Saturday, December 23, 2017

Making Room

Long time readers of my Late Night Bible Study might remember that I have this strange quirk when it comes to the Christmas season.  Well, ok, at least one.  One I intend to tell you about right now anyway.  Unless something else comes up in the conversation.  Cause, I mean, you never know.

Where was I?  Ah, yes, quirk.  I like to go shopping on the Saturday before Christmas.  There, I said it.  Laid it out right there in front of God and everybody.  Like a twelve step group or something.  “Hi, my name is Derek and I like to go shopping on the Saturday before Christmas.”  “Hi Derek!”  I’d say I was in recovery, but I’m not.  I love it.  Weird, I know.  To say that you enjoy shopping on a day where you spend more time creeping through lanes and searching for parking spots than actually shopping; to claim some satisfaction when standing in long lines of people most of whom ran out of Christmas spirit a few stores ago, and the clean up on aisle nine is a meltdown of apocalyptic proportions; when the check out clerks flinch when you clear your throat because they have been yelled at and complained to and snubbed in disgust so many times they are wary of the slightest sign of displeasure; who in their right mind would venture out on such an expedition?

Well, you got me there, that right mind thing.  Never promised that.  Still, I find some joy in the adventure.  Call it a search for ... well, a search.  For the last minute gifts that I’m always trying to secure, there is that of course.  But that’s not it completely.  There is something else that sends me out, even in a driving rain, to observe, to catch a glimpse.  Something out there, bigger than just me and my wants and dreams, my hurts and my needs.  Something  beyond pettiness of the politics of division.  Something beyond the frustrations of family over-familiarity and frayed fellowship.  And something beyond the ravages of consumerism and the confused notion that spiritual hungers can be satisfied with material goods.  

That’s what folks have told me over the years when I share this odd quirk with them.  “It is materialism on overdrive, don’t you know?” they tell me.  “It is the worst of us in the season that should bring out the best in us.  It is the opposite of what Christmas is all about.”  And they are right, these voices that I hear.  I can’t really argue with them.  Yet ... I go, and watch, and listen, and enter in the melee, the scrum, the .... hopes and fears of all the years.

One of my favorite Christmas hymns is Rev. Philips Brooks’ classic carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  And while the scene I witness out and about just before Christmas is the exact opposite of the opening verse, it still seemed to speak to me about what I was wandering through.  

O little town of Bethlehem / How still we see thee lie / Above thy deep and dreamless sleep / The silent stars go by / Yet in thy dark streets shineth / The everlasting Light / The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight.

The stillness was replaced by the flurry of activity both motorized and pedestrian. Instead of silent stars there were the long lines of headlights and taillights piercing the gloom and gray, snow that was more drizzle than flakes, but the streets were “shineth-ing” something fierce.  But was that everlasting light there?  That’s what I went to see, that’s what I hope to find.  Hopes and fears aplenty, met in the latest gadget, in the thing of beauty that just might somehow convey to friend or family member something of what they mean to us.  

Something to search for, something to name.  That’s what we hope for at Christmas, something we can name, something we can claim as real, as ours, something that puts all the pieces of our lives together.  That’s what we’re looking for, even when we don’t always know it.  Even when it catches us by surprise and, frankly, scares us a little bit.  Or a lot.

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 seems like one of those carried along in the wake of Christmas.  Like the dad carrying the coats in the big box store, with a glazed look on his face waiting for his wife to make all the important decisions.  He is just supposed to nod along when asked his opinion.  Joseph doesn’t even get a visitor like Luke tells us Mary gets.  He gets a dream.  And in the light of morning who can trust in a dream?

Joseph can, apparently.  He was, Matthew tells us, a righteous man.  Up to now, that usually meant he followed the law.  He was obedient to what God had outlined in the law and described by the prophets.  Joseph was a law-abiding man.  Until now.  When the dream told him to not follow the law.  The law said get rid of her.  The law said she has shamed you, she has broken the covenant, and the punishment was separation, dismissal, humiliation, even death.  Joseph was a righteous man, and his righteousness said what he had to do; she had to go. But he could be compassionate too.  He made up his mind to be as kind as the law allowed.

But the dream wanted more.  The dream wanted faith that goes beyond law.  The dream wanted hope in the midst of despair.  The dream wanted a future in the face of dissolution.  And perhaps that was what Joseph wanted too.  Maybe that was why he could be transformed by a dream, he could redefine righteousness as obedience to God who is the law, and is doing a new thing.  Do not be afraid, the dream said, to take Mary as your wife.  The hopes and fears of all the years are met in you tonight, Joseph.  Name them.  Claim them.

So he did.  As simple as that, he did.  As amazing as that, as outrageous as that, he did.  Matthew says that God wanted Jesus to be a part of that line, that line of faithfulness, of those who were righteous not because they stayed within the boundaries of polite society, but because they ventured out into the wild world and took a risk.  Joseph was in that line and now Jesus was, because Joseph claimed him.  Those last words, seemingly insignificant, what’s his name?  It is more than just naming, it is claiming, it is saying he is mine, my son, my savior.  

That’s what we’re looking for, out and about in the busyness of the world around us.  Something that will define us, something that will remake us, transform us.  Some relationship, some hope, some love that will make us new.
O holy Child of Bethlehem / Descend to us, we pray / Cast out our sin and enter in / Be born to us today / We hear the Christmas angels / The great glad tidings tell / O come to us, abide with us / Our Lord Emmanuel

What I go out to see in the muddle of our world is not necessarily the Christ child, or the light that glows within.  No, I think what I’m going to find is the world that he came to save.  The masses of humanity who think they can find salvation in the stuff of this life, like I know I do sometimes.  When I forget.  A world that has room for a Savior, even when we’ve forgotten it.  And part of what I’m trying to see is whether we can make room.  Room for grace, room for joy, room for peace, even at our worst.  At our most needy.  Except.  In the end, we aren’t the ones making room.  Like Joseph, we’re called to claim the room that God has made for us.  And to proclaim to the hurting world that there is room for them.  


Saturday, December 16, 2017

Sand Dancing

Last minute.  I heard advertisements for last minutes gifts at the end of November.  That didn’t seem like last minute to me.  Miles to go, I thought, weeks and weeks to get things accomplished.  Yes, I had Christmas Eve services to plan in a new place with new people who couldn’t be sure I knew what I was doing, but I’ve got lots of time.  Sure there are gifts to get and decorations to put up, there is time aplenty.  Don’t worry.  Except now we’re a week out.  The clock is ticking.  Decisions still to be made.  Questions to be answered.  Jesus to be found.

Yeah, well, that’s a story too.  The Nativity set at Southport seems to be missing a vital ingredient.  A central cast member of the drama of Christmas seems to be missing.  The central cast member.  We’ve looked everywhere, even contacted the previous pastor who kept it in his desk throughout the year for some reason.  In my desk.  But it isn’t there.  And I’m struck with the panic that in the transition I tossed it out.  Him out.  But, no, I wouldn’t have done that, would I?  Throw away a baby Jesus in the manger because it was in the wrong place.  A desk drawer is an unexpected place.  I mean, of all the places to keep a baby Jesus figurine, a desk drawer seems the least likely.  The center drawer, the junk drawer where you throw the stuff you don’t know what do with but don’t want to throw away.   The hidden stuff, the forgotten stuff, some broken, some given by someone but you’ve forgotten who, knick-knacks, odd bits, the island of misfit toys, that’s what’s in the middle drawer of the desk.  Not a place for baby Jesus. A desert of stuff, some useful, some not, but unorganized and lost, just there, in the drawer.

But then is there any place where He doesn’t belong.  The more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a great idea to keep the baby close to me all year long, in amidst the rubble of my life, until He can be brought out at Christmas time to say - See, He’s here! He’s been here, all along.  Right along side, through the joys and the heartaches, through the struggles and the accomplishments.  Right there, maybe out of sight for a time, but close by.  Within reach.  Even in the desert.  Even in a place of exile.  Of uncertainty.  Right there, all the time.  Emmanuel.  

Isaiah 35:1-10   The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus  2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.  3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.  4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you."  5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;  6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;  7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.  8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.  9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.  10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. 

Chapter thirty-five of Isaiah is considered a transitional chapter.  Though they aren’t named, most scholars talk about three different Isaiahs all contained within the sixty-six chapters of the book that bears that name.  And this chapter is a transition between First Isaiah and Second Isaiah.  First Isaiah is largely about warning, trying to get God’s people to see that their present course is going to lead to disaster, that the political relationships they have created will be their undoing, that their economic policies are unsustainable, that the road they are on will lead to destruction and exile.  And Second Isaiah, written during that time of exile, is largely about hope and a promised return.  

“Largely”, because there is hope in First Isaiah and there is warning in Second Isaiah.  But in the middle section of the book we are looking longingly for home, that much is clear.  From about chapter forty on there is this sense that all is not right, that we aren’t where we are supposed to be and we aren’t who we are supposed to be.  But overriding that sense of unease there is a word that says it won’t always be this way.  But this message doesn’t come in some vague, impersonal way.  It comes with exuberant joy.  It comes with lushness and excess.  It comes with promise and with security.   It comes with applause.

The desert blooms and blossoms to usher us back home.  The waters, normally such a temporary thing in that climate, will break forth, splashing up, pouring out, rising high, like the dancing waters at Disney World, like an open fire hydrant at on a hot summer day, like a cold bucket of Gatorade dumped on the winning coach.  We’re all winners on the road home.  We are all celebrated on the journey to where we belong.  

But do you see the promise?  Not only is there a route home, but it is safe and secure, protected from all sorts of enemies, and it is well provisioned, there is water to quench our thirsts, and there is some sort of divine GPS, we simply can’t get lost.  And better than that, our aches and pains, our brokenness and infirmity will disappear on this journey.  Our disabilities don’t limit us, don’t handicap us.  We can dance and sing, we can see and we can hear, because this journey is one of beauty and of joy.

Best of all, however, is we are not alone.  This is not a solitary journey where we cross the miles and work our way into the preparations to face family who seem to both lift us up and knock us down at the same time.  Not a “find your own way” and then the party starts once you get there.  No, indeed.  

First of all, God has come.  That’s the reason for all the celebration anyway.  God has come to bring us home.  God has come to escort us home.  God has come to walk with us every step of the way.  No wonder there is joy on our heads.  No wonder sorry and sighing shall flee away.  No wonder there is all the dancing and singing and splashing around in the courtyard fountains.  John Wesley’s dying words were reported to be “best of all, God is with us.”

Best of all.  But the second is like it.  Isaiah tells us what we will do when we are on our way home, to this home of all homes, the home of our heart and soul, the home that will make us whole again for the first time.  And what we do is share it.  Say to those, he tells us, strengthen, he proclaims, make firm, he encourages us.  He isn’t talking to God here, he is talking to us.  And he isn’t telling us to strengthen our own weak hands, or to make firm our own feeble knees, though God knows they are feeble and in need of strengthening.  God knows our hearts are fearful even at the best of times, it seems.  We are hardly the best ambassadors of God’s grace and hope, hardly the best witnesses to comfort and joy.  And we are what God has to work with.  We are the sign that the journey home has begun.  We are witnesses to God with us - to Emmanuel.  We are the light in the darkness, announcing to any and all that the season of joy and light, of peace and goodwill, is here.  Say to those of a fearful heart, be strong, fear not.

He’s right there.  God’s right there, as we walk on the road, through the desert that might not yet be blooming.  The seeds are there, hidden away, behind the paper clips and the rubber bands, covered up by the stacks of post-it notes that you couldn’t use in a lifetime, the business cards, the note that someone scrawled on the back of the bulletin telling you what a poor excuse for a human being you are and then didn’t sign just to mess with your head, underneath the drawing at a bored child did of you up there in front, with your head too big and your hands swollen to an incredible size, and a word bubble coming out of your mouth saying “Jesus loves you!”  Yeah, He’s there.  Emmanuel.  God-with-us.  Even in the desert.  

Which is why we dance, this Christmas dance, this desert dance of celebration, this sand dance as we shuffle along this highway of hope and peace and joy.  Gaudate, the third week of Advent, gaudate - Latin for joy.  Join in, shall we dance?


Saturday, December 9, 2017

Peaceable Kingdom

The natives are restless.  Well, the transplanted natives here in the house.  The dog and the cats all seem to be wanting something we can’t quite figure out.  Nick, the three-legged rescue terrier mix thinks he’s in charge of the world.  As far as he can see, he is responsible for everything, every intruder real or imagined, every foot crossing into line of sight, and woe be to any other dog that saunters past the house.  At the same time, he is sharing a residence with two cats, Dora the substantial cat and Cato, which is short for Catastrophe and who does her level best to live up to that name.  Cato doesn’t care a whit about Nick’s opinion and gallops through the house with abandon, upsetting the carefully maintained piles of things in strategic places, and even tries to cuddle up next to Nick, who looks at us like “can you do something about this?”  Dora, on the other hand, though she is more than twice Cato’s size, is a little more skittish.  She slinks around hoping the dog won’t appear and then skitters up the stairs when Nick comes exploding into the room.  

La Donna is convinced that if the cats would only give the dog a swat on the nose now and then they could occupy the same space.  I’m skeptical, given the demeanor with which the dog approaches anyone and everyone, sounding as though your liver just might be on the menu.  But who knows, maybe it is all a show.  Maybe they really are friendly beasts and could live together in peace and harmony, holding paws and singing the animal version of kum ba yah.  

Yeah right.  Tell us about it, Isaiah.

Isaiah 11:1-10   shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.  3 His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;  4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.  5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.  6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.  9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.  10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. 

Admit it, you thought it was the lion and lamb, didn’t you?  Not sure how that became the prototypical image of the peaceable kingdom.  But Isaiah says it is the wolf and the lamb and the lion and the calf.  The fatted calf.  The calf ready for eating.  Impossible.  Outrageous.  Like Democrats getting along with Republicans.  Won’t happen.  Tea Partiers and Gun Control Advocates.  Can’t happen.  Social conservatives and the live and let live sort.  Nah, unimaginable.  Well, maybe if they were allowed to give each other a good swat first... No, bad idea.  Our differences are too great, aren’t they?  Our divides too deep.  Until someone comes and points to a higher truth, a deeper reality, then all those things that separate us will continue to have us drawing up battle lines.  It is the nature of the beast.

Isn’t it?  We are convinced it is.  And yet there is a small glimmer of hope deep down within us that only dares show its face at this time of year.  We dare entertain the idea that peace on earth is possible during Advent.  And then quickly shake our heads and say it is kid’s stuff.  Like Charlie Brown and his poor excuse for a tree and the Grinch and his heart that grew three sizes one day, it is the stuff of cartoons and sappy seasonal specials.  Only there does it really work out.  Only there are the teeth not bared and claws sheathed.  Only in our dreams and fantasies, not in our living rooms and boardrooms, not in the marketplace or on the battle field.  Not in the real world, where we live and move and have our being.  Only in our holiday imagination.

Unless there are people willing to work and suffer for a different way of being in community.  But who would want to do that?  Who would sacrifice that much, endure that much to bring about a new world, a new peace.

I just got back from an amazing, incredible event at my own church, no less.  It’s called Jubilee Christmas, and it was a monumental work of planning and giving.  Twenty one families were able to have Christmas for their children because of the generosity of a congregation of people who know what it is to be blessed to overflowing.  I know what you’re thinking, OK, so they gave Christmas gifts, big deal.  A whole lot of people give Christmas gifts to the needy this time of year, it’s a regular occurrence.  The truth be told, Jubilee Christmas is like a lot of other giving programs and ministries at Christmastime.  But watching this one unfold just seemed to feel a little different than other attempts at giving.  Because it wasn’t really about giving, it was more about sharing.  Yes, giving happened, and for a lot of those who helped make this event happen, their involvement was bringing in items to give away.  But the team and the hosts of the families were there to do something more than simply give.  They wanted to share something significant, they wanted to offer an experience, not just a gift.  They wanted to share the joy of Christmas, the warmth of Christmas, the love of Christmas.  They wanted to share Emmanuel, God with us, in as tangible a way as they could.

It’s kinda complicated how it all happened, and I don’t even know all the story to be honest.  It’s a well oiled machine, honed with hours and years of practice.  But it didn’t feel machine-like.  Nor did it feel patronizing in a way that mission work sometimes does.  It felt real.  It felt good.  And here’s the amazing part, barriers were crossed in this sharing.  Barriers of language, of culture, of economic status, and just those we no longer know how to be neighbors with, the strangers next door barriers that trip us up all the time – none of that mattered today.  Because God has put on flesh and chosen to be born among us, so we don’t have to live in fear of one another, if we but take the risk of wanting to share.  Wanting to live in the peaceable kingdom.

When you hear those words - the peaceable kingdom - you think of a painting.  A painting of animals clustered around a small child.  The animals seem to be smiling, childish in their depiction, primitive we call it.  And in the background of the painting there is a European man gathered with a group of Native Americans offering a hand of peace.  That’s the famous Quaker William Penn and the peace treaty he made with the occupants of the land.  The painter was Edward Hicks, a Quaker minister and painter.  And it was his favorite subject.  He painted over a hundred different takes on this image, and some 60 plus still exist.  What historians have noted was that there was a subtle change in the depiction of the animals.  In the older ones, they are kind and even playful as they lie together, predator and prey.  But as time went on, the teeth grew sharper and the snarls more pronounced.  Hicks was said to have begun to lose hope in humanity as he watched the barriers grow higher and stronger, the animosity grow deeper and more violent.  In those later paintings, however, the child, the Christ, tightens His grip on the lion’s mane and the bear’s neck.  Holding them in place with strength when their will was not with him.  Hicks though he began lose hope in the workings of human community, he began to cling even more tightly to Christ.  In Him Hicks would put his hope.

Isaiah speaks of death, the stump of a nation, of a dream cut off, destroyed, ended.  But not ended.  Out of that death comes a sprig of life.  Out of that dream denied, comes a new dream, a new hope.  That’s what Advent reminds us.  Not that a festive season and a small celebration is returning once more because the calendar pages have turned; but that hope out of despair is possible, that life out of death is real, that a dream of a way of living that honors God and neighbor both is not only possible, but is within reach.  If we but set aside that which keeps up apart, those differences that make us suspicious of one another, and hold on to the common humanity that makes us so similar.  That’s why we love our neighbor as ourselves, because they are ourselves, just like ourselves.  They may sound different, and look different and act different, but they are us.  And we can learn to trust, even as we choose to be trustworthy.

Now, if I can just get the crazy dog and the grumpy cats to read this, we’ll be on our way.


Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Path to Your Door

“What’s new for Christmas?”  That’s not a question you ask very often.  We don’t want what is new in this season.  We want the familiar, we want the traditional, we want the comfortable.  We want the rituals we’ve performed for year after year, almost forgetting why we do them the way that we do, except that this is how we’ve always done it.  And this time of year, that seems good enough.  Not just good enough, it is the very reason for doing what we do.

In any other part of our lives, at any other time of year we would be bored.  We crave innovation, we want the new, the improved, the latest upgrade, the bells and whistles.  Yesterday’s news isn’t worth the paper it is printed on, or the bandwidth is it occupying.  If it sits at the back of the closet and hasn’t been worn for a while, throw it out.  If it doesn’t match the new decor, toss it away.  If it doesn’t fit with the new you, get rid of it.  And go find something new.

Except at this time of year.  Now the back of the closet is a treasure trove of memories and history.  The corners of the attic hold the magic of time travel, back to a simpler age, back to wonder and amazement, back to when families were peopled with giants and wisdom, back when security was a strong arm holding you up, and comfort and joy were found in laughter around a dinner table.  These dusty old objects that take you back across miles and years, to first Christmases and last ones, to family reconfigured and relocated, to houses occupied and then emptied.  All these memories come tumbling back every time a box is opened and the childish scrawl is read again, or the date recognized.  “That was the year that ...”  You have to tell the story, if only in your own mind as you unpack, or to whomever will listen.  “Remember when we ...” we ask to everyone and no one in particular.  Some of the memories make us smile, some bring a tear to the eye, but they are all precious in their own way.  

We want to go home at this time of year.  Or we want to be home.  Or we long for a taste of home.  We’ve been too long away, too unsettled, too distant and we want to make our way back.  This season calls forth from us a desire to return, to the way it was, at least as we imagined it.  Or to the place where we were most at home, most content, most at peace with ourselves and the world.  That’s why every holiday season we talk about making the journey.  About hitting the road, the trip to Bethlehem, the path to the manger, let us go over and see this thing that the angels have made known to us.  And so they went.

I love that image and have used it many an Advent season.  This year however, it seems to me that Isaiah is asking us to think differently about that journey.  That maybe it isn’t about packing up and getting on the road.  Maybe we aren’t the travelers in this story, at least this time.  Maybe we serve a different function, maybe we are to take a different role in the drama of Advent this year.

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! 

I know what you are thinking.  There is that heading out image again.  Let us go, it says.  So, come on, lets go!  First of all, I’m not arguing for status quo.  For sitting still like righteous bumps on a log.  No, there is motion, there is activity, there is work to be done in Advent.  Even though the keywords are watch and wait, there is plenty to keep us occupied.  Stay with me here.  But I’m asking us to rethink our direction.  Well, Isaiah is, anyway.

Notice the passive tense?  We have trouble with that.  Especially in busy times.  We want to be doing, to be moving, to be deciding.  But all this is not our work.  This mountain raising and nation calling work isn’t ours.  It is God’s It’s going to happen, we can count on that.  In fact that is our job, counting on it.  Holding on to the hope, to the conviction that God is in control. And if you don’t think that takes effort then you haven’t really tried it.  When the world around you has given up on hope, to hold fast is to take a contrary stand.  To say that you believe that there can be such a thing as peace is to make a radical declaration.  To live confidently, that despite all evidence seen with the eyes and heard with the ears, you will trust with your whole life that healing and wholeness is around the corner.

So, why is it so important to hold on to hope?  Why not just be surprised with the rest of the world?  Well, we could say that living in hope is a better way to live.  We could say that a life filled with confidence and joy is much more rewarding and satisfying than one shaped by cynicism and distrust.  

But that isn’t Isaiah’s argument.  Isaiah simply announces that there will come a time when the nations will stream to the mountain of the Lord.  There will come a time when people will want to learn God’s ways and will want to walk in God’s path.  And he says that this will happen because there is teaching happening, there is the Word being proclaimed.  This will happen because there are those who will welcome.  This will happen because there are hosts on the mountain of the Lord.

That’s us.  Company’s coming.  That’s what Isaiah is telling us.  Yes, in part, we know that it is the Word made flesh that comes to dwell among us.  We know that the King is coming.  And we make ready by preparing Him room so that this time He isn’t turned away at the inns of our lives, left to sleep in a feed trough out back where no one but some smelly shepherds and wacko wise guys from out of town drop in on Him.  We know that this is a part of our task this Advent season.  

But Isaiah isn’t satisfied with just that, as important as it is.  There is a world out there hungry to learn, and they just might be beating a path to our door.  There is a world out there dying for justice, and they might be huddled under our awning right now.  There are wanderers who have strayed down so many paths that their feet are sore and their hearts are broken, and they sometimes stumble their way into our hallways and aisles.

Company’s coming, are we ready?  Are we ready to host, to teach about the ways of the Lord, to guide them into paths of right living?  Are we ready to welcome them into the presence of the Lord of life, the Prince of Peace?  Are we ready to love them like he loves them, to embrace them, to connect them, to claim them as brothers and sisters?  This hosting thing isn’t easy.  And there are days when we want to be left alone, when we want everyone to find their own way, follow their own paths.  Yet, holding on to hope means that we have signed up for this duty, for this joy.  Joy?  Well, of course.  Throwing parties is all about joy.  About making others feel welcome, feel wanted.  It is about setting aside our own comforts for the joy of another.  The joy of including.  The joy of growing the family with the one we’ve been waiting for, without even knowing who it was who was coming up the path to our door.

So, how do we do that?  How do we sweep the paths and light the lights so that those who wander near might know that they will find a welcome here?  Isaiah seems to think it is simple.  He switches from the passive to the active at the end of the passage.  He switches from God’s task to our task in one verse.  Come, he says, O house of Jacob, come you who inhabit the family of God, you who serve as hosts on the highest mountain, you who let the teaching flow out and the welcome be all inclusive, come.  Let us walk in the light of the Lord!  In other words, we live our welcome.  We must be the light that we set in the window so that the path to the door can be found!


Saturday, November 25, 2017

When Was It?

The day began with a preparation for a memorial service.  Having come through the Thanksgiving day excess and avoiding the cult of consumerism on black Friday, I now got to preside over a service for a woman who had lived a good long life.  Her sons were grateful for her life, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren said thank you and we’ll miss you.  Friends and neighbors came to say thank you and God bless you.  It was a good time.  

I know that sounds odd to many folks.  Rhys often stumbles over what to say when I head out to do a funeral.  “Have good time,” doesn’t sound quite right.  He’s settled on “I hope it goes well.”  Which is pretty good really.  Except this one was good.  I got to meet some family members I didn’t know, and while there was sadness in the loss, none of them wished her to continue in the frail and declining body she inhabited, and living alone after her beloved husband died was hard too.  So it was good.  Good to celebrate a life and a legacy.  Good to be with family who loved and lived in peace with one another.  

Yesterday my family and I went to see my dad in the facility where he resides.  They recently moved him to a higher level of care.  He was still unsettled by the move, you could tell.  Wasn’t sure why he was there, wondered when he would get to go home, was sure one of his other sons had just been there.  In fact I think he thought it was my brother’s home and he was just there wondering where everyone went.  He just drove there in his little car, he said, and now he’s there.  I told him my brother was coming Saturday.  I know, Dad said, mom told me.  Maybe she did.  If anyone could communicate across the barrier of life and death it would be my mom.  Especially when she had something my dad needed to know.

It’s a hard visit to make, I’ll confess.  Hard to see what he is and remember what he was.  Hard to not be able to give him what he wants, even though what he wants he can’t do any more.  Hard not to find the little thing that will clear his mind,  that will give him peace that seems to elude him these days.  Yet, though it was hard, it was also good.  Good to be there for a while.  To show him two of his grandchildren, one all the way from Boston.  What are you doing there, he asked my daughter.  I live there now, she replied.  Oh, all that way?  Yeah.  

We fussed with things, cleaned up, threw out, piled up stuff he didn’t need in the new room which was a little smaller than the one he left.  I was preoccupied with the stuff, sometimes.  Because stuff is easier to deal with.  But there were moments.  Silent ones sometimes, talking ones sometimes.  Moments where something else was going on.  Something deeper, more significant.  Something good.  I almost missed them, I confess that too.  I was too worried about what was going on to really be present in the moment.  But there were times.  When something ... no, when Someone showed up in the midst of us.

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

The blessing here is the question that is asked of the Lord in glory.  Did you notice the question?  You probably noticed it from the goats.  We’d expect goats to ask such a question.  They are goats after all.  Jesus tells them what they didn’t do, how they neglected Him in His time of great need.  When He was hungry, when He was thirsty.  They didn’t help, they didn’t offer, they didn’t pitch in, or show up.  But they ask, “when was it that we saw you and didn’t help?”  The implication being had they known it was going to be on the test they would have studied.  Had they known those needy ones were someone important they would have jumped up to help out.  

Of course, we expect such goat-ish behavior from the goats.  But then, hang on a minute.  Didn’t their question sound familiar by the time we got to it?  Hadn’t it been asked before?  It was baa baa-ed by the sheep, even before the goats were confronted.  Really?  The sheep didn’t know either?  “When was it that we saw you...?”  What was it?  Tell us.  We must has missed it, we must have missed it in our busyness to help. In our attention to the job at hand, we didn’t realize the gravity of the moment.  We thought we were just helping.  We thought we were just serving.  We didn’t realize that we were worshiping too. 

There are those who don’t like this story.  They are afraid that it might lead to works righteousness.  Which means it might give us the idea that we can earn our place in the Kingdom we long for.  If we do good works, if we labor long and hard, then God will reward us and give us entry into the gates of heaven.  And I have to agree, it does sound like that.  

There are those who go to great lengths to tell us that we can’t earn our salvation, That it comes as a gift from God, by grace through faith.  And that any sense that we can pile up enough good works to earn it is not just misguided it is dangerous, it is heresy.  And this I agree with too.  It is a dangerous mode of thinking that says my fate is in my hands, when in fact it is always in God’s hands.  And God’s hands are big enough to, well, He’s got the whole world in those hands.  Remember?  And we can trust in that.  

So, do we nod and wink at Matthew’s story as misguided somehow?  Or a mystery beyond our understanding?  Because it sounds like works righteousness.  Or it would sound like that, if it weren’t for the question.  When was it that we saw you?  When was it that we were helping you?  When was it that you were present in a difficult moment of caring or a joyous moment of thanksgiving?  When was it?  That question is what keeps this story from being about earning my way into God’s kingdom.  Because evidently the sheep weren’t doing what they were doing in order to get into heaven.  They were doing it because they learned to love somewhere.  They learned to care somewhere.  They learned to give and love and serve somewhere.  They were doing it, in other words because they were already a part of the kingdom.  It was a response to salvation not a means to earn it or be worthy of it.  

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, He gave them two.  Love God and love neighbor.  You can’t, He is saying, separate them.  You can’t love God and not love neighbor, it just doesn’t work that way.  Grace received has to be grace shared, it’s what makes it grace.  Jesus was saying to the sheep, you have shown that you received grace because you lived it out in your everyday life.  So, welcome home.

When was it?  And His answer was “whenever.”  Whenever you did it to them, you did it to me.  Whenever you loved, you loved me.  Whenever you cared, you cared for me.  When it was easy and good, it was easy and good with me.  When it was hard and painful, it was hard and painful with me.  When was it?  Whenever.  He is there.


Saturday, November 18, 2017

As If

A gloomy, rainy Saturday.  I’m sitting here watching the yard fill up with leaves, which are falling mostly from the neighbors’ trees, gosh darn it anyway.  Why can’t leaves just fall straight down?  I’ll take care of my leaves, you take care of yours, how about that?  Huh?  As if.  They are community property, these leaves.  Wherever they land, that’s who has responsibility for them.  We’re in this together.  We could have chosen a neighborhood without trees, or with little scraggly trees that drop a few leaves when they finally get tired of the attempt to be leafy.  Could pick them up by hand almost.  In those neighborhoods.  But not here.  No, here we live in the forest.  In the jungle.  With trees bigger than houses and leaves too many to count, and I live on a corner lot.  A leaf magnet corner lot, it seems.  A week ago we raked for part of a Saturday and bagged up about a billion leaves.  And then I came home Sunday after church and it looked like we hadn’t done a thing!  So now we’re waiting.  Waiting for the rain to stop knocking the leaves off.  Waiting for the trees to drop every last one.  Waiting for a gust of wind, a tornado to come and gather them up with all the sharks and carry them out to sea, or to California or wherever it is that Sharknadoes end up.  Yeah, God dropped all those leaves, let God pick them up!  As if.

Yeah, not going to happen.  I know.  That’s what “as if” means.  It means imagination is all well and good, but it just isn’t going to happen.  We can pretend, we can fool ourselves, we can even hope, but those leaves are at least as patient as I am.  They’ll wait.  We can hope for a freak, lawn clearing wind, or a localized lightning phenomenon that incinerates each leave as it lies in the wet grass and thus doesn’t burn down the house.  But it isn’t going to happen.  As if.  

Jesus told an as if story tucked away in the midst of a lot of other stories, and it has puzzled us to no end.  It seems different than His usual story.  And I wonder if we’ve missed it all these years. If we’ve been emphasizing the wrong things.  Not seeing it as radical as it really is.  As challenging as it really is.  Domesticating the story into something more like worldly wisdom. Do your best with what you have and you’ll get rewarded.  When in fact it was trying to say something much more edgy, much more risky.  I wonder.

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

Yeah, that story.  We know that story.  The parable of the talents, we call it.  And it is one of those interesting linguistic things that the Greek word for the unit of money used in the story has now become our word for abilities, or gifts.  Talent.  Talenta.  It was a large sum of money.  No, larger than that.  Larger than you are thinking.  It was an almost unthinkable sum of money.  Hard to translate into modern amounts.  Most commentators settle for years instead of amount.  It is equivalent, they will calculate, to fifteen years of labor.  If you worked at your job for fifteen years - and didn’t spend any of it - at the end you would have a talent.  Fifteen years.  

You load sixteen tons, what do you get / Another day older and deeper in debt / Saint Peter don't you call me /  'cause I can't go \ I owe my soul to the company store.  My dad loved Tennessee Ernie Ford.  I remember that song.  Fifteen, sixteen, an impossible number when it comes to labor, when it comes to money.  Yet, in the story, here are three slaves (slaves mind you) handed 15, 30 or 75 years worth of wages and told ... Well, what are they told?  Nothing.  Not a thing.  Just handed it before the man skedaddled out of town.  “Here you go boys, a literal ton of money.  Gotta catch a train.”  “Wait.  What?”

Well, we good, industrious sorts look at what happened and the reactions of the man when he returns and say, well this is about working hard.  This is about using what you’ve got.  Don’t sit there like a lump.  Get off your keister and produce.  And that the blessed ones are the ones who make more.  Who get more.  Who have more.  But it’s OK, because, wink wink, it’s not really about money.  It’s about the abilities God has given each of you.  And Paul comes along later and tells us that we are given gifts to be used.  Not to make us better, but to build up the body of Christ.  So, when we work hard, we honor Christ.  So, get out there and use it.  

And you know what?  It works!  It’s a great story about laboring in the fields of the Lord, a story against the sin of sloth, or the selfishness of the one talent slave who was only worried about his own skin, about the concept of stewardship and taking responsibility and being accountable and ultimately about the need to prepare our souls for entry into the Kingdom of God.  That’s what this is all about after all.  It works.  And that’s what 99.9% of the commentaries say this is about.  

And yet.  I, for one, am uneasy about the portrayal of God, or Jesus, in this story.  The Master, the man going on a journey, is depicted as a hard man reaping where he does not sow, gathering where he does not scatter seed.  This sounds like a predatory business person who skirts the edge of ethical business practice to amass this incredible amount of wealth.  And then hands it over, with no instruction, as a test of those he owns.  He gave it to them, in our translation, according to their ability.  But the Greek read that he gave it to them according to their power.  To the power they could wield in the mercenary world, the connections they have, the palms they can grease.  How in the world could they double that enormous amount of money without succumbing to shady business dealings?  Even the instructions to the one talent slave were you should have put it in the bank.  But to a first century Jew, collecting interest was illegal, the sin of usury. 

What if, instead of the usual interpretation, Jesus wanted us to identify with the one talent man?  What if He was saying He was the one talent slave?  Weeping and gnashing of teeth was sometimes used to describe the effect of torture and execution.  What if the blessing of the others was the blessing of a world that values wealth, and the joy of the master for them was to celebrate the spoils of getting one over on the poor who don’t know any better and are just fodder for usurious financial practices?  What if one opened a payday loan business and made the poor poorer by charging incomprehensible interest?  What if one foreclosed on mortgages that were out of the reach of most workers no matter how they tried, thus keeping both property and whatever money had been paid?  What if the honorable route was to choose not to play that game, not to take advantage of your neighbor, to bury the possibilities of becoming rich so as not to hurt anyone, and having to pay the price for your choices?  

This story doesn’t begin with “the kingdom of heaven is like.” It begins with “it was as if.” What is this story is not about the kingdom we long for, but the kingdom we’ve created, like a Frankenstein’s monster and now it is shaping our dreams and running our lives? I don’t know.  Maybe I’m wrong here, and I’m not the first to see it this way, let me hasten to point out.  I didn’t come up with this interpretation.  But it has been troubling me.  So, I thought I’d trouble you too.  And maybe we can go back to our old interpretation and just keep working hard for the kingdom.  That would be easier.  That would be simpler.  That would help us fit into the world we know.  Isn’t that better?  As if. 


Saturday, November 11, 2017

Trimmed and Burning

It was a teaching day today.  I was at the University of Indianapolis most of the day, working with local pastors on their preaching.  One of the bonuses of my new appointment and the house we purchased to live in is that I’m just a few blocks from that campus.  I walked this morning to get to the place where I teach.  Considering I used to have to leave at 6am on a Saturday to get here, that feels like a luxury.  And it was a great walk.  Cold autumnal air, crunching through the leaves that no one in the neighborhood can keep up with right now, though some try harder than others it should be noted.  It’s quiet at that time of a weekend morning.  Time for reflection, time to breathe.  But then catching a scent of that common fall like flavor, burning leaves.  The city says they’ll pick them up if you bag them and put them out, but some folks don’t like to wait.  They pile them up somewhere and burn them.  I didn’t see the ashes and only caught a hint of the haze, but smell was strong.  Despite the air quality issues, it’s not a bad smell, brings back memories of a more innocent age, an annual chore, a family moment.  

Fire fascinates me, I confess.  The bulk of our vacation experiences growing up was camping out in the wilds of somewhere, and a highlight of those trips was the late night sitting around the fire, cooking and toasting marshmallows, keeping warm, staring into the ever changing shapes and sounds of a crackling flame, being together, telling stories, singing songs.  The fire drew us together, kept us safe and gave us a sense of place in the dark and sometimes scary world around us.  Yet, care had to be taken with that fire, it had to be tended, it couldn’t just be set free to run and spread and turn into a destructive force.  You had to tend it, care for it, feed it and control it.  

Keep your lamps trimmed and burning is a Spiritual from the text we’re reading this weekend.  Like most spirituals it has an uncertain history, but it certainly can be traced back through various blues singers and recordings into the slave experience where is was used as a work song, but also a way of hoping for something better.  It was a flame around which an oppressed community gathered to keep their spirits warm and have a sense of place in a dark and scary world of pain and suffering.  A simple song, sung by workers able to keep their minds on their task and yet be transported into another reality, another kingdom.  Keep your lamps trimmed and burning / keep your lamps trimmed and burning / keep your lamps trimmed and burning / See what the Lord has done.

Actually there is some divergence on that last line.  The oldest recording of the song ends with “See what the Lord has done.”  It was sung by Blind Willie Johnson, a popular blues singer of the early 20th century.  His plaintive tenor voice seemed to be calling us to pay attention to what God is doing among us every moment of the day.  It was a call to keep awake, as Jesus tells us.  But not simply for what is not yet here, but what surrounds us already.  

A few years later, the Rev. Gary Davis, another blues singer/preacher, recorded the song and changed the last line to “for the world’s about to end.”  Rev. Gary was singing a warning about the coming kingdom, that the promised return of our Lord is on the horizon.  He wanted to remind us that what we see and what we experience, for good or for ill, is not all there is.  There is more, something more, another world, another reality into which we lean, even as we live and work in this reality.  There is a destination to our history, a culmination of all that we are becoming.  It doesn’t have to be a threat, it could be a promise, a hope.  One can imagine the slave singing of another world knowing that the scars he bore did not define him, the chains he wore was not the shape of his life, the name he was given to live in the white man’s world was the name written in the book of life for him.  And one day, one blessed day, the tears will end and life, promised abundant life, will begin.

But some of the oldest reports of this song being sung in the fields have yet another ending to the verse.  Keep your lamps trimmed and burning / for the work is almost done.  The work.  Or sometimes your work.  Your work is almost done.  Soon I can lay down this hoe, soon I can set aside this shovel, lay down my pen, and enter into the blessed rest of the savior.  Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.  

Matthew 25:1-13 "Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, 'Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' 9 But the wise replied, 'No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.' 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.' 12 But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I do not know you.' 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Sometimes I think Jesus tells a story just to confuse us.  It’s like He wants us to work on something, to work out something.  We’d rather He’d just hand it out on a silver platter, wrapped up in an easily opened package that makes things easy for us.  But no, a story, about ... what?  Weddings and lamps and oil and an odd celebration of selfishness.  Something is not right here.

Of all the images Jesus uses to help us grab hold of the kingdom of God, or of heaven, which is Matthew’s preference, this is the only one where the future tense is used.  The kingdom will be like this.  Why is that?  Aren’t the others future oriented too?  Well, yes, and no.  There is something unique about this one.  Perhaps if we heard entering the kingdom of heaven will be like this we might understand the whole story a little bit better.  The approach of the Kingdom of Heaven will be like this.  

Jesus loved weddings, He used the image for talking about the kingdom often.  Parties and feasts and especially weddings.  Because something special is happening there, a binding, a connecting, a covenant and a vow.  And a whopping great party.  What better description is there for this new world, this new life?  A party of inclusion and invitation.  Y’all come.  Right?  

Why then the lamps?  Why then wise and foolish?  And aren’t we supposed to share, even when we don’t have enough ourselves?  Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?  Why do we call the ones who won’t share wise?  OK, every metaphor has it’s limits.  Or rather we’re victims of crashing metaphors in this story.  Go back to the Sermon on the Mount, on the other end of Matthew’s gospel.  You are the light of the world, so let your light so shine before others that they may see your light and give glory to God.  Remember?  The light, the lamp, is not just an object of illumination, but it represents a life of service and sacrifice.  It represents a life transformed by faith in Jesus, by the grace of God.  The wise bridesmaids lived a life of preparing for the Bridegroom; the foolish ones thought it didn’t matter until the last minute. When He finally arrives, they have nothing to show that they belong to Him, nothing to shine as a way of living and giving and caring and hoping.  He says, I don’t know you.  

Remember, unlike the Sermon on the Mount which is for everyone, this is insider talk here in Chapter 25.  This is the sign that you’ve been paying attention.  This is for those who said yes some time ago and now they need to show a yes worthy life.  The wise bridesmaids didn’t share their oil because they couldn’t.  You can’t share acts of love.  Each has to do their own.  Each has to participate according to the grace given them, to use the gifts they have received.  I can’t ride your coattails into the kingdom, you can’t let my lamp light your way.  That’s just not how it works.  Sure we can share, sure we can teach and mentor and sure we are better together than any of us are alone.  But in the end, we have to trim our own lamps, we have to burn our own oil.  That’s the work.  The work that is almost done.  Keep your lamps trimmed and burning / the work is almost done.  Thanks be to God.   


Saturday, November 4, 2017


It’s time to go.  You’ve heard that a few times in your life, I know.  Said it many times too.  Go.  Let’s go.  Can we go?  Ready to go?  Questions, statements, promises, pleading - Go has lots of moods, lots of attitudes.  It’s hard to deny the excitement inherent in Go.  It just drips with possibility and with newness.  Go into a new world, a new reality, a new way of being.  Who could say no to Go?  The horizons are calling and the world is yours.  Just go.  Go and see, go and live, go and be.  A new chapter is a new beginning, but also a continuation of the story so far.  Go!  Of course we want to go.

But.  There is the other side of Go.  In order to go you have to leave.  To move toward a new tomorrow is sometimes to leave a comfortable – or even not so comfortable, but maybe familiar – yesterday.  To embrace the call to go is to turn your back on stay.  It is to leave behind those who have become family, even as you stride into an uncertain hope, a possible joy.

We stand on a mountain with the remaining disciples, as they wait for whatever might be coming next.  Mountains in the Bible are more than simply geologic formations.  They are theological signposts.  Something significant is going to happen.  You can tell.  There’s a mountain.  It’s a dead giveaway.  Or rather a living one.  Mountains are alive (thank you Rogers and Hammerstein by way of Julie Andrews), but not just with the sound of music.  No, mountains are alive with the Presence and Power of God.  Standing on this mountain, the lives of all of the disciples was about to change forever.  In fact the whole world was about to change forever.  Not that they knew that in that moment.  All they knew is that they heard that word: Go. 

Matthew 28:16-20 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

I’m only reading the last couple of verses in worship, so we can get right to the Go.  But here, I’ll back up and include some of the prelude to Jesus’s command.  There’s some very important information in these extra verses.  We want to get right to the crux of it, to the Go, the Great Commission.  And that’s certainly understandable.  That’s where the work is, that’s where the call is.  We are a part of a denomination that takes as its mission understanding that we are to be Making Disciples for Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.  And we say it like that, with capitals and emphases.  You can hear it in how we say it.  We say it with fervor, with passion, we say it, let’s admit it, with a bit of desperation.  We’re losing our grip on what we have been, and uncertain about what we will become.  So we cling tightly to the Great Commission for the salvation of the church, of the denomination.  And we hold it so tightly we squeeze the life out of it.  It has become our weapon, our bludgeon to force a resurrection of the churches we were once upon a time, in our memory if not in fact.  

It comes down, I believe, to how we hear the word Go.  All authority has been given to me, says Jesus, to drive His point home.  To sear it into their souls, so that they would bow to the King, and scuttle out of the mountainous throne room ready to do His bidding by hook or by crook.  Go.  Make disciples!  Whether they want to be made or not.  Baptize them, even if you have to hold them under the water until they stop squirming, get them in, get them done.  Then teach them to obey.  Obey.  Put them in their place.  Under the thumb, under the heel.  Make them good, make them pure, make them right when all they seem to want is wrong.  Get ‘er done!

You’re squirming as you read those words, aren’t you?  I hope so.  I was squirming as I wrote them.  But the truth is that is the attitude of many in the faith historically and today.  The Great Commission is license to hate, to wield the sword, to put down, look down, come down on those who don’t measure up.  Go, run over the world until you’ve made it into the image that is palatable to Me!  And if some get hurt in the process, well, better that than to miss the urgency of the call to Go.  It’s in there, they say.  That steel, that iron, don’t mess with God.  All authority has been given to me.  There is no other way.  So, you’d better shape up.  Get in line.  And if you don’t have the right credentials, we don’t want you, we won’t let you in.  Go.

Matthew says, with what sounds like a certain amount of sad honesty, that it was eleven disciples that gathered on that mountain.  Did you notice.  Maybe he hoped you wouldn’t.  Eleven.  They were broken.  Incomplete.  One of them turned, betrayed them, threw it all back in their faces and pushed to make something happen that wasn’t going to happen, or pulled down the curtains to reveal the smoke and mirrors of the whole enterprise.  At least that must have been what he thought.  Oh, I know, John says it was the enemy.  That he was infected, diseased.  Can’t blame him, he was a cancer that was cut out.  Let’s point the finger and let him take the blame.  It absolves us.  Our betrayal can remain hidden that way.  Our weaknesses, our failings pale before his.  

But Matthew doesn’t seem interested in blame, just in truth.  Eleven disciples gathered on that mountain.  Carrying their wounds, their failures, their disappointment and their fears.  Even when Jesus appeared, he says, that they worshiped but some doubted.  Really?  The resurrected Christ, stood before them, about to ascend into heaven and take His place at the right hand of Almighty God.  And some doubted?  Still?  On the mountain?

We aren’t told what they doubted.  Him?  Themselves?  The mission that was about to be handed to them like a hot coal from a fire?  All the above or something else entirely.  Who knows?  We don’t.  Except that we do.  Because we have them too.  Those doubts.  That sense of inadequacy.  That feeling that maybe we shouldn’t force someone else to believe what isn’t within them to believe.  That maybe we should just keep it to ourselves, this faith thing.  Keep it quiet, don’t make waves, don’t disturb the neighbors.  Live and let live.  That’s a better motto.  Better than Go anyway.

But then, maybe we’ve got the tone wrong.  Maybe it isn’t about triumphalism.  But about joy.  Not about being right, but about being whole.  Maybe Jesus meant that all that happen has just shown that His way, His life, His parabolic teaching was indeed a better way to be, and that if we were thinking right we couldn’t keep it to ourselves if we tried.  It will leak out of us as we live in the world as fully alive human beings.  So, says Jesus, live intentionally.  Live outwardly.   When He says “make disciples” he doesn’t imagine a anvil upon which we pound them into shape.  Instead, He imagines a relationship.  He says, Go spend time with people, value them, learn from them, know them, help them, tell them what makes you the fully alive person that you are.  It isn’t a course you take and get a diploma, it’s a way of living that we are always growing into.  Make disciples as you are being made into a disciple.  

Baptize them.  That sounds formal, ritual, joining up, signing on the line, right?  Well, sure.  But maybe more.  Baptism means cleansing.  Washing.  Maybe he meant less of a rite of the church and more of a process of being made clean, peeling off the understandings of a self-centered culture, scraping away the stuff centric life, and immersing yourself in the Creator God, the Redeemer Christ and the Sustainer Spirit.  Give them something else, Jesus was saying, to live by, to be defined by.  Give them Me, He said with that trademark thousand watt smile.  And teach.  Oh yes.  Teach them obedience.  Not by breaking their will, though, not by beatings and repetitions, but by passion and joy and encouragement.   

Go, He said, to them and to us.  Go.  And trust that He knows how hard that is.  That to Go forward is to leave something behind.  That to accept the call to Go is to live with uncertainty and a sense of what if and why not.  It is to embrace the goodness of God in spite of those doubts.  Trusting that new place, the new world is a mountain of potential and power and the Presence of God.  And maybe the real call is to live into Go rather than to jump and run to meet some deadline, some quota.  Having known failure, Go is harder to hear.  Harder, but not impossible. Because with God all things are possible.  Even Go.


Friday, October 27, 2017

Treasuring the Treasure

I’m on the road again this weekend.  Heading back to Fort Wayne to participate in a wedding.  One of those grand celebrations of life and love and covenant and commitment.  Though I trust these friends and this family to do a good job of keeping things in perspective, weddings are often over the top in terms of expense and glitz and indulgence and all out craziness.  Luckily most of it is reserved for the reception and the weddings themselves are quieter and simpler affairs.  But the stops are all pulled out for the reception, and for getting to the reception.  Which seems backward to me.

I’m just helping to preside on this one, but the bride and her family are friends of ours and I was honored to be asked.  But the groom’s father is a pastor and he has the central role.  If I was preaching at this wedding, however, I would probably want to talk about the treasure.  It’s my favorite wedding sermon.  It’s from Matthew 13, a parable that Jesus tells, hoping to help us grasp this kingdom of heaven thing, which is frankly beyond us.  But He keeps trying, keeps giving us glimpses and hints and pointers.  And we think we get it, but then realize we don’t.  We catch a glimpse of it, out of the corner of our eyes, but when we try to focus on it, when we try to figure it out, it escapes us again.  So a treasure, He says, a treasure we stumble upon.  And then give up everything to have it.  Everything else.  Everything that keeps us from that treasure.  Which is why I like it for a wedding sermon.  Where better can we talk about treasuring, and about giving up everything for the treasure? 

We are not getting married, however.  We are continuing our journey along our discipleship path.  We began with Connect, we reflected on Serve, we listened to Grow and now we’re dwelling on Give.  Again.  As if it were important.  More important than the others?  No, certainly not.  All are equally important.  But maybe this is the one we struggle with the most.  Maybe this is the one we resist the most.  So, we need to spend a little more time with Give.  And with treasures.  But here’s our question: what treasures do we seek?  Is the hidden treasure something we can hold in our hands?  Is it stuff, even good stuff, helpful stuff, stuff we can use, but still stuff?  Or ... what?

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.  The giving.  

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.

Maybe that’s what Malachi meant.  Remember him?  Old Testament guy.  The last word in fact.  The final book.  Matthew is the first book of the New Testament, Malachi is the last book of the Old.  He talked about giving.  Went on a bit of a rant, really.  Says when you don’t give, you’re robbing God.  It’s all God’s anyway, when you keep it to yourself, you hoarder, you’re robbing God.  He wags that bony, prophetic finger with some passion.  He scowls, he spits, he nearly swears, he’s so worked up.  Read it for yourself, halfway through chapter three.  He starts by saying a reckoning is coming, a messenger of God bringing fire, bringing soap.  This messenger is going to burn you clean, going to wash you raw.  Because, he says, you’re robbing God.  But then he comes out with this little tidbit, right in the middle of his rant:

Malachi 3:10 Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.

Overflowing blessing.  We get stuff?  We God robbers?  That’s how so many have interpreted it.  God will fill your pockets, your storehouses, your room of requirement.  Right?  Maybe.  But then maybe not.  Maybe it isn’t stuff.  Maybe it is the blessing of giving.  Maybe it is the joy of service, of surrender.  Maybe the blessings that overflow are like treasures in heaven, the relationships, the covenants, the love shared that fills us up so that we can’t hold any more.  Maybe the more we let go of stuff, the more we know blessings.  God’s blessings, overflowing over us, into us.  

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?

So join me in wishing Kali and Jonathan well this weekend.  They found a treasure that they will give everything to possess.  May we all be so blessed. 


Friday, October 20, 2017

Rendering the Ministry

One of the things I’ve discovered recently is how much we depend on the ministry team around here.  Our staff is somewhat depleted because of vacations and maternity leave.  The hard truth is we’re getting everything done that needs to be done, but there isn’t any flair to it.  Flair?  No, more like style.  Or more like making sure all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed.  We’re getting the bare bones done, but there is plenty left undone. And there are certainly things falling through the cracks that others on the team would have caught easily.  We missed a surgery call and a visitation opportunity.  And just this morning I went to staff prayers at the usual time and it was just me.  

The staff gathers every morning at 8:30am, just before things get really started - though stuff starts around here a lot earlier than that, I must say.  What with the preschool opening and part of the staff being morning people, we’re interrupting the day to stop at 8:30am.  Me, I’m just getting here by then.  Call me at midnight or even after and I’ll be ready to go.  But morning? ... Anyway, I love that I came into a staff that already functions well, and one sign is that we gather in the morning for prayer together.  And we’re never rushed with it, as least most of us.  We chat about all kinds of things.  It’s really a check in meeting, seeing what’s on the schedule and what’s going on that we’re aware of and a “how you doin’” meeting too.  But one of those we check in with is God.  We pray for the work of the day, for the state of the world, for the congregation in all it’s various needs and manifestations for the day.  I love it, frankly.  Love the feeling that we’re a team and God’s an active part of the team, not the silent partner we rarely hear from.  

Still it was a bit lonely this morning.  I went and sat in the worship center, like we do each day, and I listened.  And I thought.  And I prayed.  And part of what I prayed is how grateful I am that I’m not in this alone.  That there are other hearts at work here, that there are other minds making plans and arranging ministry, that there are other souls listening to God and holding up the congregation and the wider community too.  It is amazing to me how much better all kinds of things go when we share the load, or share the work and the joys both.  We live in an individualized culture, where the focus is way too much on me and my needs and my gifts and my choices.  And yet we all know that in community is a much more effective, productive, enjoyable way to live and work.  It is certainly the only way to do ministry.

2 Corinthians 9:6-12  The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9 As it is written, "He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever." 10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.

It’s the “rendering of this ministry” that we’re focusing on this weekend here at Southport.  We’re venturing into the murky corners of the discipleship path.  Murky?  Yeah, you know, that Give word.  Ah.  We’re good with Connect - it sounds fun and social and uplifting.  Serve sounds useful and productive.  Grow sounds beneficial and enhancing of mind and spirit.  Even Go sounds energizing and enthusiastic.  But Give?  Give sounds ... necessary, of course.  And ... administrative, and ... painful.  Give til it hurts.  We’ve heard that.  We avoid that, but we’ve heard it.  Giving is something we avoid.  Here’s a little social experiment for you – pay attention to the commercials you see over the course of a week.  How many times do you see someone handing over money to pay for the items that they are receiving?  Advertisers avoid that part of the transaction.  And if they do have talk about cost, they’ll emphasize how little it is, or how much you’ll save, or how it’s less than it used to be.  We don’t like to talk about paying, about giving.  We’re a receiving oriented culture.  Not a giving one.  

Oh, I know there is all kinds of evidence to the contrary, that we are willing to give, for a crisis.  For a one off.  Floods that come, hurricanes that blow, fires that burn, families that grieve, we’ll jump up and be willing to give for that.  And we should.  And let’s celebrate our generosity in the moment.  That hearts can be stirred and hands can reach out and pockets emptied in the moment.  Praise God we are still aware enough to do that.

But Give on our discipleship path is not a one off, not a heartfelt response to a obvious need.  Instead it is a way of life.  A generosity of Spirit that allows us to hold our possessions as though they were in trust from another.  To hold even our own lives as though they were the property of a Presence beyond us.  Giving includes, of course, more than simply money.  There is the giving of time and talent, the giving of labor and companionship.  There is the giving of attention.  In our attention deficit world, giving attention to someone is a precious gift.  Give includes more than just money.  Though it also includes money.

Paul was taking a collection.  Doing a little fund-raising as he ran around setting up faith communities.  The collection was for the “mother church” back in Jerusalem, which had fallen on tough times and was needing support from the younger and stronger communities in the wider world.  Paul believed in this cause, and we could psychoanalyze his reasons for it - the Jerusalem council had given him heck for his crazy ideas about spreading the faith and including those formerly thought unworthy of this gift.  So maybe he was trying to show the validity of his calling by sending back support to the home church.  Maybe he was showing they were wrong and his methods are more productive than theirs.  Who knows?  But he used all the fund-raising tricks to get the new churches to pay up.  Don’t let someone else’s generosity show up yours, he told them.  He played on their emotions about the source of their new found faith being birthed in the mother church.  In this letter he is telling them that their first efforts at raising the funds in I Corinthians wasn’t enough, thus II Corinthians!  Like the pastors that lock the sanctuary doors and take up a second offering.  No one is leaving until we get enough!

He tells them that they are already behind in the giving department.  No, not the other churches that are doing more, giving more.  But the God who calls them to give, has already out-given them.  Out-given all of us, we’re behind before we’ve even started.  We’re in debt before we get our wallets out.  But, and this is the blessing in this, we don’t give out of a sense of duty and obligation.  We give willingly, we give cheerfully.  Cheerfully?  Is such a thing possible?

Well, yes of course, say some.  Because in giving we get.  You will be enriched in every way, writes Paul, for your great generosity.  Enriched in every way.  Of all the things that Paul says that potentially and can be often are taken the wrong way, this is one of the worst.  If I was Paul’s editor I would have sent this bit back for a rewrite.  “You know, Paul” I would say in my best editorial voice, “you say this and folks are going to come up with the most outlandish interpretations of the phrase.”  “Outlandish?” Paul would ask scratching his bald head, “what you mean outlandish?”  “Well, they’re going to say that you meant if folks send in their hard earned cash, then God would make money miraculously appear!  They will say that God wants you to be rich, and that if you’re poor it’s because your life isn’t right with God.  They will send junk through the mail to get people to give and they’ll put that junk in their wallets or on their mantles or hold it in their hot little hands and say the Jesus prayer and zip zap money will appear like magic.  That’s what they’ll say.”  And Paul would stand with his mouth hanging open and say, “no way would any one stoop to that kind of level.”  Oh yes they would, I’d reply.  And he’d say “give me an eraser.” 

We give cheerfully because we are participating in something bigger than ourselves.  We are joining in a fellowship that ripples out and changes the world in which we live.  We are rendering the ministry that cares for the saints and gives glory to God.  We are becoming a part of the team.  A world wide team, that understands we need each other in order to do the ministry before us.  Giving reminds us that all that we have is a gift from God and life itself is a gift to be given away as a way to lift up others and glorify God.  

Give is an essential part of the path of becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ.  And part of what I intend to give more of is gratitude for those who work alongside me in ministry.  Should they ever come back.  Please let them come back!