Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Reign of Christ, Year A

The Reign of Christ A 08
November 23, 2008

Ezek 34:11-16, 20-24 (NRSV)
11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
20 Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22 I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.

Psalms 100:1-5 (NRSV)
1 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
2 Worship the LORD with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.
3 Know that the LORD is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
5 For the LORD is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.

Eph 1:15-23 (NRSV)
15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Matt 25:31-46 (NRSV)
31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' 45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

Going Overboard

Well, church, you’ve gotten a little carried away.

When I proposed my crazy ideas about God’s kingdom coming to earth in the church, I honestly didn’t think you’d take me seriously. I never imagined that you would put everything else in your lives aside and knock yourselves out carrying out the mission of Christ. You’ve really gotten out of hand.

I kind of thought you might be like lots of Christians that just passively trundle along, calling on God now and then when things got difficult, but otherwise more-or-less ignoring him. I mean, that’s the reasonable kind of religion, after all. But no, you had to get all excited. You had to get all joyful. You had to get all radical on me. I’m having trouble keeping up with you for crying out loud.

If you’re walking into this church this morning for the first time, or for the first few times, I need to warn you. These people are not right. They really think they are the children of God sent to this place to bless it with the love and peace and joy. They really put Christ first in their lives, not just in the way they talk but in the way they behave.

I suppose I have to take the blame. I do get carried away sometimes. They even call me “The Not Quite Right Reverend Mike.” Somebody sent a letter to me addressed to “the Reverend Mike Cook, Somewhere Out in Left Field” and it actually came to me. Even the post office knows I’ve got a screw loose.

I don’t want to embarrass anyone, but the new folks among us really need to know who to look out for.

Take Dennis and Becky Mann, for example. They run our evangelism ministry around here. You’d think they’d just get together a few times a year and talk about being welcoming and leave it at that. Maybe shake a few hands Sunday morning. But no. They actually go to people’s houses and bring them gifts like warm loaves of bread. They spent months organizing this huge Christian Music Festival for Heritage Day and brought hundreds of people to Philippi’s beautiful building.

And speaking of the building, our property people really don’t know when to stop. The ones to watch here are Bob Hatcher and John Schnoering. They lead our property ministry. You’d think they’d just prune a bush now and then and put some duct tape on things that break, but no. No, they have to do everything thoroughly and really well. They put up a new sign this year, they fixed our outdoor lighting so that the nighttime view of Philippi is gorgeous, they kept our flower beds and our trees neat and beautiful, they tirelessly hauled not only our trash but the trash left by other groups that use our building. They shopped around and got us a great van to haul people to church and off to training events. They really think that our building and property is a ministry. Go figure.

Now Becky Ferrell and Fran McLemore lead our fellowship ministry and I have to say they are a little more level-headed. They tell everyone over and over that we don’t have to have sumptuous breakfasts and lunches ever Sunday, but, well, like I said, our people are just not right. They just don’t listen to stuff like that. They really think that God deserves our very best efforts. But Becky and Fran do get carried away whenever someone is grieving. A lot of funeral receptions are not much more than coffee and a few desserts, but not at Philippi. Becky and Fran apparently think it’s God’s will that we provide real comfort to the afflicted, just as Jesus tells us to. And don’t even get me started about the special events they have on weekdays here. I’ve tried to stop them, but I just can’t. They’re always far better than anyone expects.

Most worship ministries are happy putting out some flowers and cleaning up the sanctuary vestments now and again, but Fay Leach, Cheryl Teagle and Mindy Miller just can’t be satisfied. They have to buy beautiful new worship furniture, have special training events for worship leaders, study books on worship and recruit lots of new members to participate in worship. They have to have rehearsals so that our special weekday worship services are amazingly inspirational. They even invited a bunch of people to bring their pets for a blessing service on St. Francis Day. I ask you, when will this lunacy end? We were all fine without a choir, but that wasn’t good enough for our worship team. Not only did they insist on having a choir, they even put Janet “from another planet” Bareford in charge of it. Now we have this fabulous group of people who have become a warm and loving fellowship group in the congregation who are helping us learn (yes, I know it’s hard to believe) new hymns from our hymnal. It seems our worship people really think worship should be a slice of heaven come to earth.

Now, I’ve been talking about some really crazy people, but I want you to especially be on the lookout for Jerry Dant. I’ll point her out to you. She’s right over there. She and Signe Langschultz have just gone way beyond the pale with our education ministry. Jerry read somewhere that you should teach children in the way that they should go, or something like that, and she started a children’s church that has brought all these kids into our congregation. She and Sig have started this Thoughtful Christian program and involved three times the adult students we had the previous year, even recruiting new teachers from among our visitors and new members. Jerry’s presided over the ecumenical youth group we started with Clarksbury and Zoar and even named it after Deltaville’s historic Christian Youth Unlimited. Four people went to the Children’s Worship and Wonder training. Imagine, training! And we sent two kids to Chi Rho Camp this year. I guess Jerry and Sig think Jesus was serious when he told us to teach everything he commanded. You really need to watch them every minute.

Let me see. Who else is trouble around here? Oh yes. You want to be on the lookout for Harry Leach and Marietta McLawhorn who lead our stewardship ministries. Most churches attend to their finances only begrudgingly. It’s really thankless, hard work, and well, it’s supposed to be, don’t you think? But not for our stewardship team. They get together every week, every week mind you! And they’re careful! They’re efficient! They really think that giving and managing resources in our congregation is a ministry of the gospel. They’re out of control.

And just as an aside, it seems that it’s not just our congregation that has peculiar ideas. The whole denomination is a little whacky if you ask me. This is America, you know. We don’t put much stock in book learning. But the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has committed themselves to founding and sustaining universities, colleges and seminaries. They actually think education is good thing for its own sake, and not just for making a living! They even believe that ministers should be well-prepared to lead congregations with extensive training. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: a lot of the members here are going to give big gifts today to our church’s education ministries. I just don’t know.

I’m sorry to say that even my own wife seems to have caught this fever, along with her vice-chair Macey White. They lead our Outreach ministry here and they both seem to take seriously Christ’s commands to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and give water to the thirsty. Through their constant badgering our congregation has significantly increased its offerings to our larger church’s efforts in helping people rendered homeless by natural disasters, sustaining missionaries helping to develop poverty-stricken third world communities and ministering to societies plagued with disease. Macey has neglected important activities like hunting and bowling to give leadership to at least three major organizations in our own community. Maybe medication would help them.

And Gladys Prince, wow, I almost forgot her. You really need to look out here. She and Fred Dant have led our membership ministry and couldn’t be satisfied doing the usual moping about inactive members. No, they had to make name tags for everybody so we could actually get to know each other. They had to organize our attendance records so we could keep track of folks who were wandering off. They had to go visit people who were sick or homebound, just like Jesus commanded. Try to stop them. Go ahead and try.

Susan Neal, who’s been leading our Disciple Women, stood up a year or two ago and said “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” And she’s been encouraging that sort of thinking ever since. I can’t believe how many women in our congregation have been sucked into that craziness. They actually get together and read the bible and talk about it! Imagine. They routinely do caring ministries for the poor and the homeless and the sick, both in our local community and around the world. She and Sig, another big trouble-maker around here, went running off to one of the women’s assemblies to learn and grow in the Christian life and to bring back new ideas for our women’s ministries. Seriously dangerous.

I’m saving the worst for last. Bob Mannell is someone you really want to avoid, particularly if you don’t like to grow or think or move in new directions. He’s been leading our Disciple Men for three years and the group has steadily grown under his direction. A lot of Men’s groups just get together and pig out, but Bob seemed to have the idea that the group should actually serve the church, raising money to buy hymnals and things like that. For some strange reason, this congregation has nominated him for elder next year. Oh boy.

Meghan George has led our Disciple Youth this year, which has now been absorbed into the new Christian Youth Unlimited program. Meghan just won’t take no for an answer. She’s going to serve the Lord Jesus Christ no matter how many times you tell her she can’t. The word “can’t” isn’t in her vocabulary.

Finally, perhaps the weirdest person we have is Elder Emeritus Elaine Miller. She refuses to do anything but love, forgive, bless and care for everyone she comes into contact with. She is way out there ahead of everybody in taking this Jesus thing seriously.

It seems to me, church, that you have simply jumped right off the cliff. You have taken to heart the reign of Christ not only in each and every one of your own lives but also in your ministry in our church. You have rejected common sense and forgiven your enemies, loved your neighbor, given generously to the mission of the church, visited the sick, fed the hungry, clothed the naked and witnessed to the lordship of Christ with a faithfulness that just defies reason. I don’t know what to do with you.
And what I said about our denomination is true. They have actually given us not one, but two awards, for being in the top ten percent of growing Disciples congregations in the United States and Canada. Imagine that.

All of you who are considering joining today, consider yourself warned. Christ reigns at Philippi.

And with St. Paul, I give thanks every day, for every one of you.

1 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
2 Worship the LORD with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.
3 Know that the LORD is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
5 For the LORD is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Twenty-seventh Sunday After Pentecost Year A

27 Pentecost A 08

November 16, 2008

1 Thess 5:1-11 (NRSV)

1 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 When they say, "There is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4 But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6 So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7 for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

While We’re Waiting

There was once a seminary professor, back in the days when only men could go to seminary, who preached to his all-male student body on the parable from Matthew about the wise and foolish virgins. You know the one. In those days, weddings were held at the bride’s home. But there was a sort of playful ritual involved: the groom decided the time. He would come when he wanted to, and he would try to get there without anyone noticing. The guests, particularly the bridesmaids, were to wait in their own homes and were forbidden to go to the bride’s home until they knew the groom was coming. So they’d set watches to catch the groom as he was entering the neighborhood. In the parable, you’ll remember, the groom decides to come at night. Well, the wise virgins had laid on extra oil for their lamps for just that eventuality, while the foolish virgins had not. The foolish virgins had to run to buy more oil and were therefore late to the wedding and were barred from coming in. They were left in the dark, gnashing their teeth and so on.

The old seminary professor ended his sermon with a stern question: “Now, tell me, gentlemen, would you rather be in the house with the wise bridesmaids, or out in the dark with the foolish virgins?”

The coming of the kingdom of God was apparently the most central and important teaching of the early church.

Paul speaks of God’s kingdom coming “like a thief in the night, a metaphor also used by Jesus in Matthew 24 and Luke 12, by Peter in 1 Peter 4 and 2 Peter 10, and by John in Revelation 3. If there’s anything a biblical Christian must acknowledge as true with a capital “T”, it’s that we cannot and will not know when the Lord is coming and when the transformation will be complete. Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins is meant to remind us that we can never be too early, but we can surely be too late.

I’m reading a fascinating book by Jared M. Diamond called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. It’s a very well-researched and technical book and I have honestly found it rather difficult to read. But Mr. Diamond’s point is that groups of people, large and small, have again and again failed to see or react to conditions that threaten them.

One of the most haunting stories in the book is of Easter Island, the desert island among the Polynesians. All that’s left today are great statues apparently built by a once-numerous and well-organized civilization. It appears that kings on the island competed with each other to erect the most impressive statues. In order to do this, and to support the manpower to accomplish it, they needed lots of wood and wood products. This now-desert island, it has been discovered, was once copiously forested, mostly with palm trees. Apparently, in the process of trumpeting their own glory, the kings of Easter Island actually destroyed that forest. The question comes up in Diamond’s book from one of his students: “What was that last man thinking as he cut down the last palm tree?”

Diamond concludes that he probably wasn’t thinking very much. The last palm tree was probably not much more than a sapling in a field the man was clearing to farm. He probably didn’t know he was driving the last nail in the coffin of his people.
Paul would say, he was asleep. He was in the dark, sleepwalking through his own people’s demise. He was living in the night.

Night is the time of rest, recreation, taking it easy, and letting go of all worries. Most social groups organize toward creating conditions to make it possible for at least a portion of the society to enjoy just those things. The life of ease is what most of us work for. Being comfortable, well-fed, emotionally secure, clean, healthy and relaxed is the object of most of the work everyone does. The upper classes in most societies are envied and longed-for because they are free to spend their time pleasantly playing with their expensive toys. There was a time when the American dream was the happiness of shaping one’s own destiny. I think it has now become the pursuit of, and maybe even the entitlement to, material wealth and ease.
There’s a saying in the twelve-step fellowships, “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you always got.” It seems that many societies, no matter how powerful or how tiny, find ways to simply go to sleep. They find ways to tell themselves that somehow things will just change on their own and everything will work out, as long as they keep doing what they always did. So that even when what they are doing results in disaster, they just clean up the devastation and go back to their same old ways.

In the Old Testament, we read that people ate and drank and married and were given in marriage and ate and drank and married and then, boom, the flood. They just kept doing what they always did, despite old Noah there hastily building his big ark in the middle of a desert. Surely Noah was crazy. Everything will just stay the way it’s always been.

The night Paul is talking about is not the darkness of tribulation, but one of the sleepy complacency of God’s people. Complacency is a powerful force. Powerful groups depend on complacency to remain in power. When things suddenly change, they are threatened. And so they make sure that we are fed many opiates, they make sure we sleepwalk through our lives, predictably doing only what benefits them, without thought of any alternative possibility.

But we who know Christ have been equipped with a vision and a hope, a strange idea of a kingdom that has never existed before and has not yet come into being, a kingdom in which no human ruler rules, no hierarchy exists, no one has more than anyone else and no one has less, and God is all in all, the heavenly Jerusalem, streets paved with gold, where there is no night, and no need of sun, for God is the light that shines there, where death is no more, and the children of God rejoice in an endless feast of celebration.

Paul uses military imagery also to describe our missionary purpose, but the breastplate and helmet are not to defend us against reality. Rather they defend us from those forces that mean to harden our hearts with the lie of despair and they are to guard our minds against the lie that God is absent or vengeful.

If we expect God to set things right, and if deep inside we can see how much the world needs to be right, then even though we live in a dark time, we are equipped with a great gift, the light of hope. If we live with such an expectation, then it is impossible for us to be as those who live in the darkness without that light. If this world, with all its danger and despair, is all there is, then our best course is to get through it any way we can. All we can or should really do is to make sure that our own lot is as comfortable and secure as we can make it, and if we cannot escape the problems of the world, then our next best course is to anesthetize ourselves as best we can.

The best thing to do in darkness is to sleep, wrapped in blankets and hidden in a locked fortress, and if we must be awake, the best thing is to fill ourselves with whatever will desensitize us to our situation, food or drugs or alcohol or mountains of material goodies.

Paul is urging us to resist the powerful forces that seek to desensitize, dehumanize and anesthetize us. Our hearts and minds are their targets. They seek to harden our hearts to the suffering of others, they seek to confuse our minds with fear and selfish concerns. They want us to stop caring. They want us to stop thinking. They want us to forget the promises of God and to despair of his coming.

We have a mission to accomplish as we wait for the coming of the kingdom. This is the reason for the time of waiting. The powers of the world want very badly to put us to sleep. To stay awake therefore and keep working is a great challenge.

For the work we have to do as God’s church is a destabilizing work, an agitating work. In the parable of the talents, Jesus tells the story of three servants given substantial sums to invest by their master while he is gone. Exactly how much they develop their gifts is apparently of no concern to the master, only that they use them to accomplish growth. But the third servant buries his talents in the ground and doesn’t use them at all, and even though he gives back all the talents he was given, he is nevertheless cast out as worthless.

Our work as the people of God in this place is to call forth the children of God hidden among our neighbors and our community, to awaken them and train them for the coming of the kingdom. We must not become complacent and think that this is not going to happen, just because it hasn’t happened yet. We must not set the treasure God has given each one of us and set it on a shelf, saying , “there’s plenty of time for that later.”

We must not reduce a gospel of revolutionary transformation of the world to a gospel of community niceness and congeniality. We must not reduce a global and communal spirituality to a private and personal piety. God wants to change the world and he has called us to prepare the way.

He is coming, and he is coming soon.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Twenty-sixth Sunday After Pentecost Year A

26 Pentecost A 08

November 9, 2008

1 Thess 4:13-18 (NRSV)
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

The Power of Hope

Willis Wilson used to say that when he was younger and he thought about Jesus coming again, he’d imagine Jesus coming up in the clouds over Stingray Point and setting down somewhere a little west of Zoar. As he got older, in his imagination, Jesus would fly over the state of Virginia. Late in his life, he finally began to see Jesus in China and Africa and Iceland.

This is a lovely picture of the kind of growth disciples of Jesus experience as they practice the faith of the church. Our hearts grow bigger, our vision expands, we hear things we once could not hear, and see as we once could not.

The Thessalonians were becoming worried. The years were passing, and the arrangements they had made in their lives to ready themselves for the Lord’s coming had been dramatic. They had completely changed their way of relating to the rest of the world. Many had sold most of their possessions. Many had decided not to marry or start families. Many had lost business because of the unpopularity of the Christian way. Many had been rejected by their own families and religious communities. Some had been arrested and tortured. Some had been put to death. All of these things they had done gladly, because they had believed Paul’s proclamation about Jesus, who was called the Christ, who had risen from the dead and would soon return to lead them again. They had worshipped and ministered with a sense of great urgency, because they thought the time was short.

Now it had been thirty years. Some of their original members had already died. When Timothy had come among them to see how things were going and to take back a report to Paul, who was in jail in another city, they shared their disturbance with him.
“When is the Lord coming? What will happen to those who have died? Will they be left out of the fulfillment? And if they will be, what of us who still wait? What if we die before he comes? Has this all been for nothing?”

Of course, this question had come up again and again in the history of God’s people, whenever persecution or disaster befell the Jewish people, they would cry out to God “How long?”

It may seem strange to us that a congregation that had been meeting for thirty years would be unaware of the possibility of resurrection. Many scholars have scratched their heads about this. It actually seems that early churches operated under the assumption that Jesus would return in their lifetimes and that they would then be transformed into eternal beings, perhaps without having to die. The idea, now common among us, that one might be raised from the dead as Christ himself had been raised, was apparently almost unknown among them.

Now it seems we have the opposite problem. We have become so accustomed to thinking that the resurrection will occur after our deaths that many of us do not seriously think that Jesus might return in our lifetimes.

Paul uses a language we call “apocalyptic.” This is most common in the book of Revelations and also appears in the thirteenth chapter of Mark. Also sometimes in Acts, apostles and elders speak of seeing the Lord coming on the clouds of glory. This is cosmic imagery, a way of talking about something spiritual in human terms. It seems that the language deliberately leaves open many possibilities.

Some want to interpret this language literally. They imagine that when Jesus comes there will really be clouds in the sky and he will really be physically visible among them, that graves will literally open and newly formed resurrection bodies will rise out of them for all to see, and that everyone will literally fly into the air. There’s the famous bumper sticker many of us have seen, “When the rapture comes, this car will be without a driver.”

Others think this imagery is just that: imagery describing the indescribable. Perhaps this image is to describe a long process unfolding spiritually underneath the visible reality in which we all live. Perhaps the coming of Jesus in glory is a way of talking about the undeniable integrity of his church, the people of God doing such wonderful and amazing things that witnesses will easily confess, “God is with them,” much the way the centurion rather inexplicable confesses, “Truly this man was the son of God” or that Peter, by the Holy Spirit alone, confesses, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God,” or that Stephen as he dies under the hail of stones crying out “I see the Lord coming on the clouds of glory.”

In whatever way we describe it and however we understand it, the coming of the Lord in glory is a real hope of the church. It is a real vision toward which we are called to orient ourselves, like Noah as he prepares for the flood. It is a future we look to which lives now with us as we expect it. If we expect the Lord to come, if we expect to be in his presence, if we expect to enter into a new kind of life with him, then what we do now must by necessity change from what we would do if we did not expect him, as Paul says, “as those who have no hope.”

Let’s dream together, shall we? Let’s hope together in all things.

I was just reading a book called Simply Christian by N.T. Wright, and he begins his book by reflecting on the natural sense of justice all human beings seem to possess, the internal vision we have of things going right, the evil are punished, the good are rewarded, that good things happen to good people and bad things only to bad. He suggests that this internal sense might actually be the still, small voice of God. And he asks the question, if millions of people over many centuries have dreamed of and worked for justice, why is it that we have failed to attain it?

The resurrection of Jesus was for early Christians the launching of a new creation. Something profoundly wrong, the execution of the Son of God, had been set wonderfully and miraculously right in the resurrection. His resurrection message to those who had followed him was that he would come back, and when he did, everything, everything would be set right.

And here we are, two thousand years later, still waiting. Millions of people have been born and raised and shaped into disciples, have worshipped and prayed and worked, and then have died. To our knowledge, not a single one has come back in the same way Jesus did.

Or have they? Paul may be telling us that just as he himself continues to speak to us in the form of this very passage of scripture, so those millions may also be speaking. Perhaps they worship with us even now, in some spiritual and invisible way, cheering us on, as Lew said so eloquently at our All Saints service. Perhaps the coming of the Lord in glory is always right now, whenever the community gathers and remembers the hope in which we live, perhaps our singing of hymn is accompanied by the heavenly trumpets and perhaps the lifting up we feel in our hearts is our rising into the air to be with Christ and all his saints, our mothers and fathers and ancestors in faith.

This week, we’ll give thanks to those who fought in the wars of our country. How well they knew all that has been wrong with the world, and they were willing to risk their lives to put it right. Of all people, veterans of war know what it is to dream of a better world.

A few of us were reflecting the other night about the widespread practice of charity among many people who don’t believe in Christ. In looking back through history, we can see that this was not always so. Could it be that the growing community of saints throughout the world has indeed salted the earth with mercy and kindness? Could it be that the victories of justice in recent centuries may in some way be thanks to the presence of the witnessing holy ones of God, the church?

I don’t know. The church has certainly and famously failed at many junctures, but it is also true that hospitals, public schools, big effective charity organizations and many movements that have righted terrible wrongs began among us and among those who came before us.

And all these things, these marvelous good things, these surprising moments when justice is really done, might just be rooted in this simple hope, that Jesus might come again, that all things finally will be all right.


Sunday, November 2, 2008

Twenty-fifth Sunday After Pentecost Year A 2008

1 Thess 2:9-13 (NRSV)
9 You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10 You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. 11 As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12 urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
13 We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God's word, which is also at work in you believers.

Playing Kingdom

One of the things we love most about our newsletter are the missives from the once-fictional Samantha, who reminisces about growing up nearly a century ago in a big family of sisters headed by a loving pastor and his amazing wife. Elaine Miller’s mom is in my book the real hero of her stories, a woman of incredible determination and courage and seemingly bottomless love who, as Paul says in our scripture passage this morning, toiled day and night among her little community of daughters.

Elaine’s family is a magnificent example of what had been the norm for Christian discipleship in Europe and in the newborn United States since the Reformation in the 16th Century. Luther had been the first to describe the Christian household as a little church in which mom and dad, or sometimes grandma and grandpa or the aunts and uncles, were the pastors. Thus churches were comprised in those days by multiple smaller congregations, large family groups led in their Christian development by parents and adult extended family who daily and untiringly trained their children in the study of the bible, the practice of prayer, the discipline of self-examination, reconciliation, generosity to others, and commitment to the community and the world at large.

The church itself was in those days organized around the raising of children and was largely run by the mothers, even though the dads held all the official leadership positions. The churches trusted parents to do the day-to-day training of their children in the basics of Christian life, and pastors simply helped parents to do this.

This model of the Christian family as mini-congregations led by parental pastors somehow fell apart after World War II. It persisted for a while, but by the time the children of the veterans of that war were in college, the family as an institution was in trouble, and the family as a mini-congregation was beginning to fade into history.

In the early church, the emphasis on family was largely impossible. A church suffering persecution does not attract parents to bring their kids and therefore put them in danger.

The church then reached out mainly to adults, and the appeal of the gospel was especially powerful to the poor, including slaves, aliens (people barred from Roman citizenship) and socially disenfranchised groups like women, or Jews who had been ejected from the synagogue. Paul made it easy for such people to be educated and baptized into the church by not requiring, as did many other teachers and priests of the day, that they support him. In order to do this, he had to toil day and night, essentially working two full-time jobs.

At the same time, Paul always maintained that he had the right to demand support, and he always encouraged congregations to support their pastors.

To this day, there are many churches, especially among the poor, in which the pastor is called a “tentmaker,” so-called because Paul’s day job. The pastor in such churches is bi-vocational. Many of us in the church today think that the future of small churches, given the shrinking middle class and the increasing division between rich and poor, may be with pastors who have regular jobs and also serve the church.

But Paul may have a wider intention in this comment. It may be that Paul is speaking also about the question of spiritual practice. Paul had been trained in Judaism, and knew by heart the many laws and ordinances and practices of that religion, rules about purity and prayer and sacrifice and so on. These rules had been in place for very good reasons. They pointed the believer toward a renewed and joyous life under the rule of God. But the way of Jesus went farther and more effectively achieved the goal than had that incredibly complex system of rules and laws. As Jesus said himself, he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. He also said that his yoke was easy and his burden was light.

Paul goes on to mention how pure, blameless and upright he had been among the believers. Paul uses this word “blameless” when he talks elsewhere about his success as a Pharisee, so we may be thinking here about Paul’s moral conduct. We’re not sure. This is one of those one-sided phone conversations. Paul is saying “you know,” and he’s not saying it to us. We don’t know. We weren’t there. But Paul goes on in the next line to talk about being like a father to his children, encouraging, urging and pleading with them to live lives worthy of the God who was calling them into the kingdom. Elsewhere in the letter, Paul speaks about the discipline of mimesis, or imitation, as the proper conduct of a believer. Paul himself is imitating God’s relationship with humankind, the relationship Jesus brought to light by teaching us to pray to our father in heaven. A child imitates his or her parent. Just as God is like a father to us, encouraging, urging and pleading with us to live lives worthy of his kingdom, so those he calls to the ministry of evangelism encourage, urge and plead in the same way and for the same thing.

Paul is talking about his leadership style, his way of being with those he was sent to teach. Paul often uses the metaphor of birth and childrearing to speak about spiritual development. If baptism is new birth, the Christian is then called to a lifetime of growing up. Like a child, the new Christian plays “house,” as it were, imagining creatively what life will be like when he or she grows up into a citizen of the kingdom, and is continually nurtured and encouraged along the way by those who are farther along in the process.

What does this mean now? It means that we live in a culture that is more like St. Paul’s than like Elaine’s childhood, a culture in which the Christian faith is on the fringes and in the spare time category. We can no longer trust families to do the basic Christian training they did in Elaine’s young life. It is possible that we will have to begin with older children or adults more than we have in the past, just as Paul had to do. We may have to start with people who know little or nothing about Jesus Christ or the values of the kingdom of God.

And so as Philippi becomes a larger congregation, some of us will have to become real Christian leaders, and it is leadership that Paul is speaking about to us this morning.

God does not give up on those he calls. Like a father tenderly loving his children, God toils day and night to find some way to communicate his love, no matter how his children run from him, disobey him, turn away from him. He passionately struggles to avoid laying undue burdens on his children, so that nothing will stand in the way of their coming to him.

And so it is with the leaders he calls to carry his message, his ministers, which are all of the members of his church. He entrusts us with the role of mediation, the carrying-out of his caring presence, not just to the lovable and the willing, but especially to the unlovable and unwilling, not just to those who admit the need for help, but especially to those who are desperately trying to run their own lives and want nothing from God at all, not just to the ones we know who are close to home, but even to those far away who are strange and different and even frightening, not just to those who are friendly, but especially to those who are enemies.

The demand on church leadership is far greater, since we cannot depend on families to do the work. This is not to say that what parents teach their children is bad or evil, or that we should turn people against them, but rather that the way of the Messiah Jesus is significantly different than the way of the world. We are therefore called as leaders to do as Elaine’s parents, and especially her mother, did, except we must do it in the context of the congregation and with mostly grown people.

There are three dimensions to this leadership as Paul outlines it today:

First, we must work hard to remove obstacles to faith. Good doctrine is vital to the health of the church, but we must be careful not to reduce that doctrine to complex lists of rules or overcomplicate it into some impossibly deep philosophy. A citizen of the kingdom is radically different from a citizen of the world, but good doctrine helps rather than hinders believers in transforming from one to the other. Leaders must be clear in their own minds exactly what constitutes the difference and be able to communicate it clearly.

Second, leaders must be skilled and authentic imitators of the father in heaven and of his son Jesus Christ. This can be achieved only with disciplined study and practice. It may sound dreary, but if we think of the process as similar to children playing house, we may find that it is in fact a joy. Leaders must spend time imagining creatively what the kingdom of God might look like, how they would act if they were there, and might approach it as a child approaches growing up. The child observes his parents, relates to them frequently and then plays at the skills of being a grown-up. In the context of the church, this equates to observing God in the form of biblical study, relating to God in the form of regular fellowship with others on the path, and playing house by taking action in the form of strategic work in service to God.

Third, leaders must in turn become the embodiment of the father in heaven to those who are new and developing in the Christian faith. This is the goal of Christian discipleship and it is the mission of our congregation. Our church must become a playground for newborn children of God, no matter how old they are.

In the long run, of course, we are all nothing but children. Even those who are leading are still essentially only playing at something that has yet to come to pass. But is this really a bad thing? Or is it not the joy of being Christian?