Saturday, November 30, 2013

Sermon Advent I December 1, 2013 Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44 “To-Do or What-If”

Okay, here’s my nightmare: it’s Sunday morning. I open my eyes. Oddly, I can see light peeking through the curtains. That shouldn’t be. It’s winter. I’m supposed to be up in the early morning darkness. I look at the clock, and it says 9:55 a.m. I’ve missed the 8:15 service, and Adult Forum, and I’ve got to hustle or I will miss the 10:30. I look at the alarm clock, and it is obvious that I forgot to turn on the alarm before I went to sleep the night before.

A missed alarm clock…worst nightmare ever.

Have you ever had that experience? When you have such a nightmare, you wake up with your heart pounding in your chest, in a cold sweat, thinking “It’s just a nightmare, it’s just a nightmare, it’s just a nightmare.”

In some ways, it’s scarier than the dream about falling, or the dream about being chased by bears, or the dream about having to speak in front of a group and not knowing what you’re supposed to talk about, because this nightmare is so very, very possible. We COULD sleep through the alarm clock, either because we forgot to set it or because we were so deeply asleep that we didn’t even hear it. 

We’re terrified of missing something, of sleeping through it, of being caught in the act of not being present to something…

…and the first Sunday of Advent is all about being present to the big thing that is coming.

Look at the passage from the gospel of Matthew, which is all about being ready for the coming of the Son of Man. We do not know the day. We do not know the hour. All we know is that he is coming, and we had better be paying attention. We had better be prepared for his arrival.

That calls for an alarm clock. But how do you set your alarm clock if you don’t know the day or the hour?
You can’t. Your only option is to stay awake and aware continually, so you don’t miss his arrival.

Hmmm…can I stay awake nonstop between now and Christmas Eve?

Somehow I doubt it. Well, maybe the apostle Paul will have some good advice for me – the Letter to the Romans is one of his most impressive pastoral instruction manuals. What does Paul say?

He says things that are pretty much as unhelpful as the gospel.

First he says that the time is near. Okay, that narrows down how long I have to stay awake, sort of. Then he gives me the most useless instructions possible. Don’t party. Don’t argue. Don’t do all the things that are part of every single family and office party that the month of December can deliver. Live in the light. Put on the armor of light. And all this as we approach the time of the year when the days are the shortest and the mantle of darkness extends from when I wake up until before supper. Light…where am I to find some light?

And armor of light? I wonder if armor of light comes in my size. What will they say when I show up at the office Christmas party dressed in it? Will someone say “Buzzkill” or maybe, “There she goes again, getting all religious on us when all we want is to have a good time.”

How do I take all this “get ready” business and fit it into the crazy season that bombards me with “Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” playing in every store I enter, even Home Depot? 
Doesn’t the Lord know I’ve got a lot of work to do before December 25th?
But what is December 25th all about? Is it about the gift list and the Tacky Lights tour and the two thousand cookies and the cards and the Christmas letter and the travel arrangements and the tree? Is it about the ticking of the clock, that alarm clock, that reminds me that I haven’t gotten halfway through my list yet and everyone knows you’ve got to mail gifts by December 15th?

Or is it about moving into a different kind of time, hearing a different clock ticking? Is it about understanding that a different kind of wake-up call is awaiting me?

Is it about recognizing that, even as we await the coming of Jesus Christ, both in the nativity story and in the promise of Jesus’ second coming, that each and every moment, even the darkest ones, are pregnant with possibility? All this talk about “stay awake, keep aware” is it not just about the Christ, but about the chance that we may encounter Christ and live into our relationship with Christ each and every day?

Yes, we are waiting for Christmas. Yes, we are awaiting Jesus’ second coming, about which Paul and his followers exchanged letters. Yes, we know that momentous things will happen that have been written about and prophesied in Scripture.

But we are also charged with staying awake and keeping aware that glimmers of glory moments are all around us in every moment.

It may be rainy and sleeting and cold some days. It may be a time when we miss those who are far from us. It may be a day when the deep ache of a chronic illness, or simple old age, makes us think that there is no longer any good purpose to our life.

But if we keep our eyes sharp and our hearts open, those glimmers of glory moments flicker across the night sky of our souls.

Over the past couple of weeks or so, there has been a lot of talk in the news about a comet, named ISON, that is enormous and has the potential of coming near our planet, with all sorts of dangerous consequences. Astronomers have been having a field day with their computers, calculating when and where it might pass near earth. But before it was to come in our direction, it  was supposed to take a pass near the sun.

Now, the other day it took that solar pass, and after it rounded back into our astronomers’ view, they were quite convinced that it had been destroyed by the heat of the sun. All they saw was a trail of dust…

…until the moment that they determined that comet ISON didn’t burn up, at least not all the way. There is still some of it left, and it’s brightening and moving along quite smartly.

Projected path of comet ISON
Of course, the media focuses on what is gone from it, how much smaller it appears after its near-death experience on the far side of the sun. And yet it still glows, and streaks across the sky. It may yet head in this direction, a glimmer of glory that we would have to look even harder to see in the darkness of space.

But hear the words of astronomer Karl Battams:  "From the beginning, ISON has confused, surprised and amazed us, and in hindsight its latest little escapade really should not shock us. Nonetheless, this has been one of the most extraordinary comets we have ever encountered, and just goes to reiterate how beautiful, dynamic and exciting our universe is."

There are glimmers of glory moments around us if we look hard enough. In the smile of a grandchild. In a hug. In the relief found after pain medication is administered. In a phone call from an estranged family member. In the possibilities, the infinite possibilities, that God lays before each day, if we stay awake and pay attention…even the possibility that God would come to live among us as the tiniest of babies in a remote town half a world away, and that our lives would be forever changed by that birth.

Our God is a God of possibilities, of a million “what-ifs.”

With that in mind, put down the to-do list. Think of God’s “what-if” list…what if the world were peaceful? What if we loved our neighbors, all of them? What if no child was hungry or cold? What if no gunshots marred the still night sky? What if we were truly transformed by the child to come? What if we stayed awake with or without the alarm clock’s insistent ring and were aware of that glimmer in the sky…a comet…a star…a baby’s cry? What if?


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, November 24, 2014 Christ the King Sunday Jeremiah 23:1-6 & Luke 23:33-43 “Power”

What does power look like? It’s a fair question, given the fact that this is Christ the King Sunday. You talk about kings, you naturally start thinking about power. So what does power look like?

If you’re a political animal, you have seen lots of symbols of power, from the marksman with the rocket-propelled grenade launcher atop the White House protecting the president and his staff, to the flurry of aides who surround congressional leaders and feed them papers with bullet points on  all manner of topics, to the sleek lobbyists who wear two thousand dollar suits and wine and dine other powerful people to persuade them to support their issue.

If you’re in the money business, symbols of power might be the ability to  move markets by directing brokers to push a particular stock, or it might take a different form; you might be head of the Federal Reserve and control interest rates.

If you’re in the military, power is related to rank, to the role you fulfill in the hierarchy. If you’re a general, people snap to attention when you enter a room. You might have a driver, you might command thousands of troops, you might influence the President to follow a particular path in a military conflict.
General MacArthur in Manila

Our children even understand power in the schools. When the teacher says you have to do something, you had better do it, or there will be consequences. If the bully on the schoolyard demands your lunch money, you had best hand it over. If one of the mean girls in middle school decides you are a nerd, she can marshal her cohorts to tease you mercilessly.

Power. We hear the word, and a plethora of images like these pop up in our minds. I’d note that many of these are not positive, because most of us fear power. Power has been used against us in the past, and we worry that we will be its victim again.

If you’re a fan of the television program “Scandal,” you can see the misuse of power at the highest levels every week, and you can cheer on the beautiful but stressed-out Olivia Pope as she battles against the powerful forces who block her relationship with President Grant. Granted, it is an illicit relationship, but powerful people get to have what they want, so what’s a little marriage, particularly to an unpleasant woman like Mellie Grant, to get in the way of true love between the beautiful and the powerful?

Power can be political, financial, defined by social class, enforced by physical strength or strength of office. It can be coercive in nature or can simply be influence. It can be directly used, or it can be delegated. Just think of the phrase “Wait till you father gets home…” Now that’s power.

But let’s be clear on one thing: when you think of kings, you cannot help but think of power.

In the Old Testament reading from Jeremiah this morning, we hear about power, don’t we? Jeremiah describes a fierce king out of the line of David who will reclaim all that which is his, all of the scattered flock of the nation of Israel. He is the Lord, a king of righteousness.

What does the picture look like? A tall, muscular, avenging king – maybe you’d cast Matthew McConaughey if it were a movie – maybe riding on a white stallion – no wait, there weren’t stallions back then in the desert – no, how about a camel? – not regal enough…carried on a litter – no, makes him look weak…

No, this King is striding in long, strong strides across the hot desert, not even sweating, and the soldiers he commands strive to keep up his fierce pace. Yes, now we’re talking about a King! Now we’re talking about power. And this was precisely the kind of king that the people of Israel had been praying for when Jesus came on the scene. A king of righteousness who actually looked the part.

But looks aren’t everything, as our grandmothers said. And powerful people don’t always look so impressive. Think of short little Napoleon Bonaparte. Think of dweeby Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of FaceBook. Think of Senator Mitch McConnell. Think of Janet Yellen, who is about to replace Ben Bernanke as chair of the Federal Reserve. She looks like your grandma, only without the kitchen apron.

And then we have Jesus.

Warner Sallman's "The Head of Christ" 1941
Archeologists rendering of what Jesus probably looked like.
A country boy, out of the Galilee, so he speaks with that Galilean accent, just like our folks from the hills and the hollers. Despite all the images of him we’ve seen painted and sculpted by artists, he’s probably about average height for those people in that time, maybe 5 foot 5 or so. He’s probably got fairly dark skin and curly hair. So much for the famous glamor shot portrait of Jesus with sandy hair and blue eyes by Warner Sallman in the 1940s, which looks remarkably like Matthew McConaughey. In the Gospel of Matthew, when the soldiers come for Jesus, they have to ask which one he is, because he looks pretty much the same as all his disciples. An average looking guy.

Not Matthew McConaughey. Sorry, Matthew McConaughey fans out there.

Well, okay. He doesn’t look powerful. But he must convey his power in some way, because he’s a king and kings are powerful. Jeremiah has described him as righteous and fearful, able to turn the tide of history.

Well, Jeremiah has one vision, and the gospel writer Luke has something very different. Dead man walking, or at least a soon to be dead man hanging on a cross. Beaten, bleeding, gasping a bit for breath, since when one is crucified, one dies by asphyxiation. The arms are extended and are supporting the body’s weight and thus one cannot take a deep breath. When you no longer have the strength to lift yourself up so you can take a breath, you die. And it takes a while. And it is considered the death sentence of the ignominious, not the powerful. A king would not be crucified.

But this king was.

He was hanging there, alongside of a couple of petty thieves. Having a brief, gasping conversation.

Not much power in that image, eh? And yet… What does Jesus say? “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Not the sort of promise a failed leader would make. Not the sort of promise that someone who was powerless could make. No, it is the certain statement of one who has the power to make it happen. A king. The king.

There’s power there, in an improbable king, one who looks nothing like Matthew McConaughey. One who looks more like an amateur who went five rounds in the ring with Muhammed Ali. One who is on the verge of death.

And yet, a king. And the key is power. Not the power of the world, of generals and lobbyists and schoolyard bullies. A different kind of power.

If we think of it in terms of directions, this is not the kind of power where you look up to see it, turning your face toward the majesty of the king on the throne high above you. No, for this kind of power you look down to someone who is beneath you, or so you think. Someone who is, as Isaiah said, despised, rejected. Someone who seems as unkingly as you can possibly imagined.

And yet there is something in this man that causes you to think, “Here is righteousness. Here is kingship. Here is power.”

It is the power of those who pursue that which is right, that which is of God, regardless of what the world thinks of them. It is the power that is not a result of lineage or election or money or fame, but of a pure heart and of love. It is the power that was invested in leaders like Nelson Mandela, like Dorothy Day, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is the power of the weak made strong through God working within them. It is the reign of Christ lived out once again in ordinary people, seemingly without any power as the world would judge them,  who worked against entrenched systems of worldly power with no weapon except the virtues, the moral values that they learned from Christ.
Christ Pantokrator from the Hagia Sofia

Christ is King. He is a powerful mighty King. But he redefines power in his reign not for personal gain but for the common good. He asks us to use his lessons of power to continue to seek the common good. Take on his power, the power of love, the power of justice, the power of mercy, and bring his reign to fruition in this time and this place, in ways both dramatic and ordinary, every day. Use his power as it was meant to be used, not in aspiring to earthly glory but to bring heavenly glory to the earth. Celebrate his kingship by living as he asked us to live, using his power to help the powerless.  

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, November 17, 2103 Luke 21:5-19 “Not Endurance But Resurrection”

         Several weeks ago our acolytes went up to the Washington National Cathedral to participate in the acolyte festival. It is a magnificent place, with soaring nave, intricate carvings, stained glass windows that reach a hundred feet to the roof. I know it well, since I sang there with the Cathedral Choral Society for almost a decade. Many times, as familiar as it was to me, I simply had to look up and stare at it, the grandeur and beauty of a space dedicated to the glory and worship of God. I would imagine our acolytes did a goodly amount of looking up and staring as well. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by it all.

That image can give us an insight to the thoughts and understandings of the disciples who sat with Jesus as he taught in an even more impressive space, Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem, as Luke describes.

They were sitting there in that magnificent place, so big it could hold some 400,000 people, adorned with all the jewels and magnificence that Herod the Great could put into it. They were looking up at it. The vastness. The opulence. All to the glory of God, or perhaps not, since it was Herod, Jewish client king of the Romans, who built the thing in the midst of a murderous reign where he killed his own brother to protect his throne and steal his brother’s wife.

It must have been a pretty remarkable sight to those country boys from the Galilee, who might never had been to the temple before.

And here was Jesus telling them that this would all be dust. Just rubble on the ground.

There’s a certain irony in Luke’s telling of this story of Jesus and the disciples in Jerusalem , because when the Evangelist Luke wrote this gospel, what Jesus had said was already a reality. In Luke’s time, the temple was gone, nothing more than a pile of stones, for something like thirty years. It had been destroyed in the midst of the Roman response to a Jewish rebellion in the year 70. In the wake of it, the Jews were drive out of Jerusalem, dispersed to distant corners of the empire where they presumably couldn’t cause the Romans trouble. The Pharisees, those righteous opponents of Jesus’ teachings who featured so prominently in the legal arguments that immediately preceded this passage, were no more.

It was the culmination of a geopolitical collapse, a religious collapse, a shift of monumental proportion.

And it was precisely what Jesus had talked about.

Or was it?

Some read Jesus’ words as predictions of the end of days, the day of final judgment. All the talk of portents and omens, that apocalyptic language, what would happen when it all was over. An end to all that was wrong with the world, and a new beginning after all the dust settled.

I cannot say whether this is about then or about what will be. It certainly can be read either way. But I do know this: things happen that so completely and inutterably change the world as we know it that it is as if God has pressed some divine reset button…and this, to me, is what Jesus is talking about, a reset.

This past week we’ve been horrified by pictures of the typhoon in the Philippines that wreaked horrendous destruction in many communities. These scenes have become familiar to us. Building collapses, hurricanes, floods, bombs. Whether natural disasters or ones that have their genesis in human actions, awful things seem to happen with terrifying regularity. It leads some to wonder if these or the same portents and omens that Jesus spoke of, or that are spoken of so elliptically in the Book of Revelation.

It might well have felt that way to the listeners who first heard Luke’s story. Many of the early Christians thought that Jesus was coming back any day, and that they didn’t have to follow the rules of the communities in which they lived because it didn’t really matter. And eventually they figured out that he wasn’t coming immediately, and they had to find a way to live as followers of Christ in their situation.

Now, as the disciples discerned then, I would expect that the second coming is not around the corner. The bad things that are happening now are no different than the bad things that happened back then. Earthly life is not easy, not for Christians, not for anyone else.

But if Jesus’ remarks are not about the End of Days, what are we to deduce from them?

First, bad things will happen. Sometimes horrendous things will happen. The world will change. Geopolitical and environmental change will continue to occur. Whatever our equivalent to Herod’s Temple is, whether we think that’s the World Trade Towers or the chapel at Virginia Seminary that burned down a few years ago, will become a pile of rubble. And we human beings, being creatures of hope, always say we will rebuild in the wake of such things. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't, but it is a human instinct after these horrible things happen. When the seminary chapel was destroyed by fire, the cry went up almost immediately to rebuild a replica of that dear old space. We want to survive the bad things by rebuilding. We pride ourselves on our resilience and endurance in the wake of such things.

Hold that thought, but let’s turn back a minute to the gospel: we might ask why Jesus is dwelling on such frightening things.

We know that Jesus is continually telling his followers that they are loved by their creator, his heavenly father. Is Jesus telling a scary story to get the attention of his listeners? Is he so tired of fighting with the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the scribes that he’s depressed and thinks everything is just going to fall to pieces?

Or is he saying that in the frightening things that will happen there is an opportunity for something new, something better?

Is he saying that unless the old ways die, we cannot embrace his new way?

Is he saying that rebuilding old temples, like rebuilding houses on a flood plain after a hurricane, like building a copy of the old chapel despite the fact that it was too small, is a foolish exercise?

Perhaps the message is simply this: that we cannot keep doing things in old ways, those ways that may keep us from being in relationship with our Creator.  We cannot simply give God a nod of the head on Sunday morning and think all is well. We cannot pray only when we are faced with disasters, but then we suddenly catch our breath and think “Maybe I need to pay attention to God now, because I need strength to get through this.” Because it is not endurance that is the mark of the Christian, it is resurrection. Jesus did not merely endure the Cross, he was resurrected afterwards, changed beyond comprehension. And that is his message here to the disciples and to us, his present day disciples.

 We must be willing  to try to reshape our relationship with God, willing to strive to build the world that God first imagined, an Edenic place of peace and tranquility, by resurrecting that first perfect love with the creator God.

Christians cannot be people who are satisfied with maintaining the status quo or simply replicating old structures that have fallen down– we must be in the resurrection business. And if that makes us uncomfortable, so be it. Whether it is resurrecting the lives of those who are struggling in the aftermath of disaster, or resurrecting an economic system that continues to see the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, or resurrecting the souls of those who are mired in the chains of addictions, or even…

…even resurrecting our own sometimes weak and lukewarm relationship with the one who created us into something worthy of being called love, we are in the resurrection business. Resurrection is something different than mere is fundamentally changing, not restoring. It isn't endurance, it is a pressing of the reset button.

We cannot wait until our souls are no more than cracked and jagged pieces of stone on the ground. We cannot wait until the world is no more than a place of competitive consumerism. Jesus says: “Be resurrected. Be resurrecting…resurrect love, as I am. Resurrect worshipping your God. Resurrect joy in service. Resurrect your soul.”