Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve Year B 2009

Christmas Eve B 08
December 24, 2008

The night in Bethlehem was probably not very comfortable. Neither had been the ride. I’m not sure what it’s like to be nine months pregnant, but I presume riding a pack mule for any distance at all would probably not be a lot of fun.

Nevertheless, Joseph and his thirteen year-old bride, pregnant with a child despite her virginity, had to make the journey. Why? The emperor Caesar Augustus, with his perpetual hunger for more tax money, had sent out a decree that “all the world should be registered.” Everyone had to return to the homeplace, the village or town where their family originated. Can you imagine if everyone whose family came from Deltaville all arrived at the same time? It’s probably a little like that at Christmas, but that doesn’t even approach the kind of numbers that would have descended on Bethlehem for the census.

There was no room at the inn because there was no room anywhere. The innkeeper, a Jew trained in the real meaning of hospitality, did not turn the weary travelers away, but gave them some space in the shelter of his barn. This practice was in wide use in our own country as little as a hundred years ago, when travelers needed a place to stay and there was no room in the house for them.

The inconvenience and difficulty of it all was not the fault of the innkeeper, but of Caesar.

Little Mary gave birth that night. We don’t know what it was like. We can only presume it was like all birth, painful and bloody, but in the end, joyful. She swaddled the baby so that it could sleep and forget for a little that it had left the safety and warmth of its mother and had embarked its journey in the amazing and wonderful world God had made.

Outside the town lay some dirty and no doubt disgruntled shepherds, possibly a little drunk, as shepherds tended to be in those days. They were living in the fields, as the story goes. It could be they had no other place to live. Those taxes again. If you didn’t pay, some Roman citizen would loan you the money. When you couldn’t pay it back, they took your house.

What can I say? Shepherds were the bubbas of Israel. Probably good-hearted souls who lived rough, played hard and weren’t entirely sure if God was pleased with them. They had little if anything of their own, and a lot of what they were able to scrounge together went, well, you know where: to drink and to taxes for that guy in Rome they called the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings and the Savior, Caesar Augustus, the one who set himself up as a Son of God and who had made being a working shepherd in Israel a losing proposition.

These shepherds were shocked by an experience that historically had been granted only to great prophets and priests of Israel. The heavens split wide open, the glory of heaven shown into the world, and a magnificent and inhuman creature descended into their midst. Now, to top off the usual trouble they were all accustomed to, the angel’s presence was tantamount to a death sentence. “Boys, your partying days are over. Say your prayers.”

But the angel wasted no time in putting their fears to rest. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “I bring good news of great joy for all peoples.” For all peoples? Is that what he said? Wasn’t it only Caesar Augustus who talked like that, who ordered that “all the world should be registered”?

The angel tells them that a child has been born to them. To them. The Messiah.
These boys were Jews. They’d been dragged to synagogue by their mothers all their lives, even if it was too much trouble to go now. They knew what the Messiah was. The Messiah was the one who would get the Romans off their backs, bring the simple, just and peaceful life back to Israel, the life God always promised they would have. The shepherds had probably given up hoping for such pipe dreams a long time ago, had done their share of mocking the religious people in their community for keeping the faith when times were so hard.

Probably knowing that even an angel visitation might not be enough to convince these boys, the angel directed them to the stable in Bethlehem and told them what to look for. And off they ran.

We come to Christmas this year with some worries in our minds. Many people are losing their jobs just as Christmas approaches. Many small businesses are closing. Many retired persons are realizing they may have to take jobs to stay afloat. Many people close to retirement are having to put it off for an unknown period of time as they see their retirement savings evaporating.

In the midst of this crisis, some of great corporate behemoths, as the house of cards on which they were built flies apart beneath them, are calling for a bail-out.

I have to say I’m confused. It seems to me you have to have several degrees in economics to really understand exactly what is going on and what it will take to correct it. Such is always the case when the big and powerful are involved.
Still, the message we seem to be getting from these masters of the universe, our modern-day Caesars, is that if they go down, we’re all going down. And it seems increasingly likely that they will, and so will we, bail-out or no.

The good news of Christmas is that it never was God’s plan that the big guys would save us all. God has a different bail-out plan.

His plan is a baby in a manger in a little town on the edge of nowhere, the baby who was God.

The good news of Christmas is that a new possibility has been offered to the world, the possibility of letting go of our trust in the masters of the universe, the Caesars and the Herods of our day, and trusting in the God who, as the scriptures say, pitches his tent among us.

When the wise men came and saw the child, they were overcome with joy. Here is God with us. This is the joy no power can take away, no master of any universe can diminish, the joy of God’s presence.

Let me tell you about the joy of God with us.

Liz and I went to a Thanksgiving dinner at Earl and Bonnie Simpson’s home. After dinner, four generations of the family, and their friends, hung out in the big kitchen listening to someone playing the guitar. After a little while people started dancing. Grandma and grandpa, mom and auntie, all dancing, right down to the two year-old bobbing around with those wide, continually amazed eyes.

That’s the joy of God with us.

We visited a friend who will probably be spending Christmas in the hospital. He’s twenty-six years old and is suffering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a particularly aggressive cancer. He has a wife and a nine-month-old baby. At this point, he is very weak and thin and has no hair at all from the intense chemotherapy. Yet his face lights up when anyone visits him. He shared with us the story of feeding his baby and guiding her little hand as she lifted the spoon to her lips. “After a few times,” he said, “she did it all by herself. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier than I was when she did that.”

That’s the joy of God with us.

This joy of ours will always be ours, forever and ever amen, no matter what the masters of the universe do, the joy of belonging to God, the joy of belonging to each other, the joy of belonging to God’s coming kingdom, the joy of a healthy childbirth in a warm stable in a little town, the joy of sharing a loaf of bread and a cup of wine, the joy of dancing in the kitchen, the joy of teaching your baby to use a spoon.

That’s the joy of God with us.


Monday, December 22, 2008

Fourth Sunday of Advent Year B 2009

4 Advent B 08
Christmas Sunday
December 21, 2008

2 Sam 7:1-11, 16 (NRSV)
1 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent." 3 Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you."
4 But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan: 5 Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. 7 Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?" 8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; 9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house.
16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.

Luke 1:46-55 (NRSV)
46 And Mary said,
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

Romans 16:25-27 (NRSV)
25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith-- 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

Luke 1:26-38 (NRSV)
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." 34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" 35 The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God." 38 Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.

I Get to Help

"Who wants to be Mary?"

Christian Coon, a pastor, tells the story of the time his music director asked a group of seven-, eight- and nine-year-old girls this question… as children from the church gathered for their first Christmas pageant rehearsal. A handful of would-be Marys eagerly raised their hands, each wanting the chance to stand up front with a (probably uncomfortable) young Joseph and hold the baby-doll Jesus.

After a bit of deliberation, the director chose a second-grader named Sophie. Sophie's eyes opened wide behind her glasses, and she whispered in joyful disbelief, "Me?"

The greatest revelation of my own spiritual life was that God almost always comes in the form of ordinary human beings. I remember this was a little bit of a disappointment to me. I had been brought up to believe that God only came in times of great distress and difficulty and that he came doing only miracles, like parting the Red Sea or making it rain frogs. The realm of God, I thought, was only the supernatural or the inexplicable. Everything normal and reasonable was under our jurisdiction and God didn’t concern himself with any of it.

Moreover, I thought that God was invisible, impossible to encounter in any kind of personal, ordinary way. When going to church the few times I went as a kid, I always thought God was out there somewhere and we were down here talking about all those things he used to do years ago but doesn’t do anymore. The only time we’d finally meet him would be when we died.

Of course, all these things are true about God; he does do miraculous things, and he is not visible in the same way other things in creation are visible. He has acted in different ways at different times. And we will encounter him in heaven when we die.

But I never realized that the vast majority of my interactions with God would come about in the ordinary course of relating to other human beings. I never realized that a middle-aged Irishman named Bill, a guy many people regarded as a failure, would be the vessel of God coming to me and telling me exactly what I needed to hear when I was on the verge of destroying my life. I never realized that a gay pastor in the Upper West Side of New York would open my mind and heart to the truth about Jesus Christ. I never realized that my own wife would carry God’s presence and word to me, but she does it all the time.

Well, I wasn’t alone in my misunderstanding. Israel’s King David, out of very good motives, decided to build the greatest palace in the land for God to live in. But God responded to him (note he did it through a person, the prophet Nathan) by saying that God did not need a building to live in. He makes a covenant with David to make of David’s descendants “a house,” that is, a dynasty of rulers over Israel. In other words, God tells David that the house he wants to live in is made of human flesh and bone.

About a thousand years later, the angel Gabriel came to a thirteen or fourteen year-old virgin named Mary, in a backwater town on the fringes of the great Roman empire.

We know that Mary could not have been more than fourteen years old. Fourteen. In a sermon about this story, the great preacher Frederick Buechner wrote that Mary “struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he’d been entrusted with a message to give her and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, and who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. ‘You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,’ he said. And as he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings, he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.”

Yet this was an announcement, not a question. Gabriel was not asking her what she thought, or whether she was willing. He told her, “This is going to happen.”

The answer the angel awaited from this thirteen year-old girl was not about whether she was willing to be the mother of God. She was going to be the mother of God whether she liked it or not. Gabriel was waiting for a different kind of answer, one for which God had been preparing Mary through all the generations of Israel.

We mustn’t forget that Mary was a Jew. She was the product of centuries of God’s special attention to her people. What she had experienced in her short life was what every Jew of her era would have experienced: regular study at the synagogue, daily prayer, frequent worship at the temple, all of which had been developed over many, many centuries. Nevertheless, the angel waited to hear what Mary had to say, and there were several ways it could have gone.

Have you ever been at a performance or a football game or a political rally when the tension has built to a tremendous pitch? When a silence falls, when everyone is absolutely still, waiting for the next crucial moment? When it all comes down to that one character’s decision, that one quarterback’s call, that one answer from the person powerful enough to make the right thing happen? Everyone watching holds their breath, and from the very depths of their spirit, the cry out, “Do it. Do it. Do the thing we need you to do!”

Someone once said that the whole host of heaven must have held its breath, waiting for Mary to answer.

It seems that the angel was waiting to hear if Mary was going to embrace her destiny or resist it. We have no idea what God would have done had Mary said, “Why have you done this to me? I hate you!,” a reaction that would perhaps have been understandable, or “I’ll only go along with this under the following conditions,” and then enumerated a list of things she wanted, or “Well, all right, I’ll go along with it, but I don’t like it one bit,” or “Go ahead and try, but I’m going to fight you every step of the way.”

But Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

In her sermon on this story, Barbara Brown Taylor said that "Like Mary, our choices often boil down to yes or no: yes, I will live this life that is being held out to me or no, I will not; yes, I will explore this unexpected turn of events, or no, I will not. You can say no to your life, but you can rest assured that no angels will trouble you ever again. You can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees. You can agree to smuggle God into the world inside your own body.”

Mary accepted her purpose, to carry God’s word in her womb. By the way, whenever you hear a person express concern about women being pastors, you might remind them that if a woman was good enough to bear the Word of God in her womb, she’s good enough to bear the Word of God in the pulpit.

The angel departed from her, apparently satisfied with the answer. We may imagine the host of heaven sighing in relief.

But the story wasn’t over. This thirteen year-old girl ran, yes, ran, to see her cousin Elizabeth, and as soon as she burst into the room, she also burst into song. Mary didn’t just accept what God was going to do in her, she rejoiced in it. “My soul gives glory to my God; my heart pours out its praise!” she sang.

She sang to her cousin in the words of her ancestor Hannah, words Mary had sung no doubt many times in synagogue and temple, but never realized would one day become her own song, right here and now.

Elizabeth, Elizabeth, she cries, God is going to do all that he has promised, God is going to change the world, God is going to bring down the mighty from their thrones, God is going to lift up the poor and the lowly, God is going to fill the bellies of the hungry and turn the rich and fat away empty. God is finally going to do it, Elizabeth!

And I get to help.

I get to help.

As the 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart, wrote, “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? Then, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.”

You don’t get to choose whether God is going to shower his grace upon the world. You don’t get to choose whether God will save the world or not. You don’t get to choose whether or not God is going to pour millions of gallons of grace over our heads day after day and year after year. You don’t get to choose whether or not God lifts up the poor or casts down the powerful. All these things are going to happen. The kingdom will come.

But the angel does have a question for you, something he needs to know.
Would you like to help?


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Third Sunday of Advent Year B 2008

3 Advent B 08

December 14, 2008

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 (NRSV)
1 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion--
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
8 For I the LORD love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
Psalms 126:1-6 (NRSV)
1 When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
"The LORD has done great things for them."
3 The LORD has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
4 Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
5 May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
6 Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.

1 Thess 5:16-24 (NRSV)
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.

23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

John 1:6-9, 19-28 (NRSV)
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." 21 And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." 22 Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" 23 He said,
"I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
'Make straight the way of the Lord,'"
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" 26 John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

You Are Who Sent You

I anointed my head with oil this morning, and it felt pretty darn good.

I’ve shaved my head bald in solidarity with a cancer sufferer in our community and when I shave it, it sometimes gets dry. My wife who has salon training suggested I use a little olive oil to moisturize my scalp. Hence I have had the experience of having my head anointed with oil.

Anointing the head with oil was a Jewish ritual of blessing or honoring. But it was primarily Israel’s way of crowning a king. The word “Christ” means “anointed one.” In the rituals of ancient Israel, kings were crowned by recognized prophets, who poured oil over the head of the one they claimed God had chosen. Oil was rare and hard to produce and very expensive. It was a sign of excessive, over-the-top recognition.

God sent the prophet, therefore God sent the king.

The gospel of John the Evangelist tells us that John the Baptist was “man sent by God.”

1 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed…

Jesus read this passage from Isaiah in the first sermon he preached.

This is the question of vocation. The root word is from Middle English, vocasioun, which means “a divine calling to a religious life,” although it has come to mean many other things.

We have a Rescue Squad in Deltaville that is exceptionally good. They have a very specific mission, a very specific job to do. Not everyone can do it. There’s significant training involved. The whole organization is set up to recruit, train, equip and organize people to carry out this particular mission.

We hear calls on the scanner and get a little taste of the kind of organization involved. It seems, although I’m not expert, that you need a driver for every mission and an EMT for every mission. The driver has a set of particular duties for which he or she is trained, and the EMT has another set, requiring a different skill set. Together with the appropriate equipment, they become the Rescue Squad when someone is choking or having a heart attack or is injured in some accident.

The community as a whole has called the Rescue Squad into existence, and that community continues to support and direct them. In a sense, when the Rescue Squad arrives to help you, it is the whole community who has sent them. They have a vocation, a call to a particular duty. The reality exists that people will get sick or get injured and that they will need a special crew of people not to do the major medical work of healing or repairing them, but to stabilize them and transport them quickly to the people who can do the medical work.

The people of God, the church, is the Rescue Squad of God. Our job is not to heal or forgive or transform anyone, but to get them to the one who can heal, forgive and transform them. Our job is not to change the world, but to open the door for God to change it.

To shift ground a little bit, I want to propose a hypothetical situation. What if the Rescue Squad gave up training its recruits? What if they gave up recruiting? What if they didn’t fix their equipment when it broke? What if they gave up all their fundraising efforts? What if the Rescue Squad decided it only needed to respond to other members of the Rescue Squad? What if the Rescue Squad decided that all it had to do was to have a friendly attitude toward those in crisis? What if it told itself that the warm feelings members had for each other and the community was enough?

It would probably lose most of the community’s support, wouldn’t it? The community might have to turn to the county and demand a raise in taxes to pay a professional crew to come in. The Volunteer Rescue Squad would be in shambles. All the members who really cared about the vocation of the Rescue Squad would be embarrassed and ashamed.

What if the problem wasn’t just that people got sick or injured, but that the rescue squad wasn’t ready to help them?

This was the situation when Isaiah was writing to the decimated populace of ancient Israel, and this was the situation when John the Baptist started preaching at the Jordan. And I think this is the situation the mainline churches find themselves in today. We are the rescue squad of God, given the commission to reveal God’s love to a hurting world. The world continues to hurt, but the rescue squad has broken down. They have forgotten their vocation. They have rationalized their laziness. They have turned away from the world and turned inward on themselves. They only answer some calls, and only from fellow members. They don’t bother to recruit. They don’t bother to train or prepare their members. They don’t fix their equipment when it breaks. And they get incensed if anyone points out their faults.

Who do you think you are? That’s the question the religious leaders have for John the Baptist. Who do you think you are calling us to repentance? How dare you demand we be baptized, as if we were not God’s people already? Who are you to tell us the Messiah is here? That’s our job! Herod the Great is doing a splendid job funding the temple project! Who’s to say he’s not the Messiah? And what about Caesar? He’s done a great job of keeping the peace and he leaves us alone, except for those pesky taxes. Why can’t he be the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, like all the propaganda says? Remember Cyrus? He was a Persian emperor and God made him Messiah, right?
John’s answer is Jesus’ answer is our answer. Who am I? Who are we? We are the ones God sent.

The celebration of Christmas, just like the celebration of the birth of any great person, is the celebration not merely that a baby was born, although birth is always a joyous thing. The reason we remember certain birthdays is because of what the person went on to do, what their coming meant for the world. We remember Jesus because of his vocation, his divine calling to a religious life.

Israel has a divine calling to a religious life. The church has a divine calling to a religious life. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada has a divine calling to a religious life. Philippi Christian Church has a divine calling to a religious life. Every member of Philippi has a divine calling to a religious life.

This doesn’t mean that everyone has to leave their jobs or their retirement and run off to seminary. That’s a particular piece of the whole religious life to which we are called, but not everyone is supposed to do that. But some of us do.

I did. One of the things that makes being a pastor different from having a job is that I understand my presence among you not as a job to which I was hired by an employer, but as a calling and a sending by God. If I have an employer, God is that employer, and I discern God’s rule in my life through the scriptures, prayer, self-examination, meditation and the sense of the community of believers. God speaks to me through his Word and through his people, not only here at Philippi, but throughout the whole church and throughout the church of history. I joke about being out in left field, but sometimes God puts me there; he puts me at odds with you. It is often at those moments when both you and I grow the most, however uncomfortable those times might be. This is very different than an employee who simply carries out the orders of a human boss.

But, like John, I am not Jesus, I am not Elijah, I am not Moses. Each of these people had a particular calling. All of them found their calling in the word of God. And every one of you has a special calling peculiar to you that comes from the word of God. The anointing of God, the gift of the Holy Spirit, is the means by which God enables you to fulfill your vocation.

This congregation is your seminary. It is the training and education center, the school of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, the places and people and things into which God has placed you in your everyday life are also speaking to you, speaking about your vocation, your divine calling to a religious life.

Today is the third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete Sunday, meaning Joy Sunday. The joy of Christmas is not simply that we have been blessed with lots of goodies, or even that we share them with people less blessed than ourselves. The joy of Christmas is that God’s Rescue Squad has a new leader, that the members have been given all they need to do the great work they have been called to do.

Friends, the world is full of suffering primarily because it does not know or doesn’t want to know that a loving God is present and wants to heal and renew it. The world is full of spiritually injured people. We have been blessed with everything we need to rescue them. We are blessed with God’s word, we are blessed by God’s Spirit, we are blessed with God’s calling to us.

Who are you? You are who sent you.


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sermon at the Funeral of Marvin Dwayne Collins, December 12, 2008

Sermon at the Funeral of Marvin Dwayne Collins

December 12, 2008

Isaiah 49:13-15 (NRSV)
13 Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the LORD has comforted his people,
and will have compassion on his suffering ones.
14 But Zion said, "The LORD has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me."
15 Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.

Psalms 23:1-6 (NRSV)
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name's sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff--
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long.

John 16:16-24 (NRSV)
16 "A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me." 17 Then some of his disciples said to one another, "What does he mean by saying to us, 'A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me'; and 'Because I am going to the Father'?" 18 They said, "What does he mean by this 'a little while'? We do not know what he is talking about." 19 Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, "Are you discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said, 'A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me'? 20 Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. 21 When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. 22 So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. 23 On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. 24 Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.

Kindergarten has changed a lot since Dwayne was in it some twenty-nine years ago. In those days, the poor kids were required to sit in rigid rows of desks lined up across the room. At nap time, the only places to put the kids on the floor were on either side of those long, straight rows, the girls on one side, the boys on the other.

Of course, Dwayne was not about to lie on the floor quietly during nap time. So when the teacher wasn’t looking, inch by inch, he would make his way under the long row of desks toward his friend Ellen Simpson, who also would inch her way toward him. And there under the desks they would meet and whisper to each other.
I didn’t know Dwayne, but I wish I had. It’s obvious to me that his family and huge circle of friends are deeply grieving his loss. I’m sure Dwayne would appreciate it. Some of you remember that when you’d get angry with him, he’d always say, “You’ll miss me when I’m gone.”

How right he was.

But I think it’s equally obvious that, given who he was, he would hope that when we gathered to remember him, that we would laugh. If he were here, he would be the first one to say just that perfect thing that would make us all smile.
Wayne had a wonderful sense of humor. Whether he was gathered in the back row of some high school class or at some interminable science fair or taking the family on a vacation or working a team on a stressful project, Dwayne could make you laugh.
As a kid, Dwayne dreamed of being tall like his grandfather, a dream we all know came true. His sense of humor was in evidence from very early in his life. When he’s get in a little trouble at school, he’d always come to his mother Ann and say, “I’ll tell you before you hear it.”

Annette, as I’m sure you have heard Dwayne say, was his “much older sister.” He’d kid her that way, but just as often he’d tell others that Annette was his “other mother.”

Some of his high school friends report that not only could Wayne make you laugh, he could make you laugh so hard there could be messy accidents. I understand he was not known as Dwayne, but at “Maw-vin.”

Dwayne himself had a special laugh, a big guy laugh. One summer night when he was hanging out in the Simpson’s yard with Emily and Sean, the three of them got laughing and he let go with that trademark laugh. As the evening got later and they got laughing harder, Emily’s dad, Earl, hollered out the window “All right now boys, it’s time to go home now!” Everyone quieted down, but of course nobody went anywhere. Then, sure enough, a few minutes later they were laughing again, and Earl was back at the window: “All right now boys, it’s time to go home!”

Dwayne excelled at practical jokes. He was in Latin class in high school and probably due to financial restraints the class was taught by remote television broadcast. At certain points during each session, classes would be invited to call in using phones installed in the classrooms in order to interact with the teacher. Dwayne was appointed to manage the phone, probably a big mistake on the teacher’s part. His favorite thing to do was to call a 900 number and then hand the phone to a freshman girl.

Dwayne’s family, and probably a number of his roommates, will tell you that there was a private side to Dwayne. So a lot of people don’t know that Dwayne had an extensive comic collection. I had one too, when I was a teenager, and one of my greatest regrets is that my mother threw them all out before I went to college. I’m hoping I get a chance to see his. He also had a real fascination with the Star Wars.
Despite all the humor, Dwayne was an honor student in school and excelled at just about everything he put his hand to.

Dwayne did two years at RCC and did a number of the usual student type jobs before he was hired by Capitol One. The story is told that a number of his friends going home for the holidays asked him to take care of their pregnant cat while they were gone. While they were enjoying the holidays with their families, they got a call. Dwayne said, “Right now, I am watching the cat give birth, and it’s really gross.”
Despite the gross factor, Dwayne apparently midwifed the kittens with real care and kindness and took care of them all till his friends came back.

Care and kindness, along with the playful sense of humor, are two other qualities I hear about from everyone who knew Dwayne. Someone said he was the last of the real Southern gentlemen. One of his female friends from work reported that he insisted on going with her when she was walking her dog at night to ensure her safety. When Ellen Simpson was in France, Dwayne was the only one of her friends who sent her a care package, including her favorite Big Red gum. He was also a great dancer. Amy Faulkner said that he could do the Tootsie Roll like no one else.

At Capitol One, Dwayne excelled, garnering award after award and promotion after promotion. The practical jokes continued to be his hallmark, although his friends at work sometimes played some on him.

Nevertheless, he became a consummate professional, very good at what he did. He used to tease his much older sister about her accent, which he had lost. “I’m a city boy now,” he used to say.

Yet he didn’t forget the people back home but brought back his many blessings to share with those he loved and with those in need. Allison and Jennifer could always count on him to provide them with everything Mom and Grandma denied them, and were always ready to call on him to help make peace in the family.

I’ve heard that making peace was one of Dwayne’s special talents. He managed to build a circle of friends around him and helped them get along with each other. Someone called him “our hub.”

He loved to travel, even kept a map showing where he’d been, places like India and Ireland, and where he yet wanted to go.

Dwayne was also passionately devoted to helping his fellow human being. He worked long hours to raise money for cancer research and treatment.

Those comic books and that interest in Star Wars got me thinking. Dwayne seemed to have a particular interest in heroes. The stories of all great heroes follow the same pattern. Joseph Campbell wrote a book called The Hero With a Thousand Faces and identified that pattern. And that pattern was the basis for George Lucas’ entire Star Wars series.

Every hero starts in a small out of the way place where everything is pretty boring. Sounds like Deltaville, doesn’t it? But they don’t stay there; they answer a call to go on an adventure, usually in some armpit of decadence and danger. Could that be Richmond? And off they go, making friends and allies, overcoming obstacles, changing and growing as they go.

Invariably they come to a place where everything seems lost. In some great hero stories, like when Jonah was swallowed by the whale, the hero seems even to have died.

In Star Wars, the first movie, you may remember the moment when the heroes are trapped in the bowels of the Death Star with all the garbage, and the walls begin to close in. That was the Star Wars version of that terrible moment.

I wonder if in his secret heart, the hero’s story might not have been Dwayne’s inspiration. He even had a shaggy sidekick—well maybe not as shaggy as a Wookie—but Yager was at least covered with hair, and spoke in a similar vocabulary.

At this moment, we feel as if all is lost. Our friend is gone, never to return. But in every hero’s story, there is an amazing return, a spectacular rescue or lucky accident. In Star Wars, you may remember that Luke grabs a big pole of metal and jams it between the walls, stopping them long enough to allow him and his friends to climb to relative safety.

But even then the hero’s story is not over. After emerging from the darkness, the hero is transformed in a powerful way and goes on to achieve everything he had set out to do, often gaining a great prize in the end, a prize he shares with all those whom he loves.

So we must not give up hope at this moment in Dwayne’s story, just as we never give up on any other hero.

No matter what we each may believe, I invite you to hope with me. I invite you to hope that Dwayne will yet emerge in victory. I invite you to expect it.

I invite you to expect to feel his presence. I invite you to expect to sense him in your life from this time forward. I invite you to expect a day when the impossible will become possible and you will be with him again. I invite you to expect to someday meet a new Dwayne, transformed, renewed and blessed with great gifts that he will be ready, as always, to share with you.

In the meantime, I invite you to think of him now as being on the greatest trip of all, a journey to a place where the sights to be seen are truly out of this world.


Sunday, December 7, 2008

Second Sunday of Advent Year B 2008

2 Advent B 08

December 7, 2008

Isaiah 40:1-11 (NRSV)
1 Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD's hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."
6 A voice says, "Cry out!"
And I said, "What shall I cry?"
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
9 Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
"Here is your God!"
10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
Psalms 85:1-2, 8-13 (NRSV)
1 LORD, you were favorable to your land;
you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
2 You forgave the iniquity of your people;
you pardoned all their sin. Selah
8 Let me hear what God the LORD will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people,
to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
9 Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.
10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
11 Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
12 The LORD will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
13 Righteousness will go before him,
and will make a path for his steps.

2 Peter 3:8-15 (NRSV)
8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 9 The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? 13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.
14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Mark 1:1-8 (NRSV)
1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
"See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,'"
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

Feeling the Distance

Oscar Wilde once said, “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”

Repentance is the theme of today’s lessons. I think a lot of us have experience with the kind of preaching that tries to scare you to death, that tries to hold a gun to your head to get you to go in a different direction, variations on the great sermon of the first Great Awakening in American church history by Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

But I want to introduce you to a different way of thinking about repentance.

Right now, there’s a lot of news about the suffering brought about the financial crisis. People are talking about betrayals of trust. The tragedies are with the people who did everything right, who paid their bills on time, showed up for work, kept their promises, paid their debts. They trusted in the promises of the American dream and did all the things people are supposed to do to achieve it. But they were betrayed. There are differences of opinion about who betrayed them. Some want to blame irresponsible and lazy homeowners who didn’t pay their mortgages. Others want to blame financial institutions for making up securities out of thin air. Either way you look at it, we’re talking about broken trust.

Isaiah says to us today:

All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.

Could the problem be that we have misplaced our trust? Is it really a good idea to put our ultimate trust in human institutions like governments, corporations and banks? Is it not likely that when we do such things, we are overestimating the constancy of human beings and their works? Can we finally depend on people to be faithful to their promises?

Such misplaced trust is a basic facet of the biblical story of God’s people. The fall of Israel and Judah in the Old Testament story was the direct result of misplaced trust. God offered to rule his people, but the people felt they could do a good job of ruling themselves, based on their observations of other nations, empires and gods. Therefore God turned away, and allowed his people to suffer the consequences of their own choice.

But the biblical story is also about God’s faithfulness. Isaiah says:

8 The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.

When God makes a promise, he keeps it, even when his people don’t. God will not break trust.

Those of you who have had children know about the instinctive drive, usually by pregnant mothers, to prepare their homes for the coming of a child. We call it “nesting.” It’s become something of a fetish in our anxiety-ridden culture.

There’s “baby-proofing” for example. Baby-proofing in my mother’s house mainly consisted of allowing me to pull the television off the table on to my head. “That’ll teach him,” mom would say. But now we have gates and little plastic plugs for wall sockets and playpens and even leashes. We have the pink and blue decorations and cribs and toys babies can’t choke on and rocking chairs for breast-feeding and special little tubs for bathing. We have lotions and powders and special shampoos and new storage space for the endless supply of diapers.

Or when we know someone we love is coming, we will prepare in similar ways. In my home, our dining room table is a catch-all for unprocessed mail, ongoing paperwork, spare purses and keys. Any complaint about the crowded dining room table is met with a “There’s no place else to put that stuff.” But when my mother-in-law announced that she was coming to visit, the table was miraculously cleared.

Repentance is not about looking into the past, it’s about looking into the future. It’s about what we expect, not about what we have done. If we are at home already, then we have nowhere to go. But if we are not yet home, we have a journey to make. If we expect nothing but what the world already is, then we will do nothing. If we expect the world to change, we will get ourselves ready.

Repentance is about feeling the distance from home.

Our actions in the present are based mostly on our expectations of the future. And our expectations of the future are based on our experience of the past. If our experience is based only on what the world offers, then our expectations will be based on the world’s promises. But if we claim the experience of God’s people and make it our own, the experience of God’s eternal faithfulness, then our expectations will be based on the coming of heaven.

Repentance is not about feeling bad about who we are. Quite the contrary: it’s about feeling hopeful about who we will be.

Repentance is about feeling the distance from home, and it’s like the distance a pregnant mother feels between a household with two spouses and a household with two parents and a child, the distance a couple feels between just us two and us two plus mom, the distance the people of God feel between the world as it is and the world as it should be, and most of all, the distance I feel between who I am and who God intends me to be.

I have a friend who calls himself an atheist. I think he’s probably really a Buddhist. He owns a home and two cars and has a pretty big savings account. He has a great, high-paying career. His take on the economic crisis is that he is not particularly attached to his home or his cars or his savings or his job. He has lived without such things before and he is comfortable with not living with them in the future. He does not assume he will retire, though he is currently sixty-two. He doesn’t mind working, and he is willing to work at anything that will put food in his mouth. He is open to whatever future is coming.

Isaiah says that the way for his people will be opened up and made easy. There won’t be any valleys to get trapped in and there won’t be any mountains to climb. The barren wilderness his people must cross on their way home will be made fruitful so that no one will go hungry, and the desert will sprout springs of water so no one will get thirsty. And when they get there they will be greeted by a tender God who will care for them and cradle them and feed them with everything they need.

In what do we hope? To what do we look forward? Economic crisis, loss, aging, war, plagues, terrorism, death? These things will come, certainly. The bible gives us ample examples of the forgetfulness and pride and arrogance of the human race. Indeed, it is this very reality which grieves our God so deeply that he has called us, Israel and the church, out of all nations to be his people in the midst of such suffering.

But the promise of God, and perhaps the very content of faith, is that such things are simply part of the slow dissolution of all things we have foolishly trusted in, and that the end will be God’s victory.

What will that victory look like? And what is the distance between where we are now and the home we are destined for? This is the proper meditation of repentance. What is the distance between who I am now and who I am meant to be? What is the distance between what is now and what will be?

You may have noticed a subtle shift between Isaiah and the Gospel of Mark. Isaiah says:

3 A voice cries out:

"In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

But Mark subtly changes the quote:

3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,'"

Isaiah is speaking of a journey Israel will make out of exile and back to the promised land. But Mark is describing the journey of God into the world. We are not going home. Home is coming to us.

Peter invites us to prepare ourselves for God’s coming. The first step in this preparation is to feel the distance between the person I am and the person I want God to find, between the world I live in and the world I want God to find. Because we have no idea when he will suddenly come, this preparation is urgent, perhaps more urgent than any other crisis or problem we think we may be facing.

Repentance is feeling the distance from home.


Thursday, December 4, 2008

First Sunday of Advent Year B

01 Advent B 08
November 30, 2008

Isaiah 64:1-9 (NRSV)
1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence--
2 " as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil--
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
4 From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
5 You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
6 We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
7 There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

Psalms 80:1-7, 17-19 (NRSV)
1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
and come to save us!
3 Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
4 O LORD God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people's prayers?
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
6 You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
our enemies laugh among themselves.
7 Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
the one whom you made strong for yourself.
18 Then we will never turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call on your name.
19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

1 Cor 1:3-9 (NRSV)
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5 for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind-- 6 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you-- 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Mark 13:24-37 (NRSV)
24 "But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
28 "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32 "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake--for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

Come On Down

Wouldn’t it be something is the heavens tore open and God came down?

In the Simpsons, God made frequent guest appearances. He was always pictured as a giant old man with a white beard who walks out of parting clouds. In one episode, he and Homer have a conversation about death.

Homer asks, “Can’t you tell me when I’m going to die?”

God says, “No, you’ll just have to wait.”

Homer says, “Aww, I can’t wait that long.”

God says, “You can’t wait two weeks?”

Interestingly, an animated film by a Muslim filmmaker called Persepolis pictured God pretty much the same way the Simpsons did, a giant old man with a white robe hanging around in the clouds.

But I’m not talking about a metaphor here. I’m talking about the real thing. I’m talking about the creator of the universe just saying, “Ok, that’s enough, I’m taking over now.”

To read Isaiah today, it would seem that the bible regards it as a possibility that God could leave. God is able apparently to absent himself, to make himself unavailable, to hide himself. It may even be that God does this quite purposefully, to allow his people to feel the consequences of his absence, to understand what they are rejecting when they refuse his rule.

Some would say that this is an Old Testament thing. It doesn’t apply now.

But let’s just look at this on the most prosaic and factual level, shall we? Isaiah is not talking about little inexplicable coincidences or unexplained spontaneous healings. He’s talking about the pillar of fire and cloud, the thundering voice at Mount Sinai, the rain of plagues on the Egyptian slave-masters, the parting of the Red Sea and of the Jordan, the falling walls of Jericho. He’s talking about powerful displays that were nearly irrefutable, big things that happened in front of lots of witnesses. He’s talking about the big show.

Why doesn’t God come down? Not just in a philosophical or metaphorical sense, but obviously, with all the bells and whistles?

God is hidden. However we may speak of the Father or of Jesus or of the Holy Spirit, God is hidden. We may say, “I talk to him every day,” or “He’s working in my life all the time,” but really, God is hidden. He is hidden enough that it is truly reasonable for some to say he doesn’t exist, or that he is simply the construct of the mind or of a culture. God is hidden.

God is silent. Yes, we have many ways of talking about God’s word, about God’s still, small voice, but in the most prosaic reality, these are all metaphors, images, ideas. The voice of God is not heard overtly or clearly. No thunderous voice speaks from heaven in such a way that all say without any doubt, “That was God talking.”

God is inactive. We speak of inexplicable miracles both mundane and extraordinary, but finally we cannot say explicitly that God has acted in a way that is utterly convincing or even scientifically probable. Even a facile examination of many claims that God has acted yields any number of reasonable alternative explanations. And even completely inexplicable medical marvels, as much as we’d like to attribute them to a loving God, always raise the question of why such a loving God would nevertheless allow so many to remain sick and even die. And always the question comes up that if we attribute good miracles to God, why do we not attribute bad ones to him? If he cures disease, does he not also send plagues?

Where is the pillar of fire and cloud? Where is the thunderous voice that makes mountains shake? Where are the angel visitations? Where are the glowing visions seen by hundreds? Where are the prophets who say “Be healed in the name of God,” and it is done every time?

Isaiah is talking about the crisis of faith. The problem that when God doesn’t show himself in some undeniable and irrefutable way, people begin to doubt he is even there. And when folks doubt God is there, they figure they’re on their own.
We saw a documentary about Romania after the fall of the dictatorship that had overshadowed that country for most of the twentieth century. The economy was so bad that people kicked their children out. As the number of homeless children grew in the country, kids began to run away to join the parentless gangs living in the streets and subways. Violence, drug addiction and disease ran rampant through their ranks. When children have no parents, they have no rules, no hope, no emotional life except fear and the hunger of the day.

Israel in Jesus’ lifetime was very much like a nation of parentless kids. God, it appeared, had abandoned the nation. Leaders of various stripes were proposing all kinds of solutions to the problem. Racial purity, ritual cleanliness, and moral rectitude were all being proposed as ways to entice God back into the life of his people. Everyone was certain of one thing, however, that God would send a Messiah as the first sign of his return, and this Messiah would lead Israel into a new era of independence and prosperity. They saw the solution as political and even military.
But Jesus saw the problem and the solution differently, it would seem. A lot of his teaching, and the teaching of the church that developed after his resurrection, was not about coming up with a solution. It was about opening oneself to God’s solution. It was about waiting, but not just by passively sitting around. It was about waiting with expectation, it was about actively getting ready, it was about letting go of all the things we think we can trust in, so that we can be ready for his surprise.

In the twelve step fellowships, there’s a book on the twelve steps used by millions as a pathway to recovery. About midway through, there’s a process involved regarding character defects. First, in step four, recovering people inventory their character problems, all those things they think might be standing between them and God. In step 5, they admit to God and to another human being the exact nature of their wrongs. Step Six reads, “We became entirely willing to have God remove these defects of character.”

The essay on Step Six begins with this sentence. “This is the step that separates the men from the boys.”

Interesting, huh? You’d think just facing oneself honestly would be hard. But experience had shown thousands of recovering people that the hardest thing is to be willing to change. This willingness is what separates mature spirituality from immature spirituality. In other words, growing up doesn’t just happen. One only grows up if one is willing to. The step, just to make that clear, adds the word “entirely.”

To be willing is not to be grudgingly open to a vague possibility. It’s not enough to say, “Nobody’s perfect.” To be willing is to want to grow, to want to change, to want to be better, actively, passionately, entirely. But most of all, it’s being willing to let go of the dearly held preconception. It’s about giving up on the things the world holds in such high esteem. It’s about being willing to live in the question.

Jesus says the stars will fall from the sky, the moon will be no more, and the world will fall into darkness.

There comes a time when the things we believe in and count on suddenly prove themselves untrustworthy. Many of us experience this in the normal course of our lives. The older we get the more we comprehend that the world is in constant flux, and the seeming stability we believed in so strongly when we were children proved to be nothing but vapor.

As we begin this new church year, God invites us to stop and step back and take the long view. And the long view is this, whatever it is we put our trust in, whatever we think is unchangeable and eternal, whatever we imagine will keep us safe and secure, if it is not Jesus Christ, it is a false hope that is doomed to just the same dissolution and disintegration that every power claiming our allegiance will eventually suffer. Even the stars that we thought were so permanent, will fall from the sky. Even the moon that so faithfully rises will not always rise. Even the powers of the earth, the nations and the armies and the great economies, will not last, but will dissolve, just as they always have.

To learn this lesson is to begin the journey right. It is the farmer who doesn’t even look back at his plow or the fisherman who walks away from his boat or the mourner who doesn’t even stop to bury his dead. It is the child who delights in her parent without question, and who opens herself to whatever her parent wishes her to learn. It is the priest who looks forward to the temple being torn brick from brick. It is the rich man who sells all he has for that one perfect pearl. It is the Messiah who nevertheless submits to being baptized.

What if God came down from heaven?

Keep awake.