Tuesday, November 26, 2013

We Need A Little Christmas at Thanksgiving

I am a not-so-secret fan of Thanksgiving.  Turkey and stuffing are just about my favorite foods on earth, and how can you not love a holiday dedicated to food and gratitude for the many ways in which God has blessed us, our families and, of course, our church family?

Perhaps it is my fondness for Thanksgiving that makes me cringe with the realization that the cultural Christmas began before October 31, and will hit full force at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving when many stores will open to begin “Black Friday” sales.  Given the US economy, it is understandable why many retailers are anxious to lure us into the stores earlier than ever.   But still, the mad dash makes me sad.

The season of Advent, however, begins only a few days after Thanksgiving this year and invites us into a different way of experiencing this season that isn’t reflected in the noisy chaos of December.  Advent asks us to quietly wait and watch, with deep expectancy and maybe even a little apprehension, for the coming of Mary and Joseph’s child.  That coming of God into our human experience changed -- and continues to change -- everything for us. 

I know that pastors (including yours) can be pretty obnoxious in telling people what they should and should not do, sing, buy or celebrate before December 25.  This year, however, I am honestly feeling a little more like Auntie Mame from the Broadway musical who famously sings: ”We need a little Christmas, right this very minute!”  For many reasons, all of us need comfort and joy this year, but I believe we can experience both right now during Advent. 

I invite you to dig down deep and figure out what it is – what it really is – that makes this season of the year special for you.  See an old friend.  Write a letter – a real letter, not an email or text.  Take a walk.  Call up someone you haven’t spoken to in a long time.  Visit a homebound member.  Take the first small steps toward mending an old hurt.  Let someone else have your parking space at the mall.  Better yet, skip the mall entirely and shop at a local merchant.  And instead of silently resenting the clerk who says, “Happy Holidays,” instead of “Merry Christmas,” why not ask how their day has been going and maybe thank them for doing a job that is difficult on a good day and even harder during the holidays.  In other words, do those things that bring comfort and joy for yourself and others, and skip those things that lead to stress and anxiety.  The habits you begin in Advent may very well carry over into Christmas and beyond!

The Advent Conspiracy is another way in which we can keep “Christ” in Christmas by being Christ in the world and reaching out to people who need comfort in our community, region and world. You'll be hearing more about The Advent Conspiracy over the coming days in this space and at church during worship.

May the peace of Christ surround you in this season of looking for the light of the One who has come to us in human flesh, is with us now through the power of the Holy Spirit, and will come again in glory.  As the great theologian Linus van Pelt once quipped:  THAT is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.   

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Reign of Christ/Christ The King, November 24, 2013

In Search of A Non-Offensive King

Luke 23:33-43 
33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

There was an online article this week about how a Twitter post by a random pastor got some people really, really mad at Costco.  It all began when a pastor walked into a Costco in California in search of a gift for his wife.  While browsing in Costco’s book section, he saw a stack of Bibles for sale with labels on them that said, “fiction.”  This stuck him as a very odd thing, so he took a picture of it with his phone and tweeted the photo with a comment that said, “Costco has bibles for sale under the genre of FICTION.  Hmmmmmm….”[1] It may not surprise you to learn that the photo quickly went viral on the Internet.  Within a couple of hours, hundreds of people saw the photo of the “fictional” bibles and some were even calling for a boycott of Costco.  Turns out that it was not Costco, but the book distributor who made an error in labeling the bibles for that one particular store and Costco later apologized for the mistake.  But some people are still pretty mad about it.  One pastor said, "Christians need to call out organizations like Costco whose actions undermine Christianity- regardless of whether those actions are accidental or intentional."[2]

Christians in this country, I think, are becoming known for being offended by anything.  We don’t need Costco to undermine our faith.  We pick ridiculous battles and end up undermining ourselves whether it’s accidentally or intentionally.  If the resurrected Jesus walked into a Costco today and saw Bibles labeled as fiction, I think it less likely that he’d take a picture and tweet, and more likely that he would laugh and then multiply the $1.50 hot dogs in the snack bar so that every one in the place could enjoy a bountiful feast. 

In case I forgot to mention it, I think the $1.50 Costco hotdogs are absolutely delicious.   Jesus would win far more followers by multiplying Costco hotdogs than by throwing a hissy fit over a labeling error.

I thought about this story as I was reading the history of Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday.  This is a relatively new feast day in the Christian church, established less than 100 years ago in 1925, in the period between the two great world wars.  Although there weren’t many kingdoms left in 1925, the church at the time was worried about increasing nationalism as well as secularism in Europe.  By invoking the kingship of Jesus, they hoped to reinforce the claim of Jesus being ruler of all human institutions, political entities, and every economic and culture construct.   Although they did not throw a hissy fit to prove it, I suspect that church leaders were more offended that the CHURCH was losing authority than they were about Jesus losing authority. 

 Christ the King Sunday was born out of the same kind of anxiety that still exists today when people get all bent out of shape in seeing a fiction sticker on a bible, or get angry about “holiday trees” versus “Christmas trees.”  Those are easy targets.  What is much harder to admit is that the church doesn’t and probably shouldn’t call the shots in the broader culture, even as we affirm that Jesus is the center of our lives.

So today’s text from the lectionary for Christ the King Sunday is really very ironic when you think about it.  In the gospel reading from Luke this morning, we see that Jesus the Christ reigns in a very different way, over a different kind of kingdom, and with an authority that bears absolutely no resemblance to any kind of human power.  After all, what we see in the text from Luke today is not any thing like the coronation for a human king, but exactly the opposite – a very public humiliation.  This is not a beautifully rendered portrait of a celebrated sovereign taking his rightful throne, but a nauseating sketch of a convicted criminal being tortured and executed. 

Despite being treated in a manner that is precisely opposite what the King of all creation has every right to expect, Jesus isn’t bitter, angry, combative, defensive or even the least little bit offended.   In fact, here in Luke, Jesus looks out at the people who are not only persecuting him but also killing him and says, “Forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.”

The Bible does not give us just one picture of Jesus’ death, but five – Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul, and each of them are different in their own way.  Only Matthew and Mark’s are somewhat identical.  But the fact that there are very different versions within scripture itself suggests that there is always more than one way of looking at things, even something as important as the crucifixion of Jesus. 

We think we know all the details that cut across all the stories and set the awful scene before us.  Three men hung on three rough wooden crosses.  Two common thieves and one baffling revolutionary with a sign above his head:  “King of the Jews,” which was of course both a joke and the truth.  And then there were the people hanging around the feet of the three crosses.  There were the relatives of the men.  There were a few chief priests and Roman functionaries. There were probably a couple people who didn’t know any of the men being executed, but showed up just to see the show.  And of course, there were the soldiers who were just doing their jobs and had long ago lost any horror about the kind of work they did.  Those were the guys passing the time it takes to actually die from being crucified by gambling and every once in a while taking verbal pot shots at the people doing the dying above their heads.

This scene has been interpreted in literally thousands of ways over the centuries – in creeds, novels, poems, plays, hymns, spirituals, great choral works, movies, and of course in explicitly religious art and no-so religious art.  But what is interesting to consider is that in the first five centuries after Jesus’ death, there were no works of art created to represent the crucifixion at all, despite its centrality to the Christian faith.  In fact, one of the earliest image of the crucifixion was a piece of graffiti scrawled on an ancient Roman ruin that showed a man looking up at a donkey hanging on a cross.  The inscription underneath it read, “Alexamenos worships god.”[3]

It seems the crucifixion was a “baffling, embarrassing event for early Christians.”[4]  It was a confusing event – shocking and frankly offensive for those who believed in Jesus as the Messiah, and too easily made fun of for those who did not.  And truth be told, we still take offense today.  It makes us mad that we do not have a super hero Jesus to save us from every terrible thing that happens to us, but instead a suffering servant Jesus who suffers all those terrible things with us.   Which is so not what we want to hear.  What we want to hear is that Jesus is going to rescue us from pain, if not prevent it entirely.  We want to believe that Jesus will save us from suffering.  We want to call on the name of Jesus to save us from feeling lonely and afraid.  And what we get in this text is a Jesus who hangs up there, on a cross, dying a slow agonizing death between two common criminals, and it seems like he either can’t or won’t do anything about it.  What good is that dying Jesus to us?

We are the first criminal who turns to Jesus and says, “Are you the Messiah or aren’t you?  Save yourself and us!”  And you know, that isn’t the first time Jesus has heard this question.  Jesus heard it at the beginning of his ministry, right after his baptism.  Before Jesus had even had the chance to dry off after the holy dip in the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit kicked him out into the wilderness for 40 long days.  And after Jesus had been out there long enough for his full humanity to get really hungry, really thirsty and really miserable, who shows up?   What shows up is evil itself, a sneaky and persuasive temptation telling Jesus that there’s absolutely no reason that Jesus can’t get himself out of this jam right now.  All Jesus has to do is turn some rocks into bread and he’ll get rid of the grumbling in his stomach.  All Jesus has to do is forsake this trouble-making God who left him out in some godforsaken hellhole and Jesus will never have to be this thirsty ever again..  All Jesus has to do is spit in his Father’s face and jump off the roof of the temple and Jesus will never ever have to suffer this kind of misery again. 

The criminal hanging next to Jesus who wants Jesus to save them both, right now, is the same temptation in an even more miserable place.  After all, if Jesus is the Messiah, the ruler of all, king of all creation, getting himself and the other two criminals off the cross should be a piece of cake. What good can a dying Messiah do for us?

I visited this week with a very, very dear friend who I just found out has a really nasty kind of cancer.  I went with another pastor friend to see him, but even with a backup, it was not an easy visit.  My friend is young, married, has young children, and before I saw him with my own eyes, it was absolutely impossible to imagine him being sick, much less so sick.  As we visited with him, he talked about how he felt when he was diagnosed with cancer and suddenly found himself facing a future in which the only certainty would be pain.  He referenced Jesus’ time in the wilderness and said that at first he thought he would just take the devil up on that generous offer and skip right over the suffering and land with either complete recovery or a very quick death.   After a whole lot of prayer and a whole lot of time reading scripture, he finally decided he’s going to have to follow Jesus’ example and be obedient to God’s plan which so far hasn’t included a pass on all the awful chemo and side effects and surgery and worry.  My friend was at peace knowing that Jesus had already walked the path he was about to walk and could show him the way to get through it, no matter the outcome.  Like Jesus after his baptism, my friend is trying his best to stay focused on who he is – God’s beloved child. That is enough for my friend – enough to get him through all the unbelievable awfulness he has yet to go through.

The second criminal hanging on the other side of Jesus is the only person in this entire scene other than Jesus who knows what is going on.  Jesus disciples are nowhere to be found.  The women still watching are overwhelmed with grief.  The leaders of the political and religious establishment are preoccupied with yelling smart aleck remarks.  The soldiers are distracted by their game of “Texas Hold Em” and thinking about what will be for dinner. 

But the second criminal is the only person who seemed to actually hear Jesus’ words of forgiveness – a divine free pass for all the jerks standing there who really did have absolutely no idea what they were doing.  And when he heard those ridiculous words of forgiveness for people who did not deserve it, the second criminal suddenly saw Jesus for who he is – a king, the best kind of king.  That criminal is the only one who sees that the forgiveness Jesus freely gave has opened up a way home to God that even a dirty rotten scoundrel like him can enter right now.  Not tomorrow.  Not next week, or at some point in the future, but right now.  “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  I think that’s about the most beautiful prayer ever uttered and it happens in the most horrible circumstance we can imagine.

And Jesus says to him, “Today you’ll be with me in paradise.”  Today.  Jesus doesn’t say, “You’ll have to hang on for three days until I’ve risen from the dead.”  Jesus looks at this bleeding criminal who has done god-knows-what to god-knows-who and says, “You may be hanging on a cross and suffering the same agony as me, but you’ve figured out how to find God.  It’s through love and forgiveness.  You’ve been reborn and that makes you much happier and freer than any of the other people standing around down there.” 

Another way of putting what Jesus says is this:  The only way I can get it across to you that I love you is by occupying the very worst space that any of you can come up with, the kind of place which you think I like to put people in. I don’t.  I don’t put you into places to suffer.  It’s you who put people there, you at your very worst.  And sometimes you even put yourself there. I’ll occupy that space of suffering and shame and pain to show you that I’m not out to get you, that I really do love you. The moment you see that, then you can relax, and trust my goodness. Then you need no longer engage in that awful business of making yourselves good over against, or by comparison with each other or taking offense at every perceived slight. Instead you can relax about being good, and as you relax you will find yourselves becoming something much better, much richer in humanity than you can possibly imagine.

The church was not created to be successful…we are called to be faithful.
Christians are not created to call the shots in the culture around us…we are called to be obedient to the One who showed us in his weakness what it means to be a fully human child of God.

The King we will be seeking in these weeks of Advent will reveal himself to us not in glittering palaces of power and might, thank goodness, but in even the dimmest light peeking through broken places and broken people.  When it feels too difficult for you to look directly at that kind of pain and experience that kind of suffering, remember the One who never forgets you and has always known you.  Never forget how much you matter in this terrible, beautiful world, and how much you are loved right now, how much you have been loved before the foundations of the world, and will be loved in the eternity to come. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/19/costco-bible-fiction_n_4304784.html
[2] http://www.christianpost.com/news/costco-on-bible-controversy-were-sorry-for-labeling-it-14-99-fiction-109226/
[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, Teaching Sermons on Suffering: God in Pain.  Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1998. (92).

[4] (93)

Advent Photo Challenge

Pastor Susan is taking the Advent Photo Challenge!  Each day during Advent (which begins on Sunday, December 1), she will take (or find) a photo relating to the daily them, and post it here with a brief reflection.

If you'd like to join in, please do!  Just send Susan your picture via email.  

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Ordinary 33C, November 17, 2013

Not The End of the World

Isaiah 65:17-25

17For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 18But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. 19I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. 20No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. 21They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. 23They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. 24Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. 25The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

I know that not many of you are fans of social media, but I am very grateful that such things as Facebook and Twitter exist because they give me the ability to stay in touch with friends and colleagues I seldom get to see, and sometimes I find myself becoming acquainted with people I haven’t even met. 

One such person is my Facebook friend, Joe Linden, whom many of you remember fondly as a member of Emsworth U.P. Church until he and his family moved to Alaska some years ago.  It was devastating for many of you last year when we heard that Lane, Joe’s wife, committed suicide after battling severe depression for many years. 

A couple months ago, Joe commented on a sermon I posted on the church’s Facebook page (yes, Emsworth U.P., we have a Facebook page), and within a few weeks, Joe and I became Facebook friends.  I really enjoy reading what Joe writes.  His posts are always filled with wisdom, insight, and humor that are both surprising and reassuring considering what he and his family have endured in the last year.

A couple weeks ago, I noticed that Joe is participating in the 30 Days of Gratitude project on Facebook.  During the month of November, Joe and many of my Facebook friends are posting daily about all the things for which they are thankful.  And Joe’s post this Monday was entitled, simply, “Thankful It’s Not The End of the World.”  In the post, he told the story about thinking that Monday was a day off school for his son, Max, due to Veterans Day.  They slept late, ate pancakes, and then Joe drove Max somewhere.  Joe returned home only to find an email from Max’s school awaiting him.  The email said that Max had been marked absent from school that day. 

Uh oh. Somehow, over the course of the weekend, Joe had forgotten that although he had the day off from work, Max did not.

Joe totally lost his parenting gold star last Monday.  But what Joe wrote about his reaction to Max’s unauthorized absence from school was really sort of beautiful.  He wrote:  There were times in this family’s history when Monday’s tale would have occasioned great drama:  heated accusations, denials, arguments, hard feelings, weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

And here’s the part that got to me:
“I’ve seen the end of the world, peered over the edge, and it does not look anything like this.”

And you know what?  Joe is absolutely right.  Missing a day of school doesn’t look anything like the end of the world.  It isn’t the end of the world. 

But then I got to thinking – what does the end of the world look like?  And how does our perception of the “end of the world” line up with how we see God and Jesus speaking and working in scripture? 

That was a particularly hard question to ponder this week while seeing and reacting to the incredible destruction and loss of life in the Philippines. The typhoon that hit the country was the most powerful storm in the history of recorded weather events.  The photos from the hardest hit areas are truly heartbreaking.  Beyond the death and destruction that have already occurred -- which is certainly horrible enough -- I read that doctors there are bracing themselves for outbreaks of more disease and death because of no sanitation, shortages of fresh water and the inability of emergency health teams to get where they need to be quickly.

The situation in the Philippines is horrible.  And I’m sure even those who managed to survive the storm may feel that they have come to the end of the world, certainly the end of life as they’ve known it. 

But even devastation on that kind of scale is not the end of the world.  We know that in time there will be rebuilding and renewal.  People around the world, Christians and non-Christians alike, are rushing in to aid the survivors, and in time, rescue will morph into recovery, and recovery will morph into rebuilding, and rebuilding into flourishing.  The flourishing piece will take time.  It might take a generation or maybe even two for the terrible memories of the storm to heal.  But even the worst of what can nature can do is not the end. 

The situation in which the prophet Isaiah speaks into in our text this morning probably looked a whole lot like the Philippines.  The people and land of Judah had been overrun by the Assyrians.  You know the story.  Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, the temple demolished and many of the people dragged off into exile. 

But Isaiah is speaking to the people who coming back after all that.  After nearly 50 years in a foreign country, YHWH’s people are finally going home, but it’s a home they scarcely recognize.  Indeed many of people in the first wave of exiles have never seen Judah at all.  For a generation who had heard nostalgic stories about their parents’ and grandparents’ country, their first glimpse of the wreckage that once was Judah must look like what?  The end of the world.  But it wasn’t.  It wasn’t even close to the end of YHWH’s ongoing project with these people whose story began when God scooped up their ancient ancestors from slavery and sent them into the wilderness to wander around, but finally find the Promised Land.  

In the midst of what looks like a whole lot of nothing, the prophet Isaiah tells the people that it they are to get back to the business of being the people God created them to be – a blessing and joy to the world.  Isaiah speaks God’s word saying, “I’m about to create a new heavens and a new earth.”  And you notice that what Isaiah goes on to describe is not something totally new or different, but a description of YHWH’s imagination for what Judah is supposed to be and look like.  No weeping.  No distress.  No infant death or lives ended before their time.  No theft or misuse of someone else’s property.  All of these terrible things that have happened were not God’s dreams for God’s people.  As Isaiah directs the people to look to the future, he also points back to God’s blueprint from the beginning – a blueprint that we recognize from the book of Genesis. As it was in the beginning of time, so it is to be for the returning exiles.  God’s imagination points to the goodness of Eden, the peace of the original creation.  God is still creating – and recreating – God’s people for God’s purposes all of which lead to life, not death.

In our gospel text today from Luke, Jesus presents a devastating monologue -- wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues, false leadership, violence, suffering, arrest, persecution and the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem.  The disciples hear all this – including that part about being betrayed by trusted family and friends, then being put to death – and think this must be the end of the world.  It can’t get much worse than what Jesus is describing.    

In a few days, Jesus will be crucified, and as he draws his last breath, the skies will darken and the curtain of the temple is torn in two.  And for those who witnessed what happened in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death and resurrection, including the destruction of the second temple as Jesus foretold, it sure seemed the time was ripe for the end of the world and a second coming.

But it wasn’t the end.  As Jesus said, “The end will not follow immediately…Not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance of all these experiences that feel like the end of the world, you will gain your souls.”

Every Sunday we say it.  Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done.  On earth as it is in heaven. What sort of kingdom are we looking for? And what is God waiting for?

Where I was in seminary, I studied with New Testament professor Dale Allison and it was his teaching that really formed my ideas about the end of the world.  As we worked through all the scriptures that seemed to speak to end times and the second coming, Dr. Allison said that his conclusion was that the end of the world will probably look like the beginning.   We can only intuit God’s original intention for what the world should be based upon the on-going witness of scripture.

But one of the things he said that have really struck with me is that the end of time, the fullness of God’s Kingdom come to earth is contingent…meaning that kingdom building requires participation by both God and human beings.  Even prophecies cannot be read as promise.  They are also contingent on human events. 

God does not need to get involved in the destruction of the world.  Destroying things is something we can do all by ourselves without God’s help.  Human beings have all the power we need to bring about the end of the world without God having to do a thing.  A super virus.  A technological snafu (remember the millennium fears?).  Global warming.  Nuclear war.  Technology continues to put more and more power into the hands of fewer and fewer people.  That’s how we imagine the world ending. 

But if scripture is any guide, I bet that even if we manage to pretty much destroy all life on earth, that still won’t be the end.  Because death, destruction and despair is not God's end game.  Death is not God’s plan for us.  God’s plan is as it always has been, since the beginning of creation.  God’s idea is life, abundant life.  We see the mind of God in the primeval poetry of Genesis.  And we see the mind of God most clearly in the life and ministry of Jesus. 

Maybe, just maybe, the end of the world actually will look a lot less like death, destruction and despair, and all of those awful ways in which television, movies and books portray the end of days.  Maybe God’s kingdom is already breaking in when relationships once thought lifeless come back to life.  Maybe God’s kingdom is revealed in the naval ships rushing off to the Philippines to take food and supplies instead of rushing off to war.  Maybe the end of the world will be when people have finally banded together to solve the problem of people being hungry, or when Habitat for Humanity has run out of houses to build.

God created the world and called it good, but it didn’t take very long for us to decide that we knew better than God.  But God didn’t give up on creation.  God invited his people Israel into God’s imagination for recreating and restoring God’s good creation.

The people returning to Judah after a generation of exile thought they had stumbled upon the end of the world.  But God spoke a word to them through the prophet Isaiah and after much mumbling and stumbling, the people took God up on God’s invitation to begin again.

The people who had followed and loved Jesus saw him die in the most hideous way possible at the hands of a cruel and tyrannical government.  It sure looked like the end of their dreams and Jesus’ ministry.  But resurrection three days later happened and in that resurrection God said, here’s the truth:  I still haven’t given up on this project I began millions of years ago.  Death is defeated.  Love wins.  And I will give you the power of Holy Spirit, which is all the power you need to do the work I need you to do.

If we look closely at Jesus and his ministry in the gospel of Luke -- a ministry that we’ve been tracing throughout the past year -- we see God inviting us into God’s story of re-creation:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Later, Jesus says: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among (or in) you.” (Luke 17:20b-21)

Jesus also says, “No one knows the day or the hour.”

We do not get a map or a timetable about the end of the world.  All we receive is an invitation to stand in front of what seems impossible boulders to move – poverty, suffering, injustice, scarcity, grief.  We are invited to take our turn in our moment in God’s eternal time to chip away all this isn’t in God’s original plan.  Day by day.  Relationship by relationship.  Just as a sculptor takes a piece of marble and with careful application of a chisel creates a piece of art little by little.  Bit by bit.  In small ways until the day comes on which everyone will no longer see a piece of marble, but the beautiful creation the artist envisioned from the beginning.  And in our work, the Holy Spirit will chip away everything in us that isn’t God until we are also revealed as God’s beloved and beautiful people.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Monday, November 11, 2013

A Day of Celebration at Emsworth U.P. Church

On Sunday, November 10th, we gathered together for a traditional turkey dinner and celebrated God's abundance within our community of faith.

One of the highlights of the day was the drawing for prizes that reflected the theme of our stewardship campaign:  Five Smooth Stones of Mission.  We also celebrated the completion of renovations to our men's restroom in the basement!

Many thanks to all who worked so hard to make the day so memorable and delicious!  Particular thanks to Bez Stellfox, Donna Hunter, Jon Stellfox, Tom Smart and Ben Stellfox!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Ordinary 32C, November 10, 2013

The Problem with Resurrection

Luke 20:27-38

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” 34Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

The Sadducees only appear once in the gospel of Luke and many of us tend to lump the Sadducees and the Pharisees together as the bad, bad guys of the New Testament.  In fact, there’s an old church camp song that warns children about Pharisees, Sadducees, hypocrites and goats, and tells them these are the kinds of characters we DON’T want to be.  So it’s easy to get them all confused as bad guys, even for grownups. 

However, when we dealing with scripture, it’s kind of important to know what kind of dubious characters we are dealing with when we talk about Pharisees and Sadducees.  So let’s break it down a little bit.

I read a really good sermon recently in which the preacher rightly described the Pharisees as the less conservative or more liberal Jews of their time.  The Pharisees read all of Hebrew Scriptures including the historical books, the Psalms and the Prophets.   They came up with the oral Torah - developing new interpretations for old laws so to make the Torah more acceptable and more relevant.  In fact, the Pharisees were the ones who were trying to open up the Jewish faith so that everyone could participate in Torah law, not just the priestly class.   Compared to the Sadducees, the Pharisees were the open-minded ones.  

The Sadducees, however, only accepted the first five books – the Pentateuch – as sacred text.  They rejected oral tradition and relied upon literal reading of scripture.  The Sadducees were sort of the “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” kind of folks. 

Another important difference between Pharisees and Sadducees was their political views, particularly their views about the Romans occupation.  The Pharisees were downright hostile toward non-Jews and especially the Roman government in Jerusalem. The Sadducees, however, were happy to align themselves with the Romans, supposedly to keep the peace, but many of them also managed to get rich working with Rome.  If the Pharisees were more blue collar, working class types, the Sadducees were the white-collar guys, the ruling elites, the ones who held most of the power in the temple hierarchy even though nobody liked the Sadducees very much.  The Pharisees were concerned about the spiritual condition of ordinary people, although Jesus often accused them about not tending to the physical needs of the people, particularly those outside the religious community.  The Sadducees kept a careful distance from anyone who was not a Sadducee so, not surprisingly, ordinary people wanted very little to do with them.

The Pharisees were faithful Jews who studied and thought deeply about their faith, believed in resurrection and a life beyond their present reality, especially since that reality included suffering at the hands of the Roman government.  In fact, one of the Pharisees’ big disappointments in Jesus was that he didn’t seem interested in overthrowing Rome.  In the passage just prior to this one, Jesus in fact tells them, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 

The Sadducees wore their religion lightly, like an attractive accessory, and were most concerned about how they were doing in the here and now.  The idea of resurrection or an afterlife seemed ridiculous.  There’s nothing explicit about resurrection in the first five books of the Old Testament, so if you read your text as literally as the Sadducees did, resurrection isn’t even an issue. So the Sadducees stored up all their blessings, and what mattered to them was protecting what could be seen and felt and spent in this life.  The Sadducees were truly, “live your best life now” kind of guys.

If you had to place Jesus in one of the two camps, it’s clear that Jesus would be more aligned with the Pharisees than the Sadducees.  Jesus, however, had issues with the way in which both groups misapplied their understanding of scripture, particularly when it came to how they took care or didn’t take care of God’s people.    

The Sadducees and Pharisees had pretty much nothing in common with one another except for one thing:  Jesus had become an enormous problem for them.    

Today’s text takes place on the Tuesday of Holy Week and Jesus has already faced a number of challenges from the Pharisees.  The Pharisees questioned Jesus’ authority to teach in the temple, his healings on the Sabbath, and his questionable associations with sinners.  And you can see Jesus engaging with and trying to teach the Pharisees over and over again in the Gospels. In earlier arguments, Jesus goes back and forth; the Pharisees ask one question and Jesus asks another.  And some of the Pharisees seem to eventually understand what Jesus is talking about.

But today the Sadducees show up in all their priestly splendor to take Jesus on.  But it’s clear that they really are just messing with Jesus.  The idea of resurrection is so laughable to them that they ask Jesus a complicated hypothetical question designed to make Jesus look foolish and discredit him entirely.   They invoke marriage laws from Deuteronomy in which the brother of a man who dies childless is required to marry his widow.  And the Sadducees produce this elaborate hypothetical in which 7 brothers marry the same woman and all 7 die without producing children.  Which brother will be the poor woman’s husband in heaven?

It’s unclear how the Sadducees reacted to Jesus’ answer to them, but it seems to me that Jesus demonstrates two things in his reply.  First, that resurrection means something far different than the Sadducees’ question suggests.   Jesus seems to say that the issues involved in resurrection for the Sadducees, like marriage and inheritance and multiple husbands and who belongs to who are not really issues.  After all, angels don’t worry about husbands.  Angels don’t worry about inheritance. Angels don’t die. Angels don’t have children.  The children that seem to matter in resurrection are the children of God and, according to Jesus, that’s pretty much everybody. 

Then Jesus goes on to use the Sadducees preferred scripture to point out that when Moses encounters the burning bush in Exodus, the voice of God says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” God speaks of the patriarchs not as some fondly remembered friends, not as a bunch of guys who have been dead and buried for years, but as living people.  So while Abraham, Isaac and Jacob might be a distant memory to the Sadducees, captured only in the literal ink of the Torah, the patriarchs are alive for God.  The resurrection of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has already happened.

So what is Jesus up to in this answer? 

Remember that we are talking about resurrection.  Resurrection is not the same as immortality.  Resurrection is not the same as life after death.  Resurrection is not even about heaven.  We are talking about resurrection – the transformation we see most clearly in scripture as the transformation that happens to Jesus on Easter Sunday.  Jesus wasn’t simply raised from the dead, although he was no longer dead.  Jesus didn’t only walk out of the tomb like Lazarus, although his body was missing from the tomb when the women went to look for it.  Jesus didn’t just come back to life like Jairus’ daughter, although Jesus lives and reigns among us and through us and in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

When we look at the lived experience of the disciples and other Christians’ experiences of the resurrected Christ, we can see that resurrection is a much deeper and, frankly, more mysterious experience than immortality and the assurance that we’ll be married to the same person in heaven that we were married to in life.   I’ll leave it up to you if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

It seems in resurrection, death is no longer an issue at all.  Resurrection is a living, breathing, tangible experience of Jesus in the world.  And it changes everything.  For Jesus.  For the disciples.  And for us.  It changes every human experience we have.

Resurrection is such a game-changer that it is hard to give the Sadducees a hard time on this particular point.  It is difficult to wrap our minds around the resurrection.  Even the Pharisees’ understanding is limited by their wish to see the Romans get theirs after exploiting and torturing the people of Israel for so many years.  The Pharisees want to know there is an afterlife so as to extract some sort of cosmic justice for the suffering they’ve endured in this life.

Quite simply, resurrection is a problem.  It’s a problem.  Because resurrection isn’t only what happens after we are dead.  The Gospel stories of the resurrected Christ are not intended to prove that the resurrection happened bodily, literally, and historically and all we have to do is give our intellectual assent to it and all will be well.  Rather, the Gospel stories are intended to invite us – all of us, the disciples of today – to experience the ongoing reality of resurrection NOW.  A resurrection reality in which things that look dead to us – people, relationships, all of the world’s brokenness – all of those situations are, in fact, being transformed into something new.  Right now.  Right in front of our eyes. 

Where do we see resurrection happening among us? 

First, it happens in our experience of the liturgy in worship.  Every Sunday, we come face-to-face with the resurrected Christ who has been made known to us in the breaking of the bread, in the waters of baptism, and in the proclamation of God’s word.  Resurrection is not just something that will happen to us someday.  Resurrection happens now.

I thought about this as I was preparing the funeral service for my friend Alan’s father yesterday.  Our service of witness to the resurrection proclaims that death isn’t the beginning, but the completion of our resurrection that began in our baptism when we died to our old lives and were resurrected to new life in Jesus.  So it’s not like we will be resurrected.  It’s that we already are.  In our baptism, we have all been resurrected. 

Jesus says that God is not the God of the dead, but God of the living.  God doesn’t let dead things stay dead.  And that’s a problem for us.  Because while we see resurrection as good news – and it is very good news indeed – it is also bad news for folks like the Sadducees or anyone else who can only imagine that what we see is all there is to see, or that justice only happens at some distant point on the horizon, which is the Pharisees’ understanding.  Resurrection is terrible news for those of us who want to bury our heads in the sand and imagine that things were once better, are bad today, and nothing good can happen in the foreseeable future.

But resurrection won’t let us off the hook.   And the resurrected Jesus never stops pursuing us.  We may feel that pursuit just like the disciples when they encountered the resurrected Christ.  They are lost in their grief.  They are terrified when they find an empty tomb.  Dismissive and scornful of the women.  They run to see for themselves and yet still cannot believe their own eyes. They are doubting and dubious.  The disciples mistake Jesus for an ordinary gardener or a stranger on the road.  They decide to go back to their old lives, but then they see a figure on a distant shore.  A terrible night of fishing turns into a morning of nets filled to bursting.  The disciples’ experience of resurrection is confusing, heartbreaking, filled with moments of great joy, and difficult to explain in a way that sounds anything but ridiculous.  But what is clear from all of the post-resurrection stories in the New Testament, that the disciples were transformed fundamentally.  After resurrection, the disciples are different people. 

The New Testament confirms that experiencing resurrection is neither comfortable nor comforting, and even when it's staring us in the face, it won’t be immediately recognizable.  But if we keep our eyes open for it, the scales will fall.

Once there was a wise old woman who lived in a small village. The children of the village were puzzled by her—her wisdom, her gentleness, her strength. One day several of the older children decided to fool her. No one could be as wise as everyone said she was, and they set out to prove it. So they found a baby bird. One of the boys cupped it in his hands and said to his friend, “We’ll ask her whether the bird I have in my hands is dead or alive. If she says it is dead, I will open my hands and let it fly away. If she says it’s alive, I’ll crush it and she’ll see that it’s dead.” So they went to the woman and presented her with this puzzle. “Old woman,” the little boy asked, “this bird in my hands—is it dead or alive?” The old woman became very still, studied the boy’s hands, then looked carefully into his eyes. “It’s in your hands,” she said.

Brothers and sisters, we have a choice.  We can live as if we are dying or we can live as if we trust that death truly has been defeated.  We can believe that God will take every broken thing, hold it in his hands, blow the dust of sin off it, and transform us into something new and redeemed and beautiful.  That is what God does.  That is who God is.  The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.  That is our God.  Let us live into the promise of our resurrection.  Let us welcome the resurrected Christ among us as we break bread together with one another today. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

A Service of Witness to the Resurrection for David Olson, November 9, 2013

Romans 8:26-28, 31-39

26Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

31What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I can remember when I was a little girl, I had a recurring nightmare about being lost in an unfamiliar place. I can still remember feeling the panic of disorientation in my chest. My heart beat faster and faster as I struggled to figure out exactly where I was.

And then in my dream, I saw the familiar figure of my mother on a crowded street corner and I ran toward her as quickly as I could.  As I was running to her, she began walking away from me, heading in the opposite direction.  I called out her name and she just kept walking as I struggled to get to her, yelling out to her over and over again as she moved farther and farther away from me, eventually disappearing altogether into a crowd of people.

Some years later, I read that this kind of dream is not an uncommon one in children, or in adults for that matter.  The dream, of course, represented my fear of death and of losing my mother.  I was fearful of losing the most important human connection a little girl could have in order to feel safe and secure.

But here’s the thing:  our fears about losing important human connections are not at all irrational are they?  Our fears of being lost are neither childlike nor na├»ve. We will all eventually lose one another -- and leave one another -- through death.  Our worst nightmares will play out in our lives.  The experience of loss is an unavoidable consequence of being human enough to take the risk of loving and losing.

When we gather together on occasions such as today, I think we feel that same panicky catch in our throats and pounding in our hearts.  We are reminded -- as if we needed reminding -- how fleeting our connections to one another really are.  Days like today, really this whole week since David died suddenly on Sunday, have an ethereal quality.  These days and weeks, particularly after an unexpected death, are liminal, in-between times -- time out of time -- that feel as unreal as a bad dream.  Our connection to David feels as if it has been snapped like a dry November twig, leaving us as bewildered as children, even if we are all grown up.

But in our reading this morning, the apostle Paul talks about a reality that is more real than death, more reliable than any dream, and more lasting than any human connection.  Paul reminds us of the one connection that is never broken, and the one love that endures forever.  What lasts through all of time is the love of God as expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Paul reflects back to us our deepest needs and our deepest fears and baddest bad dreams in one fell swoop.  Paul assures us that we will not – and cannot – be separated from God. We are never, ever lost in this world, even in our loneliest hours.  No matter what nightmares haunt us, no matter where we go or what we do or have done to us, no matter what bleak stuff life throws at us, there is nothing on heaven or on earth that can separate us from God.  Even in  -- or perhaps especially in -- our brokenness and grief, God holds us and loves us forever.  We can sit in our mourning and feel as bad as we need to feel, and still believe beyond all doubt that David is being held in love and grace by God.  And God’s love and grace is true for us on this day.

Paul is persistent and passionate about this point when he tells us,  “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Can you imagine a promise more powerful than this?  Can you imagine a love more amazing?

Moreover, it is not just God, but the love of God in Christ Jesus who came to us as a human being to share our pain and live in our sorrows.  And through our baptism we have been claimed by Christ and grafted onto the family tree of God.   Jesus is the true vine and our connection to one another through him as brothers and sister in Christ is no flimsy twig, but a strong and eternal connection that neither bends nor breaks even in death.  We belong to God and to one another forever.

David was called in his baptism to be a child of God.  And all of us, throughout our whole lives, are also called to be sons and daughters of the God who is connected in intimate, loving relationship within God’s very being, the mysterious unity of the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We are never independent, self-sufficient creatures.  Every breath we take is dependent upon God’s grace.  And despite what we may think of ourselves, none of us will ever be anything more or anything less than a beloved child in the eyes of God.   No matter how much good we do or how much we mess up, we are loved, forgiven and held by grace in an unbroken pattern of mercy.

So in a sense, death is the completion of a connection to God that begins in baptism and is perfected in death.  While it is true that our human connection to David is broken in a very real and terrible way for Alan and all of you who loved him, this very gathering here shows us how God continues to gather God’s people and creates connections to one another through the memories, stories, tears, laughter, and music we are sharing today and will continue to share into the future as we remember David.

I will always be so grateful to Alan for introducing me to his Dad a few years ago at our family’s annual Festivus party, always held 2 days before Christmas. (If you don’t know what Festivus is, ask Alan after the funeral).  Alan asked me if he could bring his dad with him to the party and I said, of course, we’d be delighted to have David with us. There was a long pause and Alan said, “Do you mind if he brings his bagpipes with him?”

Now you all know that there are really only two kinds of people in the world.  People who simply cannot stand bagpipe music and liken the sound to nails being slowly dragged across a chalkboard.  And people like me, who have enough residual Scottish blood coursing through their veins that they begin openly weeping before the first note of “Scotland the Brave” is played.  And so David and his pipes came to Festivus, and David not only played for our gathered friends and family, but also went out into the snow and played up and down the street for our neighbors.  I don’t know what the neighbors thought about David’s bagpipes and I’m not at all sure I care.  Because my family and I will always hold those moments of David’s bagpipe playing and his laughter at our table as grace.

There’s a lovely final line in the hymn we’re about to sing:

“There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come;

No more a stranger, or a guest,
but like a child at home.”

It is a poignant, terrible, beautiful fact of which we are painfully reminded this morning -- as long as we are alive, people we love will go and come and go.  We are strangers and guests, husbands and wives, co-workers and friends, children and parents, family and lovers.  And in every human relationship, there is brokenness and beauty

What finally disrupts the coming and going is death.  And all we can finally know about that broken branch is the unceasing promise of God for us.  We can believe that David has arrived to a settled rest wrapped in God’s grace and love.   One day we will follow that same path when we will become who we always meant to be, even when we didn’t know it.  No longer a wayfaring stranger.  No more an awkward, out-of-place guest.

David is who he was always created to be which is God’s beloved child.  Safe and sound.  No more nightmares. He is home.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.