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.