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Monday, June 19, 2017

The War Is Over (But Nobody Knows)

Pentecost 3A
June 18, 2017

Genesis 18:1-15
18The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it.8Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

9They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’14Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Romans 5:1-11
5Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.11But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Matthew 9:35 - 10:15
35Then 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. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

10 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. 11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. 12As you enter the house, greet it. 13If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

* * * * * *

I would be remiss if I didn’t thank our pastor, Matt Bates, for inviting me to fill his pulpit this morning. Vicki and I have appreciated Matt’s pastoral care, his preaching and leadership, and your welcoming spirit since we first visited Centenary two and a half years ago. When I was the pastor of a congregation, I was very particular about whom I invited to substitute for me on Sunday morning. I wanted my people to hear good, solid preaching, but not so good that they wouldn’t miss me while I was gone. I have no doubt that I can fulfill the second part of that expectation this morning.

Speaking of hospitality, that is one bookend of our scripture lessons this morning. The first reading is a story from Genesis, about the ninety-plus year old Abraham, who has taken his wife, Sarah, on a long journey from their home in modern-day Iraq to, literally, God knows where, at God’s bidding. In today’s lesson, Abraham is resting in the shade of his tent on a hot Middle Eastern day when he notices three strangers nearby. Obedient to the traditions of Middle-Eastern desert hospitality, he rushes to greet them and offers them shelter, food, and drink. Sarah prepares three meal cakes, a servant slaughters and roasts a calf, and the men sit down to eat under the trees.

They ask Abraham about his wife and call her by name. And then one of them says that he will return at the right time, and the ninety-ish Sarah will have had a baby boy by then. Sarah laughs inside the tent, and the mysterious stranger calls her out. Sarah denies it. Later in the story, Sarah indeed conceives and gives birth to a son they name Issac: laughter.

In the ancient world, you were expected to take care of strangers. On the frontier, everyone took care of everyone, because one’s life might literally depend on it. You participated in a culture of hospitality. There are places even in our world where such an expectation survives today. One of the laws of the sea is that if you see or hear a boat in distress, you are obligated to stop whatever you are doing or wherever you are going and come to the assistance of the stricken vessel. Failure to do so is punishable by law – much like the final episode of Seinfeld, in which Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer are sentenced to jail for failing to help a man being robbed. I used to be a sailor; now I am a cyclist, and the same informal law of the sea applies to stranded cyclists. You slow down and ask if the cyclist by the side of the road needs help. This last week I literally shredded a tire on Old Washington Highway five miles from home. I always carry a spare tube and air cartridges, but one of my cartridges was empty. I couldn’t get Vicki on the phone, so I started walking – in my bike cleats, back home. A cyclist came down the road and I thought, oh, good, maybe she’ll have a pump or a cartridge. She wizzed by without a word. The cycling gods will get you for that, I thought, all in the love of Jesus. Blessedly, a few minutes later another cyclist came by in a pickup truck, asked me if I needed help, and gave me a ride home.

I can say, from personal experience, that Centenary is a very hospitable church. You welcome strangers well. Rex and Maryanne Dazey welcomed us warmly our first Sunday, even though we were sitting in their pew. Stan Baker welcomed us to sing with the choir for Lessons and Carols last December, and didn’t eye roll too much at all our wrong notes. I have been welcomed in the kitchen on Fridays as we prepare lunch for the homeless. We love the rich assortment of people kneeling at the communion rail on first Sundays. You have even invited Vicki to serve on the Staff-Parish Relations Committee, something her pastor for the last forty years never asked her to do. Like Abraham, you have welcomed us to your home and to the feast, even though we are not angels. Nevertheless, we might have something to say about new birth in your tent.

That’s one bookend of the lessons. The other bookend is this story in Matthew about Jesus sending the twelve to the towns of Galilee with instructions to heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the good news. One bookend this morning is receiving in hospitality. The other bookend is about going out.

So, what’s between the bookends?

Jesus tells the disciples to proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of heaven has come near. In Hebrew – I know the New Testament is in Greek, but Jesus, despite what you may have heard, was a Jew -- the word that gets translated as near actually means where something is. In some other places, this announcement is translated the kingdom is at hand: Osage Indian Christian theologian George Tinker used to say that Indians know that hands are attached to bodies. In other words, the kingdom isn’t off there in the distance somewhere – it is, here and now. That, I have come to believe, is a fundamental (pun intended) misunderstanding in much of Christian practice. Jesus doesn’t come to tell us that someday God will reign over the world: he comes to say it is happening, now. Right in front of us. Or as Luther said about God’s presence in the bread and wine, in, with, under, around, and through.

Just as the reading from Romans lay this morning between the other two lessons, it seems to me that Paul’s message about justification and peace with God is the good news that lies between the bookends of hospitality and mission. Paul writes – just like Jesus’ present-tense understanding of the kingdom – about justification, peace with God, and access to grace not as some future hope, but as an accomplished fact: Therefore, since we are justified . . . we have peace . . . we have obtained access. Grammar makes a difference. Paul’s language is unconditional, emphatic, and declarative because all these things do not depend on us: they are accomplished facts because of what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ. God has come to occupy the fullness of human life – including unjust suffering, pain, and death – forever aligning humanity and divinity. That’s what justification means, you know – just as you justify – align – text on your word processor to the right or the left or to the center, now we are in line with God. To change the metaphor, we all come from the factory with our steering out of alignment, so that, left to our own, we always run off the road. But God has aligned God’s self with us in Jesus’ life. Or – another metaphor – like the plumbing I worked on two weeks ago at my daughter’s house, the cold water pipe coming out of the wall had to be lined up with the faucet for the cleansing, life-giving water to flow freely.

We couldn’t do that for ourselves, because we’re so congenitally crooked. We spend our lives trying to straighten ourselves out. But God does something amazing – God has lined up with us, instead of the other way around. That’s the source of peace: God is no longer at war with the world. Truth be told, God never was – it’s the other way around. That’s the good news the world needs to hear from us.

Ironically, the good news that the war is over isn’t good news for everybody. There are principalities and powers in the world with a vested interest in maintaining unrelenting conflict. There is profit in conflict:

  • with others. We live in an economy based largely on war. Entities who profit from war do not want peace. There are others who can only lift themselves up by putting others down, because of race, religion, origin, appearance, sexuality, education, bank account, and a hundred other criteria. For these, life is a zero-sum game: there cannot be winners unless there are at least as many losers. Even our chief executive casts as his ultimate disparagement upon terrorists and opponents that they are losers. 
  • with the Creation. The earth, say the profiteers, is here to be exploited. We cannot live as a part of nature; we are in an unrelenting war with it. The commandment in Genesis to till the earth and keep it means to impose our will upon it. Ask the energy companies if there is great profit in maintaining a war with Creation. 
  • with one’s self. We are too fat, too thin, too old, too young, too slow, too stupid, too ugly, too poor, too sick, too damned. Have no fear: there is a book, a diet, a gym, a school, a surgeon, a guru, a magic prayer or diet supplement or article of clothing or vacation place or car or beer that will solve all your problems. We are like sheep without a shepherd, harassed and helpless. 
  • with God. Much so-called Christian theology depicts a God who hates humanity, and must be appeased only through the sacrifice of God’s Son, except that even that sacrifice doesn’t appease God unless we hate ourselves as well. If we laugh too much, play too much, love too much, forgive too much, this angry old man (it’s always a man, please note) in the sky will sentence us to eternal fire and torment. There is great profit in keeping people anxious, angry, and terrified all the time. It works in churches and it works in politics and in jobs and in families. Nothing quite focuses one’s attention as the prospect of imminent death, someone once said. There is great profit in maintaining the war.
Hiroo Onoda was a 22 year old lieutenant in the Japanese Army when he was sent as an intelligence officer in 1944 to Lubang Island in the Philippines. Two months after his arrival, United States forces landed on and captured the island. Onoda and three other soldiers fled to the hills of the island when the rest of the Japanese command was killed or captured. For 29 years Onoda and his companions hid in the hills of Lubang, subsisting on food stolen from local farmers, occasionally fighting local police in guerilla skirmishes. Planes dropped leaflets announcing the surrender of Japan and the end of the war, but Onoda and his companions did not believe them.

In 1974, his three companions having died, Onoda was finally coaxed out of hiding. Despite years of attempts to get him to surrender, nothing worked until Onoda’s wartime commander came to the island, called out to him, and freed him from his obligation to resist peace. Finally, Lieutenant Onoda’s war was over.

Between the bookends of hospitality – which Centenary does brilliantly – and evangelism, which it seems to me we do considerably less well, lies the gospel proclaiming that the warfare between God and the world is over. The kingdom is right here, because God has come live with us in all our gloriously broken humanity.

Who are the Hiroo Onodas in your life? Who are the people, the situations, the places you need to release from their wars? Where have you been a commander in that war, aiding and abetting conflict? Who, in the words of Mother Theresa, are the strangers around us who may be Jesus in distressing disquise, who need not just to be fed on Fridays, but to whom we also need to proclaim peace and a place in our community? Who are the people moving in all around us who need to know there is war-ending grace flowing like a great waterfall right here, all for free? Or, perhaps, it’s you.

The book of the gospel of peace stands between two bookends – one of hospitality, and the other of mission.

We do one well here. Let’s work on the other.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Frozen: An Easter Story

Easter Sunday A, 2014

Acts 10:34-43

Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

It has already made more money than any animated film in history, and at the moment is the eighth-highest grossing film of any kind in the entire history of cinema. Everywhere you go, literally or virtually, you will hear people of all ages –- especially young women -- singing its Academy-Award winning sing, Let It Go. It is a phenomenon, and it is called Frozen. It’s got a great story, great music, and great animation. It also happened to be released at the beginning of one of the worst winters in our memory, when we all felt like the citizens of Arendelle, caught in an icy curse with no sign of a thaw.

It’s not an ostensibly Christian film – the writers and the producer claim no theological bona fides. I want to suggest, nonetheless, that the overwhelming audience reaction to this movie – and if you haven’t seen it yet, please do as soon as possible – is because it speaks at the deepest levels to the human condition. It represents -- whether consciously or unconsciously makes no difference – a profoundly Christian understanding of life, of evil, of hope, and of redemption. Frozen is thoroughly an Easter story.

Let me borrow freely from Wikipedia’s synopsis of the plot:

Elsa, princess of Arendelle, possesses the magical ability to create ice and snow. One night while playing, she accidentally injures her younger sister, Anna. The king and queen seek help from the troll king, who heals Anna and removes her memories of Elsa's magic. The royal couple isolates the children in their castle until Elsa learns to control her powers. Afraid of hurting Anna again, Elsa spends most of her time alone in her room, causing a rift between the girls as they grow up. When the girls are teenagers, their parents die at sea during a storm.

When Elsa comes of age, the kingdom prepares for her coronation. Excited to be allowed out of the castle again, Anna explores the town and meets Prince Hans of the Southern Isles, and the two immediately develop a mutual attraction. Hans proposes marriage and Anna quickly accepts. They return to Elsa’s coronation, which despite Elsa’s fear, goes off without incident. When Hands and Anna reveal their love to the new queen, Elsa refuses to grant her blessing and forbids their sudden marriage. The sisters argue, culminating in the exposure of Elsa's abilities during an emotional outburst.

Panicking, Elsa flees the castle, while inadvertently unleashing an eternal winter on the kingdom. High in the nearby mountains, she casts off restraint as she sings the signature song Let It Go, building herself a solitary ice palace, and unknowingly brings to life her and Anna's childhood snowman, Olaf. Meanwhile, Anna sets out in search of her sister, determined to return her to Arendelle, end the winter, and mend their relationship. While obtaining supplies, she meets mountain man Kristoff and his reindeer Sven. She convinces Kristoff to guide her up the North Mountain. The group then encounters Olaf, who leads them to Elsa's hideaway.

Anna and Elsa reunite, but Elsa still fears hurting her sister. When Anna persists in persuading her sister to return, Elsa becomes agitated and accidentally strikes Anna in the heart with her powers. Horrified, Elsa creates a giant snow creature to drive Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf away. As they flee, Kristoff notices Anna's hair is turning white, and deduces something is very wrong. He seeks help from the trolls, his adoptive family, who explain that Anna's heart has been frozen. Unless it is thawed by an "act of true love", she will become frozen solid forever. Believing that only a kiss of true love from Hans can save Anna, Kristoff races back with her to Arendelle.

Meanwhile, Hans, leading a search for Anna, reaches Elsa's palace. In the ensuing battle against the Duke's men, Elsa is knocked unconscious and imprisoned back at the kingdom. There, Hans pleads with her to undo the winter, but Elsa confesses she doesn't know how. When Anna reunites with Hans and begs him to kiss her to break the curse, Hans refuses and reveals that his true intention in marrying her was to seize control of Arendelle's throne. Leaving Anna to die, he charges Elsa with treason for her younger sister's apparent death.

Elsa escapes and heads out into the blizzard on the fjord. Olaf finds Anna and reveals Kristoff is in love with her; they then escape onto the fjord to find him. Hans confronts Elsa and tells her Anna is dead because of her. In Elsa's despair, the storm suddenly ceases, giving Kristoff and Anna the chance to find each other. However Anna, seeing that Hans is about to kill Elsa, decides to throw herself between the two just as she freezes solid, blocking Hans' attack.

As Elsa grieves for her sister, Anna begins to thaw, since her decision to sacrifice herself to save her sister constitutes an "act of true love". Realizing love is the key to controlling her powers, Elsa is able to thaw the kingdom and even helps Olaf survive in summer. Hans is sent back to the Southern Isles to face punishment for his crimes against the royal family of Arendelle. Anna and Kristoff share a kiss, and the two sisters reconcile; Elsa promises never to shut the castle gates again.[1]

This, brothers and sisters, is the Bible story, from Genesis to Revelation, with its stunning climax on Good Friday and Easter Sunday:

We were created to live as sisters and brothers in a beautiful kingdom, and each of us were given wonderful powers to love and to create. But with great power comes great responsibility to use them well. And in the absence of a loving Father to guide us, sometimes we grow so afraid of our powers that we shut ourselves off from everyone who simply wants to share joy with us.

Especially in adolescence – which sometimes can last a lifetime – we can use our power to hurt the people that we love the most. Resentful of people trying to constrain us, we run away and throw off any control others have over us. Frozen’s anthem, Let It Go, is a fascinating song. It’s being sung, especially by young women, as a hymn to cast off the stereotypes and restrictions our culture places on women:

Don't let them in, don't let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don't feel, don't let them know
Well now they know

Let it go, let it go
Can't hold it back anymore

That’s a good thing. But listen to the words as she builds an icy palace for herself where no one can touch her:

Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door
I don't care what they're going to say
Let the storm rage on.
The cold never bothered me anyway

It's funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can't get to me at all

It's time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me,
I'm free!

Let it go, let it go
I am one with the wind and sky
Let it go, let it go
You'll never see me cry
Here I stand
And here I'll stay
Let the storm rage on

That’s the heartbreak of sin: we refuse to live as children of a loving Father, and build our own frozen prisons where no one can hurt us ever again. But our rebellion doesn’t just freeze us: it freezes everyone and everything around us, spreading out its icy death through the whole world. And we even wound the people we love the most, the people who are trying to love us in spite of our cold hearts.

What can save us? Kristoff -- the Scandinavian form of Christopher -- Christ bearer -- takes Anna to the trolls – the outsiders who seem ugly and misshapen, and who are disguised as rocks. Rocks: on this rock I will build my church . . . The only thing that can thaw a frozen heart, say the outsiders, is an act of true love. And what jumps to everyone’s mind when we think of true love? Romantic love. Love’s true kiss.

But, it turns out, that’s not it at all. In fact, Anna’s supposed true love, Hans, turns out to be truly evil, because he uses love as a means to power – to seize the kingdom. At the end, dying, Anna has to choose between what she thinks will save her life – a kiss from Kristoff, who truly loves her – and saving her sister Elsa, who is the very one who is responsible for Anna’s fatal illness. So Anna, with her dying breath, places herself between Elsa and Han’s sword, touching Elsa with one hand so she will turn into ice, and blocking and shattering Hans’ sword with the other. Anna assumes the shape of the cross: it’s Good Friday.

There is silence. Then, as a weeping Elsa embraces her frozen sister, Anna begins to thaw and come back to life. The act of true love wasn’t a romantic kiss – it was an act of self-sacrificial love, a sister putting herself between the weapon of evil and her undeserving sister’s life. And that act of self-sacrifice thaws Elsa, brings Anna back to life, and then spreads out to bring spring to a frozen world. It’s Easter. Queen Elsa learns that the key to using her power wisely is to use it with love, not with fear. The movie ends with the promise that the gates of the city will never be shut again. And that, brothers and sisters, is how the Bible ends in the Book of Revelation.

I am convinced that Frozen is wildly popular because it speaks to the deepest experience and longings of the human heart: we want to play with each other in God’s beautiful kingdom, but out of fear, we misuse our God-given powers to protect ourselves from hurt. In the process we build ourselves icy prisons and wound the people closest to us. The only cure is an undeserved act of true, sacrificial love. Jesus has done that for us all. In Paradise Lost the center of hell isn’t fire – it’s frozen. Jesus entered the frozen hell of death, standing between the sword of hate and us. That, and that alone, is the love that can thaw our frozen hearts and lives.

It’s been a long, hard winter that we thought might never end. All of us have frozen places in our lives – ice palaces into which we’ve crawled to protect us from being hurt. We’ve been wounded by the curses of people we wanted to love, and we’ve shot icy bolts into the hearts of others who were trying to love us. Listen to the Good News this Easter Sunday: only an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart. Jesus died for you, and God has thawed him out this Easter Day. Wrap your arms around him, and let spring come flooding into your frozen heart.


Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve, 2016

I was wondering last night: if Jesus is truly God-with-us, if Emmanuel is fully real . . .

did he know what it felt like to kneel by a privy or a ditch and hurl his guts out? Did he know what it was to lie in bed and shiver from a fever; to bend over from stomach cramps; to splinter or cut his hand in his father's workshop; to twist an ankle, wrench a knee, bang his head; to blow his nose for days from a cold?

If Wesley's last words are right -- "the best of all is, God is with us" -- then Emmanuel finds its truth not just in a manger or on a cross, but in all the bloody, messy, puke-filled vagaries of our lives. Christmas is but the beginning and Good Friday the conclusion of a life utterly like ours in every respect. Every.

And Easter, in Keith Miller's words, is like God's signature scrawled across the end of Jesus' life, saying, "This is mine."

Several Apocryphal/Gnostic gospels attempt to fill in the missing thirty years of Jesus' life with stories of how he made clay animals come to life when he was lonely, how he healed sick friends as a child, and how he struck dead a town bully and then revived him. The Gnostics discounted humanity -- Jesus is Superboy, only worse. That's why the Church, in its wisdom, decided they were apocryphal: they did not represent the fully human Jesus it worshipped. Dan Brown to the contrary, those "gospels" were rejected not because their Jesus was too human, but not enough.

We're having a very incarnate Christmas here at Yellow Tavern, sharing a stomach virus in the way all close and loving families do. We are kneeling, but not at a manger. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh have been replaced by ginger ale, imodium, and Febreeze. We're not following a star: we're looking for some sleep.

And that, it seems to me, is the real meaning of Christmas. Fear not.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Day After Trump

     I was a junior in high school, studying one spring evening at the desk I still use, the radio playing softly in the background. The music was interrupted by a news bulletin -- the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis. I listened, then ran to tell my parents. Two months later my mother woke me for school by telling me that Robert Kennedy had been assassinated that evening in California. Between those two slayings by lone assassins, I felt something had changed in America, and in me. We had lost our innocence. Something had broken in me and in the world, and as I watched from the roof of my house as Baltimore burned after King's death, and then watched the riots in Chicago that summer during the Democratic Convention, I knew something inexplicable would never be the same.

     This morning, as I try to imagine my country led by Donald Trump, I feel as though something, again, has changed in me and in America. Instead of murder perpetrated by two individuals, now a majority of voters have done violence not just to where I thought we were heading as a nation, but to the very notions of honor, decency, justice, hospitality, and kindness that I always believed were foundations of our society. We -- and I do mean we -- have chosen a very dark path. 

     Many, no doubt, will view this as another swing of the Hegelian pendulum that will eventually swing back. Maybe so. It feels qualitatively different to me -- that something has fundamentally changed in this country. I've been trying to find a better metaphor than "putting the fox in charge of the henhouse." It's more like making the atheists our priests, or taking the car to the scrapyard for repairs, or -- closer -- hiring a demolition contractor to paint the house. Trump and the Republican Party essentially believe that government has two purposes: local and national security, and the protection of business. The other items in the Preamble to the Constitution -- to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity -- can be covered by those other two priorities. 

     For eighty years Republicans have opposed public welfare, public health care, extension of civil rights, and integrated public schools. They finally learned they couldn't openly kill any of those things because they're too popular. But they learned -- from some very dark historical examples -- that if you slowly increase the demands on an individual or system while slowly decreasing its nourishment, it will eventually collapse. That has been happening for a long time with schools, health care, Social Security, and the like. Now there's the opportunity for our newly elected government to kill those things outright.

     What's different today is that the nation has given them license for that project. In the name of "fixing what's broken," there's the very real probability that what gets undone or demolished in the next two to four years -- or more -- can never be repaired. This is more than Van Jones' excellent term "whitelash" -- it is a repudiation of the outcome of the Civil War. In many ways, I feel, the Union is being dissolved.

     Last week I said to a woman at the church I attend that if Trump were elected, those of us in the progressive wing of Christianity would learn how Christians live in the rest of the world. We would no longer be able to count on the culture or the government to do our work of Kingdom-building for us. That white evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Trump signals to me that there are now, officially, two Christianities in America: one like the state church in so many countries, allied with the existing powers; and another, counter-cultural church that makes prophetic and sacrificial witness to the God who is above and beyond all earthy powers. 

     We dare not pretend now that, with time, it will all get better. The tectonic plates have shifted.

     In 1845, James Lowell put ink to paper to protest the U.S. imperialistic war with --- Mexico. The poem, still sung in Christian churches, rings still:

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Try Easier

 In the spring of 1985 I decided to buy my first personal computer.  The choices were the CP/M machines – represented by Radio Shack and Kaypro; the Microsoft machines – represented by IBM; and two machines from Apple – the then-not ready for prime time Macintosh, and the Apple II series.  The Apple IIc was compact, user-friendly, and came with the glorious integrated word processor/database/spreadsheet program, Appleworks.  I’ve been an Apple guy ever since, in no small part because – to me at least – they’re so much easier to understand and use.  A computer technician at one of my churches admitted to me that had Apple become the dominant platform instead of Microsoft, he probably wouldn’t have had a job – he was constantly rescuing crashed Microsoft computer programs and machines.
During my four decades as a clergyman, I sometimes joked with parishioners that my job was to take a very simple idea – that God loves us – and make it so complex that I and thousands of my colleagues would be assured of careers.  Sunday after Sunday I stood in the pulpit and explained the complications and intricacies of trying to follow Jesus.  And, in all modesty, I was pretty good at it.
During that career, I read dozens of books and attended dozens of workshops and classes led by church consultants, each of whom had their own spin on helping congregations – and whole denominations – discover their vision/calling/purpose/identity/goals.  I even led a few of those workshops.  But, because I never wrote a book or got a Doctor of Ministry degree, my stages were fairly small.  And deservedly so.
Now, having spent two years sitting in the pews of churches listening to some very fine pastors help their congregations as they try to define their vision/calling/purpose/identity/goals, it seems to me that maybe I was more right than I knew about making things more complicated than they really are.  Why, after all, would God make God’s message to the world complicated?  Wouldn’t God make it simple enough for the children and the less educated and the less brilliant and the less nuanced to understand?  One of the first heresies the early Christian Church had to battle was Gnosticism – the belief that salvation came only to those who had received some elite and secret knowledge (gnosis) unavailable to common folk.  There are many ways the Church has been battling aspects of Gnosticism ever since, but perhaps church leaders have been double agents, needlessly complicating what was supposed to be Good News.  Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said that unless we became like children, we could not enter the Kingdom.
Or, in the words of the late, great Baltimore Orioles pitcher Mike Flanagan, sometimes you need to try easier.

My United Methodist denomination, a number of years ago, adopted a new mission statement that stands at the beginning of our church law book.  It says that the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ A few years later they added a coda:   . . . for the transformation of the world Ever since, we’ve been wrestling with what it means to make a disciple.  How do we do that?  What does a disciple of Jesus Christ look like – especially, can they be gay?  Into what are we transforming the world?  Do we transform the world, or does God transform the world?  The mission statement clarified . . . nothing.
Maybe we need to try easier.
A man once asked Jesus which of the six hundred and thirteen commandments in the Hebrew Bible was the most important.  No, there are not just the Big Ten – there are hundreds more dealing with family life and ritual conduct and sex and animals and diet and personal cleanliness and women’s menstruation and wearing blended fabrics and on and on.  This whole God thing is really complicated, Jesus.  Can’t you just boil it down to one phrase?
Ask a run of the mill preacher that and s/he will roll his/her eyes, issue a long sigh, and then explain that it’s much more difficult than that.
Jesus – no run of the mill preacher – boils it down.  The most important thing, Jesus said, was to love the Lord with all your heart and mind and strength.  But – this is where his seminary training peeks out from under the terrycloth robe – there is one more thing:  love your neighbor as you love yourself.  That, he concludes, sums it all up.
Later on, he clarifies that second bullet point a little.  He’s noticed that some of his parishioners don’t love themselves very well, and if they’re going to love others as they love themselves, then the rest of the world is going to be in a heap of trouble.  So, he says, I’m giving you a new commandment:  love others as I have loved you That is, love others to death.  Not theirs – yours.
Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is Biblical – it comes from what’s called The Great Commission.  But it seems to me that being a disciple of Jesus Christ means loving God with everything we’ve got and loving others the way Jesus loved.  If we did those things, the world would be transformed.
Love God, and love others like Jesus loved.
Try easier.

Now, about church vision/calling/purpose/identity/goals:  love God, and love others as Jesus loved.  It’s not that complicated an idea.  But each congregation, like each person, is a little different, and lives out that loving a little differently.  Identity, whether corporate or personal, involves two questions:

1.  Where are we?  The Kentucky poet/novelist/essayist Wendell Berry says we can’t know who we are until we know where we are We are magnificent products of families and regions and cultures and languages and experiences and races and genders and epochs.  Berry insists it’s impossible to “think globally and act locally” – the best any of us can do is to really, really get to know where we are, and act appropriately in that place.  That’s why if you’re in Great Britain you need to drive on the left side of the road, and why you don’t try to grow rice in Montana.  A church, like mine, in the inner city, is in a different place than a church on the open prairie.  And a church with fifty worshippers on a Sunday morning is in a different place than a church with thousands.
         The preacher and teacher Bill Pannell said he believed that when Jesus said to love our neighbor as ourselves, the first place we should look was to our right and to our left.  I was once on the staff of a church that sat across the street from a major university.  The congregation was trying to define its mission, and decided they were being called to work with homeless people.  There were two problems with that calling:  first, the homeless lived on the other side of the town.  Second, there were eighteen thousand “homeless” students across the street from the church.  There were downtown churches working with their literally homeless neighbors, but no one was embracing the students.  First look to your right and to your left.
The church my wife and I have elected in retirement to join is one of the few Anglo churches that stayed downtown when the complexion of the city changed years ago.  It is committed to ministry in its inner city neighborhood, and feeds one hundred fifty to one hundred eighty homeless people every Friday – a ministry with which I help.  Yet, as the congregation ages and shrinks, it is naturally concerned about its future.  Like many of its members, I drive in from the suburbs because of the music, the liturgy, the preaching, and the mission of that church.  But all around the church is residential redevelopment – a former bookstore and office building next door has become a restaurant and apartments; a skyscraper bank has been turned into condominiums; the street on which the church faces has become “restaurant row.”  We have fascinating neighbors all around us:  that is who we are.  What would it mean for us to first love to our left and to our right?

2.  Who are we?  The late church consultant (I know, I know) Kennon Callahan asked what might happen if we stopped believing that congregations were random assemblies of self-selected individuals. What if, he posited, every congregation is in fact a unique gathering of gifts and graces that God has brought together for a specific purpose?  I once served an aging rural congregation that was enormously jealous of the other, younger, larger church on the same charge.  They were convinced they couldn’t do anything significant because they didn’t have any “young people” (which in that church meant under fifty).  They had tried to reach out to young families, but the young families went, naturally, to churches where there were other young families.  “Then why don’t you become the best Senior Citizen’s church anywhere around?” I asked.  Free from trying to be something they weren’t, they could make use of the gifts they had.  In fact, some of the older members of the second congregation moved to the first, just as some of the younger families had moved in the opposite direction.
At another of my churches, a woman approached me one day and asked if we could start a prayer shawl ministry.  She liked to knit, she said, and she thought it would be nice if there were other people who liked to knit and would be interested in making shawls for the sick.  I managed to avoid rolling my eyes, counted to ten, and blew her off by saying, “I’ll tell you what.  Next Sunday why don’t you make an announcement at the beginning of worship, and invite anybody interested to meet with you during our Wednesday program night activities.”  She made the announcement, and that, I thought, would be the end of that.
The next Wednesday night twenty women gathered in a classroom and began knitting.  And the prayer shawl ministry became a huge ministry in the life of that congregation.  Quarterly, we had to bless the prayer shawls during worship.  People were buried wrapped in their prayer shawls.  Shawls went to Iraq and Afghanistan, and soldiers sent us pictures wearing them.  And the shawls opened my eyes to how to discover God’s call in a congregation:  don’t sit in a committee meeting and debate the millions of shoulds Look around the congregation for small groups of people who have passion about a need in the community and in the world.  Those people are not there by accident – they have been called by God to be together to do ministry.  Where two or three are gathered in my name . . . The writer to the Ephesians said that the task of church leadership was to equip the saints for the work of ministry People are in church because, to one degree or another, they care about the work of God.  They are there because they have passions and gifts for ministry.  The function of church leadership is to do what Bishop Joe Pennel used to say when the Virginia Conference was stuck in a parliamentary rut:  Let me try to help you do what you want to do.  You want to feed the hungry -- how can we help you do that?  You want to teach children – how can we help you?  You want to make music . . . you want to rebuild houses . . . you want to end war . . . you want to knit shawls – how can we help you make that happen?  If we’d structure our churches around the passions and gifts of our congregations, we’d have little problem getting people to do the things they already want to do.
And if no one in the congregation wants to do it . . . maybe it shouldn’t be done.  In my last congregation, no one wanted to be the church treasurer.  And, frankly, no one was qualified.  So, we hired a CPA, and it worked beautifully.  Best treasurer I ever had.

Love the Lord your God with all your being.
Love others as Jesus loved you.
Look to your left and to your right.
Follow your gifts – they’re not accidents.

Sometimes, you have to try easier.