Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Good End -- The First Sunday in Advent

Mark 13:24-37
November 30, 2014

            “Get your affairs in order.”  Those are words that I imagine most of us would dread hearing.  “Get your affairs in order,” usually means that the end of your life is imminent, so do whatever you have to do to prepare.  Settle whatever must be settled.  Finish what must be finished.  Get your affairs in order.  A few years ago I heard a news story about a man who heard that dreaded phrase.  He was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and according to his doctors, he had only months to live.  The man decided that if this was it, he wasn’t going to sit around passively waiting for death to arrive.  However, he also didn’t seem to understand what it meant to get his affairs in order either.  It seems he went with the “you can’t take it with you,” philosophy.  He stopped paying his mortgage.  He emptied his bank account. I don’t remember if he traveled, gambled, or just had a field day at Target, but he spent every penny he had. 
The man was misdiagnosed.  He was not, in fact, dying.  He did have an illness, but it turned out to be curable.  He could live for many more years to come.  While you and I might find this incredible, miraculous news, I doubt that this gentleman was as happy to learn he would live as we would be in the same situation.  The last part of the story was that he was suing the medical establishment who misdiagnosed him.  Great, he was going to live, but he thought he was going to die.  Now, he was completely broke.  I do not know the outcome, but one lesson learned is that even professionals make mistakes.  A second lesson could be that “getting your affairs in order” is not necessarily synonymous with “blow it all.”  Perhaps the greatest lesson from this is none of us knows when the end will come; whether it’s our own end or the end of everything. 
That seems to be the basic gist of our passage from Mark’s gospel on this first Sunday of Advent.  No one knows when the end will come.  That is Jesus’ message to the disciples.  You can try to read the signs, those in the heavens and those all around you, but you still don’t know.  Not even the Son knows the day or time, only the Father.  So you must keep awake. 
Chapter 13 in the gospel of Mark is known as “The Little Apocalypse.”  If you read through the chapter carefully, it seems that Mark had two understandings of the end times.  One is that they were imminent.  The second is that they were still in the distant future.  Scholars believe that Mark had access to two different accounts of the eschaton, so he wove them together.  I imagine that this confluence of stories confused his original audience as much as it confuses us – well, me.  Those who were witnesses to Jesus certainly believed that the end times were imminent, but history shows that their belief that Jesus would return in their lifetime did not happen.  So what does this mean and when will he return? 
I struggle with apocalyptic stories such as this one.  Not only because the very idea of the end of the world is something that scares me, but also because this kind of story always falls on the first Sunday of Advent.  Even after all these years of preaching, and knowing that we will hear apocalyptic stories on this particular Sunday, I am still jarred by them.  Especially in light of the fact that the theme of this first Sunday is hope.  Where can we possibly find a word of hope in a passage that speaks of the end of the world – as we know it. 
Another factor in this chapter from Mark’s gospel is that is not only about eschatology, it is also about farewell.  It is Jesus’ farewell to his disciples.  The chapter marks a turning point in the story of Jesus.  His ministry is coming to an end.  Chapter 14 begins with the plot to kill him.  From this point on Jesus is moving inexorably to his passion, his death on the cross.  So in one sense these are his parting words.  Jesus wants them to have some idea of what lies ahead for them.  He wants them to know that he will return to them.  But while there may be many signs, no one knows when his return, when God’s full glory will overcome them, so they need to stay awake.  As one commentator put it, they need to “wait impatiently,” for Jesus’ second coming. 
Here’s my real struggle with passages such as this one.  What does it mean to profess that Jesus will come again?  We believe it.  It is in our creed.  Today, we celebrate the sacrament of communion with one another, and at the end of that I will proclaim Christ’s return in glory.  I take this seriously, and yet I tend to scoff at the people who try to predict the end of the world.  I don’t agree with their understanding of the rapture, and to be quite honest, I don’t spend my days thinking too hard about what my profession of Jesus’ second coming actually means. I should, but I don’t.  According to The Rapture Index, a website devoted to the end times, the rapture index at this moment is high.  It’s 183.  It’s too complicated to try and explain how the folks behind this index arrive at this particular number.  But according to them, an index of 160 and above means “fasten your seatbelts.”  We should be ready for the rapture, because it could happen anytime now. 
Yet, this is exactly the kind of prediction I dismiss, and it is the kind of prophecy Jesus speaks against?  No one knows.  Yes, there will be signs, but no one on this earth knows.  That includes Jesus.  So you have to keep watch, be ready and stay awake! 
I guess I could just leave it at that.  What we must take from this passage, especially as we prepare ourselves for the birth of Jesus into the world, is that we are called to stay awake.  We are exhorted to be in a state of constant vigilance and diligent watchfulness.  We have no idea when Jesus will come again.  We must watch for the signs Jesus speaks of, but even then we won’t know.  So keep awake. 
However, before I offer my final amen on these words from the gospel, I am struck by something in this passage that I never noticed before.  In the very last verses, in the story of the man going on a journey and leaving his slaves in charge, there is a foreshadowing of the passion to come.  In verse 35, Mark refers to the four watches of the night.  The first watch is in the evening, the second, midnight, the third at cockcrow, and the fourth at dawn.  Jesus shares his last supper with the disciples in the evening.  He prays in the garden at Gethsemane and begs the disciples to stay awake with him, but it is the middle of the night.  Just as Jesus predicted, Peter denies him by the second cockcrow.  When morning comes, Jesus is betrayed and arrested. 
Why is this significant outside of a literary device to alert us to Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion?  It seems to me that in the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, when even the sun’s rays were overcome and the world was cast into darkness and the curtain of the temple was ripped in two, that the fullness of God’s love for his broken creation burst forth and washed over the entire world.  It was an ending, but it was also a beginning.
That doesn’t make his death any less horrific, but this end and this beginning reminds us that when God was born into our midst, God cast his lot with every aspect of being human.  God suffered the pangs of birth.  God suffered the pains of death.  So when we hear these words of the end times, perhaps it’s not so much about chaos and destruction, but about the boundaries between God and us being finally and completely and forever more struck down.  Are these times that Jesus tells his disciples of cataclysmic? Yes.  But I don’t think it’s a warning of just a terrible end.  I think that it is ultimately a prediction of a good end; a good end that opens wide the gates to a new and glorious beginning. 
 Isn’t this what we prepare for?  Isn’t this what we wait and long and hope for?  We prepare and keep watch for the return of a God who loves us enough to be born among us, to die for us, to live again so that we can fully be the people we were created to be. 
A fellow pastor related a story about Martin Luther.  When asked what he would do if he found out the world was ending the next day, he replied, “I would plant a tree.”  Luther saw the end of this world as a reason to hope, to trust that the tree he planted would not be wiped out but have time and space to grow and thrive.  May we share his hope that the second coming, the return of Christ into the world, is a good end that makes way for an even more wonderful beginning.  Let us prepare for that good end with hope in our hearts.  Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen.                                                     

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Spirit-Filled Moment

This is my article for the Minister's Corner in the November 22nd Shawnee News-Star

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.  You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.  O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.   
                          Psalm 30: 4, 10-12 The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version

            I returned to my hometown, Nashville, Tennessee, this past weekend.  While my trips back home are generally for happy reasons – vacations, reunions, catching up with old friends – on this trip I returned to help officiate at the memorial service of a longtime friend.  Our families have known each other since before I can remember, so returning to say goodbye to him, to preach in his memory, was difficult to say the least. 

            My friend’s service, which was held at a funeral home, was a blend of different cultures and traditions.  The worship service promised to be a beautiful and meaningful one.  But as the other officiant and I worked to plan the order of worship, I realized that music was absent.  So I put out a call to some amazing friends from my high school, Varsity Choir days.  Would they be able and willing to take time out on a Saturday morning to come and sing?  Three dear friends answered my plea.  They didn’t know my friend who died.  They have lives, jobs, families, commitments.  Yet still they made the effort to be there, to sing. 

            I chose the hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”  It’s lovely and relatively simple.  I knew we would have to sing a cappella, so simple was a must.  Julie and Nancy were able to come an hour early so we could practice.  We had not sung together in over 30 years.  The hymn was not a familiar one to them.  We would be singing immediately after I finished preaching, so I warned them I might not be able to get through it.  But I would stand with them nonetheless.  In practice it sounded … okay.  We were rusty and nervous, but we trusted that all would be well.

            Our friend Jeff arrived just before the service began, so I didn’t know he was there until I went to sing with them.  Although the four of us hadn’t practiced together at all and the first note or two was a little shaky, our voices suddenly blended.  Maybe those listening heard it differently, but to my ears it was beautiful.  It was powerful and poignant and beautiful.  I worried that my emotions about my dear friend would hinder my singing, but I have never felt more uplifted.  Standing there with those sweet people, who came to do this because of and out of love, I felt a peace that had evaded me ever since I learned of my friend’s death.  In that moment, I understood more clearly these words of the psalmist. 

You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.

            God’s Spirit was tangible in that moment.  It was so filled with love and grace, healing and joy, I was overwhelmed and humbled.  Those kinds of moments, those Spirit-filled moments, are too often few and far between.  Perhaps the real truth is that my ability to recognize them is limited.  I am busy, distracted, anxious, and caught up in the minutia of daily life. But God refuses to go unnoticed.  How grateful I am for my friends and their love and generosity.  How grateful I am for music and its ability to touch each of our senses.  How grateful I am that God remains present, even when I don’t notice.  How grateful I am for those moments when I do. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Long Haul

Matthew 25:1-13
November 9, 2014

            Once when I was playing a game of Trivial Pursuit, I received a question about a business in the United Kingdom called Q4U.  The question was, “What service does this business provide?”  I thought about it for a few minutes, and then the answer – remarkably – came to me.  It’s a business where people stand in line.  That’s what it is.  People who are too busy or too impatient to stand in lines or queues for themselves can hire the good folks at Q4U to do it for them.  I dislike standing in lines as much as anybody else, but maybe if I were being paid to do it, I wouldn’t mind so much.  The idea that a company could prosper because they’re willing to wait in line for someone else is a reflection on a much larger issue.  Waiting.  I would guess that most of us don’t like waiting.  I don’t like waiting in lines, whether standing or in my car.  I don’t like waiting on hold.  I don’t like waiting for my computer to boot up.  I find it both funny and sad that we have technology literally at our fingertips that’s faster and more advanced than at any other time in history, but we still complain about having to wait.  Waiting for the log-in screen to come up on my phone so I can take advantage of the free wifi and check the internet while I’m waiting in line at Starbucks seems like a lifetime.  For many of us, waiting is not an easy thing to do.
            While it may not seem obvious at first, I think that waiting is an underlying theme in our passage from Matthew’s gospel.  One of the first things a commentator said about this passage in the weekly podcast I listen to was, “Well, I guess we can be glad there’s no wailing and gnashing of teeth.”  As a preacher you know you’re in for a rough ride when even the credentialed, lettered, title-bearing theologians look at a passage of scripture and say, “Yikes!  This is a hard text.  I’m glad I’m not preaching this Sunday.”  It is a hard text indeed.  The gospel of Matthew is not a lighthearted gospel in general.  But when it comes to judgment and the issue of who is really in and who is really out in God’s kingdom, Matthew is particularly hard-nosed.  This parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids is no exception.  Says Jesus, the kingdom of heaven will be like this.  There are ten bridesmaids.  Five of them are wise, and five of them are foolish.  They all have lamps, and they are all waiting for the groom to arrive.  But the five foolish ones don’t bring extra oil.  The five wise ones do.  This is the only real difference that’s pointed out about these bridesmaids.  This is what separates them into the two groups, foolish and wise.  All of the bridesmaids get sleepy.  All of the bridesmaids actually fall asleep.  But when the groom finally shows up, the wise ones are able to trim their lamps and meet the groom without their lamps, their lights, going dim.  They brought extra oil.  The five foolish ones didn’t, so they have to run to the oil dealers and get some more.  When they return, the door to the wedding has been closed.  When they cry out for admittance, the Lord replies, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”  The final warning – “keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” 
            It seems that the basic message we’re supposed to take from this is that we have to be prepared.  We have to be ready and watchful for the day when the Lord does return.  So make sure you have extra oil for your lamps and stay awake.  If we were entering into the season of Advent or Lent, reading this particular passage from Matthew would make more sense.  After all, those are seasons in the life of the church where preparation and readiness is emphasized.  But this is just a Sunday in ordinary time.  So why this passage today? 
            As I said earlier, I believe that the underlying message of this parable is waiting.  Watchfulness, preparedness, being ready is essential.  If the necessity of being prepared were all that we take away from our reading of it, that would be plenty.  But New Testament scholar Karoline Lewis points out that there is one line in verse 5 that’s often overlooked; “As the bridegroom was delayed.”  The bridegroom was delayed.  They were waiting.  Matthew’s gospel was written for a people who were waiting.  None of the gospels were written at the exact moment of Jesus’ life.  They were written after his life, his death, and his resurrection.  They were written by people for people who were waiting.  The first letter to the Thessalonians, which is where our New Testament lesson comes from today, is considered the earliest of all the epistles.  Paul was also writing to a people who were waiting.  Matthew’s gospel was written approximately 30 years after that letter.  The people who believed in Jesus, who believed he was the Son of God, who believed in his resurrection, also believed that he would return to them soon; maybe not immediately, but soon.  Yet here they were, generations after the resurrection and they were still waiting.  You can’t really fault the bridesmaids for falling asleep.  The bridegroom was delayed. 
            Here we are, some 2000 years after the resurrection and we’re still waiting.  If you think about it, our faith is based on waiting.  We are a waiting people living in the interim.  We are living in the time between the times, waiting for the promises of God that were embodied in Jesus to come to final fruition.  I’m not shy about saying that I’m not an apocalyptic preacher.  I don’t focus on the end times.  I disagree with the popular interpretation of the rapture, because I think that what passes for rapture theology is iffy theology at best.  I often think that we get so caught up in looking for signs of the end times that we forget to be the people God calls us to be right now, here, in the present. 
            It seems to me that this parable challenges us to think about how we wait.  It challenges us to consider how our daily lives connect with what we proclaim to believe.  Waiting for the bridegroom isn’t a mindless state of being.  Waiting for the bridegroom calls us to be intentional.  It calls us to be thoughtful about what we do and how we live.  Waiting isn’t passive.  It’s active.  No one knows when the bridegroom will finally arrive, so let’s assume that we are in it for the long haul.  Let’s wait with intention. 
            What does this waiting with intention look like?  In the parable, it’s about being ready.  The prophet Amos chastises the people listening to him that they are more worried about correct ritual, then about caring for the least of God’s people.  They worship in name only, but their hearts are not involved.  It seems to me that waiting with intention is about trying to make our daily lives match up to the faith we profess.  I’m not leveling criticism at one of us.  It’s really easy to say that those two things should match; it’s another thing to actually do it.  But that doesn’t exempt us from trying. 
            I also think that waiting with intention is about living with hope, even when all around us seems to be hopeless.  Today we celebrated the baptism of two of God’s precious children.  For all that baptism means, for all that it symbolizes, ultimately it is a profound statement of hope.  We baptize these children into the body of Christ because we place our hope in God’s promises.  We proclaim that God’s grace and love is real and works in our lives whether we know it or not.  We live with hope that God’s love which found physical expression in his Son will triumph over all the suffering that we create for ourselves.  To baptize is to wait with intention.  
            Some say that the good news of this passage is that even though it ends with judgment, in this interim time the door to the wedding banquet is still open.  It is open to all who are ready.  That is certainly true and it is most definitely good news.  But perhaps the greater good news is that while we are called to wait, to understand that our commitment to follow Jesus, to discipleship in his name means that we are in it for the long haul, the promise of God’s grace means that God is also in it for the long haul.  God promises that our waiting will not be in vain.  So let us trust in God’s promise.  Let us wait with intention and with hope.  After all, God is in it for the long haul.  Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

In Good Company

Matthew 5:1-12
November 2, 2014/All Saints Day

            When I was a leader of a Senior High youth group about a billion years ago, two of my freshmen girls came into our Sunday afternoon youth group meeting singing a song about the Beatitudes that they’d learned at a church camp one summer.  I have no recollection of the actual song, but I remember that it was a chirpy, happy little ditty.  I remember thinking, “Well that’s neat.  How great that they have this fun song to help them remember the Beatitudes.”  I didn’t give it much more thought than that until a long time later.  I heard these verses from Matthew and his telling of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the context of worship, and I heard them differently.  When I really listened to Jesus’ litany of blessed are, I thought, “Well no wonder someone put these into a cheerful, bouncy tune.  It’s the only way you can take them.”  I found myself reacting to the Beatitudes set to song the same way I react to Noah’s Ark being made into sweet little board books for babies.  In any other context, the story of Noah and God flooding the world should give us all nightmares, but you add a boat, animals and a rainbow, and it becomes a decorating theme for a nursery. The Beatitudes aren’t the stuff of nightmares, but I’ve always heard them as a list of standards.  This is the criteria you must meet in order for you to be blessed.  To be brutally honest, thinking of these as standards stresses me out.  I carry enough stress because of the impossible standards I already set for myself; I don’t need these impossible standards added to the mix. 
            This story of Jesus climbing a mountain followed by his disciples, and sitting down to teach them by giving them a list of requirements is reminiscent of another story about a man climbing a mountain.  That man climbed a mountain and met God at the summit.   From that encounter, that meeting, he returned to the people who had abided by his leadership with a particular list of standards: the Ten Commandments.  Moses sat with God on the holy mountain and brought back to the Israelites the Law.  The Law provided the foundation, the structure, the outline, the blueprint of how they were to live as God’s chosen people.  So with this image in our minds, it’s not surprising that we think of Jesus’ inventory of blessedness as commands.  I always have.  If you want to be blessed, this is what you have to do.  That’s why I find them stressful and frustrating.  Either I can’t live up to them or they sound absolutely dreary.  Whether it’s poor in spirit or just plain poor, poverty is not a good circumstance.  Blessed are the meek?  What does that mean?  Is it about humility or weakness?  Blessed are those who mourn?  There is a season for mourning, but isn’t there also a season for joy?  If I have to live in a constant state of mourning in order to be blessed, then I don’t want it.  And so on, and so on.
            If we hear these words of Jesus as commandments, then I think my original interpretation rings somewhat true.  But as one biblical scholar pointed out in his commentary, these statements about who is blessed are not spoken in the imperative voice.  They are inscriptive. They describe rather than prescribe.  Jesus isn’t setting out terms and conditions for being blessed.  He is describing those who are blessed. 
            “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
            “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
            “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
            “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
            “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
            “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
            “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom                      of heaven.”
            If this is a description of a reality, it is a beautiful reality.  The obstacle that it presents, though, is that it doesn’t describe our reality.  Does it?  Dr. Lance Pape, the scholar I quoted earlier, listed the beatitudes that we most often live by.
“Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.”
“Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.”
“Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.”
            These are the beatitudes I actually live by, whether I realize it or not.  While I don’t dispute the need for education, for aspirations, for working hard for something, Jesus was talking about something completely different.  Jesus said that those who are vulnerable, those who are marginalized, those who are outcast and left behind and forgotten, they are blessed.  The ones who would have been at the bottom of society were the ones that Jesus lifted up as blessed, honored, and cherished.  Although Matthew’s gospel doesn’t pursue the theme of reversal like Luke’s does, the beatitudes tell of a reality that was radically different from the one the people listening to him dwelled in; just as it seems radically different from our own. The least of these are blessed.
            Because this is such a different way of viewing the world and understanding blessings, it’s easy to think that it is less than good news for those of us who don’t live on life’s margins.  Yet, I think that Jesus is offering an invitation, not just to the least of these, but to all of us.  This is the kingdom of God.  It is a place of blessing.  Those who are least blessed, least honored in this world, will be the most blessed and honored in God’s realm. But God’s realm isn’t one of exclusion.  We are all invited to live there.  We are all invited to share in God’s blessings.  Perhaps we are not poor, in spirit or otherwise, but we can help and care for those who are.  Perhaps we are not in our own period of mourning, but we can give solace and comfort to those who grieve. 
            And maybe we are not so far away from those Jesus called blessed as we think.  The states of being that Jesus describes are vulnerable states.  At one time or another, in one way or another, we are all vulnerable.  Perhaps the real blessing comes when we acknowledge our vulnerability rather than equate it to weakness.  To be a peacemaker in a society that seems constantly at war is to be vulnerable.  To grieve and allow others to grieve without giving into the “snap out of it and pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality is to be vulnerable.  To speak our faith and take the consequences of that is to be vulnerable.  It seems to me that Jesus was teaching, once again, that real strength, real relationship, and real blessing is found in our vulnerability, not in a lack thereof. 
            Today we are not only called to consider blessing, we are also called to remember the saints.  I always believed that a saint was someone who was saintly; meaning they were perfect and without flaw.  I realize now that when I’ve pondered the beatitudes in the past, I’ve seen those who are able to be the people Jesus called blessed as saintly.  If that’s the definition of a saint, then I most certainly do not and will not ever measure up. 
            I think I got it both right and wrong.  The description of the blessed as Jesus taught is a description of a saint.  But that doesn’t mean perfection.  It means faithfulness.  The people I consider saints were not perfect.  But they were faithful.  They were willing to be vulnerable.  Their relationship with God, and with others, exemplified peacemaking, purity of heart, meekness and humility, standing in solidarity with both the poor and the poor in spirit, and a willingness to be persecuted, laughed at, dismissed, and cast off because of and for the sake of their faith.  Those are the saints.  The good news is that the beatitudes are not about terms and conditions, standards or criteria.  They are about hope.  Father Bill Carroll said in our Bible study at the YMCA this week, that even as Jesus describes those who are blessed, he was bringing that blessedness into fruition.  The time when those who are least will be blessed isn’t just far off and far away, it was then.  It is now.  We are invited to take part in God’s kingdom.  We are invited to share in the blessings of God, and be in good company with all the saints.  Let all of God’s blessed children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen.