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.