Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Happy Birthday, Jesus?

My wife's family on her mom's side, the Plott side of my mother-in-law's family, my wife's Nan's family used to hold an annual Christmas party at the Bainbridge fire hall.  It was a family reunion/Christmas party.  It included a ham dinner, lots of desserts, a penny toss, and a visit from "Santa". A penny toss or scramble is just what you think.  An adult throws pennies and kids scramble to collect them.  There were other antics that I will not mention.  I married into this.  We went every year the Saturday before Christmas. It was an obligatory event. Not that we didn't enjoy it. These people were funny and knew how to have a good time.  Every year my wife and I would rehearse who belonged to who and who was related to whom.  Changes in relationship status and the additions of children made this a continuous endeavor.  Since Nan's death in 2002, it hasn't been the same. Last year was the first year that there was no party.  We buried Aunt Ann instead.
Aunt Sis, the eldest of the Plott siblings always said the blessing and hosted a birthday party for Jesus.  We sang Happy Birthday to Jesus and ate cupcakes.  There were even candles. I remembered that in my church growing up, we had a birthday party for Jesus too.   I suspect a lot of churches did this near Christmas as part of the celebratory cheer.  Why not add a birthday cake to the table?
Here's the thing: December 25th is not Jesus' birthday.  The church does not celebrate his birthday. We don't know his birthday.  We are not told. It was not known or it did not matter to the writers of his story. December 25th was a Pagan festival celebrating the winter solstice.  Christians adopted it for their celebration of the Nativity and Incarnation of Jesus the Messiah. It was an idea festival to adopt because it explored the themes of darkness and light, rebirth and renewal, and the anticipatory hope for the sun's return.  These themes were also Jewish themes and fit well with their notion of Messianic hope.  "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,"wrote the ancient prophet Isaiah.    
We don't celebrate his birthday, but we do celebrate his birth.  There is a difference. Because His birth points to the bible's claim of the incarnation; that is, the bible claims that the God who made the earth and the heavens descends into human flesh; the eternal and immortal puts on a mortal human body. And that personal expression is found in Jesus of Nazareth.   God comes near by showing up in the person of Jesus, a man whose birth becomes important precisely because his death and resurrection identified him as the Son of God, the physical embodiment of the invisible God.  Mark's gospel is concerned in telling the story of his ministry, death, and resurrection.  Matthew and Luke are concerned with telling about his special birth as a fulfillment of ancient scriptures and prophecies.  The story of Christmas comes from Matthew and Luke.  Mostly from Luke chapters 1 and 2.  
The Gospel of John proposes that Jesus' earthly presence, his humanity, points to the greater truth of his divinity.  God is the Word made flesh in Jesus.  Jesus is God in human form.  That is who and what we celebrate at Christmas.  And Jesus' tells us that his flesh and blood are available for consumption, so that he might get inside our own flesh and blood.  He is in bread and wine, when we remember that he promised to be in bread and wine for us.
So you can eat birthday cake for Jesus.  But, if you want to celebrate his birth and life and death and resurrection; if you want to celebrate who he is, the man of God, the God in the flesh,the embodiment of the Good and gracious creator and giver of life come to the table and dine with his church, who gather to eat the bread and drink the wine to remember the one who carried the power of God in his body--a power that overcomes darkness and death.  Christmas is not a birthday party.  It is a celebration of the presence of God in the body of Jesus Christ, as a baby boy and a crucified man. God is born and dies and is raised from the dead.  That's what we celebrate.  God is with us.  God is not invisible, unknowable, far away.  God has come.  God is Jesus.  Jesus is God.  This is the bible's story and why we celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord, the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. The best place to celebrate this is in a fire hall with some crazy relatives or in a church.  Make sure you eat a cupcake or too.          

the one about adultery

Human sexuality is a gift from God.  People share a level of vulnerability and intimacy that binds them together.  Through sexual relations, we can participate in the creation of life. Sexual intimacy is an expression of a loving relationship between two consenting adult partners. It is not the only expression or even a necessary one.
There is an underside or dark side that we all know.  Unwanted pregnancy.  Rape.  Exploitation of children.  Prostitution.  Sexual violence and abuse.  Sexual activity can be a criminal act, as much as it can be an act of intimacy and love.  Is there another human activity or behavior that is both so desirous and so dangerous, so good and so bad, so affirming and so destructive?  I suppose it is like the difference between someone who shares a glass of wine with a companion and someone who drinks a bottle of vodka and gets behind the wheel of a car. Not only about moderation and social responsibility, it's also about the content of human relationships and the biology that drives our behaviors. But I am not speaking as a biologist or a psychologist.  I speak as a theologian.
How might we come to grips with sexuality and the human condition that can often turn something beautiful into something scarred and ugly?

Monday, December 08, 2014

the one about the prophets and our voices

Icon of John the Baptist
A message inspired by Isaiah 40 and Mark 1 (lectionary readings for Sunday, Advent 2, December 7, 2014).  
A voice cries out.  Prepare yourselves.  God’s arrival is imminent, near.  God is about to invade the earth.  His invasion will change everything.  God’s coming will surprise us, even though it is coming in the nick of time, at the right time, when needed the most, when the crisis is at its most serious.  Today we hear from two prophets.  The prophets’ voices announce that the day has come.  Because the prophet has a divine Word, pointing us to God’s activity among us and for us.  The prophet is not a predictor.  We are interpreters.  We tell the truth when people have abandoned faith and hope and taken matters into their own hands.  After a long wait, a period of silence, several generations in exile and captivity---God comes to rescue and liberate and redeem Israel.  This is the story we hear in Advent.  From Isaiah to John, the fulfillment of hope in a divine promise begins…
Today is Pearl Harbor day—a date which will live in infamy.  73 years ago today, Japanese aircraft attacked the American Navy base on Oahu.  From Malaya to Midway Islands, the Pacific was under a surprise attack by Japan.  It signaled the beginning of U.S. engagement in World War II.  500,000 American soldiers, sailors, pilots, and Marines died over the next 4 years.  The global political and economic landscape was forever changed.   All told, over 52 million people were killed in the war.  From 1946 to 1964, there were a total of 74 million American births.  Called the baby boom.   You were born at the end of WWII.   You brought the world rock and roll; computers;  Bill Clinton; the Fonz; Elvis; hippies; Coca-Cola; Mary Tyler Moore; Star Wars; outer space; Oprah; the environmental movement; divorce; church camps and youth groups; Civil Rights; health care; the cold war; Vietnam; Steve Jobs and Bill Gates; globalization; The Muppets; feminism; Levis; I could go on.  Post-war boomers have had a major impact on American life. The last 3 presidents were baby boomers. I suspect the next one or two could be.  Retiring in droves; raising grandkids; boomers are between ages 50 and 68 years old. They preside over a lot of money and power—most if it really. They are the me generation.   They have accumulated wealth and will eat up social security.  They left church.  Found Yoga and yogurt and other things to do.  They are the last generation who will care about church buildings and organs and stained glass and pews and hymnals.  Because they have witnessed massive cultural shifts in every aspect of American life.  They have participated in change and resisted it.  This last half century has brought tremendous change and technology we could not have imagined.  We fancy ourselves more independent and more capable than ever before.  Masters of our own domain.  Rulers.  Problem solvers.  We have survived the threat of mutual destruction by nukes; only to be threatened by terrorists who behead. John the Baptist will be beheaded because of his voice crying out in the wilderness.  We are in the wilderness too.  In exile.  Lost.  Adrift.  Afraid.  We can’t buy our way out of it or fix it. Science and technology will not save us.  Our government and our military cannot keep us safe and provide for our needs equally and fairly.  You know it.  You know we are in crisis on so many levels.  Wealthiest nation on earth with hungry children and the largest prison population.  Race relations and class relations and how we treat aliens and refugees and immigrants are all in question right now.  Cities are erupting in protests.  A crisis of biblical proportions is occurring and we cannot remain neutral, uninvolved, and unconcerned.  Who dares to cry out gospel truth in this selfish and frightened and wealthy generation?   
Nearly two hundred years passed between Isaiah chapter 39 and chapter 40.  The first 39 chapters speak to Israel’s poltical and social realities of the 8th century BC, around 740 BC.  Chapter 40 to 55 were written during the period known as the Babylonian exile. Ancient Jews assembled these anachonristic writings into a single text called “Isaiah”  But, between first Isaiah and 2nd Isaiah, there was nearly 200 years of divine silence.  And the first word, the new word that is spoken in chapter 40 is “Comfort, comfort my people.”  It is a word of promise; Israel has paid for her sins and will be liberated from captivity, forgiven, and restored. The prophet interprets current events.  And this chapter tells us about the end of the Babylonian exile.  Despite the inconstancy of the people, God is faithful.  Despite their weaknesses and vulnerability, God is strong and will strengthen them like a shepherd leads the sheep.  Therefore, as they travel along the God’s homeward highway they are all called to shout out; “Here is your God.”  The relationship between God and His sheep is beginning again.  After an age of suffering. God comes and sets them free.  
The prophet announces a new beginning.  The beginning of the good news is John the Baptist.  The wilderness prophet.  Paying homage to his ancestors.  His food and clothing, a reminder that he belongs to the earth, lives close to the ground, and resembles the prophets of old—pointing ahead to God’s promised future. He has abandoned the world and its comforts.  He is an ancient-looking creature with a future-oriented message and a powerful voice.  He is sent to enact a journey in the Judean hills, across the Jordan.  His baptism is about an end to the way of sin and the beginning of the way of life.  It is a ritual coming out, a drowning in and rising up.  It is Noah’s ark and Moses’ sea and Joshua entering the promised land by crossing that same river.  And yet, John points beyond himself. This is not John’s religion or John’s gathering.  It is not a personality cult.  God is about to act. To come.  To arrive. In the heart of a man.  A leader.  A prophet.  A Savior. 
The prophets remind us that our voices matter; our voices are desperately needed in a world that is often silent in the face of destructive evil and wicked injustices.  Our voices matter when despair threatens to destroy people, communities, nations.  Our voices matter when abuse and shame and pain and violence and prejudice devour our attention and overwhelm our senses.  Our voices matter when the truth is drowned out by the noise.  Our world is noisy.  What we need is not more noise. But a voice to cut through it.  A voice that announces the coming of the Christ, the King, the Savior.  A voice that says, “You are not alone. I am with you.”   Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in PA is a ministry of our church that recognizes that a Lutheran voice in public debate and conversation is an important voice, because we are not politically one-sided and we are theologically concerned about the poor, the disenfranchised, and the vulnerable.  We speak for and with those whose voices are silenced by more powerful voices.   

Two 20th century prophets speak to us:  “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil; God will not hold us guiltless.  Not to speak is to speak.  Not to act is to act.” Bonhoeffer.  King, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people but the appalling silence of the good people.” May we lift up our voices and announce, “Here is our God.”  He has come to save us.  Amen.     

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

the one about endings and beginnings. For Advent 2014

“Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free.”
“O come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here, until the son of God appear.”
‘tis the season, again.  It comes around. Quicker every year, right?  Advent arrives on the last day of November and so we begin a new year a little more than a month before the pagans do.  I mean the term ‘pagan’ affectionately, as we all celebrate New Years’ day on January 1.  But it is right to call it what it is—a pagan definition of calendar time.  Both older Julian and Gregorian calendars adopted January 1 as New Year’s day.  The first month itself was named after the Roman god Janus, whose head had two faces looking both backward and forward.  The day commemorates both endings and beginnings.  It is also the day commemorating the circumcision or naming of Jesus.  Both Lutherans and Anglicans observe that commemoration as part of the 12 days of Christmas. For many, Christmas and new years are combined as one continuous holiday---not to celebrate Jesus, but to mark time with an end and a beginning.  Punctuation in the cyclical revolution of life going around and around.  Spinning on planet earth through the solar system in the galaxy across the universe, consuming time as the hours and seasons and years go by. There is movement in space and time. We feel it.  We mark it.  Occasionally, we revel in it. With or without Jesus, we humans pay attention to the passing of time.  We observe it and its effects on life.  Birthdays affectionately observe the aging process.  I’m in the middle. Middle-aged.  As a history major in my 20s I studied the middle ages. The dark ages. Some days, they are.   But cyclical time is just that, a cycle; with no direction.  No goal.  No logical end.  Cyclical time is hopeless.  At best we hope that it continues, maybe even after we die.             
Nevertheless, the new year begins for us in anticipation of the birth of the savior. And so Advent, meaning ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’ prepares us for Jesus.  We prepare for his nativity and his “coming again.”  We may be uncertain or ambivalent about what that means for us or for the world.  That he came has made a difference in the world.  Perhaps more than any other human. Most of the world marks time, really, by his birth.  The year itself (2014 AD) is based on his proposed birth date.  Like it or not, anyone who celebrates the year 2015 AD, inadvertently celebrates the birth of Jesus. His birth functions as a restart of time itself, a new beginning date in human history.  And yet, his life does not occupy our calendars like football or family activities or work or retirement.  Even the faithful tend to fit in worship or church when it suits us. Jesus does not occupy our calendars like a regular appointment with the doctor or the grocer.  Faithfulness is less and less about consistent, regular attendance on Sunday or any day.  It’s not about loyalty to a congregation or a denomination, either. Faith is a way of experiencing life in the world.     
God’s presence in our lives is not like an appointment on a calendar, is it?  Scheduling Sunday as the holy day to encounter God does not seem to work for us.  Most of us are aware that God doesn’t only show up on Sunday morning at 9:30 for an hour or so. God is not confined by our time in this way. God shows up.  The bible tells us this.  Like a young woman in labor, God comes.  Like an invasion.  You don’t schedule such things.   That’s the intensity of it.  Like a burning bush.  Like a sudden storm.  One can anticipate, even prepare.  But we do not predetermine God’s presence.  Some believe that God comes to us in the Word and Sacrament. This is most certainly true enough. And Lutheran.  But to claim that God comes in these means of grace and in no other way is a form of atheism. God is not contained within our worship life.       
There is a feeling that we associate with anticipation, isn’t there?  When we anticipate the arrival of a guest or a package from UPS, we feel excitement or anxiety.  We wait. We watch.  We pay attention. Around this time of year, there is much anticipation. Most of it is positive and joyful.  Children anticipate the first sighting of Santa or a visit from relatives.  We anticipate gift-giving and receiving with eagerness and hopefulness.
Anticipation can be unsettling, too. When we anticipate a call from the doctor with test results or we anticipate an encounter with a person with whom we are not at peace.  I suspect we overschedule our lives to avoid the anxiety of uncertainty.  We busy our days to avoid an emptiness we cannot name. It is the emptiness that accompanies our fears, our worries, and our doubts about God and life and our purpose.  But as we busy ourselves and fill our calendars, we may miss the presence of holiness and the incarnation of love. 

We don’t celebrate Jesus’ actual birthday on December 25th.  We celebrate the pagan festival of winter solstice, reclaimed by Christians.  In Advent and Christmas, however, we celebrate something more important than a date in history.  We celebrate the in-breaking of the eternal God into our spaces and times. God occupies the hours and days and months and years in a way that we cannot organize or schedule or avoid.  Like lighting a candle in the dark or waking up from sleep.  This is faith. And we propose that the cycle is interrupted by a new story; one with a beginning and end.  In the end, like the beginning, there is God and creation teeming with life and there is the human family embodying the love of the creator.  In the end there is Christ, Lord of all and King of the universe.  In the end there is peace.  And so, we have hope.  May you experience God’s invasive, interruptive presence this holy season.  May you realize the beautiful ending and hope for it to come.  May you see in Christ’s birth the joy and peace and love and hope that God delivers for all humanity.  Amen.       

the one about anxious, anticipatory waiting

Advent 1 2014.  Gospel of Mark 13:26-37.  

"And what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake."  
Anxious, anticipatory waiting.  We've all experienced it.  Awaiting pending news.  Awaiting an arrival.  Awaiting a call, a result, a decision. It can cause sleeplessness, restlessness, butterflies.  You know that feeling? We experienced it Thursday morning as we anticipated the thanksgiving meal in the kitchen aromas that prepared us.  Much anticipation is built up around Black Friday shopping, or is it Thursday? Why wait, right?   
We saw anxious anticipation this week in a story unfolding in Missouri.  The people of Ferguson, Missouri waited for the grand jury’s decision about the shooting death of Micheal Brown by  Police Officer Darrin Wilson.  The news broke.  And no indictment will come from that grand jury.  Protests and violence erupted.  There were protests throughout the U.S., even in downtown Lancaster.  It was peaceful here.  The point is that many people feel that an injustice has been perpetrated by the white establishment; when another unarmed black man is gunned down in the streets and there is no consequence for the shooter.  A black man between 20 and 24 is five times more likely to be killed by a gun than a white man.  Racial injustice is hard to talk about  as a white man in a predominantly white congregation.  But we must acknowledge it today.  We must because  we are theologians of the cross, who see Jesus in the world's suffering and pain. We must because Dr. King was gunned down.  An unarmed black man.  Because he was black.  And when we subtly justify these deaths by accusing the victims, we participate in the injustice ourselves.  So when we turn the Trayvon Martins and the Michael Browns into vicious predators on the attack, when we suggest that shooting our way to safety is the only way to be safe, we justify homicide and make it easier for the next white man with a gun to claim self-defense because the black kid is still the boogie man here, still the aggressor, still the demon.  Now you might be asking or thinking, was race a factor at all?  Some in the media are suggesting it was not.  That this was a bad kid who got caught and ended up losing a fight with a cop doing his duty.  No matter.  Think about the people on the other side, who anxiously anticipated some justice, some sense of acknowledgement of their pain and their anger and their fears.  It is not safe to be a black kid.  That is the message.  And they were hoping against hope that the law would protect them.  For the black community, it is about racial injustice and white privilege. For them it is Jim Crowe and lynchings and marches that ended in deaths on the streets.  Across the country people waited. And when the news broke, people reacted.  So the waiting continues…until the next time.  And we ask, will there be peace? 
 Anxious, anticipatory waiting.  We wait for an end to racial discrimination, an end to the street violence, an end to the injustices that surround us and pervade our lives.  We must learn to impatiently wait.  Not to avoid confrontation with evil and injustice. Or ignore its presence in our community.  To impatiently wait is to acknowledge the imbalance of power and the injustice, and to protest it. Find a way to shine a light.  Some protested black Friday shopping, because frantic shopping is not an Advent spiritual practice. Maybe you can defect a little more from the consumer insanity and give a little more to lift up the poor.       
I received a text this week from someone I’ve not heard from in awhile.  The text read that she had a friend whose house burned in a fire and the family was in need.  She asked if they might access our clothing rooms.  "Certainly", I replied.  "Let me know when."  I’ve not heard a response.  What was that?  Anticipatory waiting includes a sense of readiness, because you do not know the day or the hour.  We must be ready to respond with faith to those who are fighting for their lives.    
The Jews waited.  They cried out to God.  And they waited. For hundreds of years.  The prophet Isaiah cried out for God to tear open the heavens and come down. He said, 4From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.”  They waited for the all-consuming power of their God to overwhelm their adversaries, to purge them from sin, and to make them dwell in safety.  They waited for Messiah, for the prince of peace, for the mighty God and savior to save them.  They are still waiting.  They are faithful, obedient, and patient. We can learn from them.  (Israel's national political identity and ongoing war with the Palestinians must not be confused with Jewish religious and spiritual practice). 

We need saving too.  We need rescue.  From what?  Ourselves, mostly.  Our economics and politics, and entertainment, and addictions and prejudices and complacencies and subtle acceptance of sin that divide the world into winners and losers.  We are hastening forward, pushing our way to the front of the line.  For what?    
And so, we must learn to wait like the Jews.  There has been a delay in the Lord’s return. And we do not know the day or the hour.  In this season, we take up the holy practice of waiting for Jesus to act.  We want definitive action for the world. We want peace with non-violent justice.  We want economic equality, where everyone has enough.  We want forgiveness for sins, known and unknown, and we want to hope for life after death, for an eternal reality that overwhelms death and restores life.  There will come a day when he will come again to judge the living and the dead.  In the meantime, we live on the edge of our seats.  We wait and we watch and we respond with faith to those subtle signs of his coming to us.  Like a text message asking for help. God does break in to our hearts and homes if we’re paying attention.  So this week, wake up.  Do not avoid the crucified one who comes among us in the cries of those who need help and hope.  Wake up and see that God has come and does come and will come to you.  And pray for the day when His final coming will bring reconciliation and peace to us all.  Amen. 

the one about Matthew 25

Message based on Matthew 25:31-43. Christ the King Sunday 2014

What do we do with a gospel passage that is meant to provoke or surprise us but tends to make us feel superior or self-righteous instead? The ethical checklist that Matthew provides for the church in Matthew 25 becomes a simple way for us to judge ourselves.  What I mean is, we feed hungry people.  We clothe people.  We visit the sick and pray for the imprisoned.  As a national church, the ELCA does all of these things.   What we don’t do personally, we support financially and prayerfully.  We are ethically righteous, even if we are humble about it.   We have programs that do all of these things. As Americans, we can feel good too.  The U.S has a history of welcoming immigrants; the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.  We are immigrants, all of us.  Immigrants with a history of oppression of native peoples, but  that’s in the past.  We are enlightened 21st century Americans.  Progressive compared to other parts of the world.  The envy of the world, really, because of our freedom and openness and prosperity.   And though some disagree with our national charter of liberty that must defend the rights of the poor and oppressed to find refuge here, we welcome strangers in.  President Obama alluded to the biblical call to welcome the stranger to justify his executive order that may provide a form of amnesty for certain undocumented people living on U.S. soil. Some 5 million people will benefit from the orders, if they come to pass in 6 months.  Our ELCA Bishops support the president’s actions on immigration.  I printed for you a copy of their statement in response to the speech; they quote the Matthew 25 passage we just read this morning.  You might think our endorsement as a church of the president’s speech was a response to Matthew 25---like he was acting on behalf of King Jesus in announcing this good news.  And though some are calling his actions imperialistic, others see his actions as consistent with the empire of God.
So, if we are doing these things, then this end time parable of judgment is, for us, good news.  We are the sheep, the righteous, the good guys, the ones at the shepherd king’s right hand.  Our goodness toward the least of these gives us eternal access to the throne of God.  We are safe and secure.  Right?
This is a parable that is not about us, though.  We like it to be about us.  But it’s not.  It’s about the son of man, showing up in glory and in shame.  It’s about the King appearing in the disguise of the poor.  The powerful hidden in the vulnerable.  The sheep did not know they were sheep; the goats did not know they were goats.  Their actions in life did not convince them of their eternal destiny. They could not.  Their actions were not the focus.  The focus is the action of the son of man, the King, the Messiah, the God man in the flesh, the Immanuel God with us Jesus standing in their midst.  His action was to come to us in the form of a servant, in the form of a crucified convict.  They did not realize that the one who held their eternal destiny in their hands had come to them as a hungry child or an imprisoned addict or an illegal immigrant or a naked body exploited for sex or a man hanging on a cross.  
The church is the church, not because we are ethically right; because we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, etc…our actions do not make us church.  Jesus’ actions do.  That he is poor and hungry and naked and thirsty and in prison and sick and dying.  And that he is King.  And we dare to worship HIM, to serve Him, to call Him King.  We dare to announce that God is in vulnerable flesh.  We dare to suggest to a world obsessed with power and wealth and violence that the most powerful person in the world is a poor, hungry baby born in Bethlehem-an occupied and dangerous land.  I say to you that no social or national or religious program or institution or extraordinary giving event can save this world.  Christ the King saves the world by becoming poor.  The greatest became the least, so the least might become great.  That is the way of things in God’s kingdom.  “To know God is to love the poor and plead the cause of the oppressed.”  Our proximity to God is revealed in our proximity to those at the bottom of the human pyramid. Because Christ the King is found there.  And where He is found, there is true life. May you encounter King Jesus in the flesh this week.  Amen.            


the one about the bridegroom and the oil lamps

From the Parable of the ten bridesmaids from Matthew 25:1-13.   

Man this is a harsh story, isn’t it?  We can simplify with an old Sunday school song, ("Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burnin'"),  but it doesn’t really address the problem of this story.  And this story is riddled with problems for us, I think.  I’ve not had much help this week in preparation to preach this gospel story, either.  Every preacher I turn to for support, for a lifeline, says the same thing.  This is hard to preach.  I could jump ship and preach Amos or Thessalonians today.  But I believe I am a disciple of Jesus and must try and listen to and learn from him.
 So what do we learn about the kingdom of heaven today?
Its like 10 bridesmaids who await the coming of the bridegroom for the banquet with oil lamps trimmed to light his way.
Its like a bridegroom whose coming is delayed until late at night.  And when he comes, he comes suddenly, abruptly. He’s late, but he shows up and when he does…
Its like the bridesmaids who fell asleep waiting for the bridegroom to come. And when he comes five wise ones have enough oil for their lamps to keep burning.  Five foolish ones do not.  Not enough oil.  We may expect the five wise ones to share.  They selfishly refuse. They send the foolish girls away to buy more oil for themselves.  And when the bridegroom arrives the foolish ones are absent.  So the five wise ones, who had enough oil, enter the party and the door is shut.  And when the foolish ones return and knock to get in, they are dismissed.  I do not know you. 
So, none stayed away.  The wise have enough oil.  The foolish do not have enough. Perhaps this is about wealth and poverty.  The haves and have nots.  If you have enough oil, you’re safe.   We are tempted to focus on the oil.  What does the oil symbolize?  Faith?  More likely, the teachings of Jesus. The end of Jesus’ sermon on the mount (Gospel of Matthew 5-8) he says, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  The rains came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against the house; yet it did not fall since it had its foundation on the rock.  But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not practice them is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  The rains came down, the streams rose, and the winds  blew and beat against the house and it fell with a great crash.”  Maybe oil= teaching of Jesus.  Wise ones hear it and obey; foolish ones do not.  Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.  That’s a good sermon, I think.  Obey Jesus’ words.  It is the key to heaven.  Those who have the oil of His word are in.  All others are out? 
Except that one of Jesus’ teachings is “Give to all who beg of you.”  Yet the wise ones do not share an ounce of oil. And when five thousand hungry people surround them and the disciples compel Jesus to send them away to buy their own food, Jesus says “you give them something to eat.”  And he also says to the disciples, “Knock and the door will be open to you.”   The parable contradicts his own teaching.  The wise ones refuse to share and the Lord locks out the foolish ones, who did not have enough oil.  What happened to blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  And blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” I guess its not about the oil. Shoot. 
So what is it about?  What if the bridesmaids and the oil are a distraction?  It’s not about the mean girls and the poor girls or the amount of oil they carry at all.  In the end, Jesus says, “Keep awake therefore for you know neither the day nor the hour. “  But if it’s just about attentiveness, all ten girls fail, for they all fell asleep.  And all are awakened by a loud shout announcing his imminent arrival. And when he arrives, the party begins.  Some are left out.  Some are welcomed in.  And I guess that’s the rub, isn’t it?  A long delay in coming leads to inattentive, drowsiness.  Who’s to blame here anyway? Must someone be to blame?  We hope for understanding.  Leniency and not judgment.  Mercy and not punishment.  We want all the girls to get in. It’s not fair.   We see injustice in this text, because we know Jesus.  We know that he comes for the not good enough, the fools, the messed up ones.  He claims the ones whose oil ran out.  Over and over again, he chooses what was low and last and lost in the world.  We can’t imagine a day of judgment in which a group of mean girls get in to God’s kingdom and a group of foolish innocents are left out.   Because we know Jesus.

And maybe that’s the point.  Knowing Jesus, there is enough oil and enough room for everyone. Or knowing him, it wouldn’t have mattered if some of the girls had oil and some did not.  He would’ve welcomed all of them in, the bright faces and the dark ones.  If they’d known and trusted him enough to stick around.  But maybe nobody knows it.  Or believes it.  Maybe everyone’s asleep to that reality.  Some have convinced themselves that the world is divided into the good and the bad, the haves and have nots.  And their trying to get things right, working hard to "get their own oil." Because this is all there is, blessings and curses.  Some of us believe that the judgment has already come.  And some do not make the cut.  Maybe even most. Except the ones we decide are alright.  And maybe that prejudicial practice is the nightmare in which we are living. And maybe we all need to wake up from that nightmare to face the only judge whose judgment matters.  Jesus. And maybe when you do wake up, your in.  Your in…love.  A love the conquers death and hatred and despair and self-loathing and fear and broken relationships and mean girls and deadly regimes and abusers of wealth and power.  That sounds like the kingdom of heaven.  There is one overlooked character inthe story;the unnamed announcer who wakes up the girls.  So, the unknown person in the story is ME.  The preacher.  And I’m here to tell you all.  Wake up, the bridegroom comes.  Amen.               

Monday, October 20, 2014

The One about a busy life

Does it seem to you that life has gotten busier?  When someone asks you, "How are you doing," is your response, "I'm so busy."  Busy seems to be the new normal, doesn't it?  The busier you are, the more you confirm that you belong here.  Being busy is an essential part of American life. We live in a 24/7/365 world now.  Nothing stops.  Ever.  And if you stop, you might miss something or be missed. Do not get off this train or you will die.  Keep up or get out.    In the last month,have you lost sleep?  Have you felt overwhelmed? Have you experienced frustration with your excessively full schedule?  Have you played tag team with your spouse, like ships passing in the night? Do you think that if you don't do this thing, you will have failed?  Do you ever feel that kind of pressure?  For yourself or your kids?  

Monday, August 18, 2014

the one about the temper tantrum

So I’m at the grocery store the other day and as I turn the aisle I see at the other end a scene.  A mom with four little ones is wrestling with a girl about 3 who is wriggling on the floor and screaming at the top of her lungs.  She’s crying and screaming out words of a language I can’t understand but the mom is saying; I told you, NO.  You cannot have a soda in the store.  Just then she looks up.  She sees me watching this scene. I froze.  What was my face saying?  Did she feel judged?  Embarrassed?  Or was she sort of used to public displays of torture?  I wanted to become invisible.  I imagine she did too.   I mean we were alone in the aisle and how could you not look.  I quickly turned to the soup and pretended to get interested in minestrone.  Meanwhile the little girl is on the floor kicking and screaming like she was resisting arrest.  I turned around and exited the aisle, but the screaming continued.
Are you familiar with this scene? Have you witnessed a child go nuclear on a parent in a pubic setting? Restaurants, stores, doctor’s offices, even fun places like theme parks.  What sort of responses have you witnessed?  I’ve seen every response, from parents pretending to ignore the miniature terrorist to parents carrying the child out of the public place on their shoulder like a bag of angry potatoes.  While the child continues to punch, kick, and scream.  Maybe your familiarity is more intimate.  You’ve been that parent.  Suddenly, when the meltdown that typically begins with the word “no”, is in full force, you feel like you’re both alone and on stage in front of a live studio audience at the same time. Right?  It’s pretty awful. You want the Marines, a clinical psychiatrist, and the child’s grandparents to intervene.  Right?  Get me out of here.  Embarrassment and frustration.  You try to remain calm, but you want to lock the kid up in a sound proof room for 24 hours of solitary confinement.  And you want to be transported to a private beach with that novel you started two months ago that you haven’t had time to continue reading because you are a parent and you are exhausted.
 Ah parenting. It has its moments of joy and exasperation.  Now what about a parent whose child has a chronic condition of some sort.  We are pretty compassionate toward people with a child who has a disability, I suspect.  That must be hard. But what about children with behavioral disabilities or mental illness.  There is a disorder called oppositional defiant disorder. 
Mayo clinic website says: “It may be difficult at times to recognize the difference between a strong-willed or emotional child and one with oppositional defiant disorder. It's normal to exhibit oppositional behavior at certain stages of a child's development. But there is a range between the usual independence-seeking behavior of children and that of oppositional defiant disorder.
Signs of ODD generally begin before a child is 8 years old. Sometimes ODD may develop later, but almost always before the early teen years. When ODD behavior develops, the signs tend to begin gradually and then worsen over months or years.
Your child may be displaying signs of ODD instead of normal moodiness if the behaviors:
·         Are persistent
·         Have lasted at least six months
·         Are clearly disruptive to the family and home or school environment
The following are behaviors associated with ODD:
·         Negativity
·         Defiance
·         Disobedience
·         Hostility directed toward authority figures
These behaviors might cause your child to regularly and consistently:
·         Have temper tantrums
·         Be argumentative with adults
·         Refuse to comply with adult requests or rules
·         Annoy other people deliberately
·         Blames others for mistakes or misbehavior
·         Acts touchy and is easily annoyed
·         Feel anger and resentment
·         Be spiteful or vindictive
·         Act aggressively toward peers
·         Have difficulty maintaining friendships
·         Have academic problems
·         Feel a lack of self-esteem
ODD.  That’s odd. Its also tragically disruptive behavior.  My cousin’s son was diagnosed with it.  They’ve been treating him for years. There’s been improvement, but it has made socialization, schooling, and work very difficult for him. The nature vs. nurture argument tends to look at the parents with judgment.  No discipline there.  But what if there are people, children, who suffer from an illness that causes bad behavior?   
My grandma Morse used to babysit kids.  She had one little girl she affectionately called the demon child.  This little girl was a sharknado inside a hurricane. She was mean and threw a tantrum every day.  She was caught stealing and ended up in jail by the time she was a teen.
Jesus goes to tyre and sidon. There is no reason for him to go there.  He has no itinerary.  He has not found a hotel deal there.  He goes where he is led to go.  And even Jesus, the man, is sometimes led to places and to people whom he would rather avoid.  As they arrive a woman appears.  She is yelling at him, ‘Lord, son of David have mercy on me.”  This is Matthew’s code to us:  This woman has faith in Jesus already planted in her heart before he arrives.  Picture a young African woman, dressed in rags, coming toward them.  She is crying.  And the compassionate healer ignores her?  The disciples compel him to send her away.  He treats her like an outcast.  Culturally she is, to the Jewish man, a nobody.  Invisible, untouchable, untreatable. But she persists in her begging.  She begs for her sick daughter, a demon child, with a violent temper.  Jesus refuses to console her help.  He will not share the children’s bread with the dogs.  His power is reserved for Israel.  She is not eligible.  There are limits and boundaries to his service. But she is not looking for Jesus to feed the world, just give her a crumb.  Not a bonfire of holiness, but a single matchstick. Not a global vaccine but a single pill.  She is bold to even ask twice.  Her desperation is demonstrative of a mother’s unyielding love.  What we wouldn’t do for our children, even in their worst or darkest moments.
And Jesus is changed. He sees the light.  Perhaps his purpose is revealed to him in that encounter, in that moment of brave vulnerability.  A woman surrounded by 12 men?  What might they demand from her as payment for her request? She didn’t care.  She believed he could help.
And that’s what he does.  Great is the faith of the mother whose love made her fall on her knees and beg for mercy. 

There are parents in our community on their knees begging for mercy too.  They may never come to church, but they’re looking for Jesus.  The challenges are too hard. They are stuck, alone in public, and need help.  Jesus invites us to show compassion that transcends our own limits and boundaries. What are they for you?  Who is it hard to feel compassionate toward?  Why do we avoid contact with a struggling parent?  Fear?  Maybe just a word of understanding, a knowing look, and a, “I’ve been there, too.” Faith is not religious practice, it is trusting the Lord for help every day.  May you see it in others and give some of yours away.  Amen.