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Saturday, December 25, 2010

No Fear

Christmas A 2010 12/24/10

Luke 2:1-20

The story begins with an act of government: In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Why does this Roman census begin the Christmas story? It is like a skunk that ambles down the aisle at an elegant wedding. We want to hear about angels, shepherds, wise men, and a baby in a manger. Instead, the story begins with this odd tale of government bureaucracy.

While it is a way to get Joseph and Mary from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem, the home of David’s clan, so the prophecies about the Messiah can be fulfilled, these is something more going on in the story about a government census. What was the purpose of the census? It was so the occupying Roman government could levy taxes against the Jews. What did the taxes support? The wealth of Rome, the outrageous lifestyle of Caesar, and, most egregious, the Roman army of occupation. These pagans were everywhere, eating unclean food, disrupting Jewish observance, and crucifying dissenters. Everywhere the Jews looked, the Roman army reminded them of how their once-proud nation had fallen into despair. Those who tried to avoid the census were liable to be hunted down and tortured. The journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem is their response to a hated order from an oppressive, conquering empire. They go to Bethlehem in a climate of terror.

Since the dawn of time, leaders have known that terror is one of the most effective ways to manipulate and control people. The advertising industry uses fear to sell: the beauty industry exploits our fear of aging and fear of exclusion from the company of the attractive to sell their wares. Color out that grey hair, cover up those wrinkles, look young and beautiful and attractive. The entertainment industry exploits our fear of boredom to convince us to watch must-see-TV (there’s the ultimate oxymoron!) or the latest movie.

But there are darker agents of terror. One is religion. It is oh-so-easy for those of us in religious leadership to use fear to manipulate people. When I was in my first year of college, I went one Monday night to a fundamentalist Bible study in a dorm room. The professional leader of that group was present that night, and came to see me a week later to try to get me to join that group. I thanked him and said I wanted to be in a Bible study, but his met on Monday nights, and that was the meeting night for the Boy Scout Troop I was working with. He insisted that Bible study was more important than Boy Scouts. I replied that the Boy Scouts had sent me around the world and had shaped me in important ways, and that some of the Scouts in the troop were also in the Junior High Sunday School class I was teaching and the youth group I was counseling. I felt that working with Scouts was an important thing for me to do. His parting shot as he left my room was ”Well, we’ll see how effective you’ve been when your Scouts rot in hell.” It’s pretty hard to argue with that kind of theology. There are legions of people who have been burned with that kind of Christianity – who have been told that if they don’t believe and act and do exactly this, they are damned. Most people I know are more interested in a faith to live by, not a faith to die by. Or, as an old preacher once told me, you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar. But there’s no question that spiritual terror is an extremely effective tactic to control people.

We also live in a climate of political terror. Mind you, this is absolutely nothing new. Growing up in the 1950’s at the height of the Cold War, I believed that any moment the big air raid siren on the roof of my elementary school would go off, and a mushroom cloud would rise over Baltimore. John Kennedy was elected President in 1960 campaigning on the “missile gap” between the United States and the Soviet Union. There was, in fact, a nuclear missile gap between those nations, but not the way Kennedy portrayed it: the United States was substantially ahead of the Soviet Union, and the American missiles in Turkey aimed at Moscow were chief causes of Russia’s attempt to retaliate by putting missiles in Cuba in 1962. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the fundamental legal right of habeus corpus in the name of national security, in 1798 President John Adams issued the Alien and Sedition Acts, which suspended freedom of speech and of the press. And in our own day, the “War on Terror” has been used to justify the suspension of habeus corpus, the establishment of secret prisons, the use of private mercenary armies, the use of torture, and governmental spying on citizens. It’s highly effective, and it’s nothing new: people in power have known for millennia that fear is a highly effective motivator.

So, when the angel appears to bewildered shepherds on the hillside above Bethlehem, the declaration Do not be afraid is about ever so much more than terror caused by heavenly beings appearing in the night sky. These are the same words the angel says, many years later, to the women bewildered by an empty tomb: Do not be afraid. In a world ruled by fears of every kind – physical fear, emotional fear, spiritual fear, economic fear, political fear – the angel says Do not be afraid: I have good news. Emmanuel – God is with us. God’s perfect love has come to cast out every fear, so we can live lives radiant with hope and justice and love.

Years ago I read a story about a Christian missionary who had been captured by government agents in a South American country, and imprisoned and tortured. The interviewer asked how the missionary had come to be released by the government. The missionary said one day, lying beaten and bloodied in his cell, praying about how he was going to endure the torture, he had a realization: all the prison guards could do was kill him. They could take his life, but they could not separate him from God. They could not kill his soul. And at that moment, the missionary said, everything changed: the guards had no power over him. The next time they took him to be tortured, they realized they no longer had power over him, and released him. He was of absolutely no use to them if he was not afraid of them.

Jean Shepherd’s classic tale, made into the movie A Christmas Story, tells of Ralphie Parker, who, besides wanting a Red Ryder 200-shot BB gun that will shoot his eye out, is terrorized by the neighborhood bully, Scut Farkas, and his minion, Grover Dill. Much of the movie involves Ralphie and his friends running away from Scut and Grover until one day Scut hits Raphie with a slush ball. Ralphie flies into a blind rage, and beats the living daylights out of Scut. When Ralphie loses his fear of Scut, everything in the neighborhood, the school, and the Parker household changes. Ralphie no longer lives in terror – at least, until the BB ricochets and hits him in the eye.

Do not be afraid: I have good news. That is the heart and soul of the Christmas story. The empire has no power over you. Sin has no power over you. Death has no power over you. All the armies of Rome, all the machinations of the priesthood, all the manipulations of the culture can not keep this baby out. If there is no room in the inn, God makes room in a barn. If kings and queens will not cooperate, God will use a peasant. If the chosen people will not come to worship, God will call pagan astrologers. If the neighbors will not heed, angels will appear to shepherds. In a world that continues to sell bad news after bad news after bad news, trusting that we will react in fear, the angel says, Do not be afraid: I have good news.

Maybe that’s why we keep coming back, year after year, to see if the baby is still in the manger. All the powers of the world are stacked against the baby and what he represents, but the baby wins. If that baby can win, then what in the world are we afraid of? We can say to all the principalities and powers that want us to live in constant terror, We are not afraid. Yes, we will age and we will die. Yes, there will be people who reject us. Yes, we will sin and fall short of the glory of God. But we are not afraid. There is good news down in the City of David tonight: God has come to be with us forever. That changes everything in life and in death and in life beyond death. We are not afraid. Thanks be to God.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Matthew 1:18-25 -- Do The Right Thing

Advent 4A, 2010


Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us.’

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

I’m with Joseph, at least at the beginning of this story. If, a few months before Vicki and I got married – when I was in Georgia and she was in school in Charlotesville – she had called me on the phone and said, “I have some interesting news. I’m pregnant – but it’s not what you think. It’s by the Holy Spirit,” I would have broken the engagement for two reasons. First, my fiancée had been unfaithful. Second, either she was crazy, or she thought I was the dumbest man on the planet.

And I hope, like Joseph, I would have been loving enough to break off the engagement quietly, out of love for my fiancée. A quiet break was literally a matter of life and death – adultery by an engaged woman was punishable by stoning. Is it possible that years later, when confronted by an angry mob about to execute a woman guilty of adultery, Jesus thought about his mother’s predicament, and how close she had come to the same fate?

Joseph was simply trying to do the right thing. He had been wronged by this unfaithful woman, and he should have broken the engagement. The law entitled him to drag her before the elders for judgment and execution, but again, trying to do the right thing, he wanted to save her life and the life of the illegitimate child in her womb. She could go visit some relatives, have the baby, give it up for adoption, and move on with her life, and Joseph could move on with his. It was the right and lawful thing to do.

Or it was until that angel showed up in his dreams. This Joseph is much like his namesake a millennium and a half before, that pesky boy with the many-colored coat who kept having dreams about the world to come. “Joseph,” the angel said, “do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid: that’s not the last time we’ll hear that phrase in this story about the baby. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her really is from the Holy Spirit. No, really, Joseph. You can’t make this stuff up. It’s a boy, and you must name him Yeshua – the Lord saves – for he will save his people from their sins.”

Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Afraid of what? Of the law, of shame, of your and Mary’s and the baby’s reputations? Afraid of not doing the right thing, because marrying an adulterous woman is just wrong in oh so many ways? How can an angel tell you to break God’s law? Is this a fallen angel – a demon – tempting Joseph to disobey God’s clear commandment? If we start making exceptions from the law, then the whole society breaks down. Nothing is higher than the law, and we need to do the right thing.

Kentucky novelist Wendell Berry, in his short story, Fidelity, tells of the hospitalization of farmer Burley Coulter. Burley had no surviving relatives except his illegitimate son, Danny Branch, so when Burley went into a coma and was placed on life support, no one was able to make decisions about his medical care. Knowing that his father would never want to be kept alive by machine or to die in a hospital, Danny sneaks up a back stairway in the middle of the night, disconnects Burley from the machinery, carried him down the stairs to his pickup truck, and drives him out to a deserted barn. There, Danny makes Burley as comfortable as he can, builds a fire for warmth, and lets Burley die in peace. He then takes his father out into the woods he loved, and buries him in an unmarked grave.

This, of course, is a kidnapping, so the FBI is brought into the case. Detective Kyle Bode quickly determines Danny is the most likely suspect, but no one in the community will help him find or indict Danny. Bode goes to the community lawyer, Wheeler Catlett, demanding his help, because Catlett is an officer of the court and the law has been broken. Wheeler refuses to cooperate, noting that while one might need permission to get into a hospital, no one needs permission to leave one, because that would make it not a hospital but a prison.

"Well anyway, " Detective Bode said, "all I know is that the law has been broken, and that I am here to serve the law".

"But my boy, you don't eat or drink the law, or sit in the shade of it, or warm yourself by it, or wear it, or have your being in it. The law exists only to serve."

"Serve what?"

"Why, all the things that are above it. Love."[1]

Law is important. Rules are important. If we are going to live together without chaos, we need to have some boundaries for doing so. The law tells us what we expect of each other, and what God expects of us. There are perfectly good reasons for laws about faithfulness and adultery and breach of contract and betrayal. We want people to keep their promises to each other, and consequences when we don’t do the right thing. Joseph is a wonderful model as a man of faith – he is trying, with every ounce of his being, to do the right thing with God and with other people, including his fiancée.

But, the angel tells him, there are things that are beyond the rules, and above the law. The law exists to serve, and primarily to serve love. So, at Jesus’ conception, God breaks the law to reveal to us, through Joseph, that love is always the right thing to do.

Again and again during his adult life, Jesus will show us that love stands above all law: exercising compassion towards an adulterous woman; sharing meals with sinners; welcoming women, lepers, enemy collaborators, Samaritans, and Romans; defying the power of civil and religious authorities. Finally, he breaks the most absolute law of all: the law of death. In the name of love, he surrenders himself to death, shattering its power forever on the third day. “Only God,” said Francis of Assisi, “can say always and never.” All laws and rules, great and petty, exist only to serve all the things that are above them, most of all love.

This week, as you make your way to the manger, wonder and be astounded at this story that breaks all the rules. Born in a stable; attended by poor shepherds and worshipped by pagan astrologers; hunted by the authorities and becoming an illegal immigrant; finally executed by the law in the name of the law, Jesus is not just his heavenly Father’s son, he’s Joseph’s boy, too. He’s a chip off the block of the man who always wanted to do the right thing, and who ended up obeying the higher call of love.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Berry, Wendell, Fidelity, Pantheon: New York, 1992, p. 418

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Matthew 11:2-11 What Do You See?

Advent 3A, 2010


When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
 who will prepare your way before you.” 
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Have you ever wanted something with every ounce of your heart and mind and soul, dreamed about it, talked about it, studied it to death, and then, once you finally had it, discovered it wasn’t everything you had cracked it up to be? Married folks, this is not the time for you to look at each other; parents, this is not the time for you to look at your children! That car, that house, that job, that gadget . . . or maybe even that person you worshipped from afar, that disappointed you. My mother decided one year that she simply could not live without a Stieff sterling silver bacon server to match the other rose pattern items in her silver chest. Her life was not complete without a sterling silver bacon server. She didn’t know how we had eaten bacon for all those years without one. So, on Christmas morning, there was a Stieff silver bacon server under the Christmas tree. I think we used it twice before it disappeared into the silver chest, and we used our forks or our fingers ever afterwards. My mother was no happier or fulfilled the day after receiving the bacon server than she was the day before.

I grew up dreaming of becoming a pilot. My entire existence was organized around the day I would fly an airplane by myself. My bedroom growing up was packed with plastic airplane models; I read every book I could find, watched every movie about flying, and talked about airplanes ad nauseum. I took flying lessons, and, less than a month after my fifteenth birthday, took off, circled the airfield, and landed Cessna 3188 X-ray by myself. It was the moment I’d been waiting for all my life. And when I got out of the plane, all I could think of was the Peggy Lee song popular in those days: Is That All There Is?

John the baptizer had been thrown in prison by King Herod for preaching revolution. He had identified Jesus as God’s anointed one who would bring God’s judgment upon the world, inaugurate the Messianic age, separate the wicked and the righteous, re-establish the nation of Israel and be its King. Jesus was John’s sterling silver bacon server, John’s pilot’s license – his entire existence had pointed to the Messiah. There are famous medieval paintings of Jesus and John, in which John points a bony finger at Jesus, signifying John’s ministry to look beyond himself and towards his cousin.

But Jesus doesn’t do what John said he would do. Matthew 9:35 and following says that Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Where’s the fire from heaven? Where’s the judgment? Where’s the destruction of the Romans, the establishment of independent Israel, the coronation of Jesus as King David’s long-expected successor? Good news? Healing? Compassion? Is that all there is?

So, from his prison cell, John sends his equally bewildered disciples to ask Jesus a question: Are you the one, or should we look elsewhere? Did John get it wrong? You certainly don’t look like what we were expecting. Is that all there is?

One of the hot topics these days in theology, culture, and philosophy is “the new atheism,” led by writers Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens, a famous conservative writer, contends that organized religion is "the main source of hatred in the world,”[v]iolent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children", and that accordingly it "ought to have a great deal on its conscience".[1] Hitchens, who is dying of metastatic esophageal cancer, vows that he will not become a believer before he dies – he will go defiantly into the night.

Christians and other believers need to read what the atheists say about us, because we need to confess our responsibility for their hatred towards belief. When I watch televangelists or listen to Christians on the radio or read the bigotry and hatefulness of self-identified believers, I often find myself far more in sympathy with the unbelievers than with the “Christians.” When the designated hitter for my beloved Orioles repeats the thoroughly disproven lie that our President was not born in this country, or when the Westboro Church of God announces it will deliver its hateful witness at the funeral of another American soldier or of poor Elizabeth Edwards, or when the Roman Catholic Church refuses to deal with the consequences of enforced celibacy among its clergy, I want to declare that if those people are Christians, I am something else. The Jesus they follow is not the Jesus I know.

So, how does Jesus respond not just to John the baptizer’s expectations, but to those of Christopher Hitchens, of Osama bin Laden, and of you and me?

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me. The measure of faith is not the sophistication of our theology, the breadth of our knowledge of the Bible, our political affiliation, or our lifestyle. The measure of faith is not whether we meet each other’s expectations. It is simply this: as a result of our lives, are people beginning to see God, themselves, and the world as we really are? Are people who are crippled and paralyzed physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually beginning to move into new freedom? Are people who have been cast into the margins of human society now welcomed into our homes and our hearts? Are people who have no hope and no future now given life by the power of God’s love flowing through us? Do the poor in spirit and the poor in pocket both experience good news beyond the admonition to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. It’s hard to do that when you don’t have any shoes.

Brothers and sisters, at Christmas the whole world is watching to see whether the baby in the manger has changed anything. Christmas Eve our church will be packed with people who haven’t been here since last Christmas, checking to see whether there’s still a baby in the hay. We all come to the stable asking John’s question: Are you the one? The answer depends on what we see between Christmases: are the blind beginning to see, the lame beginning to walk, the deaf beginning to hear, the dead coming to life, and the poor hearing good news? Is our blindness, lameness, deafness, death, and poverty being healed, or are we the same old crowd as last year? Is the world a better place this year, does someone who didn’t feel loved last year feel loved this year, because of you and me? Are you the one, or are we to look for another?

The more Christmases I live, the more I wonder why we give each other presents for Jesus’ birthday. Doesn’t this gospel lesson this morning tell us that if we want to honor Jesus for his birthday, we should be giving gifts to the blind, the lame, the outcast, the deaf, the dying, and the poor? In our lobby is a Christmas tree covered with tags listing gifts for emotionally disturbed children at Hallmark Youthcare Center in Richmond. We have two church members in jail right now. We have church members struggling to pay their bills, because they have no work. CARITAS ministries with the homeless is full to the gills. I have been visiting a woman at Henrico Rehab who just had a leg amputated, and who has no friends and no family. If the sign of Jesus’ kingdom come is that the poor, the lame, the dead, the deaf, the outcast, and the blind all experience good news, then how might you and I faithfully honor Jesus for his birthday?

I’ll close with a story by my brother Jim Hewitt. When Jim was serving a church in Northern Virginia, one cold February Saturday he took his middle-school age confirmation class to work in a homeless shelter in downtown D.C. Several other adult leaders from the church went with them, and they spent the day helping prepare and serve food to the homeless poor of our nation’s capital. At the end of the day, they were getting into the church van when they noticed that the church treasurer, who had accompanied them, was barefoot. “Tom, what happened to your shoes and socks?” Jim asked in front of all the youth. “As I was serving food,” the treasurer answered, “a man came through the line barefoot. I asked him what happened to his shoes, and he said he didn’t have any. I asked him what size his feet were – 10 ½ -- my size. So I gave him my shoes and socks.” The confirmation class, Jim said afterwards, learned more in those fifteen seconds from their church treasurer about what it meant to follow Jesus than they had in three months in class.

The whole world is still asking, are you the one, or are we to look for another? The answer lies in what they see and what they hear – from us.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Advent 2A, 2010: First, the Bad News

Matthew 3:1-12 12/5/2010

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’ 
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

Are you familiar with good news/bad news jokes? Like, the good news is that the United Methodist Women voted to send you a get-well card. The bad news is that the vote passed 21 – 20. Or, the UVa women’s basketball team finally won a game. The bad news is, they beat the men’s team. Or, the Church Council voted to send me on a trip to the Holy Land. The bad news is, they’re waiting for the next war to make the reservations.

In the joke format, the good news comes first, then the bad news comes as a humorous surprise. That’s how a joke works: the story takes you down a familiar road with a predictable conclusion, but, at the end, delivers an unexpected twist that shocks us into laughter. The gap between what we expected and what we received is what’s so funny.

The Christmas story doesn’t begin, however, with good news. The bad news comes first. The end of the world is at hand. God’s judgment is descending on all flesh. John the baptizer adopts the model provided by prophets like Jeremiah, who publicly smashes pottery, wears a slave’s yoke, and buys property just before the fall of Jerusalem, or like Hosea, who marries a prostitute who represents Israel’s faithlessness. John moves to the wilderness, wears animal skins and eats insects, to portray the coming destruction of Jewish society. He calls people to turn their lives around, and to be baptized, which heretofore had been a conversion ritual for Gentiles who were rejecting their old ways of life and embracing Judaism. Repent. Confess. Unquenchable fire. This is not good news.

Every Christmas, we want to hear the good news. We want to hear the stories about angels and shepherds and babies in feeding troughs. But who needs a Savior when there’s nothing we need to be saved from? The folk singer Arlo Guthrie put it well in his own twisted logic: you can’t have a light without a dark to put it in. If the world passes through Christmas without any transformation, it’s because if there’s no bad news, then there’s no good news. If there’s no sin confessed, there’s no sin forgiven. If there’s no death, there’s no resurrection. If there is no defeat, there is no victory.

Matthew says that people from Jerusalem and Judea and all the region along the Jordan were going out to the wilderness to hear John. You and I live in the wilderness, too, don’t we? There’s a wilderness in your home, a wilderness in your pew, a wilderness in your heart and head. When we are honest with God and with ourselves, you and I are surrounded by howling winds of sickness and death, wild animals of fear and despair, deserts of a broken economy and damaged ecology, darkness of family chaos, and the soaking, cold rain of injustice. False prophets abound, who tell us that if we will only think correctly, or vote correctly, or try harder, or eat better, or buy more, then all will be well. But no amount of thinking or voting or buying will help us avoid the wilderness. Israel had to go through the wilderness to get to the Promised Land; Jesus had to go through the cross to get to Easter. And, John the baptizer tells us, there will be no Savior unless we confess what we need to be saved from, not least of all, ourselves.

That’s why the bad news comes first in this story. That’s why the baby will be born elsewhere if we don’t name the garbage in our lives and throw it out to make room for him. The wheat seed is useless unless it’s separated from the chaff, which is the shell.

Jesus can’t save people who don’t need saving. Jesus can’t forgive what won’t be confessed. The light can’t shine without a darkness to put it in. So, this morning as you come to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, own up to your own wilderness. Confess your brokenness and sin. Surrender your doubt and your unbelief. Throw out the trash, and make room for God to change you, because there’s no good news unless the bad news comes first.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Matthew 24:36-44: Get Ready!

‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 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. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

During my third year in college I met a young married couple – Mike and Jetty – who used to stop by the campus ministry building on a regular basis to read, to chat, or just to relax. Mike had dropped out of Law School because he and Jetty became convinced, after deep Biblical research, that Jesus was going to return and end the world one Tuesday in October of that year. Mike had dropped out of school to preach this bad news and try to get people saved. Jetty was the daughter of a prominent Baptist minister in Charlottesville, and she had also dropped out of school to join her young husband in his mission. They were very sincere, very likeable, and very intense.

The Tuesday of Mike and Jetty’s prediction came. I was living in an apartment with three other guys, and, over breakfast one of them exclaimed, “Hey! According to Mike and Jetty, the world ends today!” The general response around the table was, “Well, guys, if I don’t see you again, it’s been fun.” We went off to class and to work, came home and had dinner together that night, and we never saw Mike and Jetty again. I’ve always wondered how they dealt with that day: were they relieved, or disappointed?

Last summer I preached a sermon on a text similar to this one, and said that all Christians should be ready at all times to act upon their faith. Jesus language about those in Noah’s time swept away by the flood recalls the Tsunami in Indonesia a month ago, as well as the one the day after Christmas, 2004. Language about one man being left in the field and one taken, one woman grinding meal taken and the other left is reinforced by yesterday’s story about seven people killed by lightning at a nursery school party in South Africa. Accident, illness, violence – all can snuff out or lives randomly and capriciously.

This morning, I’d like us to consider less the need to be prepared than how we can be prepared. On this first Sunday of Advent, in the wake of Thanksgiving and Black Friday, as we face three weeks of commercial tsunami urging us to buy, as well as calendars already full with parties, rehearsals, cantatas, pageants, concerts, and commitments, I want to make my annual case for making room. You see, I am more and more convinced every year that you and I have surrendered to a brilliant plot engineered by the forces of darkness and executed with the cooperation of church, school, and commerce, to cram the month of December so full of activity and greed that when the Holy Family finally comes to the door of our hearts on Christmas Eve, not only is there no room left in the inn, but we have collapsed from exhaustion and never hear them knock.

How many of you hosted your Thanksgiving dinners this year for other friends and family? Now, I’m sure you didn’t have to do what we did – that is, what Vicki mostly did. I’m sure that your homes are always completely clean and orderly and ready to receive a multitude of company for a meal or an overnight without any preparation at all. Now, Vicki is a good housekeeper, and she gets some help from me. But we do like to do some preparation to make room for company. Now that all of our children are out of the house, Vicki has been working hard the last couple of months to sort through a great deal of stuff we have been keeping, ostensibly for their sake. She’s been going through closets and storage spaces, bringing things to the Fall Festival yard sale, farming things out to the kids, and throwing things away. I’ve been cleaning out the tool shed, my library, and my closet. We’re making room.

Anticipating the influx of food from the dinner guests on Thursday, we cleared out the refrigerator and panty, and added items needed for the meal. That’s how you prepare – you get rid of what isn’t needed, and carefully add what you lack.

In the Christian calendar, the two great feasts of Christmas and Easter are preceded by penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, respectively. Advent is meant to be a kind of “Winter Lent,” in which we clean out our emotional and spiritual houses to make room for Jesus to be born in new ways in us this Christmas. That’s not how we practice the four weeks before Christmas, is it? In fact, what we’ve done – and yes, I helped set up decorations yesterday morning, until my cold drove me back home to recuperate – is to turn Advent into Christmas, and the twelve days of Christmastide that last until January 6 into – well, I don’t know what it is, except that we stop celebrating Jesus’ birth pretty much at midnight Christmas Eve. From then on it’s football, New Year’s Eve, and figuring out what to do with that hideous thing Aunt Ethel got you this year.

So, how can we make room in our lives, so we’re ready for God to do something new in us, not just at Christmas, but at any time?

1. Create some space in your schedule. The great jazz trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie said, late in life, “I’ve spent most of my life learning what notes not to play.” More is not more. Less is more. In this hectic season, carve out some time every day to do nothing except to be. Put down the book, turn off the cell phone, turn off the TV, unplug the iPod. Find a quiet room, sit in your car alone, go out on the porch, but just make some daily sabbath for yourself. Make a date with yourself. Leave your troubles and your business at the door. Let the quiet and the stillness of that space leak out into the rest of your busyness. Jesus regularly separated himself from disciples and crowds just to be alone. Making space in our time helps us hear the holy family knock at the door.

2. Create some space in your space. More is not more. Cluttered space clutters the soul. If everything is important, then nothing is important. Give your stuff away, even if it’s to the dump. It’s no accident that all the great spiritual giants in history had very few things. Do not store up treasure on earth, where moth and rust consume, but store up treasure in heaven. Remember that when people ask you what you want for Christmas. And remember that when you are thinking about what you will give people. Give people memories – a concert, a trip to a museum or a play, a special activity with them – instead of more stuff.

3. Create some room with God. Anne Lamott, in her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, says the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. Forty years ago I was absolutely certain about who God is, how God thinks, and what God wants. The more time I spend with God, the less sure I am about any of that, but the more amazing I find God to be and the more I love God’s deep mystery. I used to have a whole list of questions I wanted God to answer in the next world, if not in this one. Now I really don’t care. I’ve given up on the answers: I’m just trying to learn how to love. All the people who were certain about how the Messiah would come missed him; the only people who found him were the ones open to surprise.

The Messiah will come, Jesus says, not when preachers who have made fortunes predicting it say, but when we least expect it. Clear your time, clear your space, and clear your expectations. If you don’t, love will come, and you’ll be left behind.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving, 2010: Thanks for Less

Judges 18:14-26

Growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, I was a fan of magazines like Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, not for their stories on how to repair the car or the washing machine, but because of the amazing future they declared we would all be living just around the corner. We would be living in expansive and inexpensive houses, powered by solar rays. Meals would be cooked, beds made, and the whole house cleaned by robots. To get to school, work, or play, we would choose whether to take our private helicopter, flying car, or personal jet pack. The workweek would only be about twenty hours long, and vacation time would be abundant. Cancer, heart disease, and bad breath would be eradicated, and we would live long and healthy lives. War would be banished, poverty eliminated. It was guaranteed: things would just keep getting better and better, forever.

So, when families gathered for sacred festivals like Thanksgiving, no matter what tragedies had occurred over the past year – the death of a loved one, a major accident or illness, the loss of a job, a bad year at school – we could always give thanks knowing that things would get better. The children would live in a better world than the parents, and the grandchildren would live in a safer, cleaner, richer, more wonderful world yet. Progress, said General Electric for us all, was our most important product. Thank you, Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t feel that way to me anymore. And as I listen to you and to other people much smarter and more insightful than I, that unshakeable faith in the unlimited progress of the human species, or of this particular corner of it, doesn’t seem to be very secure. Will we have secure retirements? Will the air be breathable and the water drinkable? Will we be able to afford to be sick? Will there be work? Will there be a place for us to live in safety and comfort? Will our children be well educated? Fifty years ago, those were rhetorical questions. Today they are frighteningly real. Tomorrow, when we gather around the Thanksgiving table with our loved ones, we may be giving thanks not for more, but for less than we had a year or more ago. In a culture which defined the American Dream as a better and brighter future for all those who worked hard and kept the faith, how do we give thanks when things may be worse?

In the seventeenth and eighteenth chapter of the Book of Judges, there is a largely unknown story about a man named Micah. He stole eleven hundred pieces of silver from his mother, but then, repentant, returned them to her. Mom was so delighted that she had some of the silver made into an idol, which she gave to Micah. Micah built a shrine in his house for the idol and hired his own personal priest to live in the house and offer daily sacrifice to the idol. “Now I know the Lord will prosper me,” exclaimed Micah, “because the Levite has become my priest.” Micah’s future was so bright he needed to wear sunglasses (which he probably bought with some of the leftover stolen money).

Well, the tribe of Dan had not been given its own territory when Canaan was being divided up, so they sent out a scouting party, followed by an army of six hundred men to look for some real estate. The scouting party came to Micah’s house, and returned to the army to report:
Then the five men who had gone to spy out the land (that is, Laish) said to their comrades, ‘Do you know that in these buildings there are an ephod, teraphim, and an idol of cast metal? Now therefore consider what you will do.’ So they turned in that direction and came to the house of the young Levite, at the home of Micah, and greeted him. While the six hundred men of the Danites, armed with their weapons of war, stood by the entrance of the gate, the five men who had gone to spy out the land proceeded to enter and take the idol of cast metal, the ephod, and the teraphim. The priest was standing by the entrance of the gate with the six hundred men armed with weapons of war. When the men went into Micah’s house and took the idol of cast metal, the ephod, and the teraphim, the priest said to them, ‘What are you doing?’ They said to him, ‘Keep quiet! Put your hand over your mouth, and come with us, and be to us a father and a priest. Is it better for you to be priest to the house of one person, or to be priest to a tribe and clan in Israel?’ Then the priest accepted the offer. He took the ephod, the teraphim, and the idol, and went along with the people.
So they resumed their journey, putting the little ones, the livestock, and the goods in front of them. When they were some distance from the home of Micah, the men who were in the houses near Micah’s house were called out, and they overtook the Danites. They shouted to the Danites, who turned around and said to Micah, ‘What is the matter that you come with such a company?’ He replied, ‘You take my gods that I made, and the priest, and go away, and what have I left? How then can you ask me, “What is the matter?” ’ And the Danites said to him, ‘You had better not let your voice be heard among us or else hot-tempered fellows will attack you, and you will lose your life and the lives of your household.’ Then the Danites went on their way. When Micah saw that they were too strong for him, he turned and went back to his home.[1]

The Danites took Micah’s god, his priest, and the sacred vestments for the priest. His life, which had seemed to be on a path to unlimited prosperity and bliss, had been destroyed. When the Danites asked him what his problem was, he wailed You take my gods that I made, and the priest, and go away, and what have I left? David Baily Harned writes

It is unfortunate that Micah is robbed of all that matters to him. But it is more unfortunate that nothing matters to Micah except the things of which he is robbed.[2] 

 All the men of Micah’s village formed a posse to chase down six hundred Danite warriors and help Micah recover the idol, the sacred vestments, and the chaplain he was keeping stashed for private use in his house. Surrounded by friends and family members, neighbors and strangers who have offered their very lives for Micah’s sake, Micah can only whine that without his personal idol and priest, his life is ruined and he has nothing left.

The tragedy, Harned continues, is not that Micah has lost his gods but that he has forgotten his neighbors, not that he has been robbed of his religion but that his religion has robbed him of (people).[3]

Perhaps we, like Micah, have been robbed by the Danites of Wall Street and Washington and Richmond, seeking to enlarge their territory at our expense. Perhaps we have been looted by the tribes of cancer and aging and ignorance, by fears concocted and fanned by smirking buffoons clothed as media pundits. But Micah’s real enemy is not the Danites: all they can take is what was never real to begin with. Micah’s nemesis is his own misplaced faith, which allows him to worship a private deity through a priest at his command, without any obligation or responsibility to anyone other than himself. Micah’s religion is about Micah and his personal prosperity, regardless of whatever happens around him.

If anyone is less thankful this Thanksgiving than before, then they, like Micah, have been robbed by a false idol. But you and I are here tonight because we have not sworn allegiance to a private idol made of precious metal, but to a Savior who calls us out of our isolation and into sacred community. We worship a Messiah who calls us to a cross, not to prosperity. We follow a Master who surrendered his own life for the salvation even of those who crucified him.

Yes, these are hard times, and they may not get easier. Yes, pain and illness and unemployment are absolutely real. But look around: tonight the whole village has turned out to fight the Danites with us. No tribe, no angel or principality, nor life nor death nor things present nor things to come, nor anything else in all Creation can separate us from the love of Christ Jesus our Lord. And not only has Jesus given himself to us, he has given us each other. No raiding party from Dan or from Wall Street or from the depths of hell can change that.

So when your idols have been stolen, or when they turn to the dust they always are, look around you and see what can never be taken away. And when your friend, your neighbor, or even your enemy stands in the dust, wailing that all that gave them life and hope and meaning has been taken away, do not you leave them. Stand with them and call them home, like the neighbors of Laish, like the father of the prodigal son, and like Jesus.

[1] Judges 18:14-26, New Revised Standard Version
[2] Harned, David Baily, The Ambiguity of Religion, Westminster, Philadelphia, 1968, p. 10
[3] Ibid., p. 10

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Grace at the End

Christ the King, 2010
Luke 23:33-43 11/21/2010

I chanced to see on the internet this week a video clip from a Chicago morning news program. The two good-looking and perky anchors were telling the TV audience that they had live footage of a bridge that was going to be demolished at exactly seven o’clock. They cut to a helicopter shot of the bridge, and the count down began. Three, two, one . . . nothing. Nothing happened. The anchors waited for about thirty seconds, and then, desperate to fill the empty air with something besides and empty bridge still standing, cut away to their weatherman. As they chatted aimlessly with him, suddenly the camera cut back to the bridge, now lying in the river. They had missed the explosion completely. The anchors pounded their desk, tore up and wadded up pieces of paper, and the man began eating his script. So much for eyewitness news.

How many times has it happened to you? You get up to get a drink, and miss the touchdown. You go in another room and miss the baby’s first steps. One of the thousand times it has happened to me was in the spring of 1974, in Atlanta. A seminary buddy of mine stopped by my dorm room to tell me he had gotten two left field tickets for the Braves home opener that night. Hank Aaron had tied Babe Ruth’s home run record earlier in the week – maybe he would break it that night. “Aww, he won’t hit it in their first game back,” I said, turning down the ticket. Guess what? Left field!

Throughout Jesus’ life, pretty much everyone misses what’s happening. The owner of the inn in Bethlehem misses it. Hundreds of pilgrims to Bethlehem miss it. Herod misses it. Pilate misses it. The rich young ruler misses it. The three would-be disciples miss it. The disciples nearly miss it. Judas missed it. The soldiers who crucify miss it. Jesus comes into the midst of God’s covenant people, people who have been praying for a savior for hundreds of years, and they miss it.

But here and there, somebody, usually an outsider, sees it. Eastern astrologers follow a star, shepherds on a hillside see angels and follow the instructions. An old man and old woman in the temple see something different in the baby brought for circumcision. A crazy prophet down at the River sees a dove over Jesus’ head. A Roman centurion, a tax collector, a prostitute, and a pagan adulteress understand there’s something different about this carpenter’s son.

Messiah. The anointed. Usually reserved for kings, performed by priests and prophets. But the only person to anoint Jesus is a woman who enters the dining room and pours expensive perfume on him, to the outrage of the disciples. His disciples not only will not anoint him, they won’t even wash his feet – he has to wash theirs.

Today is the last Sunday of the Christian year – the Feast of Christ the King. We remember that when all the Presidents, Kings and Queens, Prime Ministers and Sultans, Princes and Popes have turned to dust, Jesus alone will reign. The church has outlasted every economic and political system on the face of the planet, every party and ideology and denomination. The day is coming, said St. Paul, when every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. It puts all our frantic economic and political posturing in perspective: in the end, as in the last Sunday of the year, Jesus reigns.

So, on this last Sunday of the Christian year, the gospel lesson is of the last moments of Jesus’ mortal life. Once again, almost everyone misses who Jesus is: the disciples betray and flee, the soldiers arrest and flog, the government equivocates and kills, the people who had waved palm branches on Sunday yell “crucify him” on Friday.

Of course, it’s not hard to understand why the people around Jesus don’t recognize the king in their midst. He is beaten and bleeding, he refuses to call down legions of angels, he tells his followers to throw away their swords. And, as he is nailed to a cross and the soldiers gamble for his clothing, instead of calling down judgment upon them, Jesus asks God to forgive them. Any king, any governor, any President worth his salt knows that you can only rule through strength, not from weakness and mercy. Evil doers must be punished, we all know. But this false king exercises mercy rather than judgment. No wonder no one believes him.

Yet, in the midst of this scene of horror, there are two proclamations of Jesus’ kingship, from the most unlikely sources. The first is from the soldiers, who nail above Jesus’ head the charge of treason against him, shortened to “King of the Jews.” It is meant to be a cruel joke on their part: look at this king, naked, bleeding, dying on this cross. Does this look like a king? We don’t think so. And, you meddlesome Jews, get the message – this is what lies ahead for any of you who challenge Caesar’s authority.

Sometimes it’s the jokers who speak the truth. That was the role of the jester in medieval courts: he spoke truth to power by mocking the authority and self-seriousness of the king and nobles. Two of my childhood heroes were the Smothers Brothers, who paved the way on television for the political satire we find today in people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who are sometimes more insightful sources of news than are the news networks. The soldiers thought they were being hilarious, but God was working, again, in mischievous ways.

Two men were being crucified with Jesus. They are often called thieves, but the gospel uses more generic language for them: criminals. One of them, probably having heard the gossip about Jesus earlier in the week, as well as having listened, in his agony, to the abuse being hurled at Jesus, joins in the mockery. Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself, and us!” It’s hard to know how much this is a last, desperate hope, and how much this is anger driven by the unbearable pain of this execution.

The second criminal rebukes the first: You’re dying – have you no fear of God, even now? You and I are getting what we deserve. But this man hasn’t done anything to deserve this. And then, the second criminal becomes the one person in the entire gospel story to label Jesus as a king without mockery: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Last week we talked about the witness we make when we are suffering and when things aren’t going our way. People are watching us, I said, to see whether we turn into the Incredible Hulk and explode with rage and blame, or whether we show something else when all our polite veneer has been stripped away. What do we see when Jesus is out of life and out of hope? Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.

What do we see from the first criminal? Save yourself and us!

But from the second? Compassion towards Jesus. The last act of kindness Jesus will know in his life is from a criminal being executed for his crimes. The last act of grace in Jesus’ life will be from a dying stranger who defends him. At the excruciating end of his life, Jesus is recognized as a king not by disciples or family or priests, but by a condemned man hoping to be remembered in Jesus’ kingdom to come. At the end, the criminal gives Jesus grace.

And Jesus returns the grace: Today, you will be with me in Paradise. You will not be alone. This is not the end. Love will win.

That’s the good news, on this Sunday when we remember everything ends, except for love. Grace wins, and Jesus reigns.

Thanks be to God.