold water, and so it is kind of like being reborn. I’ve got to admit, there is theological precedent for that mind set. OK, it isn’t the coldness, necessarily, but water is a symbol of rebirth for us Christians. A symbol of birth, actually. The Great Thanksgiving prayer used for Advent talks about how God sent Jesus "nurtured in the waters of the womb," a reminder of the humanity of Christ.

Water figures in both passages for this Sunday. It is the second Sunday of Epiphany and therefore the baptism of the Lord. But the Old Testament passage also mentions water. Perhaps you’ve heard it before:

Genesis 1:1-5 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

When time began, God was. When Creation came to be, God was the cause. The water here is the incubator, the womb of God out of which Creation is birthed. "The wind of God swept over the face of the waters," says the NRSV; "the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters," says the NIV. Eugene Peterson’s The Message says "God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss." I like that. Brooded. Like a hen tending the eggs before they hatch, like a mother waiting for the time to give birth. God tends the creation, God calls it forth.

But wait, it is the Spirit that is the creative force of God, or the Word? The Spirit brooded, the Word was spoken and there was. The Prologue to the Gospel of John tells us the Word was that force: John 1:3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. It was the Word that brought forth light, and then it was the Word that pronounced it good.

We sometimes forget that part of the story. We wrestle over creation, we argue about theories, but we sometimes forget the goodness that is a part of all that God has created. Or maybe we forget what "good" means.

God saw that it was good. But the light was not yet complete. The sun hadn’t been made yet, in the story. The moon and the "lesser lights" of the stars were still on the drawing board. But it was good. Goodness must mean something other than finished. It must mean something other than perfect as we define that term. Perhaps it means born of God.

Our second text for this weekend is the story of Jesus baptism from Mark. Ah, yes, this is the year of Mark. So, catch your breath now because once Mark gets going there’s no stopping until Holy Week anyway! Mark’s gospel is a fast gallop through the story of Jesus, and we are often left panting on the roadside wondering what is going on here. Even this story, the baptism of Jesus, seems more concerned with meeting a flight schedule somewhere than with telling the story. Take a look:

Mark 1:4-11 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." 9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

Whew. Nothing about John’s preaching that we get from Matthew and Luke. Nothing about the conversation between Jesus and John that appears in the Gospel of John. Just in and out, get it done. No actual description of the baptism at all. Did you notice that? He came to be baptized, then as he was coming up out of that water he saw what he saw. It is like we skipped over the event itself. And given how much we argue about the methodology of baptism, you would think there would be some more detail here. It is almost as if the real importance is what happens afterwards.

Do you remember your baptism? Some do, those who were baptized as youth or adults. Many don’t, because it happened before their rememberers kicked in. Yet, even those of us who remember our baptism only because someone told us about it much later, we can still remember what happened afterwards. Because now is afterwards. The life we live as baptized followers of Jesus is that afterwards. The new creation that we choose to make of ourselves every single day of our lives is that afterwards.

The new creation that we are and are becoming is a curious mixture of Word and Spirit. There are Words pronounced over us at our baptism and there is Spirit conferred from the community of faith. And we are remade. A new creation, a fresh start.

Whether we see it descending upon us like a dove or not, that Spirit is a constant companion throughout our lives. It is what inspires us to love and to serve and learn and to grow. It is what equips us to be a part of the body of Christ in unique and powerful ways.

And whether we hear it or not, the word that is spoken over us is a word of affirmation. God sees the light placed within us and pronounces it good. The voice proclaims "you are my beloved, with you I am well pleased." Not done, not complete, not perfect, but good. In God’s eyes, good. With the winds of the Spirit at our back, we are good. Now that is a New Year’s plunge worth taking again.


Friday, January 2, 2009

Prisoner of Love

Who wrote that song? Don’t know really. Turns out there were a bunch of songs with that title, even a Japanese one I found. But the one I remember is probably the Etta James version of the old jazz classic. Alone from night to night you'll find me / Too weak to break the chains that bind me / I need no shackles to remind me / I'm just a prisoner of love. James Brown made it a hit in 1963, Perry Como about the same time. It was a popular song. Unrequited love, past love that still hangs on. Something beyond your will, captured by a feeling or an emotion. It speaks of the power of love to overwhelm. We are helpless in the face of such a force, according to the songwriters. For one command I stand and wait now / From one who's master of my fate now / I can't escape for it's too late now / I'm just a prisoner of love

An odd sort of theme to bring up for a bible study. And to be honest I’m not sure what the connection is, except that word prisoner. In the song there is a sense of helplessness, there is an air of captured against the will. That is what we normally think of when we hear the word prisoner. Being imprisoned is a terrible fate for most of us, and we would do whatever it takes to avoid it. We have trouble understanding those who find themselves imprisoned repeatedly. That kind of thinking, that kind of lifestyle is as alien to us as any foreign culture would be.

So then why would St Paul with what appears to be a certain amount of pride call himself a prisoner? As though he chose it? As though he embraces it willingly? It just doesn’t make much sense to us. Take a look at the Scripture text for this first Sunday of the new year:

Ephesians 3:1-12 This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles-- 2 for surely you have already heard of the commission of God's grace that was given me for you, 3 and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, 4 a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. 5 In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: 6 that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 7 Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God's grace that was given me by the working of his power. 8 Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.

The first thing we have to admit is that most biblical scholars don’t think Paul wrote Ephesians. And there is some evidence that supports this which I won’t take the time to outline (but feel free to ask if you’ve got a spare couple of hours to kill). Still, it makes good narrative sense to hold onto the belief that it was Paul in the end. So, I’m going with that.

If it was Paul, it was one of the later letters, and would have most likely have been written from Rome. Where he was a prisoner. Or as some liked to say, a guest of the Emperor. But Paul never says that he is imprisoned by the powers that be, or even that he is incarcerated against his will. He presents it as a part of his calling - "I am a prisoner for Christ Jesus."

Now, some argue that what he is doing is explaining the reasons for his imprisonment. Because of his ministry, because of his preaching and evangelizing he has been thrown into jail. He is claiming a cause, he is stressing that he is willing to suffer for a higher cause, and that cause is the person of Christ and the mystery of the gospel. But I think there might be more going on here than just that. As big as that is. Paul is saying something very different about the whole concept of imprisonment than we are used to hearing. And that difference is the will. Paul has chosen this imprisonment. He willingly gave up his personal freedom, his ability to do what he wanted when he wanted, to serve the one who renamed him.

This Sunday, like Methodists from the days of Wesley, we will have the opportunity to choose imprisonment. Or maybe that isn’t the word that best describes it. Wesley called it Covenant. We have another opportunity to surrender our lives to Christ, to claim that Jesus Christ is indeed Lord of our lives and that our wills are wrapped up in doing Christ’s will.

Here is one version of that covenant: I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

"I freely and heartily yield all things to [God’s] pleasure and disposal." Wow. Is that a prison sentence or what? Yet, Paul at least is willing. Not only willing, he seems almost eager to surrender to this will that is greater than his own will. In a nation that idolizes freedom, this is not just strange it is dangerous.

Why would anyone in their right mind surrender freedom? Maybe for the sake of something bigger. Paul talks about the mystery of the gospel. Perhaps this is something even greater than personal freedom, at least in his mind. But what is this mystery? In our passage Paul explains that the mystery is the reality that Gentiles are included in the grace of God.
Uh. Is that it? You might expect something more, given what was sacrificed. You might expect something more, given that so many want to talk about the secrets of the bible, or the hidden codes, lost interpretations or whatnot. You would think the secret would be something bigger. Wouldn’t you?

But then what could be bigger? Paul says that God’s vision is always bigger than ours. Paul says that God’s Kingdom, that the Community of faith is bigger than we imagine. But sometimes it takes solitary confinement to figure this out. It was from prison that Paul wrote that Gentiles, those who were foreigners and strangers were also heirs of the promise. It was from prison that another visionary wrote of the community of faith that unites beyond our vision.

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly..." These words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s essay "Letters from a Birmingham Jail" remind us of the same mystery that Paul spoke of in his letter from a Roman jail. This mystery, this ideal of connection and the "inescapable network of mutuality" is something worth surrendering to, something worth being imprisoned by. We are saying that we would choose to commit ourselves to such a vision, to covenant to work toward such an end.

We are saying we will be prisoners of this kind of love.


Sweet Sorrow

OK, now I’m really confused. Last Sunday we worshiped in the dark and cold (no power in the church and single digit temperatures – but by golly we had church!) Now this weekend it is mid-60's temperature-wise. What is wrong with this picture? If I was of an apocalyptic bent then I might start predicting the end of everything we know because this must be a sign of something!

OK, maybe it isn’t the end of everything, but it is the end of something. We now sit on the brink of a new year. We face the end of the Christmas celebrations. My dad is checking around the house to make sure that he won’t forget anything when they get on the road tomorrow to head back home (thankful for the heat wave that removed the ice - that Tennessee blood is a little thinner). But it means that their visit is coming to an end. My sister flies back to California on Monday after escorting my parents back home to Tennessee. And then we are back to normal. (Well, if you knew my family you would know nothing is normal when we are together - sorry, couldn’t resist.)

While there is some kind of relief in getting back to normal, I’m not sure it is all that wonderful a destination. Why do we need to get back there so quickly. Can’t we stay abnormal a little bit longer? Well, no, sorry. The world beckons. We are called back into "normality." We have responsibilities. We have duties. We have business to do. And we find comfort in that normality. We find relief and release in the routines of our living, in the life we have chosen.

That is the sweet dimension of our parting. No so much, "boy I’m glad they are gone" (though there have been times...), but in the getting back to the life we’ve carved out for ourselves. However fun the abnormal is, however much we love our family, we are glad to get back to what we know best. We are glad to get our house back, our beds, the bathroom. We are glad to get back to cooking for the gang we’re are used to cooking for. Life settles back into a comfort zone, into a more predictable pattern (or at least predictable in its unpredictability!) It is sweet.

We will miss them when they are gone. No matter how sweet there is also sorrow. Saying goodbye is never an easy thing to do. Many of us avoid it. We hide our heads until we think the leave-taking is over and then we rise up and say "Oh, are they gone?" Saying goodbye is hard, because something has come to an end. We are not good at endings. That is the sorrow part of parting.

Yet, we are different because of what we shared, because of the encounter that has come to an end. We are changed by the visit, by the sharing – maybe for the better, maybe not, maybe in some small seemingly insignificant way or maybe in a world changing, perspective altering way that makes us a new person. Maybe the routine we return to isn’t routine at all because of the visitors who have dwelt among us for a time. Maybe the familiar paths have changed and that GPS we got for Christmas will have to find all new roads to travel. If we pay attention, we might just discover that the ending we dread is really a beginning that will make all the difference.

At least that is what Simeon discovered. Our gospel reading for this Sunday after Christmas is the Presentation in the Temple. We sometimes rush away from the Christmas story so fast that we forget to listen to the rest of the story. Maybe that is symptomatic of our reluctance to face endings. But we need to listen to Simeon. We need to pay heed to Anna. Listen again:

Luke 2:22-40 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons." 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." 33 And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed-- and a sword will pierce your own soul too." 36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Simeon is someone who knows how to say goodbye. His farewell is called the "Nunc Dimittis" from the first too words of the speech in Latin – Now let... I’m ready to go, he says. I’ve seen all that I have wanted to see. He’s been hanging on and hanging around, waiting. His life was one long Advent. Watching and waiting. And now he has seen and so he can go.

But what did he see? He saw a beginning. He saw something launched, the new world begun, the future held in tiny wrinkled hands. You would think he wound want to stick around and see how it all played out. But he didn’t need to. He trusted in that future. He had faith in the end of the story. Even though he wouldn’t see what would happen next, he knew Who was directing the play.

When we say goodbye, we are really saying "God be with you." We are putting our friends, our family into the hands of God trusting that God will care for them, God will hold them no matter what, God will claim them in their living, and yes, even in their dying. Holding two funerals this weekend for long time members of the faith and the family of Aldersgate makes us think even more about how we say goodbye. Do we really trust in God’s future? Can we really say goodbye to friends and family trusting that no matter what happens they will always be wrapped in love, our love and God’s love both?

That doesn’t mean the end of sorrow, unfortunately. It will always be hard to say goodbye - not matter how temporarily. It doesn’t mean the end to grief, our vision is too limited. We can only see into eternity with faith, not our eyes. The faith that allowed Anna the prophetess to run from person to person and bubble over with joy in what God has begun in her seeing. The faith that allowed Simeon to say, "Ah, I have seen the unseeable. I have seen the future in the face of a child. And that is enough."

So travel well, those who travel. Remember this moment, these moments we have shared. They were moments of love and joy and we have changed, grown because of them. And though parting is hard, it remains a sweet, sweet sorrow.