Monday, November 29, 2010

red-green team and the blue side

The sermon from this weekend. I held up red & green and blue ribbon bows while I spoke. And I did find Luther quotes for both sides.

Advent 1A, November 28/29 “That Day and Hour” - Matthew 24:36-44

You know, it's that time of year. The church calls it Advent, and the world calls this is the time before Christmas. Those are two different orientations, you see. I’m going to call these two attitudes the Red/Green Team and the Blue Side. And these are balanced, I think, and we live, more or less, in both ways of life, some of us more, some of us less.

The Red-Green Team – those who live in the ‘Time before Christmas” find their world filled with stuff to do,
• plans to fulfill, things to buy or to make, places to go, people to see.
• These folks have no problem with hearing Christmas Music early, seeing decorations and spreading the delightful promises of the festival season early and often. Why can’t we sing Joy to the World?
• It is a time filled with doing and activity. Those are not bad things – we really try to think about what others might want, we become more generous and kind-hearted. I love the time before Christmas for its ability to stir even the least spiritual into an awareness of others, of giving to the less needy. Charity at the holidays is something we can be proud of.

Now on the church calendar, we call these 4 Sundays the time of Advent. This is where the Blue Side lives.
• The Blue side is all about waiting, listening, watching, keeping awake, becoming aware of silence and uncertainty.
• The Blue Side remembers there are old and seldom sung hymns just for this season. They are the O Come, O Come Emmanuel folks.
• It is less about doing, and more about listening, seeing, asking questions. Where is God today? What does God want? What does it mean that God became human, and was really present in this first century Jew we call Jesus?

These two attitudes are often looked at as opposites, as two things that can’t exist together, but today I see both of these orientations as having their own blessing as we live as the Advent people. Both orientations, the one that is busy and full of things to do, and the one that is quiet and attentive, both respond to the same hope, the same great news.

The hope is the one expressed in our scripture readings today – over and over again – that God will do a new thing, that the kingdom of God will be made real, that the city of God will be established, that the people of God will be safe, that all people will be gathered into God’s loving embrace.

We know that this movement of God, this new thing, began with the birth of Jesus long ago, and flowered in the life of Jesus and was testified in his death and resurrection – and we wait in hope for the next moment, that which was promised. That’s why we call this time ‘Advent’ (which is related to the word advance – this is time in advance of something). There are these strange images from the Bible and they tell us that in some way, God’s not done. God’s not done with us. God’s not done with the story.

So both the Red-Green Team and the Blue Side are working in this sense of hope, of expectation that something is going to happen, and we ought to be ready for it.

We do not know when God will complete the story of his love, his victory, his justice for all. But we know that we live in advance of it – we live in expectation, in hope, that both justice and judgment will come. Those two things – justice and judgment – are not opposed at all in the eyes of God. The kingdom of God is a place where peace is practiced, where all are called to the banquet, and no one goes hungry, no one is cold, no one is left alone. And those blessings are to come through God’s chosen people, through the grace and love and strength given by God. The story is not completed, but we play our part as this generation of those who must be prepared.

So listen to the lessons – They speak of the joy of salvation – of being God’s loved people and they speak of responsibility. They speak God’s actions, yes, but also of the expectations for God’s people. Isaiah calls the people of God to ‘walk in the light of the Lord!’ even though the complete victory of his vision is far away. Walk in the light - there is a way to live that is close to God’s intentions.

The apostle Paul has the same insight – that when we are living in the waiting time, we are living not just for ourselves, but for the hope that is in us. So he reminds his listeners to cling to honor, to seek to live well, remembering the better way that we have been taught.

And Jesus gives us this extraordinary reminder that life can be short, that encounters with God can come at any moment – we do not know the hour or the day. We might want to shrug off this passage, but it should re mind us that judgment will come, and in the Gospel of Matthew, judgment and justice lie side by side. Like the owner of the house, we should be always ready to respond – never thinking that tomorrow is soon enough for charity, that next year is soon enough for commitment. God doesn’t work that way. Now is the time.

Perhaps for each of us, whether we are on the Red-Green team or Blue Side of this season – we can take a lesson from pattern of the other.

For the busy Red-Green people – how do we listen for God’s hope beyond our own busy plans? The answer may be in those practices of quietness and mediation – in devotions and music and scripture reading that force us to take time away from planning and doing so that we are just present. Luther was asked how he fit everything into his busy life - well, I pray 2 hours a day, and if I'm really busy . . . I pray for 4 hours.

If you are like me, and make to do lists, we could put ‘PRAY’ at the top of our list. If you already do this – then you may already be leaning to the Blue Side, but for those of us who find ourselves full of tasks to do, our Advent challenge is to stop and listen, stop and contemplate, stop doing and start waiting.

For those Blue Side – we must realize that God has placed us in the world and called us to service now. So the question may be: how do we find our path of impacting and serving the world that God has placed in front of us? There is an old story about Martin Luther being asked what he would do if he were to discover that the world were coming to an end tomorrow. Luther’s response: “I would plant an apple tree.”

That’s a Red-Green response if ever there was one. It was Luther’s way, I suspect, of asserting that our calling is ever to trust in God’s faithfulness and to seek to be faithful followers of Jesus, day in and day out. Our calling is to embrace the sharp edge of expectant hope, to affirm that, even now, God may well be at work in the world around us.

So whether you identify with the Red-Green Team or the Blue Side, whether you desire to sing your Christmas Carols today or long to hear the rare and solemn ancient hymns of Advent – you are called to live in expectation that, yes, Christ is Coming, Christ is coming indeed.

Monday, November 22, 2010

day off? on?

I found a free day, and I don't know what to do with myself. Or rather - here is a day in which I don't need to go to the office at least - the first in 10 days - and it's hard to get moving. I have a list of things to do - shop for Thanksgiving, clean house, call back on church details (oh, that's work again), catch up on school - - but.

But. Something in me just wants to curl up and finish my Trollope book (I love Anthony Trollope! His insight into people! His dry wit! Despite the fact he's writing in and about the 1850s, I know these people, and know these places), drink tea and listen to music. Now that I have a funeral on Friday, that day is chopped up. Sorry Sara, I can't spend all day with you at home.

Some of you know I'm taking courses in counseling. For my current course I need to speak to someone who leads group counseling/support groups, and I've come up dry. Any suggestions?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Christ the King Sunday


Christ the King C, 2010 – Nov. 20/21 – ‘End and Beginning’
Luke’s Passion
When did this start, this idea of the kingdom of God – this new thing that God does? We usually suggest it starts with the birth of Jesus – Christmas – that little babe. (The little babe, so few days old, has come to rifle Satan's fold) But in Colossians and in John – it is part of God’s imaginative hope when he made creation- these creatures, with imagination and language and reason – these ones who bear his image- these are the ones who might understand what it means to worship him. We are called to worship, from the beginning. And when we fall away, we – our flesh and blood and DNA - are still the vehicle for this miracle of incarnation. That’s where it starts – with being who we are, with being human.

Back up a few days from our Gospel story. We think the disciples, those who knew Jesus in his active ministry, who traveled with him, and listened to him daily – we think they had a pretty good idea of what Jesus was about. The stories we have received, however, show us otherwise. Those closest to Jesus misunderstood him, and showed themselves as ordinary folks who wasted their time debating who would be most honored.

Two of them, brothers James and John, came to Jesus and asked him to honor them by promising that they – James and John – would be the right-hand man and the left-hand man when Jesus came into his glory. Get this – they asked for the particular places of honor and power. They asked to be recognized above all the other ten intimates, above all the others who followed Jesus daily, above Jesus’ mother and Jesus own brother, above anyone else who would even join the movement. Let us be your lieutenant – your generals, your chosen men.

Jesus said to them: “you don’t know what you are asking. Will you follow where I am going to go? Will you do what I am going to do?” “Oh, yes, of course” And Jesus probably looked at them with love and shook his head – because he knew they would indeed be taking up the way of the cross, and that they had no idea of what was in store for them. “Indeed you will drink the cup that I drink, and you will go the way I go – but to guarantee that kind of honor you seek – it is not in my hands.”

The son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for all.

Now look were we are a few days later – Jesus is abandoned on the cross. James and John – well, they are not on his right and left hands. Those on his right and left hands are criminals, probably either highwaymen or revolutionaries foolish enough to get caught. All three are face the horrific execution of crucifixion. Let’s remember, Jesus was not the only one to suffer this way – not the only one to ‘take up his cross’ – it was a common practice in those cruel days.

This is the cup which Jesus must drink, the baptism he must be baptized by. This is what he asked James and John if they were willing to undergo. For James and John, this is the END – this is the end of the Jesus movement, this is the end of the hopes that through charisma, through teaching, through works of power and healing justice and righteousness might win. This is the end to the hopes that James and John or Peter or anyone might find themselves able to act with God’s Power and Might and Judgment.

This is the end of all that – all that expectation that the Reign of God, this Kingdom of Heaven was going to be a Nation, an Empire, a Government like any other Government.

The sign above Jesus head said “This is the King of the Jews” and at his right hand and his left hand were the scum of the earth. It was meant to be ironic, a claim that was so obviously untrue that no one would ever claim that title again. But Jesus, in the midst of his own agony, shows what a king truly is.

What is a King? A King is forgiving: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Extraordinary – those soldiers knew what they were doing – they were mocking the dying, they were benefiting from other’s pain, they were killing people. Jesus still asks that they be forgiven – for the complete generosity of his kingdom will include even those who are cruel, the enemy, the scoffers, the on-lookers.

What is a King? A king is gracious. So Jesus turns to the one who acknowledges his own guilt, defends Jesus, and attributes innocence to him, and Jesus promises grace. Jesus promises paradise, Jesus promises that this broken man will be with Jesus in Paradise.

What is a King? This cross is the moment of beginning of the kingdom of God. This cross is where we see what a King is and what a King does. How a King becomes not a King of the World, but a King of our soul, of our hearts. The cross is the end point of any dreams that following this Messiah would provide power and authority on earth. The cross is the beginning of a new thing, a new kind of kingdom.

And if we are not sure that this story is true – that this is the way that God will be working - God completes the drama, God provides the last act, has the last word – on Easter morning Jesus is seen alive and whole and complete. The King has returned, and the new way has truly begun.

The New Kingdom is an invitation to all of us – to see ourselves in the story. Who are we, where do we stand?

o Are we still like James and John, wondering what the reward on this earth is going to be? And if so, what happens when the reward is not forthcoming? Can we open our hearts to realize it isn’t about us, isn’t about what we think is important – that God is pointing to an internal, spiritual transformation that must precede the reformation of the world?

o Are we like those on-lookers, not so sure that this King has any real power over what really matters to us? What do we miss when we do not see that this King, this incarnated savior, is present for us always, showing a way of life that does powerfully shape what really matters to us?

o Are we like those thieves – caught up in our own pain? And then, even then, in pain – real pain – grief, illness, fear, anger, disappointment, frustration – do you see that there are two ways to respond to the presence of our broken King?

He’s there with us in our pain – and we can turn away or we can turn toward. Turn away: “Save yourself and us!” and when he does not save us in the way that we want, let bitterness overtake us. Or we can turn toward him – and do what the thief did: Worship him. See him in his truth. See what he went through, and why.

The New Kingdom is an invitation. To you and me, to know this King, to struggle with what he means for us, in the old language to conform our lives to his, to figure out how we live -
How we spend money, how we participate in all the uses of power in our lives,
How we love each other, how we treat each other.
The New Kingdom is an invitation to live in Christ Jesus, to embody this King – forgiving, gracious, and hopeful of Paradise.

Not a bad way to begin a new life – forgiving, gracious and hopeful of Paradise. Amen.


Friday, November 19, 2010

On who we are to Christ the King

"Today I tell you you will be with me in Paradise"

Who is there in the kingdom?

The kingdom of those who have no other possession.

The kingdom that we enter (only) as we know we are dispossessed - leave behind the safety of possessions, leave behind the gratification of success, leave behind the conviction of health, security, 'okayness' - then and only then do we enter his kingdom - naked, solitary, ashamed - and honored.

Who will be there?

Bandits and thieves and failed revolutionaries, criminals who have been caught and humiliated, teenage prostitutes who cling to their pimps, the battered mother who loves and coddles her son, the fellow who bet it all on a great stock tip, the half-dead long-haired ex-con who can't get a job. And the banker and the lawyer and the priest and the lucky one who won the lottery.

When does this moment of the cross happen?

the cross moment happens every day - every day that life ends, or life begins.
Every day that joy is born and every day that joy is extinguished.
the cross moment is when we learn who we really are before the cosmos.
When we are small, or very big, or disappear - which is all the same.

Then we glimpse Paradise - not as a completed version of what we desire, but as the time we are fully known and will know fully.

Flannery O'Connor had it right. The Revelation is that all the Turpins - like me - who think they have it right, will only be on the way to Paradise when all is burned away. Entering the kingdom, on our way to Paradise, isn't anything like exaltation - it's life, burning through us, taking away, taking away, taking away.

I don't know how to preach this.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Reformation Sunday

Reformation Sunday
“Slaves and Free” – JOHN 8:31-34

There were a lot of great things to see and hear in Germany. For each person, a trip like that holds particular memories. The City of Wittenberg is called one of the ‘LutherStadt” cities, recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site. There is a long mile street from Luther and Katie’s home to the Castle Church where Luther posted his 95 theses on the Eve of All Saints Day, October 31st. There is a short digression off the main street to St. Mary’s Church, which was the parish church for the city, the common church, the homely home for most of the people of Wittenberg. This was the church were Martin and Katie were married, where their children were baptized, where they made their spiritual home.

The church itself is nothing special. It is old, started in 1300 and finished a few years before Luther was born – and it has been re”muddled” many times, made modern in whatever fashion was in fashion, so the interior is not at all like the church of Martin and Katie’s days. Then there would have wood screens hiding the priest from the people. There would have been small chapels in the aisles for personal devotions. There would have been many statutes, many painted plaques remembering the gifts of the deceased. There would have been the smell of incense and the hovering sense of mystery – of the words of the Latin mass murmured far away from the worshiper, the raising of the host in its gilded holder. Only the priests would consume the wine, and only a few people would be considered holy enough to receive the bread. It was, after all, a medieval Catholic building.

But this is what grabbed me – here, in this place, this sanctuary, on Christmas Eve , the pastor of this church, who was named Johannes Bugenhagen, said the service in German, the language of the people, and offered communion to the people in bread and wine. In that place, for the first time in centuries, the people heard the words of the Holy Eucharist in their own language. In that place the mysteries were opened and while not less mysterious, all people, young and old, learned and illiterate, men and women, were invited into the mystery at the heart of our faith.

Jesus says: “if you continue in my word … you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” As Christians we struggle with this question – what does it mean to be free, to live in the truth, and in the converse, in what ways are we not free, are we still slaves? In the time of Luther and Bugenhagen, at that moment in St. Mary’s Church – the question of slave and free was deeply important.

The first slavery was the influence of false teaching – the notion that people could buy off the consequences of their sins without true repentance, confession and reformation of life. The established church would allow the viewing of relics to substitute for change in life, for responsibility. The objection to this is the beginning of Luther’s actions with the 95 statements.
But there was a deeper slavery, a more fundamental disease that existed then and now that Luther and his colleages struggled with. It was ignorance – ignorance of the depth and width of Jesus’ Word – of the whole intention of God’s plan and promise – the ignorance of the Gospel itself.

When Jesus says: “The truth will set you free” his listeners protest – wait , we are free, we are born free, we are not in slavery to anyone or anything. They are essentially saying – what do you mean – we are okay just as we are. “We are okay just as we are.”

Let that echo for a minute – We are okay just as we are. Does that sound familiar? That assertion – I’m okay – I don’t know about you, but I’m just fine – that attitude is the same 2000 years ago, and in Luther’s time, and in ours. It is an on-going stance of the human condition. Those who point it out get into trouble – Parent, don’t correct that behavior, because you won’t be your kids’ friend anymore. Ecologist – don’t remind us we are wasting the world’s resources, polluting the planet, changing the weather. Social reformer – don’t suggest that we can share the wealth, so that no one goes hungry. Pastor, don’t preach about sin, you’ll hurt someone’s feelings. Don’t ask for a commitment, because you’ll be going against culture, and only be disappointed.

And, if you read all of John chapter 8 – you’ll find that Jesus is in this exact situation – he is using the language of slaves to sin, and no one wants to hear him – they want to kill him.

“The truth will set you free.” is a message that was true in Jesus’ time and the time of the Reformation and in our time. And the people – all of us, we are no different – we reply with the same blind perspective. In some way we respond with ‘We are descendents of Abraham’ – “I’m okay just as I am”

When I spoke about the Christmas Eve service at St. Mary’s in Wittenberg I said that the mysteries were opened up and all were invited in. There is a mystery at the heart of every Christian worship service. It is the mystery of our freedom, our true identity in Christ as beloved Children of the Divine.

The heart of the Gospel will always be a mystery – but it doesn’t need to be an unknown. Jesus desires us to know his Word, know his Truth, to know him. When we suggest that we are okay just as we are – we don’t need to learn more, don’t need to change, don’t need to repent – we are fundamentally at odds with the Gospel. The Gospel is always about change, change in the heart, right here. It is always about recognizing that we are slaves, slaves to sin, we are a community of slaves, struggling to be free.

That’s strong language, but it’s the only kind of language that I can find that reflects how strongly the Gospel Word should touch us.

We figure as we go through life, we have to go it on our own – we have a problem, we figure we’ll fix ourselves – be it through buying indulgences, or psychotherapy without prayer, or making tons of money, or spending tons of money, or drugs to dull our panic attacks, or giving our body away to another because we think that will make us loved somehow – you can name the situation – we go it on our own and the fix is always temporary, partial. We can eat well, and feel empty, we can be intimate and be alone, we can come to church, and not hear a thing, not feel a thing.

There is a mystery that dwells at the heart of every worship service, a mystery that near to each one of us. It is not far away, and not difficult. It isn’t a secret. It is a mystery. It is that Jesus Christ took care of our slavery already. It is that the price was paid. The way out of prison is right here.
The race to be independently found worthy is over. We don’t have to be okay just as we are. We aren’t supposed to be okay just as we are. The Gospel is fundamentally about change. We are called to be better. We are called to be justified, make right, approved, blessed, identified as Children of God, better than anything we can do on our own.

The truth will set you free. Free to change. Free to turn away from unproductive habits, from self-satisfaction, from fruitless fixes that never last. Free from fear that you are faking it, free from always striving to present a good face.

Free for living – choosing healthy ways to relate to others, free for self-respect, free for compassion for others, free for worshiping in thanks and praise. Free from selfishness, ready to step out and give up a little for others, for God, for God’s mission.

500 years ago, the world was reminded that God’s Truth, the Word of Jesus, could not be purchased, was not to be held back, but was a treasure that could be, should be shared, opened, consumed and praised. Let us praise and worship and give thanks, that in Christ alone, we are free.