Saturday, December 24, 2011

Describing the Indescribable

How do you describe the indescribable? How do you explain the unexplainable? It is beyond our capabilities, to be honest. It escapes us. And yet we try. We see a glorious sunset and we want to describe to someone who wasn’t there. We wax eloquent about hues and shading, about cloud formations and transitions, and when we are done they say “sounds nice.” Nice? we think, nice? It was mind blowing, heart stopping. And you think it was nice?

Tell them about a landscape you saw, or a concert you heard. Tell them about an intimate moment with the love of your life, and if you are lucky they will smile and say “nice.” Or something equally deflating. Because it doesn’t transfer. You can’t recapture the moment and pass it on to someone else. No matter how good you are with words, you can’t describe the sight you saw or the experience you experienced in a way that transfers it into someone else’s mind and heart.

The best you can hope for is that the description you provide allows them to recall a similar sight or moment in their own life. Association sometimes works. They can say, well, I remember a sunset I saw from my cabin on the coast, it was ... And then your eyes glaze over as you begin to think, it couldn’t possibly be as spectacular as the one I just saw. You can’t describe the indescribable.

So, have some sympathy for John. He is trying to give us the essence of the Christmas story. He doesn’t want to tell us the surface of the event, like Matthew and Luke. They were interested in happenings, in personalities. Who said what when and where. They are like journalists. Which, though complicated - which is why their stories are so different - it is still easier than what John sets out to do.

John wants us to see the grandeur of this sunset - or sunrise, which might be a bit more descriptive. He wants us to understand the nuance of the symphony that God has composed and conducted and played in our presence. Wants us to not just hear the notes, but to follow the story, to see beneath the surface into the intentions and purposes, the meanings and the applications. He wants us to not just see the landscape, but to be a part of it. To stand in awe of it even as we walk through it, abide in it.

So, of course he falls back on poetry. Of course he sings a song, he tells a story. There aren’t enough facts, there isn’t enough reality to contain a thesis on incarnation. Instead we get this.

John 1:1-18 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'") 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.

And I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The only way I know to say this same thing with even simpler words is this: Merry Christmas.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Keeping Watch

OK, here’s the deal. I barely have time to breathe this weekend. It is the last weekend before Christmas and we seem to have put all our eggs in this basket. Once I wade my way through this bible study and get it sent to all the waiting masses (that’s you), I have to finish preparing a narration to the Music department’s Christmas Spectacular, which begins at 3:30pm, and then is followed by a chili supper fund raiser for the Youth Music trip to Kentucky this summer. Once that is consumed, it is back here to complete preparations for the Fourth Sunday of Advent Services here at Aldersgate Community United Methodist Church.

Once those services are over (in the can, as they say in the biz) then I hightail it to the Finance Committee meeting which is trying to finalize the church budget for 2012. Then it is home to prepare to help Ellen Rhoades, our Parish Visitor and Senior Adult Coordinator lead a “Blue Christmas” worship service for those who are struggling this season because of loss. Then it is back home to help host the Youth Christmas Party at our home. I think my job will be to keep the crazy dogs from actually eating anyone. (Just kidding, youth! They won’t eat you. Come on to my house!!) Which also means that somewhere in the midst of this I ought to be doing my part to help clean up the house in preparation for company. (And figure out where to hang a pinata - really? A Christmas pinata, Amanda? Hmmm, too bad the ice is gone from the pond.)

Now, I suspect that many of you are thinking “that’s nothing, look at this list!” And you can pull out your own schedule of craziness. I know I’m not the only one who has too many things to do this season - although it sometimes seems like it! “Nobody knows the troubles I see.” But I’m not the first to put too much on his plate at this time of year. You’ve got a schedule that makes you shake your head, don’t you? Well, if you don’t, I can always look back at the shepherds.

I know, we are used to thinking that they were lazy, relaxing in the fields, dozing and drinking, time on their hands. We aren’t the first to think that of them. That’s why they were considered unclean. They were rough characters, kept from proper worship and proper interactions with the “good people.” When Luke tells us that the people were “amazed at what the shepherds had told them” we rightly think about the wonder of the story itself. But the added ingredient to their amazement was the source of the story. It was the shepherds who told this story. The shepherds who, according to them anyway, got a voicemail from God. No, a direct message, better than a telegram, a visitation. A manifestation. An angel, a whole host of them, singing and dancing in the heavens, about a baby in a manager. Uh-huh. Just what did they keep in those leather flasks all night long anyway?

I’m sure that is what went through the minds of at least some of those hearing this tale. These are shepherds after all. But what if we’ve been a bit unfair to the shepherds? I read a commentator some years ago who said that we ought to see the shepherds as small business owners. They were hardly the only occupation who had to deal with ritual uncleanness, those rules were almost impossible to keep. Certainly there were some in the business who were disreputable characters, but what business doesn’t have their share of disrepute?

Maybe the issue was they were busy. Luke doesn’t say they were lazing about in the field. He says they were keeping watch. It was an important job. Someone even speculated once that perhaps this was not an ordinary, run of the mill flock of sheep. That maybe this was a group of the Temple lambs, ones raise spotless, unblemished so that they would be worthy of that sacrifice. It seemed likely that in Luke’s mind at least this was symbolic, that the announcement of the child born to be the perfect sacrifice would be announced with full angelic accompaniment to those who were keeping watch over the sacrificial lambs. Keep watch, says the child grown into a man, for you do not know when the day will come. Maybe he remembered the story as he said that. The story his mom told when he was little and would sit and soak up every word she said. The story about that night after a long trip to Bethlehem. The night when the stars seemed brighter than they do today. The night when a manger was the only refuge from the dark and the cold.

The night when they came, the shepherds, bringing with them the smells of the animals in their care. And how they told anyone and everyone who would listen what had happened to them. How they were keeping watch, doing their job, worrying about the predators and the hazards out there in the darkness. Worrying about how they were going to get the sick ones to eat, and the angry ones to live in peace. Worrying about the fluctuations in the price of temple lambs, how they used to make a good living but now were just getting by. Worrying about how long it was going to be until their next day off, when they could go and see their families, and wash the smell of sheep off of them for a little while at least. When they could pretend to be just like everyone else.

And then the sky exploded. They thought their hearts would stop beating in their chests. They thought it was the end of the world. They thought they would never hold their little babies, or kiss their wives, or laugh with family ever again. They thought all their mistakes were coming back to trip them up, all their failings, all their doubts and brokenness, they thought what the villagers thought of them was going to be their legacy. They thought they were doomed to disappear into the dark like all the others they tell ghost stories about around the fire in the middle of the night, when they are trying to keep one another away because the wolves are prowling.

As quickly as all these thoughts raced through their minds, came another, fast on its heels. Fear not. The voice spoke in their heads without having to go through their ears somehow. Good news. They heard or felt, or just somehow knew. To you is born a savior. To you, us? They thought. Surely not, maybe the “good” people in town. Maybe the priests and leaders, the rich and powerful, they thought. A sign to you, a babe wrapped in cloth, lying in a manger. Now mangers they understood. Mangers were their business, their language. Mangers and saviors seemed to make some odd kind of sense to shepherds.

Then the song began, and glorious one it was. It brought tears to the eyes of these rough and burly men used to the hazards of the wilderness. It made their hearts light, their minds rest, their hope soar. It was glorious. When it ended they didn’t dare to breathe for a long moment. When they did they looked at one another, hoping they weren’t the only ones to hear this message. But they could tell by the look on each face that it was real, and it was theirs. Let us make haste they said. They made room in their busy schedule, they made their way, breathless and hopeful, like Moses and the bush, they turned aside to see.

What are you keeping watch over? What will you make room for?

Luke 2:1-20 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Guide My Feet

I am suffering from list withdrawal. An amazing confession, I know. I have indicated in this space that while I am not a list-maker myself, I married one. And she is an expert to say the least. This time of year is usually list-a-palooza. Or list-orama. Or list-normous. Or ... well you get the idea. Her list-making traits kick into hyper-drive and we all have lists aplenty. And then there are usually lists of lists to keep track of the lists that were handed out, and often a master list on big pieces of paper or white boards in conspicuous places. You can’t brush your teeth or get a snack from the fridge without checking the list in front of your face.

But this time, nothing. OK, not nothing. As she prepares to leave on Tuesday morning to spend time with her dad, she tells me things I need to remember. Tells me. As if I were going to remember. And I do. Mostly. Well, at least I think I do. Can’t really tell, I guess. If I don’t remember them, then I can’t really remember to do them, can I? So, I do what I remember and when she comes home she asks about the ones I didn’t remember. Argghh. How she remembers, I don’t really know. But she does.

What is worse she remembers the things she didn’t tell me to do because she thought I would just know to do them. “Did you tell me to do that?” I’ll ask. “You should have known,” she’ll reply. “It happens every week.” Or “It needed to be done.” Or something like that. Which implies if I had been paying attention I would have known and done it. And she is right. But I have become dependant on her lists.

I’m suffering from list withdrawal. Knowing what to do is a tricky thing. Almost as tricky as knowing what to say. Just ask Zechariah. And he had nine months to think about it. Remember him? He was John the Baptist’s dad. Zechariah the Baptist. From the Jerusalem the Baptists. Good family. Long history. Usually involved in church work. In fact that is where he was when this part of his story really begins.

He was doing his duty, tucked out of sight in the Holy of Holies, supposedly in conversation with God on behalf of the people, when an angel shows up. Gabriel, he says his name is, at least he says that eventually, right after he gets honked off at Zechariah for not doing his job.

The encounter starts innocently enough. The angel appears scaring the wits out of Zechariah. And this messenger proceeds to give the message. “Your prayers are answered! You wife is going to have a son, and you are going to name him John (which means “God’s Gift” - so that you and everyone else will know how this whole thing happened) and then you will dedicate him to God’s service.” Pretty cool, really. Just the sort of thing you’d expect to happen in God’s sitting room, wouldn’t you?

Well, unfortunately, Zechariah didn’t expect it. Didn’t trust it. Tried to push it away, probably cleaned his glasses on his robe and stuck his finger in his ear and did the wiggle thing that everyone who isn’t sure about what they heard does. Then puts his foot in it. His mouth, that is, not his ear. He had managed to gather a part of what was scared out of him earlier, but only manages a half-witted response: “Prove it.”

The angel rears up to his full, divine warrior height and puts his hand on the hilt of his sword and leans in to Zechariah and snarls “You don’t know who you are messing with, bud. But because I’m one of the nice ones, instead of separating your head from your shoulders, I’m only going to stop up your tongue in your head. And you will be unable to utter a single word, a tiny sound, until you learn a little obedience, Priest-dude.”

This weekend’s reading is the first thing he says after all that. For nine months he has been gestating a response to the Lord’s angel, and now he is about to deliver. And this is what he says:

Luke 1:67-79 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: 68"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

A different tone, to say the least. One of humility and praise. But most importantly for Zechariah, a note of hope. Confident hope. Like Mary’s song of a few verses earlier, Zechariah sings as though what he and we have longed for has already happened. “The Lord has looked favorably, the Lord has redeemed, the Lord has raised up a mighty savior for us.” Where, the onlookers might reasonably ask? And with a grin Zechariah would point to the swelling belly of Mary and say “Right there!”

The crowds would roll their eyes and cluck knowingly at one another. Nine months without a word, it would drive anyone a little batty. And Zechariah was a preacher, for heaven’s sake. Can’t think of a worse punishment for a preacher than telling them to shut up for nine months. Might as well have separated his head from his shoulders. Gabriel had a mean streak in him. So, Zechariah could be forgiven for spouting nonsense, his relatives and friends allowed.

But it wasn’t nonsense. He was doing his job. He was living in hope. A confident hope. A powerful hope. A transforming hope. A hope that gives direction.

It’s a list-making hope, it seems to me. He concludes his recitation, after the praise and the confident celebration of the completion of God’s promises, after the marching orders to his new born son who had a role to play in this salvation drama, whose name was going to be John by the way, despite the relatives complaint that no one in the family had been named John. Or, we’ve never done it that way before! But Zechariah concludes his delivery on the most auspicious of birth days, with God’s promise of light. And this light is a comfort, a guard against despair and hopelessness. This light is a comfort against the inevitability of death. This light is a comfort because it will show us how to walk.

Guide my feet is a list receiver’s plea. Help know where to go and what to do. Guide my feet in the ways of peace. Give me a list so I know how to please you. Give me a list so I know how to keep my life right. Give me a list. I’m suffering from list withdrawal.

Maybe Zechariah’s proclamation is asking God for the grace to make his own list. Guide my feet so that knowing where to walk is bred into me. So I don’t have to wonder. So I don’t have to wait. All I have to do is walk where the light is. Serve without fear, serve where the hope is.

I’m making a list.


Saturday, December 3, 2011

Upside Down

It is Saturday morning as I write this. A day of scurrying around and putting things away. Things that should have been put away days ago. But no one seemed to care all that much. Just pile it up, let it sit, no big deal. Except this morning it looks like a big deal. It looks like no one cares. It looks like no one lives here any more. Like something better came up and every dropped - literally dropped - whatever they were doing and headed out. It looks like the Visigoths swooped in and set up camp in our family room and kitchen.

OK, before I get email from the Visigoth Anti-Defamation League, let me quickly say that some of my best friends are Visigoths. No, better yet, some of my teenagers are card carrying Visigoths. Well, if they could keep track of their cards. We stumble across all sorts of stuff that we had lost track of these past few days. It’s that kind of day around here. And now, it is raining too. Great.

So, you might well ask, what brought about this change in perspective. If clutter and disarray was acceptable, almost unnoticeable yesterday, why the concern now? La Donna is coming home this morning. Funny how the world looks different because that advent. It is as though we found our glasses, or rubbed the sleep out of our eyes and were finally able to focus on the rubble and a rising panic puts wings on our feet as we scurry around trying to bring order to the chaos. Even the dogs seems to be arranging their chew toys in some semblance of order. Granted it is an order that only makes sense in a canine perspective, but order is order.

Let me be clear, it isn’t fear that motivates us. Well, not completely. I mean no one wants to hear that “Guys!” of exasperation, the “what were you thinking?” as she salvages what once might have been edible from under the coats that should have been hung up and sorts out the paper for recycling from the receipts to be filed away. That eye rolling enhanced sigh can cause many a stout heart to fail, believe you me!

But is more about the joy of the reunion, more about wanting to provide a bright and shiny welcome. It is also about not adding to her burden by getting the feeling that we are unable to function without her. Because she is coming back as a respite from her own vigil, her own waiting. She has spent these past few weeks with her dad as he navigates his final journey in this life. Not every advent is anticipated with comfort and joy.

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."

Mary didn’t write this song, but it was still soul music for her. It came from the depths of her new experience. Mary was be all accounts very young, a teenager or even preteen. And yet there is a depth here. A surprising prophetic depth that can barely be understood, let alone explained.

A few verses earlier in Luke’s account she is standing with a puzzled look on her face in front of an angel. “How can this be?” she squeaks. It is beyond her, this whole event, this Annunciation, and you can hear the capital A in the description. Certainly Mary could. She knew, somehow, that this was big, bigger than her and for some unexplainable reason including her. “How can this be?”

And now, in the presence of another, a woman too old to be a mother, more suited for the geriatric ward than obstetrics, Mary - too young to be a mother - sings with a wisdom beyond her scant years. Sounding like a prophet of old, she should have slipped in a “thus saith the Lord” somewhere along there, then we wouldn’t have had reason to doubt where she stood. She stands in a line of proclaimers who want us to know that God is about to turn the world upside down. And she does it with a song. A song of praise and hope, a song of confidence and glory, a song of blessing and presence. A song of completion though all is just barely begun.

It is because she now sees differently. The life within her has affected her vision, and she sees what is out of place but she is also able to see how it ought to be - or can be - or will be. And she sees it so clearly it becomes an is. Notice all the past tense verbs in Mary’s song. “He has shown strength... He has scattered ... He has brought down and lifted up ... He has filled the hungry, He has send away the full. He has. Not he will, or He might, or maybe someday something like this just might occur. He has, Mary sings. From her soul. The soul now giving life to God, the soul now housing the savior, about to birth the hope of the world. No wonder she sings soul music.

Soul music, according to one definition is gospel music that has gone to town. The styles, the forms, the passion of gospel music burst out of the church and began to address the world, secular themes and issues and became known as soul music. The gospel at loose in the world. What better description for Mary’s song can we find than that? This isn’t simply a song about spiritual themes and churchy attitudes. This isn’t a song about faith development divorced from interaction in a messy and broken world. This is soul music, echoing the cry of a heart longing for redemption and the hope of a faith resting in the promises of God while working through the body of Christ to bring this hope to reality in the world in which we live.

No doubt there are some music afficionados out there who are thinking to themselves, “I’ve heard some of what is called soul music and it sounds about as far from the gospel as you can get.” And you’d be right. That’s always the danger when you take your faith to work outside of the church, it can get messy, it can get confusing, it can lose its way. It happens at times, that’s part of the risk of living your faith. But it can also get deeper, get stronger, get more real. Listen closely, those themes, that hope is still out there, being sung by those who wouldn’t call themselves churchy types, in fact go out of their way to distance themselves from us. And yet the passions, the hopes still bubble away out there. And maybe our job is to see with new eyes this world in which we live. See it as something worth working in, something worth cleaning up, because someone is coming home.

La Donna got home in the midst of writing this. We managed to clear some of the surfaces before she got here and her homecoming was less painful than it might have been. It looked a little like someone had bothered to prepare the way. We got caught up, choked back some tears, laughed at our feeble efforts to maintain equilibrium in this advent time. And we proclaimed the goodness of God, who has given us this gift of precious time, even while we long for peace and for rest. But do not doubt that it will come, it is here, in God’s own time. The Mighty One has done great things and holy is His name.


Saturday, November 26, 2011

Deus Ex

At dinner last night, Rhys asked me what “Deus Ex Machina” means. Apparently they ran across the phrase in one of his classes (English lit, probably, doesn’t seem to be a Statistics or Engineering kind of phrase. Maybe AP Psych, but then I’m not so sure) He was stumped by it, or they didn’t cover it in class, or he had trouble wrapping his head around it.

He is a Latin scholar so he could have figured it out. And probably did, but the words, the translation didn’t make sense to him. Deus Ex Machina - God out of the machine. What? It was a theatre term, I explained. It was a device to resolve all the convoluted plot lines that the play had spun out in ever increasing tragedy and suspense. When it got to the point there was no possible solution, when nothing could untangle the mess that had been made, when the hero was on the brink of despair and the villain was about to win, when the ingenue was about to be devoured and the soldier was mortally wounded on the field of battle, when the audience was in tears and chorus was singing lament, then Deus Ex Machina! On a squeaky pulley would be lowered a cut out cloud and an actor with a booming voice and a cotton wool beard would proclaim that all was now resolved. Wrong was put to right, the evil would be punished and the good and faithful would be rewarded. With the snap of divine fingers all was put right again. And the audience would clap until their hands were sore, and as they shuffled to the exits they would turn to their companions and say “That was a close one! I wasn’t sure they were going to get out of that mess.” They would wipe away a remaining tear and breathe a sigh of relief as they pulled their night-on-the-town coats tighter against the chill in the air and went out into the night.

“You’re kidding,” Rhys said to me with a look of disdain. “You mean to tell me they actually bought that?” It was a standard ending to a lot of the Greek tragedies, I told him. “And they didn’t go demand their money back? Nobody today would be satisfied with that kind of thing, a little bit of magic and all the bad goes away. Things aren’t that simple anymore,” he declared as he cleared his dishes. He shook his head at the gullibility of ancient Greek theatre goers, “Deus Ex Machina,” he snorted and then headed back down to the basement where the computer was waiting for him to come and save a galaxy by swooping in with faster than light space ships, firing weapons of unimaginable power against alien monsters of incredible resilience, knowing that even if he lost, he had more lives in reserve, and you could always reboot and start all over.

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.

Maybe those Greek theatre goers were on to something. Isaiah’s lament, which launches this season of Advent sounds suspiciously like he was longing for someone to lower a cut out cloud so that we could hear a cotton wool filtered booming voice pronouncing that all would be well once more. God out of the machine, God tearing open a hole in the heavens and come crashing down. Yes, it would be terrifying, but it would be better than this silence, than this absence that seems to be our lot these days.

My son’s cynicism is echoed by a world that says we are on our own. If there is going to be any resolution to our problems then it is up to us. We’ve got the resources. We could make things right. We could bring peace. We could end hunger. We could end conflict in the Middle East, in Sub-Saharan Africa, in Congress! We could, but we don’t. We haven’t. But we could. Or could we?

Isaiah, in a rare departure from his normal mode of discourse, in this passage stands with us. At least he stands with those of us who are tired of the world as it is. Those of us who are weary from wars and rumors of wars. Those of us who are broken-hearted by the faces of the children who suffer abuse and neglect. By the long lines of the hungry and the hurting. By the growing statistics of poverty in our own neighborhoods and around the world. By the mixed up priorities of millionaires who argue about slices of big money pie around a game played by children in the street who steal shoes to be like their “heroes” on the court.

It seems beyond our capability to fix it, to make it better, to make it right. We might have the resources, but we don’t seem to have the will. We might have the ability but we don’t have the incentive. As long as we live in a world of “what’s in it for me?” we aren’t likely to make a dent in the brokenness of creation.

Thus Advent. More than a countdown to Christmas, Advent is the reminder that we are all still waiting. Yes, the messiah was born in a manger, but the kingdom he proclaimed seems as far off as ever in the history of the world. So we wait. We watch and wait. We wait with longing in our hearts. We wait by leaning into what is coming. We wait with hope, even though our hearts are breaking.

They are breaking precisely because we want more, we know there is more. So we cry out to God. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down! Turn this world upside down, if you have to, or right side up. We don’t deserve it, except that your Son came and gave his life for us, to make us worthy of your presence, your kingdom. And we can’t do it on our own. As hard as we might try, as much as we might work, our efforts are like filthy rags. But remember, please, that we are yours. Even though we forget more often than we would like to admit, you remember. Don’t you? Please say that you remember us. That’s the word we are longing to hear this Advent season. That you are still our God and we are still - despite it all - your people. Please.

Before descending to his games, Rhys said “OK, what’s the “machine”? That’s what I don’t get.” Well, I told him, the direct reference was to the machinery that brought god onto the stage. The squeaky pulley and the cut out cloud. But in wider use it means the story, the plot, the drama. It means life, this machine we live out day by day.

Advent tries to remind us that God is in this machine we live moment by moment. If we could become aware of that presence this season, then Advent will have served us well.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

All the Angels

I am planning this weekend to present a plan for 2012, both in terms of worship themes and for reading through the Bible in one year. I will be inviting the whole congregation to join me in this exercise of Bible reading (and any others of the fans of the LNBS who would like to join in, I can send you the format we will be using). Since this is Bible Sunday and we will be presenting Bibles to the kids at Children’s Time, I thought it was a great time to introduce the project for 2012.

You’ll be hearing more about it all is this space, and others, as I roll out the worship themes for 2012, from January through December. It is something I have never done before, at least on this scale, and I am excited about it all. I am calling 2012 “A Year of Taking Jesus Seriously,” and I am hoping for a dynamic year of worship and discipleship and service. So, watch for it! Or better yet, ask me and I’ll tell you all about it!

I bring it up here, however, to tell you about one particular experience that I hope will finally get us into our text for this week. One of the topics we will be exploring this year (during Lent - if you much be specific) is the whole area of Spiritual Disciplines. These are the practices that John Wesley called the Means of Grace. It is how we both live out our faith and experience more deeply the presence of Christ.

I was looking for a good list, since there are a variety of them out there, and I ran across a website from an evangelical Christian group that call them the tools of the devil. Needless to say I was intrigued. Paragraph after paragraph the site condemned Spiritual Formation and these practices as heretical and designed to lead people astray. Individuals who I had considered teachers and leaders in the faith - Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Henri Nouwen, Adele Calhoun and many others - were vilified in very negative terms. Foster, for example, was described as that Quaker Mystic, as though that was about as negative as the writers could be.

I don’t know why this stuff surprises me. But it always does. I’d seen it before. Something that I consider helpful and Christlike for my own faith as well as for teaching others (I’ve done courses on some of those authors up there) is now being presented as the very antithesis of the faith and a sign of the coming apocalypse because those who think themselves Christians were dabbling in what amounted to witchcraft and Satanism.

Part of the argument – OK, I probably gave it too much of my time by reading page after page looking for some sanity in the midst of the tirade – was that the authors were afraid that those who promote Spiritual Disciplines were saying that we can earn our way into heaven. That our salvation was all something we could do, by practice (or incantation, as they described it) instead of by grace through faith. And that the Bible doesn’t list these Disciplines anywhere. That it is all about believing and not about doing.

Which made me think these dudes have never read the end of the 25th Chapter of Matthew. Which seems to say the very thing that this editorialist was red-faced against. Take a look:

Matthew 25:31-46 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' 45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

I suspect that the creators of the website I was reading have a Bible with a hole in it toward the end of Matthew. It can’t have fit very well into their unwavering and dead certain theology. Or they believed that Jesus was having a bad day and not really saying what he meant. Or that Matthew was putting words in Jesus mouth long after Jesus had left and therefore couldn’t correct him so easily.

This passage seems to say that very thing that we all know isn’t true: that we can earn our way into heaven by doing good works. And yet here is the King Jesus in all his glory, with all his angels, telling us exactly that. Just do it. Just get out there and serve Him, by serving those who need, the least of these. And then, whether you realize or not, you’ll be serving Him. And you’ll get your reward.

Whether you realize it or not. Actually, this parable is not inconsistent with Jesus teaching all along. “What is the greatest commandment?” “Love God and Love neighbor.” He couldn’t, or wouldn’t separate them. Our believing and our doing have to be two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. You can’t believe, you can’t have faith and not act on it. You can’t accept the saving power of Jesus Christ and not be transformed into a servant of Christ. It is not just that good works are “nice” as my evangelical friends were arguing, it is that they are essential. They are one in the same.

Some scholars argue that “the nations” that are gathered before the throne in this parable include everyone but those who are already followers. This parable, they argue, is the answer to the ubiquitous question “What about those who haven’t come to believe in Jesus, but still live Christ like lives?” If they served people, they served Christ, whether they realized it or not. Christ was at work in them, whether they realized it or not. Because, as he told us, without him, we can do nothing.

Which makes that verse from Hebrews all the more interesting, the one about entertaining angels unaware. Because maybe what Matthew 25 says is that sometimes we are those angels. Whether we realized it or not!


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Went Off and Dug a Hole

You would think I could start this week with the announcement that we survived the trip to Africa and that we are well and happy and back to normal. Except that we aren’t. Well, we are well, I suppose. But not all here. La Donna is gone again, left last night for Indy and a District UMW officer training event. Supposedly coming back tonight. Rhys is gone on a debate trip, I took him to school at 5:30am! For heaven’s sake. Will be back tonight too.

Anyway, all of that is so upsetting that Maddie got up before noon on a Saturday. Whoa. I know. Amazing, right? End of the world is in sight. And the crazy dogs won’t settle. Which might have as much to do with the population of geese inhabiting the back yard as missing anyone, but who really knows what goes through those less than normal canine minds?

All in all, it seems a good day to go back to bed. Despite the glorious sunshine outside, it just seems safer to go off and dig a hole. And crawl in it. And pull it in after you. Which is more or less exactly what happens in our Gospel passage for this week. Take a look:

Matthew 25:14-30 "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' 21 His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' 23 His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' 26 But his master replied, 'You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

Let me rush to say that this is not necessarily Jesus’ financial plan for dealing with a lean economy. Just so we can be clear about that. Yes, the parable deals with money, frighteningly large sums of money. There aren’t many “masters” who would go off and leave 15 to 60 years worth of wages in the hands of the lowest on the organizational chart. It just wouldn’t make much sense.

But then, come to think of it, that was the reputation that Jesus had in general. His ideas didn’t make sense. At least in the “real world,” the world that we have created, the human society with its emphasis on profit and security. The kind of living that He calls us to doesn’t make sense.

Unless you remember how the story starts “For it is as if ...” Ah, that gives it all away doesn’t it? OK, sorry, you need the context. Chapter twenty five of the Gospel of Matthew is a series of parables of the Kingdom of God. Verse one of the chapter begins “Then the Kingdom of Heaven will be like this.” So the “it” of verse fourteen is the Kingdom. Not this world that we have created in our image, but the one that God created in God’s image.

So, then, what kind of behavior is fit for the Kingdom of Heaven? How ought we live in this life so that we can not only experience the glories of heaven right now (at least in some small way) but also point others to something bigger than right now, something beyond?

First, I think the parable tells us to recognize our status. We are servants, slaves even, to the one who created all things. What we have is ours to use as seems good to us (notice there are not instructions as to what they are to do with what they were given), but as stewards and not owners. We take care of, not just use, all the resources we are given.

Secondly, I can’t help but think Jesus used the amounts he used for more than comic effect. I know exaggeration is a valuable tool for humor. I’ve told you that about a billion times! But I also think the hidden message here is that we have been given, whether seemingly large or small is a treasure beyond our imagination. We are blessed, if not always in material things, then certainly in life and beauty and community and hope. We are given command of a staggering amount. As parents or grandparents you can’t help but be aware of that. As those in relationship with a loved one, you can’t help but know the preciousness of this life that is now entwined with yours.

But I would have to say that the parable’s dominant message is “Don’t live in fear.” Or maybe better, don’t be afraid to love. Don’t be afraid to risk reaching out. Don’t be afraid to serve and follow and care. I’ve often wondered what the Master would have said to the first two if their financial enterprise hadn’t been so successful. If they had come back and said, we’ll I tried my best, but the economy was tanking and the venture which seemed to have potential just didn’t find its niche in the market. But I gave it all I had. What would the master have said?

“Well done, good and trustworthy servant.” You notice that the commendation isn’t about profit, about result, it is about trustworthiness. Or in other versions it is about faithfulness. I think the master was rewarding the willingness to risk more than the income that resulted. The one who failed was the one who didn’t want to try. The one who went and dug a hole and then sat on it. Sure it was safe. Sure it was the an accepted practice. Sure in a risky age prudence makes earthly sense. But crawling in a hole doesn’t seem to be a proper response to the treasure we’ve been given. Not if we want to enter into the joy that is on offer.

So, excuse me, we have to go bark at geese.


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Who Are These?

I’ll never take my wife for granted again. OK, I’ve probably pledged that many times in the 31and half years of our marriage. But this time I mean it. I announced to the staff last week that I was barely competent as a dad. As a mom I was a washout. It was hard keeping up with all the various things that need doing and I’m sure I forgot some things along the way.

At least we are alive to this point anyway. The house is a wreck, the dogs have slipped into uber-crazy dog mode and it smells like I am burning lunch. But we are still alive. After this weekend, I might have things back in shape for her return. The delicate balance that I need to find between making her proud that we could maintain a well lived life and the subtle evidence that we needed her desperately. We’ll find it. Hang on, I really have to go check lunch.

OK, not burned. Just crisp. And that’s just what I’m talking about. I’m just a little bit slow, a little bit off, a little bit uncertain. Like when Maddie came down with her crying baby last night. (All right, don’t panic, it is a class assignment from Child Development that she is taking at Homestead this year - It must be working, after getting up 5 times last night she said, “I’m not having kids for a long, long time!”) But she looked at me and then sighed. “I need mom.”

Me too, Sweetpea, me too.

In my defense, I’ve always tried to be appreciative. And tried to participate with her in all sorts of household activities. But what’s that old saying? “You don’t what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Being aware and knowing aren’t necessarily the same thing.

Which, I think, is what John the Evangelist was facing in our reading for this All Saints Sunday. At least a part of what is going on here. Take a look:

Revelation 7:9 - 17 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" 11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen." 13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" 14 I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

The “this” that our passage comes after is the numbering of the saved (or the “sealed”) from the twelve tribes of Israel. The one hundred forty four thousand that you might have heard referred to a time or two before. (In fact I have heard some say that there are only 144,000 in heaven. Which is why you have to pay attention and make sure you got your number! Those folks obviously stopped reading before verse nine of chapter seven. “A great multitude no one could count” seems to be pretty inclusive.)

Then we have the question from the elder. “Who are these?” Did he not know? Was it a device to test John? Or was it just a way of starting a conversation? “Who are these?” Turns out they are those who have found their way into the Kingdom. But it wasn’t a walk in the park. It took some doing, some effort, some struggle on their part.

The elder, when we at last recognizes them, or checks the program, or reveals what he know all along, says that this multitude has come through a great ordeal. Older versions called it the tribulation. Some say it points to a specific event, having to do with the end times. The last battle, or the suffering that comes along with it. Others say, and I tend to believe that it is the ordeal of living in uncertain times. Maybe something cataclysmic and world-encompassing, or maybe it was the ordeals we read about in our newspapers or see listed in our prayer chains. Ordeals of illness or infirmity, ordeals of abuse or victimization, ordeals of hunger and poverty, ordeals of ... well, you fill in the blank. There are so many ordeals, so many struggles out there in the world, large and small. So it may be the sum of all of them that add up to the great ordeal that the elder speaks of in verse fourteen.

But wait, you say, it has to be more than just survival. More than just getting through whatever the struggles are. And you would be right. They came through, the elder tells us, and they washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Which is one little indicator that you can’t take this literally! Washing robes in blood won’t make them white. So, what does it mean?

Blood, in the Bible, usually means life, sometimes a life of sacrifice. This multitude, then, are the ones who put on the life of the Lamb. St. Paul is always telling us to put on our faith, to put on the attributes of Christ, to put on the fruit of the Spirit. These are the ones who put on Christ. Put on his life, lived it as though it were their own. Lived it in front of any and all, particularly those in need. Who lived and worked for the benefit of others.

The ones who cared for you. Who loved you. On All Saints Day that is who we remember, those who loved and cared and now are no longer there to do so. In just a few days now, La Donna will be back home and things will return to a semblance of normalcy. But there are many of those white robed saints who aren’t coming home. And they have left a hole in our midst, they have left tasks for others to do. They have given an example that someone has to pick up. Caring that others need to do.

In other words it is our time in the laundry room. We wash our robes in the blood, in the life and witness and example of the Lamb and then we put it on and begin to look like Him. And act like Him. And love like Him.

Who are these? They are those we remember. And they are us.


Saturday, October 29, 2011

Giving Grace

I have to tell you of a disturbing phenomenon amongst the staff here at Aldersgate. I’m not going to blame the new guy, but ... Well, OK, Chris brought with him a funny little ritual that they used to practice at his seminary (Duke - enough said) where when it was time to pray - for a meal or a meeting or whatever, everyone around the table would sit with their thumbs pointed up, and the last one to get his or her thumbs in the right position would have to pray.

Have to pray. That is what disturbed me. OK, there are lots of ways to identify someone to pray and that one is as much fun as any of them. Don’t want to be accused of being a party pooper, by any means. But it was the underlying assumption that prayer is somehow a bad thing and you need to be quick on your feet, or thumbs in this case, to avoid it, that made me sound like a curmudgeon. (Yeah, Ok, there’s the age thing too, adding to the curmudgeon-ness, thanks for bringing that up!)

Prayer is the center of our faith. It should be the starting point for all of our action, not the last resort. Partially because it is act of communication with God, and partly because it is our participation in grace.

Wait. What? Grace. That’s what I really wanted to talk about here. Experiencing, living, praying and giving grace. It is said that C.S. Lewis walked in on an academic discussion about the distinctiveness of Christianity one day. They were about to decide that there was nothing that set Christianity apart from any of the other world religions, because they were unable to come up with anything that truly marked our faith and set it apart from the rest. So, they put the question to Lewis. He paused only a moment and said, “That’s easy, it’s grace.”

It is what makes us who we are as followers of Jesus Christ. Grace. It is what motivates us to respond with love and joy and hope. Grace is what equips us for living in this world and what it is that allows us to help create a sense of community as we seek out other recipients of God’s grace. It is what we have to offer the world, nothing of our own, but the gifts that come from grace.

Which is exactly what Paul says in a rather convoluted way in our reading for this weekend. It is Paul’s Stewardship Campaign sermon. And like all of us, he talks around it in such a way that you just might miss what it is that he is saying. Take a look:

2 Corinthians 8:7-14, 24 Now as you excel in everything-- in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you-- so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. 8 I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. 9 For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. 10 And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something-- 11 now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. 12 For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has-- not according to what one does not have. 13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. ... 24 Therefore openly before the churches, show them the proof of your love and of our reason for boasting about you.

Got it? OK, here’s the back story. Paul is taking a collection for the church in Jerusalem. The growth was out in the suburbs and the downtown church was suffering. (OK, not exactly, but sort of.) And so he went from church to church asking for mission giving. And the churches responded. Read the first part of Chapter eight and you’ll note that Paul is proud of them for giving and some of them gave even thought they also had struggles.

And now he comes back to Corinth. A church he has struggled with, to be fair. A church with a few problems and some dissension. But he still invites them to give. Which I guess is a precedent for the practice of taking money donated by less than perfect people!

This is how he invites them to participate: Now as you excel in everything-- in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you-- so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. Verse 7, sounds like the classic buttering them up before you make the ask. Flattering them before you stick them with the bill.

But that isn’t what he does. The last two words of verse seven are here translated as “generous undertaking.” He wants them to excel, to participate, to enjoy this generous undertaking. But the Greek words are “charis perusseo” which probably translate better, or more directly as this “abounding grace.” The invitation is not to give, but to participate in grace, abounding grace. Which, he then goes on to describe, is what Jesus did for us, by emptying himself, giving up and giving away that we might know glory, that we might know hope and salvation. That we might be able to give grace away, because we have received it.

Paul is trying to tell the Corinthians that he is doing them a favor by letting them give. He knows that they, like we want to know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. And he says I know that grace and not only can you know it but you can live it. Not only can you receive it like a gift, but you can activate it by giving it away, by participating in the ripples of grace that go from person to person, community to community and bring transformation, bring an experience of the Kingdom.

He concludes the invitation by reminding us that love needs proof from time to time, love needs action in order to really be love. At least the love that Christ calls us to. The love that God expresses. Which the most famous verse of all reminds us: John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Which sounds suspiciously like a prayer.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Overcast With a Chance of Rainbows

I’m having real trouble getting started today. Pass it off to still adjusting to trying to fill in for La Donna’s absence (I know, it is only day three and there are lots to go. I start falling apart now and we are all in trouble). Or maybe it was the early morning phone call from a woman who wanted to talk about demons in her house. And then called back later to ask if I was a racist. When I told her I had adopted children from South Korea, she said, “Yeah, that’s just what a white man would say.”

Or maybe it is the fact that I woke up with a sore throat and cough and a long list of things to accomplish and no will to do any of it. I am predicting that if you are reading this at all, it is now quite late in the day. After the wedding at least. Did I mention I also have a wedding this afternoon? Sigh.

Maybe we should just take a look at the verses and see if that can jump start anything. At Aldersgate we are in the third week of our Extravagant Generosity series. Each week we are invited to think about generosity as both a spiritual discipline and a gift of joy. And to do that we look at a few simple verses. This week is no exception. We have three single verses on which to hang our thoughts. I cheated a little bit and expanded one of the readings for worship. So, here is what we will hear together:

Colossians 3:1-4 So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

And with that reading are these two verses: Matthew 6:33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. And – Joel 2:28 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.

Bishop Schnase says that these verses are about vision, about hope, about looking beyond the moment. More than that, they speak about charting a course, a personal as well as a corporate course. Who are you going to be, and who are we going to be? Those are the questions raised by these verses.

Certainly we are planners, we are hopers. Christ gave a sense of mission. We don’t come up with it ourselves. That’s what Joel says to us. God says “I will pour out my Spirit.” It is given to us, it isn’t self created. It is claimed.

That’s what Jesus was talking about in Matthew, there in the Sermon on the Mount. Verse 33 follows the verses about worry. Look at the birds he says. They are energetic about the right things. They spend themselves, not on worry, but on mission. On being who they were created to be. This not worrying thing is not about lethargy, but about direction. About putting your efforts where they need to be put. About putting your energy where it will bring the most effect. About putting your money where your heart is.

Paul tells us in Colossians that we need to look up, look beyond, look to Christ to find our hope, our meaning, our reason for being. What are you hoping for, hoping to be, hoping to be a part of? Important questions, life changing, course setting questions.

I can’t argue with any of it. And yet in the malaise of a less than perfect day, I’m wondering if there is something else to cling to in these words. I wonder if there is a smaller word for those of us too low down to see the horizon, let alone beyond it. Maybe shifting perspective still works.

In between the first paragraphs of this essay and this one a day happened. Lots of things, good and not so good, and then some that were just things. Yet when all you can see is your own limits, when all you are full of are your own failures or your own emptiness, it is hard to see high enough to set those goals or to dream those dreams.

That’s when you really need to reset your mind. A hard thing to do, I know. But maybe we don’t need to see all the way to heaven in order to find this reset button. Maybe we don’t need to look higher, but deeper.

A few moments ago, Maddie showed up with a tiny cup full of medicine. Having watched her mother ask me a hundred times if I ought to take something for my ailments and then give up and bring me something; Maddie decided to take a short cut and simply brought it to me. And I drank it. It tasted of heaven.

A little while before that, my email pinged. It was a quick word from Africa. The travelers are safe and settling in for bed so that they can get up and worship in that exuberant African expression of joy. It read like scripture.

Join us for worship at Aldersgate and we’ll be back in the big picture. I’ll be right up there with Bishop Schnase inviting us all to aim at heaven, to catch the winds of the Spirit in our sails and set off to where Christ would have us go and be co-builders of the Kingdom in our neighborhood and community.

But for us here, it is a smaller vision. It is a call to see Christ in the everyday, little things that we might overlook unless we look up and pay attention.

Seek the things that are above, they may be closer than you think.


Saturday, October 15, 2011

One Another

Just a short one this week, I promise. My list is long. See this is the practice run for when my wife, La Donna is in Africa. You did know about Africa, didn’t you? This coming Thursday La Donna and a team from the Indiana Conference are going to Africa for three weeks. It is a mission trip, learning trip to Africa University. La Donna has been working with the library at AU for a little while and now is going to go and see if she can help get things set up for her and others to work online. At least that is part of the task ahead of her. You’ll have to ask her what all is involved.

I’m excited for her, and proud of her, and pretty sure we will survive over here with the teenagers and the crazy dogs while she is gone. Pretty sure. Which brings us back to the practice run. She is gone to a UMW event this weekend and we are charged with filling her with confidence that we can handle things while she is gone. So, job one is doing something with the billions of walnuts that have fallen in the yard in this wind we are having. So, I don’t have a lot of time to work on this bible study. A little time since said teenagers are still sleeping at this point. But not a lot of time.

I want to do this well. I want her to feel good about leaving, about trying this new thing and not worried that we will fall apart back home while she is gone. Or maybe just a little. I also don’t want her to feel like we don’t need her. It is a fine line we walk.

That’s the way it is with those we love. A fine line between too independent and not dependent enough. We want them to be confident in our love, but not be burdened by it. We want them to know that they are loved but not be smothered by it. We want ... well, to be honest we almost wish that Jesus hadn’t made it such a big deal. We almost wish that this faith thing had been an internal, belief relationship just between each of us and Him. But no, he had to go and include the whole world and especially those within the community of faith.

John 13:34-35 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

Not just a good idea, not just a clue to better living, not just a suggestion for health and happiness, no he made it a commandment. Love one another. And not only that, but also the sign. The sign that we belong, that we are a part of the fellowship, a part of the family. Not by how many bible passages we read, not by the acts of charity that we perform, not by the hours of pew time we put in throughout our lives, the lives of pure moral character - none of that is the sign that we belong to Christ. All of that is good stuff, and stuff we ought to be doing. But the sign is something else entirely, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” It is not about what is inside of you, but what comes out.

How do you show your love for one another? That’s the question in front of us. And who has shown you love like Christ’s love? The question in our Extravagant Generosity series for this week is “Who has in our church family has made a difference in your spiritual life?” Who has been the “one another” for you? Teaching you how to be the “one another” for someone else. For some of those “one anothers” it is the words that you say, for others it is the deeds that you do (like picking up walnuts), for some it is the gifts that you give and for others it is the presence and attention that you give. It is in our plans to spend some time in 2012 talking more about how we do this loving one another thing - as spouses, or co-workers, or neighbors, or friends and strangers. But for now we hear it as an invitation.

Not an easy one, to be sure. Loving takes time, takes sacrifice, takes effort. Especially when we look back and see that what Jesus actually said was not love the best you can, love with what is within you. No, what he said was love as I have loved you.

Wow. Love like Christ loves. I’m not sure I know exactly what all that includes. But at least it has to be another load or two of walnuts.


Saturday, October 8, 2011

Life That Really Is Life

“What’s in it for me?” That is the question of our age. Maybe of every age, I don’t know. I don’t think so, to be honest, but I guess it is possible. That there is something of human nature about that question. Something in our DNA, in the very cellular make up of humanness that brings us to ask the ubiquitous question: “what’s in it for me?”

But I doubt it. Yes, there is self preservation and all of that. But this seems more than that. I think it is a product of our consumer culture. Our everything is for sale and the customer is always right mindset that leaks into our Christian life and language. And we begin to think that faith is a transaction. If I do this, then I will get that. If I pray this pray then I will get that result. If I attend worship this many weeks in a row, if I serve on these committees, if I give this much to the church, then ... well ... what’s in it for me?

Now, I know what you are thinking. After a set up like this, I should say that this isn’t an appropriate question. That faith isn’t a transaction and that it isn’t about you or what you can get out of it. And that’s exactly what I am going to say. But first I want to answer the question.

At least that’s what I think Paul is doing in our passage for this week. So, who am I to deny you an answer. So, the question is “What’s in it for me?” And the answer?

1 Timothy 6:17-19 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19 thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Any more questions? You did see it, didn’t you? Right there at the end. “So that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” That’s what’s in it for you, and for me, and for all of us. Life that really is life. Isn’t that something you could really wrap yourself around? Isn’t that something we have all been longing for? Isn’t that work a little effort, and little service, a little transaction? So, you are asking, how do I get it? How do I earn it? What do I have to do to make sure that I’m on the receiving end of that prize?

Nothing. Hang on. Look at the question you are (and everyone else is) asking: What do I have to do to get it? Nothing. You can’t get it, you can’t buy it, you can’t earn it. This is the gift that has already been given to you in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, Paul’s instructions through Timothy here are not about how to get it. You notice he says he’s talking about how to take hold of it.

It is one thing to have it, says Paul, it is quite another to embrace it. To live it to the full. And that is what he wants us to know, that we can grab hold of this life that really is life. So, how do we go about doing that?

Here at Aldersgate we are starting our Stewardship emphasis by reading together Bishop Robert Schnase’s book Extravagant Generosity. So we can’t help but notice how Paul compares a life based on riches with one based on generosity. “The uncertainty of riches,” Paul writes, can’t be a strong enough foundation for meaning and purpose in living. And to that we who have lived through a recession and the threat of a new one can’t help but mutter a cautious amen to that.

Instead, he argues, we base a life in doing good and being generous. The secret of taking hold of this life that really is life is to give it away. At every opportunity. On every occasion. We give it away, with willingness and with joy. We give it away, not keeping score except to note new and better ways to give.

And of course this means more than just money. It means time and talent and attention and effort and personality and ... well ... and money. Jesus spent an awful lot of time talking about your money. More than anything else, except the kingdom of God. Or, as he liked to call it, life. Life that really is life. It is in part what you do with your resources that determines your hold on this life. So a full life, a true life is a life of generosity.

Which means “what’s in it for me?” becomes a whole different question to people of faith. It means not what do I get, but how can I give? It means not what is coming my way, but what can I do for someone else? It means not how can I pile up on my, but how can I pile up on others.

OK, maybe that last line was influenced by the Notre Dame game I’m listening to from the other room. But you get the point. Set your hopes on God, writes Paul, and then you will know riches. Be generous and then you will know life.

Life that really is life.


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Drawing Lines

Whew, what a day already. I’m a little bit behind my Saturday schedule. Because I had a funeral and a wedding within the space of a couple of hours. OK, I’ll admit, my greatest fear was that I would get mixed up in all the dearly beloveds. Burying a relationship and seeking vows from an urn. Didn’t happen, thankfully, but I worried.

It was a unique experience, I have to confess. I’ve done multiple funerals, and a day of weddings in the past. But one of each, kind of unusual. I just need a baptism and communion, confirmation to make it complete! Funny you should mention that ... Tomorrow is Confirmation Sunday at Aldersgate. And it World Communion Sunday. And two of our confirmands were just baptized a couple of weeks ago. So, there.
Now, if I was smart enough I would tell you what brings all those things together. I means besides they are all rituals of the church. But as much as I tried, I couldn’t think of a thing. Except that they were all about drawing lines.

Wait, what? Lines. Boundary lines. We were talking about life and of death this morning. We were reflecting on the weaving of a covenant this afternoon. We are redefining family at worship tomorrow. And we are sketching the circle around a table of sacrifice and grace. We’re drawing lines this weekend.

The problem is that we usually see that as a negative. Drawing lines is about limitation, we feel. It is about right and wrong, in and out. Don’t fence me in, we complain, don’t cramp my style, don’t get all up in my grill ... actually I don’t think they say that any more. But you get my point. Drawing lines goes against the great American value of freedom. We put the words “no limits” on the rear windows of our pick up trucks. We wear them on our jeans. It is not just a slogan, it is how we define ourselves, how we understand ourselves.

Yet, in our rational minds we know that boundaries, that rules are good things. And that is why we reluctantly accept them. Like a kid who wants to play late into the night but trudges up to bed anyway, we say that the lines are good for us. Like broccoli, or cod liver oil. Close your eyes, and open up. Here it comes:

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 Then God spoke all these words: 2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. ... 7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. ... 12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 13 You shall not murder. 14 You shall not commit adultery. 15 You shall not steal. 16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. 18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die." 20 Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin."

Oh, right. Those rules. Those lines. Got it. Sigh. We suppose it is for our own good. Right?

Well, I have to wonder. Is God one to bring the whole nation of Israel out into the wilderness for a time out? Is this conversation started with a wag of the divine finger and slow shake of the holy head, displaying disappointment and the prelude to punishment? Are these ten words given because the people of God have proved unworthy, have fallen short of the ideal of who they could be, who they were intended to be? Are they being grounded by these words? Restricted, chastened, reproved by the law? Take your medicine, you won’t like it, but it’ll be good for you in the long run.

Or is there something else going on here? What if we took a whole different approach to the lines thing? What if we saw them not as limitations but as definitions? What if we looked at this moment in the history of the people of God not as punishment for less than stellar behavior, but as a gift because of a greater than imagined love?

Sure there are boundaries in the covenant of marriage, but who would call them a punishment? Instead it is a new way of being, a new way of living and loving. We are redefined when we make that commitment to love and to cherish. We make promises that don’t constrain us so much as set us free to love. We aren’t hampered by the lines that are drawn so much as we are encouraged to go deeper and higher, to love more profoundly.

Baptism and confirmation are about making vows to love as well. The lines that are drawn are about finding your way into the fellowship and family of the church. It is about making a commitment to serve and to participate and gather with the community of faith. It is about claiming that in this journey that is life and faith, we acknowledge that we need support, we need companionship, we need a community to surround us as we make our pilgrim way.

Communion draws the lines and invites all to be inside. It isn’t about separation, it isn’t about better than or holier than. It is about invitation and inclusion. It is about welcome and hospitality. It is about a table of grace and finding your way in.

The ten words are not so much commandments that we ought to follow reluctantly or not, as they are descriptions of the kind of people we can choose to be. The people who love God (Words 1 through 4) and who love neighbor (Words 5 through 10). I had a Hebrew teacher in seminary who said we should retranslate them not as “Thou shall” or “Thou shall not” but as description “You are the people who have one God” and “You are not the people who kill and steal and bear false witness.” That is just who we are and who we are not. God doesn’t say jump through these hoops and I will love you. Instead God says my love for you will shape you into these kind of people, this kind of community. “So that your days may be long.”

How long? Into eternity. We drew the lines this morning at the funeral as well. The lines of welcome into the heavenly home. And what we thought was a line, the line that divides life and death, was only a doorway, only a corner to turn, that brings us into a new reality. But the lines of God’s people define us here and there. God announces where the lines are for us to live well now, but also so that we will be at home in eternity with God. So that we will recognize the place when we get there.

And we’ll go on living between the lines that God has drawn.


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Mind Games

If you’ve been around Aldersgate for a while, you might remember that a year ago, during the season of Lent, I used African American spirituals as a theme for worship. I then took that theme to Choir School in the summer of 2010. It worked really well, as they got into singing some of those songs - as did the Aldersgate congregation, I must admit. I love that music, as it speaks so profoundly of deep human experiences and significant spiritual realities, and it has a good beat and you can dance to it. Sorry, American Bandstand has a lot to answer for.

Anyway, since there are only five Sundays in Lent, but eleven preaching opportunities at Choir School, I had to find some more songs to fill the week. And of the ones that seems to capture everyone’s attention that summer was one titled “Woke Up This Morning.” The first line goes “Woke up this mornin’ with my mind...”

Now, of course we took all kinds of liberties with the song from that point. “Woke up this mornin with my mind.” Well, good for you! We were wondering. Doesn’t say much about yesterday, or tomorrow for that matter. You know, that sort of thing. It’s a good thing, don’t you think, to wake up with your mind? Considering the alternative.

But in fact this isn’t a hymn about mental health. It is an invitation to think like Christ. The song, while it pauses at the end of the first line, goes on to make a very profound statement: “Woke up this mornin with my mind ... and it was stayed on Jesus.” Or some versions simply say with my mind stayin on Jesus.

It’s an early morning act of faith. It is claiming Christ first thing. Claiming that living the day that lay ahead in the way that we claim we want to live it is only possible by focusing on the mind of Christ. Which is exactly what Paul says in our lesson for this weekend. Take a look:

Philippians 2:1-13 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Paul seems very concerned about thinking. In the first few verses of this passage he is telling us that we ought to think alike and that we ought to think like Christ. Right? Well, sort of. Being of the same mind doesn’t stifle creativity or even differences of opinion. He is not trying to remove all the differences in the body of Christ. It is those differences that make us the rich tapestry that we are. And finding new perspectives, new ways of looking at the same things is a part of the excitement of living in community.

So, what does he mean about having the same mind? And how can a diverse collection of humanity - like the church - ever hope to achieve that unanimity of thought? We are too different, have too many variant experiences and backgrounds, too many diverse abilities to ever hope that we would think alike on any issue of substance. Don’t you think? Or do you?

Paul has a solution. Wake up in the morning with your mind stayed on Christ. He wants us to think like Christ. And the thought process he is particularly interested in is one of humility. Set yourself aside. Set aside your need to be right. Set aside your need to have it your way. Set aside ... Wouldn’t it be wonderful if those who claimed to be followers of Christ - in business, in politics, in the church - would set their minds on Christ, embrace that humility, that self-sacrifice, that desire for unity and for hope?

Some do, I know. But most don’t. Or most of us don’t all the time. That’s why we need daily reminders. Woke up THIS morning...

The same mind doesn’t mean the same thoughts, but the same goals. It means that love always trumps prejudice. It means that sacrifice always wins over selfishness. It means that giving always triumphs over hoarding. It means ... well, you get the idea. How we go about becoming more like Christ, having that mind of Christ, may be different as each of us are different. But we all seek the same Christ, the same Kingdom, the same hope.

That’s what brings Paul to break into song in the last verses of our passage. That hope that one day we won’t have to wonder what Jesus would do, because we would all be doing it. Not because we were forced to, or coerced into, but because it was what we all wanted to do. It was the natural response to any situation - the loving response, the caring and giving response. The Christlike response.

Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus.

At least that’s my hope. How about you?


Saturday, September 17, 2011

What Is It?

“What are you hungry for when you don’t know what your hungry for?” Anyone remember that one? Boy, is my head full of useless trivia serving absolutely no good purpose. Except to win Trivial Pursuit (usually) and to start sermons and bible studies. Hence my question:

What are you hungry for when you don’t know what you are hungry for? It was a commercial many years ago, for a snack cracker, and the line was spoken by Matlock. No wait, by, um, what was his name? You know. Andy Griffith. That’s the guy. He’s the one asking the question. And the best part was he gave us the answer. What are you hungry for when you don’t know what you’re hungry for? Something on a cracker.

Umm. No. Doesn’t do it for me. All due deference to crackers with stuff on them. But, except in a momentary superficial kind of way, that won’t satisfy the hunger. Not the real hunger. The hunger that even us overfed modern day pilgrims lost in the wilderness have. Because when we stop to think about it, we’re hungry too.

And we can’t help grumbling about it a little bit. We don’t want to make a scene. But we feel like we’ve been shortchanged somewhere along the line. We thought this faith thing was supposed to bring us satisfaction. And yet, when we admit it to ourselves, our stomachs are still rumbling out here in the wilderness. And our secret fear is that this is all there is. We were brought out here in this wilderness to die, hungry and hurting, lost and alone.

Kind of makes you sympathetic for the Children of Israel, doesn’t it? Oh, I know most of the time I and preachers like me make fun of these folks wandering there in the wilderness. Complaining at the drop of a hat. Even Moses gets fed up with them, let alone God. We shake our heads at their blindness. We roll our eyes at their wandering ways. What a bunch of losers, we can’t help thinking. If we were there it would have been different. I mean the divided sea thing was pretty impressive. The pillar of fire and covering cloud must have been significant. Surely we would have paid more attention. Surely we would have trusted. Surely we wouldn’t have complained. At least until our stomachs rumbled again.

It’s hard to be faithful when you are hungry. Maybe we ought to listen again with a little more sympathy. Maybe we ought to listen for our own voices in this story.

Exodus 16:2-15 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3 The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger." 4 Then the LORD said to Moses, "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5 On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days." 6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, "In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining against the LORD. For what are we, that you complain against us?" 8 And Moses said, "When the LORD gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the LORD has heard the complaining that you utter against him-- what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD." 9 Then Moses said to Aaron, "Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, 'Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.'" 10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud. 11 The LORD spoke to Moses and said, 12 "I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, 'At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'" 13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?" For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, "It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.

What are you hungry for when you don’t know what you’re hungry for? They were six weeks in and pretty hungry. OK, six weeks into a forty year journey doesn’t sound like much. But six weeks eating what you brought with you and what you could find along the way is a long time. They were hungry. And they weren’t sure where the next meal was coming from. And they didn’t have a clue where they were going. Sure, pillars of fire and clouds are great, but a good mapquest itinerary with points of interest highlighted in color would have come in handy. A good pecan roll from Stuckeys would have gone down a treat. (Do they still have those? Or just the signs?)

But nothing was on the horizon. At least what they could see clearly. So they raised a ruckus. Probably the worst part of their complaint was that where they had been was starting to look better than where they were.

Ah, the good old days. How we long for them when the wilderness seems to dark and too scary. Even though at least a part of us knows that the good old days were anything but good. In our memories they seem so much better than what we have today. They were looking longingly back on slavery and oppression and suddenly, because they were hungry, it began to look good. They seemed to remember it like it was some sort of resort (“we sat by pots of meat and piles of bread,” they said, conveniently forgetting that they weren’t lounging by some pool dining on overladen buffets, but were slaves, living by the whims of the powers that be.)

Their faulty memories almost cause them to want to settle. Not settle as in live there in the wilderness. But settle as in settle for less. Less than what was in store for them. Less than what God had intended for them. Their hunger almost caused them to settle for less. To go back to live as slaves because there at least they could eat, instead of living in this freedom that is too scary, too wild, too dangerous.

That seems to be the options open to us - slavery or wilderness. Giving in or being uncertain. Giving up or struggling every day. Wow, isn’t there a third option? Well, no and yes. No, because we are living in a cloud, living in difficult times, living with too many choices and no clear direction as to which to choose. So, we give up and live enslaved by the sin and despair that always seems within reach. Or we keep searching, keep marching through the wilderness trusting that there is a pillar of fire somewhere in the darkness.

And to keep us moving forward, to keep us fed on our journey we have the manna. Which we are told in our passage today is really a question. “What is it?” in Hebrew is man hu. Manna in the wilderness. What is it? So, we are to be sustained by a question? Hardly seems adequate, don’t you think? I suppose. Unless it is the right question. “What is it that God is doing in our midst?” Now that’s a question that can keep us moving.

What is it that God is doing in your wilderness? We think we are hungry for answers. But just maybe we are hungry for the right question.