Sunday, November 28, 2010

An Unexpected Hour (sermon for the 1st Sunday in Advent 2010)

She whispered to me, "Do you know where I belong?"

I was in my early months at Philippi. I had gone to Mizpah Nursing Home to visit Cornelia Kennard. That was what was on my to-do list. I had a bunch of other names on that list, people I aimed to visit, and I had finished with Cornelia and was walking down the hall toward the door and my car.

For some reason there seemed to be a good bit of shadow in the hallway that day. And standing before me in the darkness was a tall woman, a very beautiful woman. Have you noticed how the very old often become strikingly beautiful? As I hurried by her, the new young pastor on the very important mission, she whispered, "Do you know where I belong?"

I was rather undone. I looked around for staff, but saw none. I felt a little panicky, truth be told. I told the woman to stay where she was and I ran back to the nurse's station and told them about her. I'm not sure why I felt there was such an emergency. People call out to you at nursing homes all the time. Often they themselves don't realize what they are doing. But with her I felt sure that she really needed help.

Her words began to haunt me as a drove to my next visit. And that haunting sense grew and grew. It finally dawned on me that I had missed a reign of God moment.

What's a reign of God moment? I'm glad you asked.

Years before the Mizpah incident, I was dating Liz, I was a divorced dad and there came a time one Advent season when Liz finally met my daughter Hilary, who was then nine years old. I believe it was at a Christmas party at Faith Lutheran Church, where I was pastor. In that setting Liz could meet Hilary without necessarily announcing that she was my girlfriend. In the course of chatting, Hilary, who was beginning to go through a pretty hard time, mentioned to Liz that she had begun to doubt that Santa Claus was real.

I suppose it was the next weekend, pretty close to Christmas, and I had Hilary with me. We'd gone to the movies. I don't remember what we had gone to see, but we'd planned it earlier that week. When we returned to the car we discovered that it was filled with Christmas presents. We could hardly get into the car. The first thing we checked were the little cards attached to each one. They were all meant for Hilary, and they were all, every one, signed "Santa."

Even I at that point had no idea where the presents had come from and I have to say I was awed. It was only later I learned about Liz' conversation with Hilary. But at that moment I was as stunned as Hilary and of course she was watching me carefully for signs of sneakiness, but couldn't find a drop.

In the course of prior conversations, Liz had gotten the scoop about where Hilary and I were going that day, without letting on her purpose. And then, while we were in the movie, she'd driven around the parking lot until she found my car. She had a spare key and put the presents in there. At least that's what I finally figured out. She never did admit it.

A reign of God moment had come for Liz, and she had been ready.

I've made up this term, "a reign of God moment." First off, I need to tell you that the word is "reign" as in "rule" rather than "rain" as in "water falling from the sky." The reign of God sounds less masculine and exclusive than "kingdom of God" but that's pretty much what it means.

There are three elements to a reign of God moment, and all three have to be present in order for the moment to be a true reign of God moment.

The first element is surprise. A true reign of God moment always defies expectation. You know, I've known people in the course of my life who think that such moments are their entitlement, and they become resentful of people around them for not providing them. This rather amazes me. If you expect it, it can't be a reign of God moment. It's not something people can do without divine inspiration. You can't expect people to have divine revelation whenever you want them to. A reign of God moment is always a surprise.

The second element of a reign of God moment is that it always summons to mind, immediately and undeniably, God. There are plenty of nice things people do for each other, all kinds of loving and sweet things, and some of them are surprising. But a reign of God moment is never about how wonderful a person is. It's always about how wonderful God is.

The third crucial element of a reign of God moment is that, despite the moment pointing to God, it is a moment brought about through a human being. I suppose there are some miracles that are simply the invisible hand of God reaching into a situation and doing something, and those are certainly wonderful. But a reign of God moment is when God takes over a human being and does something through that human being, something surprising and something that glorifies God. A reign of God moment is always carried out by a human being.

So a reign of God moment is when God uses an ordinary human being to bring about a surprising and wonderful moment that glorifies God. The key issue then is not how we do such things, but how we become ready to let God come into our bodies and take over whenever he wants to.

In the case of the poor woman in the nursing home hallway, it seemed to me there was an opportunity to really comfort that woman in a way she might never have expected, in a way that might have made God present to her right then. I was being offered the opportunity to be God's presence to her and I missed it. I wasn't ready. I was asleep.

Jesus teaches us quite a bit about readiness, about staying awake. And many people understand this to mean being ready for death, and many people understand this as being ready for the rapture, but I believe those things are bigger things than Jesus wants us to be concerned about, the wars and rumors of wars and the nations rising up against nations. Certainly we should work for justice and speak out about what we believe is right. But the reign of God moments are much more spontaneous and unpredictable than that.

An example can be taken from the civil rights movement in the sixties. I believe it was a white preacher who was marching with the blacks in Selma or someplace. One of the outraged bystanders walked up to him and spit in his face.

Now the issue of the day was the great issue, the issue of equal rights under the law, and that is certainly a good issue and it was a great thing that all those folks were there marching about it. But the reign of God moment was right there, right there when a violently angry person spit into a minister's face, the opportunity was right there for God to take over that minister's body. And the divine grace was there, and the minister was ready.

He said, "Do you have a handkerchief?"

And his enemy, without thinking, reached into his back pocket and pulled one out and gave it to the minister before he could even think about what he was doing. A perfect reign of God moment.

Christmas was the first reign of God moment, and the perfect epitome of all the others after it. It is the unexpected and glorious entrance of God into the troubled world in the form of an ordinary human being. God came in Jesus, and God wants to come in each one of us. I wasn't ready that day in Mizpah. But years before, when a troubled little girl confessed her dying faith, Liz had been ready, ready to receive the spirit of God, ready to become God's physical presence in the troubled world.

That's what discipleship is, friends. It's all about getting ready and staying ready, about watching and waiting for the unexpected hour. It's about longing to be filled with God's Spirit, to be the instrument of the surprising and glorious moment of God's coming. It's about becoming the Son of Man for that very special and healing moment.

It's about Christmas.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Food That Endures (sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday)

I went rock fishing with my wife yesterday during the short 36 hour visit she had down here before returning this morning to care for her mother in Boston. Our 10 hour trip yielded exactly three fish.

The ways of fish are impenetrable. Our captain, whose apt nickname is "Pudd'n," assured us that there were many fish, but that they simply weren't acting right. To bring home his point we were usually surrounded by large numbers of other vessels, their hind ends bristling with trolling lines, implying that like Pudd'n, the captains thereof were convinced of the immanence of fish.

For a time we were in the Piankatank, right where the river bends sharply northward toward the bridge. We circled there so many times, and passed the same homes so often, one of our group commented that we might send those folks Christmas cards this year. But while we were there, we did have the privilege of riding through one of those fascinating moments in the great cycle of nature, of which, of course, we were a part.

Waiting patiently on various docks around this particular stretch of water was a large flock of seagulls. At one point they rose as a body into the air and fell like kamakaze fighter planes on a little area just off our bow. This was one of those feeding frenzies brought on by the bait fish rising close to the surface, where the seagulls could get at them.

We rode right through it, our eyes fixed on our lines. Why? Because the rise of the baitfish to the surface most likely had been caused by the rock fish hunting them. Did we catch one? No, we did not.

Like I said, the ways of fish are impenetrable. My point here is that we were there and the baitfish were there, and the seagulls were there, all involved in the amazing dance that has gone on for lo, these many millennia. I have no doubt that native american indians had for hundreds if not thousands of years also been out there in their canoes doing just the same thing, albeit probably with greater success.

And at the same time, you know, we in the boat sidled back and forth, from port to starboard, following the sun on that crisp fall day. Whenever the boat would turn, the roof over the deck would cast its shadow and we would be too cold. A move to the other side put us in the sun, which quickly warmed us. I am sure there were any number of other living creatures, all around us out there, plants and animals of all kinds, that were similarly turning themselves to receive the warmth of the fall sun.

We caught three fish, but I also caught a powerful, almost overwhelming sense of the huge and loving and impartial generosity of God. The world was filled with light and air and warmth and food. Who did it all belong to? Certainly not me. And yet it was all there before me, like the table of a feast.

Much of the industrial food production system that we have created in this modern world is turning out to be not so good for us, if not positively bad for us. One of our party remarked that few rural people starved during the depression because the country was accustomed to growing and trading local foods, a practice that required no cash. Before the advent of the single-planting seed, seeds could be harvested and saved and planted again. When only local populations were eating the produce of the bay, fish and oyster and crab populations could easily stay large and vital. God provided pretty much all that was needed for life. Now, when very few people grow their own food, and even farmers have to purchase seed every year anew, and when seafood is shipped in great quantities all around the world, an economic crisis might very well leave people hungry.

In North America we produce enough food to feed the world, but how it is distributed and marketed somehow ends up leaving huge populations hungry. The weight loss industry in our country alone is worth about 45 billion dollars a year, and the impact on the health care system of obesity-related disease is in the billions as well. It seems every time we turn around there is another outbreak of some infection spread all over the country by industrial food production.

I believe it is a tenet of the Jewish and Christian tradition that scarcity is caused by human beings. And by scarcity I don't mean some spiritualized idea of poverty, but the kind of scarcity that actually causes people to starve or to die of diseases for which there is a simple cure. Scarcity is caused by fear.

Jesus invites his followers to stop orienting their lives and the morals and their choices around their fears of not having enough, and begin to live into the generosity of God. He'd just finished multiplying the loaves and fishes. The people were chasing him because it seemed to them that he could continue to feed them. Of course, Jesus feeding the five thousand was a concrete example of the power of God and of God's abundant provision for everyone. That was the lesson it was to teach, but the people were still being motivated by their fear.

Jesus is hoping that we might hear about the deeper significance of the feeding miracle. Jesus is hoping that we might see that the world as God has created it is a place of abundance and plenty for all of God's creatures, including humankind. Jesus is hoping that we might take in that the problem of scarcity is not caused by God not providing enough, but by the inequities of human systems of sharing.

Thanksgiving is one of the basic practices of Jewish and Christian people. Indeed one of the traditional Greek names for the ritual of the Lord's Supper means "thanksgiving." It's interesting to me that one of the levels of our Thanksgiving tradition is the remembrance of the ways native people helped the Pilgrims to make use of local foods, thus saving them from starvation. For the native people of the Americas, a person could no more own the land than own the sea or sky. Everything was there by the generosity of their idea of God. If the Pilgrims had been open to the native's beliefs, they might soon have discovered some real similarities to their own.

Thanksgiving is the way that God's generosity becomes ours. This story we heard this morning comes to us from the gospel of John, in which is written many a Christian's favorite verse. Say it with me now: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son." God loved, and God gave.

In our gratitude for God's provision is the seed of our own generosity. As we gather with our families, and give thanks for food and love and life and sun and children and old people, let's open our hearts to the marvelous truth of Christ: God provides enough for all.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

A New Earth (a sermon for the 25th Sunday After Pentecost Year C, 2010)

Did you ever wonder exactly why early Christians got in trouble so much?

Most Jews were made very angry by Christians. They barred them from synagogue worship, they sometimes whipped them and even murdered them as blasphemers, and they also did what they could to get Christians in trouble with the Romans. What do you suppose made the Jews so angry?

And what was it about the Christians that made the Romans so nervous? They were more or less constantly hounding them, arresting them, torturing them and even killing them.

In the early years of Christianity, the religion was officially pacifist. Soldiers, if they wanted to be Christian, had to resign from soldiering. You couldn't even hold office in the Roman government because the government engaged in warfare and a violent system of punishment for crime. The point here is that Christians were utterly unarmed and were strictly constrained from doing violence for any reason. What therefore was threatening about them?

We know that many Christians came together to live in community. We know all of them that were wealthy voluntarily liquidated much of their property and contributed it to the community to be redistributed. We know that the church sought out and supported widows and orphans, people too old or too young to work and who were not being cared for by their families.

We know these communities had rich worship and prayer lives and that from the very beginning they celebrated baptism and the Lord's Supper. We know they didn't have buildings, but met in people's homes. We know they were egalitarian, mixing many ethnic groups and classes together, and empowering leadership regardless of ethnicity or gender or class, at least until late in Paul's life, perhaps even later, when women's equality was again brought into question.

We know that evangelists, deacons and apostles travelled far and wide and that they performed miracles not unlike the ones Jesus had done before the resurrection. They healed the sick, raised the dead, fed multitudes, travelled supernaturally, stilled storms, and cast out spirits and demons that possessed people.

What is it in any of this that might have caused the Romans or the Jews so much anxiety?

It appears in Acts that the Jewish authorities were really angry that the Christians kept saying that Jesus wasn't dead, even though everyone had seen him get crucified on Good Friday. The Jewish authorities kept telling the Christians to stop saying that, but the Christians wouldn't listen. The reason the Christians gave for bucking the Jewish authorities? They had to obey God rather than people. God apparently had commanded them to announce that Jesus was alive, and to keep announcing it.

Why was this so upsetting?

In Acts, it appears that there were economic consequences to this message. Paul healed the slave girl with the demon and deprived her owners of the rich income she brought. Paul got everyone to denounce idols and the city's lucrative idol factories died for want of customers.

But this wasn't all. In this same letter of Paul to the Thessalonians we heard this morning, Paul goes to some length speaking about the "man of lawlessness," which modern Christians maybe think of as the devil. But many of us believe it much more likely that Paul was talking about the emperor of Rome.

A very small percentage of the people living under the Roman Empire lived well. That being said, there were a lot of people living under the Roman Empire. So that small percentage of wealthy people made up a pretty big number. Merchants, politicians, officers in the military, tax collectors, local royalty, priests of various religious sects, these were the people who had the resources to live what must have been pretty delightful lives. But the vast majority of peoples living under the Romans lived miserable, short and desperate lives, because the fruits of their labor and toil mostly went to the delightful lives of the relatively few.

The promise of Isaiah, that laborers would not have to give up the fruits of their labors to oppressors, came to pass, but in a strange and miraculous way.

The Christian communities, at least at the beginning, really seemed to bring about justice. The few who were well-to-do used their resources to re-endow those who had been robbed of theirs. We have evidence also in Paul's letters that resources also flowed from well-to-do congregations to those suffering want.

Now it's important here to recognize that there is no evidence that the Christians had any agenda to get the Romans to adopt the Christian way of life. They certainly were not a political party. But it was obvious to many of the poor just whose side the Christians were on. And I suspect it was obvious to the Romans as well.

It's also obvious that then as now, some folks sought to take advantage of the Christians. They probably were pretending to be teachers like Paul and demanding that they be taken care of. We think this because Paul calls them "busybodies," presumably because they were sticking their noses in everyone's business instead of actually preaching and teaching the gospel. Jesus warns about them in his sermon today, saying that many will come claiming to be him, but not to believe them. Paul doesn't deny that apostles and teachers should be cared for by the congregation, but he has the number of those idlers who were using the churches as a means to an easy life.

The Romans and their local minions were constantly pouring out propaganda to the poor about how Roman exploitation of the poor was actually good for everyone, and every once in a while the Romans would stage big impressive entertainments and pass out free bread to convince the poor they actually were taking care of them. It was very important for the Romans and the Jews who were getting rich and powerful under Roman rule that the poor never wake up to their majority, and never recognize what was really being done to them.

The Christians were gaining supporters for themselves from among the poor, who were very very many, and these poor people, because of the concrete generosity of the church, began to believe in Jesus and not in Herod or Caesar or the rest of the ruling class, who were rather few, comparatively speaking.

And so it was that Christians were turning the world upside down. Making a new earth is a tumultuous and rowdy business. When God raised Jesus from the dead, God threw down a glove. God announced in Jesus that God's kingdom was henceforth impossible to keep out, impossible to knock down, impossible to reject, no matter how powerful the human kingdom that tries to knock it down, keep it out, or reject it.

Philippi is a warm and lovable bunch of people. Almost all of them are involved in the community, doing all kinds of loving service. Indeed, many of our members are greatly admired and loved by their neighbors.

What, I wonder, might we do to get in trouble?


Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Hope To Which He Has Called You (sermon for All Saints 2010

The Hope To Which He Has Called You

The story is told of a Sunday school class of children. The teacher asked, "What do you have to do to be a saint?"

Of course, none of the children said anything. So the teacher said, "If I sold everything I had and gave it to the poor would that make me a saint?"

And the children said, "No."

So the teacher said, "What if I went around always being nice to everyone all the time, would that make me a saint?"

And the children said, "No."

"What if I were able to change the world and make it a peaceful and happy place, would that make me a saint?"

And the children said, "No."

So finally, the teacher asked, "OK, then, tell me, what would I have to do to be a saint?"

And one of the children said, "You have to die!"

Of course, All Saints Day has traditionally been about honoring those who have died. But in the protestant tradition, we have rediscovered the word in both the old and new testaments, and we see that a saint is not just those who have died, but also those whom God has made saints.

So let's ask, what do you have to do to be a saint?

St. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, said that there are three gifts of the Holy Spirit that are eternal, that never pass away, faith, hope and love. And he said, the greatest of these is love. And certainly, we would say, one has to love to be a saint. And not just any love, as Jesus himself pointed out in this lesson from Luke. We'll talk about that later.

Today, I think the focus is on the second of St. Paul's three eternal spiritual gifts, that of hope.

A saint is a person who hopes.

The hope is not just any hope, but the hope to which God has called you.

Hope, according to Webster's, is a desire with an expectation of fulfillment. We're not talking about pipe dreams or wishful thinking or even optimism. We're talking about honestly taking stock of the real world and expecting confidently that God can and will transform that world from the inside out, starting with us.

Do we have this confidence? I don't know. When I listen to people in my daily rounds, I don't hear the beatitudes of Jesus. I hear a different set. It goes something like this:

"Blessed are the rich, for they have earned it.

"Woe to the poor, for they are lazy and irresponsible.

"Blessed are you when people speak well of you, because reputation is everything,

"Woe to you if they revile you, because you are an annoying troublemaker and deserve everything you get.

"Hate you enemies, and do not bless them. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, shoot them in the head.

"Love those you love you, and ignore the rest."

The world's beatitudes have not really changed since Jesus' day. They are still just as central to the way lots of people think. The beatitudes of Jesus are not difficult to understand, but they fly so much in face of the wisdom of the world as to simply be unacceptable. The good news is that Jesus is not pronouncing a final judgment. He's pronouncing hope. Hope for all of us.

The hope to which God has called us is the hope that the poor will inherit the kingdom, the sorrowful will be comforted, and those persecuted for declaring that hope will be vindicated. It is the hope that the humble people of God, the ones who practice love for their enemies, will triumph over the much more impressive powers that practice domination and vengeance.

All Saints began as a day to remember those who were martyred in the early years after Jesus' resurrection. The people of God from the very beginning strove to keep in remembrance those who refused both to obey the law that said they had to worship anyone other than Christ, and more importantly, refused to hate or to even resist those who badmouthed, persecuted, tortured and even murdered them. Many of these people they knew, but there were many more who simply disappeared, anonymous Christians who were chewed up in the maul of the Roman machine. Early Christians established All Saints Day in special remembrance of those nameless witnesses, who forgave the crowds that cheered for their blood and died praying for them.

They did these things because they practiced the hope to which God had called them. They sold off possession to give them to the poor in order to practice this hope. They gave up their homes to be used as places of gathering and worship as a way of practicing the hope to which God had called them. They prayed for people that hated them, hoping as God had called them to hope. They gave to everyone who begged from them, no questions asked, because they hoped as God asked them to. If someone stole from them, they offered the thief more of their possessions in the hope that their generosity would inspire him, as God had called them to hope. They responded to evil with good, in the hope to which God had called them.

The love, the eternal and unstoppable love which Paul said was the greatest of all God's spiritual gifts, is very specific and amazing: it is love for one's enemies. It is this love, above all others, that saves the world.

So let's take some time right now, friends, to remember any and all who have gone on before us into the heavenly places that practiced this hope for God's kingdom, and love for their enemies.

(Candle lighting ceremony.)