Monday, February 02, 2015

the one about inviting Angie

Come and see.  In the gospel of John these are words of personal invitation to step into a new life, a life with Jesus.  They are unexpected by the recipient, Nathaniel. Because he does not yet believe that Jesus is a rabbi worth following.  But Jesus promises that he is inviting them into a world in which the heavens are opened up, the veil between heaven and earth is pulled back, the distance between them and God is removed.  God’s world is being revealed in the flesh of Jesus, if they will come and see.
Come and see.  When have you heard these words or uttered them yourself?  They are spoken with some anticipation.  Come and see the baby.  Come and see the new house.  Come and see the puppy.  Come and see the flower garden project I completed.  Or a plea for companionship. Come and see me when you get a chance.  I am invited to come and see people in their homes quite often.  It is a way that we give people access to our lives. No?  Think of a time that you were invited to come and see or a time you invited others.  What was the meaning of the invitation?  With these words we let people into some part of our lives that has meaning for us.  
At Peter’s Porch, I go with a mission every month.  I pray about it.  I pray that God would make me open to see someone who needs to be seen and give me the courage to step into their world.  Show me a person or family that needs connection.  I look for the one person.  This month it was Angie.  Angie is 27, engaged, with four kids.  She lives in Ephrata.  She actually knows to people in this church.  She was going to LCBC, but they lack transportation.  She wants to become more than a consumer of feel-good religion.  She wants to contribute to other people.  She has empathy, the power to step into another person’s world, look around with them, and stay with them even if it’s dark in there.  I like these people.  She’s also starting over.  She was recently released from Lanc. Co. prison.  And I think she has the potential to become a person with faith, whose story may change lives, positively influence others, and serve God’s will.  But, baby steps.  I invited her to dinner church.  Actually I called her.  I told her that I prayed for guidance in my conversations and that God led me to her and her mom.  She confirmed it by saying that she was recently told by another minister that she would get connected to a place where she could help others.  So, I invited her to come and see.  I told her about us. She said yes.  Gave me her number.  Now, I was no pick up artist.  I basically got lucky once and she married me and she’s still married to me.  I’m no charmer.  I’m open and willing to speak the words; come and see.  I used those actual words.  And she said yes.  She needs a way to get here tonight, but she intends to come and see what we are doing here.  I hope some of you will come and see, too.  So that Angie can experience a community of believers, seeking Jesus together.

Actually I invite folks to come and see what we’re doing a lot.  Not because I think we are doing special things, per se.  People ask me if this is a big church.  It’s there way of saying, “Could anything good happen at little Zion on Main Street in Akron?”  The assumption is always "bigger is better".  I tell them we do big things. It’s not flashy entertainment here.  It’s real.  And personal.  And Jesus is the one who invites us in.  When we gather in community here, our intention is to show the love of Christ.  Disciples are people who are willing to give others access to their lives, their hearts, their minds, so that others might experience Jesus in them.  Because nothing matters more to me than what Jesus has done for me, for us, for the world.  My hope in the future of this world is in Jesus, in the gospel.  Disciples are people who have experienced the grace, love, and peace of Jesus and are called to share it.  When people come and see, do they see Jesus in us?  I hope they do.  Every time.    Amen.  

Post-script.  Angie did come to dinner church with her four children.  I picked them up in my minivan.  We ate together and talked about their life situation. We prayed together. We shared the Lord's supper. I took them home.  She has a written journal that she would like to share sometime, a sort of testimony of how God's grace has saved her.  I hope she can do that with us soon.  When we invite people into our lives, it is often our own eyes and hearts and minds that are opened.      

the one about kairos time

Based on Gospel of Mark. 1:14-20. 
Time, money, friends, material goods, land.  In this list of resources, which do you feel you possess the least?  If you could have more of any one of these which would you choose?  If you were to pray to God for any of these things, which would you pray about?  Who among us today wishes to expand their real estate? Show of hands.   Other items?  Friends?  Money?  Time?
Time is a real bugger.  At the end of the day, you run out of it.  We cannot add more of it, can we?  It’s a fixed economy, in some ways.  24 hours a day.  7 days a week.  356 days a year.  But what is the span of a lifetime?  Unknown, right?  You could live to be 107 or die tomorrow.  Pleasant, I know. But that’s the hard truth about time.  We can plan for tomorrow, but we have to live in the immediate NOW.  And time speeds up as you age, doesn’t it?  Does it seem like a year goes by faster to you than it once did?  Is that real? What is that?  We lose time.  We waste time. We spend time.  Time goes by and we don’t get it back.  When our dog died last month, we did not say “That was the exact right amount of time with her.”  No, we wished for more time, good time, walk and play time with her.  BUT, we also discovered that the timing of her death was right for our family and our life.  And that’s the other bit about time.  It is not always fixed by the clock.  Last week, we went to the farm show in HBG.  We weren’t there five minutes when we ran into one of our oldest and best college friends and his wife and daughter. Jake and I experienced God’s calling in our lives through prayer in a little chapel at SU.  He is a reminder to me that God called us to public ministry.  Later, we ran into Jim Dunlop, the son of our Bishop.  He and I are Facebook friends who have never met.  When he saw me, he recognized me and we stopped to talk for a few minutes.  What do we make of these chance encounters?  If we weren’t somehow dialed in or alert and aware, we would not experience them.  And though seemingly random, they might mean something else.  I’ve been thinking about Jake and Jim since.
Because timing matters.  It is a way that God speaks to us, according to Jesus.  He says, "The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is near.  Repent and believe the good news."  The word for time here is Kairos.  It's like when fruit ripens.  It's a moment.  Kairos is the encounter that interrupts, the experience that breaks into the routine.  A Kairos moment is an unexpected moment that gives us pause and transcends the schedule.  A Kairos will blow your plans, your schedule, your calendar totally away.  Illness, death, surgery, incarceration are all Kairos experiences. But so might be an opportunity or idea or or encounter or invitation into something new.  And in Jesus’ own life, he was experiencing a Kairos moment.  Mark says, "After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming."  His public ministry began, not on a Monday at 9 am.  Or a Sunday at 9:30; not immediately after his 33rd birthday.   It began after John was arrested.  Timing is everything. The Kairos for Jesus is the arrest of John. Does John’s arrest foreshadow Jesus’?  John was arrested for his public ministry, a voice crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord.  Now Jesus begins a public ministry with the same message as his predecessor.  Except that Jesus is also claiming that the Kairos moment of John’s arrest and his inauguration into public ministry is the Kairos moment for all of us.  It is the moment when everything changes.  It is the moment when God comes near.  
And as a sign of it, he begins to invite people to follow him.  First four fishermen.  And they immediately go after him.  Why?  What is it that compels them to so hastily drop their nets and go after this man?  His invitation is not filled with promises and promotions.  It is simple.  Come and I will make you fish for people.  What does that mean anyway?  Casting a net to capture people?  How? Why?  For what purpose?  None of this is clear and they go anyway.
Because they are experiencing a Kairos.  It is more than a chance encounter with a preacher on the beach.  It has significance for them.  They may not know what it means, yet.  But they know that they have been summoned, called, invited into something they cannot ignore.  A Kairos is like the ripening of fruit.  These people were ready for action, ready to go, ready for a call.  They were fishermen with dreams and hopes and needs beyond their boats and nets.  They were eager to follow a teacher, a leader, a guide into a new and better way of life.  What if they had said, we don’t have time now.  We have three hours to mend our nets before dusk and fishing time. Clock time can be a powerful tool of resistance.  We are often too busy to notice a Kairos or when they happen we choose to keep our schedule and routine instead.  I can’t.  I have to do this. But these men respond. Jesus breaks into their world and they leave it behind and go. Why? They are disciples. And the first characteristic of a disciple, a learner, a follower of Jesus is this:  Be open to Kairos. God can call you any time.  Maybe this is a time in your life when you have questions or are seeking a way to see, know, hear, trust, and love God, yourself and others.  Maybe something is happening with you and you are struggling with a challenge or an issue for which you cannot see a positive resolution.  Maybe you have experienced something you don’t understand.  A Kairos demands attention and action.  What is God saying and what am I going to do about it?  Jesus’ commands to repent and believe are the faithful response of a disciple experiencing Kairos.  To repent is to stop and turn around.  To get reoriented.  To believe is to take up a new direction without knowing the destination.  It is to trust God to reorder your life in a way that will please God, serve others, and give you life.  I am here to help you mine out a Kairos experience and move in the direction God is calling you to.  Next week, we will honor two people who have demonstrated discipleship in 2014.  And we will welcome three people into church leadership, all who have had Kairos experiences in their lives that prepare them to enter public ministry as servants of Jesus.  Be open to Kairos time and a call to discipleship this week.  Jesus is still inviting you to follow him.  Amen.      


the one about the smelly man in the tattered coat

There’s a small congregation like this one and one Sunday the Pastor is ready to begin worship with a prayer and a new hymn when a man walks in the back and starts down the aisle. He is a visitor, never been in there before.  He sits down about halfway up next to an older couple.  He sits down, but says excuse me in a normal speaking voice. This draws the attention of about 80% of the gathered congregation.  He’s wearing dirty boots, sweat pants, an old brown sweater, and---despite the frigid temps outside--a windbreaker with a hole in the back about 3” round, looks like a burn hole.  He looks to be about 40 or 50.  He settles in.  He seems fidgety and uncertain, maybe a little anxious.  He coughs.  A lot. The kind of coughing that makes you want to get out of the way.   He takes out the hymnal and bible in his pew and thumbs through them, not looking for anything at all.  He looks at the bulletin.  The couple next to him slide down and smile when he looks their way.
Also, they notice right away, he smells bad.  Like cigarettes and liquor and body odor.  His hair is dirty but combed.  But the odor is foul and distracting. And not just to the people sharing a pew. Behind him and across the aisle, he is noticeable.  The pastor notices, too.  But worship begins.  He stands when the people stand and sits when they sit.  He doesn’t look in a hymnal or read the bulletin at all.  He just stands and sits, stands and sits. He stays for about half of the service, gets up, walks out, uses the bathroom, and exits the building.  No one speaks to him. He speaks with no one.  He comes and he goes.  What remains is the odor.  And the concern of others in the congregation.  Who was he?  What did he want?  Why was he there?  Would he come back?  What should they do if he does?  Was he homeless?  Drunk?  Did they have a policy about how to handle such occasions? The pastor did not know this man either.   His visit disrupted, startled, confused, and concerned a few people.  Afterward, there were conversations heard about those people hanging around.  And safety concerns for the church building.  And what they should do if he comes again. He seemed needy.  But he didn’t ask for assistance. They don’t want to seem unwelcoming or unfriendly, but his presence was a distraction from worship.  Even for the Pastor, who wondered about the smelly man in the tattered coat. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

the one about infanticide and baptism

Based on Matthew 2.  The slaughter of the Innocent babies of Bethlehem

Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus.  Amen.
Merry Christmas. My middle son, Luke, wanted a new scooter for Christmas.  And he received it.  Along with a new helmet.  I think he has three helmets now.  One for his bike and scooter, one for his skate board, and one for his roller blades.  Luke must wear them when he rides.  It’s a requirement.   I think we would wrap his body in bubble tape if we could to avoid injury.  With the exception of some minor scrapes, we have done so.  For 10 years.  Luke did fall off the monkey bars once, got a bad cut on his forehead, landed in the ER twice. Ended up with a bad staph infection.  A little wound debreeding in the OR and some high octane antibiotics and he was good to go.  That was not a fun weekend.  He still has that scar, like Harry Potter.He lost a weekend and a little skin.  His mother and I lost about 5 years.  It was multiplied by the fact that she and  I were in Philly with friends visiting a museum on the morning that he fell at school.  My wife’s parents handled the first er visit.  But our day out came to an early end. 
Talking helmets and head injuries, when I was a kid we didn’t have bike helmets.  I think I got a head injury about every other day.  Accounts for a lot of things, come to think of it.  You know that old saying, its like falling off a bike.  I tested that many times.  We used to build jumps out of scrap wood.  We’d fly down the hill as fast as we could and hit the jump doing about 35 miles an hour, and then we would crash.  No helmet.  Just me and the Cherokee chief, my first bike that outweighed me.  They build everything light weight now.  But then, you landed with the bike on you, it hurt more than the ground. I also got a three wheeler ATV one Christmas, when I was 10.  Don’t get any ideas, Jonah.  It ain’t, happening.  I remember racing in the woods against my neighbors’ dirt bike with no helmets on.  We could’ve died.  I flipped that thing a couple of times.  That was scary.  But I never broke a bone.  And I never told my mom. That was the rule, risks are secrets.   
When we were kids the seat belts were safely tucked under the seat cushions, out of the way thank you.  We did not wear them.  In front or back seats.  On those vinyl seats, ice cold in winter, hot and sticky in summer, you would just slide around.  My kid brother fell right out the car once.  Turning left in the inner section.  He pulled the car door handle, no child safety locks, and out he went.  Eventually we alerted my mother, who was driving and we turned around.  He was scraped, but uninjured.  Today, my mother would do time for that.    We don’t move the car, unless everyone is buckled.  And baby seats?  You have to have an engineering degree to install them in the vehicle.  This is one of the 700 things new parents have to figure out.  And the baby looks like an astronaut about to launch; seat is reversed, five point harness, baby helmet, padding, cushions, bubble wrap…in 1962,John Glenn was launched into space and orbited the earth in an aluminum can.  Our babies are wrapped in Kevlar body armor and strapped into a tank before we go to target.  As parents, we get a new perspective.
Its Christmas and we are celebrating the birth of Jesus.  His incarnation, the physical presence of God on earth, does not provide divine protection.  His birth was not to provide a blanket of safety and a way out of the insecurity, vulnerability, and risk of human life.  It was the opposite.  God joined us in the vulnerability.  God takes off his seat belt and climbs in the back seat with us.  God gets on the three wheeler, takes off on the scooter.  God takes the risk of being human.  And it is a great risk, a perilous one.  The story we hear of infanticide is remembered on the 28th of December by the church every year.  As we celebrate the joy of birth, we encounter the risk of death.  It is the second bible story about infanticide by public policy or government decree.  The first is the story of the Exodus, now in theatres.  The Egyptian Pharaoh feared the growing population of foreigners in his country.  So he enslaved them and instructed their midwives to kill and the males, drowning them in the Nile.  Baby Moses was saved in a basket and rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter.  He would later become the public leader of the liberation movement that included violent opposition and the death of Pharaoh’s own son.  Four women protected baby Moses from drowning; midwife, mother, sister, Pharaoh’s daughter.  Maternal instincts doing the work of God.  Further proof that God is a woman.  Or he answers to one.
Jesus’ parents are warned in a dream to flee to Egypt to avoid the tragic massacre.  They do.  But the massacre happens. Mother’s wept and Father’s cried.  No one should have to bury their baby.  That is a rule in every culture.  Unfortunately, we live in a world where that is impossible to avoid sometimes.  War, disease, famine, violent oppression.  Children are casualties still.  We remember them today. All of them, in every time and place.  
Baby Jesus will grow up.  And be baptized.  And lead a liberation movement to free all people from the power of sin and death.  He leads the forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation movement.  He gives his life for the life of the world.   He leads the death and resurrection movement too.  According to the story, Jesus’ mother Mary will see his crucifixion and bury her son. Despite her attempts to protect him as a boy, she could not protect him as a man.  And he died young.  As a prisoner, executed under the watch of the son of the man who ordered the slaughtering of the children of Bethlehem. 
Today we baptize Mason James.  Our instincts are to protect our children.  We may think of baptism as a kind of holy protection.  An insurance policy against sin, death, and the devil.  And it is, in part.  But it is more than that.  Mason becomes a child of God.  You are handing him over today, in one of many acts of parenthood in which you must risk letting him go.  He belongs to God and to the Christian family. He is our baby now.   If he is raised to know Christ, then he may also risk following him.  If he does, he will experience the cross. Because Baptism is also Christian calling.  Put in his hands the Scriptures and teach him to love God.  Teach him to walk in His ways, ways of compassion, justice, and peace; Because we are performing infanticide today.  Luther called Baptism a daily dying and rising, drowning in God’s Word and the water.  When we are baptized into Christ we are baptized into his death and his resurrection, said Paul. Today, you put Mason in the hands of God.  The God who knows what it means to suffer the pain of losing your son. The God who knows what it is to live and to die.  I have done my share of presiding over the death of adult children, whose parents suffer terribly.  I have baptized many children too.  When we are born, we enter the good creation and take on the risk of living and the promise of death.  In Holy Baptism, we acknowledge the risks and the promise.  But we hope for something more, resurrection and eternal life.  We hope for divine protection, salvation, and peace.  We hope for Mason to reflect the light of God, to become a faithful servant and caretaker of God’s creation.  May you experience God’s protection and peace and may you risk everything for Jesus’ and his kingdom.               


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.