Monday, April 25, 2016

Love in the Public Square

In the gospel lesson today (John 13:31-35), Jesus explains that he is going somewhere that his disciples cannot follow, but he’s leaving behind a to-do list.  The list is short and sweet, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
         Short and sweet, “love one another”, but Jesus says it THREE times in the two verses I just read to you.  “love one another”. 
         Well of all the things a thoughtful, smart, and demanding messiah could ask us to do…this seems to be a pretty easy set of departing words.  “love one another”
         But here’s the thing about “easy”.  Rarely is it ever the truth.
         This set of five verses has been taken right out of the bigger picture of John’s gospel and placed in front of us without any context.  And reading any part of the Bible out of context is a dangerous thing to do.  If we don’t understand the larger movement behind Jesus’ new commandment, we might think it means that we are only obligated to love other Christians.  Or we might find it easy to believe that when Jesus speaks of love he means affection, fondness, warmth, attachment, or endearment.  We might talk ourselves into thinking that time in prayer for the person in the pew next to us or delivering a casserole for someone on the prayer list or sewing a quilt for someone we like is fulfilling that commandment.  And while all of those things are good and can be expressions of love, without deeper thinking, we might be tempted to look at love as a shallow feel-good kind of fun thing to do in your spare time after the grocery shopping or soccer games or the latest episode of, well, whatever.
         Let’s step back and look for a moment of the bigger frame for this lesson.  Jesus and his disciples are at the Last Supper.  He has washed the feet of his friends making himself symbolically among the lowest servants in a household.  He has broken bread with them.  And he has just seen Judas rise from the table to go about the business of betrayal, setting in rapid motion the arrest and execution of Jesus and the gospel according to John says that Jesus knew exactly what was about to go down. 
         And if we continue to read after our appointed selection, we see that the very next thing to happen in this tumultuous dinner hour is that Simon Peter...always determined to be the best, the most, the greatest...Simon Peter declares his great love for Jesus by promising to die for him.  But Jesus, knowing Simon Peter (and the rest of us) all too well, says, “Will you lay down your life for me?  Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”
         When we look at the command from Jesus to “love one another as I have loved you” in its proper context, it begins to feel a little more weighty, doesn’t it?
         Judas has betrayed him.  Peter will deny him.  But Jesus is focused on love.  His last sermon to his friends is not focused on blame or shame or what could have been.  Instead, Jesus lovingly prepares them for what is to come and promises that in love for one another they will be bound to one another and in that binding be bound publicly and eternally with Jesus.
Elizabeth Johnson, a theologian in Cameroon, says, “Jesus demonstrates his love for the same disciples who will fail him miserably. Jesus washes and feeds Judas who will betray him, Peter who will deny him, and all the rest who will fail to stand by him in his hour of greatest distress. The love that Jesus demonstrates is certainly not based on the merit of the recipients, and Jesus commands his disciples to love others in the same way.
We as disciples of Jesus have continually fallen far short in our love for one another as well as in our love for those outside the community of faith. Theological, (moral), and ethical arguments often descend into personal attacks and name-calling; personal interests often trump the common good of the community; those in need of compassion find judgment instead.
Jesus could not be clearer: It is not by our theological correctness, not by our moral purity, not by our impressive knowledge that everyone will know that we are his disciples.”[1]
They will know we are followers of Jesus by our love.
So if prayer and cooking and quilting can be expressions of love but are not the totality of love, what is? 
To understand the love of which Jesus is speaking, we only need look at his life and at his death.  Jesus, in every interaction in every gospel lesson in every account, calls for justice.  Love in action in the life of our incarnated God is the insistence on justice for everyone.
“Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that “Peace is not the absence of war but the presence of justice.” Our world changes when justice prevails. When we love one another -- no matter who they are -- justice and peace become part of our reality. When we work for justice and equality we are fully living into the love we are commanded to show one to the other by Jesus.”[2]
Last weekend, I was in Washington, D.C., with approximately one thousand other people of faith as we went about the business of preparing to speak with our Senators and Representatives on Capitol Hill about issues of justice which we perceive to be of particular importance (Ecumenical Advocacy Days).  This year, we were talking about international trade practices and their human and environmental (Creational) impact and about restoring the ability to vote to thousands of Americans.  I was tasked with speaking to our elected officials from Alabama. (A couple of volunteers from Tennessee accompanied me.  Thanks be to God.) 
While we were there, we saw thousands and thousands of people (one might even say a multitude) flood the Hill and the Supreme Court to advocate for immigrants, for families, and for all sorts of things that were and are heady intellectual political issues…issues I thought were best settled by folks who know more than I do.  I am NOT an expert on trade agreements or on immigration policy by any means.  But, it turns out, I am becoming an expert on what fairness is, on what justice looks like, and on how listening, really listening, looks a lot like love.
And as I walked in my clerical collar (which felt like a very brave and foolish thing to do on Capitol Hill) among my sisters and brothers who were there to seek justice for themselves and for folks they’d never met (saw a couple of black women from New York State holding hands with displaced immigrants from Alabama…and as I slowed near them, I was greeted with ‘hey, Sister!’ and ‘!hola, Mama!’), in that moment, I understood that what I was doing there was using my voice inspired by my faith and by this commandment and so I was part of a greater movement across the nation, not for political gain…not once all weekend did I hear anyone cite the name of a presidential candidate or recite campaign speeches…but for justice and the restoration of morality in our country with an impact throughout the world.  Justice and equality for all people.  Restoration for Creation. Love for one another.  That is where our faith and our politics ought to intersect.
The Aboriginal Activists group in Queensland has said, “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time.  But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
When I understand that my freedom is bound up in yours, that my livelihood is dependent upon yours, when I understand that my comfort, my hope, my very existence and salvation is wrapped up with yours, and not just yours but all the world’s, then, I can begin to speak about loving my neighbor, loving one another as Jesus loves us.
As Karyn Wiseman of Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia says, “This text focuses on love but the justice piece for many is that all of Jesus’ disciples will be known by their love of others. For Jesus, love did not mean a sweet sentimental feeling. It meant action. It meant actively loving -- putting one’s love into real world activities.”[3]
Living faith in the public square.  Inviting others into the conversation.
I heard a rumor that that very thing is the directive Rebecca left with us this weekend (as you all evaluated our redevelopment together).
How do we do we live our faith in a way that is meaningful and bold, out there beyond the safety and sanctuary of our church walls?  What does the seeking of justice look like in Prattville?  How do we show love, real, deep and abiding love, to our neighbors?
How do we bear a loving and just witness to a living, loving, and just God with our words, with our actions, with our lives here in Autauga County and even into Montgomery?
How do we show love to one another, to all people, when we know that somewhere among us in here or out there resides a Judas or a Simon Peter?  These are the questions we have to address as faithful followers and lovers of Jesus.
It feels risky.  Because it is risky.  But it is the kind of life and love to which Jesus calls us.
“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  We know that Jesus loves us past the point of disappointment.  Past the point of uncomfortable-ness.  Past the point of humility.  Past the point of death.
“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
In one little sentence lies all of law and all of gospel.  You are freed, you are forgiven, and you are loved.  Go, tell the world, and do the same.
Boldly.  Deeply.  Sacrificially.  Out loud.  And in the public square.
Take courage and be bold.  Jesus loves you.


[3] ibid

Sunday, January 17, 2016

God of Change and Transformation

(A sermon for the people of Christ Lutheran Church in Prattville, Alabama)

It’s good to be back with you.  Most of you know that I spent the last 10 days in St. Paul, Minnesota, attending class at Luther Seminary.  It is supremely cold in St. Paul. -12 with a “real feel” of -33 when I checked this morning.  Brr!
I love going to campus.  Much of the time, I attend coursework online, which is a blessing.  I wouldn’t be able to make school happen otherwise.  But being present and in person for a couple of weeks at a time feeds my relationships with classmates, fuels my relationships with faculty and staff, and rejuvenates my faith.  It’s the toughest, working hard-est “vacation” ever.  At school we attend lectures for hours, read more than one would think humanly possible, and write more words than I ever think I could possibly pull from my brain.  We worship daily, attend informal lectures by faculty during our “downtime” at venues off campus in events called “Pubs and Profs”, and are exposed to a variety of opportunities for interacting with a purpose, and we get up in the mornings and do it all over again.  They don’t call them “intensives” for nothing.
But normally, the best, most life-giving time at school happens in the dorms after hours in a time of holy recreation, when we can gather with our friends and classmates and sing folk songs, or dye psyanky eggs, or play a card game, or enjoy a glass of wine and the pleasure of one another’s conversation as we share our deepest joys and lamentations.  After all the events of the day are past, we gather together, folks from different communities, different economic backgrounds, different nations, and different races to dwell in the best time of the whole day.  We save the best for last…and though it may look like nothing special is happening, this is, arguably, the most important time of the whole seminary experience.
This is the time when stories are shared, when we can talk with one another about our prides and our pleasures and our successes, our hurts and our wounds and our shortcomings….about the ways we’ve damaged ourselves or others.  In other words, it is a time of communion with our brothers and sisters with whom we are bound through baptism into the body of Christ.  A time when relationships are strengthened, when lives are changed as we bear witness to the power of God to change us.  A time to welcome God into our midst and to ask God to make something new of us.  To extend to us through the relationships in that place grace upon grace.
The gospel lesson today takes us to the very first public act of Jesus’s ministry in the Gospel according to St. John.  Mary has been invited to a wedding, another place of holy rejoicing and recreation…and since Jesus and the disciples are in town, they are invited along, too.  And it is here that Jesus performs his first act as a public leader, some of the gospels would call this a “miracle”.  But the gospel writer calls it a “sign”.  This is significant, because John does everything deliberately, with great purpose, and so to call these kinds of incredible doings of Jesus “signs” rather than “miracles” means something.  A miracle might suggest divinity and call attention to the person of Jesus, but a sign points to something in particular.  And so as we read or listen to this story, we have to pay attention to what the sign is pointing as Jesus points away from himself and toward something else.
As we read through the gospels, we see more and more stories of Jesus doing something really cool, more miracles and more signs, and in each other instance, the sign seems to be for a purpose.  But in the wedding text, there seems to be no discernable purpose.  We can wrap our heads around feeding the hungry as in the loaves and fishes or showing a particular object lesson to a doubting disciple…but here, what is the lesson?  What is the point?  A lesson on wine distribution?  A lesson on grocery shopping?  Jesus as party planner?  “Always buy more than you think you’ll need…don’t want that party to end on a downer”
Nah.  The overarching theme of John’s gospel is the “dawning of a new age.  To John, the coming of Jesus as the Messiah has changed the world from what it used to be into something totally new and different.”[1]  And the overarching theme of this story is the illustration of “grace upon grace” as Jesus saves this couple and their families from certain social casting out (a serious deal in that time when livelihood depended on the support of the family and of the neighbor).  Jesus provides wine which will save them from ostracizing by providing that which they need beyond “enough” into “abundance”.
What is our water that Jesus has come to turn into wine?  Where is God fully present in abundance in ways we don’t deserve or understand?  What system or old way of thinking is Jesus changing from what it used to be into something totally different?  Or is Jesus changing us from “enough” into “abundance”?
One the classes I took this intensive is called “Dismantling Racism”.  With seminary students, faculty, 60’s era civil rights leaders, and elders in the Black Lives Matter movement, in this course we learned from and with one another and were confronted with not only the history of racial division in this country, but also its continuity…as racism has changed over time to become less overt.  Less individual prejudice (though, as any person of color in this country will tell you, those prejudices still exist) and more about systemic or structural racism.  The ways in which people of color are still oppressed in the country by virtue of the color of their skin.  The ways in which white America still holds the power in this nation.  The ways in which that death grip on power by people who look an awful lot like me is actually still a death grip around the necks of our Black and Brown brothers and sisters. 
Blacks are still a significant racial minority in this country, yet nearly 50% of the prison population is composed of Black bodies. 
Black and Brown actors are still not celebrated (or even recognized much) in Hollywood.  The Oscar nominations are overwhelmingly white this year…even though the Black film “Straight Outta Compton” has been nominated for Academy Awards, the only nominees for that film are the white screenwriters.
If you are Black or Brown in the United States, you are less likely to be granted a loan, a scholarship, or a rental agreement for an apartment.  You are less likely to be given a job.  You are more likely to be killed by the police, the very folks who are supposed to “serve and protect” you.
White supremacy, or the belief consciously or unconsciously, that white folks are better, smarter, prettier, more polite, less brutal or impulsive, shows up even in our art and our depictions of God.  We know that Jesus was a person of color, and yet our imagery of him in this country is overwhelmingly white.  What does that say to a Black person?  What does that say to a Brown person?  Heck, what does that say to a white person?  That God identifies with the racial majority?  That blue eyes are Godly?  That in the eyes of our God my life is worth more than my neighbor’s?
And we don’t have to look too far to visually see the division.  How many people of color are present in this space?  Why do you think that is?
Not too long ago in this nation’s history, racial division and white oppression were the law of the land.  Nowhere did this play out more than here in the South.  We host the site(s) of over 4,000 lynchings[2] in this nation.  The Montgomery Slave Market is just minutes from where we are sitting.  The site of the first Confederate white house is just down the road.  Even Prattville High School, here in town and constructed in 1976, bears the name of George Wallace, governor of this state who famously said, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever[3].  And what is more treacherous than his legacy inscribed in stone is the fact that we do not talk about it.  Every kid who walks through the front doors of that building is taught a lesson of acceptance of the ways things were and the way things are by our lack of conversation about all of this. 
It is far easier and much more comfortable for us white folks to say, “that was a long time ago,” than it is for us to relive our national shame or for us to admit that we are still benefitting from a system designed to lift us up and to push down those who don’t “look like us”.
But as Martin Luther King, Jr. would remind us, “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”  I don’t know about you, but I want to LIVE.  And I believe with my whole heart that God wants us, all of us, to live, too.
Hear the good news:  God is a god of change and renewal and grace upon grace.
By God’s mercy and grace we are able to change ourselves, our language, and our systems.  We invited to become the wine and to point beyond ourselves to the dawning of a new age.  An age where all people are equally valued and beloved not just by God but by all of society, and I believe that we are called to public ministry, to work in this direction until that day comes.
Soon, beloved, we will be hosting a conversation on racism with the goal of working toward dismantling it in this place.  I urge you to come.  This will not be a time of shaming or a time for wallowing in guilt for the way things were or even for the way things are.  This will be an opportunity to share with one another and with those whom we encounter how a system of racism and white supremacy has damaged all of us and what we can do about it.  To share our hurts and sorrows and joys and stories of redemption.  To welcome God to immerse Godself into our midst and to make something new of us.  To extend to us through the relationships in this place grace upon grace upon grace.  This conversation will give us new ways to speak with one another. And we will invite others in the community to join us here as we do this work. 
And we are not doing this all alone.  On Thursday night, Bishop Eaton and others hosted a “Confronting Racism” podcast in which we have all been invited to engage the work of confronting and dismantling racism.  Our national church body is being called to work together for the sake of our Black and Brown brothers and sisters…and thereby for our own sakes as well.
This Monday we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King.  And I can think of no better way to honor him and the life he lived for Jesus and for his and our brothers and sisters than by committing to continue the work he began just down the road in Montgomery, Alabama.  We have been freed by a God of abundant grace and called to extend that grace and relationship to our neighbors.  We are called to walk together and to cry out for justice for the whole world.  And we do not do this alone.  We walk together.  And Jesus walks with us along this pilgrim journey toward the dawn of a new day.  Transforming us from water into wine.


[1] Lectionary Lab
[3] Wikipedia

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Called and Freed to Be Ordinary Radicals

I love John.  John the Baptizer.  What a guy…what a character!  Dressed funny, eating strange things, and never afraid to speak his mind and to be a mouthpiece for God.  He tells truth boldly and with no trace of fear.  I just love him.  He’s one of my most favorite Biblical folks.  One of my favorites, even though I must admit to being a little uncomfortable whenever I read what he has to say.
“You brood of vipers!”
And although that is so outrageous as to be a little laughable in this day and age, the thing about truth-tellers is they capture our imaginations precisely because they make us uncomfortable.  Maybe we are tempted to dismiss John as “a crazy wild man” because of his appearance and his words, but through them, we are captivated.  He is a prophet, an inspired teacher and proclaimer of the will of God.  He’s a radical.  The people in the crowds have come to the water to be baptized by John, and he greets them, “You brood of snakes!  What do you think you are doing slithering down here to the river?  Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment?”[1]  Do you think simply saying “I’ve been baptized!” will save you?
I think often, especially as Lutherans, we are often tempted to say, “yes” to that question.  After all, we hold mightily to the truth that we are “saved by grace through faith apart from works of law.”  And that is true.  We who believe in God are given complete grace, mercy, and love.  However, the salvation and redemption and re-turning to God that comes through faith and through our baptismal covenant with God does not save us from judgement if we don’t own that baptismal claim on our lives and do something with it. 
In other words, it’s not enough to acknowledge what we are saved from (sin and death), but we also ought to spend some real time meditating on what we are saved for.  And then do something with it.
(Pastor Dan said it really well today in Sunday school when he said, "We don't need our good works, God doesn't need our good works, but your neighbor sure does.)
John says, “It is your life that must change, not your skin.”[2]  “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’[3]” His message is clear. Don’t assume that because you have a religious heritage or a tidy religious upbringing or because you are baptized, or confirmed, or go to worship on Sunday, you belong to God’s people.  In other words, your life, your relationship to your neighbor is more important to God than your pedigree.  If the people who identify themselves as God’s people do not live in relationship to the world as children of God through their actions…through the fruit that they produce…God can always start over with people who are willing to bear God into the world through their obedience in word and in deed.
Now here’s the part in the Gospel lesson that sticks out to me as a little hopeful.  Instead of throwing up their hands in dismay, the crowd engages John by saying, “if who we claim to be isn’t enough to escape judgement, then what are we supposed to do?”  And John responds with a practical list of things, “If you have two coats, give one away.  If you have more food than you need, share it.”  And this is important, John leaves no wiggle room, no room for disobedience for those of us who might say, “Well, I’m not rich…I don’t have excessive wealth or things.”  John says clearly, “some people in your community don’t have enough to survive, so if you have anything at all, share it.”[4]  Again and again in the gospel, we see condemnation of the rich.  If you are wealthy, even if you have acquired it without hurting anyone, God offers admonition to share and promises woe if we don’t share with the poor.  (this is echoed later by Jesus in the Beatitudes).  It is not enough that you don’t actively hurt your neighbor by cheating or stealing or by paying unfair wages.  You must also not injure your neighbor passively by ignoring her.  If we see a need, John (and Jesus) say we are to meet that need.  It is not enough to say “hey, I got all this stuff fair and square”…we must give what we don’t need to those who do need it.  Note:  I did not say share what we don’t want.  That’s easy enough.  I said, “share what we don’t need.”  But it’s difficult to do in practice because we earthly creatures are afraid of what might happen to us if we don’t hold tight to what we’ve got.  We are bound to our material possessions and eager to cling to them, even if we see someone else struggling.  We are tempted to say, “She should have gotten herself an education.  He should get himself a job.  Make better choices.  Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, people, it’s the American way.  I did it, you can and you should do it too.  Reap what you sow.  Etc.”
John says that’s not the way to be for children of God.  Our job is not to judge.  Our job is to care for one another and all of creation.  If you have two coats, give one away.  Not, if you have two coats, determine whether or not the freezing person in front of you has done enough to deserve your charity.  If you have two coats, give one away.  If you have more food than you need, share it.
I think about the extra bed in my house, the full pantry, the loaded closets.  I am convicted, too.  
Uncomfortable, isn’t it? 
The next questions to John from the crowd come from tax collectors and soldiers and they also say, “Teacher, what do we do?”  And here John addresses ethical behavior for people in power.  This moves beyond sharing to address behaviors that cause poverty. John tells the tax collectors and soldiers to stop abusing people in order to make more money. Don't take more than the minimum, don’t shake people down, and don’t blackmail them. Be content with your wages.[5]
All of these admonitions seem simple enough.  Share, be kind, be honest. 
And I think it really is that simple.  But somehow the execution of those things seems abundantly difficult when we hold them up to the kind of world we live in. 
There are some scary things happening out there.  Mass shootings, terrorist threats, police brutality against people of color, and cover ups by those civil servants sworn to serve and to protect us. 
It is tempting to turn inward to declare those things “someone else’s problems” and to “take care of me and mine”.  The other temptation is to look at the magnitude of suffering in the world, those beaten or murdered or chased from their homes, children in this country and in others who are sick and suffering and starving…to look at all of that and to throw up our hands and say, “it’s too much, I can’t fix this.”  But that’s not what we are called to. That’s not the baptismal claim on our lives. 
We are called to love and to serve our neighbor…who is everyone.  And if that sounds overwhelming, what if I say it a different way?  We are called to love and to serve our neighbor…who is anyone?
That means we have the opportunity to be ordinary radicals every single day.  That means interjecting hope into dim spaces…providing a spark of extraordinary in the lives of any person we might encounter.  What if we go into the world looking for ways, little ways, to be kind…to be honest?
Radical means relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough.  What if we work to fundamentally change the way we as a community interact with one another one little encounter at a time?  That, my brothers and sisters, is completely doable.  Through ordinary things.
Last night, my girl Helen told me about a child in her school.  This little girl is about 10 years old.  She is Muslim and wears hijab, a head scarf, as an outward expression of her faith…even though she is the only child in her school to do so.  Helen says that when other children pass this girl in the hallway, they whisper “ISIS” to her.  As though this little girl could possibly be connected to or responsible for extremists on the other side of the world.  She is being bullied, ostracized, shamed, threatened because of her faith…her firm belief in Allah. 
Helen came to me last night with grief for this girl.  “How do I help, Mama?  What can I do?”  And so, Helen and I spent last night talking about Islam, about what it means to be Muslim, who Allah is.
Do you know what the name “Allah” means?  It simply means “God alone.”  And Muslim is an Arabic word that means, “one who surrenders to God.”  Helen and I have come to understand that although we believe and proclaim Jesus as God and Savior, we must be Muslim, too.  Ones who surrender to Allah…ones who surrender to God alone. 
Helen has figured out that she and this girl are not so very different after all, and that to be Muslim means the exact opposite of what ISIS stands for.
So, “How do I help, Mama?  How can I be this girl’s friend and supporter?”…my 11 year old girl has already seen the hurt and shame and anxiety and distrust on her schoolmate’s face brought about by the fear and hardened hearts of other children…fear borne in ignorance.  Helen has figured out that if everyone understood what it means to be Muslim, this girl would not be being treated so badly. 
So, we decided that Helen will introduce herself to this child of God, this child of Allah, by saying, “My name is Helen.  Your hijab is lovely.  Will you teach me how to tie one?” 
This is a tiny thing.  But it is powerful.  It addresses the visual symbol of this child’s faith which the world is using to shame her…and calls this symbol beautiful.  And by acknowledging the beauty of the faith symbol, Helen is acknowledging the beauty of the faith.  And by asking to learn more about it, Helen can instill value in this child’s faith from a Christian perspective.  Not that this Muslim child needs Helen to validate her faith…but the Christian children at the elementary school seem to need to see that.
My girl is an ordinary radical.  Willing to fundamentally change the way this Muslim child experiences school in Prattville, Alabama.  And, Insha’Allah, God-willing, fundamentally changing the ways both Helen and other Christian children interact with her.
Sharing a coat.  Sharing a lunch.  Sharing a carefully worded compliment.  Sharing a moment in time which says explicitly or implicitly “I am with you.”
That’s what we are saved for.  That’s what our Baptism calls us to do:  bearing Christ into the world with our hands and our feet and our mouths until he comes again.
We are called and freed to be ordinary radicals.  In the name of Jesus.

Thanks to
The Message
Working Preacher
for assistance this week.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

In the Meantime, the In-between Time

I grew up here in the Bible Belt…well, all over it, really, and when I was in middle school (junior high), I remember riding the bus through the mountains of East Tennessee…which you might call “the buckle”…with my baby sister Elisabeth and my best friend Shannon.  The three of us often shared a seat, or Shannon would sit with her little brother in the seat just next to ours.  It was a time for the important conversations of middle school:  which teacher was being “nice” this week (this usually meant who had decided against giving us homework), what we were hoping to get our parents to let us do over the weekend (which usually meant trying to persuade them to let us spend all waking hours and most sleeping ones together), and, of course, who liked who (this was junior high, after all. Jesus says not to judge us). 

But I remember one particular morning as we drove along, past drop-off shoulders down sides of small mountains (hills in East Tennessee…mountains to those of us who call Montgomery home) and around the curve by the cemetery at the top of the hill, some other kids on the bus told us that ketchup was declared a vegetable and the world was going to end that very afternoon.  They had heard it on the radio over breakfast, and so they knew it was true.  Jesus was coming back, and the world would end in a blaze of fire and fury. Just. Like. That.

I was a little concerned that Elisabeth might hear this particular conversation and be unduly worried.  After all, she is 6 ½ years younger than me, and it was my JOB to protect her from unreasonable worry (unless I was the one administering it, of course).  So my friend Shannon and I, being the intelligent, reasonable, older siblings, began to refute this world-ending prophesy as a possibility.  I pulled out some conversation I had had with my dad about the matter, citing my confirmation curriculum and the particular wisdom which comes from being a Lutheran in the Bible Belt.  “Of course, Jesus isn’t coming this afternoon!  The Bible clearly says that Jesus will come like a thief in the night!  If you can say the hour or the day, it just can’t be true!!  2 Peter.”  And I don’t know about Shannon, but I felt pretty smart that morning…teaching those born-again Christians what the Bible really says.

And as we argued, voices getting louder and louder, my little sister, whom I had nearly forgotten in my righteous fervor, piped up:  “But if Jesus is coming,” she said, “what do we do in the meantime?”

In the meantime…

The gospel lesson today takes me right back to that scene on the bus in the hills of Morristown, the smell of hot vinyl seats and rubber erasers and bodies not washed nearly recently enough.

“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. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.   Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."[1]

Can you smell the vinyl and the brimstone?

I really wish that Luke had added a “but then” in the middle there. 

Because then, we might read it like this, “It will seem like all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking.  And [But] then—then!—they’ll see the Son of Man welcomed in grand style—a glorious welcome!  When all this starts to happen, up on your feet.  Stand tall with your heads high.  Help is on the way!”[2]

Help is on the way!  Jesus is coming!  Not as a matter of alarm, but as a matter of alleluia!!  The listeners of Luke in that day would have understood this passage to mean that Christians should be alert, should be paying attention, for the coming of Christ.  That is, not so caught up in the expectations of the world or of the season…parties, drinking, shopping, maybe even the worrying that comes with daily living…not be so caught up in all of that that they forget to remain confident, even eager, as they look for signs that signal the coming of the Son of Man. 

The listeners of Luke in the time of the gospel writing were all too familiar with war, famine, and destruction.  They looked with hopeful anticipation toward the day that Jesus would return to end the Roman Empire once-and-for-all, to end the oppression for those who followed Christ.

Luke was sensitive to that, of course.  And he pushed his listeners to stand in the in-between space.  In other words, Luke changes the question from “when is Jesus coming?” to “what do we do in the meantime?”  It is that in-between time, that in-the-meantime, which opens space for the mission of God and our participation in it.  So that no matter what rumors are heard, the church is to remain committed to ministry in the world.

Now in this time and place, we know, thank you, science, that the world will not end this afternoon.  But AT THE SAME TIME, we are well acquainted with the challenges that come while waiting for an event that seems slow to transpire. 

What are you waiting for? 
The end of childhood hunger both here and abroad. 
Biopsy results. 
Reconciliation with a loved one. 
A welcome for refugees. 
Civil rights and acceptance for LGBTQ folks. 
The cessation of violence in this country against Black and Brown bodies.

And how do we feel in that waiting time?  Are we fraught with tension?  With anxiety or anticipation?  Maybe so.  But Luke would remind us that we are also to be leaning toward hope.  Hope that comes because we know the rest of the story.  

And that hope is where we draw strength for our participation in God’s mission in the world. 

We await the coming of Christ, but we do not do so idly. 

My professor David Lose says, “From Moses to Martin Luther King, Jr., history is full of examples of those who, because they had been to the mountaintop, had peered into the promised land, and had heard and believed the promise of a better future, found the challenges of the present not only endurable, but hopeful. We, too, amid the very real setbacks, disappointments, or worries of this life, can "stand up and raise [our] heads" because we have heard Jesus' promise that our "redemption draws near."[3]

We, too, have heard that Jesus is coming.

How will you raise your head?  How will you get up on your feet?  How can you prepare the way for the coming of Christ in the days to come?  Can you find a new or deeper way to participate in Lunches for Learning?  Can you be a voice for someone who has none?  Can you be an advocate for those folks who live in the margins here in Montgomery…margins because of gender or sexuality or poverty or religion or race?  Can you share your time and your resources?  Or can you bear witness in your daily interactions…as I like to say to the good folks at Christ in Prattville…how can you be an ordinary radical…that is interjecting hope into dim spaces…providing a spark of extraordinary in the lives of your neighbors? 

Speak up when you see little injustices.  Write your representatives when you see big ones.  Begin conversations which might change the lives of the ones with whom you speak…or which might just change your own life.  Welcome others in to your presence and thereby welcome them in to the presence of God.

Turns out, my baby sister is a powerful schoolbus theologian.

Jesus is coming.  Thanks be to God!

Now, what are we going to do in the meantime?


[1] NRSV
[2] The Message

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Uncovering Hope

The scripture lessons for this week come from what we call “apocalyptic literature”.  Now, I grew up here in the South where good folks, neighbors and preachers alike, used readings like this to predict the end of the world, to call for “repentance”, to assure the rest of us that “the end is near” and that we better “get right with God” and “to Hell (literally) with everybody else.”  And if the billboards around town at Halloween were any indication, this sort of preaching and teaching is still happening here. 
Millions of dollars were made and spent on the “Left Behind” series.  Lots of sleep was lost over the end of the Mayan calendar.  And if you Google the definition of “apocalyptic” you get the answer “describing or prophesying the complete destruction of the world.”  But that’s not really what these lessons are about.  That’s not even what the word is supposed to mean.
If we go back to the roots of the word “apocalyptic”, we find that the word has roots in Greek “apokaluptein” and actually means “uncover”. 
What in the world are we supposed to uncover in readings such as these? 
You see, all of the lessons this morning were written in a time of madness, despair, and exile (either literal or figurative). 
Daniel was written for the Hebrew people as they struggled through literal exile…a casting out of their land…a land which was central to their faith.  It was written to give hope to a people who had lost hope…a literary lifeline “in that time, your people shall be delivered.”  Hope for the hopeless.
Hebrews was written to the Jewish Christians living in Rome.  They were caught between the crush of empire and the struggle with their Jewish sisters and brothers.  Caught between the proverbial rock and hard place.  Words pointing to a soft spot to land…hope.
The Gospel lesson is no different.
If you consult Biblical commentators (or talk with my internship supervisor Terry Kyllo), you’ll find that most of them agree that that Gospel According to St Mark was written during the Jewish revolt of 67.  By that time, Palestine had been under Roman occupation for more than a century.  The people’s land had been stolen from under them.  The vast majority of the people were poor beyond our comprehension in modern day United States and were forced to make terrible choices:  many of them could not both pay their taxes and eat.  (So the choice was “how would you prefer to die…starvation or execution?)  They wondered “how long can this go on?”
In earlier centuries, the people of Israel had been crushed under still other empires, and during those times of oppression and occupation they developed an idea of an “anointed one”, a messiah.  They believed that the messiah would free them from the oppressive empires and lead them to live as God imagined…as God created them to be.
In those days, the people believed that the messiah would come as a mighty warrior who would amass a colossal army.  The messiah would over throw the Romans with violence and war and, to fulfill the words of the prophet Isaiah, he would paint the mountains red with the blood of their enemies.
Jesus didn’t look like that guy.  And so, not all of the Jews came to understand that Jesus is the messiah…the true anointed one sent by God as savior to the people.  They waited for another to come.  They began to grow weary of waiting.  And they began to do the violent work of overthrowing the empire themselves.
But eventually, those who used violence to cast out the Romans turned on each other.  Blood ran in the streets as the groups fought to see whose leader would reign in Jerusalem and be revealed as the “true messiah”.  All this infighting left the people distracted and weary and vulnerable.  By the year 70, the Romans returned to Jerusalem.  Over a million people died in the takeover.  The temple was destroyed…and so were the hearts of the people.
Once you know the history, the lesson today takes on new meaning….we’ve uncovered another message here.  In this story, the writer of the Gospel of Mark is urging his community not to participate in the violence.  Neither against the Romans nor against other Jews.  “Don’t listen”, he says, “to those who claim to be the messiah.  Don’t fall into violence.”  Mark is telling us that the way of Jesus, this nonviolent, obedient-to-God-but-not-to-the-world way of living is the only way to life as God envisions for us. 
While I was on internship, Terry frequently reminded me that it often feels as though we have to or that we should use force or violence to make the world better.  And the human reaction to pain is to wish for someone else to experience it too or more or instead.  “An eye for an eye,” we say.  But Jesus says, “if you live by the sword, you die by the sword.”  Violence leads to more violence, and violence in the name of God makes God into a god of violence.  Whatever god we worship, that’s the god we try to live out in our personal lives, and that becomes the kind of society we create.  A vison or an understanding of a god of violence can only lead to our mutual destruction and a dog-eat-dog-eat-cat-until-only-the-cockroaches-remain kind of world.
Jesus says we don’t have to live like that.
That’s what we’re uncovering here in the lessons today.  We’re uncovering hope and the realization that there is something larger than violence and death out there in the world.  That our God is not a god of violence but a God of presence, of accompaniment, of love. That God remains with us in our pain, in our fear, in our weariness, in our suffering, and in our despair.  God is bigger than all of those things.  And God is present with us in the midst of them.
On Friday, I heard the news of the terror attacks in Paris.  And then I heard of the attacks in Beirut the day before.  And I’ve watched the last two days as the media has covered the stories with such radical difference.  And I’ve learned that there have been attacks on many days last week in several other Middle Eastern countries which received just as little press coverage as the ones in Beirut did.  Iraq.  Syria.  Palestine.  Most of my friends on Facebook changed their pictures so that an overlay of the French flag was visible, and that’s not a bad thing.  But no one has changed theirs to look like the flag of Lebanon.  Or the Palestinian flag…or…or…
I’ve a beloved friend who is Muslim and who grew up in Turkey with a British mother and a Turkish father.  We met because our spouses share a vocation, and she is a citizen of the United States now.  Her heartbreak, and mine, is that terror is just that:  terror.  We shared a conversation last night in which she said, “Everytime there is a terror attack, my heart breaks. Every time there is a terror attack in a western country, my heart aches the same way….AND we deal with Islamophibic bigots.”  Violence begets violence.  Often in sideways kinds of ways.  “If I can’t give it to the guy who did this, I’ll give it to the guy who looks like him or worships like him or dresses like him because they must be the same…”  That’s not okay.  It’s not loving.  It’s not Godly.
We can’t afford to give in to violence against our neighbor because she or he bears some resemblance in appearance to the ones who perpetrated these attacks.  Violence against us births our fears and tempts us to birth violence.  We want someone else to feel and to understand our terror too or more or instead.  But that’s not what the gospel writer is after.  We can’t give in.  Especially to fear and misdirected anger and violence.  To quote actor Mark Ruffalo, “Don’t allow this horrific act to allow you to be drawn into the loss of your humanity or tolerance.  That is the intended outcome.”
So, then, what?
Mark the gospel writer reminds us that when things are uncertain or scary or there appears to be no end to the pains and struggles and things that terrify us, God is still present in the creation and re-creation of the world.
That’s what these lessons are uncovering for us today.
That’s what those birthpangs are about.
Transforming the world without violence is not easy or pain-free.  And it is risky.
But God is in the middle of all this.  In the middle of Paris as musicians play memorials at the sites of the slaughter, yes, but also in the middle of Beirut as a father and daughter sacrificed themselves for the sake of the lives of hundreds as they worshiped in mosque, and in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Israel…in all of these places where fear and violence appear to be winning the battle.  God is there.   Bringing, bearing, birthing something new into the world.  As Terry says, “God our Mother continues to push and to breathe until by grace we lay down our silence at injustice and our swords of fear and live in the way of Jesus.”
What does that mean for us?  For this little band of believers in Prattville, Alabama?
It means that we take seriously Hebrews 10:24.  “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.”
Where do you see fear or pain in our community?  Where are you called to bear witness to a living, loving God?  How can you provoke your neighbor to be active in love and in word and in deed?  Where can you bring reassurance of God’s love to light a place or a heart which was or is dark with fear?  How can you, yes you, bear witness to a God who is NOT far away but who is in fact dwelling with us in these turbulent times?
We ARE called to bear light into darkness.  We are called to walk in a world of frightened, frightening, angry, lonely, hurting people and to uncover the good news for the whole world.  Not by doomsday predictions or attempts at controlling or dictating behavior, but by being the hands and feet of Christ in this world.  By encouraging or PROVOKING one another into acts of love, works of truth-telling of witness-bearing of non-violence.
We are called to do and to proclaim loudly the works of God in this world. 
We are called to uncover hope as the world ends and begins again.


Much content unapologetically borrowed from Rev. Terry Kyllo and Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton.  They can be found here and here respectively.