Sunday, December 8, 2013

God Almighty, Party Pooper
(When the 2nd Coming Comes Too Soon)

In the Name of the living and life-giving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Saturday mornings, when I was a kid, my mom would frequently take a much needed leave of us boys and my dad and the house and find some time away for herself. That left us, the boys, with - what we saw at the time as - some much needed leave of our Mom. No rules. No stifling injunctions to keep the place clean. No limits on the sugary cereals and candies and their amounts. Just out and out rowdiness. Domestic anarchy. 

For a morning, anyway. 

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and these Saturday mornings were never long enough. “Tell me about it,” I can hear Momma saying. We would enter our man-time in the knowledge that a dawn would come, that the curtain would drop, that we better have the place looking nice when she walked back through the door. So formed the crucial dilemma: how much time to flit away, and how much to save for the necessary acts of tidying up the house? It wasn’t uncommon for us to repeatedly rationalize “just a few minutes more” even until the moment of the engine’s announcing that the car had returned in the driveway.

Madness in that moment. Chaos. Heathen prayers for a neighbor’s neighborly intervention. Some tomatoes dropped off, perhaps, from a backyard garden. Something. Anything. Just a few seconds more. Futility. Futile, because some things simply take the time they take and can’t be made up for with twenty second’s effort. Footsteps up the walk. A hand on the knob. Turning.

Judgment and the second coming.

I suspect this is actually how most of us think about the second coming of Jesus. That is, we don’t mind that we don’t believe Jesus will return anytime soon (if ever), because - if/when he does - his coming will be an unwanted interruption of the lives we were more than content to live without God. 

Case in point, an evangelical friend of mine was engaged and one week away from his wedding date. Another good friend decided to have some fun and spook my almost married friend. So one day he poked his head outside the apartment window and cried, “Christian, Christian, the moon is turned to blood! I think this is the end!” My friend’s face went white. “But I’ve never had sex!” he exclaimed. “Why can’t the Almighty give me just a couple more days!” Just a couple days more.

That’s the working image: God Almighty, party pooper.

If you imagine Christ’s coming again as a parent returning to bust up your party, then you will naturally imagine preparing for the coming of Christ as a desperate mad scramble to clean up the house. Put if off for as long as you will, but one day, at least, you’ll need to get right. And, if you can’t get it right, at least look like you’re trying. Thus the great Advent t-shirt which reads, “Jesus is coming, look busy.” 

The world is full of Christians attempting to stave off the judgment of God by their busyness. “What beef can God possibly have against me?” we wonder. “Look at all the good we’re doing.” At the heart of this busyness is the conviction that the Kingdom is our assignment to produce for God before the dreaded deadline - a divinely commissioned term paper due at the end of the semester.

What else can it mean to prepare the way of the Lord?

“Be prepared,” the Baptist cries. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And his warning seems to reinforce our fears that God is in the driveway. John tells the Pharisees and Sadducees who came seeking baptism that the axe is at the root; Christ will come with fire.

And maybe it’s as straightforward as that; get your act together or feel the burn. Generations before us came to faith with some version of that message. Of course, it’s significant - and uncomfortable - that Jesus doesn’t threaten fire to the ones who haven’t perfected, or cleaned up, their acts, but exactly to the ones who have, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the righteous, religious leaders. And the fruit he demands of them is not the fruit of a finished, polished, mostly accomplished kingdom, but the fruit of repentance. The fruit of “I’m sorry.” The admission that the Pharisees and Sadducees had gotten the story wrong.

That’s absurd. Holy people don’t get things wrong,  says the preacher. It’s the riffraff God came to burn. Is Jesus really suggesting that the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ various attempts to produce the kingdom as an independent study project apart from relationship with God are really things of which to repent? But if God doesn’t want us to be doing the work by ourselves, what exactly does God expect us to do? What should we be expecting God to do?

Christ will come with fire. And fire, throughout the scriptures is a sign of the presence of God. Light in the darkness. Back at the very beginning, when God first appeared to a young Abram, and Abram expressed disbelief at the promise God had given him, God appeared as a fire pot and a flaming torch and passed between the pieces of the sacrifice to seal God’s covenant with the one who would leave everything in pursuit of God’s promise. And God is still calling Abraham’s children to leave what is known for the unknown and surprising promises of God. Fire is the bush that burned but wasn’t consumed; God telling Moses that God’s desire was to set his people free. God’s desire is still to set his people free. Fire is the pillar that led the Hebrews out of Egypt through the darkness of the night, into the land of promise. God is still about the work of bringing people through the darkness, into promise. Fire is how the early church depicted Jesus born to Mary; Mary who, like the bush, held the presence of God, and was not consumed. God’s desire is still to be borne by his people, that all who believe in him may not perish, but have everlasting life. Fire is how God poured out his Spirit on his people at Pentecost and gave them the power to give their lives in the proclamation of the Gospel, so that the presence of God might reach, heal, and transform to the ends of the earth. God’s heart is still to reach, heal, and transform through the Body of Christ, for the good of all people and each, last cherished person, to the ends of the earth. 

Fire is the presence of God for the people of God, the desire of God to be in relationship with us. The fact of God to be in relationship with us. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” And the Holy Spirit is the Advocate, Friend, the Comforter, the One who intercedes for God’s people with sighs to deep for words. The presence of God is the help of God that burns with mercy; “the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high…to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” “…A signal to the peoples…” “God is our refuge and strength,” sings the psalmist, “a very present help in trouble.”

At the Advent workshop this past Wednesday, Pres House and SFH together, we talked about God’s promise to help. I told the group about a friend of mine who intentionally sets one goal every week that won’t work without God’s help. We talked about how my friend’s goal made most of us uncomfortable; it felt irresponsible; it felt strangely conceited - why would God care?; it felt frightening - to ask for God’s help would be to surrender the vision and direction of my life as I presently imagined it. But then we wondered: we who have been planted in Christ and his story, didn’t we answer every promise of our baptism with, “I will, with God’s help”? 

What should we be expecting God to do? We should expect God to show up, to be present; to be God for God’s people. What exactly does God expect us to do? God expects us to expect God to be present for us - with eyes to see and ears to hear - and to be passionately present to God’s presence among us; to adopt a posture of expectation for the salvation that we need. 

Prepare the way. Not perfection achieved apart from God so much as forgiveness, sought and received, at the hand of God. Not the distorted art of not needing God, but in choosing to end the hiding from God. Hiding was the first fruit of sin, of Adam and Eve. Shame at their nakedness. The sin we never quite got over, belief that God, in the end, would not love us as God found us.

Easier to act like God won’t find us. But here’s the Good News we’ve feared all along: God has found us. To free us. To save us. To send us. To love us. Praise God. We’ve been found.

In the Name of the living and life-giving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 


Sermon preached at SFH, 12.8.13.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Word Became Flesh:
Reflections - and Questions - for a Fruitful Advent

A conversation of the St. Francis House and Pres House communities. December 4, 2013.

This is a lot of fun, to be with you tonight. Wonderful to have friends from Pres House and St. Francis House together like this. Thank you, Amy, for inviting us, and for inviting me to speak with you tonight about Advent.

Just quickly, Mark has been a great friend to me in my time on this campus, and a few of our crew had the recent pleasure of traveling with some of you from the Pres House on the TaizĂ© Pilgrimage of Trust at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, so the friendship between St. Francis House and Pres House is more than on paper, and I’m grateful for that. It’s really good to be with friends tonight.

Okay. Advent. 

Raise your hand if you grew up around Advent - you have memories spanning years that come to mind specific to this season. Now, raise your hand if you discovered Advent more recently. Finally, anybody for whom the word Advent is altogether new?

Describe Advent for me - in a sentence or so. What do you see when you think about Advent? What sounds do you hear when you think about Advent? What comes to mind?

Does anybody have scriptures that come to mind when you think about Advent? What is the best part of Advent?

[At this point, we spent a good amount of time talking informally about Advent's basics - what it means, history, background of the liturgical year, etc.]

Lots of variety in practice across the Church with respect to an Advent season or its equivalent, but all Christian traditions agree that the coming of Christ is something for which to prepare. All Christians agree that Christ’s coming takes time.

One of the things people will tell you about the holiday season - by which they usually mean Christmas, not Advent - is that it has gotten too materialistic. But when you worship a God who was born to a Jewish, teenage mother in a food trough hid in a dusty Middle Eastern town, surrounded by the kinds of animal smells you and I would have to drive to Waunakee to enjoy, you wonder if materialism doesn’t get a bad rap. Jesus born to Mary. Which is why, in part, we have Advent. Because a virtual Savior might have come overnight. Peace on earth could have shipped via Amazon Prime, I suppose, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t quick. It’s wasn’t tidy. It was more embodied than that. The Savior was born to Mary, which means long after Joseph and Mary had settled on a name and painted the nursery, but well before the Christ child was born, there were weeks of difficult nights in which Mary couldn’t ever get comfortable and Joseph either held her or slept on the couch, and the day couldn’t come soon enough. Advent is about waiting exactly because the Word became flesh, material. To borrow an old clichĂ©, whose age proves its truth, matter matters. 

I want to push on this point. Buying stuff on Black Friday doesn’t make you a materialist (1); material gluttony and instant gratification don’t draw you into the present moment and a keener sense of the material world around you. Which is more materially compelling: buying beef wrapped in cellophane at the local grocery store or raising a calf on the farm to market weight? Let’s be clear, I’m not saying that buying too much stuff isn’t a a major challenge to your spiritual life; it’s just a lousy way to become a materialist, because the major challenge to the spiritual lives of many of us is not that consumerism makes us too material, but that, in consuming stuff, we become numb to materials - we become not nearly material enough.

Some examples: an atheist friend of mine is driven batty by the number of Christians who take out their social justice frustrations on Facebook, liking every cause they can click-on, turning potential real-life sacrifices - that might leave marks on their bodies - into cleverly packaged, disembodied trends designed to manipulate emotions and generate hits. Easy to pick on Facebook, I suppose, but the same objection could be made to those of us who over-fixate on partisan politics and different levels of public policy and forget the call to us - the Church, Christians in community - to love the neighbor next to us in word and deed; to model, as Church, a compelling alternative to the structures of the world. Finally, few things are more sad and confusing than the disregard of so-called materialists for the state and well being of the earth. If consumerism has made us materialists, it has made us very bad materialists.

Of course, I’m using materialism and materialistic in ways slightly outside of common usage. Most of the time ‘materialistic’ means an over-concern with possessions and/or money. It’s ironic that materialistic has come to mean overly concerned with money, I think, because few things have come to be less material than money. Hours of very real work, at very specific tasks, for which you study and spend your lives, reduced to slips of paper or - more commonly - debit card balances and online transactions. 

Even consumption - the thing that ostensibly money is for - is not as concrete as we imagine. William Cavanaugh, Professor of Theology at DePaul University, reminds his readers that “…pleasure is not so much in the possession of things as in their pursuit” (Being Consumed, 48). That is, once you have the thing, you lose what you were in fact after. According to Cavanaugh, what you were after is an abstracted attempt to “escape time and death by constantly seeking renewal in created things. Each new movement of desire promises the opportunity to start over” (Ibid.).

The significance of all of this, for Christians, is just to say that the Son of God born to Mary cannot be reduced to an abstracting slip of paper, a sort of dollar bill of the divine representing some other reality. When Christians say ‘God,’ we mean the God who revealed God’s self to the world in Jesus. We mean the Word became flesh - particular, muddy, Jewish flesh - and dwelt among us. This is why Christians need Advent and also why Advent needs Israel. If you like your faith precut and wrapped in cellophane, you won’t have room for Israel. But Advent takes us back, behind the grocery store, to the stall, where the animals are. Advent is about the longing of Israel: 

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel,
shall come to thee o Israel!

Jesus fulfills the hope of Israel. And the people born of Jesus’ fulfillment of Israel’s hope is called Church. And this makes sense. You can’t talk about Jesus born to Mary for very long without talking about the Body of Christ, in all of its senses. And anyone who thinks this is over-spiritualizing materiality hasn’t tried very long to live in the Body of Christ. As messy and full of asses as that very first manger. As material as goods shared in common, enemies embraced, and real sins forgiven.

Advent is about the Body. About Jesus, born to Mary. About the Eucharist - the bread and wine - and about the Church, the Body of Christ, and her waiting for Christ’s coming again. Advent is about the Body and what the Body is for: a light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people, Israel. To prepare for Christ’s second coming is to live lives that physically point to, expect, and embody the lordship of Jesus; lives that turn old and cluttered storage rooms into actively waiting nursery rooms. Rooms that won’t make sense until the child makes a home there. And the child we receive is for the life of the world. This is where Advent gets dangerous.

One day, Augustine says he hears God talk to him, and God says this to Augustine, “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me” (Ibid., 54-55). Cavanaugh, again, says that “[in] the consumption of the Eucharist, we cease to be merely ‘the other’ to each other. In the Eucharist, Christ is gift, giver, and recipient; we are simultaneously fed and become food for others” (Ibid., 56).

Christians are fed and become food for others. Advent is about the Body. And because Advent is about the Body it cannot dissolve into disembodied contemplation and cannot be lived without friends. To be food for others is to understand that Christian materialists are called to use the materials we’ve been given for both the building up of the Body and the exercise of the Body, both caring for the Body and reaching out beyond the Body, with Christ, pointing Christ, seeking Christ, using our materials in ways that bring us closer to the flesh and blood suffering, joys, and utter materiality of the people around us. Along the way, our things become more valuable, not less, because our lives and all we have carry in them the potential to glorify God and facilitate the flourishing of the whole family of the Kingdom of God.

I realize that ending with instructions like ‘be food for others’ and ‘facilitate the flourishing of the whole family of the Kingdom of God’ risks sounding like a hopelessly poetic abstraction of a message whose point is to be concrete. Part of my reluctance to trot out a concluding “10 ways to be a Christian materialist this Advent” list is that I think you are capable of a greater imagination than what I would give you. But we’ll connect after the small group question time to make sure, and we’ll see that we’ve at least got a start.

Some questions:
  • What is the best part of Advent?
  • What scriptures does Advent call to mind?
  • What concrete disciplines might help us be living food for others?
  • Remembering the particularity of Jesus at his birth sets us up to pay attention to the particularity of his whole life. What do you find most challenging/exciting/disturbing about the life of Jesus
  • What practices help you stay present to the material world around you?
  • How is your faith journey presently and positively engaged with the Body of Christ called the Church?
  • A friend had a practice of setting one goal each week that could not possibly be met without God’s help. What practices help you live expectantly in relation to God?
  • What other question do you wish had been asked? (After answering this question, ask yourself that question.)


Some ideas toward a Christian materialism:

Read the Old Testament. You can’t be a materialist without genealogies.  
Make your own stuff.
Know the people who make your stuff.

A few years ago, I set a modest goal: I would walk home for lunch and, on my walk, I would think only about the walk to and from the office, checking the time when I first noticed that I had become distracted.  The next day, over the course of two eighteen minute walks, I never made it longer than two and a half minutes.  This confirmed my suspicion that I was all but handed over to fantasies: focused on the 'unreal' and not present even to myself.

In order to step back from "the great system of collusive fantasy", I began talking out loud to myself, in order to put a leash on the wandering mind - I think faster than I can speak.  Next, I made an eighteen minute covenant to only speak true things about my immediate and visible reality.  I wasn't very good at this at first.  I started simply: blue car, unkempt lawn, flag pole, etc.  But after a few minutes, I began noticing my reality in greater and greater detail.  The house with no cars and the front porch left on.  The boat left out for cleaning after yesterday's fishing expedition.  The teachers wrangling up  children on the playground.  In all of this, I refrained from ascribing motivation or intention: what is actually happening?  Strangely, if you do this long enough, you ending up sounding a lot like Garrison Keillor.

This practice helped me see and stay present to the material world, what is. It helped me better see the material needs of those around me as well as the material possibilities with which to serve others. To be food for others begins with discerning the Body of you receive and in seeing the others around you, where you are.


(1) At no point in the above does "materialist" refer to the formal term in the context philosophy; here, we're going for the dictionary's 3rd definition: "a great regard for worldly concerns."

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Exit 1069
(On Eager Longing and Baby Barf)

Last Sunday's was a note-less homily. Here's a paraphrase...

If I asked you to condense the gist of it into just two words, I wonder what two words you would use to capture the heart of the season called Advent. Maybe your two words will change as the season unfolds. Undoubtedly, they will. Just now on the front end - with new colors and candles, new prayers, and what you've heard of the Scripture - which two words would you choose to describe Advent?

(A time of sharing as folks shared their two words - which were probably as good or much better than anything good in the rest of what follows.)

Here are my words: Eager longing.

Let me tell you a story about eager longing.

Back before Rebekah, the kids, and I moved to Madison and joined the community of faith at SFH, I served a parish just outside of Corpus Christi, Texas - a coastal city a few hours south of Houston. Corpus Christi is a wonderful city, but it's not on the way to much of anything. You go there to go there. If you are headed to other places, the road to Corpus Christi is the longer way to go.

One of the reason people do go to CC is fishing. It's a big reason why a lot of folks live there. If you love to fish and live in Texas, Corpus Christi is the place to be. While I enjoyed living on the coast, I don't care for fishing, and I am deathly allergic to fish. Ah well...

Anyway, every year there was this diocesan fishing tournament hosted at a town two up from ours on the coast. The cause was tremendous - funds for the World Mission efforts of the diocese - and folks from all over the diocese - which spanned from not quite Austin to the Mexico border - would come out to participate.

Though I don't care for fishing, and couldn't eat the fish, I would usually look for a couple of regular fishing guys to go out with, confident that at least I probably wouldn't drown. And they were great friends with which to share a boat. Better than this anti-fishing fisherman deserved.

But fishing starts early - we'd meet up at 5 a.m. And fishing is smelly - we'd have a couple buckets of shrimp as bait. And fishing is not always rewarding by the traditional "catching fish" measure. In a few years of tournaments, my prized haul totaled one sock and a string ray. One year we skipped lunch in hopes of better luck, leaving us sunburned, fishless, and hungry at day's end. My bishop that year said I looked like Tom Hanks from Castaway. Har har.

There was a highlight, though. Even when the fishing was bad (and it usually was), there was this banquet at the end. And more than the bacon-wrapped-shrimp at this banquet, I looked forward to the banquet for the gathering of amazing friends from all over. I had the privilege of serving two churches in that diocese over just less than six years. Throw in a Cursillo, Vocare, and some other diocesan events, and to be in the presence of most of those friends at one time was something close to an overwhelming joy. You have friends like this, too. The "I don't even have to think about how I am with you" friends. Those kinds of friends.

So the last year we did the tournament, I came home from the a morning of not catching fish, sunburned. I showered, cleaned up. Rebekah and a baby Annie joined me in the car. And we headed up the highway for a twenty seven minute ride. And I had that "can't wait to be there" bug.

After what seemed like an eternity - minute twenty-five - I spotted the sign on the horizon, about a mile away, saying that Rockport, our exit, was just a mile after that. Two more minutes until the banquet.

And then a sound - not a mechanical, vehicular, or car crunching sound. But a bodily sound. A baby, bodily sound. A liquid, projectile, across the backseats kind of sound. I pulled over. Rebekah jumped out and started mopping up the mess, which was everywhere. After sometime, we saddled back up. I took a wistful glance back at the sign. One more mile. I looked at Rebekah, and smiled, and we turned around and, at drove the twenty-five minutes back home.

Eager longing. The reality was fully present. And yet we would have to wait.

Advent is about coming, Christ's coming. Which means it is about our waiting. And I've wondered how our worship can be marked in ways that reflect this. That the doing that needs doing is not ours, can't be filled with words, leaves us wondering what it means to wait with love and patience.

And so we'll pray our prayers of the people this Advent in silence. There are stations around the chapel. You can paint prayers on rocks, write words of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication on the marker board, especially your intentions for the Church and the world. You can sit in silence. Light a candle before the icon of Christ. Come up and kneel before the altar. One theologian invites us to imagine the candles on the altar as Mary and Joseph and shepherds and oxen, all come together around the presence of Jesus. That's how we come to the altar, too, in this season, I guess. As sheep around the creche. Together in silence, we'll wait.

We'll start the silence with singing (the first verse of hymn 66) and end it the same way.

Just now, a closing reflection from Augustine, on eager longing:
"My soul pines for your salvation," that is, it languishes in its expectation. This is a happy weakness, for though it points up the desire for a good that is not yet obtained it also shows the eagerness for which it is sought. From whom do these words proceed - from the origins of humanity until the end of the world - if not from the chosen race, the royal priesthood, the purchased people, every one who, on this earth and in their time, has lived, lives, or will love in the desire of Christ? 
The witness of this longing is the saintly and aged Simeon, who in receiving Christ in his arms exclaims: "Now, Master, you can dismiss your servant in peace; you have fulfilled your word. For my eyes have witnessed your saving deed." For "it was revealed to him by theHoly Spirit that he would not experience death until he had seen the Anointed of the Lord." 
The desire of this old man is, according to our faith, the desire of all the saints of the previous ages. Thus, the Lard himself said to his disciples: "I assure you, many a prophet and many a saint longed to see what you see but did not see it, to hear what you hear but did not hear it." Hence, they also must be numbered among those who chant: "My soul pines for your salvation." 
This desire of the saints was not fulfilled in the past and it will not be fulfilled in the future until the consummation of the ages, when "the Desired of all the nations" will come, as promised by the Prophet. Thus Paul can write: "From now on a merited crown awaits me; on that Day the Lord, just judge that he is, will award it to me - and only to me, but to all who have looked for his appearing with eager longing." 
The desire of which we are speaking arises from the love of Christ's appearance, and it is about this that Paul further states: "When Christ our life appears, then you shall appear with him in glory." 
In the first ages, before the child-bearing of the Virgin, the Church counted saints who desired the coming of Christ in the flesh. In the post-Ascension ages in which we live, the same Church numbers other saints who desire the appearance of Christ to judge the living and the dead. Never, from the beginning to the end of times, has this desire of the Church known the slightest diminishment, except during the period when the Lord lived on earth in the company of his disciples. 
Thus, it is the entire Body of Christ, groaning in this life, whom we must fittingly understand as chanting in this psalm: "My soul pines for your salvation; I hope in your word." His word is the promise; and hope enables us to wait with patience for that which is not seen by those who believe.

Preached December 1, 2013.

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