Saturday, December 22, 2018

Longing for Ephrathah

Micah 5:2-5a But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. 3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. 4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; 5 and he shall be the one of peace. 

Micah doesn’t like being a minor prophet.  He hates the designation, has a size complex, wishes he was earlier in the Old Testament, rubbing shoulders with the big boys, Isaiah and Jeremiah, the ones who wrote so much that people are convinced they were three or four guys, Isaiah and sons incorporated or something.  But instead Micah  has to hang out with Obadiah and Nahum and Habakkuk and that goofball Jonah, no wonder no one takes him seriously.  Just seven short chapters, verse counts in the teens instead of the twenties or thirties like those other guys.  It’s not that he didn’t have anything to say, it’s just that he got to the point.  He didn’t like beating around the bush, hinting at his subject.  He just told it like it is.  “The Lord’s coming and the mountains will melt” he said, “the valleys will burst open and run like wax near the fire, like waters poured down a steep place.”  A steep place?  Best you can do Micah?  Yeah, well, the mountains melted, remember?!  That’s just chapter one.  Goes downhill from there, pardon the pun.

And it’s not that he’s just an old curmudgeon either.  He’s got one of those beautiful images, Beating swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.  Beautiful, but wait, wasn’t that from Isaiah?  Micah swears under his breath, stole it from me, he mumbles.  And Isaiah left out the part about sitting under the vines and the fig trees and no one will make them afraid.  But no, everyone thinks it was that fancy schmanzy Isaiah who’s the real poet, the real songwriter, instead of him.  Micah wishes someone had invented plagiarism during his time. 

Then maybe he’d get credit for remembering that Bethlehem had two names.  He blamed that preacher, Philips Brooks, who couldn’t get the full name to fit in the song so just dropped off the Ephrathah part.  But at least he got the little town part right.  O little town of Bethlehem Ephrathah.  It could have worked.  Then everyone wouldn’t snicker at Micah, who they think got it wrong.  But no, it was real.  Oh, some think Ephrathah referred to the region, that’s why the translators wrote “Bethlehem of Ephrathah.”  But it was definitely, Micah mutters, the name of the town.  The little town.  The minor town.  The good for nothing much kind of town, like a prophet stuck away in the back of the Old Testament.  And yet, God can use you.  Even you.  Bethlehem - which everyone knows is translated as house of bread.  But did you know it was sometimes translated as house of war?  It’s like there’s a choice to be made.  Feed or kill.  Tend or destroy.  And Ephrathah translates as fruitful. Except that sometimes it meant barren or worthless.  The little town of worthless war or the little town of fruitful bread.  Think about that will ya!  Isaiah won’t tell you that, will he?  No indeed.  Isaiah won’t tell you that the One who comes, will stand strong like one who is going to war, but instead will feed His flock like a shepherd.  He’ll be more concerned with fruitfulness than with the emptiness of death and killing. And through Him we’ll know peace, and will sit secure.  

And because of that security, because of trusting in that peace, even in warlike times, even in unsettled time, being fed the bread of fruitfulness, we can do amazing things.  Incredible things, unimaginable things.  Like saying yes to a fruitfulness almost incomprehensible in our world.  Like when an angel appears in your living room and asks if you’d be willing to give birth to God.

Now that, smiles Micah to himself, is something for us little ones, us minor ones to celebrate.  God chooses a no place like Bethlehem Ephrathah to be a significant some place.   God chooses a nobody to be a significant somebody who the whole world knows.  A young woman, a little girl really from a backwater town like B-E.  Mary is her name.  Even her name is common.  How many Marys do you know?  Thousands.  Not a fancy name like Cleopatra or Jezebel, just plain old Mary.  Ordinary young Mary.  Except she isn’t.  Ordinary or plain.  She is as beautiful as all of creation.  She is as exceptional as each of those who are made in God’s image. And made even more exceptional, even more beautiful by her obedience to the invitation from God.  Her acceptance of the gift and the calling and the joy that is planted deep within her.  And so she runs through the hill country, the region of Ephrathah, the place of fruitfulness because she is a part of the fruitfulness of God.  She runs to share the joy.  She runs to be in relationship.  She runs.

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

“Blessed is the fruit,” says Elizabeth, from her own fecundity.  She who was called barren, worthless, that’s what the angelic visitor told Mary.  That’s how s/he described Elizabeth.  Ephrathah.  Fruitful and barren, opposites contained in one place, one being.  Elizabeth is one of the beautiful ones, one of the exceptional ones who said yes, who said thank God, who said let this joy be to me.  Just like Mary.  No wonder she ran to be with Elizabeth.  Luke says she stayed there three months.  Three months.  Long enough to see the impossible birth come to be possible.  Long enough to hear the naming.  Long enough to feel the blessing.  Long enough to breathe the fruitfulness of God.  
Do we sometimes give up too soon?  Despair too soon?  Feel inadequate, insignificant too long.  Unable to wait for blessing, for fruitfulness?  And you O Bethlehem Ephrathah one of the little clans, one of the nothing places, where the bypass passes by and the vibrancy wanes and the lights dim to shine on other towns far away.  And you O little person of your place who feels like life has passed you by and like no one knows or cares if you even are.  From you shall come ... what?  Something.  Something beautiful, something exceptional.  Maybe it already has taken root within you, maybe it is bursting forth from you even now.  Maybe it is a love that shines like a star that draws someone from a far place.  Maybe it is a grace that blesses those around you in ways that just might surprise you if you stopped long enough to see.  Maybe it is a wisdom that someone longs for, someone needs to work around an obstacle in their lives.  Maybe it is a friendship that saves, literally saves a life.  What’s within you that makes the children of God leap for joy upon hearing your voice?  What are you giving birth to even now as you make your way in the world of today?

The all too human tragedy is feeling that we are worthless, we are barren, when God has placed within us a fruitfulness that would stagger our own imagination, let alone the imagination of those around us.  Especially those who thought us small, insignificant.  The call of the prophets prefigures the call of the One who comes to love us with a fierce and frightening passion, a transforming Presence and healing grace.  The prophets rage because they carry the wounds of a hurting world.  Almost as profoundly as the One who felt the sharp tips of the straw in a manger as harshly as the nails on a cross.  

Micah stirs from under his fig tree and wipes away a non-existent tear from his eye, one he’ll gruffly deny ever shedding, even as he straightens his mantle and shuffles off to see what Obadiah and Nahum are up to.  He’ll let Habakkuk deal the next hand and pray that Jonah doesn’t serve sushi again.  Maybe it’s not so bad being a minor prophet.  When you’re not wrapped up in so much editing, there’s time to hope.  And maybe this time, he can get the gang to sing his rewrite of “O Little Town.”  Merry Christmas, he smiles to himself and to the world he still loves. 


Saturday, December 15, 2018

Drawing the Waters of Joy

It’s raining here.  Cold, damp, constant drizzle that turns into rain and then back again.  Not conducive to much production, though La Donna is puttering around putting the finishing touches to Christmas.  Ten days to go and we just might be kind of almost nearly ready.  No, wait, there is still the guest room, that will need to become Maddie’s room next weekend.  It still looks like a work in progress, not far enough along to tell what it is going to be yet, but clearly something major is happening in there.  

The gray skies and weeping clouds put a damper on the holiday busyness.  The lights seem swallowed up by the pale glare of the day, as if they can’t quite pierce the gloom.  The greenery festooned with red ribbon hanging on the fence is dull and dampened by the persistent rain.  And yet.  That’s the power of Christmas.  Of Incarnation.  Of God with us.  There is always an “and yet.”  

Dreary it may be, and yet there is joy.  Underneath and back behind, there is joy.  Persistent, transforming, sustaining joy.  Christmas isn’t really about seasonal joy.  It isn’t about extravagant commercial excesses either.  At it’s best it is a reminder of the joy that is ours always, a shot in the arm to our flagging spirits, or a kick in the pants to our bored complacency.  At least it would be a kick in the pants if John had his way.

John was a pants kicker from the start.  He did a high kick in Elizabeth’s womb when he heard Mary’s voice through the waters in which he swam.  And he came out kicking, I’m sure.  Kicked himself out of the house as soon at it was possible.  Kicked it out in the desert, kicked over bee’s hives to get the wild honey, kicked a tree full of locusts for snacks to munch while he wandered around shouting at rocks and stones.  Kicked a camel’s carcass for a coat to wear.  Then decided it was time to kick some sense into the people of God down by the riverside.

Luke 3:7-18 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." 10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" 11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" 13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." 14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages." 15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

I don’t know about you, but I always smile a little bit at verse 18.  “With many other exhortation, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”  Really?  There were more?  More exhortations?  What else did he say, what else did he kick?  And, good news?  This doesn’t sound like good news.  This sounds oppressive, finger pointing, name-calling, White House tweet level pain.  How in the world can we say he proclaimed the good news?  Except that he did.  

That’s the problem with good news.  For the good news to be good news it first has to be bad news.  John understood that.  John majored in that.  Was a PhD level intellect in that needing the bad news to hear the good news thing.  So, he let them have it.  Poured it over them, like the water he splashed into their faces, shouting at them to wake up.  Asked them to question their own motives.  “What brings you here? You snakelets, still sucking on your egg tooth used to crack your way out of your shell.  Still wet behind the ears, if snakes had ears.  You don’t know what you’re doing.  Mostly because you ain’t doing nuthing!  Except looking out for yourselves.  You think you’re special, you’re nothing, you’re rocks in my shoe, stones I stub my toe on!  You’re mulch, grass cuttings we leave to be picked up with the garbage!”

Chill out John.  Please?  Actually, they didn’t ask him to chill out.  They asked him, in a panic, “what then should we do?”  And the panic was because they were afraid he was going to say, “run like hell!”  Or he would say, “you’re out of luck, bucko, bend down and kiss the grass goodbye!”  So, they asked with fear and trembling.  But he didn’t.  He didn’t snarl or sneer.  He didn’t tell them it was too late.  So, when he answered in a way that made sense, then groups of them came forward.  What should we do, they asked in tag team fashion.  What about us?  Yeah, they echoed all along the river bank, what can we do?  Tax collectors and soldiers, asked him.  Athletes and film stars, politicians and truck drivers, biker gangs and refugees, they all came in ones or dozens and asked him: What then should we do?”  And he had an answer. 

Bear fruit.  No, not those kinds of bears.  Bear as in carry, as in show, as in live.  That was his answer live!  What should we do?  Live.  But live rightly.  Live, he told the soldiers, for justice.  Don’t abuse your power, don’t threaten to get your way, to scare or coerce.  And learn contentment, for heaven’s sake.  Don’t keep wanting more and more and more.  To the tax collectors, called by some the enemy of the people, he said live for mercy.  Don’t take more than the people can stand, more than you are supposed to take.  Don’t rob, don’t steal, don’t wound with the stroke of your red pen.  Care about the people over whom you have authority.  To the crowd thronging the banks of the water he said “Live!  Live in generosity, live in community, live as though you belonged to each other, because you do.  Live as though you are responsible for one another, because you are!”

Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Worthy?  As in earning it?  If I do right I’ll get what I deserve?  No.  No, no, a thousand times no.  Bear fruit because you have repented.  Because you have turned around and are now walking a new direction.  Because you now know life and want to share it because this life you have claimed, this joy from which you have drunk, is not meant to be kept inside, to be kept quiet.  You’ve got to share it.  You’ve got to shout it.  You’ve got to sing it.  Isaiah says so.

Isaiah 12:2-6 Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. 3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. 4 And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. 5 Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. 6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

With joy you will draw water.  A daily task, mundane, necessary, one of many.  Yet, there is a joy in it.  Drawing water is about life.  About living.  And sustaining.  About cleansing, and making new, dying and being reborn.  I baptize you with water John says.  So you can start over.  So you can repent.  So you can not be afraid and give thanks to the Lord.  For life.  For water.  For even a gray rainy and dreary day that vibrates with Christmas presence.  

But only if you pay attention.  That’s the key.  Only if you listen deeply.  Then you can hear the raindrops singing praise as they patter across the leaves in the yard.  Only if you look closely.  Then you can see the light that proclaims presence even on the palest of days.  Only if you live fully.  Then you can taste salvation in the sweetness of the water that flows so freely.  We are called, by John and Isaiah both, to be present in our worship and our living – even as we realize that worship is living and that to live is to worship.

Come, let us adore Him.  Fully present as we do.  Fully alive, as we drink with joy the waters of salvation.


Saturday, December 8, 2018

Who's Gonna Clean This Mess?

I’m just home from Jubilee Christmas at Southport UMC.  It is a glorious morning, involving a lot of work on the part of a lot of people.  Over twenty families from our wider community will have a Christmas to remember because of the generosity and care and hard work of the congregation at Southport.  But it wasn’t just a hand out gifts kind of exercise, it was a make relationships, get to know the folks, go shopping with them, and today the parents or grandparents or guardians were brought in to wrap all the gifts that they’ll be able to give to their children on Christmas morning.  And they carried it all out, along with baskets of food and household items to help enhance the season.  But more than all that, they go out with a new friend, a support, a community if they choose to lean into it, choose to hold on to it.  It’s a great day and I’m proud to be pastor of such caring and hardworking folk.  But truth be told.  It makes a mess.  

Wrapping paper, cookie napkins, boxes and bags and stuff everywhere.  It’s a mess.  Let’s be honest.  A good mess, a seasonal mess.  But still a mess. The mess we’ve made of our house pulling out the decorations as we get ready for another season of celebration.  Not the usual mess, not the hey we actually live here mess, but a new mess, a mess that sometimes makes you wonder if you should bother.  We’ll never get it clean enough, organized enough, oriented enough to satisfy the one who matters.  

 “Mom clean” was our phrase, our standard by which effectiveness of the cleaning moment will be judged.  When the kids would clean their room, they’d clean it to their own satisfaction.  Which is a long way from Mom’s satisfaction.  Truth be told, it is probably a long way from the Board of Health’s satisfaction, but we’ve never really called them in.  

“Mom clean” means that Mom will go in after the cleaning has been done and pass judgement.  Is it good enough?  Is it clean enough? They could spend hours, a whole day cleaning their rooms, but then when Mom says, I’m coming to check, they’ll scurry around, or barricade the door or come up with a hundred reasons why Mom shouldn’t come in.  Or with a hundred protestations as to why clean from their perspective is clean enough.  “No one needs it that clean!” they would claim.  “You’re unreasonable!  Look you can see the floor!”  Where, exactly?  “Right there, there’s some carpet! ...  I cleaned the middle. ... Nobody cares if it is clean under the bed anymore. ... You can see the top of the desk. ...  I found my bed!!”  (Actual statements from when there were teenagers in residence.)  And somewhere, Malachi is chuckling.

Malachi 3:1-4  See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight-- indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.  2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap;  3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.  4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. 

Who can endure the day of his coming?  “You want it how clean?”  Malachi was writing in the post-exilic period, meaning that people had just returned home after being exiled in Babylonia.  The word “Malachi” means “my messenger” - so it might have been that the author was telling his own story.  He was the messenger who was coming before the Lord to call people into right living.  There are still expectations, he says, there are still standards.  God calls God’s people into clean living, whole and healing relationships, service that builds up rather than tears down.  God’s law is still a measure by which ethics, or behavior in community, is judged.  

It sounds like a threat.  Malachi has a supporting part in Handel’s Messiah.  Most of the text of that great choral work is Isaiah and the Psalms.  But there are a few other scriptures tossed in there.  Malachi appears early in the work, setting the stage for the coming of the Messiah.  “The Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to His temple,” sings the bass in a recitative, “ev’n the messenger of the Covenant, whom you delight in, behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts.”  A recitative is sort of a mixture of speaking and singing; a straightforward, but rhythmic presentation of the text with simpler musical accompaniment.  Sort of a “here it is” approach.  A “get ready” move from one idea to another.  But then, the bass continues in an aria singing “But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth?  For He is like a refiner’s fire.”   An aria is a longer exposition, with repetition and elaborate musical accompaniment.  And a bass voice.  A deep bass voice, Darth Vader deep.  Making it sound ... ominous.  Scary.  A warning or a threat.  “Who may abide?”  Not you, surely.  Not me.

Which is one reason why we choose to skip over Advent and get right to Christmas.  This getting ready thing can be difficult.  Painful.  We don’t like the idea of being washed up with fuller’s soap, whatever that is.  Reminds of me of Lava Soap.  Remember that?  You knew you were dirty if it took Lava to get you clean.  

While we might be able to wriggle out of the fuller’s soap reference due to cultural ignorance, we all know what fire is.  Refiner’s fire - means even hotter.  Burning away impurities.  OK, we might come out better, stronger, cleaner, but still ... Who would choose such a process?  Who can endure the day of his coming?

We can.  That’s the message here.  That’s Advent in a nutshell.  Who can endure?  We can.  No, really.  We can.  Because we are not alone.  Because the one who calls, the one who brings the soap and stokes the fire, is the one who walks with us.  Emmanuel means God-with-us.  

Someone once asked why Malachi talks more about silver than about gold.  Gold is more valuable, isn’t it?  Gold is the best, the top of the line, the ... uh, gold standard.  Yet, silver appears twice.  Well, they argued, silver is more labor intensive in the refining process.  In refining silver, the smith has to stay close.  You can’t put silver in the fire and leave it alone, it has to be attended, you have to stay close enough to watch.  The silversmith has to lean in, risking the heat, wary of the impurities spitting hot molten silver onto exposed flesh.  Jewelers say you can always spot a silversmith by the scars.    

God-with-us.  That is the promise hidden within the threat.  Or what sounds like a threat anyway.  Who can endure?  We can, because God is with us.  In the struggle and in the joy, in the pain and in the celebration, God is with us.  The birth we celebrate at Christmas time is not an ancient remembrance of a long ago event, but a daily promise and a constant presence.  Be born in us we pray.  And fit us for heaven.  Fit us for heaven.

“Mom clean” is the clean that will pass the inspection, pass the judgement of Mom.  That’s the definition.  In practice around here, however, what it really means is the clean that happens when Mom joins in.  Who can endure the day of his coming?  We can, because He rolls up his sleeves and reaches into the corners of our lives where we’ve let the clutter of our brokenness accumulate, convincing ourselves that we were clean enough.  But it doesn’t measure up to His standards.  So, together we set about the business of cleaning, of healing, of repairing.  So that we can present to the Lord in righteousness.  So, that our very lives can be Mom clean, Emmanuel clean.

It isn’t easy, this cleaning process.  It takes time and effort, and blood and sweat and even tears sometimes.  And then you wonder if you’ll ever be clean, if the task of shoveling out the detritus of living in this world will ever be done.  How will we know?  What will be the sign that we are Mom clean?  

The silversmith will tell you that the metal is ready to be worked into shape, to be used for the jewelers purpose when he can see his face reflected.  When all the world gives back the song, that now that angels sing.  That’s when we’ll know.  When our lives shine with the presence of Emmanuel.

Sixteen more days to get Mom Clean.  Excuse me, I’ve got work to do.


Saturday, December 1, 2018

Look at the Trees

A dreary start to our December here in 2018.  Pale gray skies, and a drizzle that turns into rain in earnest every now and then.  It’s supposed to be sixty degrees out today.  Yet wet and drippy all day.  Dreich is the Scots term for days like this.  Which pretty much sums it up, don’t you think?  Dreich.  Dree-xch (you have the gargle the last sound in the back of your throat -- "ahch")  Just saying it, you feel it.  Dreich.

I’m sitting here in our study looking out on the lawn where not too long ago we spent hours picking up all the leaves.  But you can’t tell.  It doesn’t look like it.  As the next carpet of crunchy brown has fallen covering the green grass almost completely.  Which means I have to do it all again.  Sometime soon.  If not now, before the snow falls, then in the spring when it’s time to start mowing again.  The problem is that while the trees in our yard are bare, I’m looking across the street at the trees over there.  And there are still millions of the little brown crunchy dudes hanging on the branches.  And I know they won’t fall straight down into my neighbor’s yard, but will waft across the street into my yard.  I wonder if that loving your neighbor thing applies to trees in the fall?  Surely Jesus will give us a pass on grumbling about yard work.  Don’t you think? No, in fact He tells us to look at the trees.  Fig trees and all the trees, He says.  Look at all those leaves, He says to me, you’re gonna have to pick them up.  Yours and your neighbors both!  Look at the trees, indeed.

But is that really why we’re called to be arborists this Advent season?  Watching the leaves fall, being at the ready like Ed Crankshaft come to life from the comic pages, ready to pounce on the single leaf that would dare to litter our lawns?  Or does He have something else in mind?

Luke 21:25-36  "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  27 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.  28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."  29 Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees;  30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.  31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.  32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.  33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.  34 "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly,  35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.  36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man." 

I’m not sure how you receive this sort of thing on the First Sunday of Advent.  Sometimes, I think that folks are expecting to hear the preliminaries of the Christmas story.  Maybe an angel announcement, maybe a song of transformation, maybe a dream or a journey or a royal decree.  But certainly not people fainting with fear and foreboding.  I’m not sure I’m up to foreboding.  We just don’t forebode any more.  Do we?

Heck, we’ve got movies about the end of the world that are pretty impressive in their special effects.  And we go to see that for entertainment.   So, if Jesus is trying to scare us, He’d better start doing a better job of it.  

But then, a second look at those verses imply something different.  Maybe it isn’t fear that Jesus is trying to instill.  Maybe it is something altogether different.  Maybe it is the opposite.  And what is the opposite of fear?  Hope.  Look at the trees, He says.  Look for signs of growth even in a dying season.  Look for signs of life even in a dreary landscape.  “Stand up and raise your heads” He says to us.  When it is our natural instinct that when things are going badly, when it is a difficult moment, we want to keep our heads down.  But Jesus tells us to raise our heads.  To look up.  To trust, to have confidence.  To pay attention.

Oh, that’s a tricky one at any time of the year, but with all the distractions of the holidays it is even more difficult.  Pay attention, He says.  But I’ve all these things to accomplish.  I’ve got my lists to fulfill.  Places to go and things to do.  Pay attention, He says.  But to what?  To the end times?  No thanks, the folks all wrapped up in that kind of thing seem a little bit ... odd.  A little bit out of touch.  And frankly seem to have their priorities all messed up.  If the message is take care of yourself, stay clean so that you come out well in the end, I’m not really that interested.

Pay attention, He says.  Advent is a multi-layered time.  There is the remembrance and the desire to recapture the birth of that baby again.  We really want to hear that angel song and believe that if even for a moment, Peace on Earth is within the realm of possibility.  We look back to what has been done for us.  But at the same time the scriptures remind us that there is still a coming on our horizon.  We do look for the coming of the Kingdom, when the lion shall lie down with the lamb, when we will beat our swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hook, when we will study war no more.  There is a Someday out there toward which we lean and for which we hope.  Advent is a looking forward as well as a looking back.

Pay attention, He says.  Look at the trees, He says.  What if there is one more layer?  One more direction, in addition to back and forward.  What if there is an around.  Look around.  Look up, look down, or just look.  “Be on guard  so that your hearts aren’t weighed down...”  So that you don’t miss it.  So that you don’t miss Him.  That’s the amazing thing about this season, there glimpses of the Kingdom that appear when you least expect it.  There are sightings of the Savior in the twinkling of the eyes, in the hesitant thank yous and the gasps of wonder.  In the late night conversations of scattered family members trying to figure out what might be next, there are prayers of hope and of love, an embrace of peace that brings tears to our eyes.  If we pay attention.

Jeremiah says it simply.   Jeremiah 33:14-16   The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness." 

For a branch.  No, a Branch.  Not just any branch.  Not the branches that fall with the leaves that cover the lawn.  The branches from a tree too old to sustain all of them any more, not those dead things.  The branches higher up are still growing, still producing, still reaching for a heaven only trees know how to hope for.  It’s not the dead branch of the past we cling to, we hope in.  It is the new growth.  God will cause - will cause - a Branch to spring up.  There is more to come, more hope to be revealed, more justice to be executed, more righteousness to cover the land.  Like leaves on the lawn.  

Yeah, when you pay attention you see a mess you need to clean up, and that can be tiring.  But you also see life, dying and rising life, enough to give you hope in a dreary season.  Blessed Advent to you.


Saturday, November 24, 2018

Take Hold of Life

Busy weekend.  Wait.  No, it wasn’t.  Thanksgiving, time off, food and family and dozing in front of the TV while the NFL entertained us again.  Hardly busy.  Maybe we took a walk, or a turkey trot.  Maybe we indulged in some Black Friday kamikaze activities.  Maybe there were dishes to do or decorations to put up.  But busy?  No, not really.

True, but I meant here.  In this sacred worship space.  In this lurching our way through the liturgical year. This is busy space this weekend.  We’ve got Thanksgiving, first of all.  The one most evident before our eyes.  While it isn’t a religious holiday, it certainly has theological resonance, as we are all called to live a life of gratitude not just once a year but always.  It is central to who we are as God’s people.  We live in gratitude to God and to one another, recognizing that we are who we are and we have what we have because of others.  And we are thankful.

As if that wasn’t enough to build a worship experience around, it is also Christ the King Sunday.  Though New Year’s Eve and Day is still over a month away on our calendars, in this worship space it is around the corner.  Advent begins the Christian year.  And since next weekend is Advent, this is the last worship of the year.  And to declare who we are at the end of the year - even as we begin the year in anticipation of the One who comes again - we declare that this is Christ the King Sunday.  The day we pledge allegiance to Jesus as the King of kings and the Lord of Lords. The last Sunday of the Christian Year is a celebration of the head of the family, the authority and the power, the grace and the mercy that flows from the throne upon which sits the Lamb of God, the sacrificed one, the crucified one.  But also the Risen one who serves as the great High Priest, the Judge of the living and the dead.  

Whoa, sounds awesome - in the strictest sense of that word: inspiring awe, a portion of which is fear and trembling, but also an attraction that draws us nearer despite the recognition of that power.  And here’s the amazing thing, the description of that connection, that community is family.  “Wait,” you’re saying (and don’t you love how I supply all your lines in this “conversation”?), “you mean my family - the way we get along or don’t - is the model for how the kingdom community is supposed to be?”  No, of course not.  How silly!  Actually, it is exactly the opposite.  The model for how your family is supposed to function is the kingdom community.

Ooh, now that adds an interesting flavor to the next squabble in the family, doesn’t it?   And is it possible to have a squabble anywhere but within a family?  That’s one of those words only designed to describe familial relations, it seems to me.  But what if instead of a squabble, instead of turf war, instead of a clash of wills, the family was the place where the kingdom values took precedence?  

“OK, smart guy, what does that mean: kingdom values?  What should this family look like, or act like?”  Good question!  Thanks for asking.  Because now we can get to the passage for this week.  I know you thought that we were still in the stewardship series, you thought that we were still talking about generosity.  Where did all this family stuff come from?  Well, from that other community reflecting the values of the kingdom - the church.

Acts 2:42-47  They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.  44 All who believed were together and had all things in common;  45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts,  47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. 

I added a couple of verses to those we will read in church.  But I wanted a little bigger picture for us to consider.  What is the church supposed to be, who are we supposed to be?  You say family, but what does that look like?

Here in these six verses in the second chapter of Acts we have a depiction of the church as it was designed to be.  You have to look quick because it doesn’t last long.  Succeeding chapters reflect the troubles that arose as they sought to live out what it meant to be a family in a difficult world.  The values of that world crept in and things like racism and classism brought dissent and ill-feeling into the church.  But for a brief moment, recorded here in this chapter we have a picture of what we are all longing for: the true family.

First of all this was a community that wanted to learn.  It doesn’t say that they took time out to listen to the instructions or the wisdom, but that they “devoted themselves” to it.  It wasn’t just another thing that they had to do it was a focus of energy and desire.  It was a longing to know more, to grow deeper, to be honed as instruments of God.  They were a learning community.

But they also loved each other.  There was a devotion - just as strong as toward learning - to fellowship, to spending time together, to eating together.   But more than that they took care of each other.  They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. (vs.45) They didn’t consider their own needs were met until the needs of all the members of the community were met.  They didn’t consider their possessions to be more important than the welfare of their family.  It wasn’t that they were taking a vow of poverty, that they couldn’t own anything.  Verse 46 says they broke bread at home (and some translations say from house to house) showing that home ownership hadn’t disappeared.  But they elevating caring for people above accumulating riches.  They were a caring community

And they were a people dedicated to worship.  Worship at home and worship in community, corporate worship in the temple.  They knew that the source of their goodness, the ability to act in loving ways came not from their own inner resources, but by depending upon the resources of the Holy Spirit.  They needed worship like they needed food and fellowship and learning.  It was worship that shaped their hearts - their glad and generous hearts.  It was worship that directed their service to those in need, opened their eyes to opportunities to give.  It was worship that made them into the people that they were.  They were a worshiping community.

And it was noticed.  Their character stood out.  Their sharing, their generosity was notable.  Luke says they had the goodwill of all the people.  But he is careful to note that the object of their notoriety was not that good will.  They were directing their praise, their worship toward God.  It wasn’t to be noticed, and yet noticed they were.  Yet not in an “aren’t they cool” kind of way.  It was a tell me more, show me more, I want some of that kind of way.  The Lord added to their number day be day.  It wasn’t a church growth program, it wasn’t an evangelistic ministry, it was the church, the family being generous, being caring, being worshipful, being taught.  That’s what drew them to the fellowship.

They were alive.  That’s what drew the ones on the outside, that’s what made the family appealing. They were alive.  The third dimension of our weekend is that it is the conclusion of our Stewardship emphasis.  And Paul has some advice for Timothy on how to talk about money.

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

Take hold of life, that’s Paul’s advice.  Take hold by giving away.  Cling tightly by letting go.  Which sounds like what Someone else said before him.  Take hold of life by taking hold of the family.  The new family, the children of God family.  Those in need, those reaching out.  Take hold of those who gather for worship and who devote themselves to the Word.  Take hold of life by giving it away, freely and joyfully.  Take hold.


Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Indescribable Gift

The Christmas ads have been running for some time now.  You’ve seen them.  You’ve heard them.  You’re already tired of them.  How does that happen?  How does something as exciting as Christmas - and take that on whatever level you want to take it: cultural, religious, theological, family, ritual and tradition, deep meaning and wondrous beauty, lump in the throat producing, tear in the eye provoking, whatever - but how does something as exciting as Christmas become boring?  Become tedious?  Become “not again!”?

I’ll tell you. Because all that stuff, all those ads aren’t really about Christmas.  They’re about gifts and about giving.  Which is good stuff!  Don’t get me wrong.  I love gifts.  Getting them, certainly (anyone who wants my list, I’ll give it to you!).  But mostly giving them.  I love finding, buying, procuring, making gifts to give to people I love.  I just do. And who could get tired of that?  The giving and receiving of gifts, signs of love and acceptance and being claimed and welcomed.  You don’t have to spend a lot of money to give gifts.  But for them to really do the task intended you have to spend a lot of love.

But, the question for this bible study is this: Have I ever given an indescribable gift?  Or received one?  Now, let’s define terms here.  There have been those occasions when the gift I have given my wife, for example, elicits a raised eyebrow or a puzzled demeanor; a sound of uncertainty or expression of incredulity.  As in “what in the world were you thinking?”  Let’s be clear, it wasn’t indescribable in the strictest sense.  Because this expression was quickly followed by a string of description.  Which, come to think about it, might have been more about the giver than the gift.  But still, hardly indescribable.

What is an indescribable gift?  Why bring it up?  Why set the bar so high that we can’t ever achieve it?  Because that is what it sounds like is going on.  Who in the world trades in indescribable gifts?  Well, Paul says God does.

2 Corinthians 9:6-15   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.  13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others,  14 while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you.  15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! 

The point is this.  Trust Paul to get to the point.  And then trust him to circle around and around it, turn it into a series of metaphors and images, make allusions and then find likes and opposites, and finally throw up his hands and sing a song about it, a song that turns out to be a song of praise to God.  Because, you know, that’s how he deals with stuff.  Important stuff.  Faith centering stuff.  Like God and Faith and Law and Grace and Eternity and Obedience and Money.  Wait, what?  Money?  A Faith centering item?  Well, yes, Paul thought so.  And was quite serious about it.  He talks about giving in these verses.  (In case you aren’t from the Southport UMC Tribe, we are continuing our brief stewardship emphasis.)  He talks about giving abundantly, sacrificially, giving in a way that we notice it.  And he talks about our attitude while giving.  Give with willingness, give with joy, give - he even seems to imply - with laughter.  I know, a bit odd that Paul.  But still, it sounds exciting, it sounds powerful.  It sounds like something we just might want to be a part of.

Especially when he points out the receipts.  Yeah, this is not giving for nothing.  This is about investment and expecting a return.  “You will be enriched in every way.”  Well, we think, really?  In every way?  Surely he meant in good ways.  Surely he meant you will be enriched in every way that matters.  Some sort of proviso, some sort of escape clause.  Otherwise we fall into the hands of those guys who turn God into a divine slot machine, put a little in and bells and lights go off and we get a lot out.  And if the payoff didn’t come this time, put in a little bit more and then do an attitude check.  Payoff is coming.  Surely he didn’t mean that, we think.

And we’d be right.  He didn’t mean that.  But we don’t need to change the words to fit us better.  Instead we change ourselves to fit the words.  Which is always the case, by the way.  We want to shape God’s words to fit us where we are, but our real goal is to shape our lives to fit the Word.  We become givers, we become generous, we learn about sacrifice when God takes over our lives and we walk by the Word, we live by the Spirit, and then we know we are rich.  Because we have received all that our hearts desire.  All.  All that our hearts desire.  We are enriched.  What could be more than all?  All that our hearts desire?  What could that be?  That all, that gift?  That indescribable all?

I went back to Fort Wayne to do a funeral this past week.  It isn’t really our normal practice to return to a former church to perform a funeral.  So I made sure it was ok with the current pastor, and he gave his blessing.  The funeral was for Paul, a man who was my head usher for the whole ten years I was there.  Co-head for part of the time, sharing the responsibility always.  He was a man of faith, quiet, helpful, willing to step up and do what he could.  He loved his wife and family, especially the grandkids and great-grandkids.  They were a gift to him and he was a gift to them.  To his family, to his church and his community.  An indescribable gift.

At the beginning of the month, my siblings and I made our way to Paris, Tennessee, possibly for the last time.  Unless we choose to pass through on our way somewhere else, to stop at the little cemetery in a residential area where Mom and Dad lived for almost forty years.  Now they are remembered with a marble stone and a patch of grass and few bulbs we put in the ground to mark the space.  We visited with a few who spoke of them both, of all that Dad did for the little county seat town in west Tennessee.  He worked with the Scouts, boy and cub both, he lead the county Habitat for Humanity, worked with various churches and numerous individuals, mostly working with his hands, fixing, building, repairing.  He was a gift to that community.  Maybe more than he knew, certainly more than we, his children who lived so many miles away from him, knew.  An indescribable gift. 

We are all so blessed by people in our lives who are gifts beyond description.  When Paul concludes his message on giving, he says that no matter what is in our hearts to give, we’ve already been given more.  We can’t out give God.  Because God has given us so much, so many, resources, yes, but more than that love.  People who love us whether we are worthy of it or not.  People who challenge us, who stretch us, and who shape us sometimes against our will, into what we are yet becoming.  That’s the gift.  That’s what Paul is celebrating in our text for this week.  The family that we are becoming because of generosity, because of our willingness to give.  It’s not really about money, except as the sign that points back to the heart.  We sometimes give our hearts to Jesus, but until it gets to our wallets and our bank accounts, then there is still a part of our heart we’ve kept from Him.  But once it penetrates even into that realm of our lives, then we will know blessing.  Then we will be enriched in every way that matters, in every way that we care about.  Enriched by love, by relationships, by service and caring and giving and helping and healing.  Enriched by life.  The indescribable gift.

Whatever we decide in our heads and hearts and bank accounts to give we should give thanks for the ability to give, be proud to be able to give, but also humble enough to know whatever we intend to give it does not repay what has been given to us.  And to even describe what we’ve been given escapes us.  Our lives are full of indescribable gifts.  Thanks be to God.


Saturday, November 10, 2018

All the Good You Can

We paid off a student loan!  It wasn’t a big loan and it wasn’t going to take long even at the usual rate, but we decided to go ahead and get rid of it.  We worked hard to give our kids the best gift we could think of, an education debt free.  If you don’t think that’s a big deal then you haven’t been in the higher education scene for some time.  Our parents gave us that gift a few years ago.  (Well, ok a heck of a long time ago) So we wanted to do that for them.  Passing on that blessing.  Given that some estimates put the current student loan debt nationally at one and half billion dollars and the average (average, mind you) debt per student at just under forty thousand dollars, this is a blessing indeed.  It wasn’t always easy making those payments - especially since both kids chose private colleges, thought they were given some scholarships.  So, we struggled to get the money together, hence the small loan we had to take out for one semester of Maddie’s schooling.  And we had help from La Donna’s parents who had the foresight to set up a trust that we were able to use.  So it was their generosity, both sets of parents, that taught us to want to be generous, that has now blessed our children and will no doubt go on to bless many others as they begin to make their way into the world.

That’s the effect of generosity.  It almost never affects only one.  It is rarely binary, almost always algebraic. Exponential?  One of those big math words anyway.  It expands, and more and more and more are blessed.  More and more and more receive from the gift of generosity.  But it’s not really a math equation.  It’s a faith item, a biblical principle.  It is the secret to life.  To living fully.  The abundant life that Jesus wants us all to have.  

It’s Stewardship time here at Southport UMC.  Everyone’s favorite time of year when we focus on money.  “All that church ever talks about is money!”  I’ve heard that accusation before.  “All they’re interested in is my money.”  I could argue against that idea.  I could point out the months of preaching where money doesn’t enter into the script anywhere.  But frankly, that’s not a positive on my part.  I don’t talk about money nearly as much as Jesus did.  I don’t keep trying to show you just how serious this subject really is.  I keep hoping you’ll pick it up by osmosis.  That you’ll arrive at the conclusion without me having to constantly point it out.  But Jesus knew you’d need more help than that.  So He kept talking about money.  About what you do with it.  About what it does to you.  He talked about it more than anything else, except the Kingdom of God.  And even there the subject lines get blurry.  Blurry because sometimes it sounds like the Kingdom of God is a long way off, and other times He makes it sound like it is all around us right now.  And how we choose to live now, what we choose to do with the things of this life indicate whether we are even aware of that Kingdom or oblivious to the promise that pulses around us.  He doesn’t care about our money, He cares about our souls, our lives.  And what we do with money, with resources, with gifts, with time, with life itself is a sign that we have ears to hear Him when He pleads with us to enter into His Kingdom, to enter into His rest.  To partake of His life.

So instead of budgets and pledges and tithing and maybe the guilt of doing or not doing our share, this year’s stewardship emphasis is about the secret of life.  The abundant life that Jesus offers.  The life of the Kingdom that is ours if we claim it by choosing how we will live.  The secret.  It’s not really a secret.  It has been there from the beginning.  Told to us in bits of wisdom in ancient texts we overlook because of the lack of drama, perhaps, or the overly simple obviousness of it all.  Yeah, yeah, we nod along with these secrets, this wisdom.  We know this.  But do we?  Do we know it deeply enough?  Do we know it as a life changing reality?  Do we know it as the secret to life?  Do we?  And the secret?  Generosity.  Give it away.  Pour it out.  That’s how to be full.  That’s how to have all we need.  Give it away.

Psalm 37:21  The wicked borrow, and do not pay back, but the righteous are generous and keep giving.  

Let’s take a look at some Old Testament Wisdom.  To find this secret being trumpeted loudly.  Psalm 37 is a wisdom psalm of a choice.  There is a choice in how we will live.  We find this choice presented in lots of places. Here it is a choice between righteousness and wickedness.  Well, when you put it like that... OK, set the words aside for a moment.  The choice is not just good and evil, the choice is self or others.  The choice is inward focus or an outward one.  Making room for God and God’s will in our lives or doing what seems right in our own heads and hearts.  It’s a choice we make all the time, every day, every moment.  Sometimes it is a conscious choice, most of the time we just go, following whatever nose is closest.  But Psalm 37 invites us to pay attention and make a choice.  And in the heart of the choice is this idea of generosity.  It is the hinge upon which the psalm rotates.  Give and keep giving.  That defines the Kingdom choice.  Keep giving.

Psalm 112:4-9 They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and righteous.  5 It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice. 6 For the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered forever. 7 They are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the LORD. 8 Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid; in the end they will look in triumph on their foes. 9 They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor.

Um, what?  Their horn?  Yeah, their horn.  The horn was the symbol for power.  Like a rhino with an impressive horn.  You respect that power and keep out of its way.  But this horn, this power is the power of giving, the power of generosity.  Here the horn is not the horn as a weapon, but the horn as a source of blessing.  The horn hollowed out and filled with the oil of anointing.  The generous are blessed to be a blessing, they pour out and are remembered by how they give to others.  And their generous spirit survives difficulties, setbacks. Their hearts are firm, says the psalmist.  The secret of living an abundant life is giving it away at every opportunity.  Not a secret.  Just hard to remember.  Especially in difficult times.

Prov. 11:24-25 Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want. 25 A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water.

You can’t talk about Old Testament Wisdom and not look at Proverbs.  So, two quick looks.  First here is a thought in the middle of a whole bunch of statements about the good life.  The wise life.  And it is about how giving comes back.  And hoarding brings loss.  A paradox, it seems, and yet true.  We know this.  Because we are filled up when we can give, when we can help.  We are filled up even when we stumble, or fall short.  It is about living abundantly, which is different than living with lots of stuff.  

Proverbs 22:9 Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.

We all want to be blessed.  We all want to feel the commendation of our God and our community, our family.  But again and again we are reminded that blessing is not about what we get, it is about what we give.  Are we sensing a theme here?  A common thread by which we can stitch ourselves into the tapestry of abundant living.  

Exodus 35:5-9 Take from among you an offering to the LORD; let whoever is of a generous heart bring the LORD's offering: gold, silver, and bronze; 6 blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine linen; goats' hair, 7 tanned rams' skins, and fine leather; acacia wood, 8 oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, 9 and onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and the breastpiece.

OK, not wisdom literature per se.  But this is the beginnings of the people of God.  Remember, this is Exodus, they are not settled, not at home, they are wandering in the wilderness, have years ahead of the them of who knows what, they sure don’t.  But a call goes out, a call to generosity.  A call to make worship beautiful by giving what is precious.  A call that can then be a way of defining a people, God’s people.  Let those of a generous heart bring the Lord’s offering.  And give that you may be blessed to be a blessing.  It’s a secret everyone knows.


Saturday, October 27, 2018

Heads Up

Just a heads up.  There won’t be a Bible Study next weekend.  The first weekend of November is when my siblings and spouses and some of the grandkids will gather in Paris, Tennessee to inter the ashes of my father.  Dad has been sitting on our mantel since shortly after his death.  We had him cremated, as he requested, and will bury him next to Mom in the cemetery across the street from the house they lived in for almost forty years.  It will be a celebration of life and family and love, as well as the sadness of the end of an era and the grief of losing the last parent of our generation.  

We chose this weekend because it is the anniversary of his birth.  He would have been 89 on that Saturday, November third.  The church Dad and Mom attended there in Paris is throwing a Birthday Party reception for us after the graveside service.  My siblings and assorted family members are gathering in a cabin in a nearby state park.  Partly because Dad loved camping and the outdoors, partly because it can accommodate us all, and partly because it will be good to be a family again, even if for a short time.  For the last time.  

Who knows whether we will have occasion to all gather together again?  We can say we will do it, but will we?  We might connect in other ways in this technologically rich world in which we live, but will we occupy the same space again, like we did when we sat on the floor in our footie pajamas and blinked our way through a Christmas morning?   We’re losing something next weekend, a father, yes, but also the glue that held us together, the reason we gathered when we did.  We spent the last however many years gathering because we needed to provide care for Mom, or make decisions about Dad.  Before that it was so that Mom and Dad wouldn’t be alone on Christmas.  So, what will bring us together now?  We can make the effort.  We can pledge to stay connected, to stay close, but given what else is going on in all of our disparate lives, will we?  Can we carry this load along with all the other loads we are given to carry?

Matthew 11:28-30  "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." 

Contextually, Jesus was referring to the burdens placed on the people of God by those in leadership who expanded on the law.  When God gave the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai it was a pretty simple thing.  Ten Commandments carved onto two stone tablets - straightforward, clear and concise, just what we expect from laws!  Right?  Uh, no.  Ever read the simplified tax code from the US Government?  

God tried to keep things simple.  There were laws about how to worship and laws about how to live in community - and what else do you need?  Well, heaped on top of these ten laws were literally thousands of interpretations and applications that also must be followed in order to stay right.  It became so onerous that no one could remember them all let alone obey them.  So, every one lived out of sync with God’s law, at least according to those in charge.  Most people wanted to be right, wanted to follow the law, but it was impossible.  So, they lived with the burden of not being right, not being pure enough to worship, not having access to God, except through those in charge who guarded the gates religiously.  

Jesus came along and said “take my yoke.”  One of the concepts we struggle with in this passage is the fact that there is a yoke to take and that there is rest to receive.  Which is it Jesus?  Yoke or rest?  A yoke implies work, and rest implies ... well ... NOT work.  We like the rest thing, aren’t too sure about the yoke thing, to be honest.  Even if it is easy and light.

Someone called this passage the Great Invitation.  That makes four “Greats” that I can identify.  There is the Great Commission - “Go and Make Disciples” (Matthew 28:19); the Great Commandment - “You shall love the Lord” (Matthew 22:37 et al); the Great Requirement “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8); and now the Great Invitation - “Come to me” (Matthew 11:28).  

But the real question is, to what are we invited?  Is it work or is it rest?  Labor and struggle, or vacation and getting away from it all?  Is this about heaven or about earth?  Yes.  To all that precedes.  Yes.  And no.  The invitation is to a relationship.  “Take MY yoke,” says Jesus, “and learn from me.”  He is inviting us into a partnership, to labor alongside him in the fields of the Lord.  He wants us to take on his spirit, his heart.  He asks of us to be “gentle and humble in heart” as we live and work in this world.  It is not a task so much as a way of living, a way of being alive. 

So, it IS a yoke.  There IS a burden.  But it is a yoke that is easy and burden that is light.  Does that mean that there is no effort here?  That it is something we do without thinking, without straining?  Not necessarily.  “Easy” in this case really means “well-fitting.”  The yoke that Christ offers is a yoke that fits us, it is right for us.  It doesn’t rub in the wrong places and make us sore.  There is effort, there is struggle at times, but it is good effort, it is healthy struggle and we feel the better for it.  The burden of walking in the way of Christ is light because it is right, it is good, it builds us up rather than takes us down.

Christ doesn’t offer us an effortless life, but one that means something.  We don’t get a struggle free life, but one that accomplishes something, and makes a difference in the world.  Those around us are better because we are there.  We are better, happier, more whole.  That is the promise.

Sounds good, but it doesn’t sound like rest to me.  Unless by rest he meant something other than what we first imagine.  Unless he meant something like the antidote to restlessness.  That what he was offering was not so much a sun drenched beach upon which to kick back and nap, but a sense of belonging and of purpose that allows us to know that we are right, we are in sync with our deepest selves and with our loved ones (which is always a bigger crowd than we acknowledge) and with him.  The offer of rest is another way of describing salvation, which has less to do with the gates of heaven and more to with the fields we plow when we are yoked to Christ.   Certainly there is a promise of eternity and an invitation into the presence of God, but that promise and that presence are what make the burden of living so light and what make the yoke of Christ so easy.  We will find, says Jesus, rest for our souls.  Our backs are into the labors of love, our shoulders are bent to the tasks of justice, our hands are busy with the works of kindness, but our souls are at rest.

We conclude our Micah 6:8 series this week.  “Do justice, Love mercy, walk humbly with God.”  This is not, I’ve come believe, a checklist that we can mark off one by one.  Instead it is a formula that only together is it even possible.  Doing justice is a task beyond us, frankly.  It is too big, too intensive, too worldview for our individual minds.  Unless we learn to love through acts of kindness to each and everyone around us.  When we love kindness (and notice it is love kindness, not do kindness.  There is something about the motivation that makes a difference) we begin to do justice.  When we act locally we think globally!  But, then how do we love enough to act kindly to everyone we encounter?  That seems beyond us.  And it is.  Unless we can walk humbly with God.  Not just walk with God.  Many of us want to walk with God, and serve in an advisory capacity, telling God what ought to be done.  But we’re called to walk humbly with God.  Which means first of all acknowledging that God is God and we are not.  Walk humbly with God until hesed, God’s steadfast love, and mispat, God’s desire for justice, begin to rub off on us.  Walking humbly with God is offering yourself to the yoke of Christ.  Walking humbly with God is not about feeling inadequate or shamed, keeping our head down in sorrow.  It is about keeping our heads up that we might see God at work in and through us and then all around us too.  It is to join up in the kingdom building force that does justice and loves kindness because God does that too.  Keep your head up, and see the face of God.

I have walked with my family for my whole life, humbly and not so, I must confess. So, I’ll keep my head up and keep holding on to them as we walk into the future God has in store.  Walk with me. 


Saturday, October 20, 2018

If It'd a Been a Snake

I’m heading north today.  Back to a church I served some years ago.  They contacted me a while back and asked if I could come to share in a special celebration.  They built an addition to their building and finally have it paid off and wondered if I would come back and help them celebrate.  Now it wasn’t there, the addition I mean, when I served as associate pastor for a couple of years.  So, my first inclination was to say I’m honored, but why me?  But instead I just checked to see if Doug, my associate here at Southport would be back from his Disney vacation and able to preach at Southport, and then said yes.  I’ll go.  I’ll be a part of the celebration.  Of generosity.  Because I had been a recipient of that generosity.  See that’s where I was serving when we adopted Rhys, our son who turns 25 next week.  Yikes.  And this church blessed me.  Pass on the kindness, that’s what this is about. /it was right in front of me the whole time.

If it had been a snake it would have bit you!  I don’t know where that cliche first came from, but it fits me.  The truth is we all can ignore what is in front of our faces from time to time.  Sometimes we genuinely don’t see what is so obvious to everyone else.  Maybe we are distracted or occupied by deep thoughts of some kind and we simply miss it.  Other times we don’t want to see what is in front of us, we choose our blindness when what is in front of us is uncomfortable or ugly or seemingly beyond our capacity to affect.  We can only take so much of helpless, before we - out of self-preservation perhaps - turn away and try to convince ourselves we didn’t see what we saw.  Or convince ourselves that what we saw was not our responsibility, not our business.

Our cultural fixation on “live and let live” has driven us to turn blind eyes to all sorts of situations, all sorts of needs because we don’t want to “impose” - we don’t want to get involved.  So, we have learned to not see the snakes that are just waiting to bite us.

At least that is what I think is going on here in our Scripture text for this week.  This is a very familiar passage.  So familiar it has become a part of our language.  So familiar that I think we don’t see the snakes that might bite us in the story that Jesus tells us.  Listen again:

Luke 10:25-37  Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  26 He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?"  27 He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."  28 And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."  29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"  30 Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.  31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.  34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.'  36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?"  37 He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise." 

Of course we know the story.  Everyone, Christian or not, has heard of a “Good Samaritan.”  There is even a “Good Samaritan Law” on the books in Indiana and other states to protect someone who stops to help in a crisis situation.  So, it would seem there is very little that would need to be discussed here.  Everyone agrees on this.  Jesus tells the story in such a way that even a lawyer can see what is right!  Sorry, that was mean too.  Some of my best friends are lawyers.  Anyway...

Well, lets take a look at our friend the lawyer.  Which in this case might better be described as a religious scholar instead of what we think of as a lawyer.  Since there was no distinction between religious and secular law in Israel at that time, a lawyer was someone who knew the scriptures well enough to argue for right and wrong.  He was a scholar who had studied the Torah (which is Hebrew for “law”) and was called upon to settle disputes, or to represent the interests of someone wronged.

It is interesting that Luke’s lawyer asks a subtly different question than the ones in Matthew and Mark.  There the question is “what is the greatest commandment?”  Here it is “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  In the end it is the same question, but the approach is completely different.  The former sounds like a religious scholar/lawyer kind of question.  What is greater...? Or “what commandment is first of all,” in Mark’s version.  They might have meant most important or it might have been which is precedent setting - “which law is above other laws” that sort of thing. 

But Luke’s lawyer asks “what must I do?”  Which is the kind of question Luke would hear more clearly.  There is more than a legal issue here.  There is a participation, there is a connection, there is a life direction kind of issue here.  Some have argued that what he was really asking was “what is the least I can do and still get in?”  I don’t know if that can be inferred, but you couldn’t blame him even if it was.  It is a very human kind of question.  “Is this going to be on the test?”  That is how students ask the question.  “Do we have to know this stuff, or are you just talking?”  

He might have been trying to slide by with minimal effort, but I prefer to think that he really wanted to know.  I know Luke says it was a test.  Maybe it was a test with a hidden hope underneath.  Maybe he was put up to the test, but made it a personal quest on his own.  Whatever it was, Jesus took it seriously and turned it around to the questioner.  This was Jesus’ M.O.  He rarely handed things around on silver platters.  He always wanted us to work a little bit.  Maybe with interpretation, maybe with application, but there was always something left to do when Jesus stopped talking.

In this case it was the question itself that came back.  “What do you think?”  My kids hate that, but I do it all the time.  Here the lawyer answered with the Great Commandment.  Case closed.  Jesus gave him lovely parting gifts and it was all over.  

Except the lawyer wasn’t satisfied.  Luke interprets for us: “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” It’s that “justify himself” bit that bugs me.  It bugs me because I do it too.  “I’d like to love my neighbor,” goes the thought process, “but I’m just not sure what’s safe.  I’m just not sure what’s needed.  I’m just not sure for whom I am really responsible.  I’ve got kids, I’ve got a wife, I’ve got my hands full.”  There are rules, you know, how to treat certain kinds of people.  Well, if not rules than expectations, standards.  Help your own first, goes one school of thought.  Charity begins at home.  The lawyer’s lawyerness kicked in here.  He decided to try and divert judgement on his behavior by asking a question for which there was no easy answer.  He wanted to tie this verdict up in court and avoid having to act on it.  At the very least he was hoping for a pat on the back and “well, do the best you can” from Jesus.  Instead he got a story.

You know the story.  You know the way Samaritans were viewed, especially compared to priests and Levites.  You know that Jesus was trying to move the debate beyond an academic justification issue into an “open your eyes” kind of issue.  He was trying to move it from a label and an insiders verses outsider kind of thing toward a taking responsibility for the need in front of you kind of attitude.  This isn’t about changing the world, but about healing the hurts.  In Micah’s words this isn’t doing justice, it is loving mercy.  Both are necessary.  But if we spend all of our time out trying to chase windmills, out trying to make the world a better place for everyone someday, we will miss the opportunity to make it better for one close by right now.  In fact we could argue that without acts of mercy, or kindness, there can be no move toward justice.  If we allow needs to go unmet then we are asking for trouble on a larger scale.  There are needs aplenty, just open your eyes.  If it had been a snake, it would have bit you.


Saturday, October 13, 2018

Justice Song

What do you sing about these days?  An odd sort of question, I realize.  My wife, La Donna, often comes home from church with a hymn in her head.  Sometimes she even gets frustrated.  It just sits in there.  She can’t wait for the next week so she can get a new hymn!  You know that feeling.  Maybe you heard a snippet of a song, or something that sounded like a song, something that reminded you of a song.  And now that song keeps playing over and over in your head.  Even when you don’t want it to.  You find yourself humming the tune, you find yourself mumbling the words.  They are just there, rattling around in your skull, driving you crazy.  Or if not you, everyone around you as you keep singing that song over and over.  Because it is stuck in there - and it begins to define you in a way.

I had a friend who thought everyone should have their theme song, like in the movies.  If you look at a movie soundtrack you’ll see titles like “Jack’s Theme” or “Liza’s Song.”  And this music would play whenever that character was central to the scene.  Well, this friend thought that we should all have our theme music to play that would define us, that would announce our presence and point to us when it is our turn to enter into the dialog or to shape the action.  OK, I’ve had some weird friends over the years.  But still it is an intriguing idea.  If you had the ability and the opportunity to write your own theme song, what would it sound like?  What would it say?

We start a three week worship series with the reading for this week.  The whole series is titled “What the Lord Requires” and is based on Micah 6:8: what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?   Each week we will examine one requirement as outlined in this verse.  We are always asking the question, what are we supposed to do?  Who are we supposed to be?  What does God want from me?  This series is designed to help us answer that question.  

So we start where the verse starts, we start with the biggie: do justice.  It’s an overwhelming word in many ways.  A comic book word.  “Truth, Justice and ...”  How does that go?  It isn’t a lived in word.  Is it?  What does justice mean for us today.  What does it have to do with us in our every day lives?  Isn’t justice something for someone else, for the people in charge to deal with?   

Read what Isaiah says in our reading for this weekend.

Isaiah 42:1-9  Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.  2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;  3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.  4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.  5 Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it:  6 I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,  7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.  8 I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.  9 See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them. 

This is the first of four passages called the Servant Song of the book of Isaiah.  There is some considerable debate about who is the servant referred to in the first verse of chapter forty-two.  On the one hand it seems to be the ideal follower of God.  Maybe there isn’t a particular reference at all, it is just anyone who seeks to follow, this is the kind of life he/she will lead, this is the kind of person she/he will be.  It is an example passage.

Some argue that this was a passage read after the coronation of a new king.  It was a reminder to the king and to the nation that a leader serves not for his/her own benefit, not from his/her own power, but as a servant of the Lord who called and equipped him/her to serve.  It was a celebration of a new administration launched in hope.  Sound familiar?  If only all our leaders saw themselves first as servants, what a difference that might make in governing.

Others, who read a little further in these verses determine that the servant is the whole people of God.  When Isaiah speaks of calling, of being the light on the hill, we know it is whole nation of Israel that was called to that task.  It has echoes in the words of Jesus when he tells us that we are salt and light, the church is the light on the hill, inviting all the world to come and know what we know, to know who we know.  So the servant is the community of faith.

Then, of course, we Christians can’t help but read these words and imagine Christ.  Jesus was the servant of the Lord who showed us what a life of service was like.  Jesus was one who lifted up the fallen, who received the Spirit of the Lord to bring forth justice.  This is a prophetic passage, spoken and written hundreds of years before the one to whom it refers came to be.

Finally, it is hard to read these words and not hear the call upon our own lives.  Each of us (as well as all of us, mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago) is called to serve the Lord, to work for justice.  Each of us, this is a call passage, an invitation to a way of living.

So, you might be asking, which is it?  Which one is the right answer?  Well, all of them.  That is the glory of the Bible, it functions on so many levels all at the same time.  I believe that historically it referred to the king who ascended to the throne of Israel and to the nation that ruler led.  And sometimes they listened and sometimes they didn’t.  I think it also carried the seeds of prophecy, paving the way for the coming of the Christ.  Did Isaiah know he was talking about Jesus of Nazareth?  Probably not, but God knew.  Just as God knows that we have the opportunity to live as servants to God and to the people.  This is indeed a calling, an invitation to live in certain ways, to work for certain ends.

And what might those ends be?  Did you notice that the word “justice” appears three times in the first four verses?  It seems pretty important, don’t you think?  Especially when we read that we or he or someone “will not faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.”  We can’t rest, the task isn’t finished, Christ’s work isn’t done until justice is established in the earth.

So, what defines justice?  Well, that is more than I can resolve for you in the small space left here.  But a glimpse is given in the passage.  To establish justice is to open the eyes of the blind - whether those blinded by material things or limited education or poverty or prejudice or....  It is the work of the servants of the Lord to help folks see what they overlook.  To establish justice is to release those who are imprisoned in dungeons or darkness - whether those dungeons are human made barriers to freedom and wholeness, to sustenance or beauty; or practices that enslave minds or resources and keep people trapped in a cycle of poverty or on the brink of illness or disease from the lack of sanitary systems we take for granted; or the lack of resources or knowledge that will enable children of God to know how valuable they are to their creator and to this world.  That is the work of establishing justice in the earth - to be in the business of systemic change, lasting change that makes life better for all.  These are the new things that are about to spring forth, the new things that we are to tell about.  These are the songs that we are called to sing into being.

Someone once said that God didn’t say let there be light, like is says in Genesis one.  God sang it.  God sang the world into being.  And we are now called to sing the songs that will bring forth justice.  And to keep singing, and singing, and singing.  Like that song we can’t get out of our heads, we are to fill our vision with justice.  This is our theme song, says Isaiah 42, the music that plays whenever we take the stage is a song of justice.

What songs are you singing these days?