Thursday, December 17, 2009

Third Sunday in Advent Year C 2009

03 Advent C 09
December 13, 2009

Zephaniah 3:14-20
14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! 15 The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. 16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. 17 The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing 18 as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. 19 I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 20 At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.

Isaiah 12:2-6 (psalm)
2 Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. 3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. 4 And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. 5 Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. 6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

Philippians 4:4-7
1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Luke 3:7-18
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." 10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" 11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" 13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." 14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages." 15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

The Hidden Truth

As Liz and I were driving toward Gloucester along Route 14 I happened to notice that church up on the hill, which is for most of every year more-or-less invisible. But in the season of Advent, this little church has a tradition of putting a star in the front yard and lighting it with a big spotlight, so that a large shadow is cast on the fa├žade of the church. It’s quite dramatic and beautiful.

I then began to notice along the road the lights decorating houses, yards, trees, bushes, fences. Of course there are also the figures that are all lit up, Santas and angels and deer and nativity scenes and even pink flamingoes.

And I I thought of all this illumination as a kind of revelation, as if all these things had been here all along, like that church on the hill, but somehow invisible, hidden behind the ordinary world we usually see, and that as Christmas approaches, and the darkness of winter falls, these things pop out of hiding and shine before us. Heavenly beings stroll around in people’s yards. Ordinary little homes shine like palaces. Forest creatures light up with holiness. The space-time continuum slips and behold, first-century Bethlehem pops into the front yard.

“You brood of vipers” is not my favorite first line of a sermon. But as we read on in John’s diatribe, we get the sense that he is addressing a certain group within the crowd that has gathered around him. I can imagine the scene. John’s preaching had probably first attracted the radical element, and maybe those who were poor and oppressed in the culture of the day. But as the crowds grew around him, word reached the cosmopolitan centers, the seats of power, and some of the upscale people thought they’d go out and check him out.

His words for them were shocking. A wrath is coming, and they are its main target. John takes on their complacent belief that their status as Jews is all that’s necessary for their salvation. It seems that cheap grace was a problem for the Jews as much as it seems to be a problem for us. We’ve all heard preachers singing that sweet lullaby, “God loves you just the way you are.” We drift off to a pleasant sleep, secure in the knowledge that all is well.

But John shakes us awake. “Do not tell yourselves, you are children of Israel. That doesn’t mean a thing. Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

“Nobody’s perfect.” You’ve heard that haven’t you? Maybe you’ve even said it. It’s that nice little dismissal we like to give to our sins. “Ah, well, nobody’s perfect.” But John is not settling for such half-hearted repentance, the kind of repentance that admits sin but does nothing about it. The Messiah is coming, you see. What is hidden, what is already there but invisible, all of it will be revealed.

And so Paul says, “Rejoice.” And Zephaniah says, “Rejoice.” And the psalmist says, “Rejoice.” And that wonderful sentence, “The Lord is near.”

Getting ready for the revelation, when things that are hidden will be revealed, is what repentance is really all about. And the revelation itself is what Christmas is really all about.

There is a veil, you see, that most of us call “reality.” It’s the whole system we have of figuring out what is true and what is not, what is good and what is evil, what is great and what is small. But hidden behind this system, behind what appears to be, is the truth. This truth is very close by, though most of us don’t know it. We’ve been talking throughout Advent about the kinds of things that disturb the veil, that rip holes in it and give us a glimpse of the truth that’s working behind it. Disasters, crises, sudden transitions, anything that disrupts the flow of our expectations of cause-and-effect, events that rip up our assumptions and preconceptions, this is the stuff of revelation.

We can, without a single crystal ball, predict that such revelation will happen, and within our lifetimes. The whole nature of the demonic is to convince us that somehow we have things under control, that God’s in his heaven, safely distant and pleasantly irrelevant, and all’s right with the world. The complaints of those who disagree are regarded as unreasonably negative and probably self-serving in some way. But then somehow everything blows up. Riots, rebellion, war, plague, attack, murder, the superpower loses the war, the shuttle blows up, the towers come down, the man in the tower shoots. You mean, we’re not indestructible? You mean, the whole world doesn’t love us? You mean, millions of Americans don’t think the economy’s fine? You mean, we’re actually bloodthirsty and cruel, and not a thousand points of light?

But Paul says “Rejoice,” and Zephaniah says, “Rejoice” and the psalmist says, “Rejoice.” This is the victory of our God, this is where the hidden and cosmic truth bursts into our safe little bubble of delusion. This is where the blind suddenly see and the deaf suddenly hear and the paralyzed stand up and run. This is the day of the Lord, and it is coming soon.

The veil is pulled back. We see the mighty Caesar on his throne, deep within his monolithic palace, surrounded by servants and ministers and generals. We see his thousands and his ten thousands, their finely polished swords gleaming. But the veil is pulled back and we see a festering cesspool of greed and violence and domination. We see a backwater town in a backwater region, a little stable behind an inn, a working poor couple, the girl pregnant out of wedlock, a wet and bloody newborn they could most likely barely afford to feed. But the veil is pulled back and we see the Lord of creation, surrounded by angels, singing “Glory, glory, glory.”

What should we do? What should we do to be ready for the veil to be pulled back? What should we do to be ready to be exposed as part of the problem or part of the solution, part of what is destroying God’s creation or part of what is saving it?

It depends, doesn’t it, on who we are, who we really are, behind the veil of appearances. Each one of us asks the question, and each one of us gets a different answer. To those who are ready, to those who know already what is behind the veil, to those who have been given the vision of the coming kingdom of God, to those who have embraced it and given themselves to its coming, the answer is “Rejoice.” Right now, such folks look ridiculous, unrealistic, foolish, weak. But when the veil is pulled back, they will be the multitudes robed in white, the holy ones of God singing joyful praises to the victory of God.

But for others, who hide their wickedness is denial and self-delusion, who secretly hate and condemn and thirst for blood, who covet and crave what doesn’t belong to them, who practice deceit of themselves and others, who willfully strive to dominate and exploit those who are weaker than they, the answer is “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” It is not enough to say, “Nobody’s perfect,” because when the veil is pulled back it will be shown that someone is. That one is the baby in the manger, the Christ, and all who are in him on that day.

On the other side of the disaster, on the other side of the turmoil, on the other side of that day, there is a glorious vision of God’s new creation, a world of peace and justice, a world without weapons, a world without hunger, a world without violence, a world in which those who grieve will be comforted, and those who are weak will be cared for, and those who thirst after the justice of God will drink it in full measure.

God, in the new covenant that is coming, promises this. But every promise of God comes with a warning. Some will be there, and some will not. To those who are ready, God says, “Rejoice.” To those who are not, God says “Repent.”

What should we do?


Friday, December 11, 2009

Second Sunday in Advent Year C 2009

02 Advent C 09
December 6, 2009

Malachi 3:1-4
1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight--indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.

Luke 1:68-79 (psalm)
68 "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

Philippians 1:3-11
3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Luke 3:1-6
1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

The Whack of Peace

A preacher named Scott Black Johnston, in a sermon on this morning’s text, mentions a story by Flannery O’Connor about the wife of a pig farmer named Ruby Turpin. Ruby is an appalling racist, who has no awareness of her racism, regards it in fact as a great virtue. She delights in more or less constantly thinking about and talking about the relative bigoted rankings of this race and that race, of rich people and poor people.

One day, while she’s waiting in a doctor’s office for her appointment, while she’s going on about how grateful she is that she isn’t black or poor, a young woman in the waiting room walks up to her with a copy of a book called “Human Development” and whacks Ruby in the head with it. The young woman then calls Ruby a “warthog from hell.”

Interestingly enough, Ruby does not interpret this as an attack by a rebellious teenager, but as a message from God. She goes home and while she’s hosing down the pigs she asks God some questions. “How can I be a hog and me too?” she asks God. “How am I saved and from hell too?”

And Ruby has a vision. She sees a ladder on which people are ascending to heaven, walking together in the groups that she had placed them. She and racists like her are bringing up the rear of the procession; they are the "last," following all of those whom they have despised for so long. But as she looks at the ones at the head of the procession, she learns something even more remarkable. O’Connor writes: "…she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away."

Some of you may remember the story of a friend of mine, a recovering alcoholic who is now living a productive and sober life. He likes to remind himself of a particular day, back when he was drinking. He was homeless, and wandering the streets of a major city. It was winter, terribly cold, and he spent the day collecting dimes and quarters from sympathetic strangers. At the end of the day, he had collected enough for a big bottle of Mogen David 20/20, or Mad Dog as he used to call it. He took his bottle to a Salvation Army clothing bin, climbed in, buried himself under the clothes, opened his wine, and as he took his first delicious sip, he said to himself, “This is the life.”

Human beings naturally tend to look at the bright side of life, to consider any focus on the down side as negative and unproductive. “Count your blessings,” we are often told, and we do. Here we live in a lovely peaceful hamlet on a beautiful body of water that is often dotted with the sails of expensive boats. The people are friendly and easy-going. The homes are attractive and neat. The cars are mostly new and clean. Almost everyone is comfortably well-fed, many a little on the tubby side. Life is good. If we have any longing at all for peace, we don’t have to look far to find it.

Every Advent, we lectionary preachers insist on all this minor-key, somber stuff in the four weeks before Christmas. Some of us find it’s a real downer. “This is Christmas for crying out loud, a happy time for parties and feasting and shopping. When will those bleeding hearts stop moaning about the poor? When will those commie peaceniks stop complaining about war and violence? We’re sending out Christmas presents to poor children aren’t we? Leave it alone for God’s sake.”

Many of us would call the last three hundred years of world history “the Age of Reason,” or “the Modern era,” or “The Enlightenment.” We are accustomed to believing that these three hundred years have been a unique time of progress and enlightenment. We term the ages before it as “Dark” and think of those who came before as ignorant and backward and even brutish. And yet in these same three hundred years, from 1700 to the present, over 250,000,000 people have been murdered by violence or by intentional neglect, more people, either in numerical or in per capita terms, than have been murdered in all of recorded history prior. Right this minute, thousands are being murdered in various parts of the world.

What does all this violence have to do with our peaceful, pleasant, prosperous village by the water?

In the twelve step fellowships, there’s a saying. “Denial is not just a river in Egypt.” Denial is a survival mechanism that works very well in terrible situations from which there is no escape. I’m fairly certain that slaves in the American South in the nineteenth century didn’t get up each morning and think, “I’m in a terrible situation. I’m owned by an oppressive and racist bigot who will torture or murder me if I try to escape.” No, in order to survive, the slave probably had to say to himself, “Well, it’s a lovely morning. Not so hot today. We’re going to have grits this morning, and that’s my favorite breakfast. This is a good day.”

Denial is a subtle and insidious process. Denial is a reflex, an instinctive reaction to negative things. We ignore the violence and injustice that buys us our peace and prosperity, our privilege and opportunity. The land we build our neat little homes on is soaked in blood, but we don’t want to think about that. The Christmas gifts we buy are made affordable by the homelessness and hunger and exhaustion of millions of poor workers, but we don’t like to think about that. What point is there in being so negative? What can we do about it anyway?

It’s a good question. And the answer is “Not a thing.” We’re as trapped in our situation as that slave in nineteenth century Alabama. We’re as without options as my friend with his bottle in the Salvation Army clothing bin. We’re as clueless as old Ruby about what is good and what is not. So why think about it? Why not just let it go?

Because the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. It didn’t come to Tiberius Caesar. It didn’t come to King Herod. It didn’t come to Caiaphas the high priest. It didn’t come to Obama, it didn’t come to Palin, it didn’t come to Oprah, it didn’t come to O’Reilly, it didn’t come to Sam Walton or Warren Buffet or Dr. Phil or Joyce Meyers. It came, as one theologian put it, “to a nobody, son of a nobody, in the middle of nowhere.”

Whack! Comes the smack upside the head. Whack! God got my friend out of the Salvation Army bin. Whack! God got Ruby out of her prejudice and ignorance. Whack! God delivered the Hebrew slaves out of their bondage in Egypt. Whack! God gave Sarah a child in her old age. Whack! God gave his word to a nobody, son of a nobody, in the middle of nowhere, and the word of God was:

“Repent and I will forgive you.”

The peace of the world, the shalom of God, begins with an amazing strategy. God offers forgiveness to those who are willing to admit they don’t have a clue, that they don’t have any options, that they are out of ideas, that they are ready to do whatever God asks. The peace of God begins with surrender.

We said last week that the coming of the Lord is not a peaceful evening of family joy, but a shocking and marvelous intervention in the disaster of our broken world. It is the God of eternity entering the flesh and blood world we live in right here and now, and bringing about miraculous transformations through ordinary nobodies, the children of nobodies, in the middle of various nowheres. We said that to get ready for his coming is first to face the darkness in ourselves so that we can see the darkness in the world around us.

On this second Sunday in Advent, we take the next step, to open our arms to the forgiveness of God. God is offering us peace, peace with God. He is willing to come into our world, but he is asking us to prepare his way, to surrender our helplessness to him. He promises that if we do, he will do in us that which we cannot do in ourselves, he will do for our world what we cannot do for our world. He will scrub us with the kind of soap that takes off layers of skin. He will refine us in a fire that will burn most of us away.

If we let him, he will bring his peace.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

First Sunday in Advent Year C 2009

01 Advent C 09

Jeremiah 33:14-16
14 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."

Psalm 25:1-10
1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. 2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. 3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. 4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. 5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. 6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. 7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness' sake, O LORD! 8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. 9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. 10 All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith. 11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13 And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Luke 21:25-36
25 "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
29 Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."

The Buds of Spring

Jesus is coming. Look busy. So reads one of my favorite bumper-stickers.

It’s obvious we all have end-of-the-world anxiety. Left Behind, the 2012 movie, the TV series about the aliens that arrive to change the world. And of course, Jesus’ message this morning sounds like a modern news broadcast. Why are we fascinated with disaster?

What is it that we pay attention to when a disaster strikes? When Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the world watched while the federal government seemed to do nothing. Meanwhile, stories of heroism and grace competed with rumors of chaotic violence. Sean Penn, the bad boy of Hollywood, might not be someone you’d think of having a spiritual center. But while the National Guard was nowhere to be seen, he was in New Orleans driving a boat around saving people. Who knew?

Religious leaders weighed in on the cosmic meaning of the event, some rather superficially, and others with real depth. A disaster reminds us how fragile we are, how temporary our seemingly indestructible institutions, how vulnerable we are to forces far beyond our control.

In the aftermath of 9/11, while the country was whipped up into a vengeful bloodlust, a very sick man murdered a number of Amish schoolgirls. The reaction of the Amish community, the forgiveness they extended not only to the deceased murderer but to his family as well, was an amazing contrast. Disaster has a way of revealing the truth. The Amish were ready for theirs, but I don’t think we were ready for ours.

A lot of us remember the landing on the Hudson. The word I’d use to describe the pilot would not so much be “heroic” as “prepared.”

In my own life, it wasn’t until my mental illness nearly destroyed me that I was able to see it for what it was. It was only in the midst of a personal disaster, the disaster of my broken life, that I was able to see the truth that was hidden. To paraphrase an old saying from the twelve-step fellowships, “Evil is the disease that tells you that you don’t have a disease.” Or as old C. S. Lewis said, “God doesn’t make demons out of fleas; he makes them out of angels.” What I had passionately believed was my salvation turned out to be a total sham, a demon in a nice suit. Such is the nature of most evil, and we can’t simply trust our conscience to recognize it.

These forces are bigger than the individual human will, incomprehensible to human reason. We can analyze them all we want, we can illustrate how they developed and describe them with great insight, but we can never master them on our own, anymore than we could have said to Hurricane Ida, “Be quiet,” and expect her to listen.

Jesus saw the coming of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem some forty years before it arrived. Some say this is simply the author reading back something he’d experienced into Jesus’ language. But most serious scholars believe that the prediction of the destruction of the temple was a significant part of the reason Jesus was arrested and tried for heresy. Did Jesus have a vision? Was he granted some supernatural insight? Well, as Willis might say, “maybe yes, and maybe no.”

Someone who had wrestled successfully with his own demons, someone who understood the history of Israel and God’s relationship to his people, someone who had been carefully observing the interaction of the priests, the Jewish king and the poor and oppressed people of Israel with their Roman overlords would have fairly easily been able to predict that the interaction was not going to end well. Rome held all the cards; Israel suffered all the grief. Sooner or later there would be violence, and Rome would certainly win. It took no supernatural insight to see the destruction of the temple in the near future.

On the other hand, we might also say that this deep involvement in the scripture, this careful and honest observation not only of others but of oneself, this regular prayer and meditation, in other words, waiting and watching for the right time, the moment of truth, filled Jesus with the Holy Spirit of God, so yes, we might say that his vision had a supernatural element.

Jesus teaches us to be alert, to stay awake, to watch. It is not a passive activity, waiting and watching for the Son of Man to come on the clouds of glory, watching for the revelation of God.
The reality is that evil hides, and it usually hides behind good. In the same way, good may be hidden, waiting to be revealed, behind what seems to be evil. As evil works toward its goal of destruction and desolation and suffering, it seeks to hide behind what appears to be good.

It’s hard enough even to discern the evil and disobedience in our own hearts, but once we have, it renders it much easier to discern the evil hiding behind the good in the world around us. If we don’t discern the evil in our own hearts, we are much more likely to be duped. The reason why Christians practice careful self-examination and even confess their sins to each other is precisely so they can identify the shadows that are lurking behind the pretty images the world presents to us. Only with the capacity to see the shadows in the mirror can we possibly discern the shadows around us.

Therefore, honesty, and particularly self-honesty, is supremely important when it comes to waiting expectantly for the Lord. Unflinching, sometimes excruciating self-honesty must become for the Christian such an inborn habit that the recognition of evil, in one’s self first of all, becomes a reflex.

Barbara Brown Taylor once preached: “When things get bad we pound on God’s door: where are you? We need you NOW. The threat is not outside the door but inside us.”

With a clear idea of who we really are, Jesus also calls us to observe the world with the same careful eye. I love his direction to his apostles, “Be innocent as doves, wise as serpents.” Jesus asks us to work toward pure devotion to God in our hearts and a healthy suspicion for all the beautiful things the mob is worshipping. Only with open eyes and the wisdom of God are we ready for mission.

My theory of mission, my practice of evangelism, my whole idea of church community-building, is to seek out people in the moment of transition, in which their anxiety and confusion is at their peak. In social issues, I look for the moments when change is possible, when people have no idea what to do, when the threat is looming most powerfully. I’m looking for the disasters, I’m looking for the buds of spring, because it will always be there that God shows up.

Our church has begun to speak on the national level about a concept of global ministry we are calling “critical presence,” which I think captures this way of relating to God and our fellow human beings very well. Critical presence is considered presence, strategic presence, presence determined by a careful study of scripture and a careful analysis of the situation that pertains in any given place and time. Critical presence can only be practiced among people who are carefully watching and waiting for the buds of spring, who see behind the curtain and understand the forces that are really at work behind them. Critical presence is the presence of the risen Christ, coming on the clouds of glory, the flesh-and-blood entrance of God into a given situation at the level of the deepest and truest need.

As the plots and schemes of evil spirits begin to bear the fruit of destruction, the opportunity arises to call them out and name them, to expose them to the light, to reveal what had been formerly hidden. This requires great strategy and timing, and is simply impossible without the wisdom of God as it comes to us through the Holy Spirit. Try to expose the evil too soon, and it will simply slip behind the good and the world will think you’re crazy. It’s when the work of evil begins to really damage God’s creation in ways that simply can’t be denied that the time is right to point and say, “That’s it, that’s the evil one at work!” And so it is that Jesus invites us to lift up our heads when the going gets not only tough, but disastrous. He invites us to see in wars and plagues and floods and earthquakes the buds of spring.

If we watch and wait with patience and discipline, we will be ready when the moment comes. We will say what needs to be said when it needs to be said. We will do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. God will, through us, march into the world and defeat the bloodiest and most powerful of foes without shedding a drop of blood, except, of course, his own.

This is real hope, in all its terror and majesty. Watch for the buds of spring.


Saturday, November 28, 2009

Reign of Christ Year B 2009

Reign of Christ B 09
Thanksgiving Sunday Combined Service
November 22, 2009

2 Samuel 23:1-7
1 Now these are the last words of David: The oracle of David, son of Jesse, the oracle of the man whom God exalted, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel: 2 The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue. 3 The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, 4 is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land. 5 Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure. Will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire? 6 But the godless are all like thorns that are thrown away; for they cannot be picked up with the hand; 7 to touch them one uses an iron bar or the shaft of a spear. And they are entirely consumed in fire on the spot.
Psalm 132:1-18

1 O LORD, remember in David's favor all the hardships he endured; 2 how he swore to the LORD and vowed to the Mighty One of Jacob, 3 "I will not enter my house or get into my bed; 4 I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, 5 until I find a place for the LORD, a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob." 6 We heard of it in Ephrathah; we found it in the fields of Jaar. 7 "Let us go to his dwelling place; let us worship at his footstool." 8 Rise up, O LORD, and go to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. 9 Let your priests be clothed with righteousness, and let your faithful shout for joy. 10 For your servant David's sake do not turn away the face of your anointed one. 11 The LORD swore to David a sure oath from which he will not turn back: "One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne. 12 If your sons keep my covenant and my decrees that I shall teach them, their sons also, forevermore, shall sit on your throne." 13 For the LORD has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his habitation: 14 "This is my resting place forever; here I will reside, for I have desired it. 15 I will abundantly bless its provisions; I will satisfy its poor with bread. 16 Its priests I will clothe with salvation, and its faithful will shout for joy. 17 There I will cause a horn to sprout up for David; I have prepared a lamp for my anointed one. 18 His enemies I will clothe with disgrace, but on him, his crown will gleam."

Revelation 1:4b-8
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. 8 "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

John 18:33-37
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" 34 Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" 35 Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" 36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." 37 Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

God’s Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving is a harvest celebration, one that is very much like many such Fall celebrations throughout human history. In our country, we remember the Puritan’s celebration, with their Massasoit neighbors, of a good year’s harvest and the abundance of God’s providence.

This Thursday, many of us will gather with friends and family to eat the traditional foods of the American thanksgiving, the turkey and the gravy, the buttered corn, the creamed onions and the green bean casserole, the pumpkin and sweet potato pies, and of course, in our local version, fried oysters.

But this morning, Thanksgiving Sunday, I’d like to tell you the story of a different kind of Thanksgiving Meal.

It’s God’s Thanksgiving Meal, and God has invited all the nations. And they have gathered around the table in God’s house. Some are wearing suits, some turbans, and some dashikis. There are many different colored guests, some are peach-colored, some red, some yellow, some brown. Some are big and muscular and some are small and frail. But the table before them is laden with rich and delicious foods.

Sri Lanka is served a big plate of mercy in the form of St John's Center in the Northern part of the country. The center works with twelve refugee camps, home to thousands displaced from their homes due to civil war. St John’s has nineteen volunteers, eleven pastors, one doctor and two nurses who are working tirelessly among the camps in a systematic and coordinated way offering subsistence food, child care centers, trauma counseling, medical assistance, clean water and sanitation.

South Africa is enjoying a bowl of Faith. In the bowl is the Samaritan Care Centre, where Dawn Barnes tells the story of a man named Possible. Possible is from Nigeria. He came to the Samaritan Care Centre after having been shot five times and left for dead. He came because he had nowhere else to go and no one to care for him. He is paralyzed from his waist down. He had been covered in bed sores. For the last two years he had travelled back and forth from Nigeria to South Africa for several surgeries to repair these bed sores. He comes to the Centre to recover from the surgeries until he can get back to his everyday life. Possible is a man that lives out his name…he says all things are "possible" through God. He wants to walk again…he wants to teach again…he wants to be a father again.

Brazil is being served a fragrant cup of Justice. In the cup is the Christian Church’s ministry in Rio de Janeiro, where twenty families were finally granted deeds giving them ownership of the land on which they’d built their shanties after a long battle with the government and the courts.

The Dominican Republic is savoring a plate of Salvation in the form of a ministry called Caminante, meaning "One Who Walks the Path," that serves children who are at risk of being drawn into prostitution. Caminante helps develop the self-esteem of these children by teaching Christian values. Also, Caminante works closely with the families, churches, and the community to raise awareness regarding the complexity of this problem.

South Viet Nam is served a healthy helping of Resurrection in the form of the many children’s centers our church is helping to run there. Our missionary there, Xuyen Dangers, tells the story of a young boy named Sili, one among many the centers in Laos have rescued from the horrors of human trafficking. Sili loved to dance and the center got him into dance and theater training, but as he grew, he finally decided to become a social worker and continue the battle against the trafficking of child slaves. He mounted a production about human trafficking that was performed for the United Nations. He is now a worker in the centers, teaching children yoga and meditation and basic theater skills.

Palestine is enjoying a delicious slice of Healing in the form of a training program near Bethlehem. Thousands of Palestinian children there are suffering the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, unable to sleep through the night, to do their homework and to play with abandon like children in other parts of the world. Janet Wright, a member of Heart of the Rockies Christian Church in Fort Collins, Colorado, traveled with three of her colleagues – mental health therapists – to train twenty-eight West Bank therapists in the use of EMDR, a mental health treatment that reduces the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.And the US is being offered a whole sampler, in the form of health ministries in Virginia, homes for the poor in Appalachia, a community center for at-risk kids in inner city Los Angeles, a center in Alabama for families broken by domestic violence, teams in New Orleans and Texas rebuilding homes for hurricane victims, among many other scrumptious treats. Included in that sampler is the ministry of Philippi Christian Church, who is leading Middlesex County churches in meeting the needs of the growing numbers of poor in our county. Just yesterday, the women of our church held a bake sale to generate funds for this purpose.

But the main dish at every place at the table of God’s Thanksgiving Dinner is delicious platter of grace, in the form of communities just like ours gathering around the good news of the kingdom of God, communities fed and served by pastors formed and trained in the church’s universities and seminaries, communities made up of richly gifted people raised in Sunday Schools and youth groups, nourished in fellowship and study and the transforming Spirit of God, God’s nation of priests.

It is good that we are concerned about the poor and needy. It is indeed what Christ has taught us to be concerned about. Our response to the poor and needy is to be commended; it is a good marshalling of our resources and skills. We raise some significant money through our fundraisers, and that is good. Fundraisers utilize skills we are comfortable and familiar with. Many of us are gifted bakers and cooks. Many of us have stuff around the house we don’t need and would like to get rid of. We all understand shopping, buying and selling. There’s the added benefit of the simple fun of being together.

But what about our evangelism skills? Do we know how to announce the good news of Jesus Christ in fresh and compelling ways? What about our stewardship skills? Do we know how to deny ourselves in order to free more resources for the work of God’s church, and then to manage them together in Christ’s name and for his purposes? What about our ecumenical skills? Do we know how to bring the churches of the world together in order to most effectively deal with the mission we have been given? What about our understanding of God’s word and purposes? Do we know enough about the bible to truly discern God’s will?

These are skills we don’t necessarily feel comfortable with, skills that require discipline and training and commitment. But what might our service to the poor in our country and around the world look like if we did feel comfortable with them, if they were a basic part of our everyday ministries?

What if this morning’s service included not one hundred but four hundred people? What if all of them offered ten percent of their time, talent and treasure to the service of Christ? What if as much as half of that offering could be directed out into the community and the world? What if more people in our county believed in Jesus Christ and had dedicated themselves to serving him? What if the churches in our county worked together in unity, pooling their resources and talent to address the needs of those in any kind of trouble, from our doorsteps to the ends of the earth? What if we partnered with our Regional and General Church to effectively manage our many gifts for the greatest benefit to Christ’s mission, not only here but everywhere? What if the churches throughout the world operated as one?

I am not talking about utopia. I’m talking about real goals that can be meaningfully worked toward. In many ways, we are already working toward them.

At the end of the day, it is true, the church is meant to be a blessing, a feast, to all the nations of the world. At the end of the day, it is about the naked being clothed, the hungry being fed, the thirsty getting something to drink and the sick and imprisoned getting visited. In order to accomplish such work, however, in order even to get to the place where it can be done and done well, the blind must be given sight, the deaf must be given hearing, the demons must be cast out, and the dead must be raised. In other words, people must be called, hearts must be changed, minds must be educated, leaders must be trained and the truth must be made known.

My Liz has gotten big into food and nutrition, and one of the basic rules of good nutrition is the diversity of color on the plate. A multi-colored meal usually means good nutrition. The rule of Jesus Christ and the ministry we do at his command is just such a multi-colored meal. It is true, we are called to reach out from our doorsteps to the ends of the earth, to be and to do the love of God in Jesus Christ. It is also true we are called to announce a true message, teach a true way of life, and grow into something truer and more authentic than we were. For us alone, it is impossible. But with Jesus Christ, everything is possible.

We are the harvest of God, we are the ones that have been gleaned from the fields, netted in the rivers and streams and oceans, we are the ones baked into the loaf, we are the new wineskins into which the new wine has been poured, we are the eternally nourishing bread God has laid on the table for the world. We are the holy nation, the royal priesthood. We are the Thanksgiving Feast that God is serving the world, the living body of Christ.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost Year B 2009

24 Pentecost B 09
November 15, 2009

1 Samuel 1:4-20
4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb. 6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. 7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8 Her husband Elkanah said to her, "Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?" 9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the LORD. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the LORD. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: "O LORD of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head." 12 As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, "How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine." 15 But Hannah answered, "No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time." 17 Then Eli answered, "Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him." 18 And she said, "Let your servant find favor in your sight." Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer. 19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the LORD; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the LORD remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, "I have asked him of the LORD."

1 Samuel 2:1-10
1 Hannah prayed and said, "My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. 2 "There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. 3 Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. 4 The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. 5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. 6 The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. 7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. 8 He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD's, and on them he has set the world. 9 "He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. 10 The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed."

Hebrews 10:11-25
11 And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, "he sat down at the right hand of God," 13 and since then has been waiting "until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet." 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, 16 "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds," 17 he also adds, "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more." 18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Mark 13:1-8
1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" 2 Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.“

Approaching the Throne

There’s a lot of wars and rumors of wars going on today, friends. And I’m particularly susceptible to them, I can tell you. My wife calls me her little dark cloud. I hear about things, and I let them get to me. I worry and worry. And sometimes I wonder how it’s all going to turn out. I was worrying about the recession three years before it happened. I was worrying about worship attendance dropping three years before it happened. I was worrying about poor people in our county when the news-people were all saying the economy was fine. I’ve been worrying about the spiritual state of people in North America for the last seventeen years and I haven’t seen a great deal of reason to stop.

I worry about consumerism. Consumerism is an idol-worshipping religion, you know, a church so widespread and so, well, consuming, that most people don’t even know they belong to it. The god of consumerism is the consumer. Sometimes that’s me and sometimes that’s the other guy, but in the religion of consumerism everyone is a consumer, a member of the church of consumerism, and the only reason anyone produces anything, any good or service or work of art or anything, well, it’s just to make more money to spend on consuming things. Consumerism isn’t about having stuff, it’s about shopping for stuff. Consumerism isn’t about having things, it’s about consuming things, so it requires a constant resupply. Consumerism isn’t about making people happy. It’s about keeping people unhappy enough that they keep consuming.

Consumerism eats everything. It has eaten art, it has eaten philosophy, it has eaten politics, it has eaten ethics, and it’s well on the way to eating faith.

So I feel for old Hannah this morning, friends. There she is in a very troubled Israel. Enemies amassing all around them, lots of corruption among the priesthood of the various temples, and if that wasn’t enough, she’s barren.

I think about her wedding day to Elkanah, all the bridesmaids making bawdy jokes, the groomsmen kidding the groom, everyone asking them how soon they’ll have children. Off they go into their married life, and try and try and try, but no children, no pregnancy. I can imagine her friends giving her all kinds of advice. “Sleep with him when the moon is full. Sleep with him as often as possible. Drink this tea, eat this herb.” Nothing working. I think about the household. It was normal in those days for there to be other wives, and there’s that evil rival, that Penninah, oooh, she must have been hard to live with. She with all the kids, fertile as a rabbit, making snide comments all the time. Now you know that wasn’t a happy home.

Hannah, I know how you feel. I know what it is to look ridiculous, to dream of something you just can’t see happening, to feel worthless and impotent and unimportant.

It’s how I feel about the whole church on earth. I hear people listing all the reasons the Christian faith is exclusive and violent and narrow-minded and hypocritical. I see preachers on TV that make me wince in embarrassment for the Lord I love so much. I hear about the overall decline in religion throughout this country and the whole of the Western world.

What are we going to do, Hannah?

One of my professors from Union Seminary in New York was also the senior pastor at Riverside Church in Harlem. His name was James Forbes and he titled his sermon on this text “Hannah Rose.”

You can find those words in verse 9 of chapter one in the first book of Samuel. The whole verse reads:

“After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the LORD.”

What did Hannah do? “Hannah rose, and presented herself before the LORD.”

And when she knelt before the temple, Hannah wept bitterly. I know, Hannah, I know. I know very well what it is to weep bitterly. I lay in my bed at night and think about how lost I am, how lost God’s people are, how sick this insane world sometimes makes me, and I weep bitterly.

But okay, Hannah. Okay. You prayed to the Lord in your heart of hearts, so deep within yourself you didn’t even make a sound. Your lips moved as you prayed and old Eli, probably the last of the faithful priests of Israel, thought you were drunk. And after you prayed, old Eli came in agreement with your prayer, and off you went.

I remember a day not long after I began at Philippi when I still didn’t know many people and I was very unsure I really should be a pastor at all. This was just about four years ago. I remember that day getting a directory of the church members and going into the sanctuary and getting down on my knees in the aisle facing the cross and going through that directory one by one and praying for everyone in there and everyone else I could think of. It wasn’t long after that things started to change.

Nothing changed, but everything changed. That’s the way it was for you too, wasn’t it, Hannah? You went home, no more weeping, and joined in the eating and drinking. “And her countenance was sad no longer.”

Hmmm. Even before God did a thing, even before your prayers were answered, your countenance was sad no longer.

We have a Lord, Jesus Christ, who spent his earthly life directly confronting the deepest evil in the hearts of humankind. He sought it out, he flushed it out of hiding, and he waved it like a banner in the eyes of everyone. His life and teachings and healings and exorcisms, and above all his death and resurrection, are a living testament to us not only of our disconnection from God, the only real problem challenging us, but that God has indeed forgiven us for that disconnection, and invites us to rise and present ourselves before him.

A lot of Christians get the forgiveness part, and that feels good, I know. It’s the rising-and-presenting-ourselves-before-him part that’s hard to get. But “Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord.”

And Hebrews says, “let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith.”

There’s an old story about the church ladies who met for tea. Millie said to Palmyra, “We must pray for Patricia.” And Palmyra said, “Surely it’s not as bad as that?”

All too often, rising and presenting ourselves before the LORD, offering up everything we have and crying out to him for healing and transformation, is the sort of thing we do only after we’ve gone out and beaten up our rival with a baseball bat, burned down our husband’s house and filed a lawsuit against our obstetrician. Only after all those things don’t work, do we think, “Well, there’s nothing left to do but pray.”

But of course the things we turn to in order to make ourselves feel better might be a great deal more powerful than that. Great buildings, great nations, great corporations, great organizations are built on the desires of people to solve some problem, to address some wrong, to make all those scary things go away. We build great machines that can think faster than we can, that can do microsurgery at the cellular level, we train thousands of soldiers in the art of mass murder, we build multi-billion-dollar planes that can travel faster than sound and can vaporize whole cities. We build sanctuaries that soar into the sky and fill them with thousands of arm-waving believers. And never do we think, will this last? Can we really count on this?

I went to a lovely New Year’s Eve party, formal you know, catered you know, stately mansion on the water you know, beautiful people with sparkling glasses and sparkling diamonds, and I remember one woman saying with a sad kind of tone, “I wonder if the Romans partied like this.”

They’re gone, aren’t they? They with their undefeatable armies and their stately palaces, they with their chariots and mountains of wealth. Did they really think it was going to last? Did they really think what they had could be counted on in the long run?

Every day is the end of a world and the beginning of a new one. There will come a day when no church building stands on this spot, a day when it might very well be covered with salt water. There will come a day when our national monuments will be crumbling ruins, when our great machines rust under the ground, when our family names have been forgotten for generations. But God will still be there, and God’s word will still be there, and someone somewhere will be reading Jesus’ words, in some language none of us would recognize, “Do you see these great buildings?”

And someone somewhere will remember that Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord, and the prophet Samuel was his answer. And while they are remembering, will they remember the people that lived in the early twenty-first century in America? Certainly they won’t remember me or you, but maybe, just maybe they will remember us, the church, the people of God? Will they remember that we turned from the idols of our day and presented ourselves to the Lord, or will they list us with the ones that were led astray? Will they remember that we presented ourselves to the Lord, and will they remember how he answered us and turned the tide of history? Or will they remember that we never even asked?


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Twenty-third Sunday After Pentecost Year B 2009

23 Pentecost B 09
November 8, 2009

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
1 Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, "My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. 2 Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3 Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do." 5 She said to her, "All that you tell me I will do."
13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, "Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him." 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. 17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Naomi." They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

Psalm 127
1 Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain. 2 It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved. 3 Sons are indeed a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. 4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one's youth. 5 Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them. He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

Hebrews 9:24-28
24 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; 26 for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Mark 12:38-44
38 As he taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

Three Widows

Our scriptures today tell us about three widows, Ruth, Naomi and a nameless widow who lived over a thousand years after them.

Our remembrance today is nearly miraculous. We are remembering two people that lived over three thousand years ago and another two thousand years ago. This is the marvel of scripture.

All of you who like to remember the good old days will enjoy this one, because the story of Ruth is a story from the good old days. Not long after the time of Moses and Joshua, when the people of God had settled in the land, there was a period that is covered by the book of Judges. These indeed were the good old days. There was no king but God in Israel back then, no need of palaces or temples or cities. Israel was an tribal and agrarian nation who practiced among themselves a religion marvelous to behold.

From our point of view today, of course, there is probably a lot that is wrong with Jewish society in that period. But for the people of the day, their society could only be compared to the societies around them, which were all much, much more brutal and violent. It was also not a time of uniform faithfulness; there was a good bit of backsliding here and there, but these periods were relatively short-lived.

Among the unusual practices of the Jewish people in the time of the Judges was their hospitality to strangers. Another was their tender care for the weakest and poorest among them. So it was that when Naomi and Ruth and Orpah all lost their husbands while living in Moab, Naomi, a faithful Jew who knew her people would take care of her, decided to return to them. She urged Orpah and Ruth, her daughters-in-law, to return to their mothers, as was apparently the custom in Moab. Orpah did so, but Ruth chose a different path.

“Where you go, I will go. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

A widow in the ancient world, particularly one without sons, was a deeply vulnerable person. One very consistent dimension of God’s personality as it is described in the Old Testament was his concern for widows, orphans and strangers. This concern is repeated again and again. God commands his people to care for the widow, the orphan and the alien sojourner at least twenty times in the Old Testament law. He promises blessings to those who do, and wrath to those who neglect them.

For example, we find in Exodus 22:

21 You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. 23 If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; 24 my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.

And so it was that Boaz, a faithful Jew blessed with wealth, welcomed and cared for both Naomi and Ruth. Later in the books of the Kings, we hear the story of the widow of Zarephath, who, in the midst of the evil and unjust rule of Ahab and Jezebel, gives herself into the hands of the Lord by welcoming his prophet, and is sustained by a never-ending supply of grain and oil.

Interestingly enough, as it turns out, despite his wealth, Boaz himself was a man in need. In our story today, Naomi coaches Ruth in the art of seduction and sends her off to join herself in marriage to Boaz.

The faithfulness of these two widows, along with the faithfulness of Boaz, becomes the spring out of which pours Israel’s greatest king, David, and centuries later, David’s descendent, one Jesus of Nazareth.

Fast forward twelve hundred years, and we find Ruth’s descendent in critical opposition to the temple religion of Israel in his day. The good old days are long over. Israel has been deeply troubled and compromised for hundreds of years. I read a wonderful sermon that described this scene as if it were a movie made by a brilliant filmmaker.

It begins with a close-up of Jesus, teaching about the religion of the scribes, who were the bible teachers of Israel’s day, held in deep honor by all the people. They wore long and fancy robes and were always seated at the best places at the table. Among their duties, they often counseled people who were having financial difficulties, for a fee of course, and were even sometimes investors on behalf of their clients. In Jesus’ day, it appears that they were not above getting everything they could out of those who were most vulnerable. Jesus says, “They devour widows’ houses, and say long prayers for the sake of appearances.”

One black preacher titled her sermon on this story “Have You Got Good Religion?” Jesus is contrasting not the difference between faith and unbelief, but the difference between true religion and false. The people of Israel deeply respected their scribes and believed in their teachings. But Jesus is warning his followers that careful discernment must be exercised, as the teaching of the scribes was warped by their own unknowing hypocrisy.

It’s highly unlikely that the scribe got up every morning and thought, “Today I will be a religious hypocrite,” anymore than an addict gets up in the morning and says, “Today I will deliberately ruin my life.” The ministry of Jesus during his earthly life, as Hebrews tells us today, was directed at the problem of sin, and the reality of sin is that it is, as the twelve-step fellowships tell us, “insidious, baffling and powerful.” Most of us are blind to our own sin. We are blessed with the gospel accounts so that we might come to be able to remove the log from our own eyes, before we remove the speck from our neighbor’s. The sin of the scribe was not readily apparent; he appeared pious, successful, confident and authoritative. His prayers were long and beautifully constructed. He said all the things people expected religious leaders to say. How could he be wrong?

The shot then widens to show us that Jesus is sitting opposite the temple, observing it, while his disciples stand around him. The scene is busy and crowded. Near the temple wall are metal receptacles shaped like trumpets into which people toss coins as offerings to the temple treasury. We see elegantly garbed people—might some of them be the very scribes Jesus just finished describing?—tossing handfuls of heavy gold coins into the trumpets, and we hear the loud clanging of their descent.

But then, as if on cue, the camera zooms in on an old widow in tattered clothes, the very victim Jesus had just mentioned, making her way through the bustling crowd. At the trumpets she digs into her bag and withdraws two small copper pennies. She looks at them with a thoughtful expression, perhaps thinking of the meal they could buy her that day, a meal she will have to go without in order to make an offering to the Lord. At last, with a sigh, she drops her two coins into the trumpet and disappears into the crowd.

The shot shifts to Jesus watching her in amazement. He urgently calls his disciples to pay attention.

"Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

“Everything she had.” In the face of the terrible injustice she had suffered, she nevertheless continued to be faithful to God. In her offering, she becomes as Christ himself, believing and trusting in the face of every reason not to. And today, we remember her, and she lives again among us. Today she is our teacher.

I heard a story from Jim Perry, the chairperson of the Region’s Mission and Stewardship Committee, about a missionary to China that returned home to report to congregations. At one congregation, after he’d finished his presentation, someone asked, “What can we do to help?” The missionary responded, “It’s not they who need help from you. It’s you who need help from them.” He went on to explain how the congregations in China had been built in the midst of horrific persecution. They’d had to meet in utmost secrecy. They’d had to memorize the scriptures because it was too dangerous for people to own bibles. Yes, perhaps there are some things we have to share with them. But the missionary was also pointing out that there was an even more precious things they could share with a wealthy and complacent American congregation, passionate faithfulness.

Three widows have more to offer us than we have to offer them. And so it may also be for the whole church on earth. By seeking out and knowing those in the deepest need, we just might find the passionate faith we lack.


Thursday, November 5, 2009

All Saints Sunday Year B 2009

The Lost Sermon

I regret to say that somehow my sermon for All Saints, which was entitled "Coming Out of the Tomb" was both lost on my computer and from the pulpit where I'd left it on Sunday.

Below then are some excerpts from the last drafts before I finally edited the sermon.

All Saints B 09
November 1, 2009

Isaiah 25:6-9
6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. 7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. 9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Psalm 24
1 The earth is the LORD's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; 2 for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers. 3 Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? 4 Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. 5 They will receive blessing from the LORD, and vindication from the God of their salvation. 6 Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. 7 Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. 8 Who is the King of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle. 9 Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. 10 Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory.

Revelation 21:1-6a
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." 5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." 6 Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

John 11:32-44
32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" 37 But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days." 40 Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."

Protestants don’t think they play the saint game. A lot of them will tell you that’s a Roman Catholic thing. But if you don’t think we play the saint game, I invite you to check out the hallway between the Fellowship Hall and the Sanctuary. Or just look at the door to the United Bible Study room, which bears a plaque which reads, “The Mildred Barnes Room.” Or go down to the bathrooms in the education wing, and see the pictures of Carl Prince that hang there.

Of course, we often also speak of living saints, people we know and love who seem to ooze the Holy Spirit, to have God’s power and grace just pouring out of their ears. But the tradition of All Saints Day is to celebrate the resurrection of saints, their ongoing power to be both in heaven and on earth after they have died.

Lazarus, for reasons that we are not told, was obviously deeply important to the many people whom we find mourning his death. We know from other passages in John, that the sisters Mary and Martha, and presumably their brother with them, were important disciples of Jesus and were a significant part of his community. There is another story that raises the image of a houseful of guests, Martha running around attending to them, Mary at the feet of Jesus. From this story we might imagine that this household was a meeting place for Jesus and his community, a place at which he frequently stayed, perhaps even a kind of headquarters for his movement.

The grief of the community at Lazarus’ death was profound. Even Jesus wept. The story seems to be a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death at the end of John’s gospel. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and Lazarus emerged from the tomb to rejoin the community that needed his presence so desperately.

When John of Patmos had his revelatory visions, he was seeing those who had given their lives in testimony to Jesus Christ’s eternal lordship over the whole earth. They had all been killed by earthly lords threatened by this seemingly inconsequential carpenter from Nazareth. John was calling them out of heaven to be present in the suffering churches to whom he was writing as a comfort and a hope.

We need to make a distinction here between going to heaven and resurrection from the dead. All who die, we believe, have some spiritual destiny beyond death. Many have testified after near-death experiences of a journey guided by dead loved ones to a place of light. Some of us also hold that there may be some terrible place, something like a burn pile, where those who have died in the grip of the demonic go. But neither the ascent into heaven nor the descent into hell is resurrection.

Resurrection and eternal life is the ability to continue to be active both in heaven and in the living world after one has died. It is not like the history of great men or women which simply associates a name with a change in history’s direction, as an answer to the question “Why are things the way they are now?” In fact, the more ordinary science of history, in a very real sense, began in Judaism and Christianity. It was the Jews who really began to consider the possibility that recording events for posterity might be useful in discerning bigger patterns in the ever-changing life of nations and peoples, patterns that might serve to warn and inspire their descendants.

But resurrection and eternal life is more than historical relevance. Jesus, while certainly historically relevant, is also actually present and alive among us in the present. And we believe and are committed to his being alive and among those who come after us, until the end of time. He was for us the first to achieve this resurrection, but he was not the last.

Of course, there is another dimension to resurrection, perhaps, and All Saints may carry this meaning as well. There have been millions of people who have served Christ in obscurity and anonymity throughout history, who have been content to shed their own names and to take on his. If not for all of them, if not for all their work, if not for their disciplined remembrance of those who had gone before them, none of us would be here now. Just as there is a tomb for the unknown soldier, so perhaps there is a resurrection of the unknown saints.

But I think most of us know that real resurrection, the real remembrance we all do together when we gather around the table of Jesus, is something quite special, granted only to those who went far beyond showing up and doing their parts.

So who would we like Jesus to call out of the tomb this morning? Who should continue to be present among us as we gather on Sunday morning? Whom would we like loosed from heaven to share with us some crucial teaching or insight, something we must continue to remember in order to be faithful to Christ and his mission?

Far be it from me to name the names of Philippi’s saints. It’s not my choice that matters. This is a matter for the church, the assembly of believers, and not for any one person. Who do you propose and why?

(The congregation then called out names of those of Philippi's history whose influence is still felt.)

My list is not from this congregation. My list is from the whole church on earth. And it’s a short list. I made it up just from memory, and I suppose it demonstrates who in the history of the church continues to speak to me.

The first and most important name on my list is of course Jesus of Nazareth.

In addition, the ones that I see present among us this morning, alive, even though they have died, are Moses, David, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Paul, Peter, John, James, John of Patmos, Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Martha, Lydia, Bartimaeus, Ananias, the beloved disciple, whoever he was, Athanasius, Augustine of Hippo, Anthony, Jerome, Thomas Becket, Francis of Assisi, Theresa of Avila, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Carl Zwingli, John Wesley, Charles Wesley, Jonathon Edwards, Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Mother Theresa.


Friday, October 30, 2009

Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost Year B 2009

21 Pentecost B 09
October 25, 2009

Job 42:1-6, 10-17
1 Then Job answered the LORD: 2 "I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 3 'Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?' Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4 'Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.' 5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6 therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes."
10 And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11 Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. 12 The LORD blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. 13 He also had seven sons and three daughters. 14 He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. 15 In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job's daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. 16 After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children's children, four generations. 17 And Job died, old and full of days.

Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22
1 I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. 2 My soul makes its boast in the LORD; let the humble hear and be glad. 3 O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together. 4 I sought the LORD, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. 5 Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. 6 This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD, and was saved from every trouble. 7 The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. 8 O taste and see that the LORD is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.
19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all. 20 He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken. 21 Evil brings death to the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned. 22 The LORD redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

Hebrews 7:23-28
23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. 26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.

Mark 10:46-52
46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" 49 Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." 52 Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

What Do You Want Jesus to Do for You?

I was reviewing some of my sermons from the last time, three years ago, that these lessons from our lectionary came around and I was remembering that sometime early in my ministry here in Deltaville, I said to you all that I was here for one reason. It’s right there in the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, in chapter 2. I am here to know Jesus among you.

Jesus, like every other ordinary human being, relates to each person and group that approaches him differently. This is one of the wonderful things about living people. You never really know a living person is going to do. It keeps things interesting. I never really know how Jesus is going to respond to people, what he’s going to say to them, what he will give them or won’t give them or can’t give them, or what he asks of them. We are unique among the religions of the world, because we believe we have a living God. A living God relates to living people, and that can be very unpredictable.

Jesus promised his disciples that whenever they gathered to remember him, he would be with them. I believe the resurrection is just that simple. It’s important to remember that Jesus never said that he would come to any individual who remembered him, but exclusively when more than one was gathered in his name.

We’re not here to remember Jesus’ laws. We’re not here to remember Jesus’ teaching. We’re not here to remember Jesus’ healing. We’re not here to remember Jesus’ death. We’re here to remember him. We do that by remembering the stories that shaped him and the stories about him and the stories about other people who saw him after he rose from the dead.

A word like interpretation doesn’t do justice really to what we do on Sunday morning. And it may be people are staying away from churches because so many churches reduce Sunday morning to something smaller, more bite-size. We get together to figure out the law of God, or we get together to celebrate how we all think alike, or we get together to enjoy getting together, or we get together to get castigated or affirmed or to get a little fuel for the coming week, or we get together to cope with the difficulties and challenges of our lives.

But what we’re really doing is participating in a miracle. On the first day of every week, Jesus comes out of the tomb and comes among his people and relates to them. On every Sunday morning, we get together and even though Jesus was crucified and died, we find that he is alive and accessible to us, and all we have to do to experience his living presence is to remember him.
And when we remember him he comes among us and he does all the unpredictable things real living people do. I never know really what he’s going to do.

The risen Jesus is in the process of saving me. I have a pretty good idea of what that salvation looks like and I even have a fairly good idea of how he is doing it. Of course, I’m only one person. I happen to be called by Jesus to fill a certain role in the midst of the church, and as I attempt to fulfill that role, Jesus saves me. I am aware also that through me, as I serve him, he seems to be saving others as well, not only here in Deltaville, but all over the world.

Just look at the stories we’ve heard this month from the tenth chapter of Mark. All of the stories are about Jesus meeting people and relating to people. But Jesus dealt with each group or person differently. He was on his way to Jerusalem, to confront people like the temple priests and the Roman governor. He clearly had an overall mission, a strategy he was following, a purpose. He even tried to let his disciples know what that purpose was, but they never seemed to get it.
Along the way, some people actually came looking for Jesus. Other people just happen to be there as he was passing through. We know from Mark’s overall story that Jesus was being talked about widely. News was spreading about him all over Israel. We know though that different people came to different conclusions about who he was and what he was doing. Some came looking for him, some just waited, hoping he might show up. Some hated him and were plotting to kill him.

If we remember Jesus when we come together, and he comes out of the tomb and encounters us, we can be pretty sure that the same kind of news will spread around the community here. We can be pretty sure that different people will come to different conclusions about who he is and what he’s doing. Some will come looking, some will hope he’s come to them, some will want him back in the tomb.

One of the things we remember by reading Mark’s chapter 10 is that Jesus did not give everyone who came to him what they asked him for, nor was he always successful in changing them. The Pharisees didn’t get the answer they were looking for. The rich man didn’t accept his offer. He told James and John that he didn’t have what they wanted from him. The people that were following Jesus often did the opposite of what he was trying to get them to do. They tried to keep the children from him, for example. So we can be sure that if Jesus comes out of the tomb and encounters us, some will not get the answers they’re looking for, some will not accept Jesus’ offer, some will ask for something Jesus doesn’t have to give, some who are his disciples will do exactly the opposite of what he’s asking of them.

In reading Mark’s chapter 10 this month, we remembered Jesus encountering theologians, religious experts, and we remember how he dealt with them. There are theologians and religious experts here in Deltaville, maybe even here in the congregation. If he comes out of the tomb, we can be pretty sure they’ll have some questions for him. His answer to them might not satisfy them, and they might even end up wanting him dead again.

We remembered Jesus encountering a rich but very ethical man, who asked Jesus about his offer of eternal life. Jesus loved him and told him what he needed to do, but the rich man was unable to accept what Jesus said. If Jesus comes out of the tomb here in Deltaville, he might very well encounter some rich, very ethical people. We remember he said that while it may be humanly impossible for a rich person to accept him, that nothing is impossible with God. Some might turn away, shocked and grieved. But anything is possible.

We remembered Jesus encountering people bringing children to him for blessing. We remember his disciples keeping them away from him, and Jesus correcting them, and using the opportunity to teach them about God’s kingdom. There are certainly people in Deltaville that might like to bring children to be blessed by Jesus, and there might very well be disciples who’d like to keep them away. They are, after all, a lot of trouble, children.

We remembered this month that two of Jesus’ followers came to Jesus looking for status and power over the other disciples, and we remembered that Jesus told them they didn’t really know what they were asking, and it seems obvious that they didn’t. His answer to them we ultimately no, basically because what they were asking wasn’t his to grant them. We can be pretty sure if Jesus comes out of the tomb here on Sunday mornings and encounters us, there might be those who are looking for status and recognition and power over the rest, that they might not even understand what they’re asking, and that they’ll find out such power and status and recognition is not in his possession to offer. Of course, they might also find that he has a way and a path to offer, whether they really understand it or not.

And today we remember a blind beggar who just happened to be sitting along the way Jesus was going. He had heard about Jesus and was apparently hoping Jesus might come by. He had come to a conclusion about Jesus, one that seems to have been different than the conclusions drawn by the Pharisees or the rich man or even the disciples themselves, who seem to think he should leave Jesus alone.

He calls Jesus “Son of David.” He is the only person in Mark’s gospel that called Jesus by this title. This simple title tells us many things. It tells us that he remembers Israel’s story. It tells us he knew that the Messiah was to be the son of David. It tells he knew that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s plan for Israel. And what he asked of the Messiah, the Son of David, is very simple. He asked for mercy.

Bartimaeus, and it is significant that we are told his name, asked for mercy. He saw himself as someone afflicted by God. Moreover, he saw himself as deserving to be afflicted by God. Once he had been able to see, and we don’t know what the nature of his wrongdoing was, or how his faith had failed, and maybe even he doesn’t know what he’d done or failed to do, but because he asks for mercy, we know that he understood his blindness as his rightful due.

We’re accustomed to thinking of sin as personal. But Bartimaeus, we don’t know for sure of course, might have thought of sin as something that affects groups, and he might have seen himself as a Jew, part of a group who had become unfaithful to their Judaism. Because part of the group had become unfaithful, other parts of the group became tainted or stained. It’s the nature of corruption, isn’t it? The disease spreads. Good cells go bad because they are infected by the bad cells next to them. But as I say, we don’t really know why Bartimaeus accepts his blindness as his due.

This is a very different approach from the approach of the Pharisees or the rich man or James and John.

And today we remember that Jesus called Bartimaeus. He called him and asked him the same question he asked of James and John. “What is it you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus doesn’t ask for power and he doesn’t ask to inherit eternal life and he doesn’t ask Jesus to solve a question of the law of Moses. He asked to be able to see again, without any sense of entitlement.

Jesus comes out of the tomb this morning. And we can be pretty sure there are people who once were able to see but now can’t, who simply aren’t able to go looking for Jesus, but are just waiting for him to come by. And we can be pretty sure there might even be disciples among us who want to keep Jesus from such people.

And we remember together this morning that Jesus granted Bartimaeus his request. And we can be pretty sure that as he comes among us this morning, he will grant the same request. He will answer the cry of a sinner with God’s mercy, and make that sinner whole.

And we remember this morning also that Bartimaeus threw off his beggar’s cloak, and followed Jesus on the way. And if he is coming out of his tomb among us this morning, there might just be someone who will do the same thing.