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.