Saturday, December 24, 2016

O Holy Night

Well, it is Saturday, a day of preparation for me as I get into the sermon for Sunday.  Happens every week.  And a part of what happens is I write this Bible Study.  This gets me thinking about the passage in all kinds of ways and helps me be ready to preach the next day.  Even when the sermon sounds nothing like the bible study.  I also spend a lot of time before the weekend, reading and studying and formulating sermons.  I don't wait until Saturday.  Because what if something happened on that Saturday and I didn't have the time?  I would be unprepared on Sunday.  And that wouldn't be being faithful to my call.  So the sermon is "done" before Saturday.  Done?  Preachable.  I could climb in the pulpit or stand before the congregation and proclaim.

But on Saturday, I am living in it.  I am examining it again, rethinking, reworking, playing with the ideas and images.  I am paying attention to the world, listening to the voices of my people, and weaving that together with the Voice of God.  Sometimes Saturday confirms my planned sermon, sometimes it changes it completely.  But it is a day I cherish for the process as I have developed it over 35 years of preaching regularly.  This isn't what I recommend, it isn't what I teach.  And it isn't what I did for most of the 35 years, but it works well for me.

Until now.  Yes, it is Saturday.  But not just any Saturday.  It is Christmas Eve.  I have always loved Christmas Eve.  I have told churches I would do hourly services on Christmas eve if anyone would come.  I would do them morning and night.  I would do loud fun family ones, designed to make children laugh and families giggle.  I would do quiet reflective peaceful ones, designed to make you glad to be alive and filled with hope.  Musicals and dramas, lessons and carols, even full scale holiday parties wrapped up in profound worship.  I love Christmas Eve.  

And!  I love Christmas Day on Sunday.  I've mentioned this before.  I think it should always be on a Sunday.  I think it would be easier to hold on to the real meaning of Christmas if it was on a Sunday and the day began not with the frenzy of presents under the tree, but with worship in the family of God.  I think that is the way it ought to be.

Now, that being said, I don't like losing my Saturday.  I know, it's a selfish gripe.  But I'm not quite sure how to approach this day of preparation.  With three services tonight and two tomorrow morning, I'm lost in the busyness.  With some questions about my place in this congregation and an uncertain future in my calling, I'm a bit lost in the mood of the season.  So, I'm here thinking about tonight and tomorrow and not sure I have anything to say for either.  Which is a terrible admission, I know.  It's kinda my job to have something to say. And I know myself well enough to know that I will have some words for all those services.  Words that might even be meaningful for some.  Words that will allow me to fulfill my role and surrender to my obedience to the church and to God.

But I also know those words won't be enough.  Not nearly enough.  I've been doing this a long time.  And I've never had the words I really wanted to have.  I've never been able to really capture the power and glory of this event.  I've never really been able to articulate the wonder and the promise that Christmas is.  I've never had the words that become the Word, and live in the hearts and minds of those who come to hear, so that Christ is again incarnated among us.

See, that's how I define this job, this preaching thing.  Incarnation.  I have told my students and fellow preachers that above all else, preaching is about putting flesh on the idea of Christ.  Making Him real again in our experience, in our imagination, in our hearts and souls.  That's what I'm always trying to do, Sunday in and Sunday out, sermon in and sermon out, incarnation.  So when faced with the Incarnation itself, I stumble over the words.  Because it matters so much.  To me, for one.  But to the church, to you.  To everyone.  To the world, it matters so much, it is needed -- He is needed so much.  And I'm simply not up to the task.

Which means, in the end, I'm surrendering my Saturday to the One who speaks more clearly that I do.  I'm surrendering this day, this night, this O Holy Night to the Word made flesh.  And will hope and pray that those who come this weekend will hear beyond my inadequate words to embrace the living Word.  And to know and be known by the Presence who loves them as they are.  Every year I fail to capture the depth of this event with my words.  Yet every year I am rescued by the Word made flesh who speaks into my inadequacy and becomes flesh among us again.  Thanks be to God!

John 1:1-14 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.


Saturday, December 17, 2016

Cuddly as a Cactus

“Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot.”  You could finish it from there, I suspect.  “But the Grinch, who lived just north of Whoville, did not.”  It’s a Christmas classic.  Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The definitive version, for us late baby boomers, was narrated by Boris Karloff and the song sung by Thurl Ravenscroft.  What a great name, Thurl Ravenscroft.  “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch / You really are a heel / You’re as cuddly as a cactus / You’re as charming as an eel / Mr. Grinch / You’re a bad banana / with a greasy black peel”

As Christmas story villains go, the Grinch is a pretty good one.  Like old Ebenezer Scrooge and his three night visitors, the Grinch starts out bad (you have all the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile), or worse than bad (You nauseate me, Mr. Grinch, with a nauseous super “naus”!), but in the end he turns out good.  “Well ... in Whoville they say, that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.  And the minute his heart didn't feel quite so tight, He whizzed with his load through the bright morning light, And he brought back the toys! And the food for the feast! And he, HE HIMSELF! The Grinch carved the roast beast!”

Now, that’s how a Christmas story is supposed to go.  Bad guys turn good and we all breathe a sigh of relief.  We love our happy endings.  We love everything tied up with a ribbon.  Our television crime dramas have to be solved in an hour - minus commercial time.  Our family comedies end up resolved in thirty minutes.  Our fairy tales end with happily ever after.  That’s just how it is supposed to be.  Isn’t it?  

Of course, we’re the people of happy endings.  That is one way we define ourselves.  Easter people!  I’ve been asked a few times over the years why we need to have Good Friday services and pretend to be sad when we all know how it ends up.  It’s hard to argue with that point of view.  We know and are glad we know.  There is a happy ending.  Yet, you can’t read through the book of Revelation and simply celebrate the happy ending.  Can you?  There are endings and there are endings.  Sometimes our sad endings get in the way and keep us from living for the happy endings.  

Matthew 2:1-18 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'" 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 
10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. 13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son." 
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."

I went too long, that’s what you’re thinking.  Or stopped too soon.  We usually read until the wise men head home by another road.  That’s the end of the Christmas story, we believe.  But if we want to keep reading, then go on, to where they come back, the tyrant is dead and they can return and live happily ever after.  That’s the story we want to hear.  That’s the team we signed up for, the one that wins, every time.  A dynasty, victorious, conquers sin, conquers death, offers us life, eternal life.  Happily ever after.

Happily?  We forget that in order to conquer death he has to die.  Yes, we take an eternal view.  Yes, we look beyond the momentary pain to the everlasting glory.  Yes.  But.  Herod wins in the short term.  We have to tell the story we’re given.  There were unnamed and unnumbered families who marked that glorious season with inconsolable grief.  How many children died that day so a puppet king could retain his tenuous grip on power for a little bit longer?  Herod wins in the short term.  Fear takes control of our hearts in the short term.  Tyranny defines our existence in the short term.  Disease reshaped our lives in the short term.  Prejudice, hatred, oppression becomes the whole world in the short term.  Herod wins.  And cuddly as a cactus means we cannot get comfortable with him, even in the short term.  Which is why the short term becomes the definition of life as we know it, and keeping our eyes on a far horizon is so hard.  

Which is exactly why Advent comes around year after year.  Because Herod wins in the short term.  And if we weren’t reminded on a regular basis that there is more to the story we might succumb to the thought that this is the way it is supposed to be, this is the way it will always be.  The Whos gathered that Christmas morning with nothing.  Christmas had been stolen, they are bereft and empty of the joy and wonder of the season represented by the tinsel and the gift wrap, the food and fire in the hearth.  The Grinch won in the short term.  Yet they gathered anyway, they sang anyway.  They smiled anyway.  “How could it be so?  It came with out ribbons! It came without tags!  It came without packages, boxes or bags!" And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! "Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!" 

Is it a denial of the reality of the short term?  It is a head in the sand, wearing rose colored glasses, refusing to face reality, to sing when the decorations are gone and the presents purloined?  Is it a pie in the sky kind of living to believe in happy endings even when our lives are anything but happy?  To sing of wearing shoes in heaven when our feet are split and bleeding from the relentless back-breaking labor forced upon us by a latter day Herod?  To sing songs of home even when in a foreign land against our will?  To believe in Presence on the threshold of the fiery furnace?  

Well, maybe.  Sorry, not what you were expecting, I know.  But it might be a denial if we use those songs and those thoughts to hide our eyes from the fact that Herod wins in the short term.  To be complacent about injustice, about hatred, about poverty.  That’s just the way it is, get used to it.  No.  We can’t get used to it.  We can’t cuddle with a cactus.  We just can’t.  We long for something better by working to be better.  We long for home, by making others welcome.  We long for unity, for peace, we long for a living faith, for worship that lives and not just endures, by entering into the spirit of unity, by doing the things that make for peace, by investing ourselves in worship right now.  Even through our tears because Herod is winning in the short term.  We worship with hope, even when we have to weep.  Even when sometimes we have to run to Egypt.  Because God wins in the long term.  


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Angels and Resolutions

Fifteen days.  It’s hard to believe.  But there are only fifteen days until Christmas.  Or less, since some will read this later.  The weather turned cold all of a sudden here in northeast Indiana, like we needed the reminder that the season is upon us.  Maybe I’ve been wrapped up in other struggles, family, church, life, that I didn’t realize what was happening, that the calendar was turning, the sand drifting through the glass.  We even handed out little timers, tiny hourglass reminders that we are waiting.  Mine sits on my desk, behind a pile, hidden away.  It’s easy to forget that we’re waiting.  To forget that we were told by the One we call Lord, to watch and to wait.  We’ve become complacent, more or less, with the world as it is.  And we forget to look forward.  Or what we’re looking forward to.  We just get caught up in our plans, our lists, our busyness that we forget.

It’s a list-making season.  I know I’ve got to have them or I’ll forget stuff.  Usually stuff that wasn’t my idea in the first place, but stuff the family needs done.  At least that’s what I’m told.  And I’m always one to do what I’m told.  But I want to do it, don’t misunderstand.  I’m not reluctant or anything.  Well, not much.  Or not all the time.  It’s just that I need guidance.  I need my list given to me, I need my rules of procedure to follow.  I need to stay on target.  

Like Joseph.  I don’t know, of course.  We don’t have a lot of background information on him, we don’t get his resume or his vital statistics.  The church has filled in the blanks about Joseph over the centuries, but all of it speculation, we really don’t have a clue.  Yet, if you look you can see some tendencies, some inclinations or leanings that tell us something about him.  And he appears to be a planner, a thinker, a worker out of problems.  Well, see if you agree.

Matthew 1:18-25 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Joseph had a plan.  He was well into it when it all went off the rails.  He was betrothed to Mary.  The romantics among us would like it to be a love story, a first glance head over heels story, and that Joseph worked and planned and organized himself into this almost to be wedding.  Could be.  The historians among us point out that many, if not most marriages in those days were arranged by parents and family members.  It had been worked out, by Mary’s dad and Joseph, or Joseph’s father.  But it happened, documents were signed, handshakes exchanged, it was a done deal.  A plan on its way.  Traditionalists have been troubled by Joseph’s disappearance from the story so quickly, so they invented a story that accounts for it.  He was older, maybe even a widower, with kids (which also explains those pesky references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters – they were half siblings, thus preserving Mary’s perpetual virginity) and to fill his emptiness, to comfort his loneliness, young Mary was given to older Joseph, and thus the plan was in place.

The truth is we don’t know.  What we know, because Matthew tells us is that there was a plan: when his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph.  That’s the plan.  A wedding on the way.  But like many plans, it met an obstacle: she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Um, what?  Well, Matthew knows more here than Joseph does.  More than anyone does.  An interruption to the plan.  An interruption of the plan that is so severe that the plan simply cannot continue.  This isn’t a bump in the road, it is a dead end.  A non-starter.  It just can’t be.  A whole new plan is called for now.  A whole new approach, a whole new relationship, a whole new way of treating the one who drove the plan off the side of the mountain.  

When we join the story, Joseph is finishing plan B.  What now?  That was the question that had occupied his thinking for who knows how long.  We don’t get told how Joseph learned that plan A wasn’t going to work.  All Matthew says is that Mary was found to be with child.  Who found her?  How was she found?  Does this mean Mary told him?  Just out of the blue, like Luke says she found out, “hey Joseph, you’ll never believe...!”  Or did others find out?  Rumors, gossip.  Were fingers pointed and whispers savored in the village they called home?  Did someone run up to Joseph and say, “I hate to be the bearer of bad news but ...”?  We don’t know.  Somehow Joseph knew and had to go back to the planning table and decide. 

It wasn’t easy.  There is a dilemma hidden in verse nineteen.  Matthew lays out the problem this way “Joseph was a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace.”  Most folks would read part one of that verse as being a studious observer of the law.  Righteousness was all about obedience to the practices of the people of God.  Following the rules and regulations laid out by the scribes and Pharisees to define the right way to live with obedience to God.  So, Joseph, we are supposed to hear lived a life of obedience to the law.  But the law says it was his duty to expose Mary and the sin she committed to the community.  So she could be punished, driven out, stoned to death.  That was the law.  There’s some debate whether by this time they were still stoning, but they were certainly shunning.  She was supposed to be disgraced.  Supposed to be.  It was the only way to make sure the shame didn’t fall on him and his name and his family.  He had to do this thing he didn’t want to do.

But he chose not to.  Plan B was “dismiss her quietly.”  Send her home to her family.  Embarrassed, but not shamed because he wasn’t going to say why.  That’s the quietly bit.  Tear up the contract, send her home.  It’s over.  Not quite legal in the strict sense.  But it was the plan.  Having decided, he went to bed.  To try to sleep.  And did, somehow.

Because he dreamed.  He dreamed himself an angel.  We’re supposed to hear an echo in this.  Joseph the dreamer, like his ancestor Joseph the dreamer, who dreamed himself a princedom in Egypt. Who dreamed himself out of and then back into the favor of his family.  Now descendant Joseph dreams a new plan and his place in that plan.  Plan C, that sounds oddly like plan A.  But it is plan A redefined.  Plan A resurrected.  Ascended, intensified.  The angel changes everything, and it is back to the way it was before.  Like Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life, after the dream it all goes back to the way it was, but now it’s different.  Exactly the same, but different.

Because Joseph is different.  He’s aware of God’s Presence for one thing.  He’s aware that he is a part of a plan he can’t imagine, let alone see.  Blessed by an invitation to come alongside the redemption of history itself, the transformation of the world.  Joseph’s plan A was to get married and raise a family and do the best he could with what he had.  God’s reinterpretation of plan A was for Joseph to get married and raise a family, and be a part of the salvation of the world, to join in bringing life - abundant, eternal life - into the world.

See, I think angels are singing all the time.  I think they are telling us that God is present, within reach, right here, born again in us, between us.  But we’ve stopped listening.  We’ve resolved to dismiss the Christ quietly, covered up with our busyness and our distractions, making our lists and hunting for the right gift that will make this Christmas special.  When the angel says, it’s already special.  You can’t make it any more special than God has made it.  All you have to do is name it.  All you have to do is receive it and make it yours.  Make it you.


Saturday, December 3, 2016

Why Has This Happened to Me?

It was the fan on the video card.  My computer problems from last week.  I thought we were going to have to shell out for yet another computer, but it was just the fan on the video card.  And after a few questions from the tech guy, he said, if the noise gets too annoying just go back to the built in card on the motherboard.  No need to replace it.  Well, OK then.  Good news there.  That’s what I’ve done.  We’re quieter and no noticeable difference for what we do 99.9% of the time.  So, good news.

In a year of bad news, of difficult news and life altering news, that doesn’t seem to stop coming, a little bit of good news seems to stand out.  Insignificant as it is in the larger scheme of things, it was good news.  We seek a little light when we are in the midst of darkness.  We grab hold of the rope that we hope will pull us up out of the pit in which we find ourselves.  A little bit of hope can sustain a lifetime of waiting.  Waiting?  Uncertainty, unknowing, rejection and denial.  We’re all waiting.

We spend an average of 10 years waiting in line: traffic, check out, rides at amusement parks, doctors’ offices.  That’s measurable time.  But what about the waiting we are doing while we do other things?  Waiting for a medical report we fear while we go through the motions at work.  Waiting for a return phone call or an email from a friend you’ve wounded or who wounded you.  Waiting for the powers that be to determine whether you’re moving up in the company or moving on to something else.  Waiting for things to work themselves out, waiting for dinner to cook, for bread to rise, for the baby to be born.

We’re moving into part two of our experiment in extended Advent.  Part one was about looking forward to the promise, to the coming Kingdom, to the return of the Anointed One.  We were helped in our looking by the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, who keep their eyes on the horizon no matter how rough the seas got, who longed for something more, something better, no matter how dire the circumstances around them got.  They kept looking forward.

Now in part two, we look back in order to know how to look forward.  We look at some of the characters in the story of God who came to live among us.  But, of course, we can’t look at the central characters, Mary and Angels and shepherds and Wise men.  No, we’re more of the background people, we’re the crowd scenes.  The ones almost overlooked in the story.  

We begin with Elizabeth.  You remember her.  Mary’s relative, John the Baptist’s mom.  Her story sounds like an Old Testament tale, Sarah too old to have Isaac, Hannah who waited too long for Samuel.  Elizabeth was Zechariah’s wife, subject to whisper campaigns from the people he pastored.  Because she hadn’t given him any sons.  His line would die out, his eternity was in question.  And in the thinking of the day it was her fault, she bore the blame.  She was the cause of the shame.  It was a burden she had to bear.  So she did.  And how she did made her someone worth listening too.

The problem is her story is tucked away in the margins of the Gospel and therefore takes a bit of prying to get it out.  She is not the center, even of her own story.  So, turn to Luke chapter one.  After an introduction, we jump right to Zechariah and Elizabeth.  We are told who they are and who they come from.  We are told of their plight.  And then the focus shifts to Zechariah alone in the holy of holies, his turn to serve in the temple finally arrived.  But rather than the usual bringing of the prayers of the people to the altar of God, he gets a visitation from an angel.  He’s told that his prayer has been answered, the prayer he has forgotten, I’m sure.  The prayer that has moved off the table because of the passage of time and limitations of biology.  But the prayer he has forgotten, God has remembered and come to answer.  He’s so shocked that he asks for proof.  He asks an archangel for his credentials, he wants to read the fine print of the contract.  The angel, not used to feeling like a used car salesman, gets his feathers all ruffled and strikes the preacher mute.  And the punishment will last until he sees what he wanted to see, proof that God answers forgotten prayers.  Then he goes home.

Luke 1:23-25 When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. 24 After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, 25 "This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people."

Elizabeth becomes pregnant and hides away for five months.  Why?  Luke doesn’t say.  Maybe he doesn’t know.  But Elizabeth gives us a hint.  Notice her first spoken words in this story.  Praise of God, and acknowledgment that she has been mistreated by God’s people.  She doesn’t say I was disgraced by this barrenness, but that the people have wagged their fingers and whispered about her behind their hands.  She says that she has had faith, but they didn’t.  She never gave up, but they looked down their noses at her.  So, this time is her time not theirs.  Her time with God, they just have to wait.  Like she waited.  And they can wait with hope like she did, or with condemnation.  It was up to them.  Like it is always up to us to determine how we will wait.

The story then shifts to another woman not supposed to carry a child.  You know her story.  Luckily the angel who spoke to her had enough time to calm down from blasting a priest in the holy of holies, and now he is almost gentle with this girl-child who will carry the hope of the world.  When he leaves, Mary runs.

Luke 1:39-45 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."

She runs to her relative Elizabeth, the old woman hiding a secret from the world.  A secret Mary knows because an angel spilled the beans.  Mary calls out and Elizabeth hears her.  No, it wasn’t Elizabeth, it was the child she carried.  He heard and rejoiced.  He leapt inside of her.  Elizabeth staggers and leans against the door frame, grasps her swelling belly and laughs.  Like Sarah laughed at the very idea that she could give birth at such an age.  But Elizabeth’s laughter redeems Sarah’s because she laughs, not with derision, but with joy.  With hope and with joy. 

But even more is going on here.  In this exchange between these two unlikely mothers, more is redeemed, more is brought together.  In Elizabeth’s joy at the leaping of her child, is the reversal of Rachel’s pain at the struggling of her twin boys, Jacob and Esau, who fought within her.  What has been torn apart by jealousy and fear is now brought together in Elizabeth and Mary and the boys they carry.  The one who prepares the way, who will say “I must decrease that He might increase”, who meets the One who comes to take away the sin of the world. 

I think Luke missed a couple of words.  I think Elizabeth said “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoke to her by the Lord, like I did.”  For all these years.  She waited in hope.  

Luke 1:57-63 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother said, "No; he is to be called John." 61 They said to her, "None of your relatives has this name." 62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, "His name is John." And all of them were amazed.

And then having fulfilled her role, Elizabeth disappears from view.  Having kept her husband on course and set him free from his curse, having given birth to the forerunner, we don’t hear anything more from her.  Yet her witness rings clearly and loudly, if we stop to listen.  Elizabeth chose hope.  Even when a community tried to disgrace her, Elizabeth chose hope.  Even when the years went long and the waiting seemed almost unbearable, Elizabeth chose hope.  She chose not to grumble in the darkness but to reach for the light.  To find something to celebrate even in an empty time.  A waiting time.  Can we learn from her witness?


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Seeing the Word

I think my computer is dying.  This is after Maddie’s laptop died when she happened to be home. Funny how it decided to wait until she got home, so I couldn’t just say, well, see what you can do! Now it becomes my responsibility.  And it was Black Friday.  So, Rhys and I ventured out, not at the crack of dawn, but later in the afternoon when things had calmed down.  Sort of.  A little.  I hope. Anyway, I bought a new computer for Maddie and got it home and set it up for her (she’s attending a wedding in Michigan (who gets married the weekend of Thanksgiving?).  But once I set it up, I didn’t like it and now I’m trying to clear it off so that I can take it back and switch it for a better one.  Sigh. And mine is making funny noises now.  Ink pens and yellow legal pads anyone?

Life used to be simpler, didn’t it?  Or is that my imagination.  There does seem to be a longing to go back, to a simpler time, to a greater time.  A time when everything made sense.  But did such a time ever really exist?  Oh there were times when I thought I had it all figured out, when things were easier for me.  And no doubt there were times easier for you.  But was it easier for everyone?  I remember when I felt like everything was pretty simple, but I didn’t realize the anxiety that my parents were under to give me my simple life.  And choices that I now question were made out of a fear of the moment and a desire to provide, and it made sense at the time.  

Because our vision is limited.  That seems to be our problem.  We can’t see well.  We can’t see what we need to see.  We can’t see God at work in the world and we are left to muddle through with the best we can.  And our best often isn’t enough.  What we see troubles us, limits us, divides us.  What we see is what’s in front of our faces, the problems to solve and the roadblocks to navigate.  But what if we could see better, See farther.  See more.  See the Word at work?

Isaiah 2:1-5 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD! 

We usually skip to the prophecy, and rightly so.  It is what is so compelling, what is so radical.  The prophecy is what drives us this Advent season.  We lean into those words so completely, so hopefully. Even though we doubt the reality of the words.  It’s a naive fantasy, we think, that there could be peace.  All we see is war, conflict, enemies.  This makes a nice poster to hang in the kid’s room, a pipe dream for those who don’t know how the world works.  A Christmas Card, perhaps.  But that’s about as far as we will go.

But back up a moment.  Before we tackle this image, this hope, take another look.  Verse one.  We are introduced to the prophet.  Isaiah, son of Amoz, he has a family.  And he works for the southern kingdom, Judah, and in its capital city, Jerusalem.  Which means, by the way, City of peace.  Seems almost ironic, doesn’t it.  Jerusalem, the city of peace.  In one of the most contentious areas of the planet.  How many temples were built and destroyed?  How many walls were built, lines drawn? How many times have the alleys echoed with soldiers’ booted feet and streets washed in blood? It’s not new, this conflict, this battleground in the City of Peace.  It’s been a place of struggle for centuries.

And yet.  Read verse one again.  The Word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.  Did you catch it that time?  The Word that Isaiah saw.  Saw.  Not heard, but saw.  Oh, I know, those prophets, what are you gonna do?  They are a bit ... goofy.  Living out there on the edge, shouting at passers by, running for their lives, hiding in caves and calling down fire.  Yeah, those things did happen to prophets.  It wasn’t an easy life.  Their main job was holding up mirrors. And no one likes looking to closely at themselves.  So no wonder they weren’t included at the best parties, no wonder they got bounced from the best clubs.  No one wanted them around for long anyway.

Except, this was Isaiah.  Not the normal, run of the mill prophet.  Not the backwoods, wild-eyed, messy-haired, bad teeth prophet of the street corners, holding up cardboard signs scrawled with illegible doom.  Not Isaiah, he was as corporate as prophets get.  And much an insider as any of them. He had an office down the hall from the king’s.  He had a secretary who took his notes and typed them up for the press release.  At least at first.  At least before the whole house of cards fell.  

Now, he didn’t spout a party line, he wasn’t a mouthpiece for the king.  It’s kind of amazing that he was able to keep his job as long as he did, given that more often than not he had bad news to share, fingers to point, doom to pronounce.  Maybe those in power considered him a lightning rod.  As long as he was there giving warnings and calling them to a higher standard, then nothing bad would actually happen.  Makes you wonder if anyone listened to him.  Or whether they just shook his hand each week and said nice sermon Pastor Isaiah and went about their business.  And he had to bite his tongue every now and then so as not to say, weren’t you listening?  It was a messy time, here in the beginning of the book.  And then it got worse.  When doom fell, when the enemies swept through, when the country crashed around their ears and they were left in a burning rubble, or carried away to a foreign land where they were sure even God had abandoned them.

That all is yet to come for Isaiah here in Chapter two.  Now it is palace intrigue, it is ringing the bell to call the powers-that-be back to the Power-That-Is.  Now it is warnings and worries, and the day to day tedium of running a nation.  And still he manages to see something more.  The Word that Isaiah saw.  What did he see?  The mountain of the Lord’s house.  An odd configuration to be sure.  But there it was rising above every other mountain, every other house.  But not to lord it over, but to invite the world.  The world.  The whole world.  Not to conquer, but to teach.  To dispense wisdom. And what will be taught by God’s people?  Peace.  The end of war, and that calamity that tears the very fabric of existence, The house of the Lord, the people of God will teach peace.  And farming, apparently.  Well, if you aren’t going to kill them, you need to learn to feed them.  

He could see all that.  He could see the hope, the Word at work.  Even when the not-word was all around him.  Even in the corridors of power that seemed hellbent on making things worse rather than better.  Even as they went merrily down the path that lead them to destruction, Isaiah saw the Word. Saw another way, saw another hope.  It seems to me that the call of Advent is not to proclaim doom, but to see hope, to see possibilities, even when no one else can see them.  We are called to not give up on hope and to walk in the light of the Lord.  Walk by the light we see in hope, move toward the kind of world God has in store, work for what makes for peace.  

Even while we work to repair what is broken.  Now where’s that receipt?


Saturday, November 19, 2016

Back to the Fold

I’m watching the snow flurries fill the gray skies today.  “No significant accumulation” is the confident weather advice.  I can believe it, the ground is too warm, maybe a small pile on a concrete corner somewhere.  But for the most part it seems like the flakes don’t ever reach the ground.  They are just dancing around in a haphazard, frenetic kind of dance, falling only to rise again, whipped on the cold winds and air currents still trying to adjust to the roller coaster temperatures over an unusual fall.  Then they dance away and leave behind the cold gray day.  

I’m finding my thoughts are as scattered as those flakes.  My thinking is buffeted by various currents from text to season, from issues local and national, from a need to apologize for misunderstandings - mishearing in my own congregation, to the need to continue to proclaim hope and the longing for a Kingdom promised but not yet realized, even while we point out aspects of our world that are the antithesis of that Kingdom. 

We launched our extended Advent observance last week at Aldersgate.  The theme is The Who and What of Waiting.  And last week the question was “What are you waiting for?”  Isaiah calls us to long for a Kingdom of hope and joy, of diversity and acceptance and inclusion.  And I called us to stand against that in our world which didn’t reflect that kingdom.  It was a rallying cry to stand against hate.  But I must not have done a good job of it, because many heard an accusation and a divisive message of which side is on the right and which is on the wrong.  They heard blame and finger pointing, not an invitation to show love not hate.  Some wanted to applaud, others wanted to tar and feather me.  It’s been a difficult week.  

Then I turned to the lectionary for this week and read this:

Jeremiah 23:1-6  Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. 2 Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. 3 Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4 I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD. 5 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."

Jeremiah was talking about kings and not priests.  The prophet was pointing out that the leaders of the people were charged with not being divisive, that they were called to build up the nation as a people of God.  In those days, among those people, there was no division between faith and state.  They were supposed to be one, the king was a spiritual leader and not just a political one.  Jeremiah is pointing out the failings of those who sat on the throne of God’s people.

There is an interesting textual variant in the second verse of this text.  Our version reads that the shepherds “scattered the flock and have driven them away.”  In a more Jewish translation the verse reads that the shepherds let them scatter and go astray. They weren’t the cause of the scattering, the cause was the wilfulness, the sinfulness of the people.  But the leaders didn’t help them overcome their natural tendency to separate, to follow their own will rather than the will of the One who calls them into community.  

Maybe it doesn’t matter that much.  Maybe the fault isn’t what is important.  Maybe it is simply the result.  The effect.  That’s why this week has been so difficult.  In the end it doesn’t matter that for Jeremiah the shepherds he calls out are kings.  It doesn’t matter because we see the word shepherd and we don’t think of political leaders.  We think of me and people like me.  And I can’t help but feel the weight of that accusation.  It doesn’t matter that I wasn’t trying to scatter the flock.  It doesn’t matter that I wasn’t driving them away, wasn’t pointing fingers, wasn’t condemning anyone’s choice or side.  Neither does it matter that what I was trying to do was galvanize the body of Christ into standing against an evil arising in our nation, and that attending to the words I spoke would reveal that intent.  But it doesn’t matter.  Because the flock was scattered.  And I feel that weight on my soul.

Maybe I’m not worthy of the position I’ve been given, regardless of my intent.  No, not maybe.  I’m not.  Not in the least.  Luckily for me, however, I stand on this side of Easter.  On this side of the Incarnation.  The one who gathers is not me.  It is only in Christ that we find our unity.

In most churches this weekend, we will be celebrating - acknowledging, commemorating, observing - Christ the King Sunday.  The holy day is the reminder that our unity is not in denomination or in local community, not in preachers we like or don’t like, not in political affiliation or family relationship.  Our unity is in Christ.  The question for our Second Sunday of this Extended Advent is “Who are you waiting for?”  

Jeremiah says the days are coming when “The Lord is Our Righteousness” will reign over us.  When judgments will be executed from on high, when faithfulness to relationships will overcome opinions and preferences.  When the Anointed One will deal fairly with all God’s people.  

Who are you following?  Who are you believing in?  Who is the bearer of your hope?  Who speaks into your hungers and your fears?  Who defines what a life of meaning and fullness means?  Who are you waiting for?

It’s snowing again.  More fiercely, more driven it appears.  Beginning to paint the ground a transparent white, not covering, not obscuring, dusting, highlighting.  But perhaps with a foretaste of snows to come.  A call to get ready.  To watch and to wait.  And to long for, by living like and loving like and praying like, the One who comes.


Saturday, November 12, 2016

While They Are Speaking

I went to hear our Bishop preach this week.  A called, not required but if you knew what was good for you you’d be there clergy meeting.  So I went.  All the way to Zionsville.  Clergy Covenant Day it was called, an opportunity to celebrate or at least remember that we belong to one another, we belong to something bigger than ourselves.  We live in islands most of the time.  Me and my church and it is easy to forget that there is a bigger church, a capital C Church that we need to remember, that we are a part of, that we are beholden to.  So, I went all the way to Zionsville to hear words from my Bishop, whom I hadn’t met yet. 

There were other words, of course, colleagues and friends, students and mentors both, we exchanged greetings and inquiries, touched based and managed to avoid anything of substance.  As you do.  When you talk to people in certain settings you find you aren’t really talking.  Talking to be heard.  Talking to share something deep, or significant about yourself.  You’re talking to fill the silence.  You’re using words to keep the distance between you.  Not in an angry way, or even a hurtful way, but just in a self-protection mode.  “How are things?”  “Great, things are just great.”  Even when things aren’t great.  Which we could hear if we listened.  If we chose to listen a little deeper, a little more.  If we took the risk of listening, who knows what we might hear.  Instead we go with impressions, trigger words, insider language, determining who is for us and who is against us.  Words let us choose up sides, not build community.  Words become weapons, flaming darts that degrade and call names, instead of the Word that creates and gives life.  

No, I’m not talking about a clergy meeting any more.  Perhaps you gathered that.  I’m looking a little wider, raising my sights to the landscape in which we find ourselves these days.  A war torn, cratered surface, blood strewn landscape of our political discourse.  A nation torn by words of hate and fear.  But now it’s over.  Right?  Let’s breathe a sigh of relief and get back to being ... great.

Isaiah 65:17-25 17 For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. 19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. 20 No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. 21 They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22 They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. 23 They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD-- and their descendants as well. 24 Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. 25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent-- its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.

We’re doing an extended Advent at Aldersgate.  We launch this week and will count down the six Sundays before Christmas (and Christmas Day is on Sunday this year, where it ought to be! More on that another time).  But this extended Advent allows us to spend three weeks on the original meaning of the season, the anticipation of the coming Kingdom of God.  Advent was always about the second coming of Christ.  Later on the season got co-opted by the juggernaut of Christmas and we began to focus on the first coming.  There are, of course, connections between the two and it should be possible to do both.  But invariably we lose something in the blending.  “Why do we pretend it hasn’t happened yet?”  Someone asked me that a previous Christmas.  Why do we play act, instead of just celebrate what has already been done?  That’s the danger of losing Advent.  We think it’s all been done.  We think the story has ended and this is what we’ve got.  Oh, there are a few problems to sort out, but a little more elbow grease and we’ve got it done.  Without Advent we become a works righteousness community that feels guilty for not getting everything fixed.  And we gather week after week to be piled on again and again, more and better, work harder, do more.  We come to be lifted up and relieved of our burdens but we trudge away from our encounter with God with an even heavier heart.  As if we met our loving Father and He wasn’t pleased, and we’ve got to work harder to be worthy of the love we are dying to receive.  Because we’ve given up on Advent, we’ve lost our grip on faith.  We’ve become the very Pharisees that Jesus complained were adding to the burdens of others and not lifting a finger to help.

Fingers have been lifted lately.  What has happened is that Advent was stolen from us.  Stolen and twisted by people hungry for change.  That’s what Advent is about, the recognition that the world as it is needs to change.  That the sin which leads to brokenness is beyond our power to repair.  That the consequences of our hatred and prejudice and self-centeredness have gotten beyond our ability to correct.  That our way of living has excluded too many, has pushed down and set aside, has run over and used up people and resources and relationships and cultures, and we need help.  It has gotten so bad that it isn’t just the “them” who feel it, we feel it too.  And we cry out for change, for a savior.  And the problem is there are saviors aplenty.  And because we are desperate we listen to them, when they promise to make our lives and our world better.  Never mind that others have to suffer, others have to take the blame for the brokenness, enemies - scapegoats have to be found. It can’t be our own sin that has gotten us here.  So we’ll follow the one who points out the cause of our pain and drive out the offender, the sinner from our midst.  So we can live in security and comfort.

Except that isn’t how Advent proclaims the kingdom of God.  Advent proclaims there is only one Savior, there is only one source of security and comfort.  And when the kingdom comes it is precisely those on the margins who will be gathered in first.  It will be the broken and the grieving, it will be the lost and different, it will the outcast and shamed who sit at the table with the One who brings the new heaven and the new earth.  

And here’s the mark, the sign of the Advent proclaimed Kingdom, there will be joy in the people of the kingdom.  There will be delight.  Not hate, not division, not laughter that demeans and diminishes, but laughter that rejoices in the community that we will become in the Kingdom of God, in all its surprising diversity.    And the struggles of the poor, infant mortality, health care in old age, homelessness and hunger, and more will all disappear in the Kingdom.  That’s what we long for.  An inclusive Kingdom of joy, not  a country made great based on fear and scarcity, based on hatred and an abusive hierarchy instead of an equality rooted in the recognition of our heritage as children of God.

Best of all, did you notice, we will be heard.  Our words won’t be barriers but an invitation to enter in, to connect, to invest ourselves in one another, because there is one who is invested in us.  One who hears the cries of our heart, One who knows us and cares for us and shows us how to care for others.  

We have words to use in this Advent world in which we live.  Words that could wound and divide and separate.  Or we could speak in ways that show what we are longing for, for a Kingdom that has room for us.  For all and for any and for us.  Come quickly, Lord Jesus.


Saturday, November 5, 2016

Faithful in a Little

Done.  We’re done.  Well three fourths of the Weber family on Candlewick Drive are done.  La Donna is off fulfilling her obligations as a Conference Officer of the United Methodist Women today.  So I took Rhys and Maddie and went to vote.  She has classes on Election Day, and is out of state, and didn’t arrange for an absentee ballot, and we thought this was important.  Not just usually important.  But especially important this time.  So, I drove six hours on Friday to bring her home and we stood in line for three hours this morning and then will drive her six hours back tomorrow.  So she could vote.  Will the lines be longer on Tuesday?  Don’t know.  School is important too, so this made the most sense.

Some might think it was a bit much, twelve hours of driving, three hours of standing and shuffling along.  We tried to think of other things we stood in line for.  Rides at amusement parks.  To get into museums for special exhibits.  For tickets to once in a lifetime shows.  Maddie said she stood eight hours in Time’s Square to watch a ball drop that they couldn’t really see.  So, yeah, we did it.  This seemed as important as anything else we’ve stood in line for.  Will our three votes matter?  That’s harder to determine.  In one sense, probably not.  I know there are elections won by the slimmest of margins.  But in all likelihood, that won’t happen here in Indiana this time.  My mom and dad used to joke that their votes always canceled each other out, so why bother.  But they did, bother that is.  Bother to vote.  It matters in the sense that we are blessed beyond measure in this nation, we are great in more ways than we will often acknowledge.  And part of what makes us great is that we have this obligation, responsibility, privilege call voting.  Maybe it isn’t always about who wins and who loses, maybe it can be about the exercise of this small freedom.  

Yeah, it’s worth it.  Worth the hours, worth the time.  When the election is over on Tuesday I may be happy or I may be sad about the results, but either way I’m proud to have participated in the process.  And proud that I got to show and encourage my kids - who are no longer kids - that it is worth the effort.  A small thing?  Maybe, but still.

Luke 16:10-13 "Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."

We’re finishing our Stewardship emphasis this week.  Another series telling us what we already know.  Telling us that Jesus took money seriously, the use of money was an indicator of the condition of the soul, that giving was a gift to do not just to receive.  The central essence of stewardship is that it isn’t ours, that all we have, all we are belongs to the One who gave us life.  And our relationship with God demands that we use the resources, the gifts, the abilities and opportunities in ways that honor God, that give glory to the Glorious One.  That it is indeed a blessing, a joy to give generously.

Not really news, we should say.  Something we hear year after year, if not more often.  Even though we manage to forget.  Even though we recognize that there are certain demands on our resources.  I mean, we owe certain obligations, we made contracts, agreements, it isn’t like we don’t want to give, we’ve just gotten to the point where there isn’t much left after all the other things that we have to have, commitments and promises, liabilities and debts and duties.  And once all that is done, then out of what is left, when we can, then we’ll ...

OK, maybe I’m preaching to the choir.  That isn’t us.  We know better.  We know that you can’t serve two masters.  We know that while it feels like we are in control of our money, in fact we can become slaves to a culture of more.  So we choose not to.  We choose to only follow one master, one Lord.  We put God first, set aside our tithe and then make additional offerings when the need arises, because we are prepared.  Prepared and planned to be generous.  And we rightly feel good about that.  Part of what we celebrate when we bring our pledge cards forward is the satisfaction of faithfulness, the righteousness of the follower of God.

But Tom Berlin, the writer of the book Defying Gravity that we’re using for this series, says that’s not the real joy.  The real joy is in knowing that what we do, when we’re generous, we aren’t the only ones affected.  That the real blessing that comes from our generosity, from our decision to be faithful to God, is not internal but external.  We bless others.  We lift others.  We launch others into a life of giving and generosity and blessing.

When we get it right, he argues, there are ripples.  When we are faithful in the little things, they get bigger, they become bigger.  And we find that faithfulness easier to claim, easier to live.  It becomes a way of life, and a way to life.  To the kind of life that Jesus tells us about, a life full and rich and fruitful.  The kind of life we’ve always wanted.  

The kind of life that seems like it should come from a culture of more.  Of looking inward, looking out for number one.  The kind of life we’re being told we can buy with the next and latest and upgraded.  When in fact it is a life that comes from giving away.  Of living outwardly, mentoring, teaching, investing in those around you, those in your care and those you haven’t even met yet. Of being a part of something bigger than yourself.

During the rain delay of the seventh game of the World Series this past week, the Cubs who had led throughout the game until the eighth inning and now were tied after nine, called a team meeting in the dugout.  An interviewer asked Jason Heyward (I think it was) what the meeting was about.  He just shrugged and said we just said “remember who we are.”  A team, not just one, not a superstar and the rest, not an ace and the minions.  Remember who we are.  We are more than we appear on the surface.  Because we belong together.  Because we lift one another, because we teach and lead and mentor and guide.  Remember who we are.

It seems a little thing.  Yet they remembered enough to win the World Series.  A little thing.  Yet we stood in line and remembered who we are as citizens of a nation with dreams.  We were faithful. 


Saturday, October 29, 2016

Treasure Chests

This is a scary weekend.  Not just the ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties.  (You do recognize that traditional Scots prayer, don’t you?  “From ghoulies and ghosties / And long-leggedy beasties \ And things that go bump in the night, \ Good Lord, deliver us!”) But no, this isn’t a reference to the excesses of the observance of Halloween. Maybe next year.

This reference to the scary is a little more real, a little more close to home, my home anyway.  This is the weekend of the auction of all the stuff from the house in Tennessee where my mom and dad retreated to thirty six years ago.  The house sold a couple of weeks ago, and now this will clear out whatever is left that wouldn’t fit in dad’s new apartment in Frankfort, or in one of our homes.  The last few items were picked up by my brother who made the long trip down.  He delivered the things we are keeping last night (During the fifth inning of the third game of the World Series, when the Indians had the bases loaded and only one out!  Somehow the Cubs managed to get out of that inning.  Though they ended up losing, argghh) Which means that it all ends on Sunday.  A chapter has ended, a page has turned.  We are now in a new place.  Now the only tie back to that little county seat town in Tennessee will be a marble marker that bears my mom’s name.  And the memories of a life with both joy and heartache.  

I wrote here a few months ago that I felt unmoored at the death of my mother.  Cast adrift in a world not of my making.  And now here we are again.  Except what is contributing to this feeling of disconnect is not a person but stuff.  A house I never really liked, stuff I often didn’t understand the purpose of, old stuff and new stuff, well worn and unused stuff.  Just lots and lots of stuff.  “Isn’t anyone else sentimental?”  That was my sister’s question when were down there elbow deep in the piles of stuff, throwing a lot of it away, or giving it away to someone for whom it wouldn’t be sentimental, just useful.  We hoped.  Yeah, I thought, I am sentimental.  Very.  There were tears as we read old letters and looked at old photos.  Mom loved taking pictures.  Was terrible at it, but persistent.  We had piles of photos of people and places we didn’t know, would never know.  But it was just stuff.  It was just their stuff, their lives and somehow in that stuff they made a life.

Hank told a story.  One time when he was down visiting mom and dad, dad sent him to the house to get mom’s favorite shirt.  Dad took it home to wash and wanted it to put on mom.  So, Hank went to get it.  He found it but it was dirty, stained beyond washing, bearing the signs of mom’s inability to feed herself.  He wasn’t going to put his mother in such a shirt.  So he threw it away.  He got some other shirts and went back to the facility.  Dad said where’s the shirt?  He said I threw it away, dad, it was filthy.  Dad blew up.  It was her favorite shirt.   How dare he throw it away!  It was just a shirt.  A dirty shirt.  But it was her favorite.  Dad thought anyway.  Hard to tell, really.  But I understand the desire to make a connection of some sort, some indication that she was still she, still able to have a favorite anything.  We all want something to treasure.

Matthew 6:19-21 19 "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

For all that Jesus seems bothered by stuff, he is in favor of treasures.  Did you notice?  It’s not, stay away from treasure, it’s bad for your health.  No, treasuring is ok.  It’s what we choose to treasure, that’s the issue.  There are some treasures that aren’t worth storing up.  Or piling up.  Or tucking into the attic so that when you dig it out you say with a sigh, what were we thinking keeping this?  The stuff around here just wears out, gets stained and unwearable, it rusts.  Rusts? What did they have that rusted in Jesus’ day?  Well, the word is “brosis” in Greek.  It often refers to food that gets eaten.  Consumed.  Used up.  Worn away until you don’t even recognize it any more.

No, apparently there is treasure and there is treasure.  Some treasure is worth treasuring, some just fit for the junk heap.  How do you know?  How can you tell the difference?  How do we know we are saving the right things?  Treasuring the right things?

Well, some say it is all about the tally sheet.  You’ve got to pile up a good score in heaven.  Every act of service is another star in your crown.  And our goal is to get lots of stars, lots of jewels.  Not, to be sure, to earn our place in heaven.  That comes by the grace of God.  No, this is about the furnishings.  A better mansion, plush carpets, bigger windows, more floors.  They’re building us a dwelling place out of the materials we send up from here.  Some say.
I’m not convinced, frankly.  Stuff is stuff.  It seems like if Jesus was against too much stuff here he would be against too much stuff there.  Don’t you think?  So, it doesn’t sound like the treasures Jesus wants us to treasure is more stuff, divine or otherwise.

What if our math is wrong.  What if it isn’t do this to get that?  What if the treasure isn’t the end product, the reward or the payment for our acts?  What if it is the act itself?  Not the result of our action but the action.  What if the treasure is not something we can hold in our hands but something we do with our hands?  

In other passages when Jesus shares this secret, he tells someone, the rich young man, “sell everything and give the money to the poor and you’ll have treasure in heaven.”  We think, we get something, when we get to heaven there will be something there because we’ve done this great thing.  Maybe not.  He says “do this and you will have.”  Go and sell and you will have your treasure.  In the selling and giving.  That’s the treasure.  That’s the gift.  That’s the blessing.  The doing.

Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.  Live your life in such a way that you know the blessing every day.  Live your life so that you are treasuring what lasts into eternity.  That’s what Jesus is trying to point out to us.  Some treasure is eaten away, and some treasure lasts and nothing in this world can take it away.  An act of kindness lives forever.  Love lived out lasts forever.  Goodness outlasts bitterness.  Joy endures while despair fades.  An act of generosity is treasured into eternity.

Yeah, it’s scary to cast off the stuff that defined a life, or seemed to anyway.  That is a loss to be sure.  But what cannot be lost are all the moments we’ve treasured together, the lives that we’ve lived, the experiences we’ve shared.  Even when we forget them, and I suspect we will, they will be ours in eternity.  When we meet we will remember and be remembered.  And what greater treasure can there be than that? 


Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Madness of Wanting

We had Max put down a couple weeks ago.  Max was the crazier of the crazy dogs.  I was convinced he heard voices in his head.  He was a mongrel of the most extreme kind, it looked like there were not dog things in the mix alongside the uncountable dog genetics.  Even the vet listed him on his official reports under breed as “white dog.”  He was a curious looking creature.  A rescue dog who’s previous life was almost too terrible to imagine, the little we knew of it.  But his last years were lived out in comfort and love.  He was a part of the family, in his unusual, mostly doggy way.  And we are diminished without him.  

Nick especially seems a little lost without his annoying little brother.  Many is the time when Nick had to snap at Max who was being a little rambunctious for no apparent reason, jumping on Nick when he was trying to nap, taunting and teasing, chasing the cat who dared to come into the dog space.  But now that he’s gone, Nick needs companionship, sitting on my lap with a sigh, he sleeps in the places Max used to sleep.  On the day La Donna and Rhys took Max to the vet for the final time, I came home from a church meeting and Nick was laying in the spot where Max’s cage used to be. 

Max’s final weeks were marked by a restlessness we couldn’t define.  He had trouble settling, was often up and down, lying asleep and then wanting out, wanting attention, wanting something that we couldn’t identify.  He didn’t seem to be in pain, just driven.  Just searching for a satisfaction that he couldn’t find here.  He loved going outside, on sunny days at least.  I thought he was solar powered and needed to recharge his battery by lying in the sun for hours at a time.  But now he would go out and wander, pace the fence line, hunt under the hedge around the deck.  Looking for something, wanting something he couldn’t articulate.  Something driving him even a little more crazy.  

Luke 15:11-32 Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."'

20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22 But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe-- the best one-- and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.

25 "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' 31 Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"

It was the madness of wanting that drove him to make his outrageous request.  Offensive request.  He said to his father, why aren’t you dead yet?  You’re value to me is in the stuff that will be mine one day, not in you.  If there was ever a son who needed slapped down, it is this one.  But he wasn’t slapped down.  He received what he asked for.  The father did what no father would do.  He broke the bank, broke tradition, broke open his wallet and took it out.  Took it all out.

The younger son, the prodigal, ran away as fast as his feet would take him.  Ran to satisfy the wanting.  Tried everything his fevered brain could think of.  But nothing slowed down the wanting.  Give him credit, he kept trying, kept searching, kept digging that hole deeper and deeper, until he had to look up to see rock bottom.  Give him credit, because he ran out of cash.  The wad his father handed over evaporated like drops of sweat on a hot sidewalk.  He watched them fade as he plodded along, the hunger as strong as ever, the wanting unabated, unsatisfied, still driving him on.  Until knee deep in pig slop, he came to himself.

The wanting changed.  He came to himself and the wanting was deeper, more real, within reach.  Instead of for the something indescribable it was for something he knew well.  Something he had experienced.  He came to himself and wanted what he had already had.  And threw away.  He knew he was no longer worthy of it.  But he took a risk and decided that even a taste of what he had was better than this.  He couldn’t have it all and he was content with that. He would take the punishment, suffer the indignity, because he was done with wanting.  So, he made the long journey back, leaving his madness behind.  

But a strange thing happened.  His father ran to meet him, gathered him up and treated him as though he was worthy.  As though he was a son.  As though he belonged.  And he was swept up into the party, welcomed home, where he had all he ever wanted.   End of story.

Not quite.  The brother, the one left behind.  Who chewed his frustration with his younger brother every day when he marched out to the field to work.  And his satisfaction in his work and his home and his family evaporated like drops of sweat on the hard packed dirt he struggled to turn over.  He stumbled back in that day, the day of transformation, feeling anything but transformed.  When he heard the news his face became even harder, bitter, like he had eaten a sour apple.  His father found him like that, spitting seeds and hatred and begged him to come in and celebrate.  But he refused and said “I’ve slaved for you all these years and you never gave me anything.”  Never.  Um, wait a minute.  Look again.  Verse twelve: “He divided his property between them.”  The older brother got his too.  Every day, it was his.  Everything was his, double his brother’s share because he was older.  But he never saw it.  Never claimed it.  He lived the party, that’s what his father told.  But his bitterness, his jealousy kept him from claiming it, from living it.  All he had was his wanting.  What we’ll never know, because Jesus didn’t tell us, was whether the older brother ever came to himself.

The younger brother needed near starvation to be able to leave his madness behind.  Let’s hope the older brother only needed almost losing his brother to move from wanting to generosity.  From turning inward to pouring outward.  Like the Father.  Our Father.  

Every life teaches us something.  Offers us something.  If only a chance to love more, to care more, to give more.  Rest in peace Max.


Saturday, October 15, 2016

I Just Can't Wait To Be King

“I’m gonna be a mighty king / so enemies beware.”  Remember this?  “I’m gonna be the mane event / like no king was before / I’m brushing up on looking down / I’m working on my roar.”  That little scamp Simba, a lion cub singing about the inevitable ascension to the throne as the king of the jungle.  “No one saying ‘Do this!’ / No one saying ‘Be there!’ / No one saying ‘See here!’ / Free to run around all day / Free to do it all my way.”  Who wouldn’t?  Who doesn’t want to be king?  To make all our own decisions, to rule to world?  

Well, me for one.  Maybe you too.  I’d rather be the kind of king where everyone else makes all the decisions!  I left out Zazu’s commentary on Simba’s aspirations.  That little hornbill just adds a dash of reality to the dream that we could do without.  Don’t you think?  We just want to be captains of our own fate, charters of our own course.  Right?

I went to see dad today, that’s why I’m late.  He told my sister that he was having some technical problems and felt cut off again.  Computer wasn’t working, cell phone stumped him.  He needed help.  So, I drove down today and put things right again.  There was nothing really wrong, just wasn’t working the way he thought it should.  And the answer to your question is, he’s fine.  Really, doing pretty well, adjusting to the setting ... somewhat.  Resigned anyway.  But what rankles him the most is that he isn’t in charge.  Of his schedule, of his decisions, of his choices, of his life.  And that doesn’t make him happy.  

Which is understandable.  We all want to be king.  Of our own kingdom, at least.  Of our own stuff.  That’s one of the reasons why stuff appeals.  It gives us the illusion of control.  Of being able to define our own existence.  Of having the power to shape the world to our design.  And if not this latest thing, then the next thing.  That gadget, the upgrade, the bells and whistles, will make it all happen.  

Pastor Tom Berlin calls that gravity.  That pull of the stuff in our lives.  We are launching our next series this week.  It’s our Stewardship Series at Aldersgate.  That time of year when we think about our commitment to the church.  An important and somewhat delicate time.  But stewardship is more than just meeting the church budget.  Always has been.  It’s a spiritual issue.  Jesus thought it was important.  The two things he talked most about were the Kingdom of God and money.  Funny that, given what we spend all our time debating.  But for Jesus the effect of money, of riches, of stuff is potentially so dangerous, so destructive, so antithetical to faith that he spent a lot of time warning us.  Pay attention, he says, to the gravity of wealth.

Matthew 19:16-22 Then someone came to him and said, "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?" 17 And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." 18 He said to him, "Which ones?" And Jesus said, "You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself." 20 The young man said to him, "I have kept all these; what do I still lack?" 21 Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." 22 When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

He went away grieving.  The pull of the gravity of his stuff was too great.  He couldn’t break away.  He was offered a place in the pantheon of heroes we call apostles.  Come and follow me. He had an invitation to the greatest party on earth.  And the burden of what he owned made him walk away.  In Mark’s version of the story he includes a detail that Matthew left out.  Maybe insignificant in the greater scheme of things.  And yet, a nuance that we often overlook.  Mark says after the young man says “I’ve kept these commandments all my life” that Jesus looks at him and loves him.  Then he says there is one thing you lack, go and sell and follow me.  

He loves him.  That’s why he wants to help him.  That’s why the young man’s pain is important to Jesus.  Because he loved him.  What a difference that would make if we approached those who are lost, who are hurting, who are burdened by an unsustainable life with love and not judgement.  Or maybe it was that Jesus knew that the only thing that could overcome the gravity of the riches of this life is a force stronger, a greater pull.  Love redeems, love rescues, love wins.  He knew that.  He knows that.  He loved him.  Even though it didn’t seem to work.  The young man walked away, grieving.  The burden on his heart increased, instead of lightened.  He had the antidote, he had the prescription.  But the medicine was too bitter for him to swallow.

Good thing we know better, right?  Good thing we aren’t sucked in the ownership cycle.  The wanting of stuff.  We’re smarter than that.  Samsung is out five to eight (depending on who you read) billion dollars because of the failure of the Note 7.  A lot of people wanted one, no one needed one.  I enjoy my Samsung phone, and at times panic when I forget it, think I can’t live without it.  That little clutch in my chest I feel when I drop it is the effect of gravity.  The pull of something that shouldn’t matter all that much.  But no one can deny that we all feel the effect of the weight of our stuff.  I suspect I would have walked away from Jesus grieving if he had said the same thing to me.  Luckily he didn’t.

Or did he?  If you keep reading in Matthew’s Gospel the next few verses you’ll find the seriousness of the weight of wealth.  That’s where we get contortionist camels and impossible entrances.  That’s where we get the generosity of the Kingdom that clashes against the generosity of this world.  Here was want fair.  But there, in God’s Kingdom we get grace enough.  

Jesus wants us to have grace enough.  Enough to float free from all that encumbers us, all that weighs us down.  Jesus wants us to leave our kingdoms behind, leave behind the desire to be king of that kingdom and enter into His Kingdom, where we will know riches beyond imagining, where we will know grace enough.  

Zazu is right, you know.  Being king isn’t all that we imagine it would be.  Maybe it is better that we find a better King to follow than ourselves.  Maybe we need grace enough to be set free to follow.