Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Parable of the Patient Father

This sermon is for the mother who has looked her son in the eye as he tells her he can no longer believe in God.
This sermon is for the sister who hangs up with her brother in tears because he's rejected her, her love, and her message of hope in Christ.
This sermon is for the husband who has given up trying to drag his wife to church, and the grandmother who has brought her grandkids to Sunday school faithfully and watched them fall away, and the father who has seen his sons reject Gospel truth and become disciples of Bill Maher.
This sermon is for all of us who love someone who will not or cannot share our faith.
This sermon is for the prodigal fathers.
When I read Luke 15 this week, I didn't identify with the younger son,
The way I did when I felt for the first time my sin, guilt, and estrangement from God.
I didn't identify with the older son,
The way I have when I feel self-righteous and whiny, telling God about how much I've given up to serve him.
This time when I read Luke 15 I felt the pain of the prodigal father.
While this parable is usually called "the prodigal son,"
As the word "prodigal" means "uncontrolled," "reckless," or "extravagant,"
This has been called the parable of the prodigal father,
Who is uncontrolled, reckless, extravagant, prodigal, in his love for his son.
He lavishes the undeserving child with honor, his ring, his robe, killing the fatted calf;
He calls him his "teknon," in Greek, "little child."
You could translate his words, "my baby has come back to me."
The father's love is boundless. He loses all dignity as he weeps over his beloved child, once thought dead, now come home.
We get to see the beauty of this love.
Jesus shows us the end of the story.
But what if we were to see that father in the middle of the story?
What if we were to observe him on an ordinary day, one of the hundreds, thousands of days of waiting for a son who would probably never return?
The son, in asking for his father's estate, had effectively said "you're dead to me," and left home.
No rational person would ever expect that boy to come home.
He had rejected the love of his father.
If we read the parable as a story of God's love for his children, he's rejected the love of God.
He is the person who has said, "God is dead to me."
Natalie Bolz Weber, who blogs as "The Sarcastic Lutheran," notes the vulnerability of God in this parable.
God allows the child to waste the estate.
God allows his children to waste our lives, to pollute our bodies, to abuse his creation, to reject his love and burn through our inheritance.
God allows his children to spit in his face and wish him dead.
Because that's love.
Love that is forced, obligatory, not freely given is not love at all.
Love has to allow the beloved the possibility of rejection.
I believe that hell, in some form, exists because if God truly loves us, he will allow us the possibility to hate him and abandon him completely.
And if that is true, then God also experiences that separation and abandonment.
Does God feel the pain of his separation from us?
I believe God does.
If you feel the pain of having a child, a sibling, a spouse, who cannot believe,
If for you, that is one of the great tragedies of your life,
Then how could God possibly fail to feel that pain?
We hear the pain of the Father in Hosea 11,
“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
    and out of Egypt I called my son.
2 But the more they were called,
    the more they went away from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals
    and they burned incense to images.
3 It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
    taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
    it was I who healed them.
4 I led them with cords of human kindness,
    with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts
    a little child to the cheek,
    and I bent down to feed them….
7 My people are determined to turn from me."
God feels the pain of rejection.
When you worry, when you hurt, because people you love do not realize how deeply God loves them,
When your heart breaks because someone you love chooses a different path,
Know that God is with you in that pain.
Like the father who watched his son walk away.
Before the father showed his extravagant love with extravagant joy,
I believe that father felt an extravagant pain.
For each day of rejoicing at a son come home, there were hundreds and thousands of days when the father feared his son was dead.
Thousands of days with no communication, no contact,
Thousands of days for the father to hear those words of hate echo in his memory,
Thousands of days for the father to work the fields with his older son, with an invisible wound left where his younger son had left him broken.
Jesus skips those days.
The only hint is when Jesus says that the father saw his son from afar off.
And I only see that hint because of my father.
You see, I have a prodigal father, an extravagant dad,
A father who embarrassed me in the cheering section at Math Olympics when I was eight,
And embarrassed me on the sidelines of my track meets in high school,
And embarrasses me on Sunday mornings now with his prodigal love.
And it was he who said to me, do you know why that father saw his son from afar off?
Because every single day, that father was watching down the road.
Watching, and waiting.
Though he had no reason to watch.
Though he had no cause to wait.
Though his hope was entirely irrational, he watched.
And he waited.
And my father said, do you know why that father came running from afar off?
He said, "any one of you kids, I can see it's you, from the way you walk, from the back of your head, from the shape of your shadow I would know you."
The Father watches.
The Father waits.
What is the very first description of love in 1 Corinthians 13?
Love is patient.
God is patient.
We are called to patience.
One thing I recognized this time reading Luke 15 is that the father does not go searching for his son.
Even though the shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep to search for the one that is lost,
In this parable the father stays home.
And there's a message there.
Sometimes, God doesn't run after us.
Sometimes God waits.
And sometimes we are called to wait for God's children to see the light.
You can tell your child, your wife, your sister all your reasons for believing.
You can preach, you can give them books, you can invite them to church.
But then you have to wait.
Maybe one day he'll fall in love with a godly woman and she'll lead him to the truth.
Maybe when she holds her newborn child she'll see that he's truly a miracle.
Maybe on his deathbed he'll finally see the God who has loved him all along.
Like the waiting father, we can only hold on to an irrational hope that the child will come home.
Waiting is faith.
Waiting is trust that God will act in God's timing, not in ours.
In the black church they say, "He may not come when you want him, but he'll be there right on time."
2 Peter puts it this way: "with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance."
In other words, have patience with God, because he's patient with us.
Jesus has not yet returned because there are people God is waiting on to repent.
God can't give us our full inheritance yet because he's still waiting on that younger son.
But if you love your brother, your husband, your wife,
If you love your sister, your grandson, your child,
If you would do anything for them to know God,
Don't you think God will do anything to for them to know him too?
Do you think anything could stand in God's way?
Could anything stop this extravagant, uncontrolled, prodigal love,
The extravagant love that exploded in creation
And set the planets spinning,
The extravagant love that carved the Grand Canyon
And poured Niagra falls,
Wove the wings of the butterfly
And taught the whale to sing?
That extravagant love that somehow used ordinary people like me and my husband,
And our ordinary, imperfect, selfish, impure, mixed-motive love,
To create a miracle like my son,
With his eyelashes, thin as paper, his tiny, blue veined hands, his smile, that when it breaks forth, is like the sun when it rises?
That extravagant love that created the universe,
It will never stop waiting.
It will never give up.
So you don't give up either.
When you pray for that sibling, that spouse, that child, that friend,
Maybe even that prodigal parent,
Keep hoping with an irrational hope.
Keep working in your father's field.
Keep watching down the road.
And trust the prodigal Christ when he tells you one day, that child will come home.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Shouldn't we be as good as State Farm?

You're driving down I-75 in the ice and snow when you see a car stuck on the side of the road.
What do you do?
There are two young Hispanic kids in hoodies with enormous gold chains standing outside the car, rubbing their arms, clearly freezing.
Do you stop and help?
What if it's a woman in her nineties, still inside the car, who probably doesn't have a cell phone?
Do you stop then?
What if it's someone you know from work?
From church?
What if you happen to see your spouse is stuck by the roadside, do you stop then?
Your child?
When you're stuck on the side of the road in a car accident, it's not quite as bad as being beaten by highway robbers and left for dead, but add in a Michigan winter and I'd say it's pretty close.
Whose responsibility is it to help?
When most people have cell phones and everyone's required to have insurance, if you're like me you've never stopped.
You assume people are getting the help they need.
After all, it's someone else's responsibility to take care of it.
His friend.
Her daughter.
Triple A.
All I have to do is say…like a good neighbor…
And you know the response…come on…give it to me…
State Farm is there!
And if State Farm will be there, for the right price, who needs to be a neighbor?
Preacher Nancy Rockwell points out that we pay first responders now,
And maybe that's a good thing.
After all, I possess neither the training nor the equipment to deal with a heart attack,
Getting stuck in a snowdrift,
Or even, embarrassingly, a flat tire.
But it's easy to get into the habit of saying, let someone else deal with it.
When disaster strikes…we send in FEMA.
The elderly…they've got Social Security, Medicare.
The poor…we pay taxes and give to charity…let the government deal with that!
Stranded by the side of the road?
If you're smart, you've paid your insurance,
And for the right price, you'll get a good neighbor! State Farm will be there!
But in a nation where most people claim to be Christian,
Should you have to pay to have a good neighbor?
Whose responsibility is it?
Who is my neighbor?
Who would you stop to help?
A stranger?
Someone of a different tribe, class, race?
An acquaintance?
Your best friend?
Who is my neighbor?
In Jesus's parable, a man is traveling down the highway from Jerusalem to Jericho.
Rockwell points out, it was a highway.
It was I-75.
Everyone had somewhere to go, something to do.
Did the Levite, the priest, did they fail to stop because they didn't want to touch a dead body,
Didn't want to become ceremonially unclean,
Or was it because they had important meetings to get to,
People to see, animals to sacrifice, things like that?
And we, do we stop to help others
Or are we so caught up in our busy-ness that we just drive by?
As I was writing my sermon today, I was wracked by guilt
Because, between the snow, parenting, and family commitments,
I wasn't able to visit church members in dire need.
Whose responsibility is it to comfort the dying?
I want to respond, it's mine.
I don't want to be the priest, the Levite, who is too busy.
I know that my neighbor is not just my family,
That my obligation is not just to them,
But to all God's children.
Have I failed to be a good neighbor?
And, if this is the second most important commandment,
The first being to love God, the second to love my neighbor as myself,
Does failing to stop by the side of the road, failing to visit shut in church members as often as I'd like, failing to be the one to go into the homes of the flood victims this fall, does that put me in danger of hellfire?
And so I read the parable again.
The Samaritan stops.
The person least likely to help, with reason to walk by.
He puts the man on his beast of burden and brings him to an inn.
Where he pays the innkeeper to take care of him.
Which of these three helped him?
All three.
Not the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan.
The Samaritan, the donkey, and the innkeeper.
Several biblical scholars point out that the Samaritan was a good neighbor…but he didn't act alone.
The donkey, who had no choice, was the one who carried the suffering man.
The innkeeper, whose job was one thought of as less than holy, he helped the suffering man and received pay for his efforts.
The Samaritan didn't act alone.
He worked with what was available to him.
And, he didn't stay by the suffering man's side the whole time.
This isn't to get us off the hook from helping others.
But your calling and mine is to work with others.
We must remind ourselves: there was a Messiah: I am not him.
As a pastor, I am called to visit the sick, to bring communion, to pray for others and care for them.
But I want to tell you as a church and I want to tell myself—I can't do everything.
I can't even do everything I want to do.
And that doesn't make me a bad neighbor.
Our church understands that, and we all visit, care, and offer support.
We send flowers and we send out the prayer chain.
Could we do better? Absolutely.
One thing I would like to restart is the knitting ministry to create prayer shawls for those who are sick and hurting,
Because I think it will do a lot of good both for those who receive prayers and for those who give them.
I think we are doing a fairly good job of working together with others to care for our own.
And by housing the poorest among us during these cold days, we are being good neighbors to people in need in our community.
We need to recognize that we work together,
And we need sometimes to invite others to help us.
There are others in our community who, like the donkey, like the innkeeper,
Need to be put to work caring for our neighbors.
It's such a wonderful thing to me that we have other churches and community groups helping with the warming shelter.
It's not a bad thing that our church asks others to partner with us to get things done:
The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us it's healthy and right.
We are called to expand our definition of Samaritan.
Not just you.
Not just me.
Who could be doing more?
Do you have family, friends, acquaintances who can help?
We are called to stop taking on all the work and instead helping others to do the work God has called them to do.
We are called to expand our definition of a Good Samaritan.
We are called to expand our definition of a neighbor in need.
Not just my family.
Not just my friends.
Not just my church.
What if our visiting and caring for others were to expand?
If we grow our definition of Samaritan,
If we grow our definition of neighbor,
Brothers and sisters, perhaps that's how God will grow our church.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Friday, February 13, 2015

There's No Such Thing As Late To Church

Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. Matthew 20:10

It's the day of the congregational meeting.
There's a larger than usual crowd at Smallchurch, ready to hear the reports of the Sunday School Superintendent, the Sewing Circle, and of course, the Swingin' Sisters of Song, Smallchurch's praise band.
All the usual families are there, in all their usual pews, as the first hymn begins.
Suit-and-Tie Sal sits in the place of honor, as a founding member of Smallchurch. At ninety, he always looks sharp with his silk ties and three piece suits, proudly wearing his founder's pin. Suit-and Tie Sal is a well respected member of the church.
He was usher for many years.
He serves on the church board.
But Suit-and-Tie Sal has a much more important role than any of that.
Suit-and-Tie Sal has been the church's Easter Bunny for fifty years.
Over in the next pew sits Sweater Vest Sam.
Sweater Vest Sam is in his sixties and a new grandfather.
Chair of the church board, Sweater Vest passed out the bulletins for today's service and personally ran off the agenda for today's meeting.
But Sweater Vest has an agenda of his own.
You see, for years he's been the lowly egg stuffer for the church's Easter celebration, known throughout the community as the Bunny Bash.
For decades Sweater Vest Sam has packed jellybeans into little plastic containers.
And at the last church board meeting, as Sweater Vest Sam and Suit and Tie Sal were enjoying a post meeting coffee and shooting the breeze, Sal confided that he was ready to hang up the bunny ears and retire, and he suggested Sam take over.
Sweater Vest Sam at first didn't want the job, but the more he's thought about it, the more he likes the idea of a little fun on Easter. His grandkids will be in church, and he'd like them to see his lighter side.
So Sal's come up with the perfect Easter Bunny voice and perfected his bunny bounce.
He's dreaming of the day he can don the coveted costume complete with carrot
He can't wait for the moment in the meeting when Sal resigns.
But Sam sees only one problem: State Sweatshirt Steve.
Now State Sweatshirt Steve hasn't been a member as long as Suit-and-Tie Sal. He doesn't sit on the church board. He's not an usher, and personally, Sweatervest doesn't think he possesses the necessary gravitas ush-ing requires. And State hasn't done any time on egg duty. Sal chuckles to himself, reflecting that State wouldn't know a jellybean from a jello-shot.
But State Sweatshirt Steve is known as the church comedian, and he's got a lot of grandkids of his own.
Could State Sweatshirt Steve usurp the title of Bunny Bash Bunny for his own?
No. Of course not. Pastor Smith knows that Sweatervest deserves the slot. He's been here since before even the pastor. Surely the role of honor belongs to him and none other!
After the service, the meeting begins. Smallchurch hears from the Swinging Sisters and the Sewing Circle and finally it's time for the report from the Bunny Bash Board.
Suit and Tie stands. With a knowing glance at Sweater Vest, he says that it's time for the ceremonial whiskers to pass to someone not quite so long in the tooth.
Pastor Smith speaks up. "Well, thank you Sal. I don't know who could possibly fill your paws, but there must be someone in the church who's willing. Anyone want to be the new Easter bunny, just let me know sometime…"
SweaterVest eagerly lifts a finger to the air and says, "Well, Pastor, it's a big job, but I'm willing to take it on."
But then State Sweatshirt Steve, rises from his seat. "You know, Pastor, I haven't been here as long as Sal or Sam, but I'd be interested, and I think I could make it real fun for the kids. And no offense Sam, but you know, sometimes it's good to get some new blood in a church."
Sam is about to respond when of a sudden there is a hubbub from the back of the church.
And up pops Snake Tattoo Sandy, clad in jeans, biker vest, bandana and earring.
Sam knows his from seeing him outside Saul's Saloon, but he's never been in church before.
Snake Tattoo Sandy, suffice it to say, would definitely know a jellybean from a Jello shot, and is rumored to have tasted a few too many of the latter.
Snake Tattoo Sandy speaks up.
"You know Smitty" he doesn't even have the decency to call him Pastor Smith, reflects Sam—"I'm so glad you invited me to this meeting. And by the way, I'm sorry I got here seventeen minutes into the service. And that I tracked mud on your pretty carpet there in the narthex. And that I knocked over your walker, ma'am. Oh yeah, and I'm pretty sure my spike gloves may have torn your hymnals."
"You see guys—" Sandy looks around the church—"Smitty here and me were playing pool at Saul's Saloon on Saturday" Pastor Smith goes to Saul's Saloon? Sam is gobsmacked—"And Smitty invited me to y'all's church service and, well, I really liked what he said about how the last will become first. I guess you can say I've been one of 'the last' a lot of times in life. I haven't prayed in years, and Lord and me haven't been on such good of terms. I mean, I know I'm new and all, but I have been thinking about that the past five minutes or so, and I would sure like to help you all out by being your Bunny Bash Bunny. I think it would really show the Lord that I mean to turn over a new leaf and give my life to Him."
There's a pregnant pause, and Pastor Smith says softly, "Well, it looks like we have ourselves a new Bunny."
Sam smiles to himself. Looks like "Smitty" finally has seen reason. Sweater Vest Sam'll be carrying that carrot before you can say "Resurrection egg."
But then Pastor Smith says, "Sandy, you're hired—but make sure to cover up that tattoo, ok? It might scare the kiddos."
What? How can this be?
Steve mumbles something as he slinks back in his seat.
Sam's mouth falls open.
How could Pastor Smith be so unfair?
This is Snake Tattoo Sandy's first Sunday!
And he showed up late!
How could he get a role so clearly meant for someone who's come every Sunday for years?
Now in a real church, we all know what would happen.
Pastor Smith knows who pays his salary. He knows who has the power in the church.
Pastor Smith, like all pastors, is human.
Sweatervest will get the job.
But what if he didn't?
What if Pastor Smith followed the witness of Scripture?
If he did, Pastor Smith might hand the bunny ears to the guy with the snake tattoo.
And that's a scary thought for those of us who've gone to church all our lives.
It's a scary thought for the Sweatervest Sals and the Suit and Tie Sams,
Who believe we have earned our place in the church,
Who secretly believe we should be rewarded by God for all the good we've done.
Back when Matthew wrote this parable, Matthew's church was full of Jewish Christians.
They'd followed the law for years.
They'd known the Lord since birth.
They'd prayed three times a day, they knew their Torah, and they had been among the first to accept Jesus.
And along came these Gentiles.
Uncircumcised heathens who had worshiped petty, vain, promiscuous so-called gods.
How could such idol-worshipers inherit the kingdom of heaven?
If you could just show up at the last minute, why bother coming early at all?
Why be a Suit and Tie Sal, or a Sweater Vest Sam?
Doing your best and dressing your best Sunday after Sunday after Sunday?
Isn't the reward meant for people who've faithfully served God for years—not for the latecomers, who don't take the time or effort to live a life of respect for God?
I mean, you could live your whole life as a sinner,
You could lie and cheat and steal,
And on your deathbed, say, "Lord, forgive me. Come into my life and save me from myself."
And according to this parable you'd get the same reward as Mother Theresa.
Is that right?
Isn't God unfair?
What is the point of getting to church early?
Of doing the labor in the vineyard?
Of stuffing the Easter eggs?
You do it because you're getting a reward.
But you also do it because the work needs to be done.
We do God's work because we've been called to.
And if God calls you early, you had better respond.
If God calls you late in the game, you had better respond then too.
I think as our relationship with God advances, we don't just do it for the reward,
We do it because the vineyard needs us.
We do it because the kids need their Easter eggs.
We do it because the Master called us.
Often we in the church judge people who don't do as much as we do,
Who don't show enough commitment,
Who show up late or wear jeans.
We even judge the State Sweatshirt Steves, whether we admit it or not.
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard gives four groups; the first group hired, the second group, a third, and the last.
But the commentary only talks about two groups, the first and the last.
The middle group, the medium commitment people, who show up at church, who love the Lord, but don't give an entire life to service? They get the same reward too.
It doesn't matter when you show up early, a little late, or a lot late.
Scripture seems to tell us that the important thing is that you show up at all.
The way this parable's written in Matthew, scholars believe the message is directed at people who would have put themselves in that first category,
Good Jews who were among the first to follow Jesus.
And the point was, don't judge, and don't be proud.
Sound familiar?
Isn't this a lot like what we talked about last week, with the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee?
Well, guess what?
Jesus repeats it because it's important!
We as Christians spend a lot of time talking about justice…
But what these parables are saying is that God's is fundamentally unfair!
We Christians spend a lot of time worrying about being righteous…
But these parables say that the unrighteous will be saved!
We Christians spend some time patting ourselves on the back for our involvement in church…
But these parables call us to constant humility,
To consider others as better as ourselves,
Even if they seem on the outside to be less worthy of God's favor.
Because none of us deserves our wage.
None of us deserves a seat at the table of the Lord.
None of us has earned the body and the blood of Christ poured out, freely given for us today.
None of us deserves to wear the Bunny suit.
We aren't here because we're good enough.
We're here because He is.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Angels of Advent--I stand in the presence of God

Zechariah we can understand.
Zechariah was human.
And Zechariah had his doubts.
He doubted that he would ever be a father.
He doubted whether he was worthy to be a father.
In that time, in that culture,
Children were a blessing upon the righteous.
Children were a sign of God's favor.
So for a priest to be childless,
For his wife to be barren,
Meant that they were cursed.
One or the other must have sinned.
It was a great disgrace in that culture, especially for a priest.
They were good people, "righteous," Luke says.
But as year after year went by without a baby,
Fewer and fewer people would have even mentioned the possibility.
In time no one would have spoken of their shameful sterility at all.
But as Zechariah stood among the priests, he must have wondered—what did they think of him?
Did they talk behind his back of God's curse?
Year after year—as he came and went, taking his turn in the Temple,
Whenever the division of Abijah was on duty,
When he walked into the Temple,
Zechariah must have felt the barrenness upon him like a stain on his robes.
What had they done?
They followed all the law of Moses.
They prayed.
But in his heart Zechariah both envied the faith he saw in others, even his own wife, and, in a tiny corner of his soul, he despised them for it.
How could this be God's will?
Where was God?
They had done everything right.
If God were there, why wasn't he listening?
Zechariah went through the motions.
He prayed with his wife. Or his mouth did.
But Zechariah had his doubts.
That day, when he came to the Temple, I am sure he had his doubts.
On this day, one priest would enter the Holy of Holies,
To offer incense before the Lord.
They drew lots for this great honor,
The way priests had for years, for centuries.
If Zechariah were to be chosen,
He would go into the Holy of Holies, to offer their prayer in that most sacred place,
And perhaps then, finally, their appeals for a child would be heard.
Elizabeth surely hoped it would be so.
But Zechariah had his doubts.
When the ummin and thumin were thrown,
And the lot fell to him, Zechariah's heart must have sunk.
He would not have wanted to stand before God.
For in his heart he feared God,
Who had cursed him,
Who had abandoned him,
Never showing his face, never hearing his cry.
Zechariah we can surely understand.
Zechariah was human, as we are.
Zechariah had his doubts, as we do.
But can we imagine ourselves instead in the place of Gabriel?
Gabriel, an angel, the messenger of God?
Gabriel, a being without human needs, a supernatural creature,
Who had been there before the earth began,
Who had spoken to the prophets of old,
Who had watched kings rise and fall,
Who stood in the presence of God Most High,
And gazed upon the face of the Divine?
Can we imagine ourselves in the place of Gabriel,
Sent to deliver a message to this doubting soul?
For one who stands daily in the presence of God,
What would it be like to arrive in the human-built Temple,
The brass of furnishings a bit tarnished,
The candles dripping wax on the floor,
The scent of the incense tinged with the scents of human and animal stink,
The carpets worn, the colors faded?
What would it be like
For one who stands daily in the presence of God
To stand before a doubting priest
Whose very faith hangs on such a very small thing
As the inability of the body?
the weakness of the flesh?
For you or for me, it would conjure contempt.
Frustration, disgust to be among all this mortal weakness.
But for an archangel,
For someone who stood daily in the presence of Godliness,
For someone who daily gazed upon the face of infinite Love, it instead called forth compassion.
Gazing upon this shivering mortal, in his doubts, in his shame,
Gabriel spoke with compassion: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard."
For one who stands in the presence of God,
Compassion is more than a frame of mind.
Compassion is simply existence.
That this flawed man's half-hearted, questioning prayer has been answered,
That his doubting, obligatory faith has been counted as genuine,
That God's grace has reached to this disbelieving soul was to Gabriel both good and right,
Such grace, such love, was indeed the truth that Gabriel was sent to proclaim.
And so Zechariah received the good news, not only that he would have a son,
But Zechariah, doubting Zechariah,
Was the first of the New Testament period to hear and know that a new age was coming,
That this child who was coming into their lives would prepare the way of the Lord.
But even then,
Even listening to an angel,
Zechariah had his doubts.
Gabriel could hear them.
Gabriel could see beyond Zechariah's question into his heart.
Zechariah asked an innocent question, "How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years."
Gabriel could see past the question to the doubt, could see not just doubt, but disbelief, like a dark shadow over Zechariah's soul.
Because for one who stands in the presence of God,
The human heart is like an open book.
Gabriel could see Zechariah's heart.
And so Gabriel gave Zechariah a gift.
The gift was silence.
Because silence allows us to stand in the presence of God.
Gabriel proclaimed, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring to you good news."
"But now, because you did not believe my words, which will still be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur."
The gift was silence.
When our minds are full of thoughts,
Our lips burst forth with opinions,
Our ears ring with noises,
When the rush of traffic
And the buzz of advertisements
And the clutter of things fill our days,
We have no space, we have no time, we have no openness
To hear the message of God,
To soak up His presence,
To absorb His compassion,
To witness His truth.
This was Gabriel's gift to Zechariah.
Silence to wait.
Silence to reflect.
Silence to prepare.
It is to silence you and I are called in Advent.
As Gabriel rebuked Zechariah, you and I sometimes need a rebuke,
For failing to hear,
For failing to believe,
For simply ignoring the angels that sing to us,
Call to us,
Whose wings are brushing against our shoulders in this holy season.
But in this rebuke is also a gift.
The gift is silence.
The gift is an opportunity, in this season,
To stand in the presence of God, as the angels do.
Here is the question—
Who will we try to emulate this Advent, Zechariah, or Gabriel?
Must we live like Zechariah,
So bound by our mortality,
So absorbed by the failings of the flesh,
So discouraged by the weaknesses of the body
That we do not believe the angels when they speak to us?
This passage presents the question—
Can we instead imagine ourselves in the place of Gabriel?
Because the word angel simply means messenger.
Can we become, like Gabriel, messengers of good news?
Can we, like Gabriel, absorb the presence of God so much that, when we encounter the weakness of others, we respond, not with loathing or frustration, but, automatically, with compassion?
Can we, like Gabriel, demonstrate the tough love of God,
Gently helping others to leave their old, weary ways of anxiety and anger and begin a new way of living, a new way of thinking?
Can we, like Gabriel, bring good news to others this Advent?
Only if we, like Gabriel, stand in the presence of God.
Only if we embrace the gift of silence.
Only if we turn to God's word, turn to God's presence,
Only if we take the time to listen for angels.
Brothers and sisters, will you do this with me?
Will you take time this week?
This month?
Amidst the rush of the season, will you take time to stand in the presence of God?
Because if we do, we will not only hear angels,
You and I will become angels for those in need of good news.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Angels of Advent: If Samuel L. Jackson Were an Angel

The scene: the bus stop.
The date: 1968.
The faceoff: Jimmy, elementary school bully, and my mom, Susie Glaspie, in eyeglasses, pigtails, and her plaid school jumper.
All of nine years old, approximately seventy pounds of fight.
You see Jimmy had been picking on her little brother Tom.
And Susie Glaspie was a Big Sister.
There was only one round. It was a knockout.
Jimmy's mom called my grandma to complain.
"Your little girl beat up my son!"
Grandma's response? "Sounds like she had good reason."
My grandma, mother of three, volunteer librarian, one hundred five pounds of fight.
Jimmy went on to play football at Michigan State.
My mom went on to give birth to four children.
She's never shown violent tendencies since.
But if Jimmy ran into her again I'd bet he'd be on his guard.
My mom, Big Sister, nine year old Bodyguard.
Michael is the biblical bodyguard of God's people.
He shows up when God is in need of muscle.
He kicked Satan out of heaven.
Before creation, Lucifer was one of God's most beautiful angels.
Isaiah 14 and Luke 10 describe how Lucifer, the Day-Star, wanted to be like God.
He and his followers rebelled against God and a war in heaven resulted.
Revelations 12 describes a battle between the good angels and the evil angels,
Describing the battle before the earth began, and also the battle that is to come.
In either case, Michael leads God's army.
He shows up to battle with Satan over the body of Moses,
And to fight the forces of Persia and Greece, saving God's people.
Tradition places Michael holding a flaming sword, kicking Adam and Eve out of Eden,
Smiting Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea,
Knocking over the walls of Jericho,
Annhilating the armies of Sennacharib,
Guarding Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednago in the fiery furnace,
And guarding the soul of every Christian from the enemy at the moment of death.
He is depicted as short, stocky, fierce, and frowning,
Armor-clad and always wielding a sword.
Michael is God's sidekick, God's muscle, God's enforcer, God's Darth Maul.
In short, don't mess with Michael.
If I were a casting director for the Battle of Armaggedon,
I would put Samuel L. Jackson in the role of Michael.
Don't mess with Samuel L. Jackson.
That guy is so tough he makes you kind of afraid not to bank with Capital One.
But I'm thinking particularly of a scene in the film Pulp Fiction—
Not a movie I would recommend for its Christian content—
But Jackson's character Jules Winnfield spends a lot of time philosophizing about where he, a mobster's gun-toting henchman, might fit into God's plan.
He describes his 9-millimeter as the shepherd protecting his righteous a** in the valley of darkness.
And in one memorable scene, he busts out a quote from Ezekiel:
"The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.
Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children.
And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you."
And that's about where the shooting starts.
We may ask—why does God need a Jules Winnfield?
A Samuel L. Jackson?
An enforcer?
A Michael?
Why does God need angels?
Can't God do his own dirty work?
The Bible has a lot to say about angels.
Angels are referenced over three hundred times in Scripture.
Scripture calls them by many names.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, they are known as malakim or "messengers," cherubim, seraphim, Bene Elohim or the Sons of God, among many other titles and descriptions.
In the Greek Scriptures, they are angelos, messengers from God.
Angels are not bound by human weaknesses;
Jesus tells us in Luke 22 that they do not marry, that is, they are without sexual desires,
Thus we can guess they are not bound by other bodily constraints, the need to eat or to sleep, the way we are.
Angels can appear in many different forms, from wheels of fire to creatures with six wings—neither of which you will probably see on a Christmas card this year.
Angels are supernatural.
Angels are a little freaky.
Protestants don't tend to talk about angels very much.
Perhaps it's because angels aren't something to be intellectually understood,
Angels are so supernatural that we can only receive them by faith.
In our Bible study about angels, people described angels in their own lives during times of emotional intensity.
Guiding spirits, sometimes coming in the form of loved ones who have died,
One person related a story: when a car was stranded by the side of the road, two men showed up out of nowhere, then mysteriously disappeared.
Two themes emerged: Angels are comfort, and angels are protection.
What we will see is that in Scripture, Gabriel is the comfort, and Michael is the protection.
Angels show up a lot in Advent—
Appearing to Zechariah, to Mary, to Joseph, singing to ordinary shepherds.
This time, the ancient period of preparation for Christmas
The time during which we in the church prepare our hearts for Christ's coming,
This is a time when we see angels,
When we hear their songs,
When we brush against their wings.
It's a time when heaven is very literally coming to meet Earth,
When God is about to be born in human form,
And angels walk among us.
So, why all the angels?
Scripture is silent about God's reasons,
But perhaps it is because the presence of God is so overwhelming that we need angels to bridge the gap between His holiness and our humanness.
Theologian Karl Barth put it this way:
"Without the angels God would not be revealed and perceptible.
Without them He would be utterly confused with some earthly circumstance,
Be it a sublime idea or a golden calf."
Barth went on to say, "we must not forget that when we rely on God we rely on them."
And so, "to deny the angels is to deny God Himself."
Perhaps God's awesome presence is so much for us that we needed angels as intermediaries between the human and the divine.
Perhaps God created angels because we needed them.
Perhaps God created Michael because there are times when we need Samuel L. Jackson.
The forces of injustice, tyranny, oppression, and evil are strong.
We cannot take on the devil alone.
Whether you believe that the devil and demons exist or not,
The forces of evil are too much for human beings to tackle without God's intervention.
I believe that the hopes of this world cannot be pinned on governments.
We cannot overturn evil with human effort alone.
We do not fight only the social evils of terrorism, racism, poverty, and injustice,
The evil that keeps children in poverty
And Christians in chains,
Our fight is against something more than this.
We fight against the impulse that makes children lie
And husbands cheat on wives,
The voice that tells you you're worthless
And the snake inside that keeps calling you to the bottle, or the needle, or the gun.
We fight against illness and death, against the power of the storm, against the gaping void of darkness that seeks to put out all light.
This is a battle we cannot win on our own.
We need God to turn this world around.
We need Samuel L. Jackson in angel form.
We need Michael to fight beside us.
Today is the first Sunday in Advent.
Advent in Christian tradition is the four weeks before Christmas.
Advent is just a Latin word that means "coming,"
And during Advent we prepare for the coming of Christ;
This does not just mean preparing for Christmas.
During Advent we prepare for Christ to come again,
For that day when the light will dispel the powers of darkness finally and forever.
During Advent, we prepare for that great day when God sets the world right,
When the forces of evil and darkness, the forces of terror and war,
All powers that defy God's righteousness and love are deposed.
People can't do that.
Governments can't do that.
Only the light of Christ can overthrow that deep, deep darkness.
On this first Sunday in Advent, we place our hope in Christ.
We place our trust, not in the armies of this world,
But in God's angel armies,
In the angels that fly over our shoulders,
Led by Michael, wielding the flaming sword of God's justice.
We hope.
Despite the darkness,
Despite the armies of evil that stand before us, we dare to hope
How can we hope?
We hope because we know we're not alone.
We hope because you and I have seen there are angels on our shoulders.
Despite their oft-seeming weakness,
Despite all the forces that have sought to destroy them,
The people of God have prevailed, over, and over, and over.
Pharaoh and his chariots should have been able to put down a few Hebrew slaves.
Goliath should have ripped off David's head.
Nebuchadnezzar should have succeeded in reducing Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego to little piles of ash.
The Romans, the most powerful empire in history, should have been able to put a stop to a tiny band of Christ-followers worshiping underground.
Hitler and the Nazis had the means and the power to exterminate the Jews.
The Klan and the hoses should have been able put down King and his unarmed marchers.
Jesus should have been one more nameless Jew on a cross.
And Jimmy should have been able to kick little Susie Glaspie's butt.
But there are angels on our shoulders.
An invisible sword flashes through the air.
Michael and his armies are assembled and ready to fight.
And the day will come when the trumpet will sound,
The battle will be won,
The powers of hell will be overthrown,
And on that day, God's voice will once more be heard upon the earth:
"And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers.
And you will know I am the Lord."
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Writing this sermon, this song ran over and over through my mind:

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the World

I've read Matthew 5 about a thousand times, and this week, for the very first time, I wondered: what the heck is a bushel, anyway?
After all, if I'm supposed to not "hide it under a bushel," I had better learn what a bushel is so I can be on the lookout and try my best to avoid one.
Not being a farmer, I had to look it up: a bushel is a unit of dry measure of about eight gallons.
The Greek "modion" used here is also a unit of measure, equivalent to about two gallons.
Jesus gives a unit of measure instead of saying "basket" or "bowl" because that was the common way of referring to a basket of that size, as in "grab the not the peck…yep that one."
Some translations simplify and say don't hide your light under a bowl,
But that translation doesn't really make sense because a bowl would just put the light out.
And that's not what Jesus says,
It's not that put the light out—we can't even do that—this is the light of Christ, after all.
But we Christians sometimes cover it up, overshadow it, we obscure it,
So the light can't do its job.
Are we hiding our light under a bushel?
Jesus says, "You are the light of the world…No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house."
Commentator Amy Oden asks, "what are the bushels that cover your congregation's light?"
What's covering up our light?
Well, we're literally living in darkness right now.
This "fall" I think we all feel a little busheled.
Two degrees wind chill in mid November?  Really?
Where is the light? Where is the sun?
It's hard to stay positive—it's hard to even stay awake—when it's dark from 5pm to 8am.
Are you, like me, counting down until December 21, when the days start to get longer again?
Living in shadow, if we aren't careful, makes us all get a little whiny.
We complain about the weather, our finances, our health, our families, our church,
My Braxton Hicks contractions and the fact that even my maternity clothes don't fit anymore,
And we just pull more bushels down over our light.
Having been to many church meetings in many different churches,
I see that churches have covered themselves with a lot of different bushels.
There's the bushel of nostalgia.
"Remember when the church had so many children and young people…and all the Sunday School rooms were full? It's such a shame now…"
There's the bushel of church conflict.
"Well Marianne and her crew, she likes to do things her own way…she doesn't understand that the women's association has been doing this for fifty years…she thinks she can just waltz right in and make the coffee whatever way she sees fit."
There's the bushel of church fantasy.
"If we only had a thousand young members like that megachurch down the street we could do something about poverty/homelessness/evangelism/changing the light bulbs in fellowship hall.  But we don't so there's nothing we can do."
There's the bushel of Phariseeism.
"We can't really do anything until we sort out this gay marriage/abortion/evolution/Virgin Birth question and we know everyone in the church is a good Bible believing Christian—like me."
There's the bushel of martyrdom.
"Well I have to go get cookies again for church. It's such a pain. It's such a shame nobody else ever does anything at all."
Hide it under a bushel? Yes, we sure do.
When you and I talk to the unchurched about what is going on in our churches, what percentage of what we say is positive and what is negative?
And if what we say about our church is that:
•    Our church is work
•    Our church is full of old people (as though seniors have nothing to give and nothing helpful to teach the rest of us)
•    Church is an obligation
•    Church is unimportant
Should we really be surprised when people don't have an interest in coming to church?
Oden notes, "Jesus gives the central insight that lights don’t magically end up underneath bushels."
The only way to cover up the light is if we, the church, stick a bushel over our heads,
When the world desperately needs us to shine a light.
The sixth and final great end of the church is nothing less than "the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world."
It's both a call in itself and a summary of the first five:
We exhibit the kingdom to the world by proclaiming the Gospel for the salvation of humankind.
We exhibit the kingdom to the world by sheltering and nurturing the children of God.
We exhibit the kingdom to the world by divine worship.
We exhibit the kingdom to the world by declaring the truth.
We exhibit the kingdom to the world by speaking and shouting for social righteousness.
We exhibit the kingdom of heaven to the world by letting our light shine.
Because we are the light of the world.
Do we forget that this is what we are?
Jesus doesn't say "I am the light of the world" like we might expect him to.
He says "you are the light of the world."
He said it to that perpetually confused, possibly illiterate, doubting, mixed-up lot of fishermen, political rebels, tax collectors, and sinners known as the disciples.
These guys are the light of the world?
Not the priests.
Not the educated people.
Not the rich and powerful.
These misfits are supposed to illuminate the world.
But scholar Eugene Boring writes, "being light is not an option."
It's not "try to be light" that Jesus says.
Or "if you study the Bible a lot and give all your money away you might be light someday, if you're lucky."
Jesus says to these disciples—who don't even know about the resurrection yet, who don't know what grace means—you are the light of the world.
And he says it to us too.
Whether or not we cover it up, we're light.
The Spirit is in our midst.
We—us!—we are the body of Christ in this world.
God's light shines through us and God Himself has promised that he is here, right now.
All we have to do is be who we are, lift the bushels that cover us and obscure us and keep us from being our real selves, and shine.
And people will come to us, because people desperately need this light.
We live in a world where people do terrible things to one another and creation.
A dog-eat-dog world, and there's corruption, competition, and cruelty,
We live with much darkness and few places of warmth, light, or new life.
Who or what is king in this world?
Maybe it's the almighty dollar.
Maybe it's the self.
Maybe it's Satan.
But the ruler of this world certainly is not Christ.
Not in a way we can see.
This Sunday is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent.
And on this day we consider—what does Christ's kingdom look like?
One answer the Bible gives is that the kingdom of Christ is like a stump.
Isaiah 11 talks about a dead stump—
That's all that is left of the once-mighty Throne of David.
After the Assyrians get done with Israel, and the Babylonians take care of Judah, and the Persians and Greeks chop down whatever's left,
No one can even figure out who's supposed to be the rightful King of Israel.
Isaiah, looking out over this future, is in a dark place thinking about the stump,
All that's left of the once-strong, thriving tree of God's people.
As we look out at the dead, bare trees of this sub-arctic tundra we live in,
As we look out over a church with more seats empty than filled,
We might feel like we're looking at a chopped-off stump.
But if that's all we see, we're missing the most important part.
Because God's light is shining on that stump.
God's life is growing in that stump.
And somewhere, deep inside, a seed has taken root.
Isaiah threw off the bushel and he saw that a King was coming.
A King greater than David had ever been,
A King who would shine so brightly,
That His light would dispel the darkness of sin and the shadows of death itself.
He saw a tiny shoot rise out of that stump and grow stronger than the first tree had ever been.
And he saw something more.
He saw a city on a hill,
A holy mountain,
Where this dog-eat-dog,
Bloodstained, gunshot, trampled-down world
With its system of survival of the cruelest is transformed
Into a place where children play with snakes
And the wolf lies down with the lamb.
Where there is no more crying, or pain, or destruction
Because the former things have all been wiped away.
He saw that a child is coming to lead us there.
A child is coming to help us see
That God's kingdom is on its way,
And God's light is already here.
As we walk into this season of Advent,
We have an opportunity to throw off the bushels that cover us up
And let this light shine into the world.
This Thanksgiving week, many of us will be meeting with our family and friends.
We will have an opportunity to let God's light shine.
What if, during this season that is often so busy and so stressful,
We decided intentionally to throw off our bushels
And let God's light shine through us?
What if we were to respond prophetically and surprisingly by sharing with others the good news of Jesus Christ?
We all like to buy gifts for our families for Christmas.
But what if we were to promote social righteousness by refocusing our energy this season on God rather than the Happy Holidays machine?
What if we were to promote social righteousness by refraining from shopping on Thanksgiving Day when, in my personal opinion, the working class, who rarely get a holiday, have now been forced to work instead of enjoying a day to rest and be thankful?
What if we were to maintain divine worship by taking a moment Thanksgiving week, as a family or a workplace or a group of friends, to reflect on all the blessings we've received?
What if we took a half hour or an hour to kneel down and say to God, oh by the way, I know I've been complaining about the cold and my aches and pains and the difficulties of living my life,
But thank you for giving me food on my table, a place to sleep, and another year to be alive!
What if we were to proclaim the Gospel for the salvation of humankind by asking our unchurched family and friends, without judgment or expectation, could you think about coming with me to worship on Christmas Eve?
What if we were to shelter the children of God by giving gifts to those who really need them?
What if this year, we gave to God's children, to the poor, to the needy, as much as we give to our own families?
What would that look like?
It would look like a light on a lampstand.
It would look like a city on a hill.
It would look like the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.