Sunday, November 27, 2016

Welcome to Advent (Preparing for the Unknown End)


A sermon for the first Sunday of Advent, preached with the people of God at St. Luke's Madison and St. Francis House, UW-Madison. These are the lessons for appointed to the day: Isaiah 2:1-5Romans 13:11-14Matthew 24:36-44Psalm 122. Listen to an audio recording here.

Happy Advent! I’ll be honest, I don’t know what we should do next, not exactly. How to proceed. Here in Wisconsin, I mean. If we were in Texas, where I’m originally from, I would know what to do. Because in Texas, as one theologian put it, everyone is partly Baptist. It doesn’t matter what you call yourself; it’s in the drinking water. The Episcopalians are Episco-baptists. Basically, they are Baptists who can drink. The Methodists are all half-Baptists. Catholics, Lutherans, too, when you can find ‘em. Everyone’s a little Baptist. Even the atheists, down in Texas, are Baptist atheists. 

So in Texas, you show up today, announcing the first Sunday of a season of the church year called Advent, telling people that Advent means arrival or coming, and you remind folks that Advent is both about preparing for the birth of Jesus to Mary at Christmas and also about preparing for the second coming of Christ at the end of time, and then you read a passage from the Bible that says, “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” - well, my friends, you don’t have to say much more. Good Baptists can smell a rapture a mile away. 

The rapture refers to the idea that before things get bad on earth, at the end of time and the judgment, Jesus will come and gather up all the saints living and dead and take them to heaven before the suffering and destruction of the earth that will follow. It gets imagined in much the way the gospel talks about friends in a field, two of them walking together and then, bam, rapture, one is gone, the other left behind. The narrative shares a lot with hellfire and brimstone preaching, where fear, anxiety, and existential dread become especially motivating, but not especially helpful, factors for the discernment of the unbeliever. It’s important to tell you that the rapture, as an idea, is a relatively recent invention, the 1830s, and that Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglican Christians (including Episcopalians), by and large reject it, for lots of good reasons, like - for example - its failure to account for the place of the earth and the rest of the created order in God’s redemptive plan. A second good reason is that we’ve just come off of three weeks of Jesus’ saying that suffering should be an expectation for disciples of Jesus; suffering is not something we should expect to be spared, especially suffering that comes as Christians love others beyond our self-interests, and it’s a word 21st century American Christians should probably spend some time with, to let it soak in. 

To be fair, not all Baptists profess the rapture. And, to be fair, you don’t have to be a Baptist - or even from Texas - to speculate about disappearing loved ones and the end times. The popular Left Behind book series sold over sixty-five million copies and occasioned a bunch of feature-length films.

But the books and the movies and the other detailed accounts of how the end will all go down seem to miss Jesus’ main point in the gospel today. That is, Jesus doesn’t talk about some folks disappearing so that the rest of us can read the times and know what’s coming next. Jesus tells us he gives that example to make clear that no one knows when or how the end will come. Be ready anyway, he says. 

But what can in mean to be ready for something we can't know anything about?

Whatever it means to be ready, being ready won’t mean what most of us think of when we think of what it means to be ready. Being ready won’t mean reading the script in advance or knowing each person’s part in the play and what comes next. Being ready won’t mean being the one in control. Being ready can’t mean appealing to vast stores of wealth and all the things wealth might buy. Being ready is not a matter of all the books you’ve read about this event Jesus says you can't know anything about. Wikipedia, even, will be of little use. And you can’t cram for a test whose date you don’t know. Sure, you’ve been asked to be ready before, lots of times in your life, but being ready has never involved so much uncertainty about so much you don’t control.

Be ready, he says. But where do you start?

I was doing premarital counseling a few years ago with a wonderful and especially earnest couple. Self-professed nominal Catholics, living in Madison, being married by another priest near the family home in Pennsylvania. At our first session, I asked them if they had any concerns about marriage and married life they hoped our sessions would be able to touch on. I always ask this question, and it usually flags three to five challenges we’ll make a point of giving special time. This couple flagged, by my count, close to thirty. Overachievers, I thought. Now, this couple wasn’t dysfunctional, not by a long shot. Nothing on the list hadn’t made another couple’s top four before. There were just so many. On the one hand, they were realistic. And honest. Nobody knows what they are promising, exactly, when they promise to marry another person. Sure, the broad strokes are there, but all the specifics for how love will play out are hidden from both of them. This couple knew how much they didn’t know. On the other hand, being realistic and honest was overwhelming them.

As I listened, I made the decision not to talk them down from the ledge, which I’ve learned can be counterproductive with thoughtful, earnest couples. Instead, I listened for a while and then said, “Is that all? Are you sure you’ve got the important stuff here?” Their eyes widened. “I mean, yes, you have money and in-laws and sex and insurance, number of kids, employment, geography, 401Ks, and career aspirations, but you haven’t even touched on the possibility of having a child with disabilities and what that might require of you, for example.” Their eyes grew big, and they nodded responsibly before quickly adding other items to the list. I think they got to fifty. 

There was no way we were getting through the whole list in three to four sessions. 

And the end of their expanded list, I made a confession. “There’s no way this list is exhaustive, either,” I said. “But maybe there’s another way to go about this. What if we narrow the list down to the four most pressing things and then spend the rest of the time talking about regular practices that will shape you into the kinds of people you believe God is calling you to be when the unexpected challenge inevitably finds you.”

What if preparing for the arrival, the coming, of Jesus is like that? Let me ask it another way. This Advent, these four weeks before Christmas, of course there are ends, things you want and need to do. But what regular practices will shape you into the kind of people you believe God is calling you to be when the unexpected ending comes? Not only individually, but together.

More provocatively, what will it look like to give God the rest of your life? Jesus doesn’t seem to make much room today for people who presume to know the timing and so who are willing to get to the task of being his people eventually, just in time for the deadline, after other things are done. You don’t know the end! Jesus says. The life of faith can’t consist in a series of one-off performances designed to impress God with whatever it is outside of God from which we are tempted to derive our identity and sense of self-worth. But, every day: structured by prayer, shaped by the scriptures, connected to the community of faith, lived in sacrificial love toward those outside the church. Every day, forgiving. Forgiven. In the words of St. Paul, putting on the garment of Christ. Every day, with the expectation that Christ is there to be sought and served in the neighbor. Every day, the dignity of sisters and brother to uphold. Every day, the self in love to empty. Every day, God’s name to be praised, thanks to be lifted, God to be glorified. Every day, every hour.

Less a set of occasional duties. More a life of obedient discipleship. 

In these coming weeks, what regular practices will shape you into the kind of people you believe God is calling you to be when the unexpected ending comes?

Be ready, he says. Where do you start?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Jesus: The Season Finale


A sermon preached for Christ the King Sunday with the faith communities of St. Francis House and St. Luke's. These were the appointed readings for the day: Jeremiah 23:1-6Psalm 46Colossians 1:11-20Luke 23:33-43.

Happy almost new year! Today is the last Sunday of the year. The church year. Next week is Advent. (Can you believe it?) Somebody said to me this past week that 2016 couldn’t end soon enough for them. Well here it is, a perk of the Christian faith: you don’t have to wait for 2017 to begin a new year. The new year is now. Happy new year’s eve.

The last Sunday of the old year, today, is called Christ the King Sunday. Every year, that’s what the last Sunday of the church year is called. Christ the King Sunday is like the season finale of your favorite television show. The episode tries to do justice to all the different episodes of the past year and also lift up the main themes of what the show, on the whole, tries to embody, what it tries to be about. The finale is a reminder of why you watch. A reminder you can carry until next season begins. In this case, a reminder of what you live when you say “yes” to being a disciple of Jesus. Thus, Christ the King Sunday.

But let’s be honest. Not everybody likes “king” language. For starters, it wreaks of patriarchy. It stinks of status acquired and maintained by force. It calls to mind scheming and wars and a distorted kind of patriotic nationalism, not that democracy is exempt from patriotic nationalism. But the objection to kings is not just a 21st century, post-enlightenment invention. God is on the record for having reservations about the existence of kings as far back as 1 Samuel. There, we’re told that God saw Israel’s request for a king as a rejection of God and a form of idolatry. When it comes to stand-ins for the living God, it turns out God is not a fan.

To make matters worse, whatever “king” would come to mean for Israel and other nations after God reluctantly signed on, however it got lived out, that reputation would inevitably be projected by people like us back onto God. Don’t think God wasn’t mindful of that! It happens all the time. Like when people hear something like “God is love” and project their understanding of love onto God and say that God must be that, that love can’t be more or other or deeper or wider than the love they previously knew or imagined. Of course, to say “God is love” might equally mean instead that in God we discover the fullness of love, the clearest picture of who and what love is, but projection is a hard habit to break.

So we get to this feast, Christ the King, and it’s entirely possible you have in mind the idea that God is great in the same way as your country is great, that is, because God has the equivalent of the largest nuclear arsenal. Because God will not back down. Because God can threaten violence in ways that paralyze the world into peace. Of course, cold wars are not the same as peace, but when you have the most guns, what difference does it make?

When you think about Christ as king, if you’re starting point is what you know about the nations of the world, it is not just possible but likely that you imagine God’s kingdom in the way of earth’s rulers, earth’s queens and kings. Because projection is hard habit to break.

But listen to this. In calling Christ “King”, the power structures of the world are not reinforced or even one upped. No, in Christ’s kingdom, the powers are subverted, turned upside down. They are exposed and emptied of their power.

So witness the scriptures we read today. Christ the King hangs crucified on the cross. This is the king we worship, not some other. This cross is the beginning of our understanding of what it means to call Jesus King and what it means to call God love. Christ’s words of forgiveness, for the ones who kill him and the thief beside him, are the edicts of this kingdom. 

At his death, some folks mock him. They cry out to him, “If you are the Son of God, don’t let it end this way.” The crowds think that if Jesus would come down and hit others as he’d been hit, pierce as he’d been pierced, that these would be signs of his strength and God’s favor. But strength is not found in the absence of vulnerability. Strength does not reside in hiding behind walls of privilege and security. Just ask Pontius Pilate, whose wife has been haunted for weeks, with nightmares about the one he’s just crucified. His wife’s words still haunt him, even as Jesus hangs harmlessly from the cross. Murder has not made Pilate strong. Strength does not live in the space of preserving oneself at all costs. But great love, says Jesus, strong love, is this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

And this is what he does. In the words of the great hymn from Philippians, "Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross."

When it comes to being strong and greatness, God defies our projections. A Sunday school kind one time said that God’s love is big enough to become small for us. God’s love for us comes to us vulnerably. A newborn child born to Mary. The spear thrust in his side his scepter. The thief his royal court.

To worship the crucified King is not to forget resurrection. But neither can resurrection cause us to lose sight of what is happening here. Forgiveness pours forth from his side. Mercy marks his reign. Resurrection will not undo this love but rather will affirm it.

All of this is a problem for Christians like me, and maybe you, who have been raised to believe that our children should not suffer or sacrifice for their faith. It is a problem for me, and maybe you, too, when we cannot imagine love that reaches beyond the scope of our obvious self interests.

But, thanks be to God, we are being called together by God - by the same same love that loves us from the cross! We are being called beyond our obvious self interests. We are being gathering by Jesus, who is the image of the invisible God. Week in and week out we are gathered to this place and sent from it again to become more a part of God’s reconciling work, drawing all things together to God, in Christ, witnessing that my salvation is caught up with yours, and that yours in turn is caught up with your neighbors and the stranger, that salvation is God’s work of healing and holding all things, all of us, together in God's love. 

This work is good work. This work is hard work. For this good, hard work, you will need to be strong, and you will be strong. God helping you, you will be made strong. But not in the false strength of the kingdoms that have been turned upside down by the Kingdom of the one on the cross. Listen again to Paul’s account as to how you will be made strong. Paul’s prayer today is that you would “be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power…prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father.” Like our Savior, we will be made strong enough to endure. We will be made capable of holy suffering and forgiveness. We will be made into a people of patience. While joyfully giving thanks to our Father.

If that doesn’t sound easy, you’re probably wise. And if that’s not your idea of a good time, who can blame you? But, friends, that’s where Christ is. That’s who God is. Enduring in patience, with mercy, extending love and forgiveness, bearing burdens, is what God in Christ does for us and the world. When we eat from this table, we pray to be made like God, more and more. Here at the cross, we proclaim that this is the king whom we worship, not some other, and that this cross is for us the beginning of our understanding of what it means to call Jesus King and what it means to call God love. Love strong enough to be vulnerable. Love great enough to be small. There is no God but this God and so, God help us, we will follow in the way of God’s Son.

Amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Love and Enduring After The Temple Falls


A sermon preached November 13, 2016, at St. Luke's, Madison, on the following Scripture readings: 

Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Each of us carries expectations and dreams for how, in our lives, “it’s” supposed to go. Early on, “it” may be the daily rhythm in our homes: expressions of nurture, comfort and love; experiences of authority, judgment, and freedom. Then there’s the question of schooling, the institutions we’ll attend and the coursework we’ll take. Our parents likely managed a good bit of these expectations for us, but make no mistake, expectations were there. At a certain age, “it” may be a wedding, who will attend, what kind of cake, and what each member of the bridal party will wear. Sometimes “it” is what comes after the wedding and school, the jobs we’ll work and the trajectory of your career. 

Of course, it never goes exactly as we plan - there are promotions and unexpected moves and times you feel stuck - but there’s still the expectation of a certain life shape and the reasons you have for why that shape is important to you. 

Sometimes “it” is the family you build along the way, or the decision not to build a family. Two point four children, on average, preferably in a home you can own. Sometimes “it” is your health or the health of your partner or spouse, because health is important for almost all the other plans you might make. Sometimes “it” is maintaining your sobriety or keeping some other promise to yourself and those you love. Sometimes “it” is caring for your parents as they grow older, or being cared for by your children as you grow old. Again, you don’t know exactly how it will go, but you have some ideas you prefer over others. Sometimes “it” involves your hopes for your church, your community of faith, what flourishing will look like, and what will be true of you and your community as you grapple with new realities and the challenges of a post-Christian culture. Other times, “it” means your city or country and your expectations for an election. We all had expectations, some now have celebrations, others now fear for their place in the future of this country. Because each of us carries expectations and dreams for how “it’s” supposed to go. Now, it’s fair to say, one, these expectations aren’t bad things by themselves, in fact, they are important to know and name when we have them and, two, things don’t always go as we expect. 

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus confronts his followers with their own expectations about how Israel is supposed to go. Israel is supposed to be mighty and all victorious. David’s kingdom is to last forever. True, that kingdom is still intact, but for the last hundreds of years, what has counted for Israel’s kingdom is only what the occupying foreign power allows. Israel eats the crumbs of Rome’s pity. Israel is a paper kingdom dependent on other kingdoms.

The temple is at the heart of Israel’s self-understanding of its kingdom and the promise of God to bless and keep Israel. Never mind that God had appeared ambivalent at best when Israel first brought up the subjects of a king and a temple. “Are you sure?” God had asked. “Are you sure you’re sure?” Somewhere along the line, though, Israel came to believe that the continued existence of the temple was the only way forward for it to still be Israel at all. As Jesus sits on the steps of the temple this morning with his disciples, Israel can’t imagine a future that doesn’t look like the only future Israel imagines.

Speaking into Israel’s silent fears, Jesus announces it will all come down. Every last stone. But God is still faithful. God still watches over Israel. Israel is at a loss to understand what Jesus means. And we’ve been there with Israel. We’ve stared down the question of how one begins to move forward after the unthinkable happens, when the imagined, hoped for, future is lost. After the death of a child. After the divorce. After the lost job. After the kids move across country. After the election, when the political movement you had hoped in has stalled. After the church conflict. After you first hurt someone you love in a way that, once upon a time, you could never have dreamed, and the harm is real and lasting. After the diagnosis. After the temple falls.

Jesus’ response to the prospect of the temple’s fall and Israel’s deep disappointment about a future Israel can no longer envision is to remind Israel of four things:

This is not the end.
Do not be terrified.
To continue, to persevere, in the meantime, will be costly and will sometimes hurt.
You will be given opportunities to testify - to tell others about - the God who loves you, protects you, is with you, and will give you the words you need at the just right time.

Depending on the situation and the level of one’s disappointment, the news that “this is not the end” can be admittedly hard news to receive. The way forward seems too painful. All feels lost. Some days, we want to say to the mountains, “Fall on us! And to the hills, cover us!” But Jesus names the difficult way forward as the place of new possibilities, the place of the previously unimagined future. The space, even, of resurrection. Indeed, when in the other gospels, Jesus says, “Tear down this temple and I will rebuild it in three days,” and he’s talking about himself, his own body, we are reminded that Jesus, in his death on a cross on Good Friday, took his disciples to the very edge, to the end, of all they could see and hope for, the death of their Savior. They wept at the cross, not knowing the ending. It was the end of belief. But then, through the women on that first, dark Easter morning, God’s people discovered that, where there seemed to be no way, God had made a way. What looked like the end was not the end at all.

And in that moment the angels whispered, “Don’t be afraid.” It is good to remember that the way we live in love toward each other, the way we hold up the Gospel of the angels for each other, can speak God’s love into places of understandable fear, whether our own fears or those of others. Our love toward each other, lived in our flesh, can remind others of the love with which God still holds us, after the temple falls. If we suffer after the time that isn't the end and the suffering we experience comes because we are standing with and loving our neighbors in ways that are costly and breathes love onto fear, that suffering, Jesus says, is holy. It’s the love Jesus commends to his friends on the night before he dies, when he says, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Loving each other through fear and suffering will almost certainly involve speaking words we can’t know how to prepare in advance. Thank God for Jesus’ assurance that we will not be alone when we come alongside the loneliness of our sisters and brothers, whatever the disappointment. God also is with us, giving us the same promise God gave Moses some thousands of years ago in the famous bargaining session beside the burning bush; the same promise God poured out like fire on the disciples as they waited, afraid, behind locked doors for the power to preach and proclaim the Good News of Jesus.

In this life, there will be terrible things you did not sign up for and cannot control, much less did not expect, Jesus says. “But that won’t be the end. Don’t be terrified, keep on at it, stand with the others in their fear. Love one another. And speak the words I’ll give you.”

Finally, a story to remind us to listen to the disappointments of others, not just our own; to be present to the grief of fallen temples that were not ours at first. I remember a conversation some students and I shared with an elder of the Lakota people five years ago in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. He was explaining the dreams - the beautiful dreams - his forebears had to be a mighty nation, a great kingdom. Dreams for their children and their children’s children, of which this elder was one. When white Europeans arrived, for lots of reasons, not a little of which was disdain and deceit, the dream of that kingdom died. A people’s future was stolen. As he told the story, the elder gradually shared his definition of forgiveness, which he described as a life-long project. “Forgiveness,” he said, “is giving up all hope for a better, different past.” Such forgiveness does not come easily. If it comes at all, it comes because God’s people discover, through God’s continued presence with them, the resources we need to choose to be present to a present we did not choose. Among those resources is Jesus’ four-fold reminder this morning:

This is not the end.
Do not be terrified.
Know that to continue, to persevere in Christ’s love, in the meantime, will be costly and will sometimes hurt.
You will be given opportunities to testify - to tell others about - the God who loves you, who protects you, who is with you, and who will give you the words you need at the just right time.

Endure in this way, Jesus says, and you will gain your souls.


Amen.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Seeing Jesus When People Get In the Way

I love the Zacchaeus story. I love Z's earnestness and the simplicity of the connection between what he wants and what he does. Longing to see Jesus, he climbs a tree. I love that it is not enough for Z to be at the party. Z knows what he wants from his participation in the party. I love that, wanting to see, he is seen. 

I love how Luke is open and rather matter-of-fact about the truth that people sometimes get in the way of seeing Jesus. Other followers of Jesus even. I love that the truth that people sometimes get in the way of Jesus doesn't keep Z from seeing Jesus and being seen by Jesus. 

Luke's honesty about the sometimes-obstructing-people-of-God disinclines us 21st century folk, inside and outside the church, from smugness in making the observation. You know, some version of Gandhi's oft-quoted line, "I like Christ fine, it's you Christians I'm not as sure about." Of course people get in the way of seeing Jesus, Luke says. So it has always been. Not that that's the whole story or the end of hope (far from it!), but Luke gets it. "I feel ya," he says.

Of course, there's another truth, namely, that it is not always the case that people get in the way of seeing Jesus. People can be windows through which others see Jesus. And it's the Spirit's good humor that this reminder gets included, via the epistle, on the same Sundays we remember Zacchaeus in lectionary traditions. Reading the first chapter of 2 Thessalonians alongside the 19th chapter of Luke is a kind of humorous speaking and balancing of truth things. 

In 2 Thessalonians, Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus write that they thank God for the Christians to whom they are writing. They thank God especially that the faith of the Christians in Thessalonica is growing and that the love of the Christians in that community for one another is increasing. What's more, by living steadfastly in the face of adversity, the Christians in Thessalonica are pointing with their lives toward the Jesus whom Paul prays will continue to be glorified in them.

I actually don't think most of us need convincing that people can be windows through which others see Jesus. The feast of All Saints' names our experiences of God and God's love in the lives of saints before and around us. Of course, even saints can be opaque. Their gift is not found first in their perfection but in their baptism. Still, it would be dishonest to contend that the gift of baptism, the water, the oil, the Holy Spirit of God, the rhythms of Word and Sacrament, haven't left visible marks in the lives of some, making saints whose lives cling less to themselves, risk vulnerable transparency through which Christ's light is seen, and whose love knows a reach as wide as its utter trust in God's love is deep. They are encouragements, supports, courage, a new imagination, balm. We thank God for these. We pray to be these, for others and the world. And, if we're smart, we'll take a page from Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus, and tell those in whom we see God at work that and how we do see God at work in them, specifically, when possible. And that we're thankful. After all, you don't have to be told the miracle they are; like me, you know the story of Zacchaeus! Thank God for God's saints in every generation. 
Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one 
with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our 
earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this 
fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be 
surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy. We 
ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our 
intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives 
and reigns for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP p 395)